The NFL season is mostly settled, with a few battles left for Wild Card playoff positioning and division title winners left to be decided. But while the bulk of the season has featured both proven stars playing as expected and a few new ones ascending, there are some big-name players who didn’t factor into the early part of the season but could prove to be big components of stretch runs in the playoff picture. Here are five players to keep an eye on as the season winds down.
Dez Bryant, Wide Receiver, Baltimore Ravens
In a win over the Jacksonville Jaguars, Dez Bryant caught a touchdown pass. That in itself wasn’t a big deal – in his career, Bryant was one of the best receivers in the league at finding the end zone. But his catch for the Ravens was his first touchdown in three years after he missed 2018 with an injury and couldn’t find a team in 2019.
Bryant is far from the star he was for the Dallas Cowboys, but he’s been trying to revive his career in Baltimore this season. He’s played in four games and has five catches and also missed time in the midst of his comeback due to a positive COVID-19 test.
Bryant is currently a backup receiver with Baltimore and hasn’t seen the field much, but if he can continue playing himself into shape, his size and experience make him an intriguing target for star quarterback Lamar Jackson should Baltimore secure a Wild Card spot over the last two weeks of the season. The team’s top three receivers, Marquise Brown, Miles Boykin, and Willie Snead IV, have made occasional plays in the passing game, but tight end Mark Andrews has been Jackson’s most consistent pass-catching threat. Bryant could add a new dimension to the Baltimore offense if he has anything left.
Antonio Brown, wide receiver, Tampa Bay Buccaneers
If not for Bryant’s touchdown after a long drought, Antonio Brown might’ve been the story in the NFL this week for catching his first touchdown pass in more than a year.
Unlike Bryant, who struggled recovering from a serious injury, Brown’s absence from the NFL was largely of his own making. Brown was last seen with the New England Patriots in 2019 before being released after accusations of sexual assault. Brown alienated his way out of Pittsburgh, got another chance in New England and quickly blew it after accusations surfaced.
Brown, despite obvious talent that included six straight 100-catch seasons in Pittsburgh, looked to have played his way out of the league until former New England teammate Tom Brady helped get him another chance in Tampa Bay this season.
Brown has played in six games this season, with 30 catches. Whether or not he’d done enough to earn another opportunity is debatable, but his talent isn’t. He’s still a dangerous weapon that makes Tampa a tough offense to contend with in the playoffs.
Le’Veon Bell, running back, Kansas City Chiefs
No player improved his situation more this season than Le’Veon Bell, and that has nothing to do with his personal production. Bell started the season with the New York Jets, who are now 1-13. He was released and joined the Kansas City Chiefs, who are now 13-1.
Bell had settled into a quiet backup role to dynamic rookie running back Clyde Edwards-Helaire, but an injury to Edwards-Helaire in week 15 opens a door for Bell to play an even bigger role.
Bell was once one of the league’s best running backs, both running and catching the ball. But a high volume of touches have taken a physical toll on him, and he’s struggled to stay healthy in recent seasons. He had his best game as a Chief on December 20 against the Saints when Edwards-Helaire went down, though, tallying 62 yards on 15 carries, with one catch for 14 yards.
Edwards-Helaire has a high ankle sprain, which could take several weeks to heal. But the Chiefs currently have the best record in the AFC and should end up with a bye in the first round of the playoffs. That, combined with Bell’s solid production, should keep Kansas City’s offense playing at a high level while the rookie recovers.
Jalen Hurts, quarterback, Philadelphia Eagles
Hurts, a rookie second-round pick, may be getting playing time too late to turn the Eagles’ season around, but even at 4-9-1, they still have a shot at the playoffs. They trail first place Washington by 1.5 games with two to play, and Hurts has given the team a spark that could at least keep things interesting as the season closes.
The Eagles probably waited too long to put him into the lineup, instead staying invested in former first round pick Carson Wentz. But Hurts has started two straight games, thrown four touchdown passes (with no interceptions) and ran for another. He led the team to an upset of the NFC South-leading New Orleans Saints on December 13, and has already made it clear he could be the team’s quarterback of the future.
And if Hurts can lead the team to wins over division rivals Dallas and Washington in the final two weeks, he might get at least one more game to show he’s the team’s quarterback of the future.
Drew Brews, quarterback, New Orleans Saints
Brees’ return was always expected, but it’s still a nice late-season jolt for the Saints to get their star back a couple of weeks before the playoffs. Brees had been out since mid-November with an injury, and as expected, his first game back wasn’t as sharp as he’d have preferred. But still, they played Kansas City, the NFL’s best team, tough and only lost by three, giving hope that as he gets his timing back, the Saints have what it takes to make a deep playoff run.
Brees hasn’t said what is future plans are, but there’s speculation he could be nearing the end of his career. If he truly is, expect him and the Saints to do everything they can to send him out with another Super Bowl title.