A report that the San Francisco 49ers will likely limit Randy Moss' playing time to 20-25 snaps per game created quite a buzz in league circles. Most observers have a tough time envisioning a team desperate for a No. 1 receiver limiting the playing time of a former Pro Bowler with exceptional home-run potential. However, I see this as part of a league-wide trend to feature high-profile specialists in particular situations to maximize their chances for success.
For example, the 49ers used Aldon Smith as a designated pass rusher his entire rookie season, yet he still finished with 14 sacks and earned Pro Bowl honors. In the same way, the New York Jets got the most out of jettisoned Buffalo Bill Aaron Maybin, maximizing his skills as a pass rusher off the edge while not exposing his deficiency against the run.
Here are five guys I believe will have big seasons as situational players for their respective squads:
Randy Moss, WR, San Francisco 49ers
The former Pro Bowler still threatens opponents with his speed, explosiveness and athleticism. Moss is one of the top vertical playmakers in NFL history, and the 49ers will look to utilize him in select personnel packages and formations to create isolated matchups on the perimeter. Harbaugh tried to create mismatches with Michael Crabtree and Ted Ginn Jr. in some run-heavy packages a season ago, but Moss represents a significant upgrade in home-run ability. The selective utilization of a prolific playmaker should boost a sagging passing game that lacked firepower in 2011.
Asante Samuel, CB, Atlanta Falcons
The evolution of the NFL into a passing league has caused defensive coordinators to align their units in some form of nickel on 70 percent of snaps. Samuel has been a starter for most of his nine-year career, but joining Brent Grimes and Dunta Robinson in Atlanta, Samuel will enter the game at left cornerback in the Falcons' sub packages. With 45 career interceptions, including 19 over the past three seasons, Samuel is a proven ball hawk with a gambler's mentality. Although a penchant for risk-taking will result in a few big gains for opponents and his tackling leaves something to be desired, Samuel's ability to produce game-changing plays makes the reward well worth the risk for the Falcons.
Osi Umenyiora, DE, New York Giants
A spate of nagging injuries and the emergence of Jason Pierre-Paul forced Umenyiora out of the starting lineup and into a role as the Giants' designated pass rusher in 2011. While the demotion was initially viewed as a slight to the considerable talents of the former Pro Bowler, the move actually led to improved production from Umenyiora. He recorded 5.5 sacks and one forced fumble during New York's final five games (including the playoffs) as a situational rusher, and re-emerged as a disruptive force off the edge. The insertion of Umenyiora into the lineup on probable passing situations allows him to play to his strengths as an athletic pass rusher, while masking his deficiencies as a questionable run defender.
Harrison: Power Rankings
Darren Sproles, RB, New Orleans Saints
Sproles cemented his status as one of the NFL's most explosive playmakers with a sensational 2011 campaign. He set an NFL record with 2,696 all-purpose yards, while leading the Saints in rushing yards (603) and the NFL in receptions by a running back (86). At 5-foot-6, 190 pounds with exceptional speed, quickness and agility, Sproles is a difficult matchup for defenders in space. He blows past linebackers on vertical routes, while also showing the burst and explosiveness to separate from defenders on option routes. As if that's not enough to defend, Sproles is an extraordinary runner between the tackles on draws and delays. He averaged 6.9 yards per attempt on 87 carries and produced seven runs of 20-plus yards. This provides the Saints with an unbelievably versatile weapon in passing situations to counter any defensive tactic.
Tim Tebow, QB, New York Jets
For all of the discussion about Tebow competing for the starting job, Rex Ryan has clearly stated that the Jets will use him primarily as a Wildcat quarterback. He will play 15 to 20 snaps as the triggerman of a single wing-style offense that can befuddle opponents with deceptive ball fakes and misdirection. Tebow rushed for 660 yards on 122 attempts in 2011, directing a Denver Broncos offense that extensively utilized zone-read concepts. Given Tebow's familiarity with this kind of offense, the Jets have an explosive weapon who could create problems for opponents in short-yardage and goal-line situations.