Biggest NFL X-Factors Who Can Make or Break Their Team
Every team needs a little extra something to realize its full potential.
Not every roster features a franchise quarterback. Not every team can rely on significant role players who can make the difference in any contest. Not every offense is balanced or complemented by a defense capable of making a key stop.
It falls on individuals to fill holes, rise above their previous status and develop into the necessary X-factors needed to define an entire season.
Many mitigating factors lead to these situations. Injuries, standout performances or roster decisions help place players into a different stratosphere.
Instead of just being considered a replaceable cog, these performers have the potential to change entire campaigns. With a little extra added to the mix, their contributions become the crux of a team's potential success or failure.
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Merriam-Webster defines an X-factor as "a circumstance, quality or person that has a strong but unpredictable influence."
"Unpredictable" is the key term because these influential performances can come from the least expected sources.
The Dallas Cowboys selected Dak Prescott with the 135th overall pick in last year's NFL draft. He wasn't supposed to develop into a franchise quarterback during his rookie campaign. He did.
Lorenzo Alexander spent 11 seasons in the NFL as a special teams ace and backup linebacker. As a 33-year-old role player, Alexander finished the 2016 campaign with 12.5 sacks after managing nine career sacks during his previous 10 campaigns.
Here are a few worthy of being mentioned before discussions begin regarding the top targets.
- QB DeShone Kizer, Cleveland Browns: Brock Osweiler isn't the Browns' quarterback of the future. Kizer might be. This year's second-round pick will play at some point this season and indicate whether the franchise will need to continue its search at the game's most important position.
- RB Joe Mixon, Cincinnati Bengals: The Bengals are playing a dangerous game. The team is talented at every position, except offensive tackle. If the offensive line doesn't hold up, the entire season has the potential to tank. But a back with Mixon's potential has the ability to slow opposing defenses as both a runner who can make you miss and a dangerous weapon out of the backfield.
- WR Sammy Watkins, Los Angeles Rams: The Rams knew they had to improve at wide receiver to get the most out of quarterback Jared Goff. Watkins may be operating under the final year of his rookie contract, but he has the potential to be an elite target if he remains healthy.
- CB Ronald Darby, Philadelphia Eagles: Darby provides a much-needed established presence at cornerback. The Eagles were obviously worried about going into the regular season with Patrick Robinson, Jalen Mills and rookie Rasul Douglas as their top options. Darby displayed a special skill set during his 2015 rookie campaign yet faltered a year later.
QB Mitchell Trubisky, Chicago Bears
Quarterbacks can be named as the most influencing factors on every single team. But only one is included among this year's potential X-factors. Why? Because the Chicago Bears placed themselves in a unique predicament.
The team is paying Mike Glennon $14 million to be the team's starting quarterback this fall. Yet the organization complicated things when it traded up and chose Mitchell Trubisky with the second overall pick in April's draft.
The rumblings to start Trubisky began after a strong initial showing in his first preseason contest.
"It's just a small step in the right direction," Trubisky said, per CBS Chicago's Chris Emma. "I still got a lot of work to do. I was pleased with how I played, but plenty more mistakes are going on during practice for me that I need to work on and continue to improve in my game and make sure when I go out there that I'm doing my job to help other people do their job."
The rookie can try to extinguish the flames, but they've already ignited. Glennon is fighting a losing battle. Any miscue will have the masses calling for Trubisky.
His presence in the lineup has the potential to change the entire direction of the Bears season. A young quarterback playing well provides hope and the chance to achieve more wins than expected.
RB Marshawn Lynch, Oakland Raiders
The Oakland Raiders made arguably the biggest move of the offseason when the organization coaxed running back Marshawn Lynch out of retirement and acquired him from the Seattle Seahawks.
His physical presence adds something almost no other running back can provide. Even so, he's a 31-year-old veteran who hasn't played a meaningful down in 19 months.
How much he actually provides this season remains in question. Latavius Murray's 2016 campaign provided a benchmark when he led the Raiders with 788 rushing yards and 12 touchdowns.
The Raiders finished sixth overall in run offense. Lynch will receive help from the likes DeAndre Washington and Jalen Richard. Certain expectations have been heaped upon the five-time Pro Bowl performer, though.
"He's going to run through some people's faces," quarterback Derek Carr said during training camp, per the Raiders Wire's Austin Gayle. "I think that's what he's going to do."
Replacing Murray's touchdown production is important. Lynch, who ran for 48 TDs from 2011-14, being able to physically overwhelm opponents is even more so. Whether he can do so for the entire campaign remains to be seen.
WR Terrelle Pryor, Washington Redskins
Jordan Reed and Jamison Crowder are going to get theirs within the Washington Redskins offense. But the squad has to account for the 135 receptions and 2,046 yards DeSean Jackson and Pierre Garcon provided last season.
Enter Terrelle Pryor.
Of course, Pryor can't fill the entire void. Other receivers on the roster will help. But the 6'4", 228-pound target with 40-yard-dash speed in the 4.3-second range appears poised to become one of the NFL's top receivers.
"I will be shocked if he isn't in the Pro Bowl," Pryor's former wide receivers (and current Browns) coach Al Saunders said, per ESPN.com's Pat McManamon (via colleague John Keim). "He's going to have that kind of year."
The former quarterback caught 77 passes for 1,007 yards in just his second season as a full-time receiver. The 28-year-old target's upside is limitless, and quarterback Kirk Cousins should lean heavily on the ultratalented convert if he plans on throwing for 4,000 or more yards for a third straight season.
WR Tyreek Hill, Kansas City Chiefs
Tyreek Hill is already a Pro Bowl return man. He led the Kansas City Chiefs in total yards as a rookie, too. His development as a wide receiver is the most important evolution of this year's Chiefs offense.
The Chiefs decided to part ways with Jeremy Maclin with the expectation of Hill becoming Alex Smith's top option at wide receiver.
His continued improvement as a well-rounded target is vital for the Chiefs to become more explosive when throwing him the ball. His route running has already improved from his rookie campaign.
"People think he's just fast," cornerback Marcus Peters said, per The MMQB's Peter King. "But he's a really technically sound receiver."
Hill has been limited in how he's viewed. He's not just a versatile Percy Harvin-like gadget receiver.
The 5'10", 185-pound target can develop into a wide receiver the caliber of Antonio Brown or T.Y. Hilton. The Chiefs are going to give him as a chance to do so.
LG Luke Joeckel, Seattle Seahawks
The Seattle Seahawks finally started to invest in their offensive line.
Center Justin Britt and the organization agreed to a three-year contract extension worth $27 million Thursday, per NFL Network's Ian Rapoport.
The process started months ago. Seattle acquired a reclamation project when Luke Joeckel signed a one-year, $8 million deal at the onset of free agency.
Joeckel never lived up to expectations after the Jacksonville Jaguars drafted him with the second overall pick in 2013. His acquisition would raise eyebrows for most teams, but it became especially intriguing considering the plight of the Seahawks offensive line.
Aside from Britt, the team continues to piece together its starting front. Last season, it surrendered 41 sacks. Only the Buffalo Bills gave up more.
Joeckel couldn't claim the left tackle position, and head coach Pete Carroll named him the starting left guard on Thursday, per the Tacoma News Tribune's Gregg Bell. His inability to secure the blind side led to a bigger problem since George Fant struggled to make the transition from Western Kentucky basketball player to tight end and was declared the starter at left tackle.
The Seahawks should be thankful quarterback Russell Wilson is one of the game's best under pressure.
DE Ezekiel Ansah, Detroit Lions
The Detroit Lions believed the team's pass rush could naturally improve upon last year's anemic effort with a healthy Ezekiel Ansah, an improved Kerry Hyder and the free-agent addition of Cornelius Washington.
It still could. But the group must persist without Hyder in the lineup. Last year's sack leader (with eight) suffered a torn Achilles tendon during the preseason contest against the Indianapolis Colts, per NFL Network's Ian Rapoport.
As a result, even more responsibility will be placed on Ansah to perform. The former first-round pick is only one season removed from a 14.5-sack campaign. His production cratered to two sacks in 2016 while he dealt with injuries.
No one else on the roster managed more than two sacks, and the Lions are going to look for help up front.
"And oftentimes we look at different teams, there's usually somebody that comes that's not on your team initially that comes from somewhere else that comes in to do a great job for you, so that's consistent," head coach Jim Caldwell said, per the Detroit Free Press' Dave Birkett.
Even if the Lions find another edge defender to help, offenses are going to slide protection toward Ansah and he still needs to produce. Otherwise, the Lions won't improve upon last year's 26 sacks (tied for second-worst) and could find themselves out of the postseason.
DE Taco Charlton, Dallas Cowboys
The Dallas Cowboys received a tremendous boost from a pair of rookies on their way to last year's 13-3 campaign. The team will need similar help this fall because the defensive line needs help in the worst way.
Randy Gregory is suspended for the entire season. David Irving will miss the first four games after being suspended for a violation of the league's performance-enhancing drugs policy. Damontre Moore won't be available for the first two games due to a violation of the NFL's substance-abuse policy.
The onus falls on first-round rookie Taco Charlton to pick up the slack and provide a consistent edge presence.
Head coach Jason Garrett said, per ESPN.com's Todd Archer:
"When you're a defensive lineman, you have the opportunity to go against our offensive linemen in practice. What a great opportunity to get better. And you're not going to win all the time, you're going to lose a lot. But you just have to keep battling. He's certainly done that. He demonstrated that in Michigan, he's demonstrated that so far. And that's how you get better. So, we're going to give him plenty of chances to play in these preseason games and hopefully grow before our eyes. The fact that we have five preseason games is really valuable for all the young players and Taco's included in that group. I think he's getting better week-by-week."
Owner Jerry Jones wanted to add a war daddy along his defensive front because none of his linemen managed more than six sacks last season. Charlton has the ability to become the consistent pass-rusher the unit lacks, which makes his growth a crucial part of the team's 2017 potential.
LB Mike Hull, Miami Dolphins
Raekwon McMillan's rookie campaign ended before it truly began. The Miami Dolphins linebacker tore the ACL in his right knee before he even played a single snap, per the Miami Herald's Adam H. Beasley.
The Dolphins expected this year's second-round pick to be their starting middle linebacker. The team has turned to Mike Hull to man the middle and make the calls. He'll be flanked by veterans Lawrence Timmons and Kiko Alonso.
"With that crew that we've got right now, I like those three guys together and we'll see how it plays out," head coach Adam Gase said, per the Herald's Barry Jackson.
Hull is an experienced option to keep the Dolphins defense afloat. Alonso and Timmons will be on the field because they're better options in the team's defensive sub-packages, but Hull will keep the defense properly aligned.
"I called signals the last couple years; it's something I want to keep rolling with," Hull said.
His role is absolutely vital because the Dolphins placed an emphasis on stopping the run after finishing 30th against opposing ground games last season. A physical presence is needed in the middle, and Hull will receive the first opportunity to secure the role.
The Dolphins are comfortable enough with Hull to not sign Rey Maualuga after a recent workout, per the Palm Beach Post's Joe Schad.
CB Trae Waynes, Minnesota Vikings
Terence Newman can't play forever. The cornerback, who turns 39 on September 4, signed another one-year deal with the Minnesota Vikings this offseason to provide depth in the team's secondary. Depth is all he should be considered, even after starting 26 games the last two seasons.
Former first-round pick Trae Waynes needs to secure the starting spot opposite Xavier Rhodes.
Rhodes is already a standout cover corner. Since being selected 25th overall in the 2013 NFL draft, the cornerback's average yards per coverage snap are well below average, per Pro Football Focus. The site also graded him as the best cornerback against the run last season. As a result, the franchise signed Rhodes to a five-year, $70.1 million contract extension on July 30.
Offenses will attack the opposite side of the field to avoid Rhodes. This means Waynes must be up for the task. But he's already been met with adversity.
The 25-year-old defensive back suffered a shoulder injury during Minnesota's preseason contest against the Buffalo Bills. Vikings head coach Mike Zimmer classified the problem as a "sore shoulder," per the St. Paul Pioneer Press' Chris Tomasson.
High expectations have been placed upon the Vikings this year whether the third-year cornerback is ready or not. The team already features one of the NFL's best defenses. But the coaching staff knows it needs another dependable presence at corner.
Waynes is supposed to be the answer. If he isn't, the team will have an aging option placed in the lineup and a major hole to address.