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 NFC:
Green Bay Packers: Jared Cook, tight end
Jordy Nelson’s return to health and Eddie Lacy’s return to shape will determine much of how the Packers offense rebounds from a disappointing 2015 season. The team’s rare free-agent acquisition at tight end will also play a significant role. Mike McCarthy loves tight ends who can produce past the chains, but he hasn’t had one since Jermichael Finley suffered a spine injury in 2013. Cook is by no means as refined as Finley was, but he presents the first athletic body at the position since. It’s an element Green Bay could have used last season when its receivers consistently failed to beat man coverage with Nelson sidelined. Even with the vertical threat back, another option who creates mismatches in the middle of the field would be a big step to getting this Packers offense back to the elite unit that challenged for championships.
Minnesota Vikings: Alex Boone, guard
Plenty is going to ride on newly acquired quarterback Sam Bradford as he relieves the injured Teddy Bridgewater. What’s really going to help him out is if Minnesota can remain the run-first team that pairs perfectly with a stalwart defense. Adrian Peterson led the NFL with 1,485 rushing yards last season in spite of a consistent shuffling among a weak offensive line. Now that he’s 31, he will need that offensive line to perform better to maintain that level of play. That’s where Boone comes in. He took a significant step back last season in San Francisco, particularly in pass protection, and he hasn’t had a particularly great preseason in Minnesota. But his mountain man frame (6-foot-8, 310 pounds) hasn’t gone anywhere and it’s going to need to open running lanes for Minnesota to make this all work on offense this season.
Chicago Bears: Jeremy Langford, running back
Langford was drafted in the fourth round last year as the heir to Matt Forte, and the Bears felt good enough about the flashes he showed as a rookie to move on from Forte. It’s a good idea in theory, as Chicago gets cheaper at a primary position in its scheme, and Langford brings the ability to make plays in the passing game and protect against blitzes that gives him extra value. But it’s also a lot to put on a second-year player now entering the featured back role a year after he finished ninth in the league in drops and struggled to break tackles. Given the absence of proven commodities behind him, Langford will need to develop if Chicago wants to maintain the run-first identity that helped alleviate the pressure on Jay Cutler last season.
Detroit Lions: Laken Tomlinson, guard
The Lions surprised many when they took Tomlinson near the end of the first round last season, and his critics came out quickly as he and the Lions running game struggled to a last-place finish in his rookie year. But Detroit was banking on his development, the kind that took off his senior year at Duke and made waves at the Senior Bowl, built on toughness and work ethic. Detroit needs that ascension to happen now because without Calvin Johnson or a reliable tight end, the Lions are building a team around long drives with a number of different options. That demands a strong running game. Detroit spent this year’s first-round pick on another powerful lineman in Ohio State tackle Taylor Decker, and the push they can start generating at the point of attack could make the offense successful.
Carolina Panthers: Kurt Coleman, safety
This preseason has generated plenty of buzz for what Devin Funchess can do for the Panthers offense, but that side of the ball will be fine so long as Kelvin Benjamin can replicate the kind of big plays Ted Ginn sometimes provided for a run-first unit. What Carolina must do to avoid regression from last year’s 15-1 season is find a way to keep Josh Norman’s departure from the secondary from being a gaping wound. That’ll fall on the front seven, but it’ll also require something out of the best player that back end has left. Coleman turned out to be perhaps the best bargain on last year’s Panthers team with seven interceptions. He’ll be relied on to do even more with the prospect of two rookies starting at the cornerback spots. As much as the Panthers linebackers help in coverage, they still need someone patrolling the deep part of the field and preventing danger from striking.
Atlanta Falcons: Mohamed Sanu, wide receiver
The Falcons panicked when they gave $14 million guaranteed to a wide receiver who didn’t score a touchdown last season, but it underscored how important of a role he’ll play this season. Sanu fell behind so many other options in Cincinnati last year, but the one year he had the No. 2 job in Marvin Jones’ injury absence, he posted 790 yards and 5 touchdowns on a gaudy 14.1 yards per catch. That’s the kind of production Atlanta will need out of the bullying receiver. The Falcons will continue to go nowhere offensively if Julio Jones is the only one providing consistent production in the passing game.
New Orleans Saints: James Laurinaitis, inside linebacker
The only way Drew Brees can lead the league again in passing and not have the Saints finish 7-9, as has happened the past two seasons, would be if his defense takes an immense stride. The roster hasn’t changed in any enormous ways to expect that to happen, but the best chance would be to improve the disastrous communication that gave players next to no chance to succeed at times under Rob Ryan. That’s what Laurinaitis’ biggest value is now that he’s in his eighth season. His thumper play isn’t what it was a few years ago in St. Louis, but what he can do as a leader for the defense, and specifically ascending second-year inside linebacker Stephone Anthony, could turn out to be tremendous in putting players in legitimate places to succeed.
Tampa Bay Buccaneers: Kwon Alexander, middle linebacker
Alexander was just a fourth-round rookie last season, a project to develop at outside linebacker, when he broke out with his all-around play at the middle linebacker spot. The Buccaneers started 6-6 as he did a little of everything, from rushing the passer (three sacks) to creating turnovers (two interceptions, two forced fumbles and one fumble recovery) to helping out deep in coverage. After he was suspended for a performance-enhancing drugs violation and missed the final four games, the Buccaneers finished 0-4. Alexander isn’t the traditional track-and-plug middle linebacker, but squeezed between Pro Bowler Lavonte David and savvy veteran Daryl Smith, he won’t need to be. He’ll instead look to fill a wildcard role that’s becoming more of a staple of the better teams in the NFL.
Washington Redskins: Matt Jones, running back
This season will be all about Kirk Cousins, from how much he can replicate last season’s torrid home stretch and how much the team will end up agreeing to pay him by the end of the year. Several players will factor into that read, and all are more proven than what is now his feature running back. After Alfred Morris departed to Dallas, Jones became the sole running back with any kind of track record. He averaged just 3.4 yards per carry as a rookie last season, and now he’ll step into an important role, delivering the balance that was a staple of Jay Gruden’s offenses in Cincinnati but was lacking in Washington last year. Without it, the Redskins might get back to asking too much out of their quarterback once again.
Philadelphia Eagles: Jordan Hicks, middle linebacker
Like Alexander was for the Buccaneers, Hicks was off to an impressive do-it-all rookie season at middle linebacker before his season was cut short. The 2015 third-rounder tore his pectoral tendon after returning an interception 67 yards for a touchdown. It was one of many highlights in just eight games that featured six total turnovers forced. Now recovered, he’ll assume a larger freelance opportunity as the Eagles transition to the 4-3 defense under Jim Schwartz. With all the questions Philadelphia has on offense, it has a good deal of hope on defense with playmakers up front in Fletcher Cox and Connor Barwin and back deep in Malcolm Jenkins and Rodney McLeod. If Hicks can provide one in the middle of the defense, the Eagles might have one unit that can carry the other into tight contests this season.
New York Giants: Landon Collins, strong safety
The Giants will be counting on their pricey free-agent acquisitions to bolster the league’s last-ranked defense. As Olivier Vernon and Damon Harrison go to work up front and Janoris Jenkins out wide, they’ll also look for a hybrid presence out of last year’s second-round pick. Collins was miscast as a free safety last year, but he’s back in the role that will have him in the box and playing like an extra linebacker in run support. The linebacking corps is the one area on that side of the ball that didn’t see a major facelift, in part because New York is looking for Collins to fill the void. On a defense with a number of egos trying to mesh together at once, a big step up from a second-year player at a crucial position could start to cure plenty of woes while also helping to get everything on track.
Dallas Cowboys: DeMarcus Lawrence, defensive end
Many seem to have written Lawrence off after he was suspended four games for violating the league’s substance-abuse policy. Given the state of Dallas’ pass rush — Randy Gregory (suspension), Benson Mayowa (offseason surgery) and Maliek Collins (foot injury) have all endured setbacks, with Gregory and Collins out for at least several weeks — a four-game suspension doesn’t seem like that long of a wait. If Dallas can survive the first four games that will also be absent of Tony Romo, Lawrence can be the player to ignite a defense in need of playmakers. He broke out with eight sacks in his first full season last year and will need to provide that kind of presence if the Cowboys are to overcome all the other setbacks that have hurt their playoff chances.
Arizona Cardinals: Evan Mathis, guard
The Cardinals had good reason to finally part with former first-round guard Jonathan Cooper, as they were able to finally find a dangerous full-time pass rusher in Chandler Jones. To make the trade a success, they need to be sure the veteran guard they signed to replace Cooper can live up to task. Mathis is one of the strongest players in the league who has a track record of leading offenses on the ground, but his responsibilities will be a little more advanced in Bruce Arians’ vertical passing game. At age 34, Mathis isn’t the brute pass protector he once was, but he’ll need to hold up well enough while also producing real movement in short-yardage situations. Bull rushes and interior pressure gave the Cardinals too many problems in the playoffs and helped lead to forced Palmer throws. A two-time Pro Bowler like Mathis has the ability to fix that, but his age could be a factor.
Seattle Seahawks: Tyler Lockett, wide receiver
The Seahawks’ transition to a quick-strike passing offense was necessitated by the injuries at running back and also the hits that kept piling on Russell Wilson. However, the results for Wilson were 24 touchdowns and 1 interception during the the final seven games. Doug Baldwin was the breakout star then, finishing with a league-high 14 touchdown catches, but the odds of him repeating it are unlikely now that defenses will be keying his way. The Seahawks need something out of a complementary receiver, and no candidate is better than Lockett, who showed flashes of being a dangerous player with the ball in his hands as a rookie last year. With the Seahawks offensive line in shambles again, the passing game will only continue succeeding if players on the outside can get the ball and do something with it. That’s the burden Lockett holds this season.
Los Angeles Rams: E.J. Gaines, cornerback
The Rams let Jenkins walk into free agency out of necessity, not because they felt they could count on a former sixth-round pick who hadn’t played in a year. But now, with concerns all over the secondary after a rough preseason, they’re looking for someone to step up and be the playmaker they’re badly missing, and Gaines could be that guy. He was tremendous as a rookie two years ago, starting 15 games and showing poise you wouldn’t expect out of a sixth-round rookie. If Gaines has recovered from a foot injury, the physical corner with man and zone skills can be that player.
San Francisco 49ers: Anthony Davis, guard
Whether the Chip Kelly experiment will work in San Francisco will come down to many questions, the most popular being whether he can settle on one quarterback and whether he can leave personnel decisions to his front office. The more underrated one is about how he’ll handle his guards. It was a big part of his undoing in Philadelphia after he released Evan Mathis and his pull schemes were getting blown up by defensive stunts, resulting in a drop in offensive DVOA (defense-adjusted value over average) from 13th in 2014 to 26th last season. Kelly is in an interesting spot with Anthony Davis, the former starting right tackle of the 49ers who took a year off from football and returned in far better shape for a move to guard. If he can start to create the uphill movement Kelly’s zone scheme requires, the 49ers might have a better chance than many are giving them.
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_.