These are the men in the AFC that need to stand up this season.
Patrick Queen, linebacker, first season
It is a slight cop out to select a rookie as a player who needs to step up, but Queen comes to Charm City to play for a Ravens defence that lost underrated linebacker Patrick Onwuasor this off-season and stud middle linebacker CJ Mosley the off-season before last. Queen, who was named defensive MVP for LSU in the national championship game in January, looks set to step in straight away and add some much-needed speed to a linebacker group that features little known quantities behind veteran journeyman LJ Fort. Safety Chuck Clark led the team with 73 tackles in 2019. Expect Queen to exceed that number comfortably and be in the thick of the defensive rookie of the year calculations with a healthy rookie season.
Cody Ford, offensive lineman, second season
There was much conjecture as to what position Ford would play when he left the University of Oklahoma and declared for the 2019 NFL draft. After trading up to secure Ford with the 38th pick, Ford rotated between right guard and right tackle in what was an up and down rookie season (culminating in a blindside block in overtime of the Bills heartbreaking wildcard playoff loss to Houston that took the Bills out of field goal range and ultimately cost the team its first playoff victory in 25 years). Ford conceded a team high seven sacks after taking over for injured veteran Ty Nsekhe at right tackle on a line that finished the season ranked 15th according to Football Outsiders. The success of quarterback Josh Allen this season will depend greatly on the play of the line in front of him, and Ford is a key cog that needs to find his feet in 2020, be it at guard or on the edge.
Jonah Williams, offensive tackle, second season
Williams didn’t play a snap after a torn labrum in training camp caused him to miss his entire rookie campaign after being drafted at pick 11 in 2019. In effect, Williams is being thought of as another first-year player who looks likely to start at left tackle and protect rookie quarterback Joe Burrow’s blindside.
Williams will be a welcome addition to a Bengals offensive line that finished 2019 ranked 26th in the league and 20th in pass protection after surrendering 48 sacks (equal sixth most in the league) per Football Outsiders. Burrow played behind an offensive line that surrendered 37 sacks on its way to winning the Joe Moore award for the nation’s top offensive line unit in 2019. Burrow showed his brilliance while playing under duress for LSU last season, and if the Bengals’ unit up front, led by Williams, can provide even league average pass protection in 2020, it could be a sneaky good season in Cincinnati.
Baker Mayfield, quarterback, third season
It has to be, doesn’t it? The Browns were the darling team heading into last season after Mayfield led the Browns to a respectable (by Cleveland standards) 7-8-1 record as a rookie in 2018. Mayfield showed some promising signs that season with his decision making and anticipatory throws, finishing with 3725 passing yards and breaking the record for most touchdowns thrown by a rookie with 27 (a record jointly held by Peyton Manning and Russell Wilson). Season 2019 wasn’t so good. In 14 games last year, Mayfield’s touchdown total dropped from 27 to 22, interceptions grew from 14 to 21 and worryingly, quarterback rating plummeted from 93.7 as a rookie in 2018 to 78.8 last season. The Browns front office have done all they can to help Mayfield succeed in 2020, from adding key offensive line help to adding help at the tight end position with the free agency pickup of former Falcon Austin Hooper. Cleveland are going to have a decision to make this season on whether to pull the trigger on Mayfield’s fifth-year option as a former first-round pick. It shapes as being another crossroad decision, the very type of organisational decision that has haunted this franchise since Beatlemania first swept America almost 60 years ago.
Garett Bolles, offensive tackle, fourth season
The Broncos are a team garnering some hype heading into the new season. However, there is still some cause for concern on the offensive line. One of the main concerns has been left tackle Garett Bolles, who conceded ten penalties last season (tied for fifth in the league among all linemen) for an average of 5.94 penalty yards per game (fourth most). Since being selected with the 20th pick in the 2017 draft, Bolles has been flagged 46 times in 48 games, including penalties that were declined, and has led the league in holding penalties in each of his three seasons. Bolles has been the Achilles heel of an often-maligned offensive line group, surrendering 15.5 sacks in three seasons. With exciting young quarterback Drew Lock now the unquestioned starter, and with a cast of new skilled position weapons around him, Bolles and the rest of the line need to do their bit or everything in the Rockies could come undone at the seams. The fact that the Broncos declined to pick up Bolles’ fifth-year option in May is an ominous sign.
Will Fuller, wide receiver, fifth season
The Texans have a roster that is littered with young players. The team needs to take the next step, from the offensive line, to pass rush on defence and within the secondary. But after the mind-boggling trade of All-Pro receiver DeAndre Hopkins, Houston need one of their wide receivers to emerge in a big way. Fuller, the former first-round pick out of Notre Dame, is entering his fifth year in the league. When healthy, Fuller has been Deshaun Watson’s go-to big play threat downfield, accumulating 156 catches for 2231 and 17 touchdowns through his first four seasons. The operative word there is healthy, something that has evaded Fuller during his young career. The most games Fuller has played in in a season is 14, way back in his rookie season of 2016, and he has appeared in a total of 42 games out of a possible 69 (including playoffs). Playing on the fifth-year option in 2020, Fuller needs to get healthy if the Texans are going to do anything on offence this season and if Fuller himself is going to attract any interest when free agency comes.
Michael Pittman, wide receiver, first season
Indianapolis had only two receivers exceed 500 receiving yards in 2019, led by surprise packet Zach Pascal with 607. The other was the ever reliable TY Hilton, who also led the team with a meagre 45 receptions despite missing six games through injury. With Philip Rivers coming to town to give this otherwise talented roster a shot at winning a Lombardi trophy, the Colts need some help at the receiver position to aid a pass offence that finished third last in the NFL in 2019 (averaging 194.3 yards per game). Enter Michael Pittman, the Colts’ 2020 second round pick out of the University of Southern California who enters the NFL off a 101-reception season for the Trojans in 2019 (fifth in USC history). The six-foot-four speedster finished his career at USC with 171 receptions for 2519 yards and 19 TDs and will look to breath life into a new-look passing attack in Indy this season, led of course by the veteran Rivers. If the veteran and rookie can get on the same page sooner rather than later, it could be a special season upcoming for all those in NASCAR country.
Kansas City Chiefs
Charvarius Ward, cornerback, third season
When you’re the reigning champions and boast the greatest and richest quarterback who ever lived, you don’t really need to ask for much else. But a glance up and down the Chiefs’ roster will quickly indicate that there are indeed some weak spots throughout, including the cornerback position. While the Chiefs did finish eighth in pass defence last season and came away with 16 interceptions (sixth most), only six of those interceptions belonged to cornerbacks (with Ward the only cornerback to have multiple interceptions, with two). Of the ten cornerbacks to reach 1000 total snaps in the 2019 regular season, Ward finished first in passer rating allowed (67.3) and reception percentage allowed (47.6 per cent) and third for total yards allowed (634). Currently, the cornerback room in Kansas City boasts plenty of unrecognisable names behind veteran Bashaud Breeland, with Ward and fellow youngster Rashad Fenton looking the likely number two and three on the depth chart. The Chiefs need somebody like Ward to take the next step on a defence that will be going up against at least two divisional foes whose offences have greatly improved during the off-season.
Las Vegas Raiders
Henry Ruggs, wide receiver, first season
Again, it’s a tad unfair to pick a rookie for this exercise, but the Raiders have needed a spark on offence since they traded Amari Cooper to Dallas at the trade deadline in 2018. Ruggs looks like the perfect candidate to add a spark to a Raiders offence that has finished in the top ten for total offence just once in the past five seasons (in 2016). The Raiders surprised nobody when they drafted a wide receiver with pick 12 in April, but they did raise eyebrows by making Ruggs the first receiver taken. The Raiders will be adding the speedster, who finished third on Alabama’s career touchdown receptions list with 24 with an impressive 17.5 yards per catch across his three seasons at Alabama (including an 18.6 yards per catch number in 2019, which led all Alabama receivers, including fellow first-rounder Jerry Jeudy). Ruggs could be an immediate dual threat for the Raiders, with coaches surely looking to utilise Ruggs’ speed threat in the return game, too. Raiders fans have seen the impact Tyreek Hill has made in the league with rival Kansas City. Ruggs has the potential to change the Raiders’ offence and ignite the new fan-base in Sin City.
Los Angeles Chargers
Trey Pipkins, offensive tackle, second season
A third-round pick in 2019, Pipkins come to southern California not expecting to get much playing time as a rookie. An injury to veteran left tackle Russell Okung soon changed that, and Pipkins was thrust into the action immediately. Pipkins spent time at both left and right tackle as a rookie, seeing playing time in all 16 games and starting at left tackle in the Chargers’ final three games. Pipkins had a rough year as was to be expected, exhibited by his four sacks allowed in 251 snaps. Despite the Chargers bringing in two main reinforcements in free agency for an offensive line that ranked 13th last season according to Football Outsiders, it was a surprise that the team didn’t address the offensive line at all in the draft. As such, Pipkins looks like leading the race to win the left tackle job and protect incoming rookie quarterback Justin Herbert’s blindside. If Pipkins continues to struggle at the position, Herbert could spend plenty of time on his backside on the freshly laid grass inside the beautiful new SoFi Stadium.
Cam Robinson, offensive tackle, fourth season
There’s plenty of different directions to go here for the Jags. Quarterback Gardner Minshew, who will carry much of the hope for Jacksonville this season, or the disappointing running back Leonard Fournette, or any of the young defensive pieces who are yet to make an indelible mark on this team. In the end though, as is so often the case, it all comes down to the play of the offensive line. The pick here is Cam Robinson, a player who has underwhelmed since a promising rookie season in 2017. After missing two games early in 2019, Robinson went on to play 80 per cent of the snaps on a Jaguars offensive line that ranked 27th overall last season and 16th in pass protection according to Football Outsiders. Robinson didn’t help much in pass protection either, giving up seven sacks (Jacksonville allowed its quarterbacks to be sacked 41 times last season, equal 11th most). Having played in 31 of a possible 34 games at left tackle for the Jags, there has been murmurings of a potential move inside to guard for Robinson, a move only compounded by Jacksonville’s decision to draft offensive tackle Ben Bartch with a fourth-round pick in April’s draft. If Robinson’s play doesn’t improve in his final contracted season in Duval County, he will be wearing different colours in season 2021.
Shaq Lawson, pass rusher, fifth season
Lawson is entering his fifth season in the pros and his first in Miami after leaving division rival Buffalo at the end of last season. Lawson finished his disappointing rookie contract with the Bills after registering just 16.5 sacks in 50 games, however Lawson did finish the 2019 season strongly with 6.5 sacks, including 4.5 sacks from Week 11 to Week 16. This Dolphins roster currently has an ‘under construction’ sign out the front and contains many young players coach Brian Flores and the front office need to step up immediately, but one of the roster’s most pressing needs is pass rush. Miami finished dead last in sacks last season with 23 (five fewer than the next team), the franchise’s lowest total since 1995 (29), and must find ways to get to the opposition’s quarterback more frequently. The Dolphins did spend both of their fifth-round picks on pass rushers Jason Strowbridge from North Carolina and Curtis Weaver from Boise State, but there will be more immediate focus on veteran pick-ups such as Lawson and former Kansas City Chief Emmanuel Ogbah.
New England Patriots
Sony Michel, running back, third season
It’s counter-intuitive to try and pinpoint one player New England needs to come to the party to find success in 2020, because that’s not how this Patriot machine has ever run. If there was a player spoiled Patriots fans would like to see emerge this season, however, it would be former first-round pick Sony Michel. Through his first two seasons, Michel has been a fine running back, tallying 1843 for 13 touchdowns with an average of four yards per carry in 29 regular season games for the Patriots. Michel has been a borderline 1000-yard rusher in his two seasons, gaining 931 yards in his rookie season in 2018, and 912 yards last year. If there’s one area Michel must improve in Josh McDaniels’ offence, it’s catching the ball out of the backfield (he has just 19 receptions and zero receiving touchdowns across two seasons). Improve his capabilities in the passing game and Michel can become the motor of the new-look offence in New England as they move forward with a new quarterback.
New York Jets
Sam Darnold, quarterback, third season
Darnold is the most polarising young quarterback this side of Dak Prescott. In 26 games as starter for the Jets, Darnold has tallied 5889 yards, 36 touchdowns against 28 interceptions with a completion percentage of just 59.8. The Jets have finished with the 25th and 29th ranked passing attacks in 2018 and 2019 respectively with Darnold being sacked 63 times since entering the NFL. The Jets have got to work this season building protection for Darnold, with guard Alex Lewis likely to be the only returning starter in 2020. The so-called skilled positions haven’t helped much either, with no running back or receiver cracking the 1000-yard mark in Darnold’s two years in New York. Add to it the Jets’ defence, which finished 29th in 2018 and 16th in 2019 in points allowed per game, and it’s quite an effort that Darnold has orchestrated even 11 wins in his 26 games as Jets quarterback. While Darnold has shown some flashes playing for a franchise that has built its name on incompetence, the front office has added plenty of protection and weapons for Darnold this season. If Darnold doesn’t show genuine improvement in season 2020, he’ll be seeing more than his fair share of ghosts by season’s end.
James Conner, running back, fourth season
Conner was expected to be the Steelers’ replacement for star running back Le’Veon Bell, who left in free agency after the 2018 season. Unfortunately for Conner and the Steelers, knee and shoulder injuries meant that the homegrown talent only appeared in ten games last season. After surprising many outside of the steel city in 2018 when he rushed for 973 yards and 12 touchdowns in 13 games, Conner could only muster 464 yards on 116 attempts and four scores last season in ten games. With veteran quarterback Ben Roethlisberger set to return this season, the Steelers would do well to welcome him with a stronger running game than the one that finished 29th in the league last season. In fact, Pittsburgh have not laid claim to a top five rushing attack since 2007 (when the team finished third). There’s no reason why the Steelers can’t get back there with Conner, who boasts a healthy career yards per carry number of 4.4 and has 12 rushing touchdowns of 20-plus yards through only three seasons. He’s an inspirational story of a young man having overcome Hodgkin’s lymphoma as a teenager, but with the Steelers’ recent addition of fourth-round pick Anthony McFarland to the running back group, the time is nigh for Conner to help carry this gold-plated franchise back to the playoffs.
Harold Landry, pass rusher, third season
Through two seasons, Landry has been a fine young player for the Titans. Landry has registered 13.5 sacks in 31 games for Mike Vrabel’s defence, with a combined 28 quarterback hits. Landry led the Titans’ defence with nine sacks a season ago in a defence that despite being middle of the pack for sacks (13th with 43) has struggled to disrupt the opposition’s signal caller. In fact, the only other two players with double-digit quarterback hits last season (Cameron Wake and Jurrell Casey) are no longer on the roster. The next best figure from an edge rusher was Kamalei Correa with a miserly five. The onus will be on Landry to take the next step for the Titans’ defence, with no reinforcements coming in this past off-season outside of Atlanta reclamation project Vic Beasley. Despite going on an incredible run through the playoffs last season, the defence still only managed to finish 24th in pass defence (255 yards per game) and 18th in passer rating allowed (90.4). You know what they say about a secondary’s best friend being the pass rush? Landry must be the guy getting home for Tennessee in 2020, or it could be another middling year for the defence.