The NFL's Best Breakout Candidates at Every Position in 2019
The focus of most NFL fans has now shifted from free agency to this year's draft, from veteran additions to rookie arrivals. But for most of the offseason, it's been all about the players who are joining new teams—help from the outside.
However, something else can go a long way toward helping a team take a leap toward the playoffs (or embark on a deep postseason run): young players breaking out and taking huge steps forward in their careers.
Of course, some have a much better shot at breaking out due to talent, an improved situation or a combination of the two.
So, whether a second-year quarterback for the NFL's most hyped team this offseason, a young tight end in the NFL's biggest market or the latest undrafted cornerback for the team that keeps finding gems at the position, here are the NFL's best breakout candidates at every non-special teams position in 2019.
Quarterback: Baker Mayfield, Cleveland Browns
On some level, Cleveland Browns quarterback Baker Mayfield has already broken out. After all, the No. 1 overall pick of the 2018 NFL draft broke the rookie record for touchdown passes by throwing for 27 a year ago. He was named Rookie of the Year by the Pro Football Writers of America.
But Mayfield lost the AP version of that award to New York Giants tailback Saquon Barkley. He wasn't named to the Pro Bowl. And his 3,725 passing yards were a relatively modest total by today's standards.
The stage is set for Mayfield to better those numbers by a sizable margin. In Nick Chubb and Kareem Hunt (who will miss the first eight games of the season due to suspension), the Browns have one of the better one-two backfield punches in the league. After they swung a trade for superstar wideout Odell Beckham Jr., they also have a deep and talented receiving corps—Beckham, Jarvis Landry, Antonio Callaway and tight end David Njoku.
A Browns team that was long a punchline now has as much skill-position talent as any club in the league.
Granted, that influx of talent brings something else to Cleveland: expectations. There's pressure to win now. There's pressure on Mayfield not only to perform but also to lead the Browns into the playoffs.
To do that, he'll need quite the statistical season—a breakout one, really.
Running Back: Aaron Jones, Green Bay Packers
Green Bay Packers tailback Aaron Jones was highly effective on a per-carry basis last year. By picking up 728 yards and eight touchdowns on just 133 rushes, he averaged a robust 5.5 yards per carry. He also came up just short of 1,000 total yards for the season when factoring in his pass-catching contributions out of the backfield.
However, Jones' usage was all over the place under head coach Mike McCarthy, especially early in the season.
Matt LaFleur is the head coach in Titletown now, and quarterback Aaron Rodgers told ESPN's Rob Demovsky that he expects the new man in charge, who previously served as the Tennessee Titans offensive coordinator, to promote a re-dedication to the ground game.
"Well, I know we want to run the ball," Rodgers said. "That's important. Everything comes off of a positive run game. They [the Titans] ran the ball really well last year with their guys. But the action comes off of that, the boot comes off of that, so we're going to have to run the ball. And we have those two guys and some guys behind them who can really play as well.”
The "two guys" to whom Rodgers is referring are Jones and third-year pro Jamaal Williams, who had just 12 fewer carries than Jones last year. But while Jones averaged 5.5 yards a pop in 2018, Williams tallied just 3.8—almost two fewer yards per carry.
In other words, Jones has earned a much bigger share of the backfield work in Green Bay's new offense. If his per-touch numbers stay anywhere near last year's with that bump in carries, he will sail past 1,000 total yards in 2019.
Wide Receiver: Mike Williams, Los Angeles Chargers
The Los Angeles Chargers are coming off a successful 12-win 2018 season. The team enters the 2019 campaign as a legitimate Super Bowl contender in the AFC.
But after watching free-agent wide receiver Tyrell Williams depart, it needs someone to step up opposite Keenan Allen in order to realize that potential.
After his up-and-down first two seasons in the league, Mike Williams must live up to his status as the seventh overall pick of the 2017 NFL draft.
A back injury cost Williams all of his first training camp and the first six games of his rookie season. By year's end, he had managed just 11 catches for 95 yards—not exactly the type of impact the team sought from a top-10 draft pick.
Year 2 was a bit better. Williams' reception and yardage totals were still relatively modest (43 catches for 664 yards), but the 6'4", 220-pounder was a force in the red zone, becoming the first Chargers wideout since Tony Martin in 1996 to record double-digit touchdowns.
Williams ranked second on the Chargers with 66 targets in 2018—two more than Tyrell Williams but well shy of Allen's 137.
If Mike Williams gets a significant percentage of the 65 looks Tyrell Williams received last year, his reception and yardage numbers may get closer to the level occupied by that high touchdown total.
Tight End: Evan Engram, New York Giants
Picking one breakout tight end candidate was one of the trickier calls in this piece. A pair of players at the position are entering their third seasons and could make huge leaps forward in 2019.
For the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, O.J. Howard stands to benefit greatly from a couple of developments.
Jameis Winston will be the team's starting quarterback in 2019, and Howard's production has been significantly higher with Winston under center than the departed Ryan Fitzpatrick. The arrival of head coach Bruce Arians should help, too. He likes to push the ball vertically and should know how to make good use of the athletic 24-year-old.
But even if Howard does make a jump in 2019, it won't be as big as Evan Engram for the Giants. The reason is simple: necessity.
With Odell Beckham Jr. now catching passes from Baker Mayfield in Cleveland, New York's wideout corps is long on slot receivers such as Sterling Shepard and Golden Tate and short on big bodies. At 6'3" and 240 pounds, Engram is the Giants' best red-zone target—and then some.
After he posted 64 catches for 772 yards and six touchdowns as a rookie, Engram's numbers slid across the board in 2018—45 receptions for 577 yards and three scores.
Provided he stays healthy, Engram will have the best season of his career in 2019, even if it comes for a bad Giants team.
Offensive Line: Isaiah Wynn, OT, New England Patriots
On some level, quantifying a "breakout" on the offensive line can be challenging. Sure, Pro Bowl nods and other accolades are given to O-linemen. But the better players are often the ones you hear little about. It's a position that isn't usually mentioned during a game unless someone has screwed up.
However, we can say this with absolute certainty: Anything Isaiah Wynn of the New England Patriots does in 2019 will be an improvement over his rookie season.
After he was selected with the 23rd overall pick of the 2018 draft, Wynn's first NFL season was over before it started, compliments of a torn Achilles suffered in the second preseason game.
Per ESPN's Mike Reiss, Wynn has been a "daily visitor" to Gilette Stadium, working hard to get himself ready to potentially take Trent Brown's place in what's arguably the single most important job on the offensive front in all the NFL—protecting Tom Brady's blind side.
That the Patriots traded up to select the 6'2", 310-pound Wynn shows the amount of confidence the team has in him. As things stand today, he's the clear favorite to open the season as New England's starting left tackle.
Brown parlayed one decent year starting in that spot into his newfound status as the highest-paid tackle in the league.
It will be a while before Wynn is eligible for a windfall. But if he matches—or exceeds—Brown's level of play, he'll quickly become one of the more talked-about linemen in the game.
Defensive Line: Derek Barnett, DE, Philadelphia Eagles
The Philadelphia Eagles made Derek Barnett the 14th overall pick in the 2017 NFL draft in the hopes that the former Tennessee standout would become the latest in a long line of standout edge-rushers in Philadelphia.
Barnett's rookie season showed some promise—he logged five sacks in the regular season and added another in the NFC Championship Game win over the Minnesota Vikings. Barnett tallied 2.5 more sacks over the first month of his second season, but after appearing in just six games, a shoulder injury that required surgery ended his sophomore campaign.
This is the season the Eagles need Barnett to become a force on the edge.
Barnett will be stepping into the starting lineup now, as Philadelphia traded veteran end and 2018 sack leader Michael Bennett to the Patriots. Per Jimmy Kempski of the Philly Voice, head coach Doug Pederson is confident that Barnett can be the guy at right defensive end.
"He started out lights out last year," Pederson said. "He was playing well. He was one of our top edge-rushers last year. He doesn't necessarily have to prove anything to us. He just has to be Derek, and he'll play."
Even with Bennett gone, the Eagles have no shortage of talent on the defensive front—talent that will keep opponents from focusing on Barnett.
Notching double-digit sacks is a real possibility.
And that means breakout time.
Linebacker: Harold Landry, OLB, Tennessee Titans
It's difficult to peg a single linebacker as the biggest breakout candidate of 2019—largely because there are two types that have wildly different roles. For off-ball linebackers, it's all about flowing to the football and making tackles. For edge-rushers, it's about, well, rushing the passer.
Between the two, there's one of the latter that really stands out in 2019.
A second-round pick out of Boston College last year, Harold Landry quietly had a nice rookie season as a situational player for the Tennessee Titans in 2018, piling up 44 total tackles and 4.5 sacks in just under 600 total snaps. By season's end, the 6'2", 252-pounder was playing over 80 percent of the defensive snaps. He also recorded a sack in each of his last two games.
That heavy workload should continue in 2019. With Brian Orakpo retiring and Derrick Morgan leaving in free agency, Tennessee's pass rush is looking pretty thin. The team added Cameron Wake in free agency, but Wake is 37 and nearing the end of the line.
It's likely that the Titans will look to add a pass-rusher early in this year's draft, but regardless, Landry is expected to take a major jump forward in 2019.
If he carries over his late-season success to Year 2, Landry will make some waves this year.
Cornerback: J.C. Jackson, New England Patriots
In at least some respects, J.C. Jackson has already broken out. The undrafted rookie out of Maryland came out of nowhere to work his way into the starting lineup for the Patriots down the stretch last season. Jackson started six of New England's last eight games—including the AFC title win over the Kansas City Chiefs.
How the Patriots continue to keep finding starters in the secondary after the draft is a mystery—but danged if they don't keep doing it.
Jackson was solid by just about any standard, including advanced stats. Per Pro Football Focus, Jackson's completion percentage against on throws more than 10 yards downfield led the NFL. He also ranked inside the top six in both forced incompletions percentage and passer rating against.
However, for as well as Jackson played to close out the season, he's hardly a household name. That's going to change in 2019.
Not only is Jackson penciled in as the starter on the back end opposite Stephon Gilmore, but he's going to be thrown at this season—a lot. As well as Jackson fared last season, he's still a much less proven option than Gilmore.
If he holds up as well as he did to close out 2018, a Pro Bowl nod could be just the beginning.
Safety: Minkah Fitzpatrick, Miami Dolphins
The 2019 season is more than likely going to be short on good news for the Miami Dolphins. The Dolphins are in the opening stages of a ground-up rebuild that may or may not involve tanking—depending on who you ask.
But even during what should be a dark season in Miami, there are going to be at least a few bright spots—including the play of safety Minkah Fitzpatrick.
Fitzpatrick logged 80 total tackles and two sacks last year in 11 starts, moving all over the defensive backfield.
However, as Luis Sung reported for Dolphins Wire, the team plans to let Fitzpatrick stay in one spot this year in an effort to master that position.
"That's the unique thing about Minkah, he can do a lot of stuff. I think they have a position where he's going to be locked in, but I would rather have Coach Flores tell you guys that if that's what he wants to do," Grier said. "But I will say they really enjoy watching the film as we did, and I think he can still get better from what he was as a rookie and we're excited about his future."
We aren't sure what position that is yet exactly, although the early leader in the clubhouse is probably free safety. If that's indeed the case, then given the so-so linebackers in front of him, Fitzpatrick has a solid chance at topping those 80 stops.
And given his penchant for ball-hawking at Alabama, more than two picks is a safe bet, too.