It seems one of the worst things that can happen to you as an NFL player is being on a team coached by Adam Gase. But it comes with a silver lining. If you happen to leave that team coached by Gase, you instantaneously morph into the superhero version of yourself. 

The list of player evidence to back that claim is quite long: Ryan Tannehill, Jarvis Landry, Jordan Phillips, Billy Turner, Kenyan Drake, and Damien Williams. Oh and it works if Gase leaves you too. Ask DeVante Parker or Mike Gesicki.

And now there’s a uniquely talented, 6-foot-1, 230-ish pound back who has escaped Gase’s power-sapping presence. He finds himself on an AFC West team with a young, former first-round quarterback capable of incredible downfield tosses, majestic throw-on-the-run strikes, and athletic scrambles to move the sticks on critical third downs. 

Kalen Ballage is now playing with Justin Herbert on the Los Angeles Chargers. 

OK, so Ballage isn’t as good as Le’Veon Bell. We know. But he’s an esteemed member of the Practice Squad Power Rankings after beginning his career with Gase in Miami, then playing in three games with him as a member of the Jets this season.

Actually, Ballage was strong enough to withstand Gase’s black hole of negative energy for his rookie year in 2018. On 36 carries, Ballage averaged 5.3 yards per rush, and he also caught nine passes for 76 yards, which begs the question to Gase — why didn’t Ballage get more touches? I digress, because it’s a lost cause. 

Last year, Ballage became a punching bag for an unfathomably low 1.8 yards-per-carry average on a Dolphins team that had Ryan Fitzpatrick as its leading rusher. (That’s probably my favorite Fitzpatrick stat after the fact that he’s beaten the Jaguars with six different teams.) Anyway, Gase’s voodoo took a year to seep into Ballage’s pores, apparently. Then, after Gase tried to actually trade a draft pick for Ballage yet saw the deal fall through after a failed physical, he was signed 10 days later. 

And, against all Laws of Gase, Ballage was actually pretty darn good. He had three carries for 13 yards and caught nine of 10 targets for 67 yards. Then, for some reason, the Jets waived him. Things are a little discombobulated in Florham Park, New Jersey.

Of the 64 backs with at least five receptions to date, Ballage currently ranks 13th with 9.9 yards after the catch per reception. Context? In his “range” of receptions, that YAC figure is better than Miles Sanders (11 catches), James White (10 catches), and Chargers back Justin Jackson (seven catches).

And Ballage has forced three missed tackles on those nine grabs. That means every three catches he forces a missed tackle, which ranks right behind Austin Ekeler for the 18th-best rate among 52 runners who’ve reeled in at least five catches and have been credited with at least one forced missed tackle in the 2020 season. 

Do not misconstrue what you see below as anything resembling an insinuation from me that I believe Ballage is in Bell’s stratosphere as a player. It’s simply to show you what type of size and athleticism specimen he is. Oh, and it’s pronounced buh-lawj, not bail-idge, which makes him infinitely more cool than that yards-per-attempt average in 2019. 

Kalen Ballage 2018 combine

6-1 1/2 / 228

4.46

33 1/2″

122″

6.91

Le’Veon Bell 2013 combine

6-1 / 230

4.6

31 1/2″

118″

6.75

I will say, the backs in Los Angeles have played well during Ekeler’s absence, so I’m not expecting Ballage to get the call right away. But a big, athletic, pass-catching specialist with plenty of juice is calmly sitting there on the Chargers practice squad if he’s ever needed. 

Entering Week 6, the PSPR tracker reads nine call-ups from six different players.

For those who missed it in the PSPR’s 2020 debut, I’m only including practice squadders who are rookies, second-year players, or third-year players. That’s it. And it aligns perfectly with my niche area of expertise, because the 2018 draft class is the first I fully evaluated as CBS Sports’ NFL Draft analyst. 

And as you’ll see below, I couldn’t resist ranking more players, given the increase in practice squad sizes this season. To run parallel with the league’s figure, I hope to write about 16 individuals every Friday, 10 officially in the rankings and six honorable mentions. 

Burnett was one of my first draft crushes, someone who finished as a second-round talent on my first Big Board at CBS Sports in 2018. At USC, he often was Sam Darnold’s first read. In 2017, he caught 86 passes for 1,114 yards with nine touchdowns. He’s a small but sudden slot wideout who can separate underneath and at the intermediate level. Why did I like him so much more than your average inside receiver? Burnett played bigger than his nearly 6-0, 186-pound frame. No pass was seemingly too far out in front of him. Burnett has played sparingly through two seasons, but later in his rookie season, he was elevated to the Jets active roster and demonstrated he still had a connection with Darnold. He had a four-catch, 61-yard effort in late October and a five-grab, 73-yard performance against the Patriots to end the year. Burnett proved in Week 3 he can get open and make catches in this league. In Week 4, he was elevated to the 53-man roster but only ran 10 routes and was not targeted by Carson Wentz.

Foster’s an enigma. Barely produces at Alabama, but runs 4.41 at nearly 6-2 and 198 pounds. Makes the Bills’ roster as an undrafted free agent but hardly plays in his first two months of his rookie season in 2018. Then? He registers 25 catches for 511 yards (20.4 yards per) with three scores in the NFL and looks like the future No. 1 in Buffalo. In his sophomore campaign, injuries keep him off the field, as they do John Brown and Cole Beasley. Foster had three catches for 64 yards last season. Three catches. That’s it! With Stefon Diggs and rookie Gabriel Davis, who pieced together an awesome summer, the Bills released Foster, and the Packers grabbed him off waivers. If healthy, Foster has the size and pure speed to be a deep-play specialist with Aaron Rodgers. 

3. Antoine Brooks, S, Steelers

Brooks looks the part of a trendy safety-linebacker hybrid at 5-11 and 220 pounds. He’s not fast — he ran 4.64 at the combine — but his short-area quickness and instincts were both outstanding on film at Maryland. Brooks overflowed the stat sheet in 2018 and 2019 with a combined 155 tackles, 18 tackles for loss, 2.5 sacks, two picks, and eight pass breakups. He’s often the first to (correctly) react to where the offense plans to go with the football, will make plays in coverage at the short-to-intermediate level. And he is a sure tackler. He has the athleticism to sift through the traffic to get the ball carrier too. 

Jones popped at the Senior Bowl, and I remember being impressed watching him on the flight down to Mobile, Alabama. He finished as my No. 198 overall prospect in the 2020 class — ironically one spot ahead of PSPR alum Ron’Dell Carter — but went undrafted. At 6-1 and 316 pounds with a poor combine performance on his resume, Jones doesn’t look like he’d fit in today’s NFL. But there is plenty of power in his hands, and some first-step quickness to threaten through one of the middle gaps. Even after the throttling of San Francisco, Miami’s defense is still 26th in Football Outsiders’ DVOA.

Early in the 2020 pre-draft process, there was an early-round buzz for Wanogho. Injuries led to a precipitous fall to the sixth round, but the tools are there for the Nigeria-born former Auburn star to ultimately be the bookend tackle to Andre Dillard in Philadelphia, a club that’s been outstanding at the tackle positions for a while now. Wanogho plays with requisite knee bend, so he’s not easily fork-lifted by smaller rushers, and he’s explosive off the snap and in the screen game. With better punch timing and added weight, he can be a consistent pass-protecting tackle in the NFL. This season, he’d mostly be useful getting to the second level in the run game.

I just can’t quit Jennings, even though I doubt we see him on the field for a while after that Brandon Aiyuk hurdle touchdown on Monday Night Football in Week 4. Deebo Samuel is back too. I still think San Francisco could use more depth — and size? — at receiver, and Jennings would fit right into Kyle Shanahan’s YAC-based passing offense. 

Phillips is this small, twitchy back you think would have no power to his game. Then he runs through a linebacker and breaks off a 60-yard touchdown run. Well, that’s what he did at Ole Miss at least. He was on the draft radar two year ago as a key member of those Ole Miss teams with D.K. Metcalf and A.J. Brown. But his senior season saw his yards-per-carry average dip to 4.3 from 6.1. He then tested poorly at the combine, which further pushed him down boards, but he plays more athletic than his workout numbers indicate. Phillips’ game is predicated on suddenness through the hole, some bounce, and straight-ahead contact balance. 

Fields is a bit of a mystery because he was barely a part-time player during his career at Clemson yet flashed when he got onto the field for the Tigers. He looked the part at the Senior Bowl in 2019, ran 4.37 at a close to 5-10 and 192 pounds. His twitch is undeniable to click-and-close on short routes or follow when receivers completely change directions. As a rookie, Fields played just six snaps, but he has the natural talent to be a versatile inside-outside cornerback. There’s plenty of youth in Minnesota’s secondary now after the team heavily invested there in the draft. 

Originally a seventh-round pick of the Colts in 2019, here’s what I wrote when that selection came in. I gave it a B+. “Patterson was an unspectacular yet solid guard at Ole Miss for multiple seasons. He doesn’t have ideal length and must pack some weight onto his frame, but he’s the type of guy that can emerge with the right coaching.” The Giants offensive line is an abomination right now. Giving Patterson some reps inside wouldn’t be a bad idea. 

10. Kalen Ballage, RB, Chargers

Now you know everything you never cared to know about Ballage. He needed a change of scenery and had to move across the entire country to free himself from Gase with the Jets and any residual Gase aura still floating around in Miami.   

Honorable Mentions

Jaleel Scott, WR, Jets

Scott, originally a fourth-round pick by the Ravens, essentially had a redshirt year to get stronger as a rookie then in Year 2 led the Ravens in receiving during the preseason. Now he’s on a hapless Jets club that could use Wayne Chrebet and Laveranues Coles at this juncture given the widespread injuries in its receiver room. Scott is nearly 6-5 and 218 pounds and excels when he needs to extend to make a catch outside his frame. 

Duke Williams, WR, Bills

Williams was signed by the Bills in early January of 2019 to one of those futures contracts that are almost always overlooked and lead nowhere. But the physical rebounder made the team, scored a game-winning touchdown in a vital win over the Titans in Tennessee and had four catches for 49 yards in Buffalo’s playoff defeat at the hands of the Texans. He can play. 

Lavert Hill, CB, Chiefs 

Hill’s press-man experience should get him on the field in his rookie season at some point, although he lacks imposing size and length at 5-10 and 190 pounds with short arms. He gets grabby when trying to run with speedsters down the field, and refs will have a field day with his over-aggressiveness. However, Hill’s feet hit the ground like lightning bolts, and his hips look like they disconnect from his lower half when he changes direction. Hill’s twitched up, so he can really mirror those intricate routes. 

Robert Davis, WR, Raiders

Davis, who I labeled “The Practice Squad Julio Jones” last year, is back. And it feels good. To summarize what Davis brings to the field — he’s 6-3 and 210 pounds and had a combine performance in 2018 nearly identical to Jones’ in 2011. Yeah, that freaky. He suffered a bad knee injury in his rookie season and was lost for the year after an encouraging camp. He then lived on the Redskins then Eagles practice squads and most recently was waived/injured by Philadelphia. I was bummed, and thought it might be the end of the road for Davis, given the injuries. Now he’s back, and the Raiders have injuries of their own at receiver.

Stephen Sullivan, TE, Seahawks

Of course, Sullivan didn’t receive many targets in 2019 at LSU given the presence of Ja’Marr Chase, Justin Jefferson, and Clyde Edwards-Helaire on the roster. He’s a fine candidate to be a better pro than he was a college player because of his size/speed combination and the fact he’s playing with Russell Wilson, probably the best deep-ball thrower in the NFL. Sullivan blew away everyone at the Senior Bowl by continually winning down the field then ran 4.66 at 6-5 and 248 pounds at the combine. There’s not much nuance to his game right now, but Sullivan is magnificently long — 35 3/8-inch arms — and can really run. 

J.R. Reed, S, Rams

Reed has NFL bloodlines — his dad Jake Reed was Cris Carter’s sidekick for a period in Minnesota — and the former Georgia safety has similar speed when ranging from the deep middle in coverage. He intercepted five passes and broke up 14 more in three years with the Bulldogs and is a big safety at 6-1, 202. There’s not one area in which he particularly excels. Reed’s specialty is that he’s extremely well-rounded in all phases of the game. 

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