6 NFL Players Who Will Break Out on New Teams in 2021
For a variety of reasons, NFL players with limited production reach new career heights after a change of scenery.
Some of the most talented players fall short of expectations because of a subpar supporting cast, competition on the depth chart or significant injuries. With a fresh and healthy start elsewhere, underperforming veterans could strive toward their peak.
With the Minnesota Vikings, wideout Stefon Diggs competed with Adam Thielen for targets. Last offseason, the Buffalo Bills acquired him, and he elevated his game to another level. The 27-year-old earned his first All-Pro and Pro Bowl nods after leading the league in receptions (127) and receiving yards (1,535) for the 2020 term.
Leonard Floyd put an underwhelming four-year tenure with the Chicago Bears behind him and recorded his first double-digit sack campaign as a key defender for the Los Angeles Rams' No. 1 scoring defense.
Who's going to flourish at a new destination in the upcoming season?
Among the offseason acquisitions, six players stand out as potential high-risers for the 2021 term. Every veteran listed has a pathway to a bigger role, a system that will allow them to post impressive numbers or a scheme that fits their skill sets. None of the players are Pro Bowlers or All-Pros.
QB Sam Darnold, Carolina Panthers
While Gang Green seems primed to take a signal-caller with the second selection in the draft, the Panthers could help Darnold play up to his high expectations as the third pick from the 2018 class.
Panthers head coach Matt Rhule sees a special playmaker in Darnold, who can beat defenses with his arm and legs.
"I think when you see his arm talent, I don't think there's a game you can watch that he doesn't make a play that makes you say, 'There it is,'" Rhule said to reporters. "He can fit the ball into tight windows. He can create with his feet. He moves around a ton. He creates plays with his legs, extends plays with his legs."
Darnold showed flashes of brilliance inside and outside the pocket through three terms with the New York Jets, but he threw for 45 touchdowns and 39 interceptions with a 59.8 percent completion rate.
Nevertheless, Ryan Kalil, who came out of retirement to suit up for the Jets last season, has an explanation for Darnold's uninspiring numbers from the previous campaign. In a conversation with The Athletic's Joseph Person, he criticized the Jets' offensive system.
"It was a system that didn't allow a lot of individual freedom. It was very, 'You do it this way and that's it. A lot of the scheme was pre-determined (plays) based on what they thought they were seeing from the sideline. It didn't give Sam a lot of room to grow, in my opinion, to make decisions on the fly. It worked in some instances, but it handicapped him in the long run."
Rhule's praise for Darnold suggests the young signal-caller will have room to improvise after the snap.
The Panthers have a solid pair of wideouts in DJ Moore and Robby Anderson, who played with Darnold between the 2018 and 2019 campaigns.
Darnold should have bigger windows downfield with All-Pro running back Christian McCaffrey commanding an extra defender in the box on early downs. The versatile tailback has at least 80 catches in three out of four seasons, so he's also a viable threat in the short passing game as well.
Darnold has a coach who understands his strengths with the offensive playmakers around him to perform at a high level in Carolina.
RB Mike Davis, Atlanta Falcons
As a 28-year-old running back, Mike Davis will fly under the radar among offseason acquisitions, but he's in the driver's seat for the featured role in the Atlanta Falcons backfield, which may lead to a heavy workload.
Atlanta could go into the 2021 campaign without any of its top three running backs from the 2020 term. The Falcons waived Ito Smith Thursday. Todd Gurley and Brian Hill are free agents.
The Falcons signed a versatile playmaker in Cordarrelle Patterson, but he hasn't recorded more than 64 rush attempts for a single campaign.
Even if the Falcons select a running back early in the draft, Davis should open the year as the No. 1 ball-carrier. He gained some momentum through the 2020 term, filling in admirably for an injured Christian McCaffrey in the Carolina Panthers' backfield. The six-year veteran racked up 1,015 scrimmage yards.
New Falcons head coach Arthur Smith fielded a top-three ground attack for two seasons as the Tennessee Titans offensive coordinator. We shouldn't expect Davis to match Derrick Henry's production, but Smith's offensive style shows a commitment to the run.
On Smith's watch, the Titans ranked 10th and second in total carries for the 2019 and 2020 terms, respectively. If Davis splits his touches with a rookie, he could still achieve a new career high in scrimmage yards because of his pass-catching ability. The 5'9", 220-pound tailback hauled in 59 passes last season.
Atlanta's offense will likely run through quarterback Matt Ryan and the aerial attack. Nevertheless, Davis should have opportunities to rack up big numbers with little starting experience behind him on the depth chart and a play-caller who's designed effective ground attacks over the last two years.
CB William Jackson III, Washington Football Team
William Jackson III had a solid four-year stretch with the Cincinnati Bengals, but he could garner more praise as a high-end cover man in Washington, D.C.
Unlike the Bengals, Washington has a top-five defense equipped with a strong pass rush that ranked sixth in sacks (47) for the 2020 season.
The Football Team hasn't re-signed edge-rusher Ryan Kerrigan, but defensive tackle Matt Ioannidis could pick up where he left off in 2019 (8.5 sacks) before a torn biceps limited him to three appearances this past season.
Regardless of Ioannidis' status for the upcoming campaign, Washington will have Montez Sweat and 2020 Defensive Rookie of the Year Chase Young leading the charge toward the pocket. Daron Payne and Jonathan Allen could also supplement the pass rush.
Jackson should have opportunities to pounce on passes that leave the quarterback's hands too early because of the pressure up front. He's recorded three interceptions through four seasons, but the 28-year-old cornerback could match that total in one campaign while tracking errant throws downfield.
Furthermore, Jackson won't have to cover receivers for extended periods as Sweat, Young, Payne, Allen and Ioannidis limit a quarterback's time in a clean pocket. He may log double-digit pass breakups to go along with a spike in interceptions for a shot at a Pro Bowl nod.
S John Johnson III, Cleveland Browns
John Johnson III hit the open market as arguably the top safety after a decent 2020 showing, recording 105 tackles, 73 solo, eight pass breakups and an interception.
After a solid four-year stretch with the Los Angeles Rams, Johnson could reach his peak with the ability to juggle a range of responsibilities in the Cleveland Browns secondary.
Browns general manager Andrew Berry told reporters that a player of Johnson's caliber "doesn't usually make it to the free-agent market" and explained why.
"We thought [Johnson] was one of the more versatile safeties in the NFL. He can play free safety, strong safety and he can play in the box in the nickel or dime. His breadth of skills that he brings to the table, that he can play man coverage, he can play center field, he can support the run and really do everything at a pretty high level... On top of that, you have his intelligence and his natural leadership."
The Browns have more than a typical safety in Johnson, so Ronnie Harrison Jr. and Grant Delpit, who sat out his entire rookie term with a torn Achilles, won't limit the versatile defensive back's production at the position.
Delpit's inexperience may result in a much lighter workload than Johnson's and Harrison's for the upcoming campaign.
Because of Johnson's versatility, he could lead the Browns in tackles one week and provide a significant impact as a coverage defender for the following contest. The fifth-year veteran may lead the team in tackles, interceptions and record double-digit pass breakups for a Pro Bowl-worthy season.
Edge Carl Lawson, New York Jets
As a fourth-round pick out of Auburn in 2017, Carl Lawson exceeded expectations when he logged 8.5 sacks during his rookie term.
In the following year, the Cincinnati Bengals lost defensive coordinator Paul Guenther, who accepted the same position with the then-Oakland Raiders. Lawson tore his ACL and only suited up for seven contests. Between a change in scheme and a significant injury, he had a setback, logging just one sack through 225 defensive snaps.
In 2019, Lawson lined up for 43 percent of the snaps as primarily a backup. He also missed four games because of a hamstring injury.
This past season, we saw Lawson's potential in a starting role. Looking beyond the 5.5 sacks, he tied Kansas City Chiefs defensive tackle Chris Jones for the fourth-most quarterback pressures (44).
On the cusp of a breakout last year, Lawson's production should spill over into the sacks column under head coach Robert Saleh and defensive coordinator Jeff Ulbrich.
Ulbrich will call plays, but Saleh still carries influence because of his work with the San Francisco 49ers, who ranked within the top six in sacks and quarterback pressures two years ago. Lawson told reporters about his interest in the Jets' head coach, the team's need and the system that drew him to New York.
"And then seeing that he was here and there was availability at the spot, I was like, 'Wow, I was thinking about that scheme," Lawson said. "That perfectly fits my skill set.' So those were the first two things that kind of really attracted me here."
The Jets signed Lawson to a three-year, $45 million contract with $30 million in guarantees. With that salary, he's going to play most of the snaps, which gives him a chance to post career pass-rushing numbers.
Secondly, Lawson will team up with Quinnen Williams, who led the Jets in sacks (seven) last season. With some attention on his teammate, the former Bengal could become a dominant force on Gang Green's defensive line.
WR Josh Reynolds, Tennessee Titans
Josh Reynolds didn't see many targets early in his career behind lead wideouts Robert Woods, Brandin Cooks and Cooper Kupp. Dual-threat running back Todd Gurley also had a big role in the Los Angeles Rams' aerial attack between the 2017 and 2018 terms. Tight end Tyler Higbee became more involved over the last two campaigns.
On the lower end of the pass-catching pecking order with the Rams, Reynolds had to go elsewhere for more looks in the aerial attack. He landed in a situation that will position him for a breakout year.
The Tennessee Titans lost wideout Corey Davis and tight end Jonnu Smith to the New York Jets and New England Patriots in free agency, respectively. They combined for 157 targets last season. The club also cut slot receiver Adam Humphries.
Titans head coach Mike Vrabel believes Reynolds can line up in different spots before the snap. He should see action on the perimeter and in the slot because of the departures at his position.
This past season, Reynolds played 72 percent of the offensive snaps and recorded career highs in catches (52) and receiving yards (618). In an expanded role with more opportunities to go around in Tennessee, he's capable of eclipsing 1,100 yards opposite of Pro Bowl wideout A.J. Brown, who will command most of the attention from defensive backs downfield.
Two-time rushing champion Derrick Henry will draw extra defenders in the box, which will allow Reynolds to see one-on-one matchups downfield. At 6'3", 196 pounds, he's a viable third-down and red-zone threat on passing downs.