NFL News & Analysis

Breakout candidates for all 16 AFC teams: Bills' Khalil Shakir, Steelers' Keeanu Benton and more

2T32N10 Buffalo Bills wide receiver Khalil Shakir (10) plays against the New England Patriots during the first half of an NFL football game, Sunday, Oct. 22, 2023, in Foxborough, Mass. (AP Photo/Michael Dwyer)

• It's Khalil Shakir's time to step up: The Bills' receiving corps will look drastically different in 2024, and with no clear WR1, Shakir could become Josh Allen’s top wideout option.

• Keeanu Benton ready for a bigger role: The former Badger ranked fourth on the Steelers with 24 pressures despite playing only 516 snaps a season ago. 

• Get a head start on fantasy football: Use PFF's fantasy football mock draft simulator to create real live mock draft simulations to get ready for your live draft!

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While football fans might not have a ton to sink their teeth into until the preseason begins in August, that doesn’t mean it’s too early to begin looking into roles and projections for every team across the NFL.

Although some remaining free agents will find new homes in the next few months, most teams have their nucleus ready to enter the 2024 season — and every year, someone comes out of nowhere to produce at a high level. Below is a look at one such candidate (excluding obvious household names) for every team in the AFC.

To see candidates for the NFC, click here.

Baltimore Ravens: LB Trenton Simpson

The Ravens lost not only defensive coordinator Mike Macdonald but also standout linebacker Patrick Queen this offseason. The most likely to fill Queen’s big shoes is Simpson, a third-round pick from a year ago.

Simpson played only 49 snaps in 2023 but was effective, earning a 76.3 overall grade as well as a 77.4 coverage grade. If Baltimore wants to repeat its strong defensive efforts from 2023, Simpson will be tasked with stepping up.

Buffalo Bills: WR Khalil Shakir

The Bills' receiving corps will look drastically different in 2024, and with no clear WR1, Shakir could become Josh Allen’s top wideout option. Shakir had a strong Year 2, producing a 76.9 receiving grade and a 2% drop rate. Further, Shakir saw jumps in both yards after the catch per reception and yards per route run. The former fifth-round pick should only develop further in his third campaign.

Cincinnati Bengals: RB Chase Brown

The mood in Cincy is optimistic with Joe Burrow returning from a wrist ligament tear, and the Bengals’ offense should hum again with Ja’Marr Chase and Tee Higgins manning the outside. But a changing of the guard occurred at running back, with stalwart Joe Mixon being shipped to Houston.

Presumed starter Zack Moss had a terrific 2023, posting career highs in attempts and yards, but his numbers after contact weren’t spectacular. Brown figures to slot into the RB2 role, and his receiving prowess — his 81.1 receiving grade was fifth among backs to be targeted 10-plus times — should warrant additional opportunities.

Cleveland Browns: CB Martin Emerson Jr.

Emerson was one of the best-kept secrets in the NFL last year, blossoming into a good corner. In fact, his 53.3 passer rating allowed was the fourth-lowest mark among corners who played 650-plus snaps. However, Emerson was still heavily penalized. If the 23-year-old gets a little less grabby, he could become an outright lockdown perimeter player.

Denver Broncos: WR Marvin Mims

For now, Courtland Sutton remains in orange and blue, but trade chatter continues to surface. Even with Josh Reynolds and Troy Franklin inbound, there’s something to be said about Mims improving in his second season. Although his 64.6 receiving grade wasn't spectacular, Mims’ deeper numbers — 7.1 yards after catch per reception and a 15.2 average depth of target — suggest better production could be on the horizon.

Houston Texans: C Juice Scruggs

Scruggs wasn’t at his best in his debut season, earning just a 47.5 overall grade. It can be argued, though, that he wasn’t given an ideal start, considering he only played from Week 12 onward. Scruggs never surrendered more than three pressures in a game, and with a ton of firepower surrounding the Houston offense, the former third-round pick could elevate with the rest of his unit.

Indianapolis Colts: CB JuJu Brents

There was considerable thought that Indy would add a corner early in the draft, but general manager Chris Ballard didn’t go that route until the fifth round. As a result, it’s fair to assume that the Colts have lofty goals for Brents in his second season. The former Kansas State Wildcat was up and down throughout his rookie campaign, but he should get more consistent with regular playing time.

Jacksonville Jaguars: CB Antonio Johnson

The Jaguars’ secondary will look different in 2024, with Darnell Savage and Ronald Darby helping to replace Darious Williams, Rayshawn Jenkins and Tre Herndon. Despite the additions, Johnson is a strong in-house option to break out. The 2023 fifth-round selection earned a good 73.8 overall grade on just 172 snaps, checking boxes in tackling, coverage and even pass rush. Whether in the slot or box, Johnson should play more for a Jacksonville defense that ranked 24th in expected points added (EPA) allowed per play from Weeks 10-18.

Kansas City Chiefs: CB Joshua Williams

Someone is going to have to help mitigate the loss of L’Jarius Sneed, and Williams should assist. Last season, the 2022 fourth-rounder amassed a 74.4 overall grade and four pass breakups while missing only 4.2% of tackles. Steve Spagnuolo has a knack for developing unheralded corners, and Williams is poised to be next in line.

Las Vegas Raiders: RB Zamir White

Josh Jacobs was the train that kept on churning for the Silver and Black, but the engine will have to pick up without him in 2024. Alexander Mattison figures to be the starter for most of the year, but his elusive rating dropped 33.3 points from 2022 to 2023. Expect more of a running back by committee approach for new offensive coordinator Luke Getsy, who generally kept carries balanced in Chicago — that should mean more totes for White, whose 3.21 yards after contact per carry ranked 10th among running backs last year.

Los Angeles Chargers: G Jamaree Salyer

The Chargers should field a strong offensive line in 2024, and Salyer should benefit. The former Georgia Bulldog experienced a dip in pass-blocking grade, but it’s largely attributed to giving up more sacks. In fact, Salyer’s pass-blocking efficiency (96.6) was higher than in his rookie season. Jim Harbaugh has a knack for fortifying offensive lines, and in playing next to Rashawn Slater, Joe Alt and Zion Johnson, Salyer could match their form in his second full season at right guard.

Miami Dolphins: DI Da’Shawn Hand

Christian Wilkins departure was one of the biggest exits of the offseason, but general manager Chris Grier didn’t truly try to address the interior defensive line in the draft. As a result, Hand should play a greatly increased role in his second year with the Dolphins. The journeyman was spectacular in a limited capacity last year, earning an 87.6 overall grade. Hand also excelled against the run to the tune of an 84.3 run-defense grade. Miami will rely on other bodies to play next to Zach Sieler, and Hand is in a good spot to pop off the tape.

New England Patriots: G Sidy Sow

Sow had a solid rookie season and was particularly effective against rushers, as demonstrated by his 71.3 pass-blocking grade. The fact he ended the season with overall grades of 82.0 or higher in Weeks 16 and 17 bodes well, too. The Patriots re-signed Mike Onwenu and will return David Andrews, and that continuity — plus a whole lot more athleticism behind center with Drake Maye — could lead to an even better Year 2 for Sow.

New York Jets: C Joe Tippmann

It’s never easy for a rookie center to assimilate into the pros, especially when you cycle through working with six quarterbacks. Tippmann started and ended well, amassing four games with an overall grade of at least 71.5. With Joe Douglas adding Tyron Smith, Morgan Moses, John Simpson and Olu Fashanu, Tippmann should benefit because of his surroundings, not to mention working with Aaron Rodgers — who’s seen a good center or two.

Pittsburgh Steelers: DI Keeanu Benton

Pittsburgh has several sophomores who should burst onto the scene, and maybe none is as tantalizing as Benton. The former Badger ranked fourth on the Steelers with 24 pressures despite playing only 516 snaps. There were several moments when Benton looked flat-out unblockable, but the Steelers didn’t use him as much as anticipated as a rookie. With Cameron Heyward experiencing a down 2023 and uncertainty with Larry Ogunjobi’s production, it feels as though Benton should easily exceed his previous snap count and be disruptive on the interior.

Tennessee Titans: T Dillon Radunz

The Titans produced the eighth-worst team pass-blocking grade a year ago, which can be explained by a lack of talent and injuries across the board. But after adding Lloyd Cushenberry III and J.C. Latham, the unit should make strides in 2024. The former second-round pick was good as a run-blocker with a 78.7 grade in 2023. While Radunz’s pass blocking wasn’t up to that level, he allowed just four pressures in the team’s final four games. Still only 26 and entering his fourth season, Radunz could very well make another leap after a better Year 3.

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