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Florida Gators in the NFL: Kaiir Elam shares Damar Hamlin update, Kadarius Toney continues star turn

The Bills’ Gator became an unlikely news-breaker this week. The Chiefs’ Gator is turning into the play-maker we expected.

NFL: OCT 16 Bills at Chiefs Photo by Nick Tre. Smith/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

The story of the week in the National Football League — and sports — has been Buffalo Bills safety Damar Hamlin’s collapse on the field due to cardiac arrest during Monday Night Football. Tragic, scary, and shocking, it has rattled the sport to its core.

Since Hamlin was revived on the field and transported to the University of Cincinnati Medical Center, we’ve been waiting to hear positive news and praying for his health and recovery. On Thursday morning, reports began to trickle out that Hamlin had made significant improvements. The first report came from his partner in the Bills secondary, Kaiir Elam.

Shortly after Elam’s tweet, Hamlin’s doctors held a press conference to confirm he was awake, communicating with pen and paper, moving his limbs, and showing that he is neurologically intact. Although Hamlin isn’t out of the woods yet, the news spread joy throughout the entire NFL community — teams, players, and fans — who have rallied behind him since Monday’s incident.

Apart from Elam being not just a teammate but a close compatriot of Hamlin, the Florida angle of his collapse was sadly obvious: The frightening sight of Hamlin falling to the ground couldn’t help remind many Gators of Keyontae Johnson doing so a little over two years ago. We all remember the fear, terror, pain, and anguish in the moment and days following Key’s collapse.

But if their collapses were frightening in their similarity, maybe their recoveries can be, too. Keyontae ultimately survived his hospital stay, and although he never played hoops again for Florida, he’s healthy and having an incredible comeback season at Kansas State — one that he punctuated this week with sterling performances in big wins for the Wildcats over Texas and Baylor, and one that Gator Nation will see first-hand in three weeks when the Gators go to Manhattan.

We’re all hoping for a similar recovery for Damar Hamlin — and one imagines Key might be someone to turn to for advice and assistance in the future, if Hamlin wants to and can resume his playing career.

Football seemed so, so insignificant earlier in the week, but with the great news of Hamlin’s improvement, the final week of the regular season might feel a little more like a relief than an agonizing experience. Let’s keep Damar in our thoughts and prayers — and if you are inclined to be charitable, his foundation is as good a cause as any.

Designated to Return

Chauncey Gardner-Johnson and Jonathan Bullard both were designated to return from injured reserve. There is now a 21-day window for both to be activated. With the Eagles and Vikings both headed for the postseason, Gardner-Johnson and Bullard should get back in time to help their teams’ postseason pursuits.

Houston, He’s A Problem

James Houston IV sacked Justin Fields three times on Sunday, upping his season total to eight — half a sack more than his teammate and No. 2 overall pick Aiden Hutchinson — even though he’s only played 110 defensive snaps over six games! This is the stuff of legends. Stunningly, it’s the most by a player in his first six games ever.

He’s a pass-rushing menace, but look at the closing speed in space after dropping into coverage against one of the most dangerous open-field runners in the game.

The Lions will need help to make the playoffs even if they beat the Packers on Sunday night, with the NFL’s decision to play that game after the Seahawks play rendering it possible that Detroit is only able to play spoiler instead of vying for its own berth. But if they do have that opportunity, it’s hard to imagine Houston not playing a significant role in the Lions’ fate — an astonishing development for a player whose first NFL tackle came on Thanksgiving.

Other Week 17 Notables

Taven Bryan had his best game as a Brown on Sunday, recording a half sack and four tackles. He’s up to a career-high three sacks on the season.

Malik Davis led the Cowboys in rushing last Thursday. Tony Pollard sat out with an injury, and even though Davis averaged just under four yards per carry, he showed flashes of having the same kind of ability that has made Pollard a star.

Jawaan Taylor had another excellent game on Sunday against the Texans. He’s not generally recognized as one of the league’s top right tackles, but he’s certainly played like one this season.

And Jacksonville’s win on Saturday means that Wanny will be in the playoffs for the first time in his pro career.

Stone Forsythe made his first NFL start last Sunday, and as I predicted last week, he played a lot better after a full week of practice. Both Forsythe and Teez Tabor were praised by Pete Carroll.

Van Jefferson snagged three passes for 77 yards in what was his best game of 2022. He’s had a strong finish after missing the first seven weeks of the season and not catching his first pass until week 10.

Player of the Week

After getting only two touches in the previous two weeks, Kadarius Toney was targeted four times last Sunday, hauling in each pass for a total of 71 yards. The Chiefs appear close to fully integrating their new weapon as the postseason approaches.

The addition of deeper go and crossing routes for Toney to the regular jet sweeps and screens will make the Chiefs offense all the more difficult to contain. Despite the limited number of targets, Toney is doing serious damage with his touches — something Andy Reid and Eric Bienemy certainly know.

Toney did fumble a punt in Week 17, the first time he’s put the ball on the ground in his NFL career. So even though it’s not an ongoing issue, he vowed to do better going forward.

And Week 18 seemed to be proof that the team still trusts him, as he ended up with another five touches for 44 yards and a score, his quickness and strength both on display on the touchdown.

Play of the Week

Dante Fowler recorded his sixth sack of the season last Thursday against the Titans. It was a beautiful speed rush around the edge and ended with a strip of the football and a Cowboys recovery.

Fowler played only 19 snaps, which is pretty close to his per game average in Dallas. It hasn’t stopped him from producing big plays at key moments for a Cowboys team looking to make a deep postseason run.

Here are all of the Week 17 stats (ranked and tiered in order of performance):

The Good

  • Dante Fowler, Jr., DAL, OLB

Week 17: 1 sack, 2 tackles, 2 QB hits, 1 FF, 19 snaps (29%)

  • Van Jefferson, LAR, WR

Week 17: 3 rec (3 targets), 77 yards, 46 snaps (94%)

  • Taven Bryan, CLE, DT

Week 17: 0.5 sack, 4 tackles, 1 QB hit, 38 snaps (55%), 7 ST snaps (33%)

  • Carlos Dunlap, KC, DE

Week 17: 1 tackle, 1 TFL, 1 QB hit, 1 PD, 35 snaps (50%)

  • Kadarius Toney, KC, WR

Week 17: 4 rec (4 targets), 71 yards, 2 PR, 7.0 avg, 1 fumble, 19 snaps (32%), 5 ST snaps (17%)

  • Jawaan Taylor, JAX, RT

Week 17: 60 snaps (95%)

  • Malik Davis, DAL, RB

Week 17: 10 rush, 39 yards, 2 rec (2 targets), 23 yards, 26 snaps (32%), 4 ST snaps (16%)

  • Trent Brown, NE, RT

Week 17: 60 snaps (100%)

  • Tommy Townsend, KC, P

Week 17: 5 punts, 52.6 avg

  • Alex Anzalone, DET, LB

Week 17: 7 tackles, 38 snaps (73%)

  • Brandon Powell, LAR, WR

Week 17: 1 rec (2 targets), 3 yards, 1 rush, 6 yards, 37 snaps (76%), 15 ST snaps (60%)

  • Stone Forsythe, SEA, T

Week 17: 72 snaps (100%)

  • Max Garcia, ARI, G

Week 17: 74 snaps (100%)

  • Eddy Pineiro, CAR, K

Week 17: 1/1 FG, Long 49, 3/3 XP

  • Demarcus Robinson, BAL, WR

Week 17: 1 rec (3 targets), 9 yards, 31 snaps (60%)

  • Jeff Driskel, HOU, QB

Week 17: 3/4 passing, 9 yards, 2 rush, 7 yards, 15 snaps (21%)

  • C.J. Henderson, CAR, CB

Week 17: 4 tackles, 1 PD, 76 snaps (97%), 9 ST snaps (29%)

  • Teez Tabor, SEA, S

Week 17: 2 tackles, 33 snaps (47%), 7 ST snaps (28%)

  • Jonathan Greenard, HOU, DE

Week 17: 1 tackle, 26 snaps (41%)

The Limited

  • Keanu Neal, TB, S

Week 17: 1 tackle, 5 snaps (8%)

  • Kaiir Elam, BUF, CB

Week 17: Game suspended

  • Evan McPherson, CIN, K

Week 17: Game suspended

  • Zach Carter, CIN, DT

Week 17: Game suspended

The Inactive

  • Marco Wilson, ARI, CB: Inactive (Neck)
  • Marcus Maye, NO, S: Inactive (Shoulder)
  • Jon Bostic, WAS, LB: Inactive (Pectoral)
  • Freddie Swain, DEN, WR: Inactive
  • Kyle Trask, TB, QB: Inactive
  • Feleipe Franks, ATL, TE: Inactive
  • Dameon Pierce, HOU, RB: Injured Reserve
  • Chauncey Gardner-Johnson, PHI, S: Injured Reserve
  • Kyle Pitts, ATL, TE: Injured Reserve
  • D.J. Humphries, ARI, LT: Injured Reserve
  • Jonathan Bullard, MIN, DT: Injured Reserve
  • Marcell Harris, NYJ, LB: Injured Reserve

The Practice Squad

  • Jarrad Davis, DET, LB
  • Jabari Zuniga, NO, DE
  • Antonio Callaway, DAL, WR
  • Tyrie Cleveland, DEN, WR
  • Fred Johnson, PHI, OL
  • La’mical Perine, MIA, RB
  • David Sharpe, BAL, T
  • Jeremiah Moon, BAL, LB
  • Duke Dawson, PIT, DB
  • Jean Delance, GB, OL
  • Jonotthan Harrison, ATL, OL