Every team has one or two players who on their own will define so much of the group’s success this season. And odds are, you already know who they are.
But each team also has a few players with potential who can also have an immense effect on so much around them. They won’t be the first players you think of, but the level at which they perform can help make an impact, including whether a team’s plan can work or not.
Here’s one X-Factor for each team in the AFC:
Cincinnati Bengals: Tyler Boyd, wide receiver
This Bengals season is going to come down to how well Andy Dalton can avoid regression from a near MVP level now that he’s without his offensive coordinator. Hue Jackson’s scheme was terrific at opening route options across the field for a variety of players. However, those targets are looking scarce after the free-agency departures of Marvin Jones and Mohamed Sanu and the ankle injury to Pro Bowl tight end Tyler Eifert. It’s hard to put too much expectation on a second-round rookie, but Boyd has already shown a size and speed combo that compares in potential to what Jones offered last year. Because so many of Dalton’s interceptions come on throws to A.J. Green, the emergence of another target could do wonders at maintaining the quarterback’s new-found efficiency.
Pittsburgh Steelers: Ryan Shazier, inside linebacker
The Steelers finally spent the draft capital on the secondary that’s been holding them back with bottom-five finishes in pass defense the past two years, but it’s going to take time for first-round cornerback Artie Burns or second-round safety Sean Davis to adjust to Pittsburgh’s zone coverage scheme. This means the pass rush has to make a difference, and ironically, that includes a lot of Shazier. Pittsburgh loves A-gap blitzes and will need them to work if the edge rushers are as disappointing as they appear to be with Bud DuPree injured, Jarvis Jones undersized and James Harrison now 38. In his third year, healthy and with more bulk to his frame, Shazier is in the right place to do it, and it’ll be necessary if Pittsburgh wants to avoid the shootouts that place pressure on an offense that keeps losing targets.
Baltimore Ravens: Za’Darius Smith, outside linebacker
The biggest questions facing the Ravens are about their health, which means they’re also questions about depth. It wasn’t good enough for Baltimore during last year’s 5-11 campaign. One of the bigger issues was the outside linebacker rotation around Elvis Dumervil, which was mostly nonexistent after Pernell McPhee departed for Chicago and six-time Pro Bowler Terrell Suggs went down with an Achilles tear. Dumervil then went from pass-rush specialist, where he averaged 13 sacks a season from 2009-2014, to a full-time player topping out at just six sacks in 16 games. Suggs’ ability to return to health will be a must, but so will the rotational presence the second-year Smith can provide after a decent rookie season with 5.5 sacks. At 6-foot-4 and 275 pounds, he has the potential to be a lesser man in the role McPhee filled, where he can spell either outside linebacker while also sliding down on the line in pass-rushing situations. The pass rush is ultimately going to mean everything on a defense that now has few trustworthy playmakers.
Cleveland Browns: Cam Erving, center
The Browns will be counting on plenty of young players to deliver in 2016, but they really need something out of Erving, the 19th overall pick in the 2015 draft. Alex Mack is now in Atlanta, which moves Erving back to the position that’s more natural to him than the guard spot that gave him discipline and physicality issues in a tough rookie year. His new spot is going to be essential in establishing head coach Hue Jackson’s run-heavy approach. It’ll matter even more in the chemistry and protection he can provide for quarterback Robert Griffin III, who has become an injury waiting to happen.
Houston Texans: JaDeveon Clowney, outside linebacker
The No. 1 pick in the 2014 draft is a big asset for the Texans, but it’s been easier to forget about him in his injury absence and with the way J.J. Watt has turned Houston’s defense into a top-tier unit almost by himself. After microfracture knee surgery as a rookie and a number of bumps and bruises last year, Clowney will start this season healthy and in the best position to meet his potential as an edge rusher and a dominant run defender. Developing counter rush moves and staying on the field would be crucial, realistic steps that could give the Texans a player other than Watt that teams have to go out of their way to gameplan around.
Indianapolis Colts: Kendall Langford, defensive end
Priority No. 1 for the Colts is finding a way to keep Andrew Luck healthy. Only slightly less concerning is Indianapolis’ ability to defend opposing passers now that elite cover man Vontae Davis is out for several weeks with an ankle injury. It’s a tough blow for a scheme that employs deep safeties because of the abilities of a player like Davis, and the signing of 32-year-old Antonio Cromartie doesn’t exactly inspire confidence. If there’s a solution, it’ll need to come in the pass rush, where Langford returns from a terrific first season with the Colts in which he posted a career-high seven sacks. Considering Robert Mathis and Trent Cole are on the decline, another step upward from Langford could mean so much for a defense with few other healthy playmakers to throw at a division full of talented young quarterbacks.
Jacksonville Jaguars: Tashaun Gipson, safety
The Jaguars finally have the passing game they’ve long sought, but Gus Bradley’s team is only going to take a step forward when his side of the ball shows significant progress. Jacksonville has pumped resources into each level of its defense, but the secondary in particular is looking for a player to break out. That could be Gipson, who is just 25 and has some of the better ball skills in the league with 13 interceptions during the past three seasons. More than just opportunistic, Gipson is the kind of freelancer on the back end who can shape coverage schemes, which will be crucial for a secondary where he is one of three new starters.
Tennessee Titans: Tajae Sharpe, wide receiver
The fact the Titans are relying so much on a fifth-round wide receiver might say something about their 2016 outlook. To his credit, Sharpe has shown big-time route-running and speed in training camp and preseason games, so much so that Tennessee was so willing to part with last year’s top deep threat, Dorial Green-Beckham. The Titans have invested little on the outside receiver positions as they move forward with Mike Mularkey’s “exotic smash-mouth” approach, but the only way to keep drives from stalling will be to present some threat outside the numbers who can make safeties pay for stacking the box. Sharpe appears to be the best candidate to do that.
New England Patriots: Jabaal Sheard, defensive end
The Patriots got Sheard from the Browns last season and turned him into their latest successful reclamation project. He had eight sacks and did a marvelous job setting the edge in the running game while playing only around half their defensive snaps. This year, with top pass rusher Chandler Jones now in Arizona and longtime defensive end Rob Ninkovich serving a four-game suspension, Sheard will need to take that production and maintain it over a full workload of snaps. If he can, New England’s trade for Arizona guard Jonathan Cooper could turn out to be the missing piece in another title run. If he can’t, the Patriots might have pass rush issues.
New York Jets: Matt Forte, running back
Ultimately lost in the drawn-out free-agency saga between the Jets and quarterback Ryan Fitzpatrick was the fact general manager Mike Maccagnan felt good enough about what Forte has left to offer at age 30 to let 28-year-old Chris Ivory walk after a breakout 1,070-yard season. They had originally hoped Forte would only be the leader in a three-headed backfield, much like he was last year in Chicago, but his role now grows in the absence of the injured Khiry Robinson. The Jets succeeded last year around an average, aging quarterback, and they’ll need to not lose anything in the running game to make it work again this season.
Buffalo Bills: Jerry Hughes, outside linebacker
After a preseason of injuries and suspensions all over the defense, the Bills will be looking for a lot out of the players they do have available on Rex Ryan’s side of the ball. This is especially true about the pass rush after Buffalo finished with the second fewest sacks in the league last season, the major pitfall of such a talented defense. Hughes was somewhat the exception. He regularly delivered pressures, although they only turned into five sacks after totaling 10 each of the two previous seasons. He’d love some help in collapsing the pocket, but the Bills don’t have a lot to offer right now. His ability to take those pressures up a notch into double-digit sack production could be the savior for a Bills season that feels like it’s already headed south.
Miami Dolphins: Jordan Cameron, tight end
The Dolphins’ success in Adam Gase’s first season as head coach is going to come through his work with quarterback Ryan Tannehill, but plenty of other players will factor into that progression. Cameron is one who could use his own version of a bounce back. He’s entering a contract year after his first with the Dolphins was disappointing, with just 386 yards and three touchdowns in 16 games. The 2013 Pro Bowler emerged as an athletic seam threat in his time in Cleveland, and that’s exactly what Gase has excelled with the past two seasons with Julius Thomas in Denver and Zach Miller in Chicago. Miller’s resurgence played a role in Jay Cutler finally growing comfortable in the Bears offense, and Gase needs Cameron to be the same kind of intermediate threat to settle down another quarterback who tends to get rattled.
Denver Broncos: Brandon Marshall, inside linebacker
The other Brandon Marshall has been one of the better rising success stories on the Broncos as a former throw-away of the Jaguars. That ascension has come in near-perfect conditions in Denver, as he’s played in tandem with Danny Trevathan and behind one of the best defensive lines in the game. With Trevathan and defensive end Malik Jackson gone, Marshall will need to assume a number of duties, from organizing the defense to serving as the cover inside linebacker in nickel situations. If he can handle it all, Denver might be able to make the playoffs while once again boasting one of the shakiest quarterback situations in the league. If it exposes him as a limited player, the close wins that defined last year could easily start to become tight losses.
Kansas City Chiefs: Dee Ford, outside linebacker
The Chiefs ended last season as one of the hottest teams in the league and then cashed in on one of the better offseasons in the NFL, maintaining and strengthening a core that should in theory be a force in a wide-open AFC. The plan could go up in smoke if the pass rush isn’t up to its usual standard, which is a strong possibility with Justin Houston recovering from a torn ACL and Tamba Hali going on 33. The concerns with the All-Pro Houston are especially terrifying, meaning the potential savior if he doesn’t recover is Ford. The former first-round pick hasn’t flashed in limited snaps his first two years in the league. If he can use a full-time role to show off the edge-bending and motor skills that got him selected so high, the Chiefs will have a crucial piece for the present and the future. If not, they could be left with one major flaw to unravel the entire plan.
Oakland Raiders: Latavius Murray, running back
With all the hype surrounding the Raiders’ young passing duo of Derek Carr and Amari Cooper, Jack Del Rio’s ideal team is still one that pounds the football. Coming off a rookie season that featured 5.2 yards per carry, Murray was supposed to be that kind of workhorse last year but disappointed, as he finished with 1,066 yards but only 6 touchdowns and 4.0 yards per carry. He had some interior blocking issues to blame, but he won’t this year after the signing of Kelechi Osemele, the top free-agent guard available. With nothing proven behind him, the Raiders are banking again on the swift and muscular Murray, and his ability to give the offense a rushing threat could decide whether Oakland moves beyond middling team to playoff squad.
San Diego Chargers: Matt Slauson, center
After Melvin Gordon’s rookie season failed with 3.5 yards per carry and zero touchdowns, the Chargers spent their offseason trying to fix it. Of all the additions and rehabs, the move they made on the fly might turn out to be the most important. The Chargers only signed Slauson after the draft, once the Bears shockingly let him go. The 6-foot-5, 315-pound pro is a powerful blocker with limited athleticism, but the move from guard to center gives him a unique opportunity. His strength can negate the bull rushes that often blew up plays before they began last year. He can also lead in a way that ignites a talented but often discombobulated line. If that happens, the lanes will open up for the track-star runner in Gordon to make an appearance at the pro level.
Nate Atkins is an NFL features writer for All22.com. He previously covered the Chicago Bears and the NFL for Pro Football Weekly. You can reach him via email at firstname.lastname@example.org and can follow him on Twitter @NateAtkins_.