Third-stringers: Football fans just can't get enough of them these days. And why not? Third-stringers may not be good enough to start, or play a regular backup role, or do much more than cling to the back of the depth chart for dear life, but they are still interesting characters. Some have had long careers, many enjoyed college glory, some have been to the Super Bowl, one or two have been in jail. A few are on the way up, though most are on the way down, and if the journey is more important than the destination, then these guys are the real All-Pros.
The following All-Third String team is going to surprise you: There are some big names and useful players on this list. There's a quarterback who had a remarkable winning streak with the help of a great defense, a Heisman Trophy winner and some athletic college quarterbacks who had more success as gadget players, including one who played for the Jets. There are first-round draft busts, goal-line specialists and players who attract a little too much attention. It's a fascinating team, and it was built with the help of the Ourlads.com depth charts, the best source for accurate offseason depth charts on the Internet. Ourlads listed all of these players as third-stringers as of last week, even though it's a safe bet that some will quickly move up and others will be released. One last criterion: no rookies. Otherwise, this would turn into a draft roundup.
Without further ado, the deepest All-NFL team ever:
Quarterback: Rex Grossman, Redskins. Grossman went 13-3 as a starter in 2006, leading the Bears to the Super Bowl. It only took a little digging to uncover the truth about his gaudy won-loss record: The Bears defense was awesome and Devin Hester returned five kicks for touchdowns, so Grossman could throw four interceptions and beat the Cardinals, throw three interceptions (and complete just six passes) and beat the Vikings and pass for just 119 yards in a 10-0 win over the Jets. Grossman was a bad quarterback who mixed a few decent games with lots of luck. Still, many were fooled into thinking he had some kind of "winner" magic, until 2007 arrived and those three-interception games began turning into losses.
Grossman was a former first-round pick, so he got another chance with the Redskins, but even a Super Bowl coach and strategic guru like Mike Shanahan cannot make a penguin fly. Grossman is now behind Robert Griffin and Kirk Cousins -- a superstar and a solid prospect -- so it would take a complete disaster for him to play again. It seems silly that we wasted so much time in 2006 and 2007 debating the merits of Rex Grossman, but it really happened, and the only thing to do about it now is learn from that experience.
Running Back: Mark Ingram, Saints. A Heisman Trophy does not guarantee NFL success. Ingram is a pretty good power runner, but he is injury-prone, and he is a one-dimensional player in a multi-dimensional offense. Ingram gets some playing time, but he will be stuck as the third-stringer as long as Pierre Thomas and Darren Spoles remain more useful as receivers, blockers and speed backs. Hammering between the tackles effectively in the SEC simply does not translate into NFL stardom.
Committee Running Backs: Donald Brown, Colts; Jason Snelling, Falcons. Third-string running backs usually get playing time as committee backs, and Ingram could use some support from these useful subs. Brown is a decent all-purpose rusher and receiver. Snelling is a big blocker in the backfield who can also catch the ball. We won't be selecting a third-string fullback, so that can be Snelling's job.
Wide Receiver: Eddie Royal, Chargers. Royal caught 91 passes as a rookie for the Broncos in 2008, and had productive-but-inconsistent years while battling injuries in 2009 and 2010. The Broncos passing game completely collapsed in 2011, and Royal caught just seven passes in the Broncos' final nine games as the team averaged less than 20 points per game. The Chargers acquired Royal during a receiving corps rebuild, but the team has since changed coaching and management, so Royal is a former Broncos sensation trying to find a role that fits.
Wide Receiver: Plaxico Burress, Steelers. Burress is a unique talent who was once a controversial figure New York sports scene. He is now trying to stick as a goal-line specialist because of his ability to post-up smaller defenders for short touchdowns. It is not unusual for a team to consider a third-stringer as a short-yardage specialist. The Steelers used Burress this way in 2012, but the results were one touchdown, a few decoy plays, and a lot of hoopla.
Extra Receivers: Brad Smith, Bills; Josh Cribbs, Raiders; Julian Edelman, Patriots. All three of these players were college quarterbacks with great athleticism but iffy passing skills. All three switched to receiver, and it was the right choice: Instead of lingering as forgettable clipboard jockeys, they became respected all-purpose backups. Edelman has played both offense and defense for the Patriots. Smith has seen time as a Wildcat quarterback but has proven most useful as a return man. Cribbs is one of the greatest special teamers in NFL history, and he also played a little Wildcat quarterback. Cribbs is the captain of our All-Third String team, because he is Josh Cribbs, and therefore cool. Sometimes, a college quarterback's greatest attribute is his awareness that he is not an NFL quarterback.
Tight End: Jake Ballard, Patriots. The Patriots notoriously stockpile quality tight ends to back up their two oft-injured stars at the position. They grabbed Ballard after he caught 38 passes as a starter for the Super Bowl champion Giants in 2011; Ballard was recovering from ACL surgery, but the Patriots could not resist snatching him off waivers. Ballard will probably start the season higher on the depth chart because of Rob Gronkowski's injury, but he's still technically third string. The Patriots are so obsessed with tight ends that some fans think all of their third-string acquisitions are sneaky attempts to get more tight ends, but Ballard has this job all sewn up, and Michael Hoomanawanui and Daniel Fells are hands down the best fourth- and fifth-string tight ends in the NFL. So there is no room for anyone else.
Tackle: Alex Barron, Raiders. Barron was the 19th overall pick in the 2005 draft. He started for the Rams for five years, played a little for the Cowboys in a sixth season and was penalized 78 times in 75 games. Think about it: He averaged more than one penalty per game! That is probably some kind of record. Barron got hurt in 2011, flunked a tryout with the Seahawks and is now trying to catch on with the Raiders. Considering the number of false starts he committed in his career, asking him to learn new snaps counts is cruel and unusual punishment.
Tackle: Tony Pashos, Redskins. It is hard to find third-string offensive tackles with any real pedigree. Pashos has knocked around the league as a starter for the Ravens, Jaguars and Browns for years. He hasn't played since 2011. It's hard to find interesting things to say about third-string linemen, so I will quote a bit of Pashos' Wikipedia page without comment. "Pashos is the son of Greek immigrants and speaks three languages: Greek, German, and English. Pashos supported Republican presidential candidate U.S. Rep. Ron Paul in the 2012 Presidential election."
Guard: Jake Scott, Lions. Scott started for the Colts in the Super Bowl years, had a couple of decent seasons for the Titans and earned some playing time for the Eagles during the "lost cause" period of their season. He may qualify as the best third string guard in history.
Guard: Chilo Rachal, Cardinals. Rachal is actually pretty demonstrably terrible. He started seven games for the Bears last season, and Football Outsiders credited him with eight penalties and 15 Blown Blocks. He then left the team for personal reasons. Before that, he started for the 49ers in the pre-Harbaugh era. Like many of the players on this list, Rachal is getting one more chance because he was a high-round pick and has starting experience, but the gap between him and an undrafted rookie is microscopic.
Center: Ryan Cook, Cowboys. Cook was the Vikings' starting center for a few years. The Cowboys acquired him for a seventh-round pick last year, and he did not play terribly in 11 starts, but the Cowboys drafted Travis Frederick and have Phil Costa back from injury. You can never have too many mid-tier centers, I suppose. Maybe one of them will call plays.
Defensive End: Chris Clemons, Seahawks. Clemons started 16 games last season and recorded 11.5 sacks. He is the best player on this team. He is third-string because the Seahawks are trying to punish the world with pass rushers, and some of those pass rushers are taking the league's PED policy as something of a dare. Clemons is technically behind Cliff Avril and suspended Bruce Irvin, and we are living and dying by technicalities on this list, so even though he will play a lot this year, he qualifies. If our third-string offensive line faced this third-string defensive line, Rex Grossman would be in serious trouble.
Defensive End: Phillip Merling, Redskins. A former Dolphins second-round pick from the days when the Dolphins did zany things with their second-round picks, Merling was once a promising pass-rush prospect whose career fell apart because of legal trouble and an Achilles injury. He falls into the general category of "failed prospect on his last chance."
Defensive tackle: Johnny Jolly, Packers. Jolly hasn't played since 2009 because of constant run-ins with the law. Prescription cough medicine is bad news, kids. Jolly is on probation from the law, reinstated by the NFL and too talented to cut without getting a long look. That said, he will probably be cut.
Defensive tackle: Broderick Bunkley, Saints; Mike Patterson, Giants. Bunkley and Patterson were the Eagles tackle tandem during the later Andy Reid good old days. This defense is loaded with old Eagles players; Clemons is another, and we will see one more in a moment. It may seem like selection bias by this Philly-based writer, but I am not so sure. There just aren't many five- to seven-year veterans with starting experience listed third on defensive depth charts. Most of those who are have had legal problems or are ex-Eagles.
Linebacker: Stewart Bradley, Broncos. A big thumper of an inside linebacker, Bradley showed promise as a starter for the Eagles in 2008. He then tore his ACL during one of those fan appreciation preseason practices in 2009 and has never been the same since.
Linebacker: Chris Chamberlain, Saints. Another promising young linebacker whose Achilles' heel is his ACL. (Maybe we should update that metaphor: Instead of parallel parking is my Achilles' heel it should be parallel parking is my ACL. Nah, Greek mythology is making a comeback.) Chamberlain looked pretty good as a Rams starter in 2012, and Steve Spagnuolo brought him along for the Bountygate rebuild of the Saints defense. But Chamberlain tore an ACL in August, Spags is gone and Rob Ryan is installing a completely different defense and has his own guys.
Linebacker: Niko Koutouvides, Patriots. A 10-year vet, formerly a spot starter for the Seahawks, who is generally the last player Belichick cuts around Labor Day and the first one he brings back when injuries deplete the special teams. The Patriots contacted Koutouvides while he was laying sod in his yard in November 2011, and he ended up playing in the Super Bowl. (In one of my favorite Media Day interviews, I talked to him for three minutes about sod.) Koutouvides was among the last cuts in 2012 but was brought back again. Who knows who Belichick will cut this year?
Cornerback: Aaron Ross, Giants. Ross had some fine seasons as a starter for the Giants, and he parlayed his 2011 performance for the Super Bowl champs into a three-year contract with the Jaguars. He had a terrible year (he ranked 82nd in Adjusted Yards per Pass according to Football Outsiders), then called his time in Jacksonville a "vacation" after the Jaguars released him. The Giants brought him back because they value players who know their system and can count on at least eight major injuries per year in the secondary, but Tom Coughlin will keep that "vacation" talk in the back of his mind.
Cornerback: Ron Bartell, Lions. Bartell has 71 games of starting experience, most of them with the Rams. The Raiders signed Bartell last year, and he injured his shoulder, battled back, started a few games in an awful secondary, got benched and got waived. He finished the season with the Lions.
Safety: Quentin Jammer, Broncos. The fifth overall pick by the Chargers in 2002, Jammer never quite lived up to his billing, but he never flamed out either. He was inconsistent and penalty prone, but he started 161 games, some of them for great defenses, and his pressing style (which led to many of the penalties) took some receivers out of the game. The Broncos like to have at least two players in their secondary who need Just for Men, so they signed Jammer to play free safety, or just hang around and get Champ Bailey's jokes.
Safety: Jim Leonhard, Saints. A tough, ornery little safety and returner, Leonhard started for the Ravens and Jets for several years. After a season as the designated geezer in Denver (see Quentin Jammer), Leonhard is now in New Orleans, because Ryan twins think alike.
Nickel and Dime: Javier Arenas, Cardinals; Chris Culliver, 49ers. Arenas is a useful multi-purpose nickel defender and return man who got lost in the organization turnover in Kansas City. He probably will not be third-string for long. Culliver started six games for the NFC champs last year but has gotten into a series of problems with his mouth, first by saying before the Super Bowl that he would not want a gay teammate, more recently with a publicized series of texts in which he referred to women by the b-word and by the h-word that is derived from a w-word. Third stringers are supposed to be seen and not heard, Chris. Everybody knows that.
Kicker, Punter and Returners: None. Teams do not keep third-string kickers and punters. Most teams have one veteran and one obscure youngster on the roster right now; the young guy may be a challenger, but often he is just getting a tryout and providing an extra leg for drills and such. The irony of kick returns is that the "third-stringer" at that position is often one of the best players on the team, like a starting wide receiver or cornerback. Anyway, this team has plenty of return men.
Long Snapper: Kyle Nelson, 49ers. The 49ers are the only team to list a third-string long snapper on their depth chart right now (or possibly ever). So let's celebrate the career of Nelson, who has been on the Saints, Chiefs, Eagles and Chargers preseason rosters or practice squads, and has had two tours of duty with the 49ers, all since 2011. He actually saw a little action with the Chargers last year. Nelson reminds us that the life of a third-stringer is rarely glamorous, and when it is glamorous, it usually means that something has gone wrong.
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Have your own nominees? Think I've snubbed anyone? Let me know in the comments or on Twitter @MikeTanier. I never get tired of talking about third-stringers. Never!