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Rich Schultz/Associated Press
Opportunity knocks. Who answers?
Shaquil Barrett was once a backup outside linebacker with the Denver Broncos before he found a home as an elite edge-rusher and helped the Tampa Bay Buccaneers win Super Bowl LV.
Cornerback J.C. Jackson went undrafted yet still found a way to crack the New England Patriots roster and in his third season finished second in the NFL with nine interceptions.
The Tennessee Titans’ Derrick Henry needed three seasons to become a starter. He’s now led the league in rushing in back-to-back seasons.
So many examples can be found of players who took advantage of opportunities.
The trick is trying to figure out who is primed to do so before a season begins. To land on this list of each team’s 2021 breakout player, a player had to start six or fewer games last season at this year’s projected position. Their potential breakthroughs could occur because of new situations, coaching changes or departures of other performers or simply because they’ve shown enough talent to warrant expanded roles.
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Stew Milne/Associated Press
The Arizona Cardinals, particularly head coach Kliff Kingsbury, were flummoxed last year by Josh Jones’ draft slide into the third round.
“We’re calling saying: ‘What’s going on? Did he kill somebody last night? Is there something we don’t know about? What’s the issue?'” Kingsbury told Bickley and Marotta. “They were kind of scratching their heads as well.”
But the talented offensive lineman played little after an ankle injury. Now, a position switch could be forthcoming.
“He offers position flexibility,” running game coordinator and offensive line coach Sean Kugler told reporters. “He could play tackle; he could play guard. We’ll see where that goes as we get into the offseason. He’s a very good pick for us, and he’s going to be an outstanding lineman for the future of the Cardinals.”
With right tackle Kelvin Beachum having signed a two-year extension, Jones could play right guard to complete the Arizona front.
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Danny Karnik/Associated Press
In Arthur Smith’s two seasons as Titans offensive coordinator, Derrick Henry led the NFL in rushing. The new Atlanta Falcons head coach doesn’t have a workhorse on the roster, but a back should emerge.
The depth chart includes Ito Smith and the recently signed Mike Davis. Smith is more explosive, though he’s not Henry, of course (who is?).
And since the offense should employ Arthur Smith’s favored outside-zone scheme, Ito Smith’s 4.45-second 40-yard dash speed makes him capable of threatening defenses when running outside the tackles.
A running back rotation is expected. Still, Smith has the talent to emerge as the leader and improve significantly on last year’s 268 rushing yards.
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Brett Carlsen/Associated Press
The Baltimore Ravens entered the offseason knowing they couldn’t re-sign their top three edge-rushers.
Matthew Judon is now with the Patriots, while Yannick Ngakoue joined the Las Vegas Raiders.
The Ravens invested a four-year, $22 million extension in Tyus Bowser. Bowser hasn’t managed more than five sacks in a season and finished with only two last year. But he will now be one of Baltimore’s primary edge-defenders.
The Ravens have consistently developed successful outside linebackers and spent a second-round pick on Bowers four years ago.
“With the defense that we had [and] the scheme, I fit in so well with that defense,” Bowser said, per Raven Country’s Todd Karpovich.
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Reed Hoffmann/Associated Press
A year ago, Jerry Hughes and Mario Addison—who are 32 and 33 years old—played the majority of the Buffalo Bills’ defensive end snaps.
As the campaign progressed, second-round rookie A.J. Epenesa contributed more. He had received first-round buzz for his play in the Big Ten, though poor scouting combine testing numbers pushed him into the draft’s second day.
“I’m very pleased with how he played the second half of the year,” Bills general manager Brandon Beane told reporters. “… I think he’s got a high ceiling, and it will be a big offseason for him.”
Two of Epenesa’s best games came during his only start in Week 17 and the AFC Championship Game against the Kansas City Chiefs. That upward trend should continue.
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Daniel Kucin Jr./Associated Press
David Moore started six games for the Seattle Seahawks in 2020 even though Tyler Lockett and DK Metcalf were the team’s top two wide receivers.
Once his contract expired, Moore signed a two-year, $4.8 million free-agent deal with the Carolina Panthers, whose new general manager, Scott Fitterer, spent the previous 20 years with the Seahawks.
Moore has flashed potential in the four years since he was a seventh-round pick out of East Central (Oklahoma) and posted a 142.8 passer rating when targeted last season, according to Pro Football Focus. That figure ranked first among wide receivers with 40 or more targets.
Carolina needs another weapon to replace Curtis Samuel, who signed with the Washington Football Team. Moore and Samuel have different skill sets, but Samuel’s 97 targets from last season must go somewhere.
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Phelan M. Ebenhack/Associated Press
General manager Ryan Pace and the Chicago Bears’ mismanagement of the salary cap cost them their best cover cornerback in Kyle Fuller.
Last week, the Bears signed Desmond Trufant to a one-year deal and cut the two-time Pro Bowler Fuller to save $11 million.
Fuller quickly agreed to terms with the Broncos, and a handful of youngsters must help fill the void.
Jaylon Johnson showed what he could do in a starting role last year. Duke Shelley is the logical choice to take over the slot. Buster Skrine primarily covered the inside receiver in 2020, but the 31-year-old remains a free agent.
Shelley replaced Skrine last season when the latter suffered a concussion, and the 2019 sixth-round pick should move into the starting spot.
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Rich Schultz/Associated Press
Last year, the Cincinnati Bengals drafted a pair of linebackers at the top of the third and fourth rounds. Logan Wilson and Akeem Davis-Gaither started four games as the team relied on veterans Josh Bynes and Germaine Pratt.
Bynes is a free agent, which opens the door for Wilson to play in the middle.
He entered the draft as one of the class’ most instinctive and best all-around linebackers. As a four-year starter for Wyoming, Wilson racked up 409 tackles, 34.5 tackles for loss, 14 defended passes and 10 interceptions. He’s a ball magnet.
Now, those skills must translate. Considering Wilson took a redshirt year with the Cowboys before exploding onto the college scene, a similar breakout could be forthcoming.
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Ron Schwane/Associated Press
The Cleveland Browns linebacker corps earned its reputation as one of the league’s worst units. Many assumed general manager Andrew Berry would attack the position this offseason. He hasn’t.
The signing of Anthony Walker offset the loss of last year’s leading tackler, B.J. Goodson. Plus Berry invested last year’s 97th pick in Jacob Phillips.
A knee injury hampered Phillips, but he worked his way back into the starting lineup by Week 15. Phillips shows good instincts and tremendous closing speed, and he operates at a different gear than any other linebacker on the roster. He would become an all-around performer with improvement in the passing game.
With Walker manning the middle, Phillips can thrive as a run-and-chase Will linebacker.
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Ron Jenkins/Associated Press
For four games, the Dallas Cowboys saw what they could have when Tyler Biadasz took over at center. But last year’s 146th pick suffered a hamstring injury that interrupted his season.
The Cowboys grew accustomed to dominating at the point of attack with five-time Pro Bowler Travis Frederick leading the way for six seasons before he retired in 2020. Biadasz, a fellow Wisconsin product, has the potential to anchor Dallas’ front for the next decade.
Three other offensive linemen—left tackle Tyron Smith, right guard Zack Martin and right tackle La’el Collins—also landed on injured reserve.
But as long as the snapper establishes himself in Year 2, the unit can once again be counted among the league’s best.
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Steven Senne/Associated Press
The Broncos are talented at the tight end position.
Noah Fant, whom the organization chose in the first round of the 2019 draft, is one of the league’s most athletic receiving threats. Intrigue lies with last year’s fourth-rounder, Albert Okwuegbunam.
Okwuegbunam played four games, but a promising campaign ended when he suffered a torn ACL in Week 9.
Okwuegbunam ca be dynamic. Prior to the draft, the two-time second-team All-SEC performer ran a 4.49-second 40-yard dash. More importantly, Okwuegbunam built a rapport with Broncos quarterback Drew Lock at Missouri.
Denver should prioritize 12 personnel (two tight ends) when Okwuegbunam is up to speed.
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Phelan M. Ebenhack/Associated Press
Jeff Okudah’s first year with the Detroit Lions was a disaster. The No. 3 pick struggled before his season ended because of a core muscle injury.
New Lions head coach Dan Campbell said he and others must play more confidently.
“You got to be willing to get your ass beat a couple of times, but then you have to snap back, because the game is on the line, you’re going to have to make that play,” Campbell told Kyle Meinke of MLive.com.
New defensive coordinator Aaron Glenn spent 15 years as an NFL cornerback. He should know exactly how to handle Okudah and maximize his capabilities.
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Jed Jacobsohn/Associated Press
Jon Runyan didn’t start as a rookie, but the sixth-round draft pick got some playing time.
The Green Bay Packers shuffled their front five throughout the campaign, and Runyan proved to be a valuable depth piece.
He can now move into a much bigger role with Corey Linsley’s departure via free agency. One of last year’s starting guards—Lucas Patrick or Elgton Jenkins—should bump over to center. As a result, a spot will open for Runyan.
The Packers have a history of developing draft picks from the middle and late rounds who become integral parts of the offensive front, such as Josh Sitton, T.J. Lang, Linsley and left tackle David Bakhtiari. Runyan is likely next.
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Eric Christian Smith/Associated Press
The Houston Texans are in turmoil, and new general manager Nick Caserio is clearly trying to change the locker room with a multitude of acquisitions since the start of free agency. The team has signed or traded for 26 new players.
So, it’s difficult to pinpoint a single breakout performer.
One holdover remains an intriguing candidate, though. Wide receiver Keke Coutee is an explosive target in the passing game and a threat as a gadget player. He can create a chunk play any time he touches the ball.
For Coutee to realize his potential, he must stay healthy and protect the ball. If the 24-year-old does those two things, it’s easy to envision him emerging as a weapon in David Culley’s offense, especially after Will Fuller V’s departure.
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Kyusung Gong/Associated Press
The Indianapolis Colts have been patient with 2018 second-round pick Kemoko Turay. Everyone within the organization sees his immense potential, but the edge-defender must find a way to stay on the field.
“Maybe this is the year Kemoko can stay healthy and have a breakout year,” head coach Frank Reich said on SiriusXM NFL Radio (h/t the Indianapolis Star‘s Jim Ayello). “He certainly has the talent for that.”
Turay has an explosive first step plus the length and flexibility to consistently beat offensive tackles. However, over the last two seasons, the 25-year-old has played only 11 games. He registered 2.5 quarterback sacks and eight quarterback hits during that span.
With Justin Houston a free agent and Denico Autry having signed with the Titans, Turay can be the pass-rusher the Colts need.
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Terrance Williams/Associated Press
New Jacksonville Jaguars head coach Urban Meyer made his approach to team-building apparent. The defensive line takes priority.
“That was the place we built, and I believe we’re going to be in the top fourth in the league on the defensive line,” Meyer told reporters.
Josh Allen is an exciting edge-rusher, though he’s coming off a season-ending knee injury. The Jaguars added linemen Tyson Alualu, Malcom Brown and Jihad Ward in free agency.
A bookend to Allen would go a long way toward solidifying this group.
Jacksonville chose K’Lavon Chaison with the 20th pick in last year’s draft. But Chaisson did not show the same type of fluidity as he did with LSU. A fully realized Chaisson could boost the line beyond Meyer’s lofty expectations.
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Louis DeLuca/Associated Press
The Chiefs surprised with their cuts of starting offensive tackles Eric Fisher and Mitchell Schwartz.
Clearly, the offensive front required a retooling after the unit’s dismantling at the hands of the Buccaneers in Super Bowl LV. Schwartz and Fisher had large contracts and are coming off season-ending injuries.
So, the organization invested in the interior by signing Joe Thuney and Kyle Long. Plus, the tackle spot may not be as much of an issue as it seemed.
According to KOA NewsRadio’s Benjamin Allbright, the Chiefs are “big” on last year’s third-round pick, Lucas Niang. Niang opted out of the 2020 campaign, but he didn’t allow a sack in 975 pass-blocking snaps with TCU since 2017, per Pro Football Focus. Niang could take over at right tackle.
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Danny Karnik/Associated Press
The Raiders made Henry Ruggs III the highest-drafted wide receiver in the 2020 class. However, Ruggs’ presence didn’t stop them from drafting Bryan Edwards in the third round and signing John Brown as a free agent.
Neither Ruggs nor Edwards put up outstanding numbers last season.
“I was disappointed in the productivity of our rookies,” general manager Mike Mayock told Raiders.com’s Eddie Paskal. “I’ll be the first one to admit that. You can make excuses. You can have a conversation why.”
Edwards brings a different skill set compared to Ruggs, Brown and slot receiver Hunter Renfrow. He is a 6’3″ target capable of winning 50-50 balls and serving as a traditional X-receiver.
A broken foot last February followed by a Week 3 ankle injury slowed him, but he can develop into the Raiders’ top wide receiver.
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John Cordes/Associated Press
New head coach Brandon Staley should drastically change how the Los Angeles Chargers play defense. Granted, the Chargers were pretty good under coordinator Gus Bradley. Staley, however, has a different approach.
The Los Angeles Rams finished with the NFL’s top-ranked pass defense under Staley last year by dropping more players into coverage and utilizing lighter boxes. In that setup, linemen can be more aggressive, attacking to stop the run and get after quarterbacks. This approach allowed Leonard Floyd to experience a career year.
Expect something similar with Uchenna Nwosu.
Too often, Nwosu’s versatility didn’t allow him to consistently work off the edge and create havoc. With Melvin Ingram III testing free agency, Nwosu should project as Joey Bosa’s bookend and have ample opportunities to make impact plays.
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Kyusung Gong/Associated Press
The Rams secondary will experience massive changes.
First, Brandon Staley became the new Chargers head coach after only one season as Rams defensive coordinator.
Second, safety John Johnson III and cornerback Troy Hill left in free agency to sign with the Browns.
Their departures open up possibilities for Terrell Burgess. Rams general manager Les Snead chose Burgess in last year’s third round. He played seven games before suffering a broken ankle.
Burgess will bring a valuable skill set as a safety comfortable working over the slot. Johnson and Hill played over interior receivers more than any other defensive backs on the roster last season. Burgess can take on that role as a hybrid nickel corner.
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Lynne Sladky/Associated Press
The Miami Dolphins signed center Ted Karras to a one-year deal last offseason, and he performed admirably. But Karras returned to the Patriots via free agency.
So, a void exists in the middle of the offensive line.
But the Dolphins were prepared for this possibility. Miami chose Michael Deiter in the third round of the 2019 draft. Deiter played center, left guard and left tackle during his Wisconsin career. But he was mostly relegated to some special teams snaps last year.
Deiter has a chance to complete the front five with Austin Jackson and Robert Hunt at tackle and Ereck Flowers, Jesse Davis and Solomon Kindley competing at guard.
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Jeff Haynes/Associated Press
Ezra Cleveland seemingly found a home at right guard. Last year’s second-round pick of the Minnesota Vikings started nine games after converting from left tackle, but a transition back may be necessary after veteran Riley Reiff was released.
Cleveland would be a natural fit. The 6’6″, 311-pounder started 40 games for Boise State and is an excellent athlete. His movement skills also fit well with the team’s wide-zone offensive approach.
Minnesota could keep Cleveland at guard and try to address left tackle in the draft. Or the organization’s investment could pay off with Cleveland taking over and developing into the anchor for the offensive front.
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Doug Murray/Associated Press
The Patriots run a complicated system, particularly for those tasked with multiple roles. Josh Uche entered the lineup as a hybrid capable of playing off-ball linebacker and edge-rusher. He needed time to fully absorb what was asked of him.
“I thought he provides situationally an element of pass rush and some passing game value for us,” head coach Bill Belichick told reporters in December. “So, we’ll continue to build on that, but he’s improved and he’s worked hard to understand what we’re doing and also how that changes from game to game. He’s taken some communication roles over defensively, and that’s been good.”
With a full season under his belt, Uche should do more. He provides exactly what the Patriots love in a defender. His flexibility within the scheme creates favorable looks and matchups to confuse offenses.
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Chris Szagola/Associated Press
The idea of Jameis Winston becoming a breakout performer might be considered tongue-in-cheek by some readers. It’s not.
Yes, Winston was the No. 1 pick in the 2015 draft and made the Pro Bowl. He even led the league in passing yards (and interceptions) just two seasons ago.
But the 27-year-old had to start over with the New Orleans Saints in 2020 and must prove himself again as a starter. Winston isn’t even guaranteed the job, though he is clearly a better passer than Taysom Hill.
When Winston wins the starting job, he can show off the work he put in over the past year. He committed to nutrition, got LASIK eye surgery and signed with the Saints, learning from Drew Brees and head coach Sean Payton.
Winston’s responsible approach should catapult him into the conversation about the league’s best young quarterbacks.
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Corey Sipkin/Associated Press
A fractured foot derailed the early part of Xavier McKinney’s rookie season with the New York Giants. The safety finally entered the lineup in Week 12 and started the final four games.
McKinney was deservedly the first safety drafted in 2020. He did everything for Alabama. According to ESPN’s Field Yates, the first-team All-SECer played at least 113 snaps in his final season at each of safety, cornerback, inside linebacker and outside linebacker.
The Giants moved him all over, too. He excelled as the league’s top-graded rookie safety, per Pro Football Focus, though he didn’t play enough to qualify.
In a loaded secondary that features James Bradberry, Jabrill Peppers, Logan Ryan and the newly signed Adoree’ Jackson, McKinney should be the glue that holds the unit together.
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Adam Hunger/Associated Press
The addition of Carl Lawson is exciting for the New York Jets after years without an elite edge-rusher. He will create opportunities for others along the front.
The previous statement is doubly true with Quinnen Williams and Sheldon Rankins on the interior.
Bryce Huff didn’t hear his name called during the 2020 draft even though his tape showed one of the most fluid and smoothest edge-rushers in the class. Huff isn’t the strongest or most physical at the point of attack, but he can turn the corner against tackles.
New head coach Robert Saleh relies on his defensive front to dictate terms. He needs explosive upfield disruptors to properly employ his scheme. Huff best fits the description to play opposite Lawson.
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Rich Schultz/Associated Press
The Philadelphia Eagles won’t commit to Jalen Hurts as their starting quarterback, though they seem to be leaning in that direction.
ESPN’s Chris Mortensen (via NBC Sports Philadelphia’s Reuben Frank) reported Eagles chairman Jeffrey Lurie “wants to do everything he can to help Jalen Hurts be successful,” but general manager Howie Roseman refuted that.
The Eagles sunk a second-round pick into Hurts just last year. While a non-first-round quarterback isn’t guaranteed anything, Hurts brings an intriguing skill set.
“What we saw is a player who can really extend plays and create on his own. … We saw his ability to create when things weren’t there. That’s an unbelievable asset to have as a football team,” new head coach Nick Sirianni told reporters. “You can see his toughness on tape and how he carried himself. … He is a leader who loves football. There is no substitute for that.”
Hurts is a developmental quarterback. However, the Eagles can set him up to succeed by adding another weapon with this year’s sixth pick.
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Justin Berl/Associated Press
The Pittsburgh Steelers have been a linebacker factory since the 1970s. Every time a star player retires or signs elsewhere, the Steelers have a plug-and-play option ready to pick up the slack.
Last year, the organization prepared for life without Bud Dupree, who signed with the Titans this offseason, by drafting Alex Highsmith in the third round.
Highsmith was one of college football’s premier pass-rushers with 15 sacks in his final season with Charlotte. So, the fact Pro Football Focus graded the 102nd pick as the second-best rookie edge-defender behind only Defensive Rookie of the Year Chase Young should come as no surprise.
Highsmith will get numerous one-on-one matchups as a full-time starter opposite T.J. Watt. Since offenses will slide protection toward Watt, all Highsmith has to do is take advantage.
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Winslow Townson/Associated Press
San Francisco 49ers head coach Kyle Shanahan knows how to build a better running game than anyone else. As a result, lesser-known talents emerge as feature backs on what seems like a yearly basis.
Last season, Jeff Wilson Jr. showed what he can do in the wide-zone scheme by leading the team with 600 rushing yards and 10 touchdowns. He ran for 319 yards and scored four times over the final three weeks of the regular season. Wilson shouldn’t be viewed as just another rotational piece.
Raheem Mostert remains the expected starter, but he has an injury history. Last season, the 28-year-old played only eight games because of ankle and knee injuries. It feels like Wilson will start the season in a complementary role but then take over as the lead back.
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Stephen Brashear/Associated Press
The Seahawks swung and missed multiple times when trying to address defensive end over the last few seasons. A hit could be coming, though, with Alton Robinson stepping to the plate.
Mixed sports metaphor aside, Robinson intrigued the Seahawks before he played a snap by adding bulk going into his first training camp.
“He surprised all of us in that he’s bigger than we thought,” Pete Carroll told reporters in August. “He’s in the 270s. It’s helped him. He’s a powerful rusher. He already has good finesse and good moves and understands how to play on the edge and all, but you can see him break the edge down some because he’s stronger and faster than some of the sleeker guys who are in the 250s.”
After starting the season on the inactive list, the fifth-round pick earned playing time and even excelled over the final month of the season. Robinson should open the season as a starter opposite L.J. Collier, giving Seattle a potential-laden duo.
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Rick Osentoski/Associated Press
Maybe Antonio Brown will return to the Buccaneers after contributing during the team’s Super Bowl run. Or the organization can give more reps to a talented young wide receiver in Tyler Johnson.
Tampa Bay, particularly head coach Bruce Arians, was thrilled when Johnson was available in the fifth round last year. He caught 12 passes for 169 yards and two touchdowns while playing limited snaps.
His usage could expand greatly if Brown doesn’t re-sign.
Obviously, Mike Evans and Chris Godwin remain Tampa Bay’s top two wide receivers, and quarterback Tom Brady has a great rapport with tight end Rob Gronkowski. There’s still room for Johnson to up his target share and become yet another threat for the league’s second-best passing attack.
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Adam Hunger/Associated Press
Here’s how the Titans’ offseason has gone.
They released starting right tackle Dennis Kelly. They traded last year’s first-round pick, tackle Isaiah Wilson. They signed tackle Kendall Lamm to a two-year, $6.8 million free-agent contract.
Clearly, Tennessee didn’t get the best end of the bargain, though Lamm has the potential to solidify the right side.
The 28-year-old started 24 games in his first four seasons with the Texans. He became a reliable option for the Browns over the last two years and is a relatively smooth pass-blocker and well versed in the wide-zone scheme. Lamm actually graded as well or better than any of the Titans’ top free-agent additions this offseason, according to Pro Football Focus.
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Julio Cortez/Associated Press
Washington’s Taylor Heinicke played better than any other quarterback Tampa Bay faced during its Super Bowl run.
At this point last year, the 28-year-old was still a member of the XFL’s St. Louis BattleHawks. Nearly 10 months later, Heinicke carried Washington during its playoff contest.
Yes, Ryan Fitzpatrick signed with Washington this offseason. Also, the organization might draft a quarterback with this year’s 19th pick. Still, don’t rule out Heinicke because he showed out in difficult circumstances.