Field reporter Shawn Kopelakis has a reminder that the end of the NFL season isn’t just for playoff pushes, but practice squad promotions...
It doesn’t matter if you’re a first-round draft pick destined for greatness or an undrafted free agent fighting against all odds: Suiting up and taking the field for the first time in the National Football League is special.
Last Sunday, Josh Hammond and Shawn Davis became the eighth and ninth former Gators to make their NFL debuts this season and fulfill their dreams.
Hammond had the misfortune of going through the draft process in early 2020 as the COVID-19 pandemic hit and the world shut down. After not getting invited to the combine, he was robbed of the chance to show at Florida’s Pro Day or during open workouts with teams. He went undrafted and ended up signing with Jacksonville.
He spent the entire 2020 season on the Jaguars practice squad. When Urban Meyer was hired — and the Jaguars signed Marvin Jones, Jr. to an already crowded receiver room — Hammond was seemingly unlikely to stick around for 2021.
But an impressive camp and preseason led to Hammond returning to the practice squad. And it put him right back where he was in 2020, leading to a stretch of 30 straight games going back to last year for which Hammond waited for a call up and didn’t get one.
On Sunday, he got that call.
He only saw the field for eight offensive snaps. He wasn’t targeted. He accrued no stats. But finally seeing his hard work and perseverance pay off had to feel great.
Davis flashed enough in Gainesville in between injuries to hear his name called in the fifth round of the 2021 draft by Indianapolis. He didn’t make the active roster, but was signed to the Colts practice squad. They cut him in September, but Green Bay quickly snagged him for their own practice squad.
Davis was called up from the Packers practice squad in Week 15, but was inactive and did not dress. He finally put on a regular season game uniform for the first time in his career in Week 16, playing nine snaps on special teams, and assisting on a tackle. A Merry Christmas indeed.
Thank you god. Merry Christmas— Shawn Davis Jr. (@sdavjr) December 26, 2021
During the pandemic, practice squad rosters have been expanded and rules on elevating players to the active roster relaxed as teams battle to keep healthy players on the field. This has increased the chances for players to stick around and keep their NFL dreams alive.
On the flip side, the NFL practice squad life can be brutal. The money is decent on its face, but practice squadders make a fraction of what players on the active roster make — and they have to find places to live with very little assurance they’ll stay employed week to week, or even be working for the same team. For those with families, especially, the stress is high.
That’s why it’s so great seeing guys like Hammond and Davis achieve their childhood dreams. And kudos to every former Gator battling it on practice squads across the league, hoping for another shot, all of whom deserve mention: Jordan Scarlett made his 2021 debut last weekend with the Dolphins, and Jabari Zuniga, David Sharpe, Chaz Green, and Tyrie Cleveland all saw game action coming off practice squads earlier this season.
This Week in Kyle Pitts
Kyle Pitts is up to 949 receiving yards, now just 128 yards from eclipsing Mike Ditka’s rookie tight end mark of 1,076. He has 64 catches, 17 shy of breaking Keith Jackson’s rookie tight end mark of 81 grabs. With two games remaining, he’s one of four tight ends to record 60-plus catches as a rookie and the only one of that group to go over 900 yards.
Kyle Pitts now has 64 catches for 949 yards. Here's a list of all the tight ends who had at least 60 catches and 900 receiving yards as rookies in the Super Bowl Era, via @Stathead. pic.twitter.com/xKvvo2baKG— John Paulsen (@4for4_John) December 27, 2021
Pitts ranks third among tight ends and 20th overall — yeah, in the NFL — in receiving yards. His 64 receptions are sixth among tight ends and tied for 33rd overall. Among rookies at any position, he’s second in receiving yards and fifth in catches — and this is with Ja’Marr Chase occasionally getting “best rookie season since Randy Moss!?!?” hype, though that has died down lately.
In Week 16, Pitts went over 100 yards for the third time this season. His Pro Football Focus (PFF) grade of 92.9 was the highest for any offensive player last week. More impressive, Pitts is second among all receivers when lined out wide against press coverage, according to PFF — a grade that is absolutely bonkers for a tight end.
Highest @PFF receiving grade out wide vs press in 2021— Anthony Treash (@PFF_Anthony) December 28, 2021
1. Justin Jefferson - 90.8
2. Kyle Pitts - 89.2 (<--- )
3. DeAndre Hopkins - 87.8
4. Antonio Brown - 86.0
5. AJ Brown - 83.9 pic.twitter.com/CRswpKYYDY
And yet, the baffling thing about Pitts’ season hasn’t been the record-setting performance everyone expected, but the frankly strange usage by the Falcons. Pitts, a red zone menace while in college, has only one touchdown. Of the 66 routes he’s run in the red zone, he’s only been targeted 13 times, with a measly four catches for 24 yards and the lone score to show for it.
In Atlanta’s 7 wins, Kyle Pitts has 34 catches for 568 yards and a TD.— Scott Carasik (@CarasikS) December 27, 2021
In 8 losses, he has 30 catches for 381 yards and no TDs.
Maybe targeting Kyle Pitts more and scheming him open more would be the right thing to do for the Falcons. He’s their primary target.
For years, Matt Ryan and the Falcons struggled to find Julio Jones in the end zone, so this is nothing new for Falcons fans or fantasy football players who begged for more Julio TDs. (I may not be masochistic enough to be a Falcons fan, but I know the fantasy struggles well! — Andy) Even still, expect Pitts to become a bigger scoring threat in 2022 and beyond. His work ethic and humble approach will make sure of that, so long as he avoids injury.
Townsend Out, Townsend In
Tommy Townsend was surely disappointed when he tested positive for COVID-19 and went on the reserve list last week. But if it’s going to happen, having your brother be your replacement on the roster has to help.
Johnny Townsend was signed by the Chiefs last week and filled in for Tommy in Week 16. It was Johnny’s second stint with the Chiefs as a backup to his younger brother Tommy. And although he was released once again this week, it doesn’t diminish the very cool feat of Townsend subbing for Townsend.
Johnny’s now punted for four different teams and spent time on the practice squad of two others. Left-handed baseball pitchers can stick around the majors as journeymen for a long time. Perhaps Townsend is becoming the first journeyman left-footed punter in NFL history.
Player of the Week
I try to avoid back-to-back honors in this space but Ponce dun Leon — er, Carlos Dunlap — just wouldn’t give up the title in Week 16.
Dunlap lived in the Chicago Bears backfield and harassed Nick Foles on just about every one of his 33 snaps — his most since Week 8. He had two sacks and a forced fumble, and almost had a third sack and second forced fumble before a call on the field was changed to an incomplete pass.
Dunlap has been a man on fire for four straight weeks now. His totals over that period: Six sacks, 12 tackles, five tackles for loss, seven QB hits, two passes defended, a forced fumble, and a safety.
Dunlap is now at 94 sacks for his career. He turns 33 in February, but has put enough on tape these past few weeks to get a shot at reaching his stated goal of 100.
Play of the Week
Brandon Powell has been electric since getting promoted to the Los Angeles Rams active roster a month ago. The Rams have had all kinds of issues with kick and punt returners the past few years, but Powell appears to have resolved those.
His touchdown was the Rams’ first on a punt return since 2015. Here’s hoping Grandma Powell is OK after celebrating Brandon’s return too.
Grandma back home doin' flips too for that Brandon Powell punt return. pic.twitter.com/n2wiNOloAL— x - Los Angeles Rams (@RamsNFL) December 26, 2021
If you have some time, check out this insightful interview by Rams play-by-play man J.B. Long with Powell. It’s a great discussion that includes more on Grandma Powell, Brandon’s reunion with former Lions teammate Matthew Stafford, and how he battled to stay in the league after thinking his career might be over.
Powell’s touchdown combined with Van Jefferson’s six this season make them the first pair of former Gators to score touchdowns for the same team in the same season since Jordan Reed (6), Matt Jones (3), and Mack Brown (1) did it with Washington in 2016.
And for the second time this season, a former Gator was named Special Teams Player of the Week as Powell joined Tommy Townsend and his Week 9 performance.
Here are all of the Week 16 stats (ranked and tiered in order of performance):
- Carlos Dunlap, SEA, DE
Week 16: 5 tackles, 2 sacks, 3 QB hits, 1 TFL, 1 pass defended, 33 snaps (45%)
- Kyle Pitts, ATL, TE
Week 16: 6 rec, 102 yards, 36 snaps (78%)
- Janoris Jenkins, TEN, CB
Week 16: 1 tackle, 1 INT, 1 pass defended, 37 snaps (63%)
- Chauncey Gardner-Johnson, NO, S
Week 16: 7 tackles, 1 TFL, 64 snaps (98%)
- Kadarius Toney, NYG, WR
Week 16: 4 rec, 28 yards, 39 snaps (51%)
- Jarrad Davis, NYJ, LB
Week 16: 8 tackles, 29 DEF snaps (40%), 17 ST snaps (71%)
- Joe Haden, PIT, CB
Week 16: 4 tackles, 50 snaps (72%)
- Trent Brown, NE, RT
Week 16: 64 snaps (100%)
- Keanu Neal, DAL, LB
Week 16: 5 tackles, 40 DEF snaps (67%), 11 ST snaps (33%)
- D.J. Humphries, ARI, LT
Week 16: 65 snaps (100%)
- Dante Fowler, Jr., ATL, OLB
Week 16: 3 tackles, 1 QB hit, 38 snaps (57%)
- Jawaan Taylor, JAX, RT
Week 16: 73 snaps (100%)
- Demarcus Robinson, KC, WR
Week 16: 2 rec, 15 yards, 46 snaps (67%)
- Freddie Swain, SEA, WR
Week 16: 1 rec, 9 yards, 1 punt return, 15.0 avg, 29 snaps (52%)
- Van Jefferson, LAR, WR
Week 16: 1 rec, 6 yards, 1 tackle, 67 snaps (96%)
- Max Garcia, ARI, C/G
Week 16: 65 snaps (100%)
- Evan McPherson, CIN, K
Week 16: 2/3 FG, Long 36, 5/5 XP
- Eddy Pineiro, NYJ, K
Week 16: 2/2 FG, Long 42, 2/3 XP
- C.J. Henderson, CAR, CB
Week 16: 3 tackles, 1 pass defended, 52 snaps (78%)
- Marcell Harris, SF, LB/S
Week 16: 4 tackles, 26 DEF snaps (42%), 19 ST snaps (83%)
- Brandon Powell, LAR, WR
Week 16: 2 punt returns, 37.5 avg, Long 61, 1 TD, 1 OFF snap (1%)
- Marco Wilson, ARI, CB
Week 16: 3 tackles, 27 snaps (39%), left in 2nd quarter with shoulder injury
- Jonathan Bullard, ATL, DL
Week 16: 3 tackles, 27 snaps (40%)
- Johnny Townsend, KC, P
Week 16: 2 punts, 45.5 avg, LONG 51, released by the Chiefs this week
- T.J. Slaton, GB, DT
Week 16: 1 tackle, 24 DEF snaps (35%), 7 ST snaps (30%)
- Shawn Davis, GB, S
Week 16: 1 tackle, 9 ST snaps (39%), first career game and tackle
- Taven Bryan, JAX, DE
Week 16: no stats, 10 DEF snaps (17%), 6 ST snaps (25%)
- Jordan Scarlett, MIA, RB
Week 16: no stats, 16 ST snaps (62%), first game of 2021
- Teez Tabor, CHI, S
Week 16: no stats, 8 DEF snaps (14%), 6 ST snaps (24%)
- Josh Hammond, JAX, WR
Week 16: no stats, 0 targets, 8 snaps (11%)
- Stone Forsythe, SEA, T
Week 16: 5 ST snaps (20%)
- Feleipe Franks, ATL, QB
Week 16: Active but did not play
- Brian Poole, IND, CB
Week 16: Active but did not play
- Jonathan Greenard, HOU, DE: Covid-19/Reserve List
- Tommy Townsend, KC, P: Covid-19/Reserve List
- Lerentee McCray, JAX, OLB: Inactive (ankle)
- Fred Johnson, CIN, G/T: Inactive
- Vernon Hargreaves III, CIN, CB: Inactive
- La’mical Perine, NYJ, RB: Inactive
- Kyle Trask, TB, QB: Inactive
- Alex Anzalone, DET, LB: Injured Reserve (Shoulder)
- Marcus Maye, NYJ, S: Injured Reserve (Achilles)
- Jeff Driskel, HOU, QB/TE: Injured Reserve (Collarbone)
- Jon Bostic, WAS, LB: Injured Reserve (Chest)
- Jonotthan Harrison, NYG, OL: Injured Reserve (Achilles)
- Quincy Wilson, NYG, CB: Injured Reserve (Ankle)
- Bryan Cox, Jr., BUF, DE: Injured Reserve (Achilles)
The Practice Squad
- Jabari Zuniga, NYJ, DE
- Tyrie Cleveland, DEN, WR
- Duke Dawson, DEN, CB
- Jon Halapio, SF, G
- David Sharpe, BAL, T
- Donovan Stiner, PIT, S
- Chaz Green, PIT, T