NFL Players Who Need a Fresh Start with a New Team

Chris Roling@@Chris_RolingFeatured ColumnistJuly 9, 2021

NFL Players Who Need a Fresh Start with a New Team

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    Steven Senne/Associated Press

    Sometimes all an NFL player needs is a fresh start. 

    That's what 2019 New England Patriots first-round pick N'Keal Harry seems to want this summer (more on him in a bit). It's what a player like Haason Reddick will get this season after using free agency to jump from the Arizona Cardinals to the Carolina Panthers. 

    The most notable examples in this category are younger players who just haven't worked out with their first teams. Whether it's a lack of playing time, poor scheme fit or something else, a fresh start could reset their careers for the positive. And no, a veteran like Aaron Rodgers doesn't apply (he probably won't find a better situation than Green Bay at this stage of his career, anyway). 

    Here's a look at the players who should seek out fresh starts with new teams—soon—and possible fits to make it work. 

Gardner Minshew II, Jacksonville Jaguars

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    John Raoux/Associated Press

    Gardner Minshew II was inevitably replaced by No. 1 pick Trevor Lawrence with the Jacksonville Jaguars, leaving a 25-year-old passer with 23 games under his belt relegated to backup duty. 

    Minshew presumably wants a chance to start, something he won't get with the Jaguars again. Jeremy Fowler of ESPN reported in early June after Minshew missed OTAs that the 2019 sixth-round pick would indeed like that chance. 

    That might seem a lofty stance to take for a late-round pick, but Minshew did survive rebuilding surroundings and come out a success story—he's completed 62.9 percent of his attempts with 37 touchdowns and 11 interceptions. 

    A low-risk buy for a team with a quarterback competition, Minshew would be best off ending up somewhere like Denver. There, he could compete with Teddy Bridgewater and Drew Lock for the starting gig. 

    Best Fit: Denver Broncos

Leighton Vander Esch, LB, Dallas Cowboys

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    LM Otero/Associated Press

    It feels like a matter of time before Leighton Vander Esch gets his fresh start. 

    A first-round pick by the Dallas Cowboys in 2018, the former Boise State star had his fifth-year option declined in May. 

    At face value, that's a shocker for a team that was on a historically bad pace defensively last year and started over with a new coordinator this offseason. But Vander Esch has missed 13 games over the last two seasons. 

    Not content with presumably a combination of that attendance sheet and the unit's overall performance, Dallas added first-rounder Micah Parsons (12th overall) and fourth-rounder Jabril Cox to a position group already starting Jaylon Smith and boasting Keanu Neal as a backup. 

    Considering Vander Esch still has plenty of trade value, he might have a better chance at earning a huge second contract and guaranteed playing time on a team with a big need at the position. 

    Best Fit: Cincinnati Bengals

Evan Engram, TE, New York Giants

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    Adam Hunger/Associated Press

    Evan Engram has never been able to meet his lofty draft slot after the New York Giants made him the 23rd pick in 2017. 

    But those Giants haven't done him any favors, slapping him with the tail end of the Eli Manning era and then asking him to prop up developing passer Daniel Jones. Engram has never surpassed career highs of 722 yards and six touchdowns set as a rookie. 

    Not that Engram hasn't worsened the situation for himself some. Last year over 109 targets, he had 11 drops and was credited with six interceptions on targets meant for him.

    Still, Engram has loads of upside, especially in an offense that would move him around and create mismatches, particularly in the red zone. New York didn't do that last year, instead using him as a traditional safety net. 

    Now Engram will have to compete with new tight end Kyle Rudolph (more in the mold of what the Giants want to do) and free-agent add Kenny Golladay for targets. He'd be quite a bit more interesting and successful in an offense willing to get creative with him such as the one in Green Bay. 

    Best Fit: Green Bay Packers

Noah Fant, TE, Denver Broncos

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    Jack Dempsey/Associated Press

    Elsewhere on the first-round tight end front, it feels like we're getting to the same situation with Noah Fant. 

    The Denver Broncos made Fant the 20th pick in 2019 in the hopes he'd develop alongside a rookie passer. That quarterback ended up being Drew Lock, whose ho-hum play now has his job directly threatened by veteran journeyman Teddy Bridgewater. 

    As for Fant, he had just 40 catches as a rookie with three scores and 62 with three more last season. His yards-per-catch average, though, dropped from 14.1 to 10.9. 

    A dynamic playmaker, Fant isn't in a dynamic offense and has to compete for attention with Jerry Jeudy, Courtland Sutton, KJ Hamler and even fellow tight end and 2020 fourth-rounder Albert Okwuegbunam. 

    Like Engram, Fant would be quite a bit more interesting in a dynamic offense using him to his strengths such as the one with the Los Angeles Rams. It would also dramatically increase his chances at a big second contract. 

    Best Fit: Los Angeles Rams

N'Keal Harry, WR, New England Patriots

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    Steven Senne/Associated Press

    N'Keal Harry would have made this list even if he hadn't asked for a trade.

    Harry was a first-round pick in the 2019 draft. He made it in just seven games as a rookie and then doubled that count in 2020. He's received just 81 targets over two seasons, scoring just four times. 

    Injuries played a part in a slow developmental curve for Harry, of course. But of Tom Brady's 600-plus attempts in 2019, Harry got just 24. He then struggled to have an impact last season as Cam Newton threw just eight touchdowns. 

    If Harry doesn't get traded, he would have to deal with Newton again next season in a re-tooled offense that clearly wants to emphasize tight ends after adding Hunter Henry and Jonnu Smith, not to mention wideout Nelson Agholor. 

    The best fit for Harry would be a team with a need on the outside and the volume attack to help him develop, which brings to mind the Julio Jones-less Atlanta Falcons. 

    Best Fit: Atlanta Falcons

Mike Williams, WR, Los Angeles Chargers

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    Kyusung Gong/Associated Press

    It's almost easy to forget Mike Williams was the seventh overall pick in 2017. 

    Williams has just a single 1,000-yard campaign (2019) to his name with the Los Angeles Chargers, an impressive outburst he hasn't come within 200 yards of replicating. His career-high 10 touchdowns came in 2018. Given the investment and apparent upside, the team predictably picked up his fifth-year option. 

    But Williams has scored just seven touchdowns in the two seasons since the outburst of 10 and hasn't reached 1,000 yards again. He's also yet to catch more than 50 passes in a season. And he now seems like an odd fit too. While Justin Herbert attempted 595 passes with 31 touchdowns, Williams was the target on just 76, scoring five times. 

    Still second behind Keenan Allen and with erratic production and usage, Williams might be better off in a passing attack like the one in Detroit, where he could be a borderline No. 1. Going from Herbert to Jared Goff might seem like a regression under center for Williams, but joining another player who needs a fresh start could end up working wonders for both—and he'd be the unquestioned No. 1 in Detroit. 

    Best Fit: Detroit Lions

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