The focus every offseason is inevitably on what's changed. New players, new coaching changes and new articles coming up with excuses for why last season didn't pan out.
But the biggest area of growth on each team typically comes from within. In this week's episode, I'm focusing on homegrown players who could make an enormous difference by taking the next step in their development.
Performing this same exercise last offseason, we spotlighted Lamar Jackson, Dalvin Cook, Michael Gallup, Chris Godwin and Courtland Sutton. Let's see if this year's group can prove as flashy, with a focus on players still on their rookie contracts.
Below, you'll find one key homegrown player for each AFC team. Click here for the NFC side of things.
Brown's rookie production was impressive, considering he was a lightweight (157 pounds!) speed threat coming off a foot injury that limited his entire offseason. I was so impressed by Brown's ability to make tricky contested catches despite his size, a hint that he could be a DeSean Jackson-like sidekick for Lamar Jackson for years to come. The duo expects true greatness, and who am I to argue with the young MVP?
With a name like a Varsity Blues character and a scandalous propensity for splash plays, Knox is built for Buffalo stardom. He should have had his breakout moment Week 16 in Foxborough, when he was this close to three scores, but an outrageous 33-yard grab was marked down at the 1-yard line, and Josh Allen missed Knox for two more potential scores. Knox easily beat Patriots safety Patrick Chung in both matchups last year, typical of a rookie season where Knox was open all the time. Overthrows by Allen and a few drops limited Knox's final stats (28-388-2), but he was often the biggest mismatch on the field. Allen just has to find him.
I'm cheating here because Williams is essentially a rookie after the 2019 No. 11 overall pick missed all of last season with a shoulder injury. But there's no one outside of Joe Burrow who matters more to this Bengals offense. Williams should know the offensive system well after being with the team last year and returning to practice last December, so he's not totally starting from scratch. With Pro Football Focus having ranked Cincinnati's offensive line 30th in the NFL last season, Williams is the Bengals' best hope at turning the group around. If not, a raft of talented skill position players may go to waste.
A fifth-round pick a year ago, Wilson played like a veteran from the jump. Now the Browns are counting on him to anchor a linebacker group after the departures of Christian Kirksey and Joe Schobert. Wilson is part of a league-wide trend among analytically-driven teams to use scant resources on off-ball linebackers. The position is like an updated version of the "You can find a running back anywhere" theory, which works up until the position becomes a liability. In Wilson, the Browns may have stumbled upon a fiery, versatile cog who starts all four years of his rookie deal.
There's an expectation that Chubb will return to the lineup after his torn ACL and pick up where he left off before 2019, when he was receiving some premature preseason Defensive Player of the Year hype. But it's a little early to assume the Broncos know what they have in Chubb. He hasn't played a whole lot in coach Vic Fangio's system, much less played coming off such a serious injury. Chubb's rookie season was impressive, but he was surprisingly average against the run, and his sack number included a lot of "clean up" sacks and plays where he went unblocked. I'm not down on Chubb, just eager to see what he looks like this season. If he makes the leap many expected in 2019, the rest of Fangio's defense should come with him.
The lack of homegrown options on the Texans' roster speaks to the overhaul and impatience of the Bill O'Brien regime. Reid, however, is a perfect fit for this exercise. A third-round pick in 2018, the safety has already emerged as one of the team's leaders despite his age, winning the Ed Block Courage Award for his toughness playing through injury and his work in the community. A sure tackler who makes plays in coverage, Reid stands out because of his instincts and insane energy. He's the type of player who gets you off your couch, something Houston's secondary needs more of. If he played that well hurt, what can he do healthy?
Whether tracking down quarterbacks, smashing running backs behind the line of scrimmage or making a play in coverage, Okereke was a force as a rookie. He played so well, with some Darius Leonard-like traits, that Indy needs to find a way to get him on the field more next to Leonard in clear passing situations. Consider that a good problem. The Colts use Anthony Walker as their middle linebacker, but Okereke has already shown the game-changing ability to stay on the field every down.
Gardner Minshew's job was too difficult, too often last season because his protection collapsed on the edges. Offensive coordinator Jay Gruden arrived in January to scheme receivers open faster and get the ball out of Minshew's hands, but there's only so much a coach can do to cover up a leaky tackle combination. It's possible Robinson, the team's 2017 second-round pick, won't even win the starting job, which won't be a great sign for Minshew, either. Jaguars general manager David Caldwell couldn't solve all his self-created problems in one offseason, but it's surprising how little the team addressed the offensive line. Robinson finally seeing the light would be like found money.
It felt like Hardman caught more than 26 passes because so many of them went for big plays. A second-team All-Pro kick returner as a rookie, Hardman might not be Tyreek Hill 2.0, but he could enjoy a similar second-year leap. Andy Reid always has a plan, and Hardman's role is set to expand after he played 471 offensive snaps as a 21-year-old rookie. There are only so many yards to go around, with Hill, Travis Kelce and Sammy Watkins gobbling up attention, but Hardman doesn't need a lot of touches to make a big impact. His speed generated seven catches over 30 yards, often on short or intermediate throws in which he'd run through the opposition's zone defense, which was seemingly surprised the Chiefs found another player so fast.
It was a weird season for general manager Mike Mayock's first ever draft pick. Ferrell played a ton of snaps, but the No. 4 overall pick arguably wasn't one of the five best rookies on his own team. Never seen as an explosive athlete, Ferrell's game speed and strength should improve in Year 2. If he improves to average as a pass rusher and strong against the run, that would greatly bolster a Raiders front highlighted by 2019 fourth-round pick Maxx Crosby.
You know about Derwin James, the third-year safety who could be a Defensive Player of the Year candidate this season. You probably don't know about Jenkins, a fourth-year fourth-round pick whom coach Anthony Lynn called a "top-five free safety" this offseason before saying Jenkins will "take it to another level." I can't pretend I saw that type of ceiling from Jenkins, but the Chargers' secondary is going to be ridiculously loaded if Lynn's hype is half-warranted.
The Patriots dynasty all but ended when Gesicki caught a slant route in the end zone to cap a stirring Week 17 win. The play was typical of Gesicki's improved second season. Playing the most snaps out of the slot of any tight end since Tony Gonzalez seven years ago, Gesicki is essentially a big wide receiver. It's worth noting that of much Gesicki's production came after unstructured Ryan Fitzmagic scrambles -- and that Gesicki saw a ton of relatively inefficient targets because there weren't many others to throw to in Miami. Then again, Gesicki appears to be the team's No. 2 option behind DeVante Parker again. Another step up to the tight end elite from the 2018 second-rounder would make the 'Phins a lot more dangerous.
Depending on who you listen to, the Patriots' 2018 pick at No. 23 overall is either a future Pro Bowl left tackle or the biggest question mark on the team's roster this side of Jarrett Stidham. Wynn, whom many originally projected to play guard in the NFL, has only been healthy enough to start eight games in two years. Those eight games went fairly well last year, with PFF ranking Wynn above average among qualified tackles. Other analysis was not as kind, but Wynn is only 23 years old and showed the technique necessary to become a fixture on what could quietly be one of the NFL's best offensive lines. Stidham needs all the help he can get.
Darnold's ugly numbers through two years can mostly be explained away. Which young quarterback could have succeeded in his situation? Then again, how confident can anyone be that the Jets have solved the coaching and personnel issues that have led to some of Darnold's bad habits? A step forward feels likely this season; the only question is how big a step Darnold is capable of. Even when he's been protected well, Darnold's decision-making and accuracy have clouded the intriguing future hinted at by all the pretty throws. (And there are plenty of pretty throws.) After 26 starts, Darnold is positioned to begin showing if he's the next Brett Favre, the next Matthew Stafford or the next Geno Smith.
Not liking Diontae Johnson is like not liking ice cream. What's not to like? Gaining 650 yards as a rookie wideout is impressive, but it's how Johnson did it that makes him look like a future star. On nearly every grab, he makes a defender miss after the catch. His fast footwork is incredible, helping him to beat man coverage and score very high in old buddy Matt Harmon's Reception Perception model. Johnson also figures to benefit if every other pass this season isn't thrown 10 feet over his head. Don't be shocked if JuJu Smith-Schuster's status as the Steelers' No. 1 receiver gets threatened by another fleet-footed outside wideout with some Antonio Brown-like traits.
Like his mentor Delanie Walker, Smith is an incredibly talented physical specimen whose career could prove to be a slow burn. He jumped to 439 yards in his third season and helped knock the Ravens out of the playoffs, but there's potential for so much more. He broke 14 tackles -- third among all tight ends -- despite only 35 catches. Bill Belichick said Smith is probably "the best in the league" at running after the catch, and the stats back him up. (Only Noah Fant averaged more YAC than Smith.) At a position that sometimes takes a few years to master, Smith emerging as a Pro Bowler would round out the Titans' bullyball offense.
Follow Gregg Rosenthal on Twitter @GreggRosenthal.