Every NFL Team's Biggest X-Factor for 2020

Kristopher Knox@@kris_knoxFeatured ColumnistJune 13, 2020

Every NFL Team's Biggest X-Factor for 2020

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    Rick Scuteri/Associated Press

    Franchise stars aren't hard to identify. All NFL defenses—along with their fanbases—know that when they're going up against guys like Lamar Jackson, Patrick Mahomes or Derrick Henry, there's one player who must be contained at all costs. But doing so is easier in theory.

    Of course, stopping a squad's biggest star doesn't guarantee victory—as NBA teams that faced Michael Jordan's Chicago Bulls in the 1990s can tell you. 

    It can be tricky to determine which players will fill key roles. New additions, breakout players, guys returning from injury—they can all impact their teams in a surprising manner.

    Just look at running back Raheem Mostert, a relative unknown heading into 2019. He became one of the San Francisco 49ers' biggest X-factors during their run to Super Bowl LIV. Running back Damien Williams played a similar role for the Super Bowl champion Kansas City Chiefs.

    Here, we'll examine each team's biggest potential X-factor for 2020.             

Arizona Cardinals: LB Isaiah Simmons

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    Isaiah Simmons is far from an unknown. The former Clemson linebacker-safety hybrid was on the national stage often in college and was the eighth overall pick in April's draft. However, the new defensive weapon for the Arizona Cardinals could take opponents by surprise.

    His ability to play multiple positions will give defensive coordinator Vance Joseph a ton of versatility with his schemes and coverages, and he has the potential give the Cardinals' last-ranked defense a massive boost. During his final year with the Tigers, he recorded 104 tackles, 16.5 tackles for loss, eight sacks, eight pass breakups and three interceptions.

    "It should be a big year for him, looking for nothing but big plays from him," Cardinals cornerback Patrick Peterson said last month, per Jess Root of Cards Wire.

    Simmons could help make Arizona a playoff contender.        

Atlanta Falcons: RB Todd Gurley

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    When the Atlanta Falcons signed Todd Gurley this offseason, they may have added a versatile and dynamic new piece to their offense.

    Most fans recognize Gurley as a physical between-the-tackles running back who will complement quarterback Matt Ryan, wide receiver Julio Jones and the Falcons' passing attack. However, it's worth noting that Gurley is also a fantastic pass-catcher out of the backfield, as evidenced by his 218 receptions in five campaigns.

    Gurley could be the sort of do-it-all back the Falcons hoped they had in Devonta Freeman, who's now a free agent. Of course, there is a bit of an unknown factor. Gurley, who averaged just 3.8 yards per carry in 2019, is coming off one of the worst seasons of his career, and there are questions about the health of his knee.

    If Gurley is in physical decline, then he may just be a serviceable starter. However, if he can regain his form from two seasons ago—when he rushed for 1,251 yards and 17 touchdowns while averaging 4.9 yards per carry—the Falcons could be one of the most indefensible teams in the league.           

Baltimore Ravens: DE Calais Campbell

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    The Baltimore Ravens added a few intriguing pieces this offseason. Veteran defensive end Calais Campbell has the potential to make the most dramatic impact.

    While rookie J.K. Dobbins could be considered an X-factor, he isn't likely to change the way the Ravens attack the opposition. He'll be a piece of a run-oriented offense that thrives on quarterback Lamar Jackson's dual-threat ability, and he will likely be part of a running back rotation that includes Mark Ingram II and Gus Edwards.

    Campbell, on the other hand, could transform what the Ravens are able to do defensively.

    Last season, Baltimore struggled to get to opposing quarterbacks, amassing only 37 sacks (21st in the NFL). Though a lot will depend on how much the 33-year-old has left in the proverbial tank, Campbell—who had 31.5 sacks over the last three seasons—could be a difference-maker in the front seven.     

Buffalo Bills: CB Josh Norman

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    The Buffalo Bills' trade for Stefon Diggs was one of the most notable moves of the offseason and for good reason. But he will be less of an X-factor and more of the No. 1 receiver quarterback Josh Allen has lacked.

    The biggest X-factor will be at cornerback, where the Bills added Josh Norman.

    Norman fell out of favor with Washington last season and was eventually benched. However, he was a first-team All-Pro in 2015 and a strong starter during his first couple of seasons with the D.C. squad. If he can regain that form, he'll be a tremendous No. 2 opposite star cornerback Tre'Davious White.

    White should be a Defensive Player of the Year candidate in 2020. He tied with Stephon Gilmore and Anthony Harris for the most picks (six) and had just three fewer pass breakups than Gilmore's league-leading 20. With Norman, Buffalo's fourth-ranked passing defense could jump to No. 1.        

Carolina Panthers: QB Teddy Bridgewater

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    The Carolina Panthers parted with franchise quarterback Cam Newton this offseason. To replace him, they signed 2014 first-round pick and recent New Orleans Saints backup Teddy Bridgewater. They then traded 2019 starter Kyle Allen.

    For better or worse, the Panthers' season is going to go as Bridgewater does. The Louisville product was fantastic while filling in for an injured Drew Brees in 2019, going 5-0 as a starter and finishing the year with 1,384 passing yards, nine touchdowns and two interceptions.

    However, Bridgewater hasn't been a full-time starter since 2015. He suffered a nearly career-ending knee injury during a 2016 preseason practice. There's no telling how he'll perform after opposing defenses gather a significant amount of tape on him in coordinator Joe Brady's offense.

    If Bridgewater proves to be a major upgrade over Allen, the Panthers could be playoff contenders. If he struggles, however, Carolina could again be an afterthought in the NFC South race.              

Chicago Bears: QB Nick Foles

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    Quarterback Nick Foles is already the Chicago Bears' biggest X-factor, and the team hasn't even gotten to training camp yet.

    "As far as when Nick Foles joined the team, you know, it was a shock to all of us," running back Tarik Cohen told NBC Sports Chicago. "But to me, I feel it was a shock like, 'Oh yeah, we're about to get the best out of everybody now."

    Mitchell Trubisky took a step back in 2019 after showing growth the year before. His average yards per passing attempt dropped from 7.4 yards to 6.1, while his passer rating dipped to 83 from 95.4. Not so coincidentally, Chicago's record plummeted from 12-4 to 8-8, and the team missed the playoffs.

    Foles, whom the Bears acquired via a trade with the Jacksonville Jaguars, is either going to push Trubisky into being a better starter or is going to take over the job himself. At least, that's the hope. His acquisition could be the biggest move of the team's offseason.    

Cincinnati Bengals: WR A.J. Green

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    Joe Burrow, the 2020 first overall pick, is going to make or break the Cincinnati Bengals' season.

    With longtime starter Andy Dalton now with the Dallas Cowboys, Burrow is the centerpiece but not the X-factor. Wideout A.J. Green, however, is.

    A longtime staple of the Bengals' passing attack, Green—who was drafted in 2011, the same year as Dalton—is one of the NFL's most dominant receivers when healthy. However, that has been rare of late. He missed all of 2019 and appeared in just nine games during the 2018 season.

    Green will also turn 32 in July and has yet to sign his franchise tender. He could play hardball for a long-term deal.

    If Green regains his status as a WR1, however, he will be a top target and mentor for Cincinnati's new face of the franchise.       

Cleveland Browns: WR Rashard Higgins

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    The Cleveland Browns made a couple of interesting moves this offseason, including the signing of Pro Bowl tight end Austin Hooper. However, Rashard Higgins—who re-signed with Cleveland on a one-year deal—should be the biggest X-factor.

    One of the biggest issues with the Browns offense in 2019 was its lack of a reliable No. 3 wideout. Jarvis Landry and Odell Beckham Jr. each topped 1,000 yards, but the team's third-most productive receiver was Damion Ratley, who had just 12 catches and 200 yards. Higgins was an afterthought because of injuries and his lack of favor from head coach Freddie Kitchens. The wideout was a healthy scratch multiple times.

    However, he was a favorite of quarterback Baker Mayfield in 2018, and he finished that season with 39 receptions, 572 yards and four touchdowns. If he can reestablish his chemistry with the third-year signal-caller—and be properly utilized by new head coach Kevin Stefanski—Higgins can be the high-end third receiver the Browns have been missing.

    If Cleveland can go three-wide while having Hooper or David Njoku at tight end and Nick Chubb or Kareem Hunt in the backfield, their offense may finally live up to the hype it carried into last season.        

Dallas Cowboys: WR CeeDee Lamb

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    Rookie wideout CeeDee Lamb might instantly become a No. 1 receiver and an offensive centerpiece for most teams. With the Dallas Cowboys, however, he's joining a roster that already includes Amari Cooper, Michael Gallup, Ezekiel Elliott and Tony Pollard.

    The Cowboys have an elite backfield and had two 1,000-yard receivers last season. Lamb is the X-factor that can make an already great offense into perhaps the league's most unstoppable. His versatility should make him a potent complement to Cooper and Lamb in the passing game.

    "Lamb has the potential to play any of the three receiver positions as a pro and should benefit greatly from the NFL's continued movement toward college-style passing attacks," NFL Media's Lance Zierlein wrote.

    The addition of Lamb gives quarterback Dak Prescott a third premier receiving option and should help offensive coordinator Kellen Moore further open up his passing attack.

Denver Broncos: OT Garett Bolles

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    The Denver Broncos are moving full-speed ahead with second-year quarterback Drew Lock. While the additions of rookie receivers Jerry Jeudy and KJ Hamler will have an impact on Lock's performance in 2020, there's a bigger X-factor at play: left tackle Garett Bolles.

    Inconsistent play at the position can derail an offense and a quarterback's growth—just ask Baker Mayfield. Unfortunately, consistency hasn't been Bolles' strong suit. Last season, for example, the 2017 first-round pick was responsible for 17 penalties and allowed four sacks, according to Pro Football Focus.

    That inconsistency is largely why Denver decided not to exercise Bolles' fifth-year option.

    However, Ben Linsey of PFF named Bolles as Denver's most underrated player heading into 2020, writing he is "at least an average starter—not the bottom-of-the-barrel option he is sometimes portrayed to be."

    If Bolles can be even better than average, Lock will have an easier time making that coveted second-year leap. If not, Lock could have a rocky road ahead.            

Detroit Lions: RB D'Andre Swift

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    In 2018, then-rookie Kerryon Johnson became the first Detroit Lions running back to have a 100-yard game since 2013. However, he has struggled with injuries since his breakout performance and has missed 14 games in two seasons.

    This prompted the Lions to take Georgia running back D'Andre Swift in April's draft, and he has the potential to overtake Johnson as Detroit's primary back.

    "Tempo and decisiveness are his calling cards, making him a highly talented inside/outside zone runner," Zierlein wrote of Swift.

    If Swift can become the productive—and consistently healthy—runner Detroit has long lacked, he will change the complexion of the Lions offense.

    Things will likely still be centered around quarterback Matthew Stafford and the passing game, but Swift can provide balance and an explosive element to the 21st-ranked ground attack.              

Green Bay Packers: WR Devin Funchess

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    Green Bay Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers has a premium WR1 in Davante Adams. Unfortunately, he has lacked a reliable No. 2 pass-catcher. This has made the Packers' passing attack somewhat one-dimensional in recent years, and this is why offseason acquisition Devin Funchess can be the team's X-factor.

    To this point, Funchess has been more of a possession guy than a dynamic downfield threat. Even as a primary target in Carolina in 2017, he recorded just 840 receiving yards—though he did have eight touchdowns. 

    However, the converted tight end could fill the mid-level receiver and red-zone-threat roles that Jimmy Graham never quite did and be a de facto tight end in head coach Matt LaFleur's offense.

    While that might not excite fans, it could be huge for the Packers. Rodgers is looking at having 36-year-old Marcedes Lewis as his No. 1 player at the position.

    If Funchess can become the reliable second option that Rodgers has lacked, the Packers' passing attack will be better for it.         

Houston Texans: RB David Johnson

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    New Houston Texans running back David Johnson is one of the biggest X-factors in the league. He produced more than 2,000 yards from scrimmage back in 2016, but he hasn't been consistently healthy or effective since.

    In 2019, Johnson, 28, averaged just 3.7 yards per carry.

    However, if he can regain some of his 2016 magic, he and pass-catching back Duke Johnson Jr. could form one of the top running back tandems in the AFC.

    "I think it opens up the play-calling, obviously," offensive coordinator Tim Kelly said, per Drew Dougherty of the team's official website.

    While the trade of star wideout DeAndre Hopkins was difficult to swallow for many Texans fans, getting Johnson in the deal could prove to be valuable.      

Indianapolis Colts: QB Philip Rivers

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    How much does quarterback Philip Rivers have left in the tank? This is a legitimate question, and the answer could determine the trajectory of the Indianapolis Colts' 2020 season.

    The Colts brought in Rivers to replace Jacoby Brissett as their starter. In theory, the move should help open up the offense and make the team more of a passing threat. Indianapolis was run-oriented with Brissett under center, recording the fifth-most rushing attempts in the league, but Rivers is an eight-time Pro Bowler who threw for 4,615 yards in 2019.

    However, Rivers is coming off a mistake-prone campaign in which he had 20 interceptions and three lost fumbles. While this isn't a clear indication that the 38-year-old is a declining player, the Los Angeles Chargers seemed more than willing to part with Rivers this offseason.

    If Rivers is indeed nearing a Peyton Manning-like drop-off, the Colts could wind up turning back to Brissett before season's end. If he is the steady gunslinger he has been in years past, however, Indianapolis could become a significant factor in the AFC.        

Jacksonville Jaguars: LB K'Lavon Chaisson

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    For the Jacksonville Jaguars, the 2020 season will primarily be about developing Gardner Minshew II and determining if he can be a franchise quarterback. However, they need a defensive turnaround if they hope to be successful—and give Minshew a fair shake—which is why rookie linebacker K'Lavon Chaisson could be an X-factor.

    Chaisson racked up 6.5 sacks and 13.5 tackles for loss for LSU in 2019, but he has the potential for even more production as a pro.

    "Chaisson's stock has gained momentum with his surging performance matching the elite athletic qualities," Zierlein wrote prior to the draft. "It adds up to an increasingly confident projection as an impact pass-rusher with Pro-Bowl potential."

    While there will be a learning curve for Chaisson, he and second-year pass-rusher Josh Allen have the potential to form a terrifying sack-artist tandem—one that could dramatically improve last year's 21st-ranked scoring defense.

    Chaisson could prove to be an even bigger factor if franchise-tagged defensive end Yannick Ngakoue holds out or is traded before the start of the season.  

Kansas City Chiefs: RB Clyde Edwards-Helaire

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    Michael Conroy/Associated Press

    The Kansas City Chiefs already had one of the league's most explosive offenses in 2019, finishing with the fifth-highest scoring unit and riding it to a victory in Super Bowl LIV. What's scary is that rookie running back Clyde Edwards-Helaire could make it even better.

    The No. 32 overall pick is a dynamic dual threat who produced 1,414 rushing yards, 453 receiving yards and 17 total touchdowns for the LSU Tigers in 2019. He'll give quarterback Patrick Mahomes a premium option out of the backfield while also complementing Super Bowl standout Damien Williams in the running game.

    If Edwards-Helaire adapts quickly to life as a pro, the Chiefs could have one of the AFC's most versatile backfields. This will bring balance to an offense that leaned heavily on Mahomes and the passing game last season.

    Kansas City won't stop relying on Mahomes and his arm, but it could now have the potential to make defenses pay heavily for scheming to stop him.          

Las Vegas Raiders: WR Henry Ruggs III

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    With Marcus Mariota now on the roster, this could be a make-or-break season for Las Vegas Raiders quarterback Derek Carr. The longtime starter will have to prove that he can be productive and consistent in head coach Jon Gruden's offense, or else Mariota will likely get a chance to show his stuff.

    Fortunately, Carr has an intriguing new weapon in wideout Henry Ruggs III. The former Alabama star possesses legitimate 4.27 40-yard-dash speed, but he's more than just a burner.

    "He can work all three levels, and his ability to turn slants and crossing routes into big gainers could make him the favorite gift under the tree for a quarterback and offense in need of an explosive weapon," Zierlein wrote.

    The Raiders have needed a weapon like Ruggs for some time. His addition will help open things up for underneath receiver Hunter Renfrow and running back Josh Jacobs while taking attention away from fellow deep threat Tyrell Williams.

    Ruggs has the potential to transform the Raiders offense, and yes, he can help make Carr the quarterback Gruden and fans have been hoping to see.             

Los Angeles Chargers: QB Tyrod Taylor

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    Kelvin Kuo/Associated Press

    With Rivers gone, the Chargers are going to rely on quarterback Tyrod Taylor. While the journeyman signal-caller is an experienced starter, he hasn't been a full-time one since the 2017 season. He made three starts for the Browns in 2018 before being replaced by then-rookie Baker Mayfield.

    The Chargers had better hope to get more out of Taylor than the Browns because rookie quarterback Justin Herbert is not a pro-ready prospect. He has as much potential as any quarterback taken in April's draft, but he'll need time to adapt to the nuances of being an NFL signal-caller.

    "His inconsistency can be maddening, and his decision-making must improve, but you can't doubt his talent," ESPN draft analyst Mel Kiper Jr. wrote of Herbert in January.

    The Chargers need Herbert on the sideline for most or all of the 2020 season. Taylor was a Pro Bowler in 2015 and led the Bills to the playoffs two years later. If he can play at that level, Los Angeles has a talented enough roster to make a serious run at the postseason.    

Los Angeles Rams: RB Cam Akers

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    Michael Conroy/Associated Press

    With Todd Gurley now in Atlanta, the Los Angeles Rams need a new every-down back. While Darrell Henderson and Malcolm Brown will have roles in the backfield, rookie Cam Akers is the X-factor.

    The Florida State product is much closer to Gurley as a player than either Brown or Henderson, as he is both a physical runner and an adept pass-catcher. In 2019, he rushed for 1,144 yards and averaged 5.0 yards per carry. He also caught 30 passes and scored 18 total touchdowns.

    A compact 5'10" and 217 pounds, Akers has the size and the speed (4.47-second 40) to be a proper heir to Gurley.

    If Akers can emerge as L.A.'s new franchise back, it will help restore balance to the offense and take pressure off the shoulders of Jared Goff. That might help the fifth-year quarterback to cut back on mistakes after he threw 16 interceptions and lost five fumbles in 2019.         

Miami Dolphins: LB Kyle Van Noy

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    Ideally, the Miami Dolphins won't have to turn to rookie quarterback Tua Tagovailoa early or at all in 2020. The Alabama product faces a steep learning curve and is coming off a serious hip injury. Therefore, Miami's biggest X-factor—at least early—might be its new quarterback of the defense, Kyle Van Noy.

    Van Noy, a six-year veteran and a former centerpiece of the New England Patriots defense, will serve two roles. First, he'll be a playmaker. He recorded 10 sacks, five pass breakups, an interception, four fumble recoveries and two defensive touchdowns over the past two seasons in Foxborough.

    Secondly, he will help head coach Brian Flores fully implement his defensive plans. Flores was the linebackers coach and defensive play-caller for the Pats and helped coach Van Noy in three of the linebacker's three-plus seasons in New England.

    While additions like Byron Jones, Noah Igbinoghene, Raekwon Davis and Benito Jones will have an impact, Van Noy is the glue that can help this new-look Dolphins defense come together. And if it does, it could be one of the better units in the AFC.     

Minnesota Vikings: WR Justin Jefferson

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    Michael Conroy/Associated Press

    After trading Stefon Diggs, the Minnesota Vikings have a massive void at receiver opposite Adam Thielen. The plan, though, is for rookie wideout Justin Jefferson to fill it.

    The 6'1", 202-pound LSU product has a wide catch radius and plenty of after-the-catch potential. He should immediately challenge fellow offseason addition Tajae Sharpe to be Kirk Cousins' No. 2 target.

    Last season, Jefferson caught 111 passes for 1,540 yards and 18 touchdowns. While it's not realistic to expect that level of production from him as a rookie, he does have a high ceiling. He might even be able to out-produce Diggs, who had just seven touchdowns over the last two seasons.

    If Jefferson can reach that ceiling in Year 1, the Vikings will move on from Diggs without missing a beat.     

New England Patriots: QB Jarrett Stidham

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    In case you haven't heard, Tom Brady is no longer the quarterback of the Patriots. Instead, New England will lean on either journeyman Brian Hoyer or second-year signal-caller Jarrett Stidham. 

    Hoyer has been an NFL starter before and has even shown flashes of high-end ability. However, he has been a complete liability during other stretches.

    If New England has to rely on a quarterback with a career 82.5 passer rating, its 2020 season could be in jeopardy. Stidham, though unproven, could at least provide some promise and is thus the X-factor.

    "There's a big unknown there," Hall of Famer Kurt Warner told ESPN (h/t Dean Straka of 247Sports). "That's the bottom line. I watched Jarrett in college and saw a quarterback who was kind of up and down, all over the place from a consistency standpoint. You, of course, saw the talent."

    This is why the Patriots should hope that Stidham can secure the starting job out of camp and keep it.      

New Orleans Saints: WR Emmanuel Sanders

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    Last season, the New Orleans Saints had nearly all of the pieces to form a championship offense. They had arguably the top receiver in the game in Michael Thomas. They had an incredible backfield duo in Alvin Kamara and Latavius Murray. And, of course, they had quarterback Drew Brees.

    What the Saints lacked was a high-end No. 2 receiver to complete the puzzle.

    Well, the offseason addition of Emmanuel Sanders should change that. Sanders is a tremendous talent and has already proved that he can quickly adapt to a new environment. After being acquired by the San Francisco 49ers midseason, he immediately went to work and racked up 36 receptions, 502 yards and three touchdowns in 10 games (after playing seven games for Denver).

    With an offseason to work with Brees and Co., Sanders could emerge as one of the better No. 2 receivers in the NFC. This would give New Orleans a massive offensive advantage and increase Brees' chances of finally winning a second ring.          

New York Giants: OT Andrew Thomas

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    Michael Conroy/Associated Press

    Quarterback Daniel Jones had most of the pieces in place that he needed to succeed as a rookie last season. He had a solid receiving trio in Darius Slayton, Golden Tate and Sterling Shepard. He had a high-end tight end in Evan Engram, and he had an elite running back in Saquon Barkley. What Jones lacked was an efficient franchise-caliber left tackle.

    Nate Solder allowed a whopping 11 sacks last season, according to Pro Football Focus.

    Well, the New York Giants might just have remedied the situation by snagging former Georgia left tackle Andrew Thomas with the fourth overall pick in April's draft. The rookie should have an opportunity to supplant Solder before the start of the regular season.

    If Thomas can take the starting job from Solder, it could mean good things are ahead for Jones. While the former Duke signal-caller should show some Year 2 growth anyway, having better protection on his blind side could hustle that progress along.

New York Jets: OT Mekhi Becton

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    Michael Conroy/Associated Press

    Like the Giants, the New York Jets are likely to have a rookie left tackle in place for their young signal-caller. In their case, former Louisville standout Mekhi Becton will probably be blocking for third-year quarterback Sam Darnold.

    Darnold has shown flashes of being a special signal-caller during his brief NFL career. However, he has not solidified himself as a true franchise quarterback. Part of the problem has been an underwhelming supporting cast, though, so adding a player like Becton could pay huge dividends. Last year's starting left tackle, Kelvin Beachum remains a free agent.

    While Becton has as much upside as any offensive lineman in recent memory—he ran a 5.1-second 40 at 6'7" and 364 pounds—he's also unpolished as a pass-protector.

    "The Louisville offense featured a lot of play-action passes and screens in 2019, which in turn, restricted Becton to only 73 true pass sets (i.e., standard quarterback dropbacks)," Anthony Treash of Pro Football Focus wrote. "On those 73 true pass sets, Becton allowed eight pressures, which is a concerning rate."

    If Becton can make a quick transition to pro pass protection, however, he could be just the brick wall that Darnold needs to finally reach his own high potential. Opposing defenses could be in trouble, and the Jets could be in store for a special year.

Philadelphia Eagles: QB Jalen Hurts

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    Michael Conroy/Associated Press

    The Philadelphia Eagles did not draft former Oklahoma quarterback Jalen Hurts to replace Carson Wentz. However, this doesn't mean Hurts cannot be a valuable X-factor in 2020.

    The Heisman finalist won't merely be Wentz's backup, you see. According to Yahoo Sports' Charles Robinson, they also plan to utilize him in offensive sub-packages.

    "Taysom Hill [package] on steroids," one source said, per Robinson.

    Fans who have watched Hill create mismatches for New Orleans over the last couple of years got a glimpse of what sort of impact Hurts can have—only, the upside is far greater. Hurts has legit 4.59 speed and has improved his throwing ability since losing Alabama's starting gig to Tua Tagovailoa.

    Last season, Hurts threw for 3,851 yards and 32 touchdowns while also rushing for 1,298 yards and 20 scores. He isn't going to approach these numbers as an NFL rookie, but they should give you an idea of just how much of an X-factor Hurts can be.

Pittsburgh Steelers: TE Eric Ebron

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    A lackluster offense kept the Pittsburgh Steelers from being a legitimate factor in the AFC last season. While Pittsburgh ranked fifth in both points and yards allowed, it also ranked 27th in points scored. The return of quarterback Ben Roethlisberger should help get the Steelers offense back on track.

    The free-agent addition of tight end Eric Ebron could also get things trending positively. It was a sneaky-good move that could pay off in a big way. Roethlisberger already has a solid tight end target in Vance McDonald, but adding Ebron could allow for some explosive mismatches at the position.

    With perimeter targets like JuJu Smith-Schuster, James Washington and Diontae Johnson occupying defenses, McDonald and Ebron should have plenty of one-on-one looks in the middle of the field. Ebron proved two seasons ago that he can turn such opportunities into points.

    While Ebron took a step back in 2019 with Jacoby Brissett under center for the Colts, he caught 66 passes for 750 yards and 13 touchdowns in 2018. Adding that sort of firepower to what he already has available could set Big Ben up for a monster comeback season.

San Francisco 49ers: DT Javon Kinlaw

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    Sean Rayford/Associated Press

    The 49ers traded star defensive tackle DeForest Buckner to the Colts during the offseason, leaving a gap in their championship-caliber defensive front. While there's still plenty of talent between the likes of Nick Bosa, Solomon Thomas and Arik Armstead, it would be huge if someone could step in and replicate Buckner's production.

    Buckner racked up 62 tackles, 7.5 sacks, two forced fumbles and four fumble recoveries last season.

    This is where rookie first-round pick and former South Carolina standout Javon Kinlaw comes into play. Kinlaw, who amassed 6.0 sacks, 35 tackles and two passes defended last season, has the potential to be a difference-maker in the Buckner mold. Of course, this doesn't automatically mean the rookie will be able to replicate his role in the defense.

    If Kinlaw can have a similar impact to the one Buckner has had for San Francisco over the past few seasons, it will ensure that players like Bosa, Armstead and Thomas continue making impact plays at an incredible rate.

Seattle Seahawks: DE Darrell Taylor

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    Wade Payne/Associated Press

    Though far from a sure thing, Seattle Seahawks rookie pass-rusher Darrell Taylor has the potential to have a major impact this season. Everything will hinge on how quickly he adapts to the speed and nuances of the NFL and how rapidly he can grow as a technician.

    "The toolbox has plenty in it, but additional development as a pass-rusher might be the difference between functional backup or dangerous starter," Zierlein wrote.

    If Taylor becomes a reliable pass-rusher in Year 1, it will benefit the Seattle defense greatly. As a team, the Seahawks produced a mere 28 sacks last season. The Seahawks have yet to re-sign pass-rushers Ezekiel Ansah and Jadeveon Clowney as well.

    Seattle needs an improved pass rush to be a legitimate contender in the NFC. Taylor can help provide one, if he develops quickly.

Tampa Bay Buccaneers: TE Rob Gronkowski

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    Jeff Roberson/Associated Press

    Whenever a former star player returns from a lengthy absence, he becomes an X-factor. When that player previously racked up Super Bowls with his new team's quarterback, he becomes a major one.

    The Tampa Bay Buccaneers brought in six-time champ Tom Brady this offseason. Then, they traded for one of Brady's favorite targets with the Patriots, tight end Rob Gronkowski. Gronk helped Brady win three of his six Lombardi Trophies and was one of the game's most unstoppable pass-catchers when healthy.

    However, Gronkowski has also been away from football for more than a year and will be splitting time with tight ends O.J. Howard and Cameron Brate. There's no guarantee he'll have the major impact that the hype surrounding his addition might suggest.

    If he does, however, watch out. Having one of Brady's all-time most trusted targets as a fourth or fifth option on passing downs would be huge.

Tennessee Titans: RB Darrynton Evans

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    As mentioned in the introduction, Tennessee Titans running back Derrick Henry is one of the biggest offensive centerpieces in the league. When he's not on the field, limiting the Titans offense becomes easier for opposing defenses.

    Well, that might not be the case this season. With rookie third-round pick Darrynton Evans in the fold, Tennessee may be able to continue its ground assault while resting Henry. The Appalachian State product is a physical runner in his own right.

    While the 5'10", 203-pound Evans doesn't pack quite the same wallop as the 6'3", 247-pound Henry, he is capable of handling a heavy workload. Evans, who rushed for 1,480 yards last season, is better suited to pounding the ball than former Titans backup Dion Lewis.

    The mere idea that they could face a well-rested Henry in the fourth quarter should be enough to rattle the opposition.

Washington Redskins: DE Chase Young

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    Rick Scuteri/Associated Press

    When Washington pulled the trigger on former Ohio State pass-rusher Chase Young with the second pick in April's draft, it added a player who could have a Nick Bosa-like rookie impact. Bosa was a major X-factor for the 49ers last season, as the Defensive Rookie of the Year nearly helped deliver the Lombardi Trophy to San Francisco.

    While Young may not push Washington deep into the playoffs, he has the potential to be just as big a rookie defensive force as Bosa.

    "Young possesses superior traits and the ability to wreck and alter offensive game plans as a perennial All-Pro," Zierlein wrote of Young.

    There's no guarantee that Young will immediately become a star, of course. However, if he does, Washington's front seven—which also includes the likes of Jonathan Allen, Daron Payne, Montez Sweat and Ryan Kerrigan—will be one of the toughest in the NFL.


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