Welcome to your 2022 NFL season’s X factors. For each of the 32 teams, I tried to pick the player that filled in the blank: “If [TEAM] is to have a great season, they need [PLAYER] to have a great season.” Of course, if we were to fill in this blank as accurately as possible, we’d list the 32 starting quarterbacks and be on our merry way. I tried to avoid starting quarterbacks (save for a few special cases) to keep the conversation interesting. I also avoided rookies (save for a few special cases again), because stumbling on a star rookie would obviously have an enormous impact on every team. We’re not looking for the big names, but rather the critical fulcrums on which an entire position, unit, team-building strategy, or playoff run hinges.
As it stands, these are my 32 X factors entering the 2022 NFL season.
Houston Texans: QB Davis Mills
The Texans are no closer to being good than they were a season ago. The roster is still bad, coaching staff unproven, and the quarterback position unsolved. But they have momentum there. Mills had a better rookie season than expected for a third-round pick—good enough to stop the Texans from adding any quarterback competition this offseason. A mere repeat performance won’t stave them off for another year. If Mills takes a step forward, he’ll officially be a competent NFL passer and low-end starter. That’s an ideal reality for the Texans, who will use the draft picks and cap space they would otherwise spend on acquiring a quarterback to fill out their poor roster.
Indianapolis Colts: WR Michael Pittman Jr.
Last year’s X factor for the Colts was WR Michael Pittman Jr. Here’s how that blurb went:
I waffled on this one for a while. The Colts are very close to being very good, but need things to break right for QB Carson Wentz, LT Eric Fisher, LB Bobby Okereke, and CB Xavier Rhodes for this to work—that’s a lot of X factors, folks. But I was surprised when the Colts passed on the WR position in free agency and early in the draft, though their excitement about second-year WR Michael Pittman Jr. explains some of that.
The names and years have changed, but I feel exactly the same. The Colts are once again very close to being very good, and are once again extremely thin at pass catcher, with all of their eggs firmly in Pittman’s basket. Pittman was tied for 14th in targets, 16th in yards, and 19th in yards per route run last year. With Matt Ryan providing an improvement at quarterback this year, the Colts need Pittman to go from solid WR1 to dominant WR1 as the lynchpin of a playoff-caliber passing game.
Jacksonville Jaguars: RB Travis Etienne
If we were including “extremely obvious second-year quarterbacks,” then no pick in the league would be more obvious than Trevor Lawrence. But the other 2021 first-round offensive talent matters a lot in Jacksonville, too. It’s tough to find explosive plays on an offense that includes Christian Kirk, Zay Jones, Marvin Jones, Evan Engram, and James Robinson. Etienne is the only Jaguars playmaker who can be gamebreaking with the ball in his hands. He is the only one who can, as both a pass catcher and ballcarrier, create yards for Lawrence, easing the burden on the young quarterback.
Tennessee Titans: WR Treylon Burks
I try to avoid rookies in the X factor hunt, but the Titans have forced my hand. In three years with the Titans, A.J. Brown accumulated 295 targets, 2,995 yards, and 24 touchdowns—that’s tough to replace! Burks is the man tasked to do it, as the Titans selected him with the first-round pick they got for trading Brown away. If Burks has the same kind of success that Brown enjoyed, this Titans offense can keep cooking with the same recipe it’s used for the past few years. If not, neither Robert Woods nor Nick Westbrook-Ikhine has the skill set to fill Brown’s shoes, and the Titans will have to change their offensive identity.
New York Jets: Edge Carl Lawson
It’s easy to forget that the Jets signed Carl Lawson to a three-year, $45 million deal last offseason—he ruptured his Achilles in training camp in 2021 and has yet to take a snap for New York. In his absence, the Jets’ defensive line has gotten pretty good. John Franklin-Myers, Quinnen Williams, Solomon Thomas, and first-round rookie Jermaine Johnson round out the top of an impressive rotation. When head coach Robert Saleh’s defenses were dominating in San Francisco, they did so on the back of a deep, dominant four-man rush; the Jets are primed to deliver the same, if Lawson can be the double-digit sack artist they paid for.
Buffalo Bills: CB Kaiir Elam
There are two obvious X factor options in Buffalo: WR Gabriel Davis on one side, and rookie CB Kaiir Elam on the other. Davis has gotten so much attention in the fantasy world, I think Elam deserves mention here. In recent seasons, the Bills have enjoyed an elite CB1 in Tre’Davious White and an elite safety duo in Micah Hyde and Jordan Poyer, but the rest of the cornerback room has often struggled. Young nickel corner Taron Johnson emerged last season, leaving CB2 as the final hangup in a truly dominant secondary. Corner is an extremely difficult position at which to excel as a rookie, but quality play from Elam could round out the league’s top defense. With White on the PUP list to start the season, Elam will be dropped straight into the fire.
New England Patriots: Senior football adviser/offensive line coach Matt Patricia
I tried to find a player to pick for the Patriots, but it’s tough to pick a player when the guy who is calling the offensive plays has never called offensive plays before or coached offense or overseen the total changing of an offensive scheme that’s been in place for two decades and also isn’t even called the offensive coordinator and the last time we saw him run a team it was horrible.
So I picked Matt Patricia.
Miami Dolphins: WR Tyreek Hill
The Dolphins are a tough team to pick an X factor for because everything hinges on everything. The quarterback has limitations, the head coach is new and unproven, the star receiver is elite at what the quarterback is bad at, the offensive line is still poor save for one newly acquired star. Tua Tagovailoa, Mike McDaniel, Tyreek Hill, Terron Armstead. Each feels more critical than the last.
I’m gonna go with Hill here. I believe that Tua can throw a functional deep ball, and few receivers warrant as much faith on downfield shots as Hill. But I also believe Hill could get frustrated quickly with the way the Dolphins offense may deploy him—as a field stretcher forced to do cardio for other receivers’ targets; as a defenseless target for safeties on middle-of-the-field crossers. And if the Hill experiment doesn’t work, it’s tough to see this Dolphins offense looking much different than last year’s.
Pittsburgh Steelers: LB Myles Jack
For the first time since the 2019 season, the Steelers’ defensive signals won’t go through Devin Bush. Linebacker play has been a big issue for the Steelers over the past few seasons, culminating in a 2021 campaign in which they surrendered a league-worst 5.0 yards per carry and sixth-worst negative-0.022 EPA/rush. The starting defense is largely returned, save for the exchange of Jack for Bush at linebacker. Jack fell out of favor with the Jacksonville coaching staff, but still fits the mold of the modern starting linebacker—speed, explosiveness, coverage ability—that Bush was never able to realize.
Baltimore Ravens: WR Rashod Bateman
The Ravens are really gambling that Bateman is good. I don’t blame them—Bateman looked good last year, even though he missed training camp due to injury and wasn’t able to play with Lamar Jackson for much of the season. But it’s daring to enter a season planning for the young guy to dominate the receiver room. The Ravens aren’t even remotely hedging their bet with any veterans behind Bateman, thereby placing the entire weight of the passing offense on his and Mark Andrews’s shoulders. If Bateman can’t deliver on his share of the targets, defenses can throw multiple players in coverage at Andrews and make the Ravens’ offense one-dimensional.
Cincinnati Bengals: OT La’el Collins
The Bengals proved last season that they can have a great offense without a quality offensive line. They also proved that they shouldn’t keep doing that. After returning from a major 2020 knee injury, Joe Burrow took 51 sacks last season—more than any other quarterback. Of the three offseason additions to that line—center Ted Karras, guard Alex Cappa, and tackle La’el Collins—Collins should have the most impact. Not only is he a perimeter protector who will face top edge rushers, he’s also still dealing with the repercussions of a training camp back injury. If Collins can’t return to pre-injury form, the Bengals will be back at square one: with a liability on their line and their quarterback in jeopardy.
Cleveland Browns: C Ethan Pocic
We’re getting a center on the X factor list, baby! For the past two seasons, the Browns have had the same starting offensive line: Jedrick Wills and Jack Conklin at tackle, Joel Bitonio and Wyatt Teller at guard, and JC Tretter at center. The running game, led by OL coach Bill Callahan, was one of the most diverse and dangerous in the league.
This past offseason, the Browns elected to move on from Tretter in favor of Nick Harris, who was placed on injured reserve following a season-ending knee injury in the preseason. A running game like the Browns’ requires great communication, chemistry, and no weak links. If Pocic can’t handle his role, the keystone of the Browns’ entire offensive scheme could falter.
Kansas City Chiefs: WR JuJu Smith-Schuster
The Chiefs traded Tyreek Hill to the Dolphins. To replace him, they’ve gathered a committee: Marquez Valdes-Scantling, JuJu Smith-Schuster, and Skyy Moore. It’s tough to figure out who will matter the most out of that group, but for my money, I think it’s Smith-Schuster. The development of the Steelers’ receiving corps around him, as well as the deterioration of quarterback Ben Roethlisberger, has cast Smith-Schuster as an underneath target hog who can’t do much else. But JuJu is a tough receiver who can win at all three levels of the field and still create explosive plays with his tackle-breaking and contested-catch abilities. He’s also a great blocker, which will matter for a Chiefs team still looking for a viable running game. Of the rostered Chiefs receivers, he’s by far the most reliable.
Denver Broncos: WR Courtland Sutton
In almost every season of his career, Russell Wilson has sustained a star wide receiver. In recent years, Tyler Lockett and DK Metcalf; in the years before, Doug Baldwin. In Denver, that star receiver looks like Sutton, whose career-best 72-catch, 1,112-yard season came from the quarterbacking of Joe Flacco, Drew Lock, and Brandon Allen in 2019. Wilson is a massive improvement, and Sutton is now two seasons removed from the devastating knee injury he suffered to start the 2020 season. Sutton is particularly good on contested deep balls, and Wilson is a particularly good deep-ball thrower. The stars are aligned for a perfect marriage, if Sutton is the same talent he was pre-injury.
Las Vegas Raiders: CB Nate Hobbs
The Raiders are a very odd team. Most of their offensive line is totally unproven. They have no receiver depth after Davante Adams and Hunter Renfrow. They have elite defensive ends but poor defensive tackles. There are approximately 19 X factors on this team, in the sense that there are so many players who need to play well for the Raiders to be a legit playoff contender. The shakiest position group may be cornerback, where the new coaching staff is relying on Nate Hobbs—strictly a slot corner last season—to play both inside and out. Hobbs was lights out as a nickel last year, and if that play translates to the outside, the absence of Casey Hayward won’t be as sorely felt. If Hobbs can’t play on the outside, it’s tough to find an answer for WR1s anywhere on the Raiders’ current depth chart.
Los Angeles Chargers: OT Trey Pipkins
Last year, I put rookie LT Rashawn Slater as the Chargers’ X factor, as he was the uncertainty at tackle opposite veteran Bryan Bulaga. Well, Bulaga went down with injury while Slater dominated, leaving Storm Norton as the starting right tackle. Norton was a liability over the course of the season, leaving the job open for the claiming this year. Pipkins beat out Norton in camp, but the last time we saw Pipkins take significant snaps at right tackle, during the 2020 season, the returns were very poor. It takes one weak link to devastate an otherwise solid offensive line, which is what the Chargers have outside of right tackle. If anything will hold the Chargers offense back this season—or launch it into the stratosphere—it will be the play of Pipkins on the outside.
Arizona Cardinals: S Isaiah Simmons
Do I fully understand how the Cardinals will play Isaiah Simmons as a “safety” when they have star Budda Baker and recently extended Jalen Thompson already at the position? Not really! Defensive coordinator Vance Joseph uses the term “star backer” to describe Simmons, but the “star”—a position born from Nick Saban’s defensive playbook—is a slot cornerback. I’m not convinced Simmons can cover traditional slot receivers, but I am convinced that an open-ended usage for Simmons is better than shoving him into the box as often as possible. The Cardinals defense is at its best when it lives in chaos: blitz packages, coverage rotations, fast bodies flying around. We’ve yet to see Simmons find his footing in that approach, but more snaps outside of linebacker can only help.
Seattle Seahawks: QB Geno Smith
How wonderful would it be if the Seahawks had a functional quarterback in Geno Smith? Smith’s 2021 stretch of play was his first opportunity to start multiple games since the 2014 season, and by EPA/play he ranked near Matt Ryan, Daniel Jones, Baker Mayfield, and Taylor Heinicke—certainly not an exciting group. But he isn’t coming off the bench this year, and the Seahawks look to have an improved offensive line and exciting running game, should Rashaad Penny remain healthy. Many expect the Seahawks to be downright awful, but if Geno is functional, they might win enough games to play themselves out of position to draft a top quarterback next April.
Los Angeles Rams: LB Ernest Jones
Fred Warner, Shaquille Leonard, Eric Kendricks, Demario Davis. If you made me bet on a linebacker to join the rank of elite coverage ’backers over the next few seasons, I just might take Ernest Jones. While sitting the first half of the year and playing the second, Jones got markedly better week over week, and punctuated his season with a three-down impact performance against the Bengals in the Super Bowl. The great coverage linebacker of the 2010s was Bobby Wagner, long a Seahawk and now a Ram. He’ll play side-by-side with Jones, but he’s lost a step with age—if he can impart wisdom and instincts, Jones will make the leap, filling the space for playmaking left on the second level of the Rams defense between Aaron Donald and Jalen Ramsey.
San Francisco 49ers: S Talanoa Hufanga
The 49ers defense was equal parts awesome at football and awesome to watch last year. Behind a ferocious pass rush, the back seven flew around with reckless abandon. Fred Warner, Azeez Al-Shaair, K’Waun Williams, and of course, the safeties, Jimmie Ward and Jaquiski Tartt: They punished opposing receivers and ballcarriers. But Tartt is no longer on the team, which puts second-year man Talanoa Hufanga in a starting role. For DeMeco Ryans’s zone-heavy, hustle-and-hit defensive approach to work, chemistry and aggression are required in the back seven. Hufanga must quickly integrate into the starting lineup, as he did last year as a spot starter, and also grow in his instincts and anticipation to account for average athleticism. And Ward will begin the season on IR to boot. Huge responsibilities rest on Hufanga’s shoulders.
Green Bay Packers: WR Romeo Doubs
A fourth-round rookie receiver from the NFC North made this list last year. That was Amon-Ra St. Brown, who earned the WR1 job for the Lions by the end of the season. Green Bay’s wide receiver corps isn’t as weak as Detroit’s was last year, and quarterback Aaron Rodgers is notoriously suspicious of young receivers. But with second-rounder Christian Watson still working back from knee surgery, Doubs has taken the available training camp reps and proved he can hang with the Packers defense and training camp opponents. Green Bay’s receiving corps of Allen Lazard, Sammy Watkins, and Randall Cobb is bad, and a potential limiting factor in a Packers playoff run. But if Doubs breaks out, the Packers will become all the more dangerous.
Minnesota Vikings: Edge Danielle Hunter
There are folks who like the Vikings as an NFC sleeper—I remain entirely unconvinced. However, it’s easy to see how if the Vikings make an NFC playoff run, it will be on the back of a dominant Hunter. The offense is largely unchanged and unlikely to suddenly get better—the secondary is much the same. The fulcrum of the Vikings’ season is Hunter, who has played only seven games in the past two seasons after consecutive years with 14-plus sacks in 2018 and 2019. In those two years, the Vikings ranked ninth and tied for fifth in points allowed; in the years Hunter missed games, they were 29th and 24th. The Vikings need Hunter’s dominant play to field a playoff-caliber defense again.
Detroit Lions: CB Jeff Okudah
The Lions were dead last in the league last season in yards surrendered per snap in man coverage, per Sports Info Solutions. It’s easy to understand why. CBs Okudah, Jerry Jacobs, Ifeatu Melifonwu, AJ Parker, and Amani Oruwariye all missed games with injury last season—in the cases of Okudah and Melifonwu, almost the entire season. With a poor rookie season and a missed sophomore season on his résumé, the pressure is on Okudah to perform. If he is what the Lions drafted him to be, he can cover WR1s, thereby making Oruwariye one of the better CB2s in the league, and giving the Lions the ability to actually hang in press man coverage—the way that defensive coordinator Aaron Glenn has always wanted to play ball.
Chicago Bears: Edge Trevis Gipson
The Chicago Bears are in the “it sure would be nice if some young players are ready to contribute” stage of team building—which is to say, absolute square one of a rebuild. There is no X factor that could make this team competitive—not even a huge step forward from QB Justin Fields in Year 2. The depth chart is just that poor.
As it is, the Bears traded away one star edge rusher in Khalil Mack this offseason, and their second star edge rusher, Robert Quinn, is 32 and doesn’t really fit the team’s timeline. Getting good pass rushers in the building takes time, so continued development from Gipson—a seven-sack player who scored extremely well in PFF’s pass rush productivity—could give the Bears a nice building block for the inevitable retooling of their roster in the years to come.
Philadelphia Eagles: QB Jalen Hurts
At this time last year, the Eagles were a young offense looking for cornerstones to build upon: Would DeVonta Smith translate? Is Jordan Mailata a top left tackle? Can Hurts be an NFL starter? That last question was the big one, so Hurts was my X factor for the Eagles. “Only the Lions and Texans have murkier futures at QB than the Eagles,” I wrote then. And even though the Eagles are much better on both sides of the ball and have their sights set on a playoff run, I’m not sure anything has changed. Hurts is clearly the fulcrum of the Eagles offense, which beat up on bad teams late last season to sneak into the playoffs and got bullied by the Tampa Bay Buccaneers defense in the wild-card round. If he takes a step as a passer with new wide receiver A.J. Brown, he’ll not only round out a Super Bowl–contending team, but earn a second contract.
New York Giants: LB Micah McFadden
It’s tough to see the Giants’ 2022 season as anything but an exercise to develop young players and win a strong draft position for the 2023 quarterback class. The cutting of Blake Martinez, a likely-overpaid-but-still-strong starter, serves as a clear example: The Giants want cap space and player development, not current contention. The cutting of Martinez, and the injury of Darrian Beavers, create room for fifth-round rookie McFadden to start alongside Tae Crowder. The Giants defense won’t be very good, but if McFadden parlays those reps into development and quality play, he’ll hold the job next year, allowing the Giants to address other spots on the roster and thereby speeding up the rebuilding process.
Washington Commanders: LB Jamin Davis
The Washington defense, which entered the 2021 season with plenty of hype, was a total mess. They had coverage busts, empty pass rushes, and poor performance from stars. It’s tough to imagine everything getting better all at once, but a sophomore bump for disappointing rookie Davis seems reasonable. Davis bounced from middle linebacker to weakside linebacker last year, and admitted a lack of comfort at NFL speeds—understandable, seeing as he’d started just one year in college. A good coverage linebacker relieves pressure on safeties and slot corners by policing the dangerous middle of the field, which should lift the entire Washington coverage unit—if Davis is ready to make that leap.
Dallas Cowboys: OT Tyler Smith
The training camp loss of Tyron Smith is a devastating one. With La’el Collins already out of Dallas, longtime swing tackle and Tyron Smith placeholder Terence Steele is now locked in at right tackle. That leaves first-round rookie Tyler Smith, a left tackle out of Tulsa, with the starting job dropped in his lap. The Cowboys seem squirrelly about the idea of Smith starting in Week 1—team owner Jerry Jones said this week that they will “pay some price” for starting Smith, but that he’ll “get his man,” both of which are collections of words that don’t actually mean anything. Regardless, rookie blindside protectors tend to be huge X factors, especially on offensive lines that struggled the previous year (as the Cowboys’ did) and whose job is to protect a pocket passer like Dak Prescott.
Carolina Panthers: QB Baker Mayfield
The Matt Rhule era is not so much continuing as it is lingering in Carolina. The only way a flailing head coach can save his job is with a huge turn of fortune at quarterback, and Rhule has placed his eggs in the Mayfield basket. It’s not a terrible bet. Baker tends to play best when he feels like the underdog, and before the 2021 shoulder injury was a promising stretch of 2020 play. I’d still be shocked if Mayfield looks like a rising star, but if he plays well enough to win the Panthers a few games, they could keep Rhule around for another year and try to build around a Baker contract. Perhaps Panthers fans will root for the other side of Mayfield’s performance this year.
New Orleans Saints: CB Paulson Adebo
The Saints’ elite secondary of the past few seasons is enduring some roster changes: Marcus Williams, Malcolm Jenkins, and C.J. Gardner-Johnson have all departed, and are replaced by Marcus Maye and Tyrann Mathieu. It’s a downgrade at safety, to be sure—but the top two corner spots remain untouched. Everyone knows about star cover man Marshon Lattimore, but second-year corner Adebo quietly had one of the best CB2 seasons in the league last year—as a rookie! If Adebo avoids a sophomore slump, head coach Dennis Allen can feel confident in bullying opposing offenses with tight man coverage, same as he did in 2021, which would give the Saints a defense good enough to drag their shaky offense into the playoff hunt.
Atlanta Falcons: LB Mykal Walker
I’m a big Walker fan, and I’m kinda calling my shot on a young Falcons defender here—but that’s what I did with A.J. Terrell last season, and that went great for me. We’re going back to the well with Walker, who has an unquestioned starting role after the departure of Foyesade Oluokun and shoulder injury to Deion Jones. Walker is a tall, long, rangy linebacker in the modern mold, and when asked to play has shown the tools necessary to start all three downs. Now he’ll get the reps to prove it, with only veteran Rashaan Evans beside him to cut into his snaps. If Falcons defensive coordinator Dean Pees is to be proved correct in his rant about 2022 expectations for Atlanta, he’ll need a big season out of Walker.
Tampa Bay Buccaneers: OL Luke Goedeke
The Buccaneers caught the worst sort of training camp injury bug: the one that hammers a single position. Ryan Jensen, Aaron Stinnie, Robert Hainsey, and Nick Leverett have all been injured along the interior offensive line—and the Buccaneers were already enduring change there, with the retirement of Ali Marpet and free agent departure of Alex Cappa. The Week 1 depth chart is still unclear, but rookie second-rounder Goedeke will almost certainly start at left guard, a position he has never played (he was two-year starter at right tackle in college). This is a scary thing to ask from a rookie, especially when your quarterback—45-year-old Tom Brady—is not gonna break the pocket much. Brady can account for a shaky interior offensive line, but a downright devastated one will muck up even the best offenses, and that’s what the Bucs are facing if Goedeke doesn’t grow up quick.