The NFL regular season is here — can you believe it!? As a bonus, there will be a UCF Knights alum on the field often this evening: Texans tight end Jordan Akins.
This weekend, 12 more Knights are slated to make their 2020 debuts, and playing time may not be too far off in the distance for three others who are currently on NFL practice squads.
Here is a rundown of what this season is looking like for each player.
RB Latavius Murray, New Orleans Saints
Murray is 30 years old, which is usually when NFL teams start to give up running backs. But the Saints aren’t giving up on Murray; they have committed to him in the form of a contract that runs through 2022. It’s a fine investment as Murray looks far from cooked. Maybe the story would be different if he was still relied upon as a lead RB, but with Alvin Kamara soaking up the bulk of the carries in New Orleans, Murray has stayed fresh and is one of the best backup running backs in the league. Case in point: He racked up more than 300 yards from scrimmage and four touchdowns while Kamara was injured for two games in the middle of last season. When Kamara is at 100%, Murray will still earn about 5-10 touches per week.
WR Tre’Quan Smith, New Orleans Saints
Smith has and will continue to see plenty of field time when the Saints line up with three wideouts. But he’s closer to fifth in the pecking order for targets from Drew Brees: Michael Thomas is the undisputed No. 1, followed in some sequence by tight end Jared Cook, Kamara and New Orleans’ new No. 2 WR, Emmanuel Sanders. The Saints have really lacked a true threat out wide across from Thomas during Smith’s career, but he hasn’t been able to fill that void for whatever reason; he has just 46 receptions in 26 games. Smith is a good bet to break off a big play now and then — he owns a 14.4 yards-per-catch average for his career — but the Saints would undoubtedly like to see more consistency. If the 33-year-old Sanders breaks down, it’ll be interesting to watch if Smith can realize his full potential in his pivotal third season.
WR Breshad Perriman, New York Jets
At this time last year, Perriman’s NFL career looked to be on its last legs. He was a first-round bust due to injuries and drops during his three seasons in Baltimore and then bounced from Washington to Cleveland before being picked up on the cheap by the Tampa Bay Buccaneers in March 2019. And heading into December, he hadn’t done anything to really stand out there either.
Then Perriman suddenly transformed into one of the most productive receivers in the game.
From Weeks 13-17, he caught 25 passes for 506 yards and three touchdowns. He was the third-best WR in fantasy during that span. It helped that Mike Evans and Chris Godwin were both battling injuries, and that former Bucs QB Jameis Winston chucked passes without regard, but those numbers still count, and they helped Perriman pull in $6 million guaranteed from the Jets this spring. Good for him, honestly.
I doubt he’ll ever reach those statistical heights in the Jets’ conservative and habitually dysfunctional offense, but maybe he is just a late bloomer? It’s hard to believe that Perriman turns only 27 years old today. In any case, he is pretty much locked in as New York’s top perimeter wideout and will likely break 70 targets for the first time in his career.
WR Gabriel Davis, Buffalo Bills
Are you on the hype train?
From clips of him burning Bills All-Pro cornerback Tre’Davious White in practice to the acknowledgement that he was the best rookie in Buffalo’s camp, Davis’ preseason has been full of plaudits.
Not that I want to throw cold water all over that, but I would be surprised if Davis has a sizable role in this offense right away. He is definitely behind Stefon Diggs and John Brown on the outside while slot receiver Cole Beasley will see his fair share of targets, too. Plus, the last time we saw quarterback Josh Allen, he was nowhere close to being a competent NFL passer. The future is obviously bright for Gabe. Barring injuries to Diggs and/or Brown, however, I think we’ll only see glimpses of that in 2020, most likely in the form of exciting but intermittent deep-ball receptions.
TE Jordan Akins, Houston Texans
I think Akins is ready to become a real weapon for the Texans. And no matter what I think, they probably need him to be. Through two seasons, Akins has split snaps with the likes of Ryan Griffin, Jordan Thomas and Darren Fells. Fells is still on the roster, but he is more of a blocking tight end whereas Akins is the more natural pass-catcher and “move” tight end. He posted a decent 36-418-2 line in 2019, and this season, the Texans are desperately seeking someone to help fill the gigantic hole they created by sending WR DeAndre Hopkins to Arizona. Considering that the Texans’ current top two wideouts are Brandin Cooks (injured) and Will Fuller (assuredly soon-to-be injured), there may be some weeks when Akins gets peppered with targets. Of any player on this list, I think he is the most likely to have a breakout campaign.
FB Bruce Miller, Jacksonville Jaguars
After four seasons out of the league, Miller is not only back in the NFL, but he’s listed as a starter. He’ll be largely tasked with clearing the way for James Thompson, Chris Thompson, Devin Ozigbo or whomever the Jags decide to put at running back. And maybe we’ll see him vulture a few goal-line scores to boot.
OL Justin McCray, Atlanta Falcons
McCray is listed as the Falcons’ second-string center on their initial depth chart, but given his experience at tackle and/or guard during his stints with the Packers, Browns and Knights, he could line up just about anywhere in Atlanta.
DT Trysten Hill, Dallas Cowboys
Hill’s rookie season wasn’t much to write home about. He played just 121 snaps, contributed five tackles, was sent home once for showing up late to a meeting, and may or may not have fallen asleep in a separate team meeting with NBA Hall of Famer Isiah Thomas (Hill said he did not fall asleep).
But apparently Hill has gotten his act together this year because he has been anointed as one of the Cowboys’ starting defensive tackles. That gig became available once Gerald McCoy sustained a season-ending injury, but Cowboys vice president Stephen Jones said last week that Hill has been “a true professional.” Hill’s talent isn’t in question; if he stays focused and determined, he can be a real force in the middle of Dallas’ defense.
CB Shaquill Griffin, Seattle Seahawks
According to Pro Football Focus, Griffin graded out as the 10th-best cornerback last season and the 17th-best CB in coverage alone. He earned his first trip to the Pro Bowl as well and is trending toward receiving a nice pay day as an impending free agent. The Seahawks will visit the Falcons in Week 1, and I am very much looking forward to watching Griffin match up against Julio Jones often. They met last season in Week 8, and Julio won the battle against pretty much anyone Seattle put in front of him: 10 catches on 12 targets for 152 yards.
CB A.J. Bouye, Denver Broncos
About a week before the coronavirus shut sports down, Bouye was traded from Jacksonville to Denver, so you might have missed or forgotten about this move. Bouye really struggled in 2019 following three seasons of stellar play. He graded out as a top-10 cornerback in 2016 and 2017. But in 2019, he ranked 79th out of 115 qualified CBs. After recording just a single interception in each of the past two seasons, the Broncos are hoping Bouye returns to being the player who picked off six passes in 2017.
CB Mike Hughes, Minnesota Vikings
Hughes was one spot ahead of Bouye in PFF’s 2019 rankings — he was the 78th-best qualified cornerback — and he also will be viewed as his team’s leader at cornerback. Really, the Vikings don’t have a better option right now after letting three cornerbacks walk during the offseason and filling those spots with rookies and less-experienced backups. They have a couple of high-ceiling newcomers in Jeff Gladney and Cameron Dantzler, either of whom might push Hughes into the slot as a nickelback. But the Vikings need Hughes to stick on the field and live up to his first-round pedigree.
FWIW: Hughes is also listed as a backup punt returner on the Vikings’ depth chart.
Special Teams Players
LS Charley Hughlett, Cleveland Browns
Hughlett is no longer the highest-paid player at his position, but the six-year, $6.37 million deal he signed in 2017 still stands as the richest contract among active long snappers. Hughlett was an NFL vagabond for a few years after graduating from UCF in 2011. But he has certainly found a home in Cleveland, where he has been the long snapper and hasn’t missed a game since 2015.
PK Matt Prater, Detroit Lions
Once Prater appears in a game, he will officially pass wideouts Shawn Jefferson and Brandon Marshall for the title of “UCF alum who has played in the most NFL seasons.” Jefferson and Marshall both saw regular-season action in 13 seasons; this will be Prater’s 14th. The 36-year-old is a free agent at the end of the year, but he and his record-setting right leg will probably keep kicking around the NFL for at least a couple more seasons.
Practice Squad Players
LB Shaquem Griffin, Seattle Seahawks
LB Nate Evans, Jacksonville Jaguars
RB Adrian Killins Jr., Philadelphia Eagles
All of these players were released by their respective teams last week and then brought back to be a part of each franchise’s 16-member practice squad. They may get called up to the active roster at some point this season; we’ll just have to wait and see. If nothing else, at least Shaquem ended up back in Seattle.
Note: Defensive back D.J. Killings might have made the Las Vegas Raiders’ roster, but he decided to opt out of this season last month.