Training Camp starts in less than a month, you can hear the screams and tears of joy from the NFL faithful as the new season is fast approaching. I would like to take this time now to point out each of my “X” factors for the following 32 teams. This “X” factor can stem from the front office, a coach, a star player, or group of players for that matter. Its this focal point that I believe can either give your franchise the playoff push it needs, their first breakout season in a while, or maybe just give you the hopes that: “THANK GOD WE AREN’T REBUILDING ANYMORE”
The “X” factor is not necessarily each teams best player, but more so the player that each team needs to breakout and contribute in order for their team to have the best success. So with out further adieu lets begin with the NFC:
Dallas Cowboys: Dak Prescott
Dak Prescott is about to get paid. Typically, with how the market goes for quarterbacks in the NFL nowadays, Prescott is looking to get a pretty nice sum…let’s see if he is worth it.
While he didn’t perform nearly as well as his rookie campaign, Dak is still the leader and focal point for this Cowboys team. With the help of Amari Cooper and other rising star receivers, and with the return of veteran Jason Witten, the Cowboys’ quarterback should have all the tools to be successful this season.
Ezekiel Elliot will do his job pounding the rock, as long as his O-line continues to punish opposing defenses, so it is going to be up to Prescott to start all engines.
New York Giants: Will Hernandez
On paper this Giants team has been playoff caliber almost every year since OBJ first got on that boat in Miami. Poor coaching, devastating injuries, and questionable front office moves have held this team and poor Eli Manning from reaching the playoffs since 2016.
Will Hernandez has shown the ability to be a top tier Offensive Lineman, but can he be the trench leader that this New York team needs. The Giants have only had 2 winning seasons since their 2011 Super Bowl season, and only produced one playoff season in that span with NO postseason victories. This has been largely in part to the O-Line’s inability to protect the QB and create holes in the running game. Will Hernandez needs to anchor this line and buy Eli some more time to get the ball into the hands of there play makers… and they have PLAY-MAKERS in the likes of WR Sterling Shepard, TE Evan Engram, and who can forget standout rookie sensation Saquon Barkley. The Giants ability to reach the post season will rest on the shoulder of this Offensive Line and it starts with last years 2nd round pick.
Philadelphia Eagles: Carson Wentz
Its hard to believe that in his 3 year career the Eagles have made it to the playoffs TWICE and captured a Super Bowl title, yet Carson Wentz hasn’t even garnered a post-season win nonetheless an on field appearance in any post-season game. After a lackluster rookie year he has proven the talent and ability to win over Doug Pederson and the Philly faithful, but has yet to prove his ability to stay healthy through December and January.
If Wentz is to earn the MVP recognition he garnered in 2017’s Super Bowl run he is first going to have to stay healthy. In order to do so he’ll need to increase his awareness and alertness as well as create the ability to protect himself against the brutal Linebackers and Behemoth D-Lineman. Look for Wentz to perhaps have a more conservative approach in the pocket this year, as he recovers from back to back season ending injuries (ACL ’17 and Back ’18) both severe and not to be taken lightly. He’s inked an extension, now can he etch a legacy?
Washington Redskins: Trent Williams / Offensive Line / Injuries
If any team is the example of NFL purgatory it’s the Washington Redskins. This team has either been knocking on the door or had dismal season beginnings each year, only to squander a playoff chance or top draft choice , and finish with 6-9 wins. Its difficult to tell sometimes if this team wants to win or lose. Poor front office choices have plagued this team just as much as talent evaluation and injuries.
Finally, it seems that Washington has established a core team, not of elite superstars but of solid athletes that can make a push for the division title. Lets not forget the ‘Skins were 6-3 to start the year and leading the division when the injury bug finally sunk in. They closed the year with 25 players on IR. Now having already lost Reuben Foster (ACL) for the year, the Redskins must receive competitive play from their reserves early. The success of this team will HAVE to start up front with the O-Line. Regardless of who starts under center or who is taking carries in the backfield, this O-Line MUST protect their guys. Losing a Running Back like Guice in the pre-season or a QB down the stretch cannot happen if this team wants to reach January play. The first thing that needs to be done is getting All-Pro Tackle Trent Williams on the field. Currently the veteran has been absent from mini camp in the midst of what is reported to be either a contract dispute or frustration with the medical staff in regards to his recent medical situation (having removed a growth from his cranium in the offseason.) If this O-line is to succeed, if these injuries are to be lessened they will need their best player on the field.
Atlanta Falcons: Calvin Ridley
We all remember the Roddy White/ Julio Jones tandem in the first half of this decade, but since 2015 the Falcons and Jones have lacked a true WR2 to compliment him. Mohammed Sanu had some flashes and was helpful at times, but if last year showed anything it was that Calvin Ridley is the new Robin to Jones’ Batman.
The former Alabama standout busted onto the scene in his Week 3 matchup against the Saints, recording 7 catches for 146 yards and 3 touchdowns. He closed out the month of September with 15 receptions 264 yards and 6 touchdowns capturing the inaugural rookie of the month award in the process. He closed the season with 64 catches for 821 yards and 10 touchdowns. The 10 touchdowns broke the previous Falcons rookie record held by Junior Miller from 1980. If last year wasn’t enough of a statement look for this young kid to add to the Falcons high caliber offense, providing defense’s with nightmares of how to cover Jones, Ridley and RB Devonta Freeman. Lets not forget that 2016 NFL MVP Matt Ryan is throwing the ball as well.
Carolina Panthers: Cam Newton
Many people would probably like to disagree with this pick, in regards to running back Christian McCaffrey. McCaffrey carried the Panthers’ offense last season, doing everything from running the ball, and taking snaps at wide receiver. The talented running back can only do so much in a one-dimensional attack, for he will be fully blanketed by defenses next season.
The Panthers are successful, in regards to their offense, when Newton utilizes there play action well with McCaffrey. This helps throw opposing defenses off, and gives more variety, and plays to work with. Teams will have to not only respect Panthers’ star running back, but also their quarterback.
Newton needs to work on his accuracy, and passing efficiency for his team to go anywhere far in a tough division. He has been up and down through several seasons, and there has been great criticism because of that. Luckily, the Panthers quarterback has a running back like McCaffrey to bail him out, but can’t lean on him like last season.
New Orleans Saints: Jared Cook
Jared Cook has spent the last two seasons lining up in Oakland for the Raiders, earning himself a Pro Bowl nod with the Silver and Black last year. Last years breakout performance had him ranked in the top 5 of all major receiving stats for a Tight End: 5th in receptions (68), 4th in yards (896), and 4th in TD’s (6)
The Saints signed Cook to a two year deal worth $15.5 million this March in the hopes that he could fill the void left by Jimmy Graham in 2014. The Saints have lacked that play making ability from a Tight End. With the emergence of receiving Tight End’s Travis Kelce (Kansas City), Zach Ertz (Philadelphia), George Kittle (San Francisco) and Rob Gronkowski (retired) the signing of Cook should allow Drew Brees the ability to spread the ball and open the field for Alvin Kamara who now lacks the partnership of Mark Ingram (lost in free agency). Cook has proven himself to be a reliable albeit average journeyman Tight End. He possesses great hands and an ability to get open downfield, but his blocking does have some concerns ranking outside the top 50 of eligible TE’s last year.
Cook is going to have to show how consistent he can be in the long run if he’s going to want to stay in the Big Easy. He will be catching from arguably one of the greatest Quarterbacks of all time in Drew Brees so he will have very little room for failure in a Saints offense that is truly Super Bowl or bust in the twilight of Brees’ career.
Tampa Bay Buccaneers: Vernon Hargreaves, III/Buccaneers’ defense
This might be one of the most interesting X factors of all the teams on the list, due to the team’s struggles in almost every area. The “James Winston era” with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers is not necessarily panning out for them, as they can only hope Blaine Gabbert will ride Winston’s tailcoat all the way to the bench.
Winston has proved no matter his up and down, inconsistent play does not necessarily translate to a win or a loss for the Buccaneers. This is why the X factor for the Buccs is their star defensive back, Vernon Hargreaves (III).
I’m going to include the Hargreaves, along with some help on the defense for Tampa Bay – which they seriously have been lacking. Hargreaves will do his part on coverage and making plays, but new acquired defensive tackle, Ndamukong Suh, and the defense need to step up.
Linebacker Devin White, who was drafted in the first round this year, will look to help boost this defense, and with some veteran presence. It has been noted this team needs to play wall on the defensive end to make a difference in the game.
Chicago Bears: Mitch Trubisky
Bears’ QB Mitch Trubisky, has shown flashes in his two years in the NFL. In 2017, he started with some rookie mistakes, such as turnovers (which only ended up with 7 picks on the season), but came back with an incredible finish to transition into 2018.
Trubisky had a quarterback rating of 95.4 in the 2018 season, along with 3,223 yards passing and 24 touchdowns. He truly elevated his game since his rookie season, and became a more consistent quarterback.
The Bears have lacked a true starting quarterback in the past several years, maybe the past decade – since the Jay Cutler era – in which some people felt the same way they do now with the QB situation. As of recent seasons with Trubisky, Bears fans feel a sense of hope, for they hope their investment on trading up to the No. 2 overall pick will pay off.
I remember watching the game where Trubisky broke the Bears’ record for scoring six touchdowns in a game, and he did it nearly just in the first half. Trubisky had over 354 yards to go along with his touchdowns, which was distributed to five different receivers.
Trubisky clearly showed the league how talented he is, now it’s time for him to take that leadership role and take Chicago to the playoffs.
Detroit Lions: Matthew Stafford
Many people would think the X factor for this Detroit Lions team is Head Coach Matt Patricia, rather he is more associated with the hot seat. Wide Receiver Kenny Golladay, was my original pick for the Lions, instead I am going to say it’s Quarterback Matthew Stafford.
Stafford is going to need to take the leadership role from 0 to 100 next season, he basically has to work with a newly acquired offense. The Lions have added Wide Receiver Danny Amendola, along with veteran CJ Anderson at tailback.
This particular Lions’ roster is not an experienced one, in terms of playing together. Detroit is particularly young as well, with recent draft picks like Golladay, and Wide Receiver Marvin Jones.
The Lions’ quarterback will have to orchestrate a unique offense to say the least, because the running game is anything but ‘lethal’. Last season, Lions’ Running Back Kerryon Johnson, was actually the first player to rush over 100 yards in a game for Detroit since Barry Sanders.
Green Bay Packers: Matt Lafleur
No coach is under more pressure than first year Head Coach Matt Lafleur. Taking over one of the NFL’s most historic franchise from one of their most iconic coaches of the decade is no easy task. Inheriting a team that boasts one of the greatest franchise Quarterbacks of all-time is grounds to expect immediate success.
Lafleur will have every opportunity to coach this Green Bay team to a new legacy. His first task must be getting production from running back Aaron Jones in order to give the offense more diversity. Green Bay has failed to post a 1,000 yard rusher since Eddie Lacy posted back to back years in 2012-13. The Packers also pose one of the most interesting second year players in Jaire Alexander at Safety. Alexander now will have a full year without fellow deep man Ha-Ha Clinton-Dix and while need to provide consistent coverage over the top in a division that carries potential Top 10 receiving threats in Stefon Diggs, Adam Thielen, Kenny Golladay, and Marvin Jones Jr. Lafleur will have to post nothing less than 10 wins or a playoff appearance if he wants to stay in Green Bay past this season. Packers fans are not accustomed to the types of seasons they experienced last year, and with the downfall of Mike McCarthy last year this team (and its fans) expect competitive coaching and playoff wins.
Minnesota Vikings: Kirk Cousins
This is probably the most obvious X factor on this list. Cousins finally got paid last year, finally got a full supporting cast and finally had a contending team. Yet he could not get them over the hump, in fact he couldn’t even take the same team that went all the way to the NFC Championship in 2017 to the playoffs.
Kirk Cousins needs to earn his contract this year otherwise he could find himself jobless in a year or two. His first change needs to be the ability to win against teams with a winning record, Cousins has only won 4 games against a team with a winning record. On top of that he is 5-13 in primtime games and has a dismal 12-32-2 record on the road. If this Vikings team is to make another Super Bowl attempt it starts with their leader under center. He has all the weapons in place to do so, Stefon Diggs, Adam Thielen and Dalvin Cook on offense as well as a Top 5 defense to boot.
Arizona Cardinals: David Johnson
I know I may get some controversy here, there are a lot of “X” factors on this team: rookie QB Kyler Murray, new coach Kliff Kingsbury, and who can forget future Hall Of Famer Larry Fitzgerald. However, Larry is established, Murrary we know is talented, and the offense Kliff is putting in is MEANT for those players. The truest push must come from All-Pro Running Back David Johnson.
It almost seems as though some of us have forgotten about the 6’1″ 224 lb dual threat back who posted 15 consecutive games with 100+ yards from scrimmage en route to a 2,118 total yards season. It seems forever ago since that 2016 year, but he is in prime position to breakout this year. With all the focus on Murray, people forget that Kingsbury’s offense also caters to the receiving RB. Johnson who has had the lofty goal of 1,000/1,000 season since 2016 ended, may finally get his opportunity. If he stays healthy look for Johnson to breakout in this new Cardinals air raid offense and maybe bring back days reminiscent of the Kurt Warner/Fitzgerald/Edgerrin James super bowl team from years ago.
Los Angeles Rams: Jared Goff
QB Jared Goff and his Los Angeles Rams are going to have bounce back from a tough Super Bowl loss, as they will have to maintain a greater mental toughness even than last season.
Jared Goff didn’t have his best season, nor did he in the Super Bowl last year. A big part of that was star running back Todd Gurley, taking most of the reps and the glory in the end zone. Goff threw an interception on the last drive against the New England Patriots in Super Bowl, coming short of a great opportunity and will have too learn from it. To be fair, no one played well for the Rams in Super Bowl LIII, including Todd Gurley.
Goff will need to step up for the Rams if they want to get anywhere near the Super Bowl. Head Coach Sean McVay and Goff will need to put more trust into the passing game, because Gurley can’t always carry the load. We saw in the playoffs last year, Gurley wasn’t much of a factor because of the pressure and all out coverage on him, also for reasons unknown (battling a downplayed but serious knee injury.)
Once Goff gets more in tune with his receivers, the Rams’ passing game can be more of a threat, and their offense can be more of a balanced attack. The one we saw lead the Rams to become the tough NFC West offensive power we saw at the beginning of 2018.
San Francisco 49ers: Jimmy Garoppolo
No debate here when I say the 49ers need the Jimmy G we saw at the end of 2017 boasting a 5-0 record to close out that season. His overall record of 8-2 is compelling enough to say that he may very well be the answer to this franchise’s QB woes.
Garoppolo’s 2018 season was cut short in Week 3 by a torn ACL, giving way to C.J Beathard before Nick Mullens was discovered. The 49ers finished a mediocre at best 2018 campaign with a 4-12 record and the no. 2 Draft pick which they spent on Nick Bosa. With the emergence of last years rookie Dante Pettis and the breakout of George Kittle the 49ers are in the driver seat to challenge the Rams and the Seahawks for the division title. Garoppolo now has the opportunity to take his own team to the playoffs but he is going to need better protection as they averaged 3 sacks a game finishing in the bottom 10 of the league. Jimmy G could be forced to make more plays on the run and show his quick feet more often in order to extend plays and keep the offense out on the field. The addition of RB Tevin Coleman should help to provide an additional receiving threat and check down for Garoppolo. The goal must be to keep this defense off the field, they gave up just over 27 points/game last year finishing 5th worst in the league and dead last in turnover differential with -25. If Jimmy can produce in what will hope to be his first healthy year in the Bay Area look to see this 49er team to contend for a Wild Card spot if not the division lead.
Seattle Seahawks: Shaquill Griffin
It wasn’t long ago we heard murmurs of dynasty coming from the fans in regards to this Seahawks franchise. Head Coach Pete Carroll has turned this Seattle group into a perennial playoff team. However the Legion of Boom now is the Legion of Gloom having lost Earl Thomas and Richard Sherman to other teams and Kam Chancellor to career ending injury.
It isn’t easy to follow in the footsteps of greats, but that’s what 3rd year DB Shaquill Griffin will have to do in order to keep his team in contention for front runner of the NFC West. With the Rams holding the conference title and perhaps the number one offense in the NFC, Shaquill Griffin is going to have his hands full covering some top tier talents. The likes of Brandin Cooks, Cooper Kupp, and Larry Fitzgerald, come to mind among other NFC conference stars. The Seahawks should be able to keep pass with most offensive units around the league but defense wins championships, and this defense is going to start with Shaq. With big shoes to fill Griffin has himself in prime position to earn All-Pro and Pro Bowl nods if he can lockdown his assignments.