White Wolf has broken down all 32 NFL teams, division-by-division, including X-factors (players who will be key to their team’s success or failure), Breakout Players (players that will have a breakout season), and Rookies to Watch (rookies to keep an eye on throughout the season). The teams are organized by projected division standings. You can also check out our NFL Playoff and Award Predictions.
1. Dallas Cowboys
One year after the Cowboys dominated throughout the regular season, there are some questions heading into 2017. The offensive line lost two starters, Doug Free and Ronald Leary; so seeing how the two new pieces mesh with the previously dominant offensive line is a something to watch. Ezekiel Elliott’s upheld six-game suspension could mean more on Dak Prescott’s shoulders, which he should be able to handle.
X-factor: LB Jaylon Smith
Considered a top prospect in the 2016 NFL Draft, Jaylon Smith’s knee injury with nerve damage dropped him to the second round and forced him to miss his entire rookie season. The Cowboys’ patience with Smith, who they took without knowing for certain if he’d be able to play, could pay off big time this season and beyond.
Breakout Player: OT La’el Collins
The Cowboys gave their former undrafted offensive lineman from LSU a great two-year extension this offseason. Based off talent, Collins would’ve never been undrafted, but unfortunate circumstances around draft time led to the Cowboys being able to scoop him up. Entering his third season, Collins has monster potential at right tackle.
Rookie to Watch: WR Ryan Switzer
Ryan Switzer was drafted in the fourth round and is coming off a huge senior season at North Carolina. With the Cowboys, he’ll be asked to contribute right away as a returner, but he’ll certainly get some time on offense. Switzer will likely be an integral part of the Cowboys moving forward.
2. New York Giants
Free agent signings worked in 2016 for the Giants, as a suffocating defense developed to help lead the team back to the playoffs. Their 17.8 points allowed per game was second only to New England, but the offense was the concern as their 19.4 points scored per game was only 26th in the NFL. Eli Manning is getting up there in age and can play very poorly at times, but he’s a two-time Super Bowl champion with a ton of weapons on offense. The offensive line is probably the biggest concern with the Giants.
X-factor: The offensive line
Newly-acquired receiver Brandon Marshall is also an X-factor, but Eli needs time and comfortability when looking down the field to throw to Marshall and his other targets. Left tackle Ereck Flowers is the biggest key to the line’s success and, despite his struggles, he’s still only 23-years-old entering his third NFL season—the former first-round pick has potential, but needs to start living up to it before it’s too late for Manning.
Breakout Player: WR Sterling Shepard
The second-year receiver suffered a training camp injury that made everyone worry, but it turned out to be an ankle sprain. He’s been 100% for a while now, and he’s the number three option behind Odell Beckham Jr. and Brandon Marshall—something he might thrive as. Eli Manning appears to trust the young receiver, so it’s not like he’ll be forgotten in the offense.
Rookie to Watch: RB Wayne Gallman
College football fans will recognize Gallman, as he was a huge part of the Clemson Tigers over the last three seasons. Despite showing his all-around ability out of the backfield in college, the Giants were able to select him in the fourth round of the draft. Gallman is fourth on the depth chart to open the season, but he might be too good to keep off the field for long.
3. Philadelphia Eagles
Expectations are extremely high in Philadelphia for the Eagles heading into Carson Wentz’s second NFL season. The team got off to a very fast start last season; but they really struggled later in the year, including a 1-7 stretch. The early season schedule for the Eagles is brutal and the corners don’t inspire much confidence, but there’s a chance the team takes a big step forward this season in a topsy-turvy division.
X-factor: QB Carson Wentz
The success of the Eagles this season might come down to last year’s second-overall pick. Wentz played great in his first few games, but things went downhill from there. The new receivers on the outside should help, but Wentz needs to make big improvements for the team to improve with him.
Breakout Player: WR Nelson Agholor
The 2015 first-round selection hasn’t come close to his potential in the NFL. He was a widely-praised selection for a reason—Agholor was a can’t-miss prospect coming out of USC. Agholor gets heavily criticized by fans and the media, but former Trojans only issue was getting in his own head. With an improved mindset, Agholor could emerge as a great playmaker this season.
Rookie to Watch: RB Corey Clement
Defensive end Derek Barnett, the team’s first-round selection, is also a rookie to watch, but Clement is an undrafted rookie from Wisconsin that made the team. After a very good college career, Clement really had no business going undrafted and is looking to make an impact in the NFL. Judging by his preseason play in all facets of the game, Clement might receive some meaningful snaps as a rookie.
4. Washington Redskins
Uncertainty is the main reason the Redskins aren’t projected higher in the standings. They lost their offensive coordinator Sean McVay (he’s now the head coach of the Rams) and their top two receivers (DeSean Jackson and Pierre Garcon); and quarterback Kirk Cousins enters another year on the franchise tag. Still, Jay Gruden has shown he’s a good head coach, and it wouldn’t be surprising to see Washington win the NFC East.
X-factor: WR Terrelle Pryor
Pryor did not look great during the preseason, which is cause for concern after he apparently wasn’t highly pursued during free agency. He does have alien-like size that only a few receivers possess, so the upside is there for the former receiver. Pryor’s continued development as a receiver will be a key for the Redskins in 2017.
Breakout Player: WR Jamison Crowder
After the departure of DeSean Jackson and Pierre Garcon, Jamison Crowder is easily Kirk Cousins’ most trusted receiver aside from tight end Jordan Reed. Crowder stepped into the NFL as a reliable receiver form Duke, but he improved from year one to year two. Look for him to have another leap—and a potentially huge one.
Rookie to Watch: DE Jonathan Allen
Projected as a potential top-three selection by many, the Redskins were able to select Jonathan Allen with the 17th pick in the draft. The 2016 SEC Defensive Player of the Year will step right in and get significant playing time for Washington, as the defense looks to get back on track.
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1. Green Bay Packers
After a 4-6 start in 2016, Aaron Rodgers and the Packers had another “R-E-L-A-X” moment when they won seven straight games and toppled the Giants and Cowboys in the playoffs, coming one game short of another Super Bowl appearance. The defense isn’t as good as some of the other top teams in the NFL, but Rodgers and the offense can carry the team deep into the playoffs.
X-factor: CB Davon House
The former Packer is back after two seasons with the Jaguars, and he’s looking to get back to the form that led to his big contract with Jacksonville in 2015. Against the top offensives in the league (like Atlanta), House will need to step up and help avoid the Packers getting run out of the building like they did in the NFC Championship last season when Matt Ryan threw for 392 yards and four touchdowns.
Breakout Player: RB Ty Montgomery
Montgomery might already be considered a breakout after his mid-season switch from receiver to running back in 2016, but he only had a dozen games at his new position. The former Stanford Cardinal had 77 carries for 457 yards (5.9 yards per carry) and three touchdowns, along with 44 receptions for 348 yards last year, but he might totally blow those numbers away in 2017.
Rookie to Watch: S Josh Jones
The Packers like to have versatile guys in their secondary, and they added Josh Jones into that mix when they selected him in the second round of the draft. Jones plays with a lot of energy, and he’ll be fun to watch whenever he’s on the field for Green Bay.
2. Minnesota Vikings
Early in 2016, the Vikings played elite defense and started the year 5-0. Despite being acquired right before the season, quarterback Sam Bradford was a legitimate MVP candidate. However, the historically bad offensive line caught up to the Vikings, and the wheels fell off. Like the Falcons, who struggled after a 5-0 start in 2015 then went on to have an amazing 2016 season, the Vikings could emerge as a powerhouse in the NFC.
X-factor: Offensive tackles
As a unit, the offensive line was terrible last season for the Vikings, but the tackle position was the biggest part of the problem. Minnesota attempted to remedy that this offseason, signing tackles Riley Reiff and Mike Remmers during free agency. If those guys can keep Sam Bradford upright, the soon-to-be-30-year-old quarterback would be able to shred opposing defenses.
Breakout Player: S Jayron Kearse
The 2016 seventh-round pick is still on Minnesota’s roster, and he’ll look to show more of what he can do this season. The game is likely moving slower for the 6’4” Kearse in his second-season, and he might make a huge impact if he gets more time on defense for the Vikings.
Rookie to Watch: RB Dalvin Cook
Florida State’s all-time leading rusher dropped to the second-round in the draft—and the Vikings were ecstatic. Cook has done nothing to make them regret the pick, as the young back has received rave reviews in his few months on the team. Latavius Murray and Jerick McKinnon are also in the backfield, but Cook might see a ton of touches as a rookie.
3. Detroit Lions
The Lions had nine wins last season, and eight of them were fourth-quarter comebacks—an NFL record. It was a magical season by Matthew Stafford (now the highest paid player in the NFL) and the offense, but some might also say it was fluky. They’ll look to prove those people wrong this season, as they have a talented roster that has depth at almost every position.
X-factor: OT Greg Robinson
Starting left tackle Taylor Decker is out for at least the first six weeks of the season, but the Lions acquired Robinson and inserted him at the left tackle spot. Robinson was the second overall pick in the 2014 NFL Draft, so the potential is there. He needs to play well and protect Matthew Stafford’s blindside for at least the first several weeks of 2017.
Breakout Player: RB Ameer Abdullah
The breakout hopes of Ameer Abdullah were erased quickly when he went down with a season-ending foot injury in Week 2. It was only 18 carries, but Abdullah averaged 5.6 yards per carry before he was injured last season, and his numbers might hover around the 5.0 yard per carry mark for the Lions.
Rookie to Watch: WR Kenny Golladay
The third-round pick out of Northern Illinois wasn’t handed anything by the Lions, but he worked his way up the depth chart after showing major flashes during training camp and the preseason. At 6’4”, Golladay could quickly emerge as a go-to target for Matthew Stafford in the red zone to help make up for the loss of Anquan Boldin (eight touchdowns last season).
4. Chicago Bears
Chicago’s position is similar to where they were heading into last season. They have a front seven that might be among the best in the NFL, and they’ll look to ride it to some wins. This year, they have a young franchise quarterback, Mitchell Trubisky, that has almost everyone excited in Chicago. John Fox is a good coach, so don’t be surprised if the Bears make some noise.
X-factor: The secondary
As stated, the front seven has the look of a potentially elite unit, especially if they improve their run defense; so it’ll be up to the secondary, which includes four new starters (Prince Amukamara, Marcus Cooper, Quintin Demps, and rookie Eddie Jackson), to come together and help take the defense to another level.
Breakout Player: OLB Leonard Floyd
Considering Leonard Floyd had seven sacks as a rookie, some might not see him as a breakout pick—but he might emerge as an elite player and have an All-Pro season in 2017. Floyd is a great athlete that applies his gifts on the field in all areas of his game.
Rookie to Watch: QB Mitchell Trubisky
The Bears obviously loved Trubisky, as they traded from number three overall to number two overall in the draft to ensure they were able to get him. In the preseason, Trubisky looked awesome and made every throw with apparent ease. Ideally, he won’t play this season, but the Bears would probably be just fine with Trubisky in the lineup.
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1. Atlanta Falcons
The clear favorite in the NFC resides in Atlanta. Last year’s regular season MVP Matt Ryan is back with all his weapons from last season, and the team is on a mission after their stunning loss in Super Bowl LI to the Patriots. The Falcons were only 11-5 last season, but it felt like they were a lot better than that and the clear top team in the conference heading into the playoffs. They might win 13+ games this season (Matt Ryan’s teams have gone 13-3 twice in his career).
X-factor: OC Steve Sarkisian
Last year’s offensive coordinator Kyle Shanahan is now the head coach of the 49ers, but the team brought in another great offensive mind to take over. Sarkisian is not bringing in a whole new offense and instead must adapt to the system the Falcons already have in place. If he, Matt Ryan, and the offense click, the Falcons might score even more points in 2017.
Breakout Player: DT Grady Jarrett
Because the Falcons are already so good at every position, breakout picks are hard to come by. Perhaps playing with big (literally) addition Dontari Poe in the middle will free up Jarrett to make more plays in 2017.
Rookie to Watch: LB Duke Riley
The rookie linebacker from LSU is a great athlete that can be a core contributor on special teams, but Duke Riley should be able to contribute right away on defense as well. He joins his former LSU teammate Deion Jones on Atlanta’s defense.
2. Tampa Bay Buccaneers
The Buccaneers were featured on HBO’s Hard Knocks, which made it appear they are a team potentially on the verge of contending in the NFC. Jameis Winston is entering his third season and is a popular MVP pick by some, but he’ll need to limit the bad decisions and turnovers if the Buccaneers are going to take the next step. On defense, Tampa Bay has playmakers on every level.
X-factor: WR DeSean Jackson
The type of speed DeSean Jackson has is uncommon, and the Bucs made sure they went out and got it in free agency. Though Jackson is a more mature person than he was in his younger days, he still showed on Hard Knocks he can create problems if he’s not getting the ball thrown his way.
Breakout Player: CB Vernon Hargreaves III
Hargreaves is entering his second season after being selected in the first round of last year’s draft and having a good rookie season for the Bucs. The former Florida Gator just turned 22 in June, and he could start to emerge as a true shutdown corner soon.
Rookie to Watch: WR Chris Godwin
This is an easy one, as Godwin looks like a total steal by the Buccaneers in the third round. On Hard Knocks, it was made clear that Godwin has a great head on his shoulders, and he certainly has ability on the field. He’ll probably make some big plays for Jameis Winston as a rookie.
3. Carolina Panthers
Last season, the Panthers battled a difficult schedule and an apparent Super Bowl hangover, finding themselves with a top-ten pick in the 2017 NFL Draft. Fortunately, they were able to grab game-breaking running back Christian McCaffrey with that pick, along with receiver Curtis Samuel in the second round. If the offense can use those two explosive playmakers to get back to where they were in 2015 when Cam Newton won MVP, it’ll help take pressure off a talented defense.
Carolina’s pass rush and run defense remained very good in 2016, but the pass defense took a major step back. Getting Captain Munnerlyn back after he spent three seasons in Minnesota should help, but they need the outside corners James Bradberry and Daryl Worley to step up.
Breakout Player: WR Devin Funchess
With Kelvin Benjamin further removed from his 2015 ACL tear and looking like a beast, it should take pressure of third-year receiver Devin Funchess. He didn’t breakout last season, but this could be a post-hype breakout for the former Michigan Wolverine.
Rookie to Watch: RB Christian McCaffrey
Some, mistakenly, questioned the selection of Christian McCaffrey with the eight-overall pick. His size was one of the main things in question, but McCaffrey is the same size as potential future Hall of Fame running back Jamaal Charles. The former Heisman finalist has extraordinary explosiveness and will makes some highlight-reel plays to start his NFL career.
4. New Orleans Saints
It’s been three straight seasons without Drew Brees and the Saints in the playoffs, but they’re looking to bring a more balanced attack to the field in 2017 after adding future first-ballot Hall of Fame running back Adrian Peterson. The Saints’ Super Bowl victory was nearly seven years ago, but the possibility of them getting back there rests on the defense—the pass defense, in particular—improving.
X-factor: CB Ken Crawley
The second-year undrafted player emerged as a contributor last season for the Saints, and he needs to help the team’s pass defense hold up without Delvin Breaux (leg), who’s on injured reserve and won’t return for at least eight weeks.
Breakout Player: S Vonn Bell
Vonn Bell is also entering his second season in the NFL, but he was a second-round pick from Ohio State. Bell was fine as a rookie last season, but he might really emerge as a playmaker on the back end of the defense in 2017.
Rookie to Watch: OT Ryan Ramczyk
Starting left tackle Terron Armstead is going to miss the start of the season after tearing his labrum in June. There aren’t many worse losses the Saints could’ve suffered, but they’ll turn to their first-round pick Ryan Ramczyk. The rookie from Wisconsin needs to keep Drew Brees from getting hit and give the team one less thing to worry about.
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1. Seattle Seahawks
There might not be a more talented defense in the NFL than the one in Seattle. They added former first-round pick Sheldon Richardson from the Jets, which also adds another unreserved personality to the team and might be a risk/reward move. The offense has four running backs that can contribute, but look for Russell Wilson and the passing game to take control as a healthy Wilson gets back closer where he was in 2015, when he threw for 34 touchdowns and eight interceptions.
X-factor: CB Richard Sherman
It’s not secret the team was looking to trade Sherman this offseason amid some obvious strain in the relationship between the two sides. Right now, everything is fine heading into the season—but if things start to go bad, they could get really bad.
Breakout Player: WR Paul Richardson
Entering his fourth year, Paul Richardson looked primed to become a starter either way; but the departure of Jermaine Kearse opens up even more playing time for Seattle’s former second-round pick. Richardson made some huge plays for Russell Wilson at the end of last season and is looking to carry that momentum to 2017. It wouldn’t be surprising to see him easily surpass his 51 career receptions and go over 1,000 yards—if he stays healthy.
Rookie to Watch: RB Chris Carson
Those that paid attention during the preseason know this name. Chris Carson, the seventh-round rookie from Oklahoma State, made huge plays during the preseason and showed he can play with Russell Wilson and the first-team offense. He’s fourth on the depth chart heading into the season, but Carson might work his way into a big year-one role.
2. Arizona Cardinals
Last season, the Cardinals were a perplexing team in terms of their record. The offense was sixth in the NFL in scoring, while the defense was second in the NFL in yards allowed but 14th in scoring. There’s no question the Cardinals have talent and good coaching, so they might get back to being an elite team in the NFC this season.
X-factor: QB Carson Palmer
Part of the reason the Cardinals struggled to win games was Carson Palmer’s play early in the season—but that probably had a lot to do with getting hit a lot. Arizona scaled back Palmer’s workload this year in an effort to keep his arm fresh, and he’ll look to get back to the near-elite level he was at in 2014 and 2015.
Breakout Player: WR Jaron Brown
Despite tearing his ACL last October, Jaron Brown made an amazing recovery and is suddenly the number two receiver in Arizona after a great summer. The 27-year-old former undrafted Clemson Tiger might end up being the number three receiver if John Brown steps up, but Jaron should easily surpass his career-highs in 2017.
Rookie to Watch: S Budda Baker
The Washington Huskies made the College Football Playoff last season, and Budda Baker was a big part of that. He made plays all over the field in college, and the second-round pick will look to do the same in his rookie season. Baker is just good at football, and he can probably play any position in the secondary—something that’ll help him get on the field.
3. Los Angeles Rams
At 31-years-old (30 at the time of his hiring), new Rams head coach Sean McVay is the youngest in NFL history. When McVay talks, he doesn’t sound like he’s that young except in terms of energy—if you close your eyes, it’s easy to mistake McVay for Jon Gruden. The first-time head coach has former head coach and Super Bowl-winning defensive coordinator Wade Phillips to help him out, but the defense might not reach its potential if Aaron Donald doesn’t return from his holdout soon.
X-factor: WR Sammy Watkins
There is no question Sammy Watkins has the potential to be a top-flight elite receiver in the NFL, but he battled a foot injury during last season and was traded to the Rams just a few weeks ago. The former fourth-overall pick in the draft is entering his fourth season in the league, and it’s a contract year. If Watkins stays healthy, he could give the Rams a true gamebreaker on the outside.
Breakout Player: QB Jared Goff
Jared Goff was selected with the first-overall pick in last year’s draft for a reason. He can throw the ball precisely, as he showed flashes of during his rookie season. With the old offensive coaching staff out and Sean McVay in, Goff should take a giant leap in his second season.
Rookie to Watch: TE Gerald Everett
Sean McVay came from the Redskins, who of course have Jordan Reed, and he targeted Gerald Everett in the second round of the draft to be his Jordan Reed. Rookie tight ends typically don’t make a huge year-one impact, but he should show his athleticism and flash during his rookie season.
4. San Francisco 49ers
Like the Eagles before them, the 49ers gave up way too early on Chip Kelly. The team had, by far, the worst roster in the NFL last season, and even the greatest of coaches would’ve struggled to win many games with it. With that, the 49ers appear to have a very good combination with Kyle Shanahan as the new head coach and John Lynch as the new general manager. The roster is infinitely better than last season, and San Francisco appears headed in the right direction.
X-factor: LB NaVorro Bowman
The Niners lost their best player in a close Week 4 loss to the Cowboys in 2016, when NaVorro Bowman went down with a torn Achilles. Bowman is back and healthy, and he’s still only 29-years-old. With rookie Reuben Foster lined up next to him, Bowman could lead the Niners to a resurgence on defense.
Breakout Player: WR Marquise Goodwin
Because of his Olympic speed, Goodwin is someone with massive untapped potential, and Kyle Shanahan might be the guy to get it out of him. Goodwin is locked in as the number two receiver behind Pierre Garcon, and quarterback Brian Hoyer will give him opportunities to make big plays.
Rookie to Watch: CB Ahkello Witherspoon
The front seven for the 49ers, which includes the team’s last three first-round selections on the defensive line, looks like it could be solid. The main concern for the team is probably the corner position, but third-round pick Ahkello Witherspoon is one of the young guys that can step up there.
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1. New England Patriots
Last season, the Patriots won their second Super Bowl in three years—the fifth total for Tom Brady and Bill Belichick. They’re going for another three-out-of-four like they did in the early 2000s, and they should be considered the heavy favorite. The loss of Julian Edelman to a torn ACL is very unfortunate and it’s something the Patriots will have to adjust to, but it still would not be surprising to see them put up record numbers in 2017. The defense, which led the league in points allowed last year, added Stephon Gilmore and should be able to get the ball back for the offense quickly.
X-factor: WR Brandin Cooks
The Saints deciding to let the dynamic Brandin Cooks go was a surprise, but the Patriots were glad to acquire him. Cooks has both straight-line speed and short-area quickness, and he should make a ton of big plays for New England this season. He’s entering his fourth season in the NFL already, but Cooks will turn only 24-years-old on September 25.
Breakout Player: CB Eric Rowe
Malcolm Butler and Stephon Gilmore might be the best corner combination in the NFL, so offenses might have no choice but to go after Eric Rowe. The third-year corner, who was acquired from the Eagles before last season, was a big part of the team’s Super Bowl LI run. The Pats will need him to remain consistent against the high-powered offenses like the Steelers.
Rookie to Watch: DE Deatrich Wise
The Patriots did not have a first- or second-round selection in this year’s draft, and their third-round pick Derek Rivers tore his ACL during the preseason. Deatrich Wise, a fourth-rounder out of Arkansas, gives a ton of effort on the field and will likely find his way into the defensive line rotation.
2. Miami Dolphins
Adam Gase showed he was a great hire during his first year in Miami in 2016, as the Dolphins went on a 9-1 stretch late in the season and made the playoffs. Unfortunately, Ryan Tannehill injured his knee in Week 14 of last season, and he injured it again during training camp, which led to the addition of veteran Jay Cutler. If the talented defense can improve, even with the loss of defensive coordinator Vance Joseph, the Dolphins have a good chance of getting to the playoffs for a second straight season.
X-factor: QB Jay Cutler
The Dolphins and Adam Gase were the only situation Jay Cutler, who was set to start his job in the number two broadcast boost for FOX, would come back to. He and Gase have a good connection, and Cutler hasn’t had a better set of skill position players around him than now. Cutler might have his best season in 2017.
Breakout Player: WR DeVante Parker
The easiest of all breakout picks is DeVante Parker. The third-year receiver has received as much hype possible leading up to the season, so he’ll live up to it if he stays healthy. From his offensive coordinator saying he’ll have a “gigantic” year, to his receivers coach saying he’ll be in the “Monster Bowl” after the season, to Jay Cutler calling him a “faster” Alshon Jeffery, Parker has the look of someone on the verge of stardom.
Rookie to Watch: DE Charles Harris
Miami’s first-round selection joins a potentially lethal defensive end rotation with Cameron Wake, Andre Branch, and William Hayes. Charles Harris will be looked upon to make an impact off the bench for a veteran defensive line.
3. Buffalo Bills
Tanking is an unfair characterization, but it’s difficult to believe the Bills got any better by trading away Sammy Watkins. New head coach Sean McDermott should get his guys to play hard every week, and there is some talent on defense, but wins might be a struggle in 2017. The Bills will rely on LeSean McCoy to carry to load on offense to keep them in games this year.
X-factor: QB Tyrod Taylor
Through two seasons as the Bills starter, Taylor has played very well. He has 37 touchdowns and just 12 interceptions, and that was without Sammy Watkins for nine games. He’ll be without Watkins, who was traded to the Rams, and Marquise Goodwin is gone too, so Taylor will need one of his other receivers to step up so he can unleash his great deep ball. If Taylor and the passing offense can complement McCoy and the running game, the Bills could make some noise.
Breakout Player: DE Shaq Lawson
Shoulder surgery for forced Shaq Lawson to miss the first six games of last season, but the 2016 first-round pick has prototypical size and is probably in a better scheme with Sean McDermott. Lawson notched 12.5 sacks in his final season at Clemson in 2015, and he’ll look to get closer to that number in his second NFL season.
Rookie to Watch: CB Tre’Davious White
The Bills traded back to No. 27 in the draft, and they were still able to acquire who might be the top corner, LSU’s Tre’Davious White. He doesn’t have great height, but he started four years in college and can stick to receivers in coverage. White could become a shutdown corner within his first few years in the league.
4. New York Jets
It’s not at the level of the 49ers last season, but the Jets are the least talented team in the NFL. Todd Bowles is a good coach, but winning games is not going to be easy. The Jets need to ride their running game and use their attacking defense to make some plays and win some games.
X-factor: DE Muhammad Wilkerson
He didn’t have a bad year in 2016, but Muhammad Wilkerson needs to dominate rushing the passer like he did in 2015 for the Jets to have a chance this season. Wilkerson had 12.0 sacks in that playoff season, so they need him to start wrecking games and take pressure off the secondary.
Breakout Player: TE Austin Seferian-Jenkins
After he was considered a second-round bust by the Buccaneers and battled alcohol problems, Austin Seferian-Jenkins is getting things together in his second year with the Jets. He lost over 25 pounds this offseason, and is looking more like the guy that was selected early in the 2014 draft. ASJ is suspended for two games, but he might be the top receiving option for the Jets when he returns.
Rookie to Watch: S Jamal Adams
Jamal Adams was the number one player on some people’s boards, and the Jets were able to select him with the sixth pick in the draft. The former LSU standout will step right in as a leader for the Jets, and he’ll be flying all around the field this season and beyond.
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1. Pittsburgh Steelers
Perhaps the most popular pick to dethrone the Patriots in the AFC, the Steelers are looking to get back to the Super Bowl for the first time since the 2010 season. The talk of Ben Roethlisberger being hesitant to return might not be a great sign, but he should be able to put all his focus on football during the season.
X-factor: CB Joe Haden
After the Browns released former All-Pro corner Joe Haden, the division rival Steelers seemed like a perfect match. While Haden hasn’t been a top-level corner recently, he could get back close to that level with Pittsburgh. The Steelers will need it against the Bengals and Ravens in the AFC North.
Breakout Player: WR Martavis Bryant
He had 14 career touchdowns through two seasons, but Martavis Bryant was suspended for the entire 2016 season. If you take his word for it, Bryant is over his drug issues, and he might have a monster year. Bryant has the potential for 1,000 yards and double-digit touchdowns, and he’ll help take pressure off Antonio Brown.
Rookie to Watch: LB T.J. Watt
Judging by the preseason, the Steelers hit a home run with their first-round selection. T.J. Watt, the brother of J.J., simply makes plays on defense. Watt should have some difference-making and memorable moments as a rookie, and he’s one of the favorites for Defensive Rookie of the Year.
2. Baltimore Ravens
Quarterback Joe Flacco missed the entire preseason with a back injury, but he’s 100% and ready for the season. After the addition of Jeremy Maclin, Flacco might have the best receiver and the best set of receivers he’s ever had. The defense added pieces, including safety Tony Jefferson and rookie cornerback Marlon Humphrey, and might end up being the best in the NFL in 2017.
X-factor: RB Danny Woodhead
Not since Ray Rice have the Ravens had someone out of the backfield with the receiving ability of Danny Woodhead. The veteran running back needs to stay healthy, but Woodhead will be a reliable option for Joe Flacco.
Breakout Player: OT Ronnie Stanley
Ronnie Stanley is entering his second season after being selected in the first round out of Notre Dame in 2016. The Ravens want to get back to running the football more, and the big Stanley could be a big part of that. Stanley will also protect Joe Flacco’s blindside and might develop into a true wall on the left side.
Rookie to Watch: CB Marlon Humphrey
Coming out of Alabama and the SEC, Humphrey is a pro-ready corner that not only covers—he hits. Humphrey seems like he first right in with the Ravens, and it’s why they selected him in the first round of the draft.
3. Cincinnati Bengals
The Bengals made the playoffs for five straight years, but they missed out in 2016 when they were 6-9-1. The Ravens and Steelers being in the same division won’t make it easy for Cincinnati to get back there, but they obviously have the potential to do it. Winning a game in the playoffs is a level the Bengals have not been able to reach yet, though.
X-factor: OT Cedric Ogbuehi
Andrew Whitworth was a stalwart on the left side of the offensive line for the Bengals, but he left in free agency. Luckily, the Bengals prepared for this by drafting two young tackles in the 2015 draft. Cedric Ogbuehi will be tasked with taking Whitworth’s spot at left tackle.
Breakout Player: RB Joe Mixon
He’s a rookie, but Joe Mixon has elite ability and could quickly become one of the best running backs in the NFL. Hall of Fame quarterback Troy Aikman said he thinks the rookie from Oklahoma can become a top-five back very soon, and he’s probably right. Mixon is a big back that can deliver punishment, but he also has the feet an receiving ability of a smaller back. He profiles similarly to All-Pro David Johnson.
Rookie to Watch: WR John Ross
The owner of the fastest 40-yard dash time in NFL Combine history will likely keep defensive coordinators awake at night. Ross is out for at least the first week of the season with a knee injury, but he’ll add another element to Cincinnati’s offense when he’s on the field. Ross isn’t just fast either, as he showed he can do more than just run by guys at the University of Washingotn.
4. Cleveland Browns
In 2016, the Browns didn’t have much talent on the roster, which led to their 1-15 season. However, the Browns added a lot of talent this offseason, including first-overall pick Myles Garrett from Texas A&M. Cleveland had an opportunity at a quarterback—twice, for Clemson’s Deshaun Watson—but passed it up and went with DeShone Kizer out of Notre Dame in the second round. Head coach Hue Jackson is putting his trust in Kizer during a season where the front office and ownership might expect them to start picking up some more wins after adding some great talent this offseason.
X-factor: S Jabrill Peppers
The 2016 Heisman finalist went late in the first round to the Browns, but he has unique playmaking ability—Peppers is basically the definition of an X-factor. He’s starting at safety on defense, but he can play nickel and he’ll chip in on both special teams and offense.
Breakout Player: WR Corey Coleman
Corey Coleman got off to a great start as a rookie last season, but a broken hand derailed his season a bit. Health is the biggest factor for the first receiver taken in last year’s draft; but he showed a good connection with DeShone Kizer this preseason and could emerge as a very good number one receiver in the NFL.
Rookie to Watch: DE Myles Garrett
The rookie quarterback Kizer is obviously someone to watch, but Garrett might be able to have a bigger impact as a rookie. A high-ankle sprain will knock him out for a few weeks to open the season, but Garrett has the potential to make game-changing plays on defense for the Browns.
. . .
1. Tennessee Titans
From 2015 to 2016, the Titans went from 3-13 to 9-7. While it won’t be a six-game jump again, the Titans should take another big step in 2017. The offense is powered by one of the best offensive lines in the league and the backfield of DeMarco Murray and Derrick Henry, while the defense is an emerging unit that added some pieces—like corners Logan Ryan and Adoree’ Jackson—this offseason. With Marcus Mariota as perhaps the best young quarterback in the NFL, don’t be surprised to see Tennessee make a deep playoff run this year.
X-factor: Offensive line
If the offensive line can pave running lanes for the bulldozing Murray and Henry to run through, while not allowing their quarterback to get hit, the offense will be difficult to stop. They’re a nasty bunch that sets the tone for the entire team, and the chemistry is obviously there with them. In a way, Taylor Lewan and company can be quiet leader Marcus Mariota’s mouthpiece.
Breakout Player: QB Marcus Mariota
The third-year quarterback is off to a great start to his career, throwing 45 touchdowns and 19 interceptions through two seasons. But the former Oregon Duck might take a step into the NFL’s elite this season—he’s probably going to do it eventually, and 2017 might be the year. I expect Mariota to finish as a top-five candidate for MVP.
Rookie to Watch: CB Adoree’ Jackson
Adoree’ Jackson is a talented corner/playmaker from USC, and the Titans are going to look for him to make big plays in his first NFL season. Jackson is a great athlete, but he was picked on by Bears in the Titans’ third preseason game. If he keeps his confidence level high, Jackson should play free and make an impact for a team hoping to contend in the AFC.
2. Houston Texans
The Texans are coming off a second straight 9-7 season and a second straight AFC South title. They had the number one defense in terms of yardage and completely overwhelmed Oakland (without Derek Carr) in the Wild Card Round last season. And now, they get J.J. Watt—maybe the best defensive player in the NFL—back. Houston has scary potential on defense, and it’s up to Bill O’Brien and Tom Savage to get the offense going; if not, one of the greatest college quarterbacks of all-time, Deshaun Watson, is waiting in the wings.
X-factor: QB Tom Savage
Savage has shown he can run Bill O’Brien’s offense, and he’ll have the opportunity to show how far he can take it. If the Texans are winning games with Savage, he’ll be fine. But if the team starts to struggle offensively, the Texans might have no choice but to see if Deshaun Watson can give them a spark with their ready-to-win defense.
Breakout Player: NT D.J. Reader
After the retirement of Vince Wilfork, third-year nose tackle D.J. Reader will be the big man up front and in the middle of Houston’s defense. Having J.J. Watt line up next to you will help, but Reader needs to help get the Texans’ run defense into the top five in the NFL.
Rookie to Watch: RB D’Onta Foreman
If Deshaun Watson gets on the field, everyone will be watching him; but third-round rookie D’Onta Foreman is someone else to keep an eye on. He produced big-time at Texas, rushing for over 2,000 yards in his junior season, and he also produced in the preseason. Bill O’Brien was careful not to crown him yet, but Foreman has the potential to do some damage on the ground for the Texans.
3. Indianapolis Colts
Andrew Luck’s long-term health is, correctly, the biggest concern in his recovery from offseason shoulder surgery. But the Colts are going to have a tough time making the playoffs if he can’t get on the field soon. Pair that with top cornerback Vontae Davis being out to open the season, and the Colts are not off to a good start. The potential is there, but there are questions.
X-factor: QB Andrew Luck
A true franchise quarterback is probably the most valuable thing to have in sports, and Luck is one of the most important players to his respective team in the NFL. Without him, the Colts will very much struggle to compete in the AFC. With him, they’re in almost every game.
Breakout Player: WR Chester Rogers
The 2016 undrafted free agent from Grambling State has worked his way into a solid role with the Colts. Missing the final two preseason games will hurt, but Rogers might become a great number three receiver for Indy after he averaged 14.4 yards per catch last season.
Rookie to Watch: S Malik Hooker
The Colts don’t have the strongest defense in the NFL, but rookie Malik Hooker is a great start for a team looking to add talent on that side of the ball. The former Ohio State ballhawk broke out in his final season at Ohio State, and he should quickly become someone opposing quarterbacks need to check for on every play.
4. Jacksonville Jaguars
There’s a new sheriff in town, as two-time Super Bowl winning head coach Tom Coughlin is now the executive vice president of football operations for the Jaguars. Hopefully he doesn’t try to be too hands on and lets new head coach Doug Marrone coach. They had a relatively good finish to last season when Marrone took over as the interim coach, and there’s some talent on the roster for them to surprise some people.
X-factor: QB Blake Bortles
There’s no question Blake Bortles struggled in 2016 after his 35-touchdown 2015 season, but he did battle injuries to both shoulders, which shouldn’t be ignored. Bortles’ throwing motion and accuracy is the biggest concern, and the Jags will struggle to win if he doesn’t improve in that area.
Breakout Player: LB Myles Jack
Myles Jack dropped in last year’s draft because of a knee issue teams were concerned with, but he was considered a top prospect in the draft for a reason. This is a guy that can cover receivers in the slot if necessary, as he’s an exceptional athlete that is good against both the run and pass.
Rookie to Watch: WR Dede Westbrook
Running back Leonard Fournette will be fun to watch and is likely to be the centerpiece of the offense, but Dede Westbrook is an intriguing player. The deep threat was a Heisman finalist that apparently dropped in the draft due to character concerns, but he lit up the preseason and should have a big role for the Jags as a rookie.
. . .
1. Kansas City Chiefs
Of all the teams in the AFC, the Chiefs might have the best chance of getting past New England. Quarterback Alex Smith has won over 70% of his games since 2011, and Kansas City has one of the best coaches and defenses in the NFL. Cutting number one receiver didn’t seem like a move a team that wants to contend for a Super Bowl would make, but Andy Reid and the offense should be able to overcome it and again be near the top of the conference.
X-factor: LB Justin Houston
Justin Houston is probably the best defensive player that doesn’t get talked about enough. He’s right up there in the elite category with J.J. Watt, Khalil Mack, and Von Miller, but he’s battled injuries recently. If Houston remains healthy, Kansas City’s defense might be the best in the league.
Breakout Player: WR Chris Conley
The dynamic Tyreek Hill gets most of the attention, but the Chiefs will also rely on Conley to breakout in his third season. Conley took a step forward last year when he had 44 receptions for 530 yards, but look for more from him in 2017.
Rookie to Watch: RB Kareem Hunt
When Spencer Ware unfortunately went down with a knee injury in the preseason, the starting running back job instantly became Kareem Hunt’s. The all-time leading rusher at Toledo might be a near-workhorse as a rookie, and he should be able to handle it.
2. Oakland Raiders
The team people are most excited about taking the next step might be the Oakland Raiders. They added Marshawn Lynch after he was retired for a year. They have the AC/DC connection with Derek Carr and Amari Cooper. People want the Raiders to be good. However, there’s some cause for concern with the team. The Raiders haven’t been able to beat the Chiefs, who seem to have their number, and Derek Carr (though it’s definitely not all on him) is just 2-16 against playoff teams. Oakland could be really good and might end up as a top-two seed in the AFC, but don’t be surprised if they miss out on the playoffs altogether.
X-factor: RB Marshawn Lynch
The last time Marshawn Lynch was on the field, he struggled to stay healthy and averaged 3.8 yards per carry while other running backs for the Seahawks outplayed him. Lynch does look fresh after a year of rest, though, and could end up being peak “Beast Mode.”
Breakout Player: S Karl Joseph
Karl Joseph was injured at the end of last season, but he showed major flashes in his 12 games as a rookie. The 2016 first-round pick had two games with ten tackles, and he’s a guy that will deliver a stiff shoulder to receivers going over the middle. Joseph might also make more plays in coverage this season and end up with a few interceptions after getting one as a rookie.
Rookie to Watch: CB Gareon Conley
As the second Ohio State corner drafted in the first round, Conley could quickly end up with a starting role on the Raiders. The team’s pass defense looks like it could be a major issue, so Conley might be able to step up and give the team a huge boost there.
3. Los Angeles Chargers
Relocation to Los Angeles didn’t work out too well for the Rams last season, but it was a shorter switch for the Chargers from San Diego. Philip Rivers is even commuting from San Diego still, and the veteran quarterback might have the best set of receivers he’s ever had around him. The loss of rookie guard Forrest Lamp to a torn ACL put a dent in what should be one of the most balanced offensive attacks in the NFL. On defense, there’s a ton of potential there, as they have talent at every position. The new team in LA will be in the mix for a playoff spot, and they might finish in first or second in the division.
While it’s no doubt easier to switch in-state than it is from the center of the country to California, relocation could still be an issue for the Chargers. The biggest concern might be playing in the StubHub Center, which has a capacity of only 27,000. Every little thing counts in what might be the toughest division in football, and relocation is part of the reason the Chargers might miss out on the playoffs.
Breakout Player: TE Hunter Henry
As a rookie, Hunter Henry led his position in touchdowns, with eight. But he only had 36 receptions for 478 yards, so the potential is there for a lot more. Henry might be up among the top ten in terms of receptions and yardage for tight ends this year, and he might hit double-digit touchdowns.
Rookie to Watch: WR Mike Williams
The seventh-overall pick in the draft missed the preseason with a back injury, but it thankfully looks like he’ll be able to play this season. He hasn’t yet been ruled out for Week 1, but he probably won’t play until at least Week 2-3. Williams is similar to a Dez Bryant-type, and he’ll form one of the better receiver combinations in the NFL with Keenan Allen.
4. Denver Broncos
Despite coming off a Super Bowl 50 win two seasons ago, the Broncos weren’t a team easy to be confident about—and it came down to the run defense. The Broncos were run all over last year, giving up over 130 yards per game on the ground. In 2015, the Broncos were third in run defense. Unless the offense emerges as a top 10-15 unit, the defense needs to get back to its all-around stinginess this year.
X-factor: QB Trevor Siemian
Trevor Siemian definitely showed flashes last season, as he made some excellent throws and had a winning record as Denver’s starter. With a year of experience under his belt, Siemian could take a step forward in 2017. If not, Brock Osweiler, who was 5-2 as the starter with the Broncos in 2015, might get a shot.
Breakout Player: S Justin Simmons
The Broncos would not have released T.J. Ward if they were not confident someone can do the job better. Justin Simmons is Ward’s replacement in the starting lineup, and he’ll become an integral part of the great pass defense of the Broncos. The 2016 third-rounder out of Boston College also appears to have a good head on his shoulders.
Rookie to Watch: OT Garrett Bolles
Garett Bolles is a 25-year-old rookie that had some troubled early years, but he became a first-round pick in the NFL Draft. Bolles has a ton of talent, and he’s been inserted right away at the left tackle position for the Broncos.