With free agency and the draft still ahead, NFL rosters will undergo seismic changes over the next few months.
Before the shuffling begins, let's take an early look at the players positioned to break out when the 2019 season kicks off.
Christian Kirk, WR - Even with Larry Fitzgerald returning for another season, Kirk has an excellent chance to become Josh Rosen’s top weapon in 2019. Kirk flashed as a rookie after posting 50 yards and/or a touchdown in seven of his 12 games played and new head coach Kliff Kingsbury is expected to install a pass-heavy system.
Calvin Ridley, WR - Ridley is a breakout candidate who already delivered two week-winning performances over his rookie campaign. The 6-foot-1 wideout compiled an 821-yard, 10-touchdown season after a pair of monster outings in late September resulted in 200 yards and five scores. With more consistent production, Ridley will emerge as a true fantasy starter lining up alongside Julio Jones.
Curtis Samuel, WR - Samuel is a perfect example of why you can’t just skim through yearlong stats to determine a player’s fantasy value. After missing the first month due to injury, Samuel hit his stride in the second half of the season, posting the 18th-most fantasy points among receivers over the final nine weeks. With Devin Funchess departing in free agency, Samuel is locked into a starting job entering his third year with the Panthers.
Anthony Miller, WR - Miller was one of my favorite rookie selections last year, but a shoulder injury suffered in Week 3 hindered his first season as a pro. Although Miller established himself as the slot receiver in Chicago and scored six touchdowns in the first 12 games, the injury silenced him over the final month, including the Bears’ wild-card loss. A healthy Miller is capable of leading the team in receptions as Mitch Trubisky grows more comfortable in Matt Nagy’s offense.
Michael Gallup, WR - Gallup had a chance to step into the No. 1 role in Dallas before the team traded for Amari Cooper midway through the season. Oddly enough, Cooper’s arrival helped free up the rookie and Gallup had at least 50 yards and/or a touchdown in his last four games, ending the year with a 119-yard effort in the playoffs. Gallup’s ceiling is capped with Cooper around, but that won’t prevent him from becoming a reliable WR3 in fantasy.
Kerryon Johnson, RB - The Lions' second-rounder was forced into a committee backfield with LeGarrette Blount and Theo Riddick and yet still posted top-15 fantasy running back numbers before being placed on injured reserve after Week 11. The Lions' shift toward a more run-heavy approach under Matt Patricia is real, as the team cracked 400 carries for the first time since 2013. Johnson will be a clear workhorse and one of the most exciting breakout candidates in 2019.
Geronimo Allison, WR - We have to resist the urge to put Aaron Jones in this space since we spent the entire 2018 season screaming his name from the rooftops. With Jones' star already visible, let's turn to the Packers' receiving corps. Davante Adams joined the elite crowd this season, but there's room for improvement in Green Bay's passing game - the team's trio of rookies caught more looks of disdain from Aaron Rodgers than passes. In four games before suffering a season-ending injury, Allison was on pace for 76 receptions, 1,156 yards, and eight touchdowns. Don't forget about him when draft season comes around.
Gerald Everett, TE - The Rams are loaded in the passing game with Robert Woods, Brandin Cooks, and Cooper Kupp, making it difficult for a talented young tight end to carve out a role. However, after being shut down in the Super Bowl, Sean McVay should be searching for new sources of production. Everett finished tied for 10th in red-zone catches among tight ends, and although his overall numbers didn't jump off the page, he's a versatile pass-catcher entering his third season at a position that often requires a year or two of development.
Dalvin Cook, RB - Injuries and poor offensive line play are the only things holding Cook back from a breakout campaign. He's missed 17 games over his first two NFL seasons. When healthy at the end of 2018, Cook posted the sixth-most fantasy points among running backs over the final six weeks. If Minnesota wisely decides to upgrade the offensive line, Cook should cruise to his first 1,000-yard season and provide low-end RB1 numbers.
Tre’Quan Smith, WR - Smith gave us a glimpse into the future with a couple strong performances this season. The first came in Week 5 with 3-111-2 against the Redskins, then again in Week 10 when he posted 10-157-1 on the Eagles. Sadly for fantasy owners, Smith wasn't able to eclipse 45 yards in any other contest. The Saints turned back to Ted Ginn late in the year, which means Smith will need to beat out the veteran speedster if he plans to emerge as the second receiving option behind Michael Thomas.
Sterling Shepard, WR - The Giants' offense features superstars Saquon Barkley, Odell Beckham Jr., and breakout tight end Evan Engram. That means there aren't many candidates on their roster poised to make the leap in 2019. Shepard has flirted with success in each of his three NFL campaigns, setting career highs of 872 yards (2018) and eight touchdowns (2016), but with so many playmakers fighting for targets in New York, his fantasy launch might be delayed until he hits free agency in 2020.
Dallas Goedert, TE - Looking back at the 2018 draft, we're only left to wonder what could have been for Goedert. A tight end-needy team like the Cowboys offered an immediate starting spot, and with a pro-ready skill set, Goedert would've thrived. That's why the division-rival Eagles moved up in the second round to get him. Goedert's usage is likely to rise in Year 2, but an Ertz injury is what stands in between him and fantasy stardom.
Dante Pettis, WR - After posting 61 yards and a score in Week 1, it took longer than expected for the rookie to make a lasting impact. But when Pettis' targets increased from Week 12 to 15, he showed why the 49ers moved up to draft him in the second round, averaging 85 yards and a touchdown per game during that stretch. Unless Antonio Brown joins the team in a trade, Pettis deserves to be San Francisco’s No. 1 receiver come September.
Rashaad Penny, RB - When the Seahawks selected Penny 27th overall, he seemed guaranteed to be the Week 1 starter. However, we now know he showed up to camp out of shape and took a while to learn the playbook. That allowed Chris Carson to secure the No. 1 role with Penny battling for backup touches. Penny, though, did admit to his mistakes, and the coaching staff seemed pleased by his progress. This resulted in several long runs late in the year and a 12-108-1 effort in Week 10. It's possible both Carson and Penny will be fantasy viable next season after the Seahawks led the NFL in RB attempts with 451 - over 65 more than the next closest team.
O.J. Howard, TE - Howard was on pace for 904 yards and eight touchdowns when his season was cut short by foot and ankle injuries after Week 11. The hype around the hiring of Bruce Arians seems to be focused on what it means for Jameis Winston and the receiving corps, but some have expressed concern that Arians hasn’t featured tight ends in the past. Give the veteran coach some credit, though. It won't take long for him to realize the advantage he has in his 24-year-old burgeoning tight end and, with a full season, Howard will finally complete his breakout.
Derrius Guice, RB - After missing his rookie campaign with a torn ACL, Guice was forced to undergo three additional surgeries to combat infection. While that does delay his recovery timeline, he appears to be progressing well and is running at full speed in a straight line. His rehab will still need to be monitored throughout the offseason, as will the state of the Redskins' offense. Alex Smith isn't expected to play in 2019 after breaking his leg and his replacement will directly affect Guice's upside. A run-heavy offense is likely, which could mean a high volume if Guice is up to the challenge.