Every season players emerge to become difference makers for their teams. In the AFC North last season, the Baltimore Ravens rode a surprisingly strong season from receiver Kamar Aiken to earn the 8th best passing offense in the league. Tight end Tyler Eifert's break out season helped the Bengals offense and Andy Dalton find consistent efficiency. Former Browns receiver Travis Benjamin teamed up with running back Duke Johnson to keep their team respectable. And Steelers defensive end Stephon Tuitt gave some teeth to the Steelers front while they posted the 3rd most sacks in the NFL.
An X-Factor type of player is usually an unproven commodity who could have a significant impact on the outcome of a season. Most have the ability to effect multiple phases of the game. A prime example from 2015 would be Arizona Cardinals running back David Johnson, who moved the sticks via dump off passes and tough running which enabled John Brown and Michael Floyd to see single coverage on deep routes, and the Cardinals to produce the #2 passing offense in the league.
A prediction on who could be an X-Factor player for each AFC North team:
Baltimore Ravens : Breshad Perriman
Perriman missed his entire rookie season with a mysterious knee injury, but he looked healthy and was making crisp cuts at the Ravens recent offseason minicamp. Perriman has great size and elite, blazing speed. The Ravens have upgraded their offensive personnel this offseason, with Ronnie Stanley drafted to give Joe Flacco more time in the pocket and Mike Wallace signed to draw coverage away from the other receiving threats. If Perriman can find his stride in 2016, it will allow Flacco to show off his deep ball, open up the intermediate passing game, set up the rushing attack for success and allow the defense to attack more when playing with a lead.
Cincinnati Bengals: William Jackson III
Adam Jones had an excellent season in 2015, but their other outside cornerback, Dre Kirkpatrick was picked on for most of the season. Enter Jackson, arguably the best pure corner in the 2016 draft class. Jackson has the ideal skill set to thrive in Marvin Lewis's primarily man coverage scheme. He has well developed ball skills to boot. If Jackson earns a prominent role as a rookie, he will solidify one of the only exploitable areas on the Bengals defense and allow Geno Atkins and Carlos Dunlap to hunt the quarterback.
Cleveland Browns : Joe Haden
Once considered among the top dozen or so corners in the league, Haden has dealt with a variety of injuries one the past couple seasons. He played only five games last season and was largely ineffective. Having a competent number one corner is vital for all AFC North teams this season with all the star receivers on the schedule between the NFC East, AFC East and their own division. If Haden can regain his previous form to matchup with the stud receivers on the 2016 slate, the Browns have a chance to win some low scoring games by controlling the time of possession and trenches. If not, the Browns do not have the personnel to compete in shootouts and their talent deficiency will be exposed.
Pittsburgh Steelers : Sammie Coates
Coates is another second year receiver with great speed. Martavis Bryant is suspended for the 2016 season, giving Coates a golden opportunity to carve out a starting spot. As good as the Steelers triplets - Ben Roethlisberger, Le'Veon Bell and Antonio Brown - are, Bryant was a potent weapon who made their jobs much easier last season with his explosive big play ability. Without a viable second receiver, the Steelers are much easier to defend. If Coates can stretch the field and make some long catches downfield, he will help the Steelers secondary overcome their weaknesses.
Just a subtle reminder : The NFL is a passing league now, even in the rugged AFC North.
Without much separating the top teams in the division, the performance of these X-Factor players could determine who wears the crown as the King of the AFC North in 2016.