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The First Read: Five players who will thrive in 2024 NFL season thanks to offseason movement

This is the time of year when dreams bloom exponentially in the NFL. The first wave of free agency has come and gone, the college pro days are in full swing and the draft is just over a month away. Every fan base is wondering what else their teams can do to improve. The more new faces show up in new places, the more people think about all the grand possibilities that could loom come fall.

This writer certainly isn't immune to that phenomenon. The past few weeks have given us the typical flurry of roster moves, but today's installment of The First Read isn't focused primarily on free-agent signings. This one is about what all those signings mean for certain players heading into this coming season. There will surely be a fair share of breakout performers, and it's likely that some of those future stars will be influenced by what happened earlier this month.

So, here's a collection of players worth keeping an eye on based on how their teams have operated lately. Some already have shown flashes of what they can become, while others are just receiving their first opportunities to be major contributors. One thing they all have in common is they're now poised to do big things this fall. They are the players most likely to make a huge leap based on how the offseason has unfolded thus far …

NOTE: Players are listed with their ages as of Sept. 5, when the 2024 NFL season is set to kick off.

Will Levis
Tennessee Titans · QB · Age: 25

The Titans clearly want Levis to have every possible chance to thrive in his second season. He showed promise while playing in nine games in 2023 -- when he threw for 1,808 yards with eight touchdowns and four interceptions -- and there’s even more help around him now. Running back Tony Pollard signed in free agency, giving Tennessee another talented ball-carrier who can catch passes and form a dangerous duo with Tyjae Spears. General manager Ran Carthon also landed wide receiver Calvin Ridley, who never really lived up to expectations in Jacksonville but still has produced two 1,000-yard seasons in his five-year career. Finally, the addition of free agent center Lloyd Cushenberry can’t be underestimated. Ask any young quarterback what it means to have a talented veteran making protection calls. It’s invaluable to their development. 

We all knew the Titans were veering away from the power football this team played in the past. By replacing Mike Vrabel at head coach with former Cincinnati offensive coordinator Brian Callahan -- the same man who helped quarterback Joe Burrow blossom into a star with the Bengals -- the Titans are looking to be more wide open and explosive than they’ve ever been. The offense will have a more diversified running game, while the combination of Ridley and DeAndre Hopkins should put more pressure on opposing defenses. The key is Levis taking the next step in his development in Year 2. It’s hard not to see him doing that with these factors working in his favor.

Drake London
Atlanta Falcons · WR · Age: 23

It’s amazing to think London set a team record for most receptions in a player's first two seasons, given the mediocrity that has plagued the Falcons at quarterback during that stretch. He’s caught 141 passes for 1,771 yards since entering the league as the eighth overall pick in the 2022 NFL Draft. Now imagine how much that production will change with Kirk Cousins moving under center. It’s fair to wonder if a few more records won’t fall in the near future. Cousins was the most coveted free agent on the market, and Atlanta paid heavily to snare him (giving him $100 million in guaranteed cash over the next four years). He’s coming off a torn Achilles that cost him the last nine games of his final season in Minnesota, but there are plenty of reasons to believe he will turn the Falcons into a playoff contender. For one, Cousins was still playing at a high level when he sustained that injury. He turns 36 in August, so he’s still at the tail end of his prime. There’s also his reputation for accuracy, as Cousins has completed nearly 67 percent of his passes over his 12-year career. That is far better than any quarterback London has played with since arriving in Atlanta. It’s also worth noting the success Cousins enjoyed with younger receivers in Minnesota, a group that included Adam Thielen, Stefon Diggs and, more recently, Justin Jefferson. To be candid, London might turn into a Pro Bowler in his first season with Cousins. The Falcons have plenty of other weapons -- including tight end Kyle Pitts, running backs Bijan Robinson and Tyler Allgeier and free-agent wide receivers Darnell Mooney and Rondale Moore -- but London has the look of a superstar. It’s a safe bet that he becomes one with Cousins slinging the ball.

Gus Edwards
Los Angeles Chargers · RB · Age: 29

There are two things we know for certain about this year’s Chargers. One is that new head coach Jim Harbaugh will be the best thing that ever happened to quarterback Justin Herbert in the NFL. The other is that the Chargers are going to run the ball far more than they ever have since Herbert arrived in 2020, which means Edwards will be a major factor. GM Joe Hortiz already has told local reporters that Edwards -- who spent the first five years of his career in Baltimore -- is going to be the team’s bell cow back. Anybody who’s followed Harbaugh’s career knows that means a heavy workload is on the horizon. Harbaugh was known for a relentless rushing attack at Michigan, an approach that helped him win a national championship last year. He had the same philosophy as the San Francisco 49ers’ head coach from 2011 to 2014. Harbaugh inherited a 28-year-old Frank Gore when he took that job, and Gore produced four straight 1,100-yard seasons for that franchise. 

When Edwards plays his first snap for Harbaugh, he'll be one year older than Gore was (29), but it’s not difficult to see him doing similar things in this system. Edwards has the size (6-foot-1, 238 pounds) that Harbaugh loves in his offense. Edwards also was productive in Baltimore, where he ran for at least 700 yards in four of his five seasons, and Hortiz -- who worked in the Ravens’ front office -- watched him closely. The Chargers will likely look to the draft to find another backfield option, but little-used Isaiah Spiller is the only other experienced back on the roster right now. The Chargers know Herbert is the key to whatever success they hope to have in the AFC West, where the Chiefs have won the last eight division titles. The presence of Edwards as an effective runner isn’t too far behind on that list.

Malcolm Koonce
Las Vegas Raiders · DE · Age: 26

The Raiders aren’t being mysterious about how they want to play football under head coach Antonio Pierce, who earned the full-time job after taking over for the fired Josh McDaniels as interim coach last year. They’re going to be led by a physical defense, and Koonce is about to become a bigger name because of that. He’s already shown what he can do, based on his eight sacks last season. But the Raiders just gave a huge free-agent deal to defensive tackle Christian Wilkins, who’s proven to be a disruptive player against both the run and pass. Las Vegas also has one of the best edge rushers in football playing on the other side of the line in Maxx Crosby. The Raiders already had a top-10 scoring defense last season. The odds of that group improving immensely are strong right now. 

Koonce looked like a blossoming star late in 2023, producing two sacks in a 63-21 win over the Chargers in Week 15, then logging a three-sack effort in a 20-14 win over Kansas City a week later. In fact, Koonce finished with six sacks in his last four games last season. You know Pierce can’t wait to see what this fourth-year veteran does in a contract year. The coach already has been talking about how he has rules for Chiefs quarterback Patrick Mahomes that rival what the Detroit Pistons used to handle Chicago Bulls star Michael Jordan back in the late 1980s. The belief back then was that Detroit had to beat up Jordan to beat the Bulls. We’ll see if the Raiders can accomplish the same thing with Mahomes, but Koonce's continued improvement would go a long way toward making that dream a reality.

Dorance Armstrong
Washington Commanders · DE · Age: 27

Armstrong spent the past few years playing in the shadow of Micah Parsons and DeMarcus Lawrence in Dallas. He’s likely to command a much bigger spotlight in Washington after signing a three-year, $33 million deal with the Commanders this offseason. Washington has been bolstering its defense -- including the additions of safety Jeremy Chinn and linebackers Bobby Wagner and Frankie Luvu -- but Armstrong has the best chance to be the headliner of that bunch. Armstrong generated 7.5 sacks and 12 quarterback hits in Dallas last year despite starting just one game. He amassed 8.5 sacks and 16 quarterback hits in 2022 while once again operating in a rotational pass rusher role. This is a big reason that Commanders GM Adam Peters was so eager to land Armstrong in free agency. When you add him to a defensive line that already has two dominant interior forces (tackles Daron Payne and Jonathan Allen), it’s likely that Armstrong will be a nightmare coming off the edge while facing plenty of single-blocking situations. 

It helps even more that there are familiar faces for Armstrong in Washington. Head coach Dan Quinn was the Cowboys defensive coordinator the last two years, while defensive coordinator Joe Whitt Jr. served as the Dallas pass game and secondary coach. The Commanders were willing to trade away edge rushers Montez Sweat and Chase Young last year because they didn’t plan on paying either one big money. They may have a bargain in Armstrong, who likely could’ve found more loot in free agency but instead opted for a better situation.

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