By the end of the 2019 NFL season, 555 players had combined to miss 5,382 games as members of the injured reserve list. That’s over 17 players and about 98 games for each team.
The cliched “next man up” motto recited by coaches isn’t actually a motto at all, it’s an inevitability. And that inevitability makes versatility a premium in the NFL.
Players who can competently fill multiple roles provide surplus value by granting additional flexibility with roster construction and scheme deployment, all while exciting fans in the process. And while some NFL evaluators have shied away from jack of all trades, master of none-types in the past, creative decision-makers are coming to realize that versatility is a skill in itself.
I have always been enthralled by versatility. So much so, in fact, that I own a Taysom Hill Saints jersey. Perhaps it is the sense of endless possibility that makes multifaceted, adaptable players such fun to project and closely follow. As a tribute to my own love of versatile players, I’ve compiled the 2020 All-Versatile Team for your reading pleasure.
QB: Jalen Hurts
Like Taysom Hill, Hurts has the build of a running back. He stands at 6-foot-1, 222 pounds — Hill is an inch shorter and weighs about the same — and has the athleticism to play running back or slot receiver in the NFL.
Hurts won’t be the next Hill, however. Not because he doesn’t have the ability to do so, but rather because he’s a much better passer. As he progressed between his time at Alabama and Oklahoma, Hurts grew greatly as a passer to the point that NFL teams may now see him as a high-ceiling developmental prospect. He still rushed for an absurd 20 touchdowns and 1,298 yards as part of Lincoln Riley’s scheme, but he showed enough downfield throwing ability to warrant a second round pick from a team looking to develop a dual-threat weapon.
RB: Antonio Gibson
I’ve already gone into depth on Antonio Gibson, which you can find here. But in addition to what you’ll find in that scouting report, please note that Gibson scored a touchdown once every 5.5 touches, but somehow only had 77 touches in his entire Memphis career.
WR: Lynn Bowden Jr.
The winner of the Paul Hornung award for college football’s most versatile player was obviously going to go to Lynn Bowden. It was only a matter of whether he’d be listed at quarterback of receiver.
Bowden started this season as Kentucky’s top receiver and kick returner, but switched to quarterback early in the season after multiple injuries threatened to derail the Wildcats’ season. He had a remarkable seven game stretch at quarterback, with the team tailoring their offense to simply put him in the best position to grind out yards and score touchdowns. He went over 100 yards rushing in all but one of his seven games at quarterback, and racked up 99 yards in that lone contest. Kentucky went 5-2 with Bowden at quarterback, which is absurd considering the level of competition the team faced in the SEC.
Bowden finished second on the team in passing, first in rushing, and first in receiving, a feat that will be daunting for any college football player to match in the coming years. He will likely play slot receiver at the next level, but will be prized for his ability to function as a wildcat quarterback or running back in a pinch.
OL: Tristan Wirfs
Iowa’s Tristan Wirfs broke brains at the combine with elite testing numbers and measurements. Even before his shocking test results, Wirfs sat at the top of my offensive line rankings due to his rare combination of range and power. He was a two-time shotput and discus state champion and state champion wrestler in high school, and his wrestling background is certainly on display on every play.
Wirfs projects most favorably to be a long time starting right tackle in the NFL, but his ability to play at any guard or tackle position is what puts him on this list. With experience at both right and left tackle and the scheme versatility to thrive in a zone or power-based attack, any team could plug Wirfs into the starting lineup and improve.
Flex: Laviska Shenault Jr.
In 2019, Laviska Shenault dealt with abdominal injuries and a new role with an entirely new coaching staff. Both coaching staffs clearly realized that he was the best player on the team, and each utilized his unique talents all over the field.
Mike MacIntyre deployed him all over the field in 2018. From playing as a big slot and outside receiver to getting some work at tight end as a seal blocking specialist on split-zone plays, to running point as the team’s wildcat quarterback, Shenault did everything for Colorado. With Mel Tucker this past season, Shenault transitioned to playing a true outside receiver role more frequently, but Tucker still kept Shenault’s dangerous wildcat package as a part of the offense.
Injuries and a lack of refined route running are the only thing standing in Shenault’s way of becoming a bonafide star in the NFL. He has off the charts power for a receiver and finds another gear once the ball is in his hands. If a creative coach gets their hands on Shenault, he could become one of the toughest weapons in the NFL for defensive coordinators to deal with. Here’s hoping he goes to the Baltimore Ravens.
DL Versatility: Javon Kinlaw
Javon Kinlaw will likely become a starting 3-technique at the NFL level, but his ability to oscillate between the 1-, 3- and 5-tech positions will greatly increase the flexibility of whatever team decides to draft him in top half of the first round. He’ll be able to thrive in a 3-4 of 4-3 scheme, and the length, size and power he brings to the table will make him a plug-and-play starter in both one- and two-gap systems.
Kinlaw is by no means a perfect prospect. His conditioning needs work, as his pad level gets quite high when he’s tired and his motor will wax and wane. But with a strong bull rush, elite length, an explosive first step and positional versatility, Kinlaw has massive potential. Here’s an interview I had with him on Day 1 of Senior Bowl practices.
Front 7 Versatility: Zack Baun
Wisconsin’s Zack Baun is a little bit different from the other players on this list, as a positional tweener who might not be able to start in every scheme. 4-3 teams that run a lot of nickel might not have a consistent place to play him. However, his ability to rush the passer off the edge, drop back into coverage, and play downhill against the run will be extremely attractive to 3-4 teams that love versatile linebackers
Baun is twitchy and bendy off the edge, but he’s simply too small to be an every down edge rusher. But you wouldn’t want him rushing on every play anyways, as his ability to cover running backs and tight ends and get to his landmarks in zone drops are advanced. This guy is the definition of a defensive playmaker, and his ability to rush the passer or drop into coverage will help confuse offenses if he’s deplored creatively.
Back 7 Versatility: Isaiah Simmons
There’s not much more to be said about the versatility that Isaiah Simmons brings to the table, so I’ll just leave this here.
Secondary Versatility: Terrell Burgess
Although he was only a full-time starter at Utah for one year, Terrell Burgess is squarely on the minds of NFL coaches for his ability to toggle between free safety and nickel corner.
He’s plays with a combination of balance, twitchy suddenness, and sneaky strength and converted from cornerback to safety prior to his senior year. While he’s lacking in height and length to go up against bigger receivers and tight ends, Burgess will be very useful manning up against jitterbug receivers. When you combine that skill with the ability to play single high, you have a rare blend on your hands.
Flex: Xavier McKinney
Playing in the “Star” role for Nick Saban’s defense, McKinney lined up all over the field. Per the LA Times, he played 323 snaps in the box, 227 in the slot, and 271 at safety. He can capably play free safety in single high, but will be more suited as a box safety, overhang, and dime linebacker in the NFL.
McKinney’s coverage instincts and play speed are rare at the safety position, and like Isaiah Simmons, he will be a perfect toy for defensive coordinators to to unleash at any back-7 position. He certainly isn’t the ballhawk that his predecessor Minkah Fitzpatrick is, but he’s damn near close to Fitzpatrick as a prospect everywhere else.