With training camp underway, hope is in the air as all 32 teams prepare for their 2020 NFL campaign. In a league that prides itself on parity from year-to-year, multiple teams will enter the season with playoff aspirations. However, with only 14 playoff spots available, teams need a lot to go right to punch their ticket to the postseason. Sometimes it’s one game, a single play, or an individual player that can swing a team’s chances of making it to the postseason. In a division that features the Super Bowl champs and a trio of teams looking to take the next step, an X-factor can change the outlook of a postseason run in the AFC West.
As cliche as it sounds, having an “X-factor” on your squad, can help make or break a postseason run. With four solid rosters in the same division, the X-factor can be the bow that ties a team together. There’s no clear definition of who can be an X-factor or exactly what they bring to a table. It may not be the quarterback or even a Pro Bowl-caliber player, it could be someone like a kicker who comes through in a clutch situation or a kick returner who makes crucial plays to set their offense up.
In this series of articles, we will identify an X-factor candidate from each team in the AFC West that could sway their squad’s chances of a playoff run in 2020.
Potential AFC West X-factors in 2020
Kansas City Chiefs: S Juan Thornhill
Look across the defending Super Bowl champions roster, it’s easy to spot a potential X-factor. While rookie Clyde Edwards-Helaire may be an easy target for a newcomer who can help on offense, the 2020 Kansas City Chiefs X-factor is located on their defense. With Patrick Mahomes under center in Andy Reid’s offense, it looks like Kansas City will continue their offensive tendencies from previous seasons.
While Frank Clark, Tyrann Mathieu and Chris Jones headline a formidable unit, a healthy breakout performance from Juan Thornhill could elevate the Chiefs’ defense to a new level. After a solid rookie campaign, the Virginia product suffered a torn ACL in the regular-season finale against the Los Angeles Chargers.
Prior to his injury, Thornhill showed glimpses of why he was a favorite around the NFL Draft community. The 24-year-old capped off his rookie season with 58 tackles, five pass deflections, and three interceptions. In early December against the Oakland Raiders, Thornhill returned a Derek Carr pass to the endzone for a pick-six.
While opposing teams try to push the ball through the air in order to hang with Mahomes, Thornhill will be tested throughout the 2020 season, as a key figure on the backend of the Chiefs’ secondary. If the sophomore safety passes, Thornhill could be the X-factor the Chiefs need to cure a potential Super Bowl hangover.
Las Vegas Raiders: LB Cory Littleton
One of the players in charge of slowing down Kansas City’s high-powered offense is new Las Vegas Raiders linebacker, Cory Littleton. With a slew of rookies and new free agent signings flooding the Las Vegas strip, Littleton is the X-factor the Raiders’ defense has been waiting for.
In 2019, the Raiders gave up 869 yards to opposing tight ends. Allowing nine touchdowns to opposing tight ends ranked in the bottom-five of the NFL. If you’re a fantasy football player, there’s a chance you added a tight end to your roster off the waiver wire when they were playing the Raiders.
With Kelce, Hunter Henry and Noah Fant slated to lace up their cleats in the AFC West playoff race; the Raiders desperately needed a player with the ability to cover high caliber tight ends on the seam.
With his impressive speed and range, Littleton has proven he can hang with pass catchers in the middle of the field. According to Pro Football Focus, the former Washington Huskies’ product received an 82.3 grade in coverage throughout the 2019 season.
Over his final season in Los Angeles, Littleton led the Rams in tackles with a career-high of 134. In coverage, Littleton recorded nine pass deflections and two interceptions. The four-year vet added two forced fumbles and four fumble recoveries for the Rams’ defense.
Littleton’s arrival should provide a level of consistency in the middle of the field that the Raiders haven’t had on defense since Jon Gruden returned to the sideline.
Los Angeles Chargers: DL Linval Joseph
While the Los Angeles Chargers let rookie quarterback Justin Herbert develop with Keenan Allen, Mike Williams, and Austin Ekeler, the Bolts will hang their hat on defense in the AFC West in 2020.
As stacked as the AFC West division is on the offensive of the ball, the Chargers are prepared with a stable of X-factors on defense. Rookie Kenneth Murray will add to a steady stable of furious young defenders in Los Angeles that included Joey Bosa and Derwin James.
PFN’s X-factor watch has been littered with young players potentially on the verge of breaking out. However, the Chargers could count on a gritty veteran to complete their defense.
After six years in Minnesota, former second-round pick Linval Joseph will take over the nose tackle position in Southern California. Over his career, Joseph has verified he can be a viable run stuffer. Yet, it’s what he could do in the pass rush that makes him intriguing in Hollywood.
While his pass-rushing numbers aren’t what they were during his Pro-Bowl seasons in 2017 and 2018, the veteran big man will have the opportunity to feast between one of the league’s most dynamic edge-rushing duos. With Melvin Ingram and Bosa on the outside, opposing offensive lines will have to deal with a trio of proven defensive linemen.
In 2019, the East Carolina product recorded 44 tackles, 3.0 sacks on six quarterback pressures in 13 games. Even if he’s not generating pressures and sacks, the arrival of Joseph in the middle of the Chargers’ defense could free up their young linebackers and Pro Bowlers on the edge.
Denver Broncos: TE Noah Fant
To make a run at the playoffs in the AFC West in 2020, you either need a stout enough defense to slow down Kansas City, or an explosive enough offense to stick with them. While it’s a challenging task — the Denver Broncos look to be opting for the latter. With the additions of Melvin Gordon and a pair of electric rookie pass catchers, the Broncos stacked their team with offensive weapons around sophomore passer Drew Lock.
While there’s a reason for excitement with Jerry Jeudy and K.J. Hamler in Denver’s wide receiver room, the Broncos X-factor for Lock could come from the tight end position. With elite athletic traits, the Broncos drafted Noah Fant out of the University of Iowa with the No. 20 overall selection in the 2019 Draft.
In his first year as a professional, Fant tallied 40 receptions for 562 yards and three touchdowns. With Lock under center in week 14, Fant recorded one of his two 100-yard receiving performances with four catches for 114 yards and a touchdown. Fant’s 14.1 yards per reception ranked second for tight ends behind only Jared Cook. In year two, Fant will have the opportunity to build off his 33.87 OSM score.
With Jeudy and Hamler in place around Courtland Sutton, the middle of the field could be Fant territory. On paper, Fant’s floor could be a safety blanket for Lock, while his ceiling could be the X-factor to open up Denver’s offense.