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The X Factor That Could Make or Break Each NFL Team

Whether we’re talking about veterans like Josh Gordon or high-upside young players like Michael Gallup, every team has a player who could put their squad over the top

Getty Images/Ringer illustration

Every NFL franchise has a core group of foundational players—some of them superstars, others established veterans—who coaches and decision-makers depend upon going into the season to lead the team. Every squad also has a handful of high-ceiling, low-floor X-factor players: The wild cards who come with a massive range of potential performances. Some could end up being the catalyst who puts their team over the top in 2019; others may fail to make any impact at all. Taking quarterbacks out of the equation—that position deserves a category for itself—here’s every team’s top X factor heading into the season.

AFC East

Buffalo Bills: WR John Brown

Rookie quarterback Josh Allen chucked the ball deep (defined as throws of 20-plus yards downfield) on an NFL-high 19.7 percent of his throws in 2018, per PFF. That was fun to watch, but not particularly efficient—he notched a meager 62.9 passer rating on those passes (29th out of 35 qualifying passers) and threw seven picks to go with his seven touchdowns. We can place some of the blame for those struggles on Allen, of course, but he didn’t have top-tier playmakers to throw to down the field: His main deep threat was Robert Foster, a rookie undrafted free agent who caught just 35 passes in four seasons at Alabama. Buffalo addressed this in the offseason, signing Brown to a three-year, $27 million deal. The former Raven brings 4.34 speed to Buffalo and represents a major upgrade in field stretchability; if the 29-year-old pass catcher can build some chemistry with Allen—and it sounds like he did just that in camp—he could be the key to unlocking the Bills’ vertical passing offense.

Miami Dolphins: DE Charles Harris

The Dolphins’ already-thin pass-rushing corps got even more svelte on Tuesday when the team released fifth-year linebacker Nate Orchard, leaving Harris as the de facto top dog in that group. In fact, Harris—who leads a unit that includes rookie Jonathan Ledbetter and virtual unknowns in Avery Moss and Trent Harris—is just about the only edge rusher on the team with any meaningful experience. Miami’s first-round pick in 2017 has been a major disappointment thus far in his career with just 3.0 sacks in two seasons, but the team will be relying on the 24-year-old to create some disruption up front. If he can, it would be a major boon for the team’s talent-packed secondary. If he can’t, the entire defense will struggle—even the best defensive backfields can keep everyone covered for only a few seconds.

New England Patriots: WR Josh Gordon

Rob Gronkowski’s retirement has left the Patriots’ pass-catching corps short on talent and experience. After Julian Edelmen, that group is made up of a pair journeymen veterans in Phillip Dorsett and Matt LaCosse, a past-his-prime former star coming off major injury in Demaryius Thomas, and a promising but unproven rookie in Jakobi Meyers. Gordon’s return to the league, though, came at the perfect time for a team that desperately needs a dynamic defense-stretching talent on the outside. The 28-year-old receiver, who had been suspended since December for repeated violations of the league’s policy against substance misuse, will need to adhere to the terms of his conditional reinstatement to stay on the field—but if he can, he can be the centerpiece of the team’s pass offense. Gordon caught 40 passes for 720 yards and three touchdowns in 11 games for the Pats last season; in a difference-maker-starved pass-catching group, Gordon could go over 1,000 yards and has double-digit touchdown upside.

New York Jets: LG Kelechi Osemele

Sophomore quarterback Sam Darnold looks poised for a big breakout in 2019, but he’ll need help from the team’s rebuilt offensive line, which features new starters at right tackle, center, and left guard. The latter will be Osemele, a two-time Pro Bowler who comes to New York via trade with the Raiders. Osemele’s performance fell off a bit last year as he fought toe and knee injuries, but now healthy, he’s got a chance to get back to elite form. If he can, it’d be a major boost to Darnold, who faced pressure on 35.9 percent of his dropbacks as a rookie, tied for eighth worst among qualifying passers, per PFF.

AFC North

Baltimore Ravens: WR Marquise Brown

To match up against a Ravens offense that is likely to lead the NFL in rush attempts and frequently use its quarterback, Lamar Jackson, as a runner, opposing defenses will likely crowd eight defenders into the box on nearly every snap. That creates an immense opportunity deep down the field for Brown, an electric rookie receiver with blazing speed. Brown will get plenty of one-on-one matchups and will have the opportunity to exploit the open space in the secondary that those crowded boxes will create. If he can stay healthy (he rehabbed an injured foot all offseason), Brown could be the key to an improved Ravens offense in 2019; if he looks anything like he did at Oklahoma last year (where he had 1,318 receiving yards and 10 touchdowns in 14 games), it will make Baltimore just about impossible to defend.

Cincinnati Bengals: TE Tyler Eifert

A litany of major injuries have derailed Eifert’s once-promising career, but the 28-year-old tight end still has elite mismatch-creating potential … if he can only stay on the field. The Bengals desperately need him to stay healthy this year, too, especially early on as A.J. Green recovers from an injured ankle. If Eifert can get back to being the red zone dominator who caught 18 touchdowns in a 21-game stretch from 2015 to 2016, he could be the spark in what looks to be an otherwise underwhelming offense in Cincinnati.

Cleveland Browns: CB Greedy Williams

The Browns got a budding shutdown cornerback in Denzel Ward in the first round of last year’s draft. This year, they grabbed LSU’s Williams—dubbed by many as a first-round talent—in the second round. Williams will have to prove he can make the jump from the SEC to the NFL (and prove that he can tackle), but he has the coverage chops, length, and speed to quickly emerge as a ballhawk. Opposite Ward, a Williams breakout would give Cleveland one of the best lockdown cornerback duos in the NFL.

Pittsburgh Steelers: LB Devin Bush Jr.

The Steelers have been looking for an injection of speed into the middle of their defense since Ryan Shazier suffered what is likely a career-ending back injury in 2017. They’ve got just that in Bush; the rookie first-rounder plays with his hair on fire and flies around the field. The former Wolverine playmaker will have to prove he can play within the confines of the team’s scheme, sticking with his assignment while avoiding getting drawn out of position by misdirection, but he’s as explosive as they come at the linebacker position, boasting range in coverage and potentially elite blitzing skills. The 21-year-old Bush is still raw, but if he hits the ground running in Pittsburgh, he could be the difference maker that defense needs.

AFC South

Houston Texans: OLB Jacob Martin

After shipping superstar pass rusher Jadeveon Clowney off to Seattle, the Texans’ edge rushing group suddenly looks pretty shallow. Brennan Scarlett is next in line to take Clowney’s place in the Houston defense, but Martin—acquired from the Seahawks in the trade—could push for major snaps and a big role early on. Martin was quietly very productive in a rotational role for the Seahawks last year, registering a 7.9 Pass Rush Productivity Rating on 170 pass rush snaps, good for 19th leaguewide among 109 qualifying rushers. He’s not Clowney, but given a bigger role, Martin could give the Texans’ pass-rush group exactly the type of boost it now desperately needs.

Indianapolis Colts: WR Devin Funchess

At this time last year, I picked Eric Ebron for the Colts’ X factor, and the former Lions first-round bust exploded to catch a position-best 13 touchdowns. This season, I’m going with Funchess, who should play a similar role in the Indy offense as Ebron: At 6-foot-4, 225 pounds, Funchess has the size to be a mismatch threat both in iso looks on the outside and as a big target over the middle and in the red zone. Jacoby Brissett will need a reliable go-to guy to emerge opposite T.Y. Hilton, and Funchess will have the opportunity to be just that.

Jacksonville Jaguars: WR DJ Chark

The Jaguars’ passing game should get a major boost from newly minted starter Nick Foles, who represents a major upgrade over the turnover-prone, wildly inaccurate Blake Bortles. The team will likely still adhere to its ground-and-pound philosophy, and an explosive deep-passing play-action game is a perfect complement to that identity. Dede Westbrook gives the team a speedy threat out of the slot, but Foles will need a reliable deep threat to emerge on the outside. That could be Chark, who ran an elite 4.34-second 40-yard dash at the 2018 combine. If Chark can become a take-the-lid-off-a-defense-type threat, it could open everything up for the team’s offense.

Tennessee Titans: OT Dennis Kelly

Kelly was supposed to head into 2019 as the team’s swing tackle, but is now slated as the starter on the blindside for the first month as Taylor Lewan serves a four-game suspension for a PED violation. That’s a tough ask for a guy who played almost exclusively on the right side last year—and it won’t be an easy early-season road as Tennessee’s line faces off against Cleveland’s Myles Garrett and Olivier Vernon, Jacksonville’s Calais Campbell and Yannick Ngakoue, Indy’s Jabaal Sheard and Justin Houston, then Atlanta’s Vic Beasley and Takk McKinley. If Kelly can help keep quarterback Marcus Mariota upright though that first month, it will give Tennessee a fighting chance in the division. If not, the Titans could be staring at an insurmountably poor early start.

AFC West

Denver Broncos: WR Emmanuel Sanders

The Broncos’ pass-catching corps is bristling with talent, boasting a pair of potential second-year breakout players in Courtland Sutton and DaeSean Hamilton and an athletic rookie tight end in Noah Fant. But what that group is short on is proven, reliable playmakers—the type of reliable playmakers that veteran quarterback Joe Flacco will need if he’s going to have any success this year in Denver. Sanders has recovered shockingly quickly from a torn Achilles suffered late last year—all reports from training camp have been positive—but the real test will come this week when the regular season begins. If Sanders is truly back to form, he’ll be the go-to guy Flacco can lean on.

Kansas City Chiefs: S Juan Thornhill

It’s a cliché, but if the Chiefs defense is going to make a big jump in 2019, they simply need a few more guys to step up and consistently make plays. Thornhill, a rookie second-rounder out of Virginia, brings exactly that type of ball-hawking potential; he was a takeaway machine in Kansas City’s training camp, regularly picking off passes while roaming the secondary. And while his role in the defense remains uncertain heading into Week 1, it seems inevitable that he’ll get major snaps in the team’s back end. If Thornhill’s playmaking prowess shows up early on for the Chiefs, it could provide a boost for the defense and take some pressure off Patrick Mahomes and the offense.

Los Angeles Chargers: TE Hunter Henry

If the talent-packed Chargers have an Achilles’ heel this year, it just might be their offensive line. That injury-ravaged group is almost certain to struggle blocking against some of the elite pass-rushing groups in the AFC West, which will force Philip Rivers to either get the ball out quickly or run for his life. Henry could play a key role, though, in keeping Rivers upright. The 24-year-old tight end is coming off a torn ACL, which robbed him of the entire 2018 season, but he’s a big, athletic playmaker over the middle of the field whom Rivers can target on quick three- and five-step dropback plays. Henry is the type of mismatch threat this offense needs, but he’s still got to prove he still has the seam-stretching speed we saw early in his career.

Oakland Raiders: WR Antonio Brown

It’s been a tumultuous offseason for Brown, who forced a trade out of Pittsburgh before threatening to retire over the NFL’s new helmet standards. When he’s on the field, Brown is one of the most dynamic, unguardable receivers in the league. But the mercurial superstar doesn’t shy away from drama—making it impossible to predict just how many games he’ll actually play in 2019.

NFC East

Dallas Cowboys: WR Michael Gallup

The Cowboys’ trade for Amari Cooper midway through last season was the catalyst for a big spike in efficiency from quarterback Dak Prescott and the team’s passing attack. From Week 9 on, Prescott completed 71 percent of his passes while tossing 12 touchdowns and three picks for a 103.4 passer rating. This year, Prescott could get another efficiency boost with the help of a second-year breakout from Gallup. The sophomore pass catcher has gotten rave reviews in training camp and preseason, and should benefit from defenses tilting coverage toward Cooper. If Gallup can take a leap in 2019, it’d change the way teams have to line up to defend the Cowboys—and could make their offense damn near unstoppable. How do you line up against an elite run game and two playmaking receivers down the field?

New York Giants: TE Evan Engram

Engram’s health is the real X factor here: The dynamic tight end missed five games in 2018 to concussion, knee, and hamstring injuries and then skipped a big chunk of the offseason program after suffering another hamstring injury. But if he can stay on the field this year, he has the potential to explode in the Giants’ talent-deficient, target-rich offense. Engram averaged 8.2 targets per game when Odell Beckham Jr. wasn’t in the lineup over the past two years (third most behind only Travis Kelce and Zach Ertz at the position), and with Golden Tate suspended for the first month of the season, Engram will be a target magnet over the middle of the field. The third-year pro says he feels like a “jack in the box, ready to spring out,” and based on reports, the plan is to make him a massive part of the offense.

Philadelphia Eagles: TE Dallas Goedert

It wasn’t easy picking an X factor on an absolutely loaded roster, but few players have the breakout potential to match Goedert. The big mismatch creator played second fiddle to Zach Ertz as a rookie, catching 33 passes for 334 yards and four touchdowns, but in year two he should be a more frequently featured target in the team’s passing game. Like Ertz, he’s a movable chess piece that can not only help out as a blocker in the run game, but also stretch the seam or pick up yards after the catch. Just think of it this way: How good would this offense be if you dropped George Kittle or Hunter Henry into the lineup? That’s Goedert’s upside.

Washington Redskins: OLB Montez Sweat

Washington’s intimidating front line packs plenty of power with Jonathan Allen, Da’Ron Payne, and Matt Ioannidis manning the interior. But the team badly needs an explosive speed element on the edge to pair with longtime veteran Ryan Kerrigan. That’s where Sweat could come in: The first-round rookie out of Mississippi State has a quick first step and incredible length, but he’s still very raw as a pass rusher—relying mostly on an outside speed rush and a long-arm bull-rush counter—which could slow his transition to the pros. If Sweat breaks out early in his career as an effective edge rushing threat, it could provide a massive boost to the effectiveness of the entire defensive unit. That’s a big “if,” though: He may need a year playing a rotational role while he adds some weight and expands his pass-rush repertoire.

NFC North

Chicago Bears: OLB Leonard Floyd

The Bears defense is a prime regression candidate in 2019. Savvy coordinator Vic Fangio is now the Broncos head coach; it will be tough for that unit to recreate its league-leading 36 takeaways from last year; and Chicago is unlikely to be as lucky in the injury department after finishing third in adjusted games lost last year. That said, a breakout performance or two could certainly curtail the magnitude of that imminent regression—particularly when it comes to its pass-rush group. Floyd has flashed explosive athleticism in his three seasons in the league, but the former first-rounder has created a lot of buzz this offseason as he’s developed a more diverse repertoire of pass-rush moves and improved his hands. If he breaks out as a double-digit sack producer opposite Khalil Mack, the Bears defense will be just fine.

Detroit Lions: CB Justin Coleman

The Lions aren’t going anywhere in the NFC unless they can shore up their 31st-ranked pass defense by DVOA from last season. The addition of Coleman over the offseason looks good on paper, but the former Seahawk has a lot to live up to as one of the league’s highest-paid slot corners. He’ll be tested early, with matchups against Arizona’s Christian Kirk and Larry Fitzgerald, Los Angeles’s Keenan Allen, Philly’s Nelson Agholor, and Kansas City’s Tyreek Hill and Sammy Watkins over the first month of the season. If Coleman can do his part to blanket those talented pass catchers, the Lions could surprise people out of the gates. If he can’t, it could get ugly.

Green Bay Packers: WR Marquez Valdes-Scantling

The Packers receiving corps is as top heavy as they come. Davante Adams is still holding things down as the team’s go-to guy and no. 1 receiver, but after him, it’s a mishmash of relatively inexperienced youngsters in Valdes-Scantling, Geronimo Allison, Jake Kumerow, Darrius Shepherd, and Trevor Davis. Valdes-Scantling heads into the season carrying high expectations as the projected no. 2 opposite Adams after reeling in 38 passes for 581 yards and two touchdowns as a rookie. The 6-foot-4, 205-pound former fifth-rounder out of South Florida has done what he can over the offseason to earn Aaron Rodgers’s trust, and the Packers will put that relationship to the test this year. If Valdes-Scantling can break out as a trusty no. 2 for Rodgers, he’ll give this squad a major boost in a tough NFC North.

Minnesota Vikings: RB Dalvin Cook

When Cook is healthy, he’s one of the most electric home-run hitting running backs in the NFL. Unfortunately, he’s been unlucky in the injury department over his first two seasons, and has played in just 15 of 32 possible regular-season games for the Vikings. If he can break that pattern in 2019, he’ll be the tip of the spear for a Minnesota team that wants to run the hell out of the ball. Cook is an elusive, creative back who can break tackles, produce big runs, and excel in the passing game.

NFC South

Atlanta Falcons: EDGE Vic Beasley

Atlanta’s decision to pick up Beasley’s $12.8 million fifth-year option was met with derision from many Falcons fans who’d watched him post underwhelming 5.0-sack seasons in both 2017 and 2018. But Atlanta apparently has a plan for the former first-rounder, who was named a first-team All Pro in 2016 after notching a league-leading 15.5 sacks and six forced fumbles. With head coach Dan Quinn taking control of the defense in 2019, there could be reason for hope: Quinn earned a reputation earlier in his career as an innovative, outside-the-box thinker who knew how to adapt his schemes to fit the skill sets of his players. If he can get Beasley back onto the path toward double-digit sacks, it will not only make the Falcons’ choice to pick up his option look smart, but it could be the boost this defense needs.

Carolina Panthers: DE Brian Burns

Carolina’s defensive front is, you could say, a little bit long in the tooth. Gerald McCoy (31), Kawann Short (30), Mario Addison (31), and Kyle Love (32) are all on the wrong side of 30 and Dontari Poe (29) isn’t far off. But the team got a much-needed infusion of youth—and hot, nasty, badass speed—when it grabbed Burns with the 16th pick of the first round. The former Seminole pass rusher has Gumby-like flexibility to go with an explosive get off and top-tier finishing speed, and he grabbed four sacks in three preseason appearances while showcasing the type of athleticism that made him such an intriguing draft prospect. Burns has to continue to get stronger and add moves to his pass-rush repertoire, but he’s got the pure speed to make a difference in year one, and give the team’s aging defensive line a shot of adrenaline.

New Orleans Saints: C Erik McCoy

When longtime starter Max Unger retired in March, the Saints were left without a center. That was, obviously, a big deal for the team, which enters 2019 hoping to extend 40-year-old quarterback Drew Brees’s career as long as possible while also running the ball a hell of a lot. New Orleans eschewed any free agent options and instead invested in Unger’s successor in the draft, grabbing McCoy in the second round. The former Texas A&M standout is a powerful, athletic lineman who is projected to slot into the Saints’ starting center spot from day one. If he proves capable as a rookie, it will help the New Orleans offense pick up where it left off last year. If he struggles, it could have a trickle-down effect that stifles the run game and passing attack.

Tampa Bay Buccaneers: DT Ndamukong Suh

Suh was an absolute force during the Rams’ postseason run last year, moving all over the line while wreaking havoc in the backfield to the tune of 1.5 sacks, two tackles for a loss, and nine QB pressures in three games. That performance came on the heels of a strong, but slightly less impressive, regular season (when he netted 48 pressures in 16 games). The question is, then, whether Suh will “turn it on” a little bit earlier for the Bucs, whose road to the postseason is far less clear than the Rams’ was. If Suh plays with his hair on fire from wire to wire for the Bucs, he will give them a game-changing presence on the defensive line.

NFC West

Arizona Cardinals: WR Michael Crabtree

Crabtree gives the Cardinals something that’s in short supply on the team’s offense: experience. Prior to inking the veteran pass catcher to a one-year deal last week, the Cardinals were set to head into 2019 with rookie quarterback Kyler Murray throwing to 36-year-old Larry Fitzgerald and a bunch of unseasoned pass catchers in second-year pros Christian Kirk and Trent Sherfield, rookie Andy Isabella, and Damiere Byrd, who’s posted 12 receptions in three seasons in the league. Crabtree knows the ins and outs of the Air Raid offense from his prolific college days at Texas Tech, which should allow him to hit the ground running in Kliff Kingsbury’s scheme. He’ll have to clean up his penchant for drops and show he’s still got the speed to separate, but Crabtree–who caught 54 passes for 607 yards and three touchdowns for the Ravens last year–could give the team the veteran stability it needs.

Los Angeles Rams: WR Cooper Kupp

The Rams offense operated with far greater efficiency in 2018 with Kupp in the lineup than with him on the sideline. Per the Football Outsiders Almanac, in games Kupp played (weeks 1 through 6, 9, and 10), the Rams offense registered a DVOA of 39.1 percent and averaged 33.4 points per game. In the eight games without him (weeks 7, 8, and 11 through 17), that DVOA dropped to 10.9 percent and the team scored 29.0 points per game. Now that might just be statistical noise, but it also may be related to the fact that when Kupp was in the lineup, the team could run, almost exclusively, out of 11 personnel. With Kupp, Robert Woods, and Brandin Cooks on the field, L.A. can mask their intentions and either run or pass with equal aplomb. Reports state that Kupp is back to full speed—and perhaps even more explosive—but the third-year pro will have to prove that once real games start.

San Francisco 49ers: DT Solomon Thomas

The Niners revamped their defensive line over the offseason, trading for and extending Dee Ford before taking Nick Bosa with the second pick of the draft. That leaves the third overall pick from 2017 in the background, but that doesn’t mean San Francisco has given up hope he can live up to his billing. After registering just 4.0 sacks in two years, Thomas should be able to employ a more aggressive playing style under new defensive line coach Kris Kocurek, who has a vision for how to unlock Thomas’s talents. That’d be a major boon for the Niners’ pass rush unit, which could from one of the worst in the league to one of the best.

Seattle Seahawks: DE Ziggy Ansah

The Seahawks got a major upgrade for their defensive line when they traded for Jadeveon Clowney last week, but Clowney alone won’t be enough to get Seattle back near the league’s elite on defense. To do that, the team needs Ansah to live up to his potential—but that’s wholly contingent on the former Lion staying healthy. Ansah was very productive in limited action last year—in fact, among edge rushers with 100 pass-rush snaps, he led the NFL in PFF’s pass rush productivity metric, registering 20 pressures on those reps. But that’s a small sample, and a shoulder injury that sidelined Ansah for all but seven games in 2018 required rehab all through training camp and most of the preseason. Ansah’s practiced with Seattle for only about two weeks in preparation for the regular season, leaving plenty of question marks about his readiness for live-fire action.