From a couple of surprise undrafted free agents to a couple of high-priced free agent signings, Breakout Live presents the breakout defenders of the 2019 NFL season.
Who led the NFL in sacks for the 2019 season? Aaron Donald? Khalil Mack? Nope. Shaq Barrett. The 27-year-old undrafted FA linebacker from Colorado State came out of nowhere to post a league-best 19.5 sacks. Shaq posted a 3-sack game in Week 2 vs. Cam Newton and followed it up with a 4-sack performance against the Giants in Week 3 that tied him with Mark Gastineau for the most sacks in the first three weeks of a season with 8.
Barrett started just 15 games in his first 5 seasons with the Broncos before joining the Bucs. Barrett did post 14.5 sacks over his time in Denver, but nobody expected his sack eruption in Tampa. His draft bio on NFL.com states: “Does not pass the eyeball test.” Now, all eyes are on Shaquil Barrett to see if he can duplicate his success in 2020.
The safety from Virginia was yet another undrafted free agent who blossomed during a 2019 breakout campaign with Minnesota. Harris started just 17 games over his first 4 seasons with the Vikings and collected just 3 interceptions. Paired with Harrison Smith in Mike Zimmer’s defense, the free safety set career highs last season with 60 tackles, 11 pass breakups and 6 interceptions, which was a high for safeties and tied for the NFL lead with elite CB company Stephon Gilmore and Tre’Davious White.
Anthony Harris was a favorite of PFF, landing in their top 3 safeties and had the lowest percentage of missed tackles among safeties who played 700 snaps. Snubbed by Pro Bowl voters, Harris now waits to see if he’ll get the same treatment as an unrestricted free agent this off-season or if he’ll cash in on his fine 2019 breakout season.
The 7th-overall pick from the 2019 draft was looked at as a luxury for a Jaguars team that had a loaded front-7 and the nickname “Sacksonville.” Allen managed to turn himself from a luxury to a staple of the Jags defense, registering a team-high and rookie league-high 10.5 sacks in a breakout rookie season.
While not as sexy of a name as Nick Bosa, Allen quietly had the better season and managed it while starting just 4 games and playing just 60.4% of the defensive snaps. His performance is that much more incredible when you consider he was a LB at Kentucky but transitioned to DE in Jacksonville, and he still managed to out-produce the wily veteran in Calais Campbell and budding star Yannick Ngakoue. The Wildcat-turned-Jaguar looks to cement himself as the best Josh Allen in the AFC with an encore performance in 2020.
The Smiths: Z’Darius and Preston
While not from the same mother, the Smiths were like brothers in Green Bay from day one after signing $118 million worth of deals with the usually free-agent-frugal Packers last March. The two are inexorably linked, so it seems odd not to package them together as breakouts from the 2019 season.
Over the summer Z’Darius Smith’s signing was panned by pundits as the worst off-season signing of 2019. We might need a recount after Z’Darius racked up career highs in tackles and sacks with 55 and 13.5, respectively, while adding flair and personality to the Packers defense. Now on to the other Smith. Preston, coming off a 4-sack season with the Redskins, tripled that production with Green Bay in setting a career high with 12, also notching a new career high with 56 combined tackles. It’s fair to wonder if the success of the Smiths might make Packers GM Brian Gutekunst a little more willing to spend big if the right opportunity presents itself in 2020.