By: Joe Siniscalchi
Let’s play a game. What do Percy Harvin, Tavon Austin, Josh Cribbs, Randall Cobb, Darren Sproles, Marcel Reese, and Reggie Bush have in common? What about Aaron Hernandez, Tyler Eifert, Delanie Walker, Jimmy Graham and Jermichael Finley? Still stumped? How about Haloti Ngata, Adalius Thomas, Dion Jordan, Kam Chancellor, and Justin Smith? Alright, alright, I’ll tell you. They are the guys who have created or will help move along a revolution in the NFL.
All of these players possess (or in Thomas’ case possessed) amazing versatility, which helps them line up all over the field. Players who are a jack-of-all-trades have a new position named after their expanded roles: the “joker.” These jokers can line up anywhere on the field. Percy Harvin, Tavon Austin Josh Cribbs and Randall Cobb may be the best jokers in the NFL. They’re listed as wide receivers, but they also line up in the slot, outside, in the backfield, and as kick and punt returners.
Aaron Hernandez and Delanie Walker are H-backs (guys who line up at tight end and fullback), but they have much bigger roles as well. Walker plays the offensive line, both wide receiver positions, and has lined up at running back. Hernandez plays the slot, tight end, running back, fullback, and wide receiver. Even Jimmy Graham sees time at wide receiver. Running backs such as Darren Sproles and Reggie Bush primarily play running back, but they return kicks and punts, play the slot, and also have played some wide receiver. Marcel Reese is a rare Joker H-back. He plays fullback but can play tight end, carry the rock, and occasionally line up at wide receiver.
On the defensive side, the joker has the same capabilities. Guys like Haloti Ngata and Justin Smith can stand up and rush the passer, play end in 3-4, and slide inside. They also can drop back in coverage. Adalius Thomas in his prime, or the soon-to-be-top-10 pick Dion Jordan, are guys who have stood up to rush the passer, rushed from the line, dropped back into coverage, played safety, corner, and covered the slot receivers. Kam Chancellor can cover wide receivers, tight ends, men in the slot, and play some linebacker.
It’s no coincidence that nearly everyone on this list has or had a major impact on his respective unit. First off, these players give coordinators the ability to come up with creative packages to exploit matchups. Putting Hernandez in the slot where he can outmuscle corners, outrun linebackers, and take beatings from hard hitting safeties gives Josh McDaniels a warm, fuzzy feeling. Why? Because Hernandez, and the other offensive players on this list, not only take advantage of mismatches, but open up the field for other players, putting everyone in a position to make plays.
Forcing the defense to try and negate the joker will take away attention or personnel away from another spot on the field. For example, having a safety cover Darren Sproles in the slot opens up one-on-one coverage for Marques Colston and forces a linebacker to be responsible for Jimmy Graham. Two very favorable matchups, to say the least. If the defense chooses to cover Sproles with a linebacker, that creates a mis-match made in heaven. These jokers create uncomfortable siutations for defenses and force them to expect the unexpected.
On the defensive side, jokers are just as valuable. Having guys like Jordan, Thomas, and Chancellor, who can line up at and play corner, linebacker, or safety, allows for creative formations. More importantly, it generates the ability to hide the blitz. Ngata and Smith also can play along the line or stand up and drop back. It’s not just that these guys on defense can line up, they can actually play.
So, how have these jokers carved out their niche in the NFL? It’s a simple formula, really. First off, these players are physical freaks. They often have elite or ideal size to play multiple positions. They also have superb speed and strength.
Most importantly, they have the ability and know-how to play multiple positions involving different roles. Part of their success stems from college. Creative coaches, such as Chip Kelly, look to use these players in as many ways as possible since they have a clear advantage, from a physicality and talent standpoint, over the competition.
Remember Tavon Austin’s game against Oklahoma? These players are seen as “Swiss Army knives” to help the team break big plays in any given situation, and coaches can’t find enough ways to deploy them. NFL head coaches have looked to college for inspiration. Just look at what’s going on with the read option, as of now. Coaches are taking a page out of college playbooks and have stopped trying to pigeon-hole players into one position. Instead, they have embraced players’ athleticism and versatility.
This is only the start of the joker craze. As college and NFL coaches continue to embrace this idea, fans will see more and more players harness that role from college to the NFL. Look at the last few drafts, or even the upcoming draft. The number of players coming out of college who are versatile and scheme-averse is at an all-time high. In the rapidly evolving NFL, playbooks are as trendy as fashion, and any advantage is the best advantage.
I can only imagine we will see more and more jokers, as well as new formations, packages, and positions to utilize these talents properly. Get your popcorn ready.