As the draft talk winds down and we begin taking wider looks at positional groups and roster strengths across the league, another new domino drops as the league continues to recover from the COVID-riddled season: COVID-19 opt-outs returning to the roster. We know how much the opt-outs affected the 2020 season—see: the entire Patriots defense—but we don’t yet know what will happen when they return.
An entire season off could do wonders for health and career longevity for those players who opted out; it could also put conditioning in a shaky spot during the first few weeks of the year. Team transitions throw another wrench into this conversation: Patriots OT Marcus Cannon is now on an entirely revamped roster and new offense in Houston, while D’Onta Hightower, an incumbent veteran and key cog of the New England defense, returns to familiar territory in the center of Bill Belichick’s approach.
Just how much impact some of the returnees will have is accordingly murky. But three stand out as important players to their teams’ success—not just for their talent, but for the way those teams have built their roster in the interim, clearly expecting a significant returning role for COVID-19 opt-outs back on the roster.
Green Bay Packers WR Devin Funchess
Remember the entire wide receiver kerfuffle of last season in Green Bay? I suppose it’s still ongoing, as the Packers added merely one top-100 pick at wide receiver to Aaron Rodgers’ woefully depleted wide receiver room featuring… top-one wide receiver in the league, Davante Adams?
Anyway, for all of the drama the Packers’ pass-catching corps has seen over the last few years, it’s easy to forget that they return wide receiver Devin Funchess, their lone addition during 2020 free agency on a one-year, $2.5M deal with incentives up to $3.75M.
The Packers’ passing game obviously endured the loss of Funchess last season, with the emergence of Robert Tonyan as a legit receiving threat from the H-back role accounting for some of the red zone looks that Funchess was likely to see. Remember, while Funchess is a wide receiver and Tonyan is a tight end, they’re essentially the same size, and it will be tough to unseat Tonyan from his red-zone role.
So Funchess will push Marquez Valdes-Scantling for Z receiver reps and maybe offer some big-slot stuff as well. There was a plan for playing time for him in the wide receiver room last season, and neither the addition of Amari Rodgers nor the shaky play of Valdes-Scantling should be enough to challenge that plan this year. Funchess is going to be part of a rotation in Green Bay—one that will remain under scrutiny.
Cleveland Browns DT Andrew Billings
The Browns elected to focus on their defensive back seven in the draft, which is fine—they needed that help. But the departures from last season on the defensive front in Olivier Vernon, Adrian Clayborn, and Sheldon Richardson are tough to ignore, even with the additions of Jadeveon Clowney and Malik Jackson considered.
But the third addition is Andrew Billings, a two-down space-gobbler the Browns signed from the divisional rival Cincinnati Bengals on a one-year, $3.5M deal. A dominant athlete in terms of size and stopping power, Billings is an important player for the vision of Joe Woods’ defense. If the Browns want to succeed with undersized linebackers like Jeremiah Owusu-Koromoah and Tony Fields II, they need to keep those ‘backers clean with two-gappers on the defensive front. Day 3 draft pick Tommy Togiai can get that done, but Billings has been doing it at a solid level in the league for a couple of seasons now. He could be the unsung hero of the Browns’ defensive improvement, should that unit coalesce this season. Don’t be surprised to hear Billings’ name in the refrains of Andrew Berry’s praise following a successful Browns season.
Indianapolis Colts CB Marvell Tell
The Colts have been gung-ho about Marvell Tell, an ex 5-star recruit and safety convert, since taking him in Day 3 of the 2019 NFL Draft. He played a few weeks in injury relief as a rookie, and delivered over expectation, but missed the entire 2020 season as a COVID-19 opt-out.
The Colts’ cornerbacks weren’t a problem but weren’t necessarily a strength either last season. Xavier Rhodes had a resurgent season, though his health is tough to trust; Rock Ya-Sin remains up-and-down; T.J. Carrie is preferable as a backup. This is the trio of outside corners the Colts ran last season, and it’s the trio they seem intent to run again, re-signing both Rhodes and Carrie in free agency.
So Tell is essentially the added player, and while I don’t think he’ll necessarily contend for the starting job over Ya-Sin in a legit camp battle, I do think Ya-Sin will have a quick hook, and Tell has the potential to beat out Carrie for the CB3 role among outside players. He’s an unknown, but the ceiling is high and the staff is certainly willing to believe in him. If the Colts continue running more Cover 3 and man coverage, as they did at the end of last season, he has the better body type for that role. He may end up never taking a starting snap, but I’d bet on it happening at some point this year.