NFL Analysis


10 min read

Every NFL Team's Biggest Non-QB X-Factor Entering Playoffs

Trent Williams blocks Arizona Cardinals defender
Dec 17, 2023; Glendale, Arizona, USA; San Francisco 49ers offensive lineman Trent Williams (71) against the Arizona Cardinals at State Farm Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports

One of the easiest ways to break down the playoffs is to evaluate the quarterbacks and rank the contenders that way. I’ll leave that to someone else. 

Instead, I’m thinking about players at other positions. This is a look at the most valuable non-quarterbacks for each team. These are the other players whom teams can’t afford to lose. 

Have fun. Argue with me if you like, point out I’m an idiot for some of these picks or do whatever you want to prepare for the NFL playoffs.

NFC X-Factors

San Francisco 49ers: LT Trent Williams 

When Trent Williams suffered a right ankle injury earlier this season against Cleveland and missed the following two games, the San Francisco 49ers were limited to 17 points in those three games. 

The running game had its three worst performances, and the passing game had its two worst yardage totals. All of that was because of Williams' absence. Some fans could argue San Francisco's X-factor should be Christian McCaffrey, Nick Bosa, Fred Warner or one of the other 49ers skill position players. 

Inside the team offices, the coaches know Williams is the linchpin to everything they do regarding running the ball and keeping Brock Purdy clean in the pocket.

Dallas Cowboys: WR CeeDee Lamb

There’s a strong temptation to say “AT&T Stadium,” where the Dallas Cowboys are 8-0 and average 34.6 points a game is this team's X-factor. But I’ll stick to actual players and go with the obvious star. 

CeeDee Lamb broke out for a league-leading 135 receptions, 1,749 yards and 14 touchdowns. He is such a great route runner it’s impossible to cover him man-to-man with a free release. 

At the same time, he’s so quick at the line he’s hard to bump. He’s the closest thing the league has seen to prime Marvin Harrison in his halcyon Indianapolis days.

Detroit Lions: RB Jahmyr Gibbs 

The Detroit Lions' X-factor would have been rookie TE Sam LaPorta, but his knee injury will likely keep him out.

While that’s unfortunate, Jahmyr Gibbs has come on strong in the season’s second half, joining LaPorta, WR Amon-Ra St. Brown and RB David Montgomery as a foursome with at least 10 touchdowns each. 

DE Aidan Hutchinson might be better than all of them, but Gibbs is the key because the Lions are so tilted toward their offense. Detroit is 9-1 in games where is scores 26 or more points and 3-4 when it puts up fewer than 26. 

Gibbs didn't score a touchdown in his first four games and was inactive for two games, but he has 11 touchdowns in the past 11 games, and the Lions are 8-3 in that stretch.

Tampa Bay Buccaneers: WR Mike Evans

Mike Evans is one of the most consistent receivers ever. He has caught between 67 and 79 passes in nine of his 10 seasons and had one outlier season with 96. He has at least eight touchdowns in seven seasons. 

This year — when most people expected him to show signs of aging — he remained the best offensive weapon the Tampa Bay Buccaneers have, scoring 13 touchdowns. Only one other Buccaneers player has more than four touchdowns (RB Raachad White with nine). 

On a team getting by with many aging players, Evans is the most defiant of Father Time.

Philadelphia Eagles: Edge Haason Reddick

The Philadelphia Eagles’ fall from 10-1 to 11-6 was staggering to watch. They were one of the league's most physical teams and now appear to be a step slow. While the offense has numerous critical players, including WR A.J. Brown and center Jason Kelce, the underperforming defense triggered Philadelphia's fall. 

Haason Reddick has simply not gotten free as a pass rusher. He had 8.5 sacks in the first 11 games and only 2.5 in the past six. Yes, there are other players, such as defensive tackles Jordan Davis and Jalen Carter, who set the table, but Reddick is the guy who is supposed to take advantage of their work.

If the Eagles are going to turn it around in the playoffs, it starts with Reddick.

Los Angeles Rams: RB Kyren Williams 

At times, Kyren Williams, a former late-round pick ( fifth round in 2022), has looked like the second coming of Terrell Davis. In eight games in which Williams has rushed for more than 80 yards, he has scored 11 touchdowns and the Los Angeles Rams are 7-1. 

The only loss was in overtime at Baltimore, against arguably the best team in the league. The Rams are 3-6 in all other games. While many people view Los Angeles coach Sean McVay as a passing guru, his offense depends heavily on the running game. 

In his seven seasons, the Rams have averaged 99 yards rushing or better five times. They made the playoffs each time. The two times they were under 99 yards, they missed the playoffs.

Green Bay Packers: Edge Rashan Gary

The Green Bay Packers told the NFL what they thought of Rashan Gary earlier this season by signing him to a four-year, $107 million contract extension. 

While Gary’s stats appear inconsistent, he has shown flashes of greatness during his five seasons after being a first-round pick. That said, the Packers aren’t exactly loaded with proven players right now. 

Receivers such as Romeo Doubs and Christian Watson are just as inconsistent or injury-prone as Gary, and RB Aaron Jones is just getting back into shape. 

Gary has had some big games, including two with three sacks this season. Green Bay won both, and the Thanksgiving Day victory at Detroit was critical to the Packers gaining confidence for their 6-2 finish.

AFC X-Factors

Kyle Hamilton jumps into the air to intercept Brock Purdy
Baltimore Ravens safety Kyle Hamilton (14) intercepts a pass against the San Francisco 49ers in the second quarter at Levi's Stadium on Christmas night. (Cary Edmondson-USA TODAY Sports)

Baltimore Ravens: Safety Kyle Hamilton

Kyle Hamilton is the rare safety who didn’t run particularly fast (4.59 in the 40) and ended up being the No. 14 pick in the draft. Many teams were concerned Hamilton’s lack of straight-line speed and ample size (6-foot-4, 220 pounds) would make him a liability in coverage. 

Instead, he looks like the second coming of Kam Chancellor, with better coverage skills. Hamilton’s ascension to the starting lineup has turned the Baltimore Ravens into the best overall defense in the league. He had four interceptions and three sacks in his first year as a starter, and there appears to be more to come. 

He will never be a ballhawk like Ed Reed, but Hamilton plays way faster than his timed speed.

Buffalo Bills: IDL Ed Oliver

There’s a good argument that the Buffalo Bills' X-factor should be WR Stefon Diggs because he’s the better player. But Ed Oliver is emblematic of the Bills needing their defense to be excellent in the playoffs.  That’s a stretch with all the injuries that are piling up. 

Buffalo's defense is critical because there is one thing you can bank on with this team: Josh Allen will commit some critical turnovers. They will likely be bad turnovers, putting the defense in a terrible position. Thus, Oliver and the rest of the Bills’ defense must be sharp.

Kansas City Chiefs: Chris Jones

The Kansas City Chiefs are severely flawed on offense, but they have the best defense of the Patrick Mahomes era. If the receivers can just catch the ball — I know, that’s asking a lot at this point — this is a serious Super Bowl contender because the defense is that good. 

Chris Jones is talented and seriously motivated to get another big contract in free agency this offseason. That was the whole point of his training camp-long holdout that lasted into Game 1. It’s also why he was so geeked by the $1.25 million contract incentive he hit in the final game after he reached 10 sacks. 

Houston Texans: Edge Will Anderson

Will Anderson didn’t jump off the page from the start like fellow Houston Texans rookie C.J. Stroud did. Anderson had only one sack through his first seven games. 

But he had seven sacks in the final nine games, and Houston went 7-2 during that stretch. The Texans also held opponents to fewer than 20 points in five of those games, winning all of them. Anderson still has a long way to go, but he has electric ability and the makings of a star.  

Cleveland Browns: Edge Myles Garrett

Myles Garrett is, by far, the best player on the Cleveland Browns, quarterback or not. 

Garrett and the defense carried Cleveland to this point and gave the team at least a fighting chance of getting to the Super Bowl. The Browns were 4-2 against playoff teams this season, including a comeback win against the Ravens. 

Garrett has become one of the game’s best three or four pass rushers and is great against the run with his stunning combination of athleticism and strength. He had 14 sacks, marking his sixth straight season with at least 10. 

The only year he came up short of double-digit sacks was his rookie season. As with Tyreek Hill in Miami’s offense, everything the Browns do on defense revolves around Garrett’s performance.

Miami Dolphins: WR Tyreek Hill

The Miami Dolphins want to play fast break, track-meet-type games in which they are going up and down the field. That style is even more critical with all the Dolphins’ injuries on defense. 

That style starts with Tyreek Hill, who is returning to Kansas City for the first time since being traded away in the 2022 offseason. Everything Miami does is based on getting Hill loose against a secondary. 

Whether it’s deep routes or crossing patterns, Hill is option No. 1 at all times. That is reflected by his having 119 catches and more than 1,700 yards in both seasons with the Dolphins. If Miami is somehow going to pull off an upset in Kansas City — during what’s supposed to be a frigid day — Hill will be the key.

Pittsburgh Steelers: Edge T.J. Watt

Like Garrett in Cleveland or Hill in Miami, T.J. Watt isn’t just the most valuable non-quarterback on his team but the most valuable player — period. 

It’s hard to assign wins and losses to any player, but the Pittsburgh Steelers are 69-34-2 with Watt and 1-9 without him during his seven-year career. The Steelers only made the playoffs this season because their defense was great enough to overcome an incompetent offense. 

The leader of the defense is Watt, whose 19 sacks led the league and made him the league leader for the third time in the past four years. The only year he didn’t lead the league in the past four was when he was hurt in 2022. 

Yes, he’s hurt and will likely miss at least one playoff game. Still, he’s that dude.