Skip to main content

'I never stopped chasing my dream': Pandemic provides spotlight for NFL players in shadows

They may not be household names, but these players are having a significant impact on the field.

Published Updated

After sitting on the New York Jets practice squad most of the season, 35-year-old quarterback Josh Johnson received a chance to suit up again.

The Baltimore Ravens needed his veteran experience. The COVID-19 pandemic created an opening with franchise superstar Lamar Jackson and his backup Tyler Huntley sidelined. The Ravens called Johnson’s agent and offered him an active roster contract.

For Johnson, the opportunity meant everything. He remembered the long afternoons working out with local high school kids and the grind to stay in shape. He reflected on playing in the XFL with the Los Angeles Wildcats as he waited for someone to call.

Josh Johnson, Baltimore Raven quarterback
I never stopped chasing my dream. It was just my journey. Things weren't going my way at the time. It is typical life with the valleys and the mountaintops.

“I never stopped chasing my dream,” Johnson told USA TODAY Sports+. “It was just my journey. Things weren't going my way at the time. It is typical life with the valleys and the mountaintops.”

The Ravens quickly inserted Johnson into the lineup. He started Week 16 against the Cincinnati Bengals and completed 28 of 40 yards for 304 yards, two touchdowns and an interception.

It was his first NFL start since the 2018 season.

“When you are actually wanted, it's a good feeling in this business,” Johnson said. “I am grateful that they wanted me to be here.”

In the NFL, opportunity is more than a glorified buzz word. It represents financial stability, a warm meal and a place to stay. There are only 1,696 active roster spots in the league. Every team can carry an additional 16 practice squad players.

However, a spot on the practice squad isn’t guaranteed. NFL teams frequently swap players on the practice squad to better suit their needs.

This season, NFL teams closely monitored practice squad allocation because of the COVID-19 pandemic. Many of those players got opportunities.

And they haven’t disappointed.

Across the league, practice squad players stepped into the spotlight. They may not be household names, but their production left a sizable impact on the field.

There are guys like Jacksonville Jaguars receiver Laquon Treadwell — a former first-round pick labeled a bust by NFL analysts. He bounced around the league with the Minnesota Vikings and Atlanta Falcons. Treadwell is now a starter and top option for rookie quarterback Trevor Lawrence.

Other standouts include Tennessee Titans running back D’Onta Foreman; Detroit Lions running back Craig Reynolds; Philadelphia Eagles linebacker Alex Singleton; Arizona Cardinals receiver Antoine Wesley; and Tampa Bay Buccaneers receiver Cyril Grayson.

Each carved out roles for their teams. Foreman emerged as the Titans’ featured running back with three 100-yard games. He sat on the Atlanta Falcons practice squad to begin the season.

Singleton played in the Canadian Football League for three seasons before the Eagles signed him in 2019. He is now a team captain and among the league leaders in tackles.

Wesley and Grayson were both stuck underneath Pro Bowl superstars. However, injuries to DeAndre Hopkins and Chris Godwin opened playing time. Now, Wesley and Grayson will play key roles in the 2021 playoffs.

During Week 17, New England Patriots receiver Kristian Wilkerson also made a big jump with two touchdowns against the Jaguars.

“Every day, I'm ready to go, ready to compete,” Singleton said this offseason. “I take nothing for granted and so it's just one day after another with a lot of hard work and focus.”

There is a common mentality between practice squad players: every rep counts and every chance to step on the field is golden. A handful of playing time is the difference between getting a jersey on game day and sitting at home.

“You have to control what you can control,” Johnson said. “More than likely you won't be suiting up, won't play and won't get paid the same. But you are in the building. A lot of people on the outside want that opportunity.”

Treadwell has always been in the building. However, his journey led to a rollercoaster of emotions. The Vikings selected him 23rd overall in the 2016 NFL Draft. He was expected to produce immediately after a stellar collegiate career at Ole Miss.

But Treadwell never really found his footing. He spent four seasons with the Vikings and the organization let him walk in free agency. He signed with the Falcons in 2020, but played a supporting role in the offense.

Still, Treadwell didn’t want to give up on his dreams. He drew strength from watching his mother provide as a single parent with six children.

“She would always tell me that its going to work itself out,” Treadwell said. “You just keep being true to yourself and keep working hard. Trust that everything will open up for you. To this day, I live by that, and everything happens for a reason.”

Laquon Treadwell, Jacksonville Jaguars wide receiver
You just keep being true to yourself and keep working hard. Trust that everything will open up for you. To this day, I live by that and everything happens for a reason.

Treadwell said he grew from each NFL stop. This past offseason, he hired a mental coach and it paid major dividends, allowing him to release his past mistakes.

“That little change in my perspective helped me hone in on my moments in Jacksonville,” Treadwell said. “I didn’t carry what happened to me in Atlanta to Jacksonville or what happened to me in Minnesota to Jacksonville. I came as Laquon of today with the Jacksonville Jaguars.

"With that mindset, it allowed me to see every step of my year and work through those valleys, trials and tribulations.”

Treadwell has appeared in 11 games (six starts) and recorded 30 catches for 410 yards.

There is a general “next man up” mantra in sports, but these athletes are proving they belong long term, and their teammates and coaches notice.

Look at Grayson’s game-winning touchdown against the Jets. Watch Reynolds 112-yard effort against the Cardinals. Those moments were not isolated events. They are the sweet spot where preparation meets opportunity.

“Cyril has really taken advantage of his opportunity and he made a lot of plays,” Tampa Bay Buccaneers quarterback Tom Brady told reporters. “It’s really fun to see, and it’s good when guys get their opportunity.”

More practice squad players could see a chance to showcase their skills moving forward. With limited preseason reps and additional regular season games, they must be ready for their second chance.

“You got to be resourceful as possible,” Johnson said. “Put your pride to the side and focus on what you need to do to get better.”

Published Updated