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Depth at skill positions again proving vital in the NFL playoffs

“Superstars” are again being overvalued as compared to the players who tend to be leaned on in January

Tennessee Titans v Los Angeles Rams Photo by Harry How/Getty Images

When the 2021 NFL Draft was completed, Les Snead and Sean McVay had such a clear vision of what the LA Rams would look like at wide receiver, running back, and tight end for the following season: Cooper Kupp, Robert Woods, DeSean Jackson, Van Jefferson, and Tutu Atwell would be the top five receivers.

Cam Akers would lead the team in rushing, complemented by Darrell Henderson and Xavier Jones. And Tyler Higbee would be supported at tight end by Johnny Mundt, Brycen Hopkins, and Jacob Harris.

I just named 12 players. Five of them are expected to be available against the Arizona Cardinals tonight and one of those, Cam Akers, just barely squeezed himself into the 2021 season. Barely.

The LA Rams had a clear vision for who would complement Matthew Stafford’s first season with the team and yet two-thirds of those names are nowhere to be found. That’s a big reason for Kupp’s triple crown victory among receivers this season: His 191 targets were 22 more than any other player in the league.

  • Jackson made a postseason appearance this year, but with the Las Vegas Raiders
  • Atwell, Harris, Woods, Mundt, and Akers went on IR
  • Hopkins was a healthy scratch much more often than he was targeted (once)

Instead of those post-draft plans, the Rams will be looking to names like Odell Beckham, Jr., Ben Skowronek, Sony Michel, and Kendall Blanton for potential support in the playoffs. That could be a good thing for LA, we’ll see, and it’s also the point: DEPTH MATTERS.

A lot.

The Cardinals know this too; they went into the season believing that DeAndre Hopkins would be available for the second half and postseason. He is not. His snaps are instead going to Antoine Wesley.

Last season, Tom Brady chose to sign with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers in large part due to the fact that the Bucs were not in search of two electrifying wide receivers...they already had those with Chris Godwin and Mike Evans. The Bucs also offered a promising offensive line, Ronald Jones II, Cameron Brate, O.J. Howard, and a favor for Brady: “You want someone, we’ll go get him.”

And so Tampa Bay added Rob Gronkowski, Leonard Fournette, and Antonio Brown at different points in 2020 and guess what happened: Gronkowski, Fournette, and Brown were massive pieces for Tampa Bay to go 4-0 in the postseason.

The same will likely be said for whichever team wins the Super Bowl in a month. Look at how much different the skill players are for these teams in the playoffs as compared to what they “planned for” early in the offseason:

  • The Raiders planned for Henry Ruggs III to be their number one receiver, but that came to a sudden and sad ending midseason. Hunter Renfrow and Zay Jones were at best the team’s third and fourth options, but Renfrow led the team in targets after Darren Waller missed six games. Jones was often the team’s number one or number two option late in the year and he had only been targeted seven times over the first seven games.
  • The Bengals have not had to make any changes to their top-three receivers (Ja’Marr Chase, Tyler Boyd, Tee Higgins) and that is one reason for their advancement into the divisional round this season.
  • The Patriots spent a large amount of 2021 money on Nelson Agholor, Jonnu Smith, and Hunter Henry, and they had a former first round pick in N’Keal Harry. They were led in targets by Jakobi Meyers though, and he had 51 more targets than second-place Henry. Kendrick Bourne was third in targets, and in fact he had more than Harry and Smith combined.
  • The Bills blew out the Patriots over the weekend and it was tight end Dawson Knox catching two touchdown passes in the process. Knox now has 11 touchdown catches in 16 games this season. Considerable for an offense with lots of depth at wide receiver and a three-headed rushing attack that includes Josh Allen.
  • The Eagles drafted DeVonta Smith in the first round last year, their second first round receiver in as many seasons. Smith led the team in targets, followed by tight end Dallas Goedert, receiver Quez Watkins, then the disappointing Jalen Reagor. Jalen Hurts may or may not be the right quarterback for the Eagles but Philadelphia no less had obvious weaknesses at the skill positions when Watkins and Reagor are being targeted that often. (And I like Quez Watkins.)
  • The Bucs thought they might have Antonio Brown again for these playoffs. Clearly, they do not. Interestingly in their win over the Eagles, Brady targeted Gio Bernard more often than he did any player other than Mike Evans. The team is without Godwin and Cyril Grayson and so Tyler Johnson, Breshad Perriman, Howard, Brate, and Scotty Miller were all involved too.
  • No surprise that the 49ers were led in targets by Deebo Samuel, George Kittle, and Brandon Aiyuk. More surprising: Aiyuk could get passed on the depth chart by Jauan Jennings. With Samuel lining up more often in the rushing game than the passing attack, San Francisco must rely even more heavily on their receiver depth.
  • When the Rams scrimmaged against the Cowboys in training camp, we thought Dallas would be all about their three-headed wideout unit of CeeDee Lamb, Amari Cooper, and Michael Gallup. But Gallup dealt with injuries and Lamb was fairly disappointing in year two. All of a sudden, the name we heard most often on the broadcast was...”Cedrick Wilson.” The Cowboys instead found out that tight end Dalton Schultz was a key player in the passing attack but even the depth at wide receiver for Dallas was not enough to get to the divisional round of the playoffs.
  • The Steelers were hoping JuJu Smith-Schuster, Chase Claypool, Diontae Johnson, Najee Harris, James Washington, and Pat Freiermuth would be enough to support Ben Roethlisberger through his final season. It wasn’t. And JuJu finished the year with just 129 yards and no touchdowns in five games.
  • The Chiefs continue to rely on Tyreek Hill and Travis Kelce and...that’s no less amazing this season. Interestingly, Byron Pringle and Jerick McKinnon were both targeted more often against the Steelers on Sunday than Hill. Pringle caught two touchdowns.

It’s not a matter of “IF” the Rams will add more receivers, tight ends, and running backs to the roster in the offseason, it’s only a matter of how many, where they’ll be drafted, and how much they’ll cost. Even when you think those names are set—they never truly are.