Which NFL Players Are Poised for Breakout Roles with New Teams?
It's the hope of every NFL team when they sign a free agent—that said free agent will go on to earn his new contract (or exceed it) by breaking out for the best season of his professional career.
Of course, breaking out means different things for different players. Many of the players listed here have had at least one really good season in the NFL. More than one are coming off the best year of their professional careers.
But whether it's a young player looking to continue his ascent along the NFL ladder or a veteran trying to get things back on track, all of the players listed here possess the ingredients to have their best season yet: their talent is there and the situation is right.
Keep a close eye on these NFL players in 2019, folks.
They're going to make some serious noise.
Adam Humphries, WR, Tennessee Titans
Like many of the players in this article, wide receiver Adam Humphries already experienced something of a mini-breakout. In his fourth season with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers last year, Humphries set career highs in receptions (76), receiving yards (816) and touchdowns (5).
As Jim Wyatt reported for the Tennessee Titans website, among undrafted NFL receivers those numbers trailed only Adam Thielen of the Minnesota Vikings in 2018. They also got Humphries a four-year, $36 million contract to become Tennessee's new slot receiver.
He's got an excellent chance of bettering those career numbers in his first year with his new team.
To his credit, Humphries said his status as an undrafted free agent will help him stay hungry even after that hefty raise.
“Even after this contract, I am going to have a chip on my shoulder wherever I go, every time I step on the field,” Humphries told Wyatt. “That’s just my mentality, to get better every year and not let haters or anyone affect me. I am going to continue to work hard."
There should be plenty to eat in Nashville. Tennessee's pass-catchers are young and relatively unproven. Humphries' 76 grabs last year would have led the team, and his yardage would have trailed only Corey Davis.
If he becomes the dependable target underneath that the Titans signed him to be, then 90-plus receptions and over 1,000 yards are well within reach.
Za'Darius Smith, EDGE, Green Bay Packers
Za'Darius Smith is trying to overcome some unflattering recent history with ex-Ravens edge-rushers—whether it was Paul Kruger or Pernell McPhee, multiple former Ravens have had a big(ish) year, parlayed that into a lucrative free-agent contract, and then…
Well, let's just say they haven't worked out so well.
Smith just had that big season—the fifth-year pro out of Kentucky posted a career-best 45 tackles and 8.5 sacks in 2018. And he got the fat new deal—a four-year, $66 million pact with a $20 million signing bonus to join the Green Bay Packers.
He joins fellow newcomer Preston Smith in a revamped Green Bay pass-rush for 2019, and Green Bay head coach Matt LaFleur said (via Jason Wilde of the Wisconsin State Journal) that he expects the two to form a formidable one-two punch:
The one thing that’s so unique about those two guys is they’re still pretty young in their careers. I think that their best football’s in front of them. I think when you’ve got two guys taking care of the edges, it presents a lot of problems on the defense. And not only from a pass-rush perspective, I think those guys bring it in the run game as well — which sometimes is an oversight in this league.
Solidifying the run defense is all well and good, but Smith's being paid over $16 million a season to do one thing and one thing only—pile up double-digit sacks.
The opportunity to do so will be there—Smith just has to take advantage of it.
Mark Ingram, RB, Baltimore Ravens
Granted, on some level it's difficult to label Mark Ingram as a breakout candidate. As recently as 2017, the veteran running back topped 1,500 total yards for the New Orleans Saints.
So let's go with "re-break out" instead. If that wasn't a thing before, it is now. Because I said so.
Ingram had a quiet 2018 campaign. The 29-year-old missed four games due to a suspension for violating the league's policy on performance-enhancing drugs and posted his fewest rushing yards since 2013. By season's end, he had taken more than just a back seat to Alvin Kamara—counting the postseason he didn't have more than 12 touches in any of the Saints' last four games.
That quiet season and Ingram's age hurt his value on the open market, and Ingram eventually settled for a relatively modest three-year, $15 million deal with the Baltimore Ravens. However, as Tom Blair reported for NFL.com, the size of Ingram's contract doesn't belie the importance of his arrival:
Whatever John Harbaugh and new offensive coordinator Greg Roman are cooking up for (Lamar) Jackson's sophomore campaign, Ingram will likely play a key role. Ultimately, depending on how things shake out, this acquisition could help determine whether or not Baltimore is able to hold off the Browns and defend its AFC North title.
Ingram isn't going to be any complementary piece in Baltimore. Yes, the team has stated it wants a "stable of running backs" and hasn't ruled out bringing in another tailback. But Ingram is a more accomplished and complete back than the likes of Kenneth Dixon and Gus Edwards.
This isn't to say that those backs won't see work for the NFL's most run-heavy team. But the smart money's on Ingram emerging as the No. 1 option and quite possibly topping 300 touches for the first time in his career.
If Ingram holds up under that increased workload, he could do something in 2019 he's never done before: lead the NFL in rushing.
Markus Golden, EDGE, New York Giants
Again, edge-rusher Markus Golden already has one big season under his belt. Back in 2016, as an Arizona Cardinal, Golden piled up 51 total tackles, 12.5 sacks and four forced fumbles.
However, the two seasons since have been a free fall back into obscurity. Golden made it just four games into the 2017 campaign before tearing his ACL. In 2018, with the 28-year-old still working himself back from that injury, Golden had 30 tackles and just 2.5 sacks.
However, per Dan Benton of Giants Wire, Golden has proclaimed that his knee is 100 percent and he's excited to be reunited with defensive coordinator James Bettcher, who he played for during that magical 2016 season.
“There’s a lot of great things about playing with James Bettcher,” Golden said. “It’s an honor to get out there and play for him. His defenses have a lot of blitzes and guys flying all over the field. I’m excited to play for him again.”
There's something of a perfect storm coming together for Golden, who signed a one-year, $3.75 million "prove it" deal with the Giants: An edge-rusher who has shown production when healthy and actually is so for the first time in a while. A defensive coordinator that has demonstrated the ability to take full advantage of that edge-rusher's talents.
And a Giants defense that needs all the pass-rush help it can get after trading Olivier Vernon in the offseason.
Tevin Coleman, RB, San Francisco 49ers
Tevin Coleman's inclusion here is another example of the inherent difficulty when defining a breakout.
Some would say that Coleman has already broken out. Pressed into duty as the lead back for the Atlanta Falcons by Devonta Freeman's injury this past season, Coleman set career highs in rushing yards, yards per carry and receptions while picking up over 1,000 total yards.
However, unless you're a fan of the Falcons or a fantasy football enthusiast, odds are better than not that you've never heard of the four-year veteran. It's with good reason—even in that "breakout," Coleman gained just 800 yards on the ground. Over his tenure with the Falcons he was generally a complementary player—Atlanta's third-down back behind Freeman.
However, after Coleman inked a two-year, $8.5 million deal to join the 49ers, San Francisco head coach Kyle Shanahan told Matt Barrows of the Athletic that he thinks the back is every bit as capable of banging away between the tackles:
Tevin runs hard and he’s physical. Tevin plays like a big back to me. And I don’t even know his exact weight compared to everyone else in the league. I think he’s like 215 (pounds), but Tevin runs hard, he gets downhill and he is not at all, he just doesn’t run like a small back.
The RB room in San Francisco is admittedly crowded. But Jerick McKinnon missed all of the 2018 season after tearing his ACL, and Matt Breida was seemingly perpetually nicked up a year ago.
The door's open for Coleman to lead the Niners in backfield touches. If that's the case, he could easily have the sort of season so many expected McKinnon to have in 2018—and notch the first 1,000-yard rushing season of his career.
L.J. Fort, ILB, Philadelphia Eagles
To date, it's been an uneventful NFL career for inside linebacker L.J. Fort. Since breaking into the league back in 2012 with the Cleveland Browns, Fort has played for three teams and made an equal number of starts—including two in 2018 for the Pittsburgh Steelers.
Fort made a career-high 48 total tackles for the Steelers last season—more than in every other year of his career combined. That showing was enough for the Philadelphia Eagles to invest $5.5 million over three years in him.
According to Chris McPherson of the team's website, Fort said it felt good to be a sought-after commodity in free agency, and he's excited about joining his fourth team:
It feels unbelievable. It's been a long time coming, that's for sure, going on my eighth year. Being a free agent and having multiple teams want me was definitely a satisfying feeling. I'm glad I ended up here. I'm all riled up and excited about the defense. I'm ready to go.
Fort has reason to be excited. It's possible that the NFL draft could alter the circumstances at linebacker in Philly, but, as things stand today, not only is Fort penciled in as the starter in the middle for the Eagles, he's also in line to be one of the team's two linebackers in subpackages.
If that holds true, Fort's going to top 100 total tackles and smash his career highs in just about every statistical category.
Cole Beasley, WR, Buffalo Bills
Wide receiver Cole Beasley is one of the elder statesmen of this list—he'll turn 30 at the end of this month and has played seven seasons in the NFL—all with the Dallas Cowboys.
Beasley was a fan favorite in Big D, but never made a huge dent statistically—he's gone over 70 receptions and 700 yards just once in his career, back in 2016. Last year, the 5'8", 180-pounder caught 65 passes for 672 yards and three scores.
The Buffalo Bills must have seen something they liked from the diminutive slot receiver—they gave Beasley $29 million over four years to say goodbye to Dallas and head to Western New York. But, as Jon Machota reported for the Dallas Morning News, switching teams is about more than just money for Beasley.
"Everybody makes a big deal about money," he explained. "I mean, money is important, but really I just wanted opportunities. I felt like I could do more."
There's no denying that Beasley should have more opportunities to produce in his new home. Heading into free agency the Bills had arguably the NFL's weakest wideout corps. And while the team also added John Brown, he runs deeper routes so Beasley has a solid chance of becoming Josh Allen's go-to guy underneath.
That would likely mean leading the team in receptions and a career year.