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The NFL’s 32 X Factors

Whether it’s Robert Griffin III trying to regain his rookie magic in Cleveland or Victor Cruz just trying to stay on the field in New York, all of these players have the potential for massive success or total disappointment

Getty Images/Ringer illustration
Getty Images/Ringer illustration

We’ve told you about the 32 non-QB MVPs for every team in the league, and now it’s time to highlight the X factors. You know the type: It’s the guy who comes into the season with a wide range of possible outcomes — and whichever one he achieves will likely have an outsize impact upon his team’s fortunes. Whether it’s a formerly electrifying quarterback getting a second chance, a highly paid defensive back coming off of a highly disappointing season, or a dancing wide receiver who just can’t seem to stay on the field, all of these players have a chance to help their teams reach their ceilings (or hit their floors) in 2016.

AFC East

Buffalo Bills: RB Reggie Bush

The release of Karlos Williams on Saturday gives Reggie Bush a chance to carve out a big role as both LeSean McCoy’s backup and the team’s main passing-situation and third-down back. Bush’s biggest strength has always been his ability to make plays after the catch; Rex Ryan recently likened him to a Ferrari, envisioning him as an explosive run–pass option out of the backfield for quarterback Tyrod Taylor.

Miami Dolphins: CB Byron Maxwell

Maxwell was very good for the Seahawks in 2013 and 2014, but completely flopped after signing a six-year, $63 million deal with the Eagles before last season. After acquiring Maxwell, Kiko Alonso, and the 13th pick in this year’s draft in exchange for the eighth pick, the Dolphins are hoping to use the cornerback how he was used in Seattle, asking him to play press and bump-and-run up the sideline for a pass defense that finished last season 29th in DVOA.

New England Patriots: OG Jonathan Cooper

With injuries to right tackle Sebastian Vollmer and guards Shaq Mason and Tre’ Jackson, the Patriots are short on quality offensive linemen to start the year. A throw-in to the trade that sent Chandler Jones to Arizona, Cooper has the chance to finally get healthy and live up to the “nasty interior lineman” billing that made him the seventh-overall pick in the 2013 draft.

New York Jets: TE Jace Amaro

The Jets’ passing offense took off last year with Ryan Fitzpatrick, Brandon Marshall, and Eric Decker, but New York only got a grand total of eight receptions from its tight ends. Chan Gailey’s offense had the third-best red zone touchdown percentage in the NFL last year, and adding the 6-foot-5 tight end who missed last season with a labrum injury could help make Gailey’s passing attack nearly unstoppable as it approaches the end zone.

AFC North

Baltimore Ravens: WR Breshad Perriman

After losing his first season to a PCL injury, the Ravens’ 2015 first-round pick is back on the field. At 6-foot-2, 214 pounds, Perriman has ridiculous speed (he’s been clocked in the 4.2s in the 40-yard-dash) and explosiveness (a 36.5-inch vertical), and the team hopes he can provide Joe Flacco the field-stretching deep threat they’ve been missing since Torrey Smith left for San Francisco last year.

Cincinnati Bengals: S Shawn Williams

Williams has big shoes to fill after Reggie Nelson, who tied for the league lead in interceptions last year, departed for Oakland in free agency. Over his first three seasons in Cincinnati, Williams has demonstrated an ability to play across the defensive backfield. He and George Iloka will likely both be tasked with patrolling the deep middle for the Bengals — a key area of defense in the vertical-passing AFC North.

Cleveland Browns: QB Robert Griffin III

The Browns have been living in a quarterback nightmare for nearly two decades. He’s already shown hints of his potential fit for the offense, but if Griffin can stay healthy and be even a shade of the player who won Offensive Rookie of the Year in 2012, Cleveland’s offense — which has some speed down the field (Josh Gordon, Corey Coleman, and Terrelle Pryor) and some talent at running back (Duke Johnson and Isaiah Crowell) — could surprise a lot of people.

Pittsburgh Steelers: TE Ladarius Green

Heath Miller retired, Martavis Bryant is suspended for all of 2016, and Markus Wheaton is still a work in progress. There are plenty of passes to go around in the Steelers’ prolific passing offense, and Green, an athletic “move tight end” who is more of a pass catcher than a blocker, should see plenty of time isolated outside against defensive backs or up the seam against linebackers.

AFC South

Getty Images
Getty Images

Houston Texans: QB Brock Osweiler

The Texans have one of the league’s best receivers in DeAndre Hopkins, and they have invested heavily in talent and speed downfield by drafting Jaelen Strong in the third round of the 2015 draft, then adding first-round pick Will Fuller and third-rounder Braxton Miller in April. But the linchpin for all of this is big-money free-agent acquisition Osweiler, who’s been accurate on just 26.7 percent of his deep passes, but will have to throw the ball confidently and decisively downfield to make that four-year, $72 million contract look good.

Indianapolis Colts: WR Phillip Dorsett

Andre Johnson was released, and Coby Fleener moved on to the Saints in free agency, so the 5-foot-10 speedster should get targets on the outside and over the middle. With 4.3 speed, he has home run downfield ability on every snap, and after a year of learning each of the three positions (X, Z, and the slot) in the Colts offense, he’ll be heavily featured in their three-wideout sets.

Jacksonville Jaguars: FS Tashaun Gipson

Gus Bradley needs a rangy and instinctive deep-centerfield safety to effectively run his cover-3 scheme, and Gipson showed glimpses of that ability in Cleveland — particularly in 2014 when he intercepted six passes in just 11 games. Adding talent to the pass rush and bolstering the cornerback ranks won’t help a ton unless Gipson is making quarterbacks afraid to throw the ball deep down the middle of the field.

Tennessee Titans: RB Derrick Henry

DeMarco Murray is the presumptive starter in Tennessee this year, but through two preseason games, Henry has the look of a “carry the team on his back” bell cow for the Titans: 15 carries for 105 yards and a touchdown at a cool 7 yards per carry. Head coach Mike Mularkey wants to build an “exotic smashmouth” run game this year, and if he ends up riding the hot hand amongst his runners, Henry might get the majority of the carries.

AFC West

Denver Broncos: DE Jared Crick

With defensive end Malik Jackson leaving for Jacksonville in free agency, the Broncos have a major hole to fill. Crick might not provide quite as much pass-rush upside as Jackson, but he’s a beast against the run, and defensive coordinator Wade Phillips is familiar with the former Texans defensive end after coaching him in 2012 and 2013.

Kansas City Chiefs: OLB Dee Ford

Thus far, Kansas City’s 2014 first-round pick hasn’t shown much; an explosive first step as a pass rusher is there, but the strength to finish and produce sacks is not. With Justin Houston’s season in jeopardy due to an injured ACL, the window is there for Ford to make his mark.

Oakland Raiders: OT Menelik Watson

A former basketball player and boxer, Watson has a ton of upside athletically and plays with a fighter’s mentality. If he can recover from the Achilles injury that kept him out for all of last season, Watson would book-end what looks like a truly fearsome offensive line in Oakland that also features Donald Penn, Kelechi Osemele, Rodney Hudson, and Gabe Jackson.

San Diego Chargers: RB Melvin Gordon

It was a rookie year to forget for the former Wisconsin star, who mustered just 3.5 yards per carry and zero touchdowns on 185 totes for the Chargers. Gordon needs to run more decisively and prove he has improved his ball security, but the raw talent is there: He’s a big, fast runner with the ability to make tacklers miss at the second level, and he’s already shown this preseason that he can be dangerous as a pass catcher out of the backfield.

NFC East

Dallas Cowboys: DE Ryan Russell

Who? The 2015 fifth-round pick out of Purdue has played in just one game for the Cowboys last season but will be leaned upon early and often as the team looks to weather the suspensions of Randy Gregory (at least four games, with more pending) and Demarcus Lawrence (four games). Russell has nice burst on his first few steps, but will have to prove he’s got the pass-rush repertoire to finish.

New York Giants: WR Victor Cruz

Before tearing his patellar tendon in Week 6 of the 2014 season, Victor Cruz was one of the best receivers in football. From 2011 to 2013, he caught 241 passes for 3,626 yards and 23 touchdowns for the Giants, but hasn’t played since suffering that terrible injury. If Cruz can return to his pre-injury form — another huge “if” — New York’s passing attack, which already features Odell Beckham Jr. and promising rookie Sterling Shepard, will be stacked.

Philadelphia Eagles: WR Dorial Green-Beckham

Green-Beckham has shown glimpses as a big-time playmaking threat — he caught 32 balls and four touchdowns as a rookie for the Titans while averaging 17.2 yards per catch — but due to his inability to immerse himself in the playbook, Tennessee cut bait and traded him to Philadelphia for offensive lineman Dennis Kelly. If he can stay out of Doug Pederson’s doghouse — and that’s a glowing, neon-colored “if” — Green-Beckham has the elite size and speed to become a true no. 1.

Washington Redskins: OLB Preston Smith

A college defensive end, Smith experienced some growing pains while learning to play the outside linebacker position in Redskins defensive coordinator Joe Barry’s scheme. But he went on a tear late in the season, racking up five sacks in Washington’s last three games, then another one in the team’s playoff loss to the Packers. With Junior Galette lost for the season again to an Achilles injury, much of the responsibility to pressure the passer falls on Smith’s shoulders.

NFC North

Chicago Bears: CB Kyle Fuller

The Bears’ defense has undergone an intriguing makeover in the past year, but major question marks remains at the cornerback spot. Chicago’s 2014 first-round pick, Fuller has struggled in Vic Fangio’s man-to-man schemes, and he needs to take strides in pure coverage, but the physical makeup is there for him to improve as a press-man cornerback.

Detroit Lions: TE Eric Ebron

The 10th-overall pick of the 2014 NFL draft has the size and speed to help replace the retired Calvin Johnson, but hasn’t shown any consistency. In Jim Bob Cooter’s new-look offense — with its emphasis on short and quick throws — Ebron should see plenty of seam routes, hooks, and drags over the middle, utilizing his size and speed advantage over most defenders.

Green Bay Packers: TE Jared Cook

Cook has never lacked speed; it’s consistency, both with his route running and his hands, that’s been missing. Except he’s never been paired with a top-tier thrower. Here’s a list of the quarterbacks he’s caught passes from: Vince Young, Kerry Collins, Rusty Smith, Matt Hasselbeck, Jake Locker, Sam Bradford, Kellen Clemens, Austin Davis, Shaun Hill, Nick Foles, and Case Keenum. Here’s a list of the current quarterback he’ll be catching passes from: Aaron Rodgers.

Minnesota Vikings: WR Cordarrelle Patterson

Patterson had a promising rookie campaign in 2013, catching 45 passes for 469 yards and four touchdowns while adding three scores as a runner and two as a returner, but since then, the Vikings have had to manufacture touches for him as his production has dropped off since his debut campaign. They’ve tried using end arounds, quick screens, and gadget plays to get the ball into his hands, but he needs to be more than just a great returner to live up to his first-round price tag.

NFC South

Atlanta Falcons: SLB Vic Beasley

In 2015, Beasley played in Atlanta’s subpackages as a pass rusher, logging four sacks in 539 snaps, which represented over 51 percent of the team’s defensive plays. In Dan Quinn’s scheme this year, he’ll be a three-down player that mans the strongside linebacker spot on base looks, then rushes from the weakside end on third downs. Per Falcons defensive coordinator Richard Smith, that means he’ll get more opportunities to rush the passer.

Carolina Panthers: WR Kelvin Benjamin

When Benjamin tore his ACL before the start of last season, it figured that Carolina offense would suffer badly. Instead, they went on to lead the NFL in scoring, with Cam Newton winning the MVP award. The return of a big red zone threat who caught 73 passes for 1,008 yards and nine touchdowns as a rookie in 2014, should make the Panthers offense even more dangerous.

New Orleans Saints: S Vonn Bell

The Saints desperately need reliable coverage in the back end, and Jairus Byrd, who signed a six-year, $54 million contract in 2014, has been a disaster. Ohio State safety Vonn Bell, one of New Orleans’ second-round pick in April, could provide strength in coverage — he can run step for step with receivers, has good ball skills, and most important, rarely gets beat deep — but adjusting to the speed of the NFL often takes time.

Getty Images
Getty Images

Tampa Bay Buccaneers: TE Austin Seferian-Jenkins

The Buccaneers used a 2014 second-rounder on Seferian-Jenkins with the hope that he’d be a big-bodied threat in the red zone and a reliable blocker in the run game. Instead, Seferian-Jenkins has missed 16 games in two years, and was recently kicked out of practice because he “didn’t know what he was doing.” Despite a couple of seasons of minimal progress, his combination of size and smooth athleticism still holds the promise of a complete tight end.

NFC West

Arizona Cardinals: OLB Chandler Jones

The Cardinals desperately needed to upgrade their pass rush, and the trade for New England’s Chandler Jones did exactly that … on paper. He’s an athletic freak who produced 12.5 sacks, four forced fumbles, and an interception for the Patriots last year. Of course, there’s always risk involved with big-ticket trades — and that is especially true when you’re dealing with Bill Belichick.

Los Angeles Rams: WR Tavon Austin

Austin was supposed to be a game changer for the Rams, an undefendable Swiss army knife as a receiver and running back, and a threat to score every time he touched the ball in the return game. That hasn’t happened yet, but Austin finally started to make good on some of that potential last year, scoring a combined 10 touchdowns: four rushing, five receiving, and one in the return game.

San Francisco 49ers: RB Carlos Hyde

Hyde missed nine games in 2015 with a foot injury, but a switch to Chip Kelly’s high-tempo zone-running scheme has this season looking like a boom-or-bust year for the former Buckeye. On one hand, you fear that the 235-pound bruising back will look out of place like DeMarco Murray did in Kelly’s scheme. On the other hand, as Stanford coach David Shaw points out, Hyde’s skill set — quick feet, powerful legs, and excellent balance — looks similar to that of Jonathan Stewart, who thrived under then–offensive coordinator Kelly at Oregon back in 2007.

Seattle Seahawks: TE Jimmy Graham

Graham tore his patellar tendon in Week 12 last year, and the timetable for his return to the field is still uncertain. There’s a chance that Graham will never be the same player he was prior to the injury, but if he’s anywhere close, he’ll provide Russell Wilson a huge target over the middle and a deadly red zone threat on the outside, where the Seahawks can get him matched up on smaller defensive backs or slower linebackers.