On any given NFL team, the stars must be stars if the season is to be a success. But when looking at the difference between a good team and a great team, a common theme becomes apparent: big time role players, or X-factors.
Take, for example, the New Orleans Saints offense. Heading into 2017, you knew that the offense would run through Drew Brees‘ arm, Michael Thomas‘ hands and Mark Ingram‘s legs. But what made a good offense a great one was the emergence of RB Alvin Kamara and the solid contributions from WR Ted Ginn Jr. Through the first four games of 2017, the Saints offense averaged 23.2 PPG, as the team chose to give the majority of backup touches to Adrian Peterson in favor of Kamara, and Ginn Jr. averaged only 36.5 YPG.
Peterson was traded to the Arizona Cardinals during the team’s Week 5 bye week after totaling just 81 yards on 27 carries. Over the final 12 games of the regular season, Kamara proved to be one of the most exciting players in the NFL, averaging 111 total YPG (54 rushing and 57 receiving) and scoring 11 touchdowns, while Ginn Jr. averaged a cool 53 YPG. The Saints averaged 29.6 PPG over that span.
In order for the Ravens offense to be a respectable unit in 2018, Joe Flacco, Michael Crabtree, and Alex Collins must be major catalysts. Hayden Hurst should also have a pretty nice role this year, as we all know how much Flacco loves his tight ends. But if the offense is to be better than just average, they will need a couple of role players to emerge as well.
Here are some candidates.
WR John Brown
Another common trait among great teams is big play ability. If the Ravens have any success in the deep passing game, John Brown will play a big part in it. He’s really the only clear burner on the team with any experience (that can catch the ball, anyway). Throughout his four-year career (all in Arizona), Brown proved to be a legitimate deep threat at the pro level, averaging 14.5 YPR over 56 games.
Brown was truly an X-factor in 2015, his second season in the NFL, when he posted 65 receptions for 1003 yards and seven TDs (all career highs). Pair that with some rookie RB named David Johnson emerging as a 1000-yard dual threat player, and the Cardinals made it all the way to the NFC championship in 2015.
While it would be nice to get similar production out of Brown, it’s not likely. He has only averaged 408 yards in his two seasons since 2015. But he doesn’t have to necessarily duplicate his best statistical year. If Brown can regain just some of the swagger from early on in his career, and consistently make a big play or two a game, he will open the intermediate lanes for the likes of Crabtree, Hurst, etc., making their jobs a lot easier. It’s worth noting that he and Willie Snead are interchangeable, as both can play outside and in the slot. That should help exploit mismatches.
He won’t be able to do any of this, of course, if he isn’t healthy. Brown only missed one game in each of his first three seasons, but just last season he only appeared in 10 games and has been a regular on the injury report throughout his career.
RB Kenneth Dixon
Before missing the entire 2017 season, Kenneth Dixon had a really nice rookie season as the 1B in a committee with Terrance West. He only had 544 yards and three TD as a rookie, but those that really watched him play saw a player that demonstrated pretty good vision and was a nightmare to tackle in the running game, and also a guy that can contribute in the passing game as well, as he had 30 receptions.
With Collins entrenched as the starter, Dixon will compete with Buck Allen for the number two role and is probably a slight favorite at the moment. All three running backs should see touches this season, but how those touches are divvied up remains to be seen, and it won’t be decided till we get closer to the season. But if Dixon displays the same traits throughout camp and preseason that he displayed as a rookie, he should see around 10 touches per game. Should Collins for any reason struggle, Dixon would then have a huge opportunity in front of him.
QB Lamar Jackson
Lamar Jackson Jackson represents the biggest wild card on the team, and perhaps in the entire NFL. Of these three players, he has the most boom or bust potential. It’s also not quite as clear what his role will be in the offense or how many touches he will receive in any given game. But Jackson is the most electrifying and athletic player on the entire roster, and one would have to think that his talent alone should lead to production, no matter the role.
As of right now, he’ll likely be used as a major decoy, as well as taking a good bit of pitches and backwards passes that get the ball in his hands quick and give him a run-pass option. How successful these plays are early on in the season will likely determine how big of an X-factor Jackson will be as a rookie. It remains to be seen how much, if at all, he actually takes snaps from center.
So, imagine for a moment an offense that has a veteran quarterback playing slightly above average, a really good offensive line blocking for a talented young running back, a solid number one wideout, and an extremely athletic and big tight end.
Should be pretty good, huh? Now add to that a second young running back that will make you work to take him down, and a deep threat that keeps the defense honest and provides a couple of big plays a game.
It actually kind of sounds like the 2012 Ravens offense. Add to that the ultimate wildcard, a Michael Vick-like talent, and it sounds like a dangerous offense.
Here’s to hoping for the best.