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2024 NFL season: One player to root for from each AFC team

With NFL training camps set to open next month, Tom Blair and Dan Parr provide a look at 32 players -- one from each team -- to root for in the upcoming season.

Tom provides his AFC selections below. Click here for Dan's NFC picks.

For too much of his time with the Titans, Henry was on teams that struggled to compete in a meaningful way. This year, though, he gets to show what he can do for a true Super Bowl contender as part of an offense that presents the exact right conditions for him to thrive within. Often, when an accomplished veteran heads to a new team to chase a ring after turning 30, the expiration date on his career is obviously looming. But with the 30-year-old Henry, who just led the NFL in carries (280) while rumbling for 1,167 rushing yards and 12 rushing TDs in a fitfully productive Titans offense, I don't have to try to talk myself into thinking he's still got it. It's nice when things just make sense, and watching Henry work with Lamar Jackson should be a joy.

Samuel has lived firmly outside of the spotlight through most of his career. Buffalo might be facing an uncertain immediate future, but it's nothing compared to the general futility Samuel dealt with for most of his time in Carolina and Washington. Now he can be the veteran offensive linchpin who helps Josh Allen and Co. continue to compete even after shedding players like Stefon Diggs. As much as I love a good journeyman career marked by respectable production in chaotic environments, it would be great to see Samuel truly unlocked by offensive coordinator Joe Brady, under whom the receiver hit personal highs with the Panthers in 2020 (118 touches, 1,051 scrimmage yards).  

It's incredibly difficult to succeed in the NFL, so you have to like players being rewarded when they pull it off. Presuming Higgins does not receive an extension and spends 2024 on the franchise tag, he's one more productive campaign away from truly hitting paydirt on the open market. Last season was a mixed bag, with Higgins missing five games but also averaging a career high in yards per catch (15.6). As a rookie in 2020, the year before Ja'Marr Chase joined the team, Higgins paced Cincinnati in receiving yards (908) and TD catches (six), suggesting he has what it takes to lead a passing attack. Further evidence Higgins is WR1 quality: his numbers in the six games he's played without Chase over the past three seasons (34 catches, 546 yards, four TDs). If Higgins helps Joe Burrow push Cincinnati back into title contention, he'll be in line to make bank next March.

This was one of the easiest calls on the list. Chubb is a former second-round pick who became a pillar of the Browns' recent resurgence, one of the best Cleveland running backs since the days of Jim Brown. Last season's playoff push was so miraculous in large part because of Chubb's absence for most of the year, thanks to a ghastly Week 2 knee injury. Whenever he's able to hit the field again, if he can contribute at even a league-average level in 2024, he'll have forestalled the fate that seems to befall many ball-carriers -- and it will be a significant win not just for himself and his team, but for fans of running backs everywhere.

Heading into last year, the 2021 seventh-round pick had just 14 career starts and 4.5 sacks to his name. In Week 2 against Washington, he exploded for two sacks, one of which was a strip-sack, and from that point on, it seemed like he was being mentioned every time I checked in on a Broncos game. By the end of the season, he had a team-high 8.5 sacks, along with 55 pressures (second-most in Denver, per Next Gen Stats). And he finished strong, logging three straight games with one sack in Weeks 15-17. Much is in flux in Denver as Sean Payton continues to try to get things back on track, but it would be a definite bright spot if Cooper were to fully establish himself as a reliable source of pressure in the final year of his rookie contract.

Franchise turnarounds typically generate plenty of feel-good stories, and one of my favorite examples of the genre is when the veteran who performed well through lots of losing gets to bask in success. Unlike many of the younger, less-experienced principals involved in the Texans' worst-to-first jump in 2023, Tunsil has gone through plenty of hard times in his NFL career, both in Miami and Houston. For a while, he looked out of place with the Texans, a luxury item on a roster that was not really capable of competing (which was true in part because of the significant draft capital Bill O'Brien dealt to the Dolphins in the move to acquire the star tackle in 2019). Tunsil re-upped last year, and it soon became clear that the rest of the team was ready to play up to his level. Good for him.

I don't want to necessarily paint the Colts' selection of a highly rated defensive prospect with the 15th overall pick in the 2024 NFL Draft as some sort of bold, iconoclastic move, given that the most important part of that strategy was being the first team not to draft an offensive player. But it would still be highly satisfying for Latu to pay the choice off by balling out, if only to give Chris Ballard more reason to cackle gleefully like this. The Colts ranked in the top 10 in both pressures (ninth, 253) and pressure rate (eighth, 38.9%) in 2023, per Next Gen Stats. Latu has a chance to add even more oomph to their pass rush and bring extra spice to an increasingly intriguing division while putting to rest questions about his health stemming from a college neck issue.

Who doesn't love it when a former No. 1 overall pick swerves clear of bust territory? Walker probably isn't totally safe from that fate yet, given the high bar set by his selection with that lofty choice in 2022, but he's at least headed in the right direction, having followed up his underwhelming debut campaign with a 10-sack second season. Walker also ranked second on the Jaguars with 56 pressures, according to NGS, and pushed his pressure rate into double digits (12.0%) after sitting at 9.6 percent in Year 1. If all goes well, he'll not only justify his original draft slot but join the player taken first overall the year before him as one of the highest-paid members of the team.

I'm happy for any receiver who gets the chance to work with Patrick Mahomes. Yes, Brown is kind of spoiled in this department, having previously caught passes from Lamar Jackson in Baltimore and Kyler Murray in Arizona. But as my colleague Kevin Patra recently pointed out, Brown wasn't put in the best position by either the Ravens or the Cardinals. The Chiefs present a golden opportunity for Brown to earn himself a long-term contract somewhere -- maybe even in Kanas City, if he can become a consistent, reliable and productive partner for Mahomes. And, frankly, I'm in favor of anything that helps Mahomes spin more magic on the field.

If I was Michael Mayer, coming off a pretty decent season for a rookie tight end (27 catches, 304 yards, two TDs on 40 targets), I don't know if I'd be all that chill about my team drafting one of the most hyped prospects at my position in recent memory. Good thing I am not Michael Mayer. The former second-round pick appears to be enthusiastically on board with Brock Bowers' addition, at least according to his assessment of the situation last month, when he said he feels "like we can both do it all," and that the offense is "going to be a lot of fun." Mayer also talked up their deployment in 12 personnel, backing up Bucky Brooks' optimistic analysis of the Raiders' potential to succeed with two tight ends. As a believer in the spirit of collaboration and also the thrill of watching prolific offenses, I'm pulling for Bowers and Mayer to work it out.

I'm sure Dobbins doesn't want extra sympathy from anyone, but his career has taken so many hard-luck turns that it would just be a relief to see him complete a full season again. It would be even more fun, of course, if his reunion with ex-Ravens coordinator Greg Roman led Dobbins to contribute meaningfully to a team that has been snakebitten in its own way for years. Wouldn't it be swell if Dobbins and his former backfield-mate in Baltimore, Gus Edwards, were to help Justin Herbert and new coach Jim Harbaugh avoid the pitfalls and self-owns that routinely hamper Chargers seasons?

Odell Beckham Jr. hasn't really been ODELL BECKHAM JR. since 2016, the last time he cleared 1,100 receiving yards or scored more than six touchdowns in a season. His days of being a weekly superstar are probably in the past, but he was effective in spots for Baltimore in 2023 after suffering a knee injury in Super Bowl LVI and sitting out all of 2022. While there is no guarantee Mike McDaniel will be able to unlock the Beckham of old, this sure is an intriguing pairing. Beckham did bump his yards-per-catch mark up to a career-best 16.1 last season. Even if the final stat totals don't stand out all that much in an offense where Beckham's the third option behind Tyreek Hill and Jaylen Waddle, it won't be surprising if the 31-year-old puts up a good number of highlight-reel plays in Miami.

I'm drawn to Gonzalez for two reasons: 

1) I want to see him make good on the promise he showed in his injury-shortened debut, logging 17 tackles, three passes defensed, one pick and one sack in four games, while earning Pro Football Focus' best defensive grade among rookie corners through Week 4. 

2) He's the last player Bill Belichick selected with a first-round pick. If Gonzalez is able to become "one of the best players in the game," as teammate Jonathon Jones recently predicted, that would help add a bright note to the otherwise-dour end to Belichick's tenure in New England. Belichick's legacy as one of the best coaches ever is secure, but Gonzalez has a chance to give a slight boost to the icon's final year with the Pats, and that's the kind of narrative neatness I can't resist.

There are plenty of people in Florham Park with much at stake in 2024, but I'm throwing my rooting energy in the direction of Wilson, who has yet to experience a winning season in New York, even while producing at an exceptional level individually over his first two pro campaigns. If things break bad for the Jets again, and they have to figure out their post-Aaron Rodgers plan at QB (along with, maybe, their post-Robert Saleh and post-Joe Douglas plans at head coach and general manager, respectively), Wilson will be in serious risk of falling into the Terry McLaurin Zone. As much as I appreciate McLaurin and others who have excelled in losing situations, I'd rather have the league's best players enjoying team success and, ideally, showing their stuff in the postseason. 

I almost made it through this entire file without naming a quarterback, but this one's kind of unavoidable. Fields is at a career crossroads basically because he is not a clear-cut generational talent, and Chicago had an opportunity to draft someone who could be. The Bears are moving on with Caleb Williams, and more power to them. There still appears to be, uh, "meat left on that bone" in terms of what the dynamic Fields can offer, though, and I wouldn't mind seeing another QB castoff follow the Baker Mayfield trajectory (formerly known as the Ryan Tannehill trajectory?) by re-establishing himself as a viable starter. (Don't take this as anti-Russell Wilson sentiment, though. I root against no one.)

I began the AFC portion of this list with Derrick Henry, and I'll end it with his former Tennessee teammate, who also showed he still has the juice to compete at a high level into his 30s. In his first year with the Titans, Hopkins appeared in a full complement of games and reached the 1,000-yard mark for the first time since 2020, despite working with a past-his-prime veteran (Ryan Tannehill) and a raw rookie (Will Levis) at QB. Hopkins is the active leader in career receptions (928) and ranks second among active players in career receiving yards (12,355), but he sits at 21st and 23rd in those categories, respectively, on the all-time lists. If he can get to 75 catches and 1,000 yards again in 2024, he should jump into the top 20 in both pursuits -- and that should only help when it comes time to weigh his long-term legacy. 

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