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Under-the-radar AFC players who can be stars in 2024: Steelers, Chiefs boast young TEs; Pats WR set to shine

The NFL’s offseason workout program is in full swing with teams putting a bow on OTAs and starting to open up minicamp before the summer break. These workouts are the initial pieces of the foundation that each club is starting to lay out, and it could reveal some unsung heroes who could prove to be household names this season. 

In this space, we’re going to be looking at players who are flying a bit under the radar for each AFC club and could burst onto the scene in 2024. We did this exact exercise a season ago and, while we had a few misses, we were able to put you on to some players who lived up to the billing, including De’Von Achane, Jaylen Warren, Tank Dell and George Karlaftis. So, let’s dive into this year’s player pool and see who is catching our eye. 

Even after a season where Lamar Jackson won his second career MVP, there’s a case to be made that Baltimore’s offense could be even better in 2024. It has Zay Flowers entering Year 2, Mark Andrews healthy and Derrick Henry coming over in free agency. That trio will be the headliner at the skill positions, but don’t sleep on Walker. The fourth-round pick out of UNC put together some sensational games for the Tar Heels last year, and the Ravens could use another wideout to emerge within the offense. Given his upside, Walker will be given a chance to carve out a sizable role. 

The departure of Tyler Boyd opens the door for a wide receiver to emerge in Cincinnati. That only increases if something drastic happens with Tee Higgins and his trade request, which puts even more targets up for grabs. Iosivas was a sixth-round pick in 2023 out of Princeton who saw limited action as a rookie (15 catches for 116 yards), but did haul in four touchdowns. His size — 6-foot-3 and 205 pounds — could make him a big target for Joe Burrow.    

An undrafted free agent has made the list! Naturally, we’re reaching here a bit as it’s unclear if Robbins will make the 53-man roster, but the Browns backfield is still a major question mark entering the year. Nick Chubb will likely need more time to recover from the devastating knee injury he suffered last year, which creates a window for the likes of Robbins to step up behind Jerome Ford. The BYU product is a big-bodied back standing at 6-foot-2 and 237 pounds, so he could be what head coach Kevin Stefanski is looking for to eat up carries while Chubb is rehabbing.  

Pittsburgh used its third-round pick to bring in the Georgia product in 2023 and now he’s aiming to make a Year 2 leap. Washington is about as big of a target as you could imagine, standing at 6-foot-7 and weighing 265 pounds. He didn’t do much in the passing game last year, but his athleticism suggests he could be a key cog in Arthur Smith’s offense. That combination of size and athletic ability even resulted in Justin Fields putting him in the same breath as former All-Pro Jimmy Graham. If Washington reaches those heights, the Steelers would have quite the weapon.  

Benford is entering his third season in the league, and there’s reason to believe the former sixth-round pick out of Villanova bursts onto the scene in 2024. With Tre’Davious White off the roster after signing with the Rams in free agency, the opportunity is there for him to secure one of the starting cornerback positions on a full-time basis. He started 14 games a season ago and held quarterbacks to an 88.8 passer rating when targeted in coverage.  

It’s unclear when Bradley Chubb and Jaelan Phillips will be back after their season-ending injuries from last year, which creates an avenue for other pass rushers to emerge. Of course. the Dolphins drafted Chop Robinson in the first round, and he will be a key factor in this equation, but so could Mohamed Kamara. The club’s fifth-round pick could work behind Robinson and Shaq Barrett in Miami’s pass-rushing unit.

After a respectable rookie season, Pop Douglas could end up being New England’s most-targeted receiver in 2024. He was the Patriots’ most electrifying pass-catcher in 2023 and, with a year under his belt, could end up being one of the breakout receivers in the league in terms of his statistical volume as the club’s slot receiver. 

The Jets offense returns Garrett Wilson and brought in Mike Williams in free agency, but Corley could prove to be a factor within the pass-catching unit. The rookie was Aaron Rodgersfavorite receiver in the 2024 NFL Draft, so it would seem like he’s going to have an easy time getting into the quarterback’s good graces. Meanwhile, Williams is coming off a torn ACL he suffered last season, and he hasn’t been the most durable receiver. If he were to miss time again, a larger target share could come Corley’s way.

Don’t underestimate the Buckeye connection here with Cade Stover. He played with C.J. Stroud for a time at Ohio State, so the two should have somewhat of a rapport as he now enters the league with the Texans. At 6-foot-4 and 247 pounds, Stover has ideal size as a pass-catching tight end with athleticism to boot. 

Flowers’ ascent looked like it was going to happen in 2023, but a torn Achilles in Week 4 ended a promising sophomore season. In his limited action last year, he allowed just 60% of the targets against him to be completed and broke up three passes. So long as he’s able to return to full strength, Flowers should secure a starting corner job to be a key piece within Indy’s secondary.

Spears may be the most recognizable name on this list, but I still think he applies as flying under the radar when you factor in the arrival of Tony Pollard in free agency. Spears is a speedy dual-threat back for Tennessee, posting 52 receptions during his rookie season. Those opportunities as a pass catcher should remain along with an added workload as a runner to form a one-two punch with Pollard in the post-Derrick Henry backfield in Nashville.  

Travis Etienne is still the top dog in Jacksonville’s backfield, but Bigsby is prime to eat into his workload in 2024. As a rookie, the third-round pick out of Auburn didn’t factor too much into the rushing attack, but he’s had some spring hype surrounding him as he enters Year 2. Both head coach Doug Pederson and offensive coordinator Press Taylor have praised the back for how he’s projecting heading into 2024 through spring workouts. 

With Jerry Jeudy traded to Cleveland, there are at least 87 targets from 2023 up for grabs. Chances are that Mims is the one who snatches the majority of those and could end up being Denver’s top receiver. Head coach Sean Payton already said this spring that he expects a lot of growth from Mims in Year 2, and the receiver himself even noted that there is a “night and day” difference in how he feels entering his sophomore season. 

Kansas City selected Wiley in the fourth round of the 2024 NFL Draft out of TCU, and he could prove to be a key depth piece behind Travis Kelce in the Chiefs tight end room. He’s a tall target for Patrick Mahomes at 6-foot-6 and is coming off a collegiate season during which he caught 47 balls for 520 yards and eight touchdowns. Of course, Kelce is the top dog here, but Wiley could end up surprising folks. 

White is now atop the Raiders depth chart at the running back position in the wake of Josh Jacobs signing with the Packers in free agency. Now that he’s RB1, White is in line for a massive amount of carries, and judging by what we saw in 2023, he’s up for the task. In the four games he started down the stretch for Las Vegas, White averaged 4.7 yards per carry and caught nearly 70% of his targets. If you project that four-game sample size over a full season, he’d be looking at a campaign where he rushes for 1,687 yards. 

Vidal was a Day 3 pick by the Chargers in the 2024 draft, but he could find himself thrust into a larger-than-expected role in L.A.’s backfield. J.K. Dobbins hasn’t proven to be the healthiest of backs throughout his career and Gus Edwards has never reached 200 carries in a single season. The uncertainty surrounding those two backs opens up the possibility of someone else emerging. We’ll throw a flyer on Vidal, who was a star at Troy. 

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Author: Tyler Sullivan
June 5, 2024 | 11:20 am

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