Under-the-Radar NFL Breakout Candidates in 2019

Brad Gagnon@Brad_Gagnon NFL National ColumnistMay 28, 2019

Under-the-Radar NFL Breakout Candidates in 2019

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    One generally has to be under the radar to "break out," but let's dig deeper.

    To find potential deep-sleeper breakout candidates for the 2019 NFL season, we'll only look at players who have yet to become regular NFL starters. 

    Many of the following 10 players are unknown to most casual football fans. They're all young, most weren't first-round picks, and none started more than a handful of games in 2018. Still, all have shown glimpses of promise, and their situations should give them opportunities to excel in 2019. 


Atlanta Falcons RB Ito Smith

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    Ito Smith still isn't the top dog in the Atlanta Falcons backfield, but veteran change-of-pace back Tevin Coleman is gone and starter Devonta Freeman is coming off an injury-plagued 2018 season in which he played just two games. 

    So there should be plenty of opportunities for Smith, who put together several promising performances late in his rookie campaign.

    The 2018 fourth-round pick compiled more than 1,600 scrimmage yards and 12 touchdowns in each of his last three seasons at Southern Mississippi, and he has the finesse to become a fantasy-worthy weapon in this league. 

    That could happen in 2019, regardless of Freeman's status. 

Miami Dolphins RB Kalen Ballage and TE Mike Gesicki

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    The Miami Dolphins have a young, wide-open roster that should create plenty of opportunities for unproven but talented players like running back Kalen Ballage and tight end Mike Gesicki. 

    Both played limited roles last year as members of Miami's 2018 draft class, but Ballage averaged a stellar 5.3 yards per carry on a limited sample, while Gesicki has bulked up ahead of what should be a more involved sophomore campaign. 

    He should win the starting job, while Ballage could easily push the good-but-not-unstoppable Kenyan Drake for carries this summer. 

    In December, Ballage had four 12-plus-yard runs to Drake's one, and he finished the year with a better yards-per-attempt average by nearly a full yard. 

Buffalo Bills WR Robert Foster

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    You couldn't be much further under the radar than Buffalo Bills wide receiver Robert Foster, who flashed late last season but has been overshadowed this offseason by the team's acquisitions of veteran pass-catchers John Brown, Cole Beasley and Tyler Kroft. 

    But Foster won't be competing much with Beasley and Kroft, who will serve in the slot and at tight end. He, Brown and disappointing 2017 second-rounder Zay Jones will be the top options outside, and Foster might have already established himself as a preferred option to Jones. 

    The undrafted rookie emerged as quarterback Josh Allen's top deep target late last season. He quietly went over 100 yards three times in the second half of the year. And among 162 players who were targeted at least 40 times, he was the only one to average more than 20 yards per reception.

    Allen certainly has the arm to make room for Brown without neglecting Foster, and it's even possible Foster will continue to emerge as his favorite deep option in 2019. 

Denver Broncos WR DaeSean Hamilton

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    Veteran Denver Broncos wide receiver Emmanuel Sanders is still recovering from a 2018 Achilles injury, and when the 32-year-old wasn't available late last season, rookie fourth-round pick DaeSean Hamilton made a statement. 

    In those four outings, Hamilton caught 25 passes and scored twice, and he did that despite being slowed by a knee injury down the stretch. 

    Second-year second-round pick Courtland Sutton is a more obvious breakout candidate in Denver, but with Sanders' status up in the air, there could be plenty of room for both Sutton and Hamilton to grow with new veteran quarterback Joe Flacco. 

    "I love catching his passes," Hamilton said of Flacco at organized team activities, per Jon Heath of Broncos Wire. "He has a great arm. He has great touch as well, and throughout minicamp and all his OTAs, he's had great command of the offense and delivering a good ball—making sure it's in the right position—and the offense is rolling."

Los Angeles Rams OL Joseph Noteboom

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    Joseph Noteboom didn't receive a lot of opportunities as a rookie third-round pick with the NFC champion Los Angeles Rams, but he performed well in his first preseason and looked solid in his limited playing time at both tackle and guard during the regular season. 

    Those samples are small, but the Rams were convinced enough of Noteboom's abilities that they were comfortable letting accomplished veteran guard Rodger Saffold get away in free agency. 

    Vincent Bonsignore of The Athletic noted recently that the team's decision to draft Noteboom on Day 2 last year was "a contingency plan," and that "there is confidence he will adequately replace Saffold." 

    With plenty of support in a well-run offense, that at least makes him an under-the-radar breakout candidate for 2019. 

Buffalo Bills DE Shaq Lawson

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    It's hard to be "under the radar" when you're a top-20 draft pick, but Shaq Lawson failed to stand out to such an extent in his first three NFL seasons that the 24-year-old pass-rusher is already becoming lost in the shuffle in Buffalo. 

    When you think of the Bills defensive line right now, you probably think of highly touted first-round rookie Ed Oliver, highly paid veterans Star Lotulelei and Jerry Hughes, and veteran defensive end Trent Murphy. But because he's yet to put together a five-sack season, and because the Bills declined to exercise his fifth-year option, expectations are low for Lawson.

    But maybe that'll make it easier on the former Clemson star. There's still a clear potential role for him as part of Buffalo's rotation on the edge, and Lawson actually earned some props from Pro Football Focus for the slight progress he made in Year 3. 

    Maybe he can pick up where he left off when he recorded two sacks in Buffalo's 2018 season finale. 

New York Giants OLB Lorenzo Carter

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    Lorenzo Carter started just two games as a rookie third-round pick for the New York Giants in 2018, but the former Georgia pass-rusher still quietly collected four sacks and earned a top-five PFF grade among rookies at his position. 

    Now, with veteran Olivier Vernon gone, Carter has a chance to gain some attention as Big Blue's top pass-rushing presence in 2019. 

    "He's got the tools where he's strong enough, he's got the athletic ability," Giants outside linebackers coach Mike Dawson said of Carter this month, per Matt Lombardo of NJ Advance Media. "Now when you don't have to think about [learning a new defense], it's just natural where you just kind of react. I think that helps you play a little bit better."

    The Giants defense might not be in great shape, but that transition could enable Carter to take a big step forward as a sophomore. 

Atlanta Falcons CB Isaiah Oliver

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    When the Atlanta Falcons moved on from veteran cornerbacks Robert Alford and Brian Poole early this offseason, 2018 second-round pick Isaiah Oliver essentially was promoted into a key role opposite Desmond Trufant. And Atlanta didn't make any major corner additions during free agency or the draft, which is an indication the team believes in Oliver even though he made just two starts in 2018. 

    "Against [the Carolina Panthers] in Week 16," PFF's Cam Mellor wrote of the 22-year-old Colorado product, "he put forth his career-high game grade at 88.7, securing his first interception. With some more time in and a little more seasoning, Oliver has all the tools to be special."

    Oliver has the size (6'0", 210 lbs) and strength to go toe-to-toe with big, fast X or Z receivers consistently as a sophomore, and Falcons head coach Dan Quinn believes he can get it done in place of Alford. 

    "I think he's going to really thrive," Quinn said in February, per Kelsey Conway of the team's official website. "He got reps, he got experience, and I think he's one who is going to take a big step."

Detroit Lions S Tracy Walker

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    As a rookie third-round pick in 2018, Detroit Lions safety Tracy Walker was on the field for just 267 defensive snaps. But the former Louisiana star excelled both against the run and in coverage, causing the Lions to feel comfortable enough to release veteran starter Glover Quin. 

    There's little doubt now that Walker's role will increase significantly in his second season. 

    The 24-year-old's PFF grade in the fourth quarter of one-score games was the third-best among safeties, and it's safe to assume the small-school product was still getting acclimated at the time. Now, he'll have a full offseason under his belt. 

    Fellow Lions safety Quandre Diggs believes. 

    "You could just see the progress each and every week (last season)," Diggs said of Walker during OTAs, per Erik Schlitt of Lions Wire. "(He's) a guy that wants to learn every day, loves to be around myself, loves to be around guys like Tavon (Wilson), just trying to learn the ins and outs of being an NFL player. And you can see the range, you can see how physical he is, you can see the coverage ability. You can see all of that, and I think he's got the total package to be a good player."