The NFL season kicks off tonight, and every team has a huge range of possible outcomes that could play out over the next five months. The same could be said for a boom-or-bust player on each squad. From a second-year pass rusher hoping to break out as a bona fide sack artist to a veteran running back just trying to prove he can stay on the field, these are each team’s X factors: The players who in a best-case scenario would be the catalyst that puts their team over the top — or in the worst case end up as just another guy standing on the sideline.
Buffalo Bills: DE Shaq Lawson
A dominant pass rush has a way of hiding a lot of problems, and a breakout, double-digit-sack campaign from Lawson — similar to the jump Vic Beasley made for the Falcons last year when he led the league in sacks — could be the key to the Bills competing in the AFC East. The 19th overall pick in the 2016 draft missed the first six weeks of his rookie campaign after having shoulder surgery, and finished with just two sacks — but he heads into this season healthy and ready to get after the passer from the strongside end spot in Sean McDermott’s 4–3 defense.
Miami Dolphins: TE Julius Thomas
After a pair of underwhelming seasons in Jacksonville, it’s easy to forget that Thomas hauled in a combined 24 touchdown passes in Denver the two years prior. Of course, it helped that he was catching passes from a then-still-great Peyton Manning, but the guy calling the plays in that prolific Broncos offense was none other than Dolphins head coach (and play-caller) Adam Gase. Through Manning, Gase helped make Thomas one of the most dangerous red zone threats in the league, and if he can re-create some of that magic with Jay Cutler this year — and turn Thomas back into that double-digit-touchdown threat — the Dolphins could head back to the playoffs.
New England Patriots: LB David Harris
It’s impossible to know what to expect from Harris, and the 33-year-old former Jet has had to absorb the Patriots defense on the fly after arriving in New England late in the offseason. But he could step in to fill one key role for the defending champs: If the Patriots defense had one weakness last year, it was against the pass, and at times they struggled to cover running backs out of the backfield (they finished 22nd in DVOA last year in that area). This is where the savvy vet could be a huge boon for this defensive group — he may have lost a step, but Harris makes up for it with route recognition and anticipation in his coverage drops.
New York Jets: CB Morris Claiborne
The Jets are tanking, sure, but they might be marginally better than expected this season if Claiborne can shut down one side of the field for Todd Bowles’s defense — as he did in seven games last year for the Cowboys, surrendering a 64.1 QB rating against (eighth best of 117 qualifying corners) and just 0.81 yards per coverage snap (ninth). Of course, this all depends on Claiborne staying on the field. The former first-rounder has missed a combined 33 games in five seasons, and he’s already missed time to an injured shoulder this preseason.
Baltimore Ravens: RB Danny Woodhead
It’s probably too much to ask of Woodhead to fix the Ravens’ sluggish run game, particularly after the team lost starting right tackle Rick Wagner in free agency, starting left guard Alex Lewis to a shoulder injury, and promising rookie guard Nico Siragusa to a knee injury. So when the Ravens are inevitably forced to abandon a between-the-tackles run game, a healthy Woodhead could turn out to be the key to the Baltimore offense. As a savvy route runner and reliable pass-catching threat out of the backfield, a healthy Woodhead should give Joe Flacco plenty of easy throws outside and underneath, helping to move the chains and score in the red zone.
Cincinnati Bengals: OT Cedric Ogbuehi
The Bengals offensive line gave up 41 sacks (tied for 25th), and finished with an adjusted sack rate of 7.3 percent (26th) last year, and after letting one of the best pass-protecting left tackles in the game in Andrew Whitworth walk in free agency, it could get worse. They’ll turn to Ogbuehi this season, and though the Bengals’ 2015 first-rounder struggled so badly at right tackle last year that he was eventually benched, another offseason of development and a move to the left side could prove beneficial. If Ogbuehi shines, a clean pocket should help quarterback Andy Dalton follow suit. If he struggles, though, it could be a long year for both Dalton and the Bengals offense.
Cleveland Browns: DE Emmanuel Ogbah
Rookie top pick Myles Garrett may miss some time early on with an ankle injury, but once he’s back in action, he’s going to get plenty of attention from opposing offensive lines. Someone else on the Browns’ defensive front is going to have to step up and give him some help. Ogbah, who had 5.5 sacks as a rookie, looks like a prime breakout candidate, and if the second-year pro can provide a steady disruptive force opposite Garrett that forces quarterbacks to get the ball out quickly, it’ll be a godsend for a young secondary tasked with matching up and covering Antonio Brown and Martavis Bryant in Week 1, Jeremy Maclin in Week 2, T.Y. Hilton in Week 3, and A.J. Green in Week 4.
Pittsburgh Steelers: WR Martavis Bryant
Bryant might be the most high-variance, boom-or-bust player on this entire list. The electric playmaker has scored 15 touchdowns in 21 career regular-season games, and if he can stay on the field, he should combine with Antonio Brown and Le’Veon Bell to make the Steelers offense basically impossible to defend. That staying on the field thing is the real X factor here — Bryant was just conditionally reinstated by the NFL after serving a year-long suspension for multiple violations of the league’s substance-abuse policy — and one more slip-up could mean another lengthy ban. Without Bryant, the Steelers would still be a contender, but with the 25-year-old receiver on the field, they could be unstoppable.
Houston Texans: RB D’Onta Foreman
With Tom Savage under center, Houston’s going to need more than just another outstanding year from DeAndre Hopkins. That’s why the team’s top-graded preseason player on offense may be the key to an offensive explosion in 2017. Foreman is still set to backup Lamar Miller, but could earn more snaps early in the year because he gives Houston, which finished dead last in broken-tackle rate in each of the past two years, an element that its offense has sorely missed — the ability to elude defenders in the open field. Whether he’s taking the handoff out of the backfield or lining up in the slot and catching passes, Foreman showed in the preseason (and in college) the ability to overcome poor blocking up front and solid coverage in the secondary.
Indianapolis Colts: QB Scott Tolzien
The Colts are set to start the season without Andrew Luck, whose timetable for return from offseason shoulder surgery is still up in the air. Best-case scenario, he might only miss a few weeks, but in the increasingly realistic scenario that Luck misses the first month (or more), those first four games could make the difference between a Colts playoff run and a lost season. Seventh-year pro Tolzien will face three good defenses in the first four weeks (at the Rams, home against the Cardinals and Browns, then at the Seahawks), but if he can get the ball to T.Y. Hilton and Donte Moncrief, convert a few throws on third downs, and avoid too many turnovers, the Colts could steal a few games and keep their playoff hopes alive for when Luck returns.
Jacksonville Jaguars: LB Myles Jack
The Jaguars have put together one of the most talented defensive units in the league, but much of Jacksonville’s on-field success will rest upon the leadership and communication skills of a second-year linebacker. Whether he’s lining up in the middle or on the outside, Jack heads into this season as the team’s green dot player — the guy that receives the playcall from the sideline, communicates it to his teammates, and gets them all lined up in the right spots prior to each play. If he struggles, we’ll probably see a bunch of out-of-position players and busted assignments, but if he excels, the Jacksonville defense could become one of the best in the league.
Tennessee Titans: CB Logan Ryan
The Titans gave free agent Logan Ryan a three-year, $30 million deal to help fix a broken pass defense, but the preseason returns were mixed. Against the Jets in Week 1 of the preseason, Ryan was torched three times for 77 yards, but he redeemed himself somewhat the following week, forcing a fumble as he tackled Panthers receiver Devin Funchess. In the team’s third game, he was quiet. But Tennessee’s not paying Ryan to be quiet, and it is certainly not paying him to get beat downfield. The Titans need a ball-hawk in the secondary, a player that can completely shut down the sideline. If Ryan can be that guy and help Tennessee’s defense clamp down against the pass, the Titans could not only run away with the division, they could turn into a legit contender in the conference.
Denver Broncos: RB Jamaal Charles
It was never clear that Charles would make the Broncos’ 53-man roster, but now that he has, I’ll be cringing each and every time he runs, hoping that his right ACL doesn’t give out again. But if Charles, who missed all but eight games over the past two seasons with knee injuries, can stay healthy and on the field, he’ll be exactly what Denver needs to get its run game, and really its entire offense, on track. Charles is one of the most elusive and graceful runners in the league — he boasts the highest average yards per carry (5.45) of any running back in NFL history with at least 1,000 attempts, after all — and he’s just as dangerous as a pass catcher out of the backfield.
Kansas City Chiefs: LB Reggie Ragland
The middle linebacker spot remains a big question mark for the talented Chiefs defense: Derrick Johnson is 34 and returning from a season-ending Achilles tear, Ramik Wilson has yet to prove he’s a reliable starter, and Kevin Pierre-Louis has, to this point in his career, been a major liability both in coverage and against the run. That’s where last month’s trade for Ragland could pay huge dividends for Kansas City. The former second-round pick missed his entire rookie year with an ACL tear and wasn’t a great fit in the Bills’ new 4–3 scheme. But as he gains strength in his knee and gets more acquainted with the Chiefs’ scheme, Ragland could quickly climb the depth chart and start playing major snaps for Kansas City as a hard-hitting enforcer over the middle of the field.
Los Angeles Chargers: WR Keenan Allen
Allen clocked in for only two quarters last year, suffering an ACL tear just prior to halftime in the Chargers’ opening game against the Chiefs. But in that short appearance, the playmaker illustrated why he’s so important to Philip Rivers and the Los Angeles passing game, catching six passes for 63 yards, mostly against All-Pro cornerback Marcus Peters. Allen, Rivers’s favorite target, is a 6-foot-2, 211-pound security blanket on the outside and over the middle that consistently beats coverage and leaves cornerbacks spinning in circles. If Allen can stay healthy this year, the sky’s the limit for what the Chargers offense can do. Pair a breakthrough performance from that group with a defense that finished seventh in defensive DVOA last year, and Los Angeles could surprise a lot of people this season.
Oakland Raiders: CB Gareon Conley
The Marshawn Lynch–boosted Raiders offense looks ready to pick up where it left off last year as one of the AFC’s top-scoring groups, but to contend with the likes of New England and Pittsburgh, Oakland will need a stouter performance out of a defense that gave up 24 points per game last year (20th). Cornerback Sean Smith has struggled to hold on to his starting job this preseason and is also facing assault charges, so the Raiders may turn to rookie first-rounder Conley to play an integral part in the pass defense, asking him to match up with tough divisional opponents in Allen, Demaryius Thomas, Emmanuel Sanders, and Tyreek Hill. If Conley shows up as the shutdown corner the team envisioned when it took him 24th overall, the Raiders defense could make a huge jump forward in 2017. But first he needs to get healthy (he just came off the preseason PUP list) and prove he deserves that spot on the field.
Dallas Cowboys: DE Demarcus Lawrence
No Cowboy had more than six sacks last year, and now promising pass rusher David Irving is suspended for the first four weeks of the season for a PED violation. Randy Gregory’s out for the whole year for violating the NFL’s Policy for Substances of Abuse, too, and first-rounder Taco Charlton is an unproven rookie. That makes Lawrence the Cowboys’ best hope for a havoc-creating edge rusher, and the fourth-year pro, who collected just one sack last year in nine games, needs a bounce-back performance. If Lawrence can match, or exceed his eight-sack performance from 2015, it’ll give Dallas a chance in a talent-packed division. If he can’t, the ‘Boys could be in trouble.
New York Giants: WR Brandon Marshall
Defenses keyed in on Odell Beckham Jr. last year, and it’s no surprise why — he’s not only one of the most dangerous playmakers in the league, but he also saw 28.3 percent of Eli Manning’s total targets (169) come his way, the third-highest target-share in the NFL. This year, opponents might have to think twice about double- or triple-teaming Beckham if Marshall — who struggled with drops last year and caught just 46 percent of his targets — can get back to being the unguardable red zone menace that caught 109 passes and 14 touchdowns in 2015. If that elite version of Marshall shows back up, the Giants could field the best receiver duo in the league, and it would make the New York passing game damn near impossible to defend.
Philadelphia Eagles: RB LeGarrette Blount
The Eagles running back rotation lacked anything resembling power last year and finished 25th in the league in success rate (57 percent) on runs on third/fourth-and-short and in goal-line situations. Meanwhile, the 6-foot, 250-pound Blount was busy leading the NFL with 18 rushing touchdowns for the Patriots, including 11 scores from inside the 2-yard line, tied for the league’s most. At 30 years old, it’s fair to wonder how effective he’ll continue to be, but if Blount’s still got some gas in the tank as a short-yardage finisher, he’ll provide a brand-new dimension to an offense that badly needs some beef in the run game.
Washington Redskins: WR Josh Doctson
Washington let go of its top two receiving threats from last year when DeSean Jackson signed with the Bucs and Pierre Garçon with the 49ers. And while the signing of Terrelle Pryor helps to mitigate those losses, early returns indicate that it could take some time for Pryor to integrate himself into the passing game. While the team waits for Pryor to get up to speed, it may be tough for Jamison Crowder to make up for the loss of a combined 214 targets from last year’s offense all by himself. Washington will need Doctson, who missed most of his rookie season to an Achilles injury, to step in and make some plays. Doctson is another big-play target on third downs and in the red zone, and a breakout performance from him could help the Redskins offense pick up where it left off last year — as one of the most explosive units in the league.
Chicago Bears: WR Kevin White
Alshon Jeffery (free agency), Eddie Royal (cut) and Cameron Meredith (ACL tear) all won’t be on the field for the Bears this season, meaning their offense has had a combined 234 targets (42.5 percent of the team’s total targets) wiped off the board. And sure, veterans Kendall Wright and Markus Wheaton should pick up some of the slack in Chicago’s passing game, but neither player is going to scare opposing defenses or consistently get open downfield. A big-time breakout from former first-round pick Kevin White (who missed most of his first two seasons with leg injuries) could go a long way in giving the Bears a chance in the tough NFC North. As a speedy deep threat down the sideline or a big-bodied threat in the red zone, a healthy White gives the Bears offense an added dimension.
Detroit Lions: CB D.J. Hayden
The Lions finished dead last in Football Outsiders’ pass defense DVOA last year, surrendering a league-worst 72.7 percent completion rate, a league-worst 106.5 opponent passer rating, and a second-worst 33 pass touchdowns. So, uh, they need all the help they can get in the secondary, and newly signed free agent corner D.J. Hayden has the potential to bolster a thin group. The former Raider struggled with a hamstring injury early in camp but made some impressive plays in practice and finished as the team’s top-graded preseason defender, per Pro Football Focus. If he can continue to play well, work his way into a spot on the starting secondary, and finally start to live up to the potential that made him the 12th overall pick in 2013, the Lions pass defense could take a huge jump forward.
Green Bay Packers: DE Dean Lowry
Lowry has lined up at the five-technique defensive end spot in the Packers’ base 3–4 defense this preseason, and has gotten plenty of snaps as an inside pass rusher in their nickel package, too. The second-year pro combines power and explosiveness to overpower the offensive linemen in front of him (at the combine, Lowry ran a 4.87 40-yard dash with a 32.5-inch vertical at 6-foot-6, 296 pounds), and if he can be another disruptive play-wrecker in the form of Mike Daniels (who he’ll play next to), the Packers defensive front is going to make life difficult for opposing quarterbacks. The best way to fix a bad pass defense (and the Packers finished 23rd per DVOA in that area) is to get the quarterback off his spot or hit him, and a breakout year from Lowry could be exactly what Green Bay needs.
Minnesota Vikings: WR Laquon Treadwell
The Vikings finished last year 26th in the NFL in red zone touchdown percentage, converting those trips into six-plus points just 46.9 percent of the time. What quarterback Sam Bradford needs is a guy who can dominate in the end zone and use his size, length, and leaping ability to win at the catch point. That’s what Treadwell was known for at Ole Miss, but the Vikings first-round pick from last year managed just one catch as a rookie. If he can start to live up to his draft billing in 2017, he’ll give the Vikings a chance to improve their red zone touchdown rate dramatically — and help them contend in the division.
Atlanta Falcons: DT Grady Jarrett
The Falcons have put together a pretty formidable edge-rushing group, which includes 2016 sacks leader Vic Beasley, Adrian Clayborn, Brooks Reed, and rookie Takk McKinley. But without some pressure from the inside, it’s easy for opposing quarterbacks to step up into a clean pocket and throw downfield. That’s why Jarrett, who’s set to line up next to big-ticket free agent Dontari Poe on the Falcons’ interior, could be the key to fixing Atlanta’s 20th-ranked pressure rate from last year. The 6-foot, 305-pound defensive tackle notched three sacks as a rookie and has looked unblockable in preseason action; if he can turn up the pressure in 2017, the Falcons defense is going surprise some people.
Carolina Panthers: LB Shaq Thompson
With an incredible accumulation of versatile pass-catching talent, the Falcons, Buccaneers, and Saints make the NFC South a coverage nightmare. The Panthers need guys that can stop the run, and run in coverage with equal aplomb, and Thompson, a third-year linebacker/safety hybrid, is primed to play an increased role for the Panthers defense this year. The former first-rounder’s athleticism and agility in coverage is going to be tested as teams increasingly look to versatile playmakers at the running back and tight end positions. If Thompson excels, Carolina’s going to be tough to beat.
New Orleans Saints: DE Alex Okafor
The Saints notched just 30 sacks last year (27th), and rely far too much on one guy — Cameron Jordan — to get to the quarterback. The team’s been looking for someone to pair with Jordan since Junior Galette was released in 2015, but the options this year leave plenty of uncertainty. Obum Gwacham, once promising, was just released, Hau’oli Kikaha is still working to get back to full health after tearing his ACL, and Trey Hendrickson is an unproven rookie. The Saints really need Okafor, a former Cardinal that grabbed 3.5 sacks last year, to be that guy. Okafor has flashed some pass-rush chops during his career — he racked up eight sacks in 2014 — and in New Orleans, he should get plenty of opportunities to get back to that number. He’ll be rushing off the edge opposite Jordan on base downs, then bumping inside to rush next to him in nickel looks. If he can finally be the answer to the Saints’ pass rush problem, one of the league’s worst defenses the past three seasons has a chance to be … well, average.
Tampa Bay Buccaneers: DE Noah Spence
Buccaneers defensive tackle Gerald McCoy went out on a limb recently when he said that Spence, a second-year pass rusher out of Eastern Kentucky, “can take over the NFL.” McCoy compared him to Derrick Thomas and Von Miller for pure athletic potential, and while that’s certainly going to create some lofty expectations, a double-digit sack season isn’t too wild of a prediction. Spence will line up next to McCoy and free agent addition Chris Baker in Tampa Bay’s front, and is bound to get plenty of one-on-one blocks on the edge. If he can take advantage, he’ll fill a role as the dominant edge rusher that the Buccaneers defense badly needs.
Arizona Cardinals: DE Robert Nkemdiche
When Calais Campbell signed with the Jaguars, it left a giant, 6-foot-8, 300-pound void to fill on what’s been a very good defensive line through the past few years. The Cardinals will be hoping Nkemdiche can — at least in part — fill Campbell’s shoes, but after a rough rookie year in which he played just 82 snaps and found himself in Bruce Arians’s doghouse, it’s not a given that’s going to happen. Still, preseason reports have been positive, and the former 29th overall pick has the physical talent to take over a game. If Nkemdiche can play to his full potential in year two, the Cardinals shouldn’t have a problem getting back to being one of the best defenses in the league. If not, they could be in store for major regression on that side of the ball.
Los Angeles Rams: TE Tyler Higbee
Head coach and play-caller Sean McVay helped turn Jordan Reed into a touchdown machine in the Washington offense, and he’ll be looking for someone to fill Reed’s role as a chess piece for the Rams. Higbee, a second-year pro out of Western Kentucky, looks poised to grab that job, and a combination of size and athleticism makes him a great threat over the middle for second-year QB Jared Goff. Reed saw 114 targets in 14 games in McVay’s offense back in 2015, and another 89 in 12 games last season. If Los Angeles’s new coach doesn’t completely change up his strategy, Higbee has the chance to be a big part of the passing game, and, hopefully for the Rams’ sake, a big key to Goff’s development as a pro passer.
San Francisco 49ers: OLB Aaron Lynch
Plenty of eyes will be on four high-profile first-round players in San Francisco’s new-look front seven, with Arik Armstead, DeForest Buckner, Solomon Thomas, and Reuben Foster likely headlining that group. It’s Lynch, though, that could be the key to a big turnaround for this 49ers squad. The fourth-year pro was suspended last year for violating the NFL Policy and Program for Substances of Abuse, and had to lose 25 pounds over the summer to get in shape, but right now he might be playing as well as he’s played as a pro. Lynch mixes a 6-foot-6, 270-pound frame with speed and power, and when he’s focused, in shape, and healthy, he’s really hard to block.
Seattle Seahawks: WR Paul Richardson
The Seahawks went young at the receiver position this year, and sent Jermaine Kearse, their longtime no. 2 option behind Doug Baldwin, to the Jets as part of the Sheldon Richardson trade. That leaves the oft-injured yet spectacular-in-short-bursts Paul Richardson primed to play a big part in the Seattle passing game. When healthy, the fourth-year pro seems to make at least one specular catch a game for Russell Wilson (like this one in the Seahawks’ first preseason game) — it’s just that he has a habit of getting hurt on every one of those spectacular catches (he missed three weeks after that catch). If Richardson can stay on the field, he’s got breakaway speed down the sideline, a knack for tough catches over the middle, and plenty of star potential — but if he can’t, Seattle’s going to be relying on a lot of really inexperienced pass catchers (like rookie Amara Darboh and second-year pro Tanner McEvoy) to step in and make plays.