The average NFL career is around 3.5 years, which for many players isn't quite long enough to establish themselves as starters, stars or superstars. With that in mind, here's a look at 10 players entering their fourth season or later who could produce the best year of their careers due to a change in coaching, a change of scenery after joining a new team and/or improved talent around them.
Face-of-the-franchise quarterback Justin Herbert finally has a new offensive coordinator: former Dallas Cowboys play-caller Kellen Moore. He led productive offenses in Dallas as the unit boasted a top-five scoring offense in 2022 (27.5 points per game, the fourth most in the NFL) and averaged 354.9 yards per game. The development of Dak Prescott, who broke the Cowboys' single-season passing touchdown record in 2021 under Moore, was "at the center of Kellen's impact," according to Dallas head coach Mike McCarthy, who wanted to take the reins back and call plays again.
Moore paired with Herbert, who has the most passing yards (14,089) through a player's first three seasons in NFL history and the second-most passing touchdowns (94) through a player's first three seasons in NFL history, will likely lead to many more fireworks at SoFi Stadium. The Chargers offense under former offensive coordinator Joe Lombardi averaged an NFL-low 6.34 air yards per pass attempt last season, woefully underutilizing Herbert's rocket launcher of a right arm. Prescott averaged 8.41 air yards per pass attempt over his four seasons with Moore as his OC, the ninth most in the NFL in that span. Herbert should see a similar uptick in that department.
His offense is stocked with weapons, from running back Austin Ekeler -- the NFL's scrimmage touchdowns leader in each of the last two seasons -- to the outstanding wide receiver duo of Keenan Allen and Mike Williams. That duo has since become a trio with 2023 first-round pick Quentin Johnston (21st overall), one of the primary catalysts for TCU's now onboard.
"He's a playmaker. He's going to make a lot of plays for us," Justin Herbert said June 14 when asked about working with Johnston this offseason. "He showed up and we knew early that we've got a special guy out there. He's done a great job picking up the offense so far. He's young, but he's going to be something special. So, it's been fun to watch him so far."
In Moore's four seasons (2019-2022) calling plays for the Cowboys, Dallas ranked second in scoring offense (27.7 points per game) and total offense (391.0 total yards per game) behind only the reigning Super Bowl champion Kansas City Chiefs (28.8 points per game and 401.5 total yards per game). Better use of Herbert and his playmakers' talents should have the signal-caller threatening to throw for 5,000 or more yards again and 40 or more touchdowns for the first time, making him a real factor in the NFL MVP race for the first time in his career.
"I think that's always the goal for an offense -- having those explosive plays through the run game or the pass game," Herbert said. "Kellen, he's got such a great mind. He's done a great job of interpreting exactly what he wants for this offense. It's a clear message for us as an offensive unit."
If there's going to be any quarterback who follows in Seattle Seahawks quarterback Geno Smith's 2022 footsteps to go from career castoff to a solid starting quarterback/potential Pro Bowler in 2023, it's new Tampa Bay Buccaneers quarterback Baker Mayfield. Mayfield enters the upcoming season with many parallels to , one of which is being on his fourth team while facing what's likely his final chance to be considered an NFL starter.
Both Smith and Mayfield lit up the Big 12 in college and were selected in the first two rounds of the draft. Although, it's worth pointing out Mayfield entered the league with much higher hopes after being selected first overall in the 2018 NFL Draft versus Smith being selected 39th overall as a second pick in the 2013 NFL Draft. Mayfield started out his career well, setting the then-record for most passing touchdowns by a rookie with 27 in 2018. The highwater mark of his career came in 2020 when he helped lead the Browns to their first playoff win since the 1994 season, but Cleveland opted to move on from Mayfield because of an injury-plagued 2021 campaign and the opportunity to acquire Deshaun Watson.
Smith struggled right from the start of his career playing on many subpar New York Jets teams (2013-2016) before bouncing around between the New York Giants (2017), Los Angeles Chargers (2018) and the Seattle Seahawks (2019-2021) as a backup. Russell Wilson being traded to the Denver Broncos opened the door for Smith to compete with Drew Lock to be the Seahawks' starting quarterback at 32 years old, and he made the most of the opportunity, playing like a top 10 quarterback and earning the first Pro Bowl selection of his 10-year career. Tom Brady's second retirement led to Mayfield's arrival in Tampa Bay via free agency this offseason.
Smith led the NFL in completion percentage (68.8%), throwing a Seahawks-record 4,282 passing yards and ranked top five in the league in passing touchdowns (30) and passer rating (100.9). That performance propelled him to win the 2022 NFL Comeback Player of the Year award, not for overcoming any injury, but rather eight years of unspectacular play on the field.
|Geno Smith (2022 season)||Stats||NFL Rank|
* Seahawks' single-season record
One key factor in Smith's 2022 resurgence is he landed in an offense with two Pro Bowl receivers in DK Metcalf and Tyler Lockett. Mayfield is in a similar situation with the ability to throw to four-time Pro Bowl wideout Mike Evans as well as Pro Bowl receiver Chris Godwin. In a , Mayfield is in a position to break out for the best year of his career.
Tony Pollard is now the Dallas Cowboys' new "lead back" in the words of head coach and new team offensive play-caller Mike McCarthy. The 26-year-old, who is playing out 2023 on the franchise tag, earned the first Pro Bowl selection of his career for his efforts during the 2022 season with bests in rushing yards (1,007), rushing touchdowns (nine), carries (193), receptions (39), receiving yards (371) and receiving touchdowns (three). It was a new workload for Ezekiel Elliott's former backup, as he became a co-starter in 2022 while readying to be the guy in the Cowboys backfield in 2023 with Elliott being released.
Pollard's 5.9 yards per touch led the NFL among players with at least 200 in 2022, but he still had 16 fewer than the declining Elliott, whose 3.9 yards per touch was dead last in the league among players with at least 200 last season. San Francisco 49ers running back Christian McCaffrey totaled 1,880 scrimmage yards, 502 more than Pollard's 1,378, while ranking second in yards per touch (5.7) behind the Cowboys rusher (McCaffrey had 97 more touches than Pollard, 329 to 232). If Pollard can maintain a similar yards-per-touch average on a higher workload, he could play like one of the best running backs in the entire league in 2023.
D'Andre Swift has been a productive NFL running back since joining the league. He's one of five running backs with at least 1,500 rushing yards and at least 150 catches across the last three seasons since 2020, when the Detroit Lions selected him 35th overall in the 2020 Draft. The others in this club are Green Bay Packers Pro Bowler Aaron Jones, New Orleans Saints Pro Bowler Alvin Kamara, Los Angeles Chargers Pro Bowler Austin Ekeler and Super Bowl LV champion Leonard Fournette.
However, the knock on Swift has been injuries: He's missed 10 games due to injuries in his three-year career and has yet to reach 650 rushing yards in a season. Making the move via trade from the Lions to the defending NFC champion Philadelphia Eagles this offseason could be exactly what Swift needs to have a career year as he enters the final year of his rookie deal.
The Eagles boast the best offensive line in the league and plenty of firepower at the quarterback position (2022 NFL MVP runner-up Jalen Hurts) and wide receiver position (Pro Bowler A.J. Brown and DeVonta Smith). The last featured running back in this offense -- Pro Bowler Miles Sanders -- had a career year in the final season of his rookie deal, totaling 1,269 yards on the ground (the fifth most in the NFL), and 11 rushing touchdowns (the eighth most in the NFL).
On top of Swift, the team also added Rashaad Penny in free agency on a one-year, $1.4 million deal after the former first-round pick spent his first five seasons with the Seattle Seahawks. Coming off an ankle injury that cost him the final 12 games of the 2022 regular season, Penny, who has a career yards per carry average of 5.7, can act as a nice change-of-pace backup to Swift along with Kenneth Gainwell and Boston Scott.
The best supporting cast of his career should be enough for Swift, whose 5.5 yards per touch ranks fifth most in the NFL among 24 players with at least 500 touches since 2020, to stay healthy and produce at a Pro Bowl-caliber level for the first time in 2023.
D.J. Moore has plenty of ability, as indicated by his three consecutive seasons of 1,000 or more receiving yards from 2019-2021 while catching passes from a broken-down Cam Newton, Kyle Allen, Will Grier, Teddy Bridgewater, P.J. Walker and Sam Darnold. He's always been a big-play threat as Moore's 14.3 yards per catch since entering the league in 2018 is the fourth most in the NFL among 32 players with at least 300 catches in that span, trailing only star wide receivers Mike Evans (15.6), Justin Jefferson (14.9) and seven-time Pro Bowler Julio Jones (14.4).
Now paired with the most dynamic quarterback of the 26-year-old receiver's five-year career in Bears dual-threat Justin Fields, Moore could break the 1,200 receiving yards threshold as well as the double-digit receiving touchdown mark in a single season for the first time in his career as the WR1 for an ascending, young passer.
Josh Allen, the one who plays defensive end for the Jacksonville Jaguars, has a knack for making clutch plays. Look no further than his 37-yard fumble return touchdown that clinched the 2022 AFC South for the Jaguars, sending them to the postseason for the first time since 2017.
Allen, the seventh overall pick in the 2019 NFL Draft, is like many in Jacksonville who have seen their development stunted on cellar-dwelling squads led by former head coaches Doug Marrone and Urban Meyer. Now, his Jaguars are the Trevor Lawrence's development under Super Bowl-winning head coach Doug Pederson. The newfound offensive support, plus Allen's career quarterback pressure percentage of 12.9% -- in a neighborhood with Pro Bowl Raiders defensive end Maxx Crosby (13.1%), Pro Bowl Chargers outside linebacker Khalil Mack (13%) and Pro Bowl Panthers outside linebacker Brian Burns (12.9%) since 2019 -- should present plenty more sack opportunities while playing with the lead more frequently for a player who hasn't hit double digits in that department since his rookie year in 2019 (10.5).for the foreseeable future thanks to face-of-the-franchise quarterback
Bradley Chubb, already a two-time Pro Bowler entering his age-27 season, is suiting up in the best defense of his career in 2023, his first full season as a Miami Dolphin. He gets to reunite with his former Denver Broncos head coach and new Dolphins defensive coordinator Vic Fangio while playing in front of a secondary with six-time Pro Bowl cornerback Jalen Ramsey and four-time Pro Bowl cornerback Xavien Howard. Along the defensive line, he gets to rush the passer in tandem with 24-year-old, third-year linebacker Jaelan Phillips, whose 70 quarterback pressures last season were tied for the seventh most in the entire league.
All the ingredients are present for Chubb, who signed a five-year, $110 million extension last November, to live up to that contract, surpass his rookie year production of 12 sacks and establish a new career year while helping propel the Dolphins back to the playoffs in 2023.
Carl Lawson is in a great spot, entering his second year removed from a ruptured Achilles tendon he suffered in training camp in 2021 and suiting up for a top five defense. He was just as productive at pressuring opposing quarterbacks (49 quarterback pressures) as Washington Commanders Pro Bowl defensive tackle Daron Payne (49 quarterback pressures) in Year 1 coming back from the injury. Having four-time NFL MVP Aaron Rodgers as his quarterback on the other side of the ball instead of Zach Wilson or Mike White should give Lawson many more second-half pass-rush opportunities, thus the chance for a career season in his contract year.
New Seattle Seahawks defensive end Dre'Mont Jones, who signed a three-year, $51 million contract in free agency, has recorded a minimum of 5.5 sacks and seven tackles for loss in every season since 2020 after shifting to the defensive end spot from defensive tackle after his rookie year in 2019. Last season with the Denver Broncos, Jones had a career year with 6.5 sacks and nine tackles for loss. This year, he joins a Seattle defense with two young, ball-hawking corners in the secondary with Tariq Woolen, whose six interceptions as a rookie were tied for the most in the NFL last season, and Coby Bryant, whose four forced fumbles as a rookie were tied for the third most in the NFL last season.
Defensive linemate Darrell Taylor also had a nose for the ball last season, forcing four fumbles as well. The return of six-time All-Pro middle linebacker Bobby Wagner makes this Seahawks defense arguably the most talented one he's ever played on. Combine that with having a quarterback who played at a top 10 level last season in Geno Smith, the 26-year-old is all set for his best season yet.
Charles Omenihu was a rotation piece on the San Francisco 49ers top-ranked scoring defense (16.3 points per game allowed) that was powered by 2022 Defensive Player of the Year Nick Bosa. Now, the soon-to-be 26-year-old is a starter for the defending Super Bowl champion Kansas City Chiefs after signing a two-year, $16 million deal in free agency. Omenihu recorded career highs in sacks (4.5) and quarterback pressures (54) in that part-time role, and now he gets to line up next to 2022 All-Pro defensive Chris Jones in an aggressive, multiple front scheme under defensive coordinator Steve Spagnuolo. Career year incoming.