This offseason, several NFL players found new homes that could lead to major improvements in their games. Odell Beckham Jr. moved from Eli Manning’s aging passing game to Baker Mayfield’s deep ball extravaganza in Cleveland. Trey Flowers left New England’s rotation-heavy defense to reunite with his former defensive coordinator in Detroit. Nick Foles will get the opportunity to make 16 starts behind center for the first time in his career now that he’s a Jaguar.
Then there’s the flip side. Plenty of players benefitted from staying home, watching the supporting casts around them improve.
For instance, Jacksonville’s group of wideouts upgraded from Blake Bortles and Cody Kessler sailing passes over their heads to working with a Super Bowl MVP. Mayfield gets an All-Pro wideout to fling passes at indiscriminately, knowing there’s a non-negligible chance Beckham will catch it no matter where it goes. The entire Lions defensive front will get some extra opportunities to crash the pocket thanks to Flowers’ versatile presence.
But then there are the veterans who are just waiting for an opportunity to regain lost glory or reach their potential. These are the players primed for breakout and comeback seasons, set to reward the faith their teams have invested in them.
So who’s in line for a big 2019? Here are six veterans whose front offices have put them in line for a significant uptick.
DeVante Parker, WR, Dolphins
Since the start of 2019, Parker went from catching passes from checkdown masters Ryan Tannehill and Brock Osweiler (a combined 7.1 yards per attempt last fall) to deep ball lesser god Ryan Fitzpatrick (a league-leading 9.6 YPA). The results in training camp so far have been promising.
Parker’s inconsistencies have been endemic of the profile Miami was eager to cast aside. Despite carrying the pedigree of a first-round wideout with him into the league, he’s failed to match the numbers he put up over his final two seasons at Louisville. While he briefly emerged as a deep threat as a rookie in 2015 (19.0 yards per catch), his career has mostly stalled out thanks in part to his place in an offense that struggled to stretch the field.
Tannehill, a quarterback forged in the ether of limbo to be eternally stuck between good and bad, is gone. And although he wasn’t able to take advantage of Jarvis Landry’s absence last season, Parker will hear his number called more than ever now that he’s paired with a quarterback who prefers to look downfield rather than default to his slot wideout with regularity. The Dolphins recognized this potential, too. They extended him for two years and $10 million earlier this offseason.
If (or when) Fitzpatrick is replaced by second-year passer Josh Rosen, Parker will be the security blanket for a young, budding quarterback eager to prove himself — and who is capable of making throws like this:
.@MarkSchofield brought this Josh Rosen throw to my attn. while discussing Rosen's reported "third round" trade value.— Michael Kist (@MichaelKistNFL) March 7, 2019
W13, 3rd & 23, tie game, 4:35 left. Leads to a GW FG. Couldn't put it anywhere else. pic.twitter.com/aaOWaJwBpL
Derek Carr, QB, Raiders
The bad news is Carr won’t have Marshawn Lynch to provide support — both moral and ground — in 2019. The good news is, holy crap, Jon Gruden just gave him a brand new toolbox with which to work.
Gruden resisted the temptation to replace a quarterback who emerged as an MVP candidate in 2016 and instead improved his team’s foundation around Carr. Donald Penn and rookie Kolton Miller made up one of the league’s worst tackle tandems last season, so Oakland released the veteran Penn, kept 2018 first-round pick Miller at left tackle, and brought Patriots left tackle Trent Brown to the West Coast with a record-setting contract to lock down the other side of the offensive line.
This extra time to throw — Carr was sacked a career-high 51 times in 2018 — will come in handy after the Raiders completely revamped their receiving corps. Out went Martavis Bryant, Seth Roberts, and Jordy Nelson. In came Tyrell Williams, J.J. Nelson, Ryan Grant, Hunter Renfrow, and, most importantly, Antonio Brown.
While the club’s lack of tight end help is concerning, Carr will now have a deep lineup of targets who can create windows of opportunity up and down the field. If he can’t regain his 2016 magic with this roster, he may never — and that could leave Gruden angling to replace his franchise quarterback before his team’s 2020 move to Las Vegas.
David Johnson, RB, Cardinals
Johnson emerged as an all-world multipurpose tailback in 2016, but injury, awful blocking, the league’s least-threatening passing offense, and the Cardinals’ amazing excess of gridiron malaise transformed him into bad-year Doug Martin last season. Arizona was unhappy with all of that, so it blew everything up and wagered its future on an offensive savant who’d just been fired as the 35-40 head coach of Texas Tech University: Kliff Kingsbury.
The 2019 Cardinals will be leaning hard into a rebuild, but it’s easy to see what Kingsbury has in mind for his latest project. After drafting Heisman Trophy winner Kyler Murray with the first overall pick and adding pass catchers like Andy Isabella, Hakeem Butler, and KeeSean Johnson later in the draft, the first-year NFL head coach is assembling a limitation-free spread offense. He’ll allow Murray to take chances downfield and improvise mightily in and out of the pocket.
That creates a lot of space for a dual-threat back to thrive. Though Kingsbury only had one Red Raiders running back record more than 30 receptions in a single season (DeAndre Washington, who is currently part of the black-and-silver Raiders’ platoon), he’s also never had a weapon like Johnson to boost his offense. The former Northern Iowa standout broke out for 80 catches and 879 receiving yards while leading the league in yards from scrimmage in his monster 2016 season.
Now he’ll be the safety valve for a rookie quarterback who may need to make a whole bunch of short-yard snap decisions thanks to Arizona’s work-in-progress offensive line. That blocking could still be a problem, but Kingsbury’s spread offense and the keep-em-honest deep threats provided by Isabella and Butler should open up lanes for Johnson to thrive.
He’s also the top tailback on a depth chart that features T.J. Logan and Chase Edmonds, so he should get a lot of opportunities to prove he’s still an upper-tier runner.
Kyler Fackrell, LB, Packers
Fackrell set a career high with 10.5 sacks in 2018. This was impressive not only because it came in seven starts (over 16 games played), but because it came for a defense whose other primary edge threat was a 32-year-old Clay Matthews (3.5 sacks, 12 QB hits). It was also a bit of an anomaly, since Fackrell’s 12 QB hits suggest he wasn’t getting to the passer as much as your typical double-digit sack performer — Fletcher Cox, for instance, also had 10.5 sacks last season but contributed 34 QB hits as a master disruptor.
The fourth-year pro is now primed for a starting role at outside linebacker in 2019, and Packers general manager Brian Gutekunst has given Fackrell some much-needed support to keep his trajectory pointed upward. Green Bay made an extremely uncharacteristic splash in free agency by doling out $154 million in contracts for outside linebackers Preston Smith and Za’Darius Smith along with safety Adrian Amos. He’d later add former uber-recruit Rashan Gary in the first round of the 2019 NFL Draft to round out his rebuild of the Packers’ pass rush.
This updated depth chart could push Fackrell out of the spotlight, but he’s already proven himself as a valuable rotation piece for a team with few real threats to contain. Now he’ll be flanked by players capable of occupying blockers and preventing scrambles and rollouts away from his pressure. While that may not lead to a new personal record when it comes to sacks, Fackrell should be a much more consistent presence in opponents’ backfields in 2019.
Myles Garrett, DE, and Larry Ogunjobi, DT, Browns
Third-year pros Garrett and Ogunjobi are hardly long-toothed veterans and both are coming off exceptional seasons. The addition of Olivier Vernon and Sheldon Richardson, a dynamic veteran duo set to lineup alongside them in Cleveland’s four-man front, will make them even more dangerous.
John Dorsey’s radical overhaul continued this spring as his Browns went above and beyond just stealing Beckham away. No team in the league can match the balance of pass-rushing power Cleveland will bring to the trenches behind a lineup that features four starters who combined for more than 30 sacks last fall. And now they’ll get more freedom than ever to baffle opposing linemen and quarterbacks thanks to the departure of rigid defensive coordinator Gregg Williams:
“I hopefully have more freedom to be the player I want to be,” Garrett told the media after a minicamp practice in Cleveland. “[Former defensive coordinator and interim head coach] Gregg [Williams] was more like: ‘You win with these two moves. I don’t want to see anything else out of you.’ It’s kind of hard with two moves. I feel like you can’t always be so predictable.”
Quarterbacks stepping up to avoid the edge pressure of Vernon and Garrett will only be pushed into the blocker-backpedaling force of Richardson and Ogunjobi. At 600 combined pounds, that pair will also be a hellacious combo to clear for runs up the middle. Their ability to absorb blockers should also create gaps for Christian Kirksey and Joe Schobert to excel as high-yield linebackers.
Pressure is going to burst through the Cleveland defensive front like a malfunctioning pressure cooker, and that chaos should lead to career bests across Freddie Kitchens’ roster.