Joe Vellano, New England Patriots
Vellano went undrafted last season following an impressive senior year, but the Patriots, always with an eye for talent picked him up and signed him to the practice squad. A few injuries later, Vellano found himself starting for New England in place of Vince Wilfork on the defensive line. The results were actually pretty promising, as Vellano showed off his nose for tackling with 54 total tackles in eight starts and two sacks.
This year, Vellano was a near-cut, but the Pats signed him to the practice squad. Since then, he’s appeared in five games, started once, and has picked up six tackles and one sack. Eventually, Vellano (far from a prototypical defensive lineman) will find his way onto a roster full-time, but he continues to do well in his short stints.
Will Yeatman, Houston Texans
The former laxer-turned-tackle hasn’t made any appearances for the Texans this season after appearing in eight games last year with the Dolphins. Yeatman was with Miami from 2011 to 2013, but found himself playing tackle for Bill O’Brien and the Texans this offseason. The reason? Much like Vellano, O’Brien knew of Yeatman from his Patriots days when the tackle went to camp with New England.
After coming off an ACL injury, Yeatman should be fully healthy by now, but he’ll have to beat out Derek Newton for the starting job.
Phil Costa (Retired)
This past April, despite earning a two-year deal with the Indianapolis Colts and a chance to take snaps with Andrew Luck, Costa instead retired unexpectedly. He did break off his engagement with Brooke Hogan the prior year, but that’s not likely the reason he dropped football. We’re going to try and follow up on this one, if only because it’s rare to see folks walk away from guaranteed money.
Erin Henderson (UFA)
Henderson spent most of last season as the Vikings starting middle linebacker, but was released early from his contract following substance abuse issues. In fact, he was suspended for the first four games of this season for repeated violations of the league’s Substance Abuse Policy.
Henderson was charged with a DUI in 2013, then on New Year’s Day, and finally charged with a DWI and possession of ten grams of marijuana before being released by the Vikings. The younger brother of former Maryland superstar E.J. Henderson has gone through his share of troubles, but has apparently sobered up and is simply looking for the opportunity.
Nick Novak (San Diego Chargers)
Novak has been bouncing around the league for awhile now. He’s had stints with the Redskins, Chargers, Jets, Chiefs, before finally settling down in 2011 with the hometown Chargers. He was a First-Team All-AFC West selection last season, and this year he’s extended his streak of consecutive field goals to 23, which is second in Chargers history.
Novak has been great for the Chargers, and it’s looking like he’s got as much assurance as any kicker in the league with his leg strength and consistency.
Jon Condo, Oakland Raiders
Condo has been with the Oakland Raiders his entire career, and the two-time Pro Bowl Long Snapper has continued to play through the three-year deal he signed back in 2013. Condo remains one of the more underrated Terps in the NFL.
Nolan Carroll, Philadelphia Eagles
Carroll signed a two-year, $5 million contract with the Philadelphia Eagles back in March after his elevation to the starting role with the Miami Dolphins last season. Carroll had three interceptions and 43 tackles last year, and through eight games he has 14 tackles and two pass deflections for the Eagles.
Vernon Davis, San Francisco 49ers
Davis has had a bit of a down year for the 49ers as a result of injury, and thus far has only racked up 161 yards and two touchdowns this season. It doesn’t help that the 49ers are reportedly quite dysfunctional in the locker room and his quarterback isn’t utilizing him too often. Unfortunately that means Davis is stuck between a rock ad a hard place, and the downfield plays that Kaepernick loves so much aren’t a dream scenario for a not-so-sure-handed tight end.
Kevin Dorsey, Green Bay Packers
Despite almost completely injuring himself out of the league since being drafted by the Packers in the seventh-round in 2013, Dorsey is still here. He was promoted to the active roster in early October, and has performed special teams duty for the Packers since then and has performed admirably. Rodgers has had glowing reviews of Dorsey, he played relatively well in the preseason, and he’s continuing to carve out a place for himself in the NFL through hard work.
A.J. Francis, Miami Dolphins
Francis was signed off the Patriots’ practice squad back in 2013, but this year he was placed on IR right before the season began. Follow him on Twitter for instant accessibility.
Darrius Heyward-Bey, Pittsburgh Steelers
Heyward-Bey just keeps getting jobs, and good for him. Heywad-Bey, who has had 172 catches for 2,413 yards and 12 touchdowns during his six-year career, is catching balls from Ben Roethlisberger. DHB had 309 yards last season with Andrew Luck, but has only managed 3 catches for 33 yards with the Steelers. Unless his play improves, he’s going to have a hard time finding another gig.
D’Qwell Jackson, Indianapolis Colts
The Terps-Colts pipeline continues with D’Qwell Jackson doing his thing after spending eight seasons with the Browns. Jackson is one of the more underrated players in the league considering he’s a linebacker who is approaching Ray Lewis numbers when it comes to tackling. Six of his eight seasons in Cleveland he racked up over 93 combined tackles (the two seasons he didn’t were marred by injury), and he’s on pace to continue that trend with 70 combined tackles this year for the Colts. He’s also got 3 solo sacks, which is .5 off his career high.
Jackson is due for a long career as long as he’s healthy, and he’s going to eventually gain recognition for his play in the form of a Pro Bowl berth. As it stands, he’s 10th in the NFL in total tackles.
Torrey Smith, Baltimore Ravens
Smith is still with the Ravens after being drafted by them in 2011, and while his numbers are a little down, he’s starting to emerge once again after a slow start. Smith has 22 receptions for 371 yards this season, and has 144 yards and two touchdowns over his last three games. For his career, Smith has 3,195 yards and 24 touchdowns. He’s also a must follow on Twitter and a fantastic ambassador to the game and the Maryland brand.
Randy Starks, Miami Dolphins
Stark, who has been in the league for ten seasons now, is playing spot duty on the Dolphins defensive line. Starks has 13 total tackles this year and 2.5 sacks (recently against the Chargers). For his career, Starks has 4 interceptions, 39 total sacks, and 370 tackles.
Josh Wilson, Atlanta Falcons
After spending the past three seasons with the Washington Redskins, Wilson signed with the Falcons this offseason. So far, he’s got 15 total tackles and has struggled to maintain the momentum he had last year with 93 tackles, two sacks, and one interception. This is his fourth team of his career after previously playing for the Redskins, Ravens, and Seahawks.
Shaun Hill, St. Louis Rams
Hill is understandably frustrated after being injured during his first start in the season opener (quad) against the Minnesota Vikings. Hill has still not earned his starting gig back despite the struggles of QB Austin Davis in the passing game. If Davis continues to struggle, there’s a chance we could see Hill get a shot for the Rams, but for now he’s in the all-too-familiar role of backup.