Finding four X-factors from the NFC West that can help a playoff run

With four stacked rosters across the NFC West, which X-factors can help their team on a run to the NFL's postseason.

With the start of training camp looming, 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 stacked division like the NFC West, an X-factor can change the outlook of a postseason run.

As cliche as it sounds, having an “X-factor” on your squad, can help make or break a postseason. 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 NFC West that could sway their squad’s chances of a playoff run.

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Potential NFC West X-factors in 2020

San Francisco 49ers: D.J. Jones, iDL

In 2019, the 49ers sprung from the bottom of the division to come agonizingly close to topping the NFL. With an unrelenting defense and a creative rushing attack, the 49ers went on a run to the Super Bowl. At the core, San Francisco’s elite defensive line, stocked with first-round draft picks, helped push Kyle Shanahan’s squad out of the NFC West from cellar-dwellers to Super Bowl weekend.

Despite trading DeForest Buckner, the 49ers are still packed with talent on the defensive line. Arik Armstead, Nick Bosa, Dee Ford, and rookie Javon Kinlaw will headline San Francisco’s feared group. However, an unheralded defensive tackle could serve as the breakout piece in the middle of Robert Saleh’s defense.

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With much attention on their high caliber edge rushers, D.J. Jones could feast in a featured role for the 49ers. In 2019, the former sixth-round selection recorded two sacks and one forced fumble in 11 games. With his quick-twitch off the snap, Jones tallied 23 tackles, four of which were for a loss. Jones’ play continued to ramp up as the 49ers pushed for the postseason. However, an ankle injury against the New Orleans Saints ended Jones’ season with five games left on the schedule.

A healthy edition of Jones in a contract year will play a part in the 49ers’ attempt to replace Buckner’s All-Pro production. If Jones can add another problem to San Francisco’s front seven, his disruption should only free up whichever combination of Bosa, Kinlaw, Armstead, and Ford are lined up alongside him. With proven pressure flying in from the edge, Jones could be the piece to complete one of the league’s most feared units.

Seattle Seahawks: Greg Olsen, TE

Looking up and down the Seattle Seahawks roster and it is easy to pick out an NFC West X-factor or two, especially following the arrival of Jamal Adams. Tyler Lockett, D.K. Metcalf, Bobby Wagner, Quandre Diggs, Poona Ford, and Jarran Reed, as well as the man at the center of it all, Russell Wilson. 

While his protection might have question marks, Wilson’s passing targets certainly do not, at least when it comes to his two main wide receiver weapons. Although Wilson had success finding Lockett and Metcalf in 2019, there’s no doubt the Seahawks signal-caller has a knack for finding his tight end in crucial spots.

The group of Jacob Hollister, Will Dissly, Luke Wilson, and Nick Vannett combined for 91 targets in Seattle’s offense. In just 11 games, Hollister ranked third for the Seahawks in receptions, receiving yards and touchdowns. In 2020, the Seahawks are getting an upgrade at tight end after signing three-time Pro Bowler Greg Olsen to a one year contract.

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Although he’s 35 years old, the veteran tight end could serve as a safety blanket for Wilson in Seattle. In 2019, Olsen proved he can still produce, registering 52 receptions, 597 yards, and two touchdowns, posting a 32.74 PFM Offensive Share Metric score, which is considered to be a very good return. While all eyes will be on Lockett and Metcalf deep down the field, Olsen has the potential to thrive as Seattle’s third passing option. 

Regardless of his age, the 13-year veteran demands attention from defensive coordinators. With Russell under center and a pair of big-play threats on the outside, Olsen’s arrival could cause a mismatch somewhere on the field. At the very least it will stop defenses being able to focus all of their attention onto Lockett and Metcalf on each and every snap.

Los Angeles Rams: Taylor Rapp, S

With Sean McVay calling the plays, the Los Angeles Rams’ offense will always get the majority of the attention. If they are succeeding people will gush about their output, and if they struggle at all then that will be the storyline as it was in 2019. With Jared Goff, Robert Woods, and Cooper Kupp on the roster, the Rams should be in line to put up points in order to stay with the rest of the teams in the NFC West. However, can the defense slow down Wilson, Kyler Murray, and Jimmy Garoppolo? 

After the departure of Wade Phillips, the Rams will enter 2020 with first-time defensive coordinator Brandon Staley calling the shots. They will also be relying on someone to step up in the secondary following the departure of Eric Weddle and they will be hoping second-year player Taylor Rapp can be that guy.

Fortunately for the Rams, Rapp’s rookie season has laid a solid foundation. The Washington Huskies product managed an impressive 100 tackles, eight pass breakups, and two interceptions despite starting just 10 games. The rookie even turned one of his interceptions into a pick-six. 

With Aaron Donald wreaking havoc in the middle of the defense and Jalen Ramsey on the outside, Rapp’s sure tackling and consistent play could very well be the piece the Rams need as they attempt to slow down the high powered offensive weapons in the NFC West. 

Arizona Cardinals: Christian Kirk, WR 

The Arizona Cardinals are quickly morphing into everyone’s darling pick for playoff newcomer in 2021. With Murray heading into his second year alongside the new addition of DeAndre Hopkins, it’s easy to see why. Will the arrival of Hopkins be enough to push Kliff Kingsbury’s offense through a division chock full of teams with postseason experience? 

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While Hopkins should rightfully demand a bulk of the targets in Arizona, the weapons after him provide their own threat. Larry Fitzgerald will do the dirty work underneath for another season, with a trio of sophomore wideouts in KeeSean Johnson, Andy Isabella, and Hakeem Butler looking to carve out roles. The remaining question is; does Christian Kirk fit with Arizona’s group of pass-catchers? 

In his first season with Murray, Kirk saw 108 targets for 68 receptions, racking up 709 yards and three touchdowns. With Murray under center, Kirk improved from his rookie season, finishing with a 35.26 OSM grade, good enough to rank 18th at the position having ranked 49th the season before. Despite his steady development, Kirk could be in line for a new role in 2020. 

A loaded receiver room could mean fewer targets for the Texas A&M product, but it could also open up a refined, yet much-needed role for Kirk. With Hopkins and Fitzgerald in place, Kirk could serve as a field-stretching speed threat in Arizona. With the defenses dialing in on Hopkins and Fitzgerald as well as keeping an eye on the ever-elusive Murray, Kirk could have the opportunity to play the role of clean up hitter with home run power. A few deep passes from Murray to Kirk could be the NFC West X-factor that opens up Arizona’s offense.