Every NFL Team's 2019 Breakout Player Candidate
Every NFL season, breakout players define the next generation.
Sometimes, a breakout player merely provides hope for the future during a losing season. Other times, the breakout propels a contender into the playoffs and more.
No matter the overarching team context, a breakout typically features a player at least entering his sophomore season who has a massive upswing in performance—often sparked by a perfect marriage of development, acclimation and potential.
With the NFL entering a dead zone until late July when training camps start, now is a good time to take a step back and identify the likeliest breakout player for all 32 teams.
Arizona Cardinals: WR Christian Kirk
The Arizona Cardinals have a few different breakout candidates, including defenders like Haason Reddick.
But with a new head coach with an offensive slant like Kliff Kingsbury, not to mention a talent like Kyler Murray under center, the attention has to go to the offensive side of the ball.
There, it's hard to look past Christian Kirk. A second-round pick in 2018, Kirk didn't exactly meet lofty expectations while playing across from Larry Fitzgerald, scoring just three times on 43 catches as a rookie.
But there are hints of a second-year leap. Kirk is healthy, The MMQB's Albert Breer reported he's "been the best receiver on the roster this spring," and the new scheme and quarterback should help.
While Kirk might not propel the Cardinals to the postseason, he's poised for a big sophomore season.
Atlanta Falcons: WR Calvin Ridley
The Atlanta Falcons also have a batch of worthwhile breakout candidates, especially if Takkarist McKinley can rebound and live up to the hype.
But it's hard to see anyone denying Calvin Ridley.
Ridley was third on team in receptions as a rookie—behind Julio Jones and Mohamed Sanu—yet still caught 64 of his 92 targets, tallying 821 yards and 10 touchdowns.
The riddle with Ridley is interesting. The 10 touchdowns are primed for regression, but the Falcons would be silly not to prioritize him more in the offense.
Considering Jones himself went for 1,600-plus yards last season, a bigger piece of the pie for Ridley could mean a significant jump in production.
Baltimore Ravens: QB Lamar Jackson
This one doesn't need much in the way of explaining, right?
Lamar Jackson showed plenty of promise last year with the Baltimore Ravens, stepping in for Joe Flacco and not letting go of the job on the way to the playoffs.
While it wasn't perfect, Jackson threw six touchdown passes and three picks over the course of the regular season, also running for 695 yards and five scores. The biggest point to address this offseason is making him more efficient as a passer.
On that front, things are going well, per Ravens quarterbacks coach James Urban, according to ESPN.com's Dan Graziano: "They certainly haven't been eliminated, but there are much fewer, 'Where-did-that-come-froms' this year when we watch him practice. It looks better in many ways. The ball comes out cleaner, the timing looks better."
Provided Jackson isn't once again rushing 100-plus times in a way his body might not be able to handle, more comfort as a passer and a scheme tailored to what he can do could lead to a massive season while the Ravens keep contending.
Buffalo Bills: QB Josh Allen
Look, if a young quarterback has a shot at breaking out, it tends to override everything else—just look at the way the NFL at large treats the position on draft day.
Josh Allen and the Buffalo Bills are a good example of this. Outside of Buffalo, Allen was viewed as a polarizing pick in the top 10 for various reasons. His rookie season over 12 games had both sides feeling justified in their post-draft feelings.
For the detractors, the fact that Allen only completed 52.8 percent of his passes with more picks than touchdowns showed he'll never be an average NFL passer. For others, the fact that he compensated for a lack of talent around him and also put up 631 yards and eight scores on the ground was a hint of big playmaking versatility.
Natural progression and the arrival of a dependable target like Cole Beasley atop other pieces like an improved offensive line could equate to one of the biggest overall breakouts of 2019.
Carolina Panthers: WR DJ Moore
Well, it can't be Christian McCaffrey for the Carolina Panthers, who accounted for nearly 2,000 yards from scrimmage, even if it doesn't feel like he's scratched a ceiling.
Perusing the rest of the roster, 2018 first-round pick DJ Moore figures to be the biggest beneficiary of McCaffrey's rise, not to mention the return of what is hopefully a healthy Cam Newton.
As a rookie, Moore put up 788 yards with two scores, yet four players managed to outpace him in the touchdown receptions department.
With Devin Funchess gone and teams dialed in on the backfield, the Panthers offense should find plenty of explosive production from Moore all over the field.
Chicago Bears: LB Leonard Floyd
Leonard Floyd has probably made lists like this in the past only to disappoint.
Yet sometimes a steady rise is better than none at all. Floyd, the ninth pick by the Chicago Bears in 2016, only has 15.5 sacks over three seasons and has missed 10 games.
The Bears still see something there, hence exercising Floyd's fifth-year option. And he's gotten better each year when he sees the field consistently. Perhaps most notably, the situation around him keeps improving too, with Roquan Smith now solidifying the linebacker corps and Khalil Mack wreaking havoc on the opposing offense's plans.
Floyd may never break out in strictly the sacks department, yet he's still primed for a major jump if he keeps along his current trajectory.
Cincinnati Bengals: WR John Ross
The Cincinnati Bengals quietly had a few big breakouts last year, with Joe Mixon leading the AFC in rushing and Tyler Boyd going for 1,000-plus yards.
Looking ahead, John Ross feels like the next in line.
It didn't get a ton of publicity, but Ross scored seven times last year on just 21 catches. He was deployed expertly as a red-zone mismatch creator, yet he struggled all over the field otherwise.
But the Bengals now have offensive-minded coach Zac Taylor, the offensive line should see improved play with new faces like John Miller, and—if the Bengals are lucky—Andy Dalton won't suffer another season-ending injury.
Sometimes, a change of scenery helps a player improve. In Ross' case, the scenery changing around him might be enough to unlock his wicked upside, especially while defenses have to account for so many other weapons on the offense.
Cleveland Browns: TE David Njoku
Working under the understanding Baker Mayfield broke out as a rookie, the next name on the list has to be tight end David Njoku.
Njoku was just a 21-year-old rookie two years ago when he had 386 yards and four scores, numbers he bumped to 639 and four, respectively, in 2018.
Those numbers only figure to keep climbing in Njoku's third year. Mayfield should keep ascending, and the offense added Odell Beckham Jr. to its arsenal. The backfield is a force as well with Nick Chubb and Kareem Hunt—when he returns from suspension—leading the way.
Njoku, a 6'4" weapon with elite athleticism, should see a heavy usage rate and make short work of defenses already strained thin.
Dallas Cowboys: DB Jourdan Lewis
In a testament to the team's strong drafting over the years, it isn't easy to tag a breakout candidate for the Dallas Cowboys. Prospects like Jaylon Smith and Leighton Vander Esch, to name just a few, have already broken out.
That means turning the attention to the secondary, where 2017 third-round pick Jourdan Lewis sounds like he could be headed for a bigger role. Cowboys coaches aren't letting his stature at 5'10" get in the way, as noted by secondary coach Kris Richard, according to Kate Hairopoulos of the Dallas Morning News: "He just really comes in and competes. He's not limited by any means, right. ... You take a player like Jourdan Lewis and he's an exception."
Lewis shouldn't have a problem heavily breaking into a rotation led up by Chidobe Awuzie and Bryon Jones, especially if the secondary as a whole continues to underwhelm.
Considering he oozes upside and has yet to see the field for a massive number of snaps, Lewis simply getting on the field could lead to a big breakout.
Denver Broncos: WR Courtland Sutton
It's Courtland Sutton time for the Denver Broncos.
A second-round pick in 2018, Sutton had a hard time getting fully going as a rookie, catching just 42 of 84 targets for 704 yards and four scores.
But a second-year leap could be in the cards. Not only is Sutton still adapting and developing, but Demaryius Thomas also isn't in the way anymore. It seems like Emmanuel Sanders will stick, but even head coach Vic Fangio has said they are "expecting big things" from Sutton, according to The Athletic's Nicki Jhabvala.
Keep in mind the improvements to the surroundings too. Joe Flacco is under center now, and the offensive line received several upgrades as well as esteemed coach Mike Munchak.
The combination of circumstances should lead to a Sutton breakout.
Detroit Lions: RB Kerryon Johnson
Kerryon Johnson is primed for an explosion in 2019.
The Detroit Lions only got 10 games out of their second-round pick from an offseason ago, in the process only giving him 118 attempts and 39 targets. The former fell behind LeGarrette Blount and the latter behind four players on the team.
But Johnson ended up averaging 5.4 yards per carry and 6.7 per catch. Even better, the offensive line should keep coming along with Frank Ragnow switching spots to center. First-round pick T.J. Hockenson should open up the offense, too, which by the way, should be led by a fully healthy Matthew Stafford after he struggled through a back injury last season.
A bona fide workhorse runner, Johnson should see 200-plus carries and at least 60 catches in 2019, at least based on his capabilities and the idea an offense can be structured around him. The big numbers will follow the usage.
Green Bay Packers: WR Marquez Valdes-Scantling
The Green Bay Packers have some fun breakout candidates on the defensive side, such as Jaire Alexander.
But it doesn't take an expert to know the key is the offense around Aaron Rodgers.
Those Packers inserted a new regime this offseason, led by head coach Matt LaFleur. The idea is to leave whatever happened between Rodgers and his last staff in the past and get back to a coherent attack.
Said attack should feature receiver Marquez Valdes-Scantling as one of its biggest pieces aside from Davante Adams. The 2018 fifth-round pick had 581 yards and two scores last year on a limited slate of chances. Perhaps more important is a deep dive from Pro Football Focus that revealed MVS created separation on 70.3 percent of his targets last year.
If Valdes-Scantling was already shaking free that often as a rookie, a little offensive cohesion seems primed to lift him well into breakout status.
Houston Texans: S Justin Reid
In hindsight, maybe this was always the plan.
The Houston Texans got a superb year out of Tyrann Mathieu, but third-round pick Justin Reid always seemed like the focal point of the secondary's future.
Reid was a force as a rookie last year, totaling 88 tackles, 10 passes defensed and three interceptions. But he's now the guy for the secondary with both Mathieu and Kareem Jackson gone. Johnathan Joseph, 35, might be the elder statesman of the group, but Reid is the playmaking centerpiece and future.
Maybe this isn't what Texans fans want to hear given the upside of a Deshaun Watson-led offense, but questions continue to swirl around the offensive line. That, plus Reid's immense upside, makes him the pick.
Indianapolis Colts: S Malik Hooker
To say the AFC South's future is full of promising defensive secondaries would be an understatement.
The Indianapolis Colts play a big role in this thanks to the presence of Malik Hooker, the 15th pick in the 2017 draft.
While the Colts have some budding prospects along the offensive line and elsewhere, the only thing that has really limited Hooker has been health, as he's missed 11 games over two seasons.
Hooker says that is about to change, according to the Indianapolis Star's Joel A. Erickson.
"This is probably the best I've felt since I left college," Hooker said. "Probably even better than that."
This is the first offseason Hooker has worked through OTAs, so the budding hype is understandable. He's elite in coverage and already boasts five interceptions, so he might end up being a late arrival to the elite safety club.
Jacksonville Jaguars: LB Myles Jack
Even after he tallied more than 100 total tackles in 2018, Myles Jack is just getting started.
Jack, a second-round pick by the Jacksonville Jaguars in 2016, would have come off the board much earlier if it hadn't been for a serious knee injury that also limited him during his rookie season.
The rebound has been slower than expected, but he has still shown notable improvement all three years—and he'll only turn 24 years old in September.
Keep in mind a position change in the wake of Paul Posluszny's retirement too. Jack will be the middle linebacker in base looks, whereas he only handled it in nickel situations in the past. That's naturally going to let him accrue bigger numbers and turn loose that playmaking ability, which only continues to improve.
Kansas City Chiefs: RB Damien Williams
Damien Williams is the big right-time, right-place winner.
Williams gets to serve as the top running back for a Patrick Mahomes-led Kansas City Chiefs offense after Kareem Hunt's 2018 release. Williams received an endorsement from the coaching staff following an offseason where the team didn't add much to the spot.
Williams made the most of his chances last year, averaging 5.1 yards per carry during the regular season before a 129-yard performance in the divisional round and three total touchdowns (one rushing, two receiving) in the AFC title game.
He has already shown he can perform well in all facets of the game, which positions him for a huge year on an offense that will need make up for the potential absence of Tyreek Hill.
Los Angeles Chargers: WR Mike Williams
There is a former top-10 talent still improving while working with an elite passer like Philip Rivers.
If that isn't breakout material, nothing is.
This, of course, refers to Mike Williams, the seventh pick in 2017. He flirted with the "bust" label right out of the gates as a rookie, totaling just 95 yards over 10 games. Last season was better, though, as he got in all 16 games and managed 664 yards and 10 touchdowns.
A team-high 10 touchdowns or not last year, Williams might just be scratching the surface considering he only had 66 targets and now gets to play a big role in replacing the production of Tyrell Williams. At this point, 100-plus catches might not be too silly of a prediction given Williams' clear big-play ability and expanding role.
Los Angeles Rams: TE Gerald Everett
All signs point to a Gerald Everett breakout for the Los Angeles Rams.
The Rams are a veteran team with a convoluted depth chart at tight end, yet Sean McVay is a former tight ends coach who knows how to use talent at the spot.
It is telling, then, that Everett saw a big uptick in play down the stretch last season, culminating in six or more targets in three of the team's last four games before four more in the playoff game, where he caught two for 50 yards. Now he's already being hailed by outsiders as the team's biggest offseason surprise.
Barring something unexpected, a former second-round pick like Everett should naturally be working his way into more playing time.
Miami Dolphins: RB Kenyan Drake
The Miami Dolphins might be the hardest team to nail down in this category because...the roster just isn't very good for now.
Minkah Fitzpatrick is the first name that comes to mind, but he hinted at superstar upside as a rookie. That means shifting the attention to the offense, where Kenyan Drake seems poised for an upswing.
Drake, a former third-round pick, is in one of those situations where one can only question the coaching. A year ago, 156 carries went to Frank Gore, who didn't even score. But Drake turned his 120 into four scores and a 4.5 yards-per-carry average. Over three years, he's averaged 4.7 yards per carry and caught 94 passes.
A natural usage bump figures to occur in 2019 with Gore gone, and it doesn't hurt that a new coaching staff and potentially better play from under center makes his life even easier in the process.
Minnesota Vikings: RB Dalvin Cook
Dalvin Cook had his rookie season in 2017 cut to just four games because of a torn ACL and then only appeared in 11 during his sophomore season. With a committee approach more popular than ever, teams like the Minnesota Vikings don't seem to blink at taking it easy on potential stars while instead throwing workhorse numbers at, say, Latavius Murray.
Cook is certainly brimming with star potential. Even on limited carries, he's sitting on 969 yards and four scores on a 4.7 YPC average, with another 51 catches.
Also, keep in mind the Vikings made a point to upgrade the offensive line this year and brought on Gary Kubiak as an adviser, which means a zone-read expert is now helping to shape an offense where Cook will lead the way out of the backfield. His upside if fully healthy is immense.
New England Patriots: OL Isaiah Wynn
With Bill Belichick, there is always a feeling of randomness to who excels out of the blue.
But with a talent like Isaiah Wynn and the surrounding circumstances, nailing down a breakout this year is rather simple.
Wynn was a first-round pick in 2018 coming out of the Nate Solder era for a reason, and he shouldn't have a problem slotting right in and playing well on Tom Brady's blindside.
Arguably the best line coaching in the NFL doesn't hurt, either. When Wynn went down last year, the Patriots almost casually threw Trent Brown in his place. Brown, a 2015 seventh-rounder with little on his resume, turned around and had a career year before inking a monster contract in free agency.
Given the marriage of talent and coaching, it isn't outlandish to think Wynn will plop right in and continue the long line of elite Brady protectors on the left side.
New Orleans Saints: DE Marcus Davenport
The Marcus Davenport outbreak feels inevitable.
Davenport was the subject of scrutiny last year when the New Orleans Saints decided to move around and get him at No. 14. Those vibes only continued as the season progressed because he missed three games and ended up tallying just 4.5 sacks.
As always seems to be the case, face-value numbers don't always tell the story. Davenport wasn't even on the field for half of the defense's snaps by year's end, so an expanded role on its lonesome should mean more production.
Davenport ended up having toe surgery this offseason and should be back at full go by the time the regular season begins. Health, a natural progression and the traits that made him an attractive pick in the first place should make him the Saints' most likely breakout candidate for 2019.
New York Giants: TE Evan Engram
Evan Engram should end up being one of the biggest winners from the Odell Beckham Jr.-sized gap on the New York Giants.
New arrival Golden Tate is only going to inhale so many of Beckham's targets in the run-based offense built around Saquon Barkley. The bulk of the rest should go to the versatile Engram, a mismatch creator who hasn't always been used creatively enough.
Engram did have 115 targets as a rookie and scored six times, and it should be interesting to see that sort of usage in an offense boasting Barkley, which defenses will have to consider at all times. Generally speaking, the Giants feel like they're in the middle of a blowup, so there isn't much competition in the breakout department.
New York Jets: QB Sam Darnold
When talking about New York Jets breakout candidates, it would be ill-advised to mention anyone besides Sam Darnold.
Call it a combination of Darnold flashing that much upside and the rest of the roster...not so much. Robby Anderson technically had a breakout in 2017, and the rest are mostly known commodities.
Darnold, though, is just now on the upswing. He finished last year with just a 57.7 completion percentage with 2,865 yards and 17 touchdowns against 15 interceptions, yet he had a six-one touchdown-to-interception ratio to close the season.
A better coaching approach by Adam Gase, the arrival of Le'Veon Bell and an improving defense should help create a sophomore surge.
Oakland Raiders: WR J.J. Nelson
J.J. Nelson was never the biggest name for the Arizona Cardinals over the past four seasons after entering the league in the fifth round.
That could change in Oakland.
Observers know the big news: Antonio Brown has arrived with the Raiders to help along Derek Carr. Perhaps nearly as important, so has the underrated Tyrell Williams.
That leaves Nelson as the third man who can shake free and inhale any targets thrown his way and use his deep speed to create separation.
Nelson scored 10 times over four years in the purgatory known as Arizona, averaging 17.8 yards per catch. He's not going to see 100-plus targets like at least Brown will, but the defensive attention applied elsewhere should have the 27-year-old on some season-ending breakout lists.
Philadelphia Eagles: DB Avonte Maddox
Before the NFL entered its season-ending stretch and playoffs last year, most probably didn't expect to hear Avonte Maddox would end up being one of the more important players.
Yet there the fourth-round pick was, stepping in and having big games in coverage and making it look easy. According to Pro Football Focus, he allowed a 59.9 passer rating when targeted and ranked first in coverage snaps per reception allowed at 21.7.
Maddox worked his way into the lineup and played 100 percent of the snaps in three games to close the season before the playoffs, so it's clear the coaching staff will find a way to get him on the field for a full season next year.
Based on his aggressive play and production as a rookie, year two should be even better no matter where coaches line him up.
Pittsburgh Steelers: WR James Washington
For the Pittsburgh Steelers' sake, their 2019 breakout player better be wideout James Washington.
Washington faces more pressure than expected as a sophomore after Antonio Brown's departure. Brown missed one game last year yet still accounted for a team-high 168 targets for 1,297 yards and 15 touchdowns.
Granted, Washington won't be expected to replace all that production on his own. But JuJu Smith-Schuster doesn't have a ton of room for an uptick after 166 targets, 1,426 yards and seven scores last season.
Washington at least flashed when given a chance over 14 games, catching 16 passes for 217 yards and a score. If that average can translate, Washington should start living up to some of the second-round hype thrown his way.
Given that the offense doesn't have a ton of other places to go, Washington is positioned for a breakout.
San Francisco 49ers: WR Dante Pettis
Were it not for a massive logjam in the backfield, this conversation might pertain to one of the four capable contributors at running back.
Instead, the breakout talk for the San Francisco 49ers has to center on wideout Dante Pettis.
Pettis, a second-round pick in 2018, had a knee injury hamper the early portion of his debut season and then resurface near the end. Even so, he finished with 467 yards and five scores despite poor surroundings, which gives bright hope for the future with a starter back under center and the team improved.
All reports from the 49ers this year have commented on a fully healthy Pettis. By season's end, he should be the No. 1 wideout for the offense and on plenty of breakout lists.
Seattle Seahawks: RB Rashaad Penny
Rashaad Penny came out of his rookie season seeming like a flop, but the vibes won't last.
Penny was a surprise first-round pick and followed it up by only receiving 85 carries to Chris Carson's 247 attempts. Whether it was playbook struggles or something else, Seahawks coaches were content to ride a breakout season from Carson.
But Penny is next. He turned those limited chances into 419 yards and two scores, averaging nearly five yards per carry as he went. He's spent the offseason trimming down and under the mentorship of one Marshall Faulk.
Perhaps more than anything else, conventional wisdom says the Seahawks will lean heavily into at least a rotation next season. Carson is working his way back from an injury and only has so much tread on his tires, and the front office will want to see some return on its big first-round investment. If Penny goes for 150-plus carries, he's going to be among the league leaders in some efficiency numbers.
Tampa Bay Buccaneers: TE O.J. Howard
The arrival of Bruce Arians almost guarantees the breakout will come on the offensive side of the ball for the Tampa Bay Buccaneers.
But the "who" is harder to discern thanks to the verifiable talents of both tight end O.J. Howard and wideout Chris Godwin.
Really, though, we could argue Godwin broke out last year with 842 yards and seven scores. And leaning into a 6'6", 251-pound target like Howard has a feeling of comfort to it when predicting a breakout.
Howard only got 48 targets last year, catching 34 of them for 565 yards and five scores over 10 games. He hit the 50-yard mark in eight of those games. In theory, better quarterback play and scheme should free him up for big total numbers.
Keep in mind opportunity, too. Adam Humphries and his 76 catches with five scores is gone, as is DeSean Jackson and his 41 and four. An offensive mind like Arians is bound to tap a mismatch creator like Howard as the fix.
Tennessee Titans: LB Harold Landry
For the Tennessee Titans, the popular pick is undoubtedly Rashaan Evans.
And the first-rounder from a year ago should be good—but Harold Landry, the guy taken a round later, has even bigger upside.
Landry saw his rookie season impacted by a hurt ankle early on, and it affected him in the consistency department, yet he still finished with some notable big plays and 4.5 sacks. The coaches clearly believe he'll be able to take on a bigger role in the wake of the departures of Brian Orakpo and Derrick Morgan.
Landry is going to play heavier next season and has added some moves, according to the Tennessean's Erik Bacharach: "The linebacker also said he's spent time this offseason adding counter-moves to his repertoire, an important adjustment for a linebacker looking to take the next step from Year 1 to Year 2."
Given the way it all aligns, if Landry is healthy, he's going to have a massive season, especially while serving as just one guy offensive lines have to account for on a superb front seven.
Washington Redskins: RB Derrius Guice
The Washington Redskins don't have a ton of breakout candidates because for all their faults, their recent draft picks have been rather safe. Guys like Daron Payne and Jonathan Allen are already forces in the trenches, for example.
Then there is Derrius Guice.
Guice was one of the top backs in the 2018 class but went down in the preseason with a season-ending injury (torn ACL), which required multiple surgeries and had setbacks. But since, it has been all systems go.
"Derrius is coming along very well," Redskins coach Jay Gruden said, according to Pro Football Talk's Michael David Smith. "We’re just trying to make sure that leg—his quad and everything—is full strength before we let him go."
Guice should see a workmanlike 200-plus carries next year a season removed from 251 of those going to Adrian Peterson. Backfield mixups like Chris Thompson have had problems staying healthy (10 games last year), so Guice should see plenty of work on passing downs too. Given his talent and the strength of the line in front of him, the sophomore back should shine.