Whether they’re rookies adapting quickly to the NFL, veterans finally getting a shot or backups stepping in for injured teammates, there are surprises on NFL teams’ depth charts every preseason. And 2016 is no different.
As the regular season approaches, here are seven of the most unexpected likely starters looking ahead to Week 1:
Anthony Steen, C, Miami Dolphins
The Dolphins will likely have an unfamiliar face at center for their opener against the Seahawks, as Anthony Steen seems poised to start in place of the injured Mike Pouncey. Steen made his first ever start at the center position during Miami’s third preseason game. Despite one fumbled exchange, Steen drew praise from head coach Adam Gase, who liked his aggressiveness and physicality. Though it may only be temporary, an NFL player brand new to a position starting in place of a perennial Pro Bowler certainly qualifies as unexpected.
Dak Prescott, QB, Dallas Cowboys
“Jerry’s World” may just turn into “Dak’s Universe” if Prescott’s impressive preseason play carries over into the regular season. Initially it appeared that the terrific exhibition performance of the rookie out of Mississippi State would simply serve as a showcase of his future potential, as the fourth-round pick was expected to play backup to long-tenured Cowboys QB Tony Romo. Now, after Romo’s back injury that will leave him sidelined for an extended period of time, Prescott will get an early shot at leading “America’s Team.”
David Johnson, RB, Arizona Cardinals
To the most ardent football fans, David Johnson’s starting role is no surprise. The 24-year-old had a stellar rookie season in 2015, amassing 581 rushing yards and eight touchdowns on 125 carries. Johnson’s meteoric rise out of Northern Iowa means that many around the country are still unfamiliar with his work, but his distinction as a top fantasy running back option suggests people are starting to take notice.
Andy Lee, P, Carolina Panthers
To be clear, it’s no surprise that 12-year NFL veteran and three-time Pro Bowler Andy Lee will have a starting job in the NFL this fall. What is surprising is the team for which he’ll be punting. On Monday, the Cleveland Browns and Carolina Panthers swapped punters (and draft picks) in a slightly unusual trade, with Lee headed to Carolina and Kasey Redfern going to Cleveland. Lee has the sixth-highest gross punting average in NFL history, and will fill a major hole on the Panthers’ special-teams unit.
C.J. Uzomah, TE, Cincinnati Bengals
Last season, Tyler Eifert was selected to and played in the Pro Bowl. During the game, he suffered an ankle injury that required offseason surgery that will force him to miss several weeks early in the season, leaving the starting job — at the time — for backup Tyler Kroft. But Kroft suffered a knee sprain during training camp, and while he is aiming to return for the Bengals’ opener, it’s possible he won’t be ready in time. If that’s the case, C.J. Uzomah will likely step in as the starter. Uzomah is entering his second year in the league, though he made just one catch for four yards in 2015.
D’Joun Smith, CB, Indianapolis Colts
The Colts’ cornerback corps has been ravaged by injuries this offseason, so much so that head coach Chuck Pagano referred to the team’s situation as “scary.” Indianapolis has lost former Dolphin Vontae Davis, Patrick Robinson and south Florida native Darius Butler to injuries. Before the injuries, it seemed that former FAU corner D’Joun Smith would be cut from the Colts. But now there is an opportunity for him to play significant time — or even start. Smith’s availability and ability will hinge on his health.
Trevor Siemian, QB, Denver Broncos
When the Broncos acquired Mark Sanchez this offseason, it was assumed that he would take over the starting quarterback role in Denver following the retirement of Peyton Manning. Instead, Sanchez lost that distinction to former seventh-round draft pick Trevor Siemian out of Northwestern, who outplayed Sanchez during the preseason. Siemian appeared in only one game for the Broncos last season and he did not throw a pass, rushing once for a one-yard loss.