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2018 NFL season: One key homegrown player for each AFC team

Offseason stories are inevitably dominated by what's new: coaching changes, player acquisitions and draft picks. But the biggest area for growth on each roster comes from within. This week, I'll take a look at one homegrown talent from each team who could provide a huge boost by taking the next step in his development, beginning today with AFC clubs.

*For the purposes of this exercise, I'll only look at players on their rookie contracts that each organization needs to step up. Click through the tabs below to toggle between the AFC and NFC. *

Baltimore Ravens: Marlon Humphrey, cornerback

Outgoing general manager Ozzie Newsome's love for Alabama players could pay off again with Humphrey, the Ravens' 2017 first-round pick. After beginning his rookie season as the team's third cornerback, he capably stepped in for Baltimore's No. 1 cornerback, Jimmy Smith, in five starts down the stretch, allowing only six yards on nine targets in a game against the Steelers. Humphrey has a knack for breaking up plays at the last second, helping him to rankĀ among the five best cornerbacks last season in passer rating, according to Pro Football Focus.

Unlike most of this list, Humphrey doesn't need to improve as much as back up his performance over an entire season. If he does that, he'll replace Smith, coming off a torn left Achilles tendon, as the team's top cornerback for good.

Buffalo Bills: Zay Jones, wide receiver

Jones' jagged rookie campaign has been trumped by a rockier offseason. Last year's No. 37 overall pick incurred a felony vandalism charge, which was later dropped, sandwiched between shoulder surgery and a knee surgery that will keep him off the field during OTAs.

This is usually the part of a fledging player's career where he gets buried on the depth chart and needs to earn his spot back on the field after getting 791 snaps on rookie scholarship. But the Bills need Jones to play because their wideout depth chart might be the NFL's worst. Once he's healthy, the East Carolina product will need to cut down on his drops and do a better job coming up with contested catches, two factors in why he finished with the NFL's second-lowest "catch percentage" in 2017 for anyone with more than 50 targets, per PFF.

Cincinnati Bengals: Joe Mixon, running back

No one runs quite like Joe Mixon, yet his 3.52 yards per carry as a rookie could not look more pedestrian. Mixon learned the hard way that trying to turn every inside run into something worthy of a YouTube highlights compilation can be counterproductive in the NFL. (Especially when running behind a shoddy line.) By Week 17 against the Ravens, however, Mixon was finishing runs better and taking what the defense gave him more often.

Andy Dalton has proven he'll rise and fall based on the talent around him. Mixon has the undeniable game to make Dalton and the entire Bengals offense better.

Cleveland Browns: Jabrill Peppers, safety

Sashi Brown's final first-round draft pick, Peppers has most notably contributed to society as the subject of Twitter jokes about how deep he was asked to play last season.

Embattled defensive coordinator Gregg Williams is moving Peppers closer to the line of scrimmage this year at strong safety, which should better suit Peppers' skill set. He's the only holdover starter in a remodeled secondary, one more potential arrow in every Sashi Truther's quiver.

Denver Broncos: Garett Bolles, offensive tackle

All of John Elway's best-laid plans to improve the Broncos offense will fall flat if the team doesn't protect Case Keenum better than it did Trevor Siemian a year ago. The key might be getting better play out of Elway's first-round pick from a year ago.

Bolles was taken 20th overall to end the revolving door of left tackles for Denver this decade. He showed toughness in playing 1,106 snaps through injuries, but finished No. 73 out of 83 qualifiers according to PFF's pass-protecting metrics. Only one tackle in football drew more penalties. Already 26 years old, Bolles was selected so high in part because he was believed to be close to a finished product. The Broncos sure hope that's not true.

Houston Texans: Will Fuller, wide receiver

The sample size of games Deshaun Watson and Fuller started together is like me: small, yet intoxicating. Four games, 13 catches, 279 yards and seven (!) touchdowns. Extend that out for a season and Fuller would pass Randy Moss in the record books. Extend it out for six games with Tom Savage and Fuller didn't score or top 45 yards in a game again.

After two seasons, it remains an open question whether Fuller is anything more than a one-trick pony as a deep threat. (Or whether he needs to be when that trick is so valuable.) On an offense perilously barren of weapons after DeAndre Hopkins, the Texans need Fuller healthy and ready to take on the No. 2 mantle for an entire year.

Indianapolis Colts: Quincy Wilson, cornerback

The Colts made Wilson a healthy scratch for much of his rookie season, with defensive coordinator Ted Monachino openly calling him "immature." Wilson acknowledged he was not in shape last offseason and coasted in practice, per the Indianapolis Star. But when he finally played in December, Wilson did enough in four starts to make the Colts believers again. He should play because the Colts don't have other options and because this is a defense begging for someone, anyone to stand out.

Jacksonville Jaguars: Blake Bortles, quarterback

The rest of the Jaguars roster has already stepped up; they are just waiting for their quarterback to join them. Bortles made meaningful strides last season, but it wasn't his best year (that was 2015) and it wasn't remotely consistent. His breakthrough playoff games against Pittsburgh and New England were preceded by a crucial three-game stretch that included five interceptions and a completion percentage of 55.1.

The Jags' homegrown defensive picks like Myles Jack and Yannick Ngakoue made massive strides in 2017. The offensive line is far more stable. Even perennial fan punchline Marqise Lee earned a second contract. At times, it seems like the Jaguars believe in Bortles more than Bortles believes in himself. It's his turn to repay that belief because just running back his level of play from a year ago isn't going to be enough.

Kansas City Chiefs: Dee Ford, outside linebacker

The Chiefs found another budding star up front in defensive end Chris Jones. If Ford could provide another edge-rushing complement to Justin Houston, the maligned Chiefs defense would really be cooking with gas.

Ford, coming off back surgery, might only be on the roster because his $8.7 million salary was guaranteed for injury. Only one year removed from a 10-sack campaign, a revived Ford could be the biggest x-factor in Kansas City. There just isn't another player on the roster with the potential to provide what Ford can bring to the table.

Los Angeles Chargers: Dan Feeney and Forrest Lamp, guards

When the Chargers drafted these two interior linemen in Rounds 2 and 3 last year, a lot of football takesmen like me who wanted to sound smart lauded the approach. A commitment to the big uglies was just what this team needed!

Fast forward one year to find Lamp still recovering from a torn ACL and Feeney coming off a season where he graded well below average as a pass protector, per PFF. I want Philip Rivers to have nice things and getting more production up front from his young linemen would be a step in the right direction.

Miami Dolphins: DeVante Parker, wide receiver

Puff pieces about Parker's potential are as predictable as the summer solstice. That excitement often dissipates once the first nagging injury strikes, as Jarvis Landry and even Kenny Stills proved to be far more reliable receivers the last two years.

With Landry gone, the Dolphins are hoping that Parker's strong finish to 2016, when he was catching passes from a healthy Ryan Tannehill, was a sign of a great partnership to come. Parker and coach Adam Gase's entire offense is running out of time to look as good on the field as it regularly does in summer newspapers.

New England Patriots: Malcom Brown, defensive tackle

The Patriots' 2015 first-round pick is undeniably an asset. Bill Belichick drafted Brown to control the running game and he's improved every season as a solid starter. But Brown's pedigree, age (24) and stretches of brilliant play hint at much more being possible.

New England has a raft of young starters like Trey Flowers and Shaq Mason about to hit free agency. If Brown can raise his level to bonafide star status this season, the defensive tackle will make Belichick regret not using the fifth-year option on his rookie contract.

New York Jets: Darron Lee, linebacker

Lee was one of those players draftniks swooned over by saying he'd be a "plug-and-play starter" for the next decade. After two years of uninspiring play in pass coverage, it's hard to imagine the Jets signing up for another contract if Lee doesn't improve. He hasn't shown the ideal physicality for his position or enough athleticism to make up for it. He's serviceable, but the Jets expected more.

Still only 23 years old, there is time for Lee to evolve into the player Mike Maccagnan expected when he selected Lee one round ahead of Christian Hackenberg.

Oakland Raiders: Karl Joseph, safety

Joseph hasn't quite delivered yet on his pre-draft hype, especially as a big hitter. Undersized when he has to cover tight ends, it's believed that new defensive coordinator Paul Guenther will line up Joseph as a deep safety more often, like he did in college.

Guenther has a great track record coaching up the secondary, which is much needed for a Raiders group as unproven as any in football. They have some high draft picks like Gareon Conley and Obi Melifonwu, two players who are, like Joseph, still trying to translate some dazzling college tape to the pro level.

Pittsburgh Steelers: Bud Dupree, outside linebacker

Steelers fans and coaches have been waiting for Dupree to break out for years. I'm not sure whether to be more surprised that the Steelers picked up his fifth-year option for 2019 or that he has no real competition after a season where he finished ranked 106th out of 110 edge-rusher qualifiers in Pro Football Focus' grading.

The legacy of Pittsburgh's pass rushers over the last two decades hangs over Dupree, as do his occasional streaks of brilliance that get hopes up. The Steelers have supported Dupree's status through words and actions. They still believe they haven't seen his best.

Tennessee Titans: Corey Davis, wide receiver

Davis is not just the Titans' No. 1 receiver by default or by his draft status, although the team didn't take him No. 5 overall last year to sit on the bench. Davis should be Marcus Mariota's top target because there's no one else on the roster who can come close to combining Davis' ability to outleap defenders and then outrun them in the open field. It's asking a lot for a 23-year-old from Western Michigan with 517 career snaps to be the top target of an offense, but asking too much of young men is basically what the NFL is all about.

Follow Gregg Rosenthal on Twitter @greggrosenthal.

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