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Which NFL players will improve in 2024? Trevor Lawrence, Bryce Young among nine locks to rise

Bounce-back seasons happen for a variety of reasons.

Oftentimes, they're injury-related. Breece Hall and Brock Purdy are two good examples of players who overcame significant physical setbacks to thrive in 2023. Damar Hamlin's return to the field obviously was extraordinarily unique, but it also fit this classification.

In other cases, opportunity can lead to rediscovered success. Lamar Jackson can thank a new offensive system in Baltimore for his revival during an MVP campaign last season. Baker Mayfield had to win the Buccaneers' QB job first, but once he did, he parlayed it into one of his best seasons and a new contract in Tampa.

To varying degrees, Joe Flacco and Calvin Ridley also took advantage of the new doors opened for them. Meanwhile, some younger players -- like Jaylon Johnson and Nico Collins -- were forced to wait their turn before they were truly cleared for takeoff.

Sometimes it's a coaching change or financial reasons that can spur someone to reclaim past glory. There are myriad reasons why a player can struggle one season and thrive the next.

In trying to pinpoint some of the NFL's top candidates for comeback seasons in 2024, I tried to avoid the obvious calls such as Aaron Rodgers. After all, all Rodgers needs to do is complete a single pass this season and he'll be better than what we saw in 2023. I also wanted to make sure to include young players levied with high expectations who have yet to show us their best.

So, here are nine players -- six on offense, three on defense -- who I think fit the bounce-back bill.

Trevor Lawrence
Jacksonville Jaguars · QB

Lawrence鈥檚 career has been a bit hot and cold to this point, but the good news is that his 2023 backslide didn鈥檛 come close to approaching his rookie-year struggles of 2021. It feels like Lawrence has established some baseline level of competency, even if last season came with its challenges.

The biggest issues, I suspect, were physical ones. Lawrence missed his first NFL start last season in Week 17 following a shoulder injury, but prior to that, he suffered an ankle injury in Week 13. Both appeared to hinder his progress.

Through Week 13, Lawrence had completed 67.9 percent of his passes, throwing for 14 TDs and seven picks, along with four rushing scores and four fumbles. Those numbers fell more in line with his 2022 output. But in his final four games of the season, Lawrence completed just 60 percent of his passes, with seven TDs, seven picks and three lost fumbles. That coincided with the Jaguars falling out of the playoff race.

Jacksonville鈥檚 pass protection, especially on the left side, hurt Lawrence. Left tackle Cam Robinson was suspended for the first four games of last season and later missed time with a knee injury. His replacement, Walker Little, was good early but struggled late. Left guard also was a group effort, with three different starters struggling at various points. Center was a problem, too. Most of the faces at the first two positions remain the same, but the Jaguars feel they upgraded at center with Mitch Morse coming from Buffalo. They鈥檝e also added former Bills receiver Gabe Davis to give Lawrence a deep threat on the outside. Is Davis better than Calvin Ridley, who left for Tennessee in free agency? No, but he and first-round pick Brian Thomas Jr. should give Lawrence plenty of downfield-shot potential.

The Jaguars also played several top defenses last season and appear set to face a slightly easier group of teams this season, which should help. You don鈥檛 want to make excuses for Lawrence after a slightly disappointing turn, but there were some tangible reasons for it. In his age-25 campaign, with stronger reinforcements and a schedule that might not be as tough, Lawrence should trend back toward the trajectory he was on prior to last season.

Bryce Young
Carolina Panthers · QB

The good news for Young is there鈥檚 really only one way to go: up. The quarterback's trying rookie season was plagued by poor pass protection, limited receiving talent and a lack of explosive pass plays.

The top pick in the 2023 NFL Draft started 16 of 17 games, but failed to reach 200 yards passing in 11 of them. He also threw for one or no TD passes in 14 of his 16 starts. In the one start Young missed, backup Andy Dalton threw for 361 yards and two scores.

Enter new head coach Dave Canales, who was hired with Young very much in mind. I thought Canales first did a really good job coaching Russell Wilson during his time with the Seahawks, later coaxing great seasons out of Geno Smith and Baker Mayfield when their careers were at crossroads in Seattle and Tampa. Those are different styles of quarterback Canales has worked with, but each saw gains when the coach was watching over them.

The Panthers also upgraded the offensive personnel this offseason, signing two premier offensive guards, trading for wide receiver Diontae Johnson and drafting WR Xavier Legette and RB Jonathon Brooks. This is by no means an upper-echelon team in terms of offensive talent, but it appears to be a better group than what Young had last season. That will help, but Young also knows he needs to step up.

Young wasn鈥檛 a total failure as a rookie, boasting an interception rate of 1.9 percent and turning into a respectable scrambler, something he didn鈥檛 do a lot of at Alabama. But what he did do there was win, going 23-4 at the highest level of competition in college football. Young鈥檚 winning pedigree dates back to high school, too, which makes me think he鈥檒l find a way to become a quality NFL starter eventually. It might not happen immediately, but I would be shocked if he鈥檚 not at least marginally better in Year 2.

Alex Smith, Jared Goff and Matthew Stafford are three former No. 1 overall picks who struggled mightily as rookies but went on to have successful careers. I suspect Young鈥檚 best hope to make it in the league will be as a Smith-like performer, picking away at the cracks in opposing defenses and keeping the turnovers low.

J.K. Dobbins
Los Angeles Chargers · RB

After a tortuous few years, it鈥檚 entirely possible we鈥檝e already seen the best of Dobbins. He鈥檚 had knee injuries wipe out his 2021 season and cut short his 2022 campaign. An Achilles injury ended his 2023 effort after less than one full game. Few players in recent memory have been as plagued by injury as Dobbins over the past few seasons.

But it says here that Dobbins isn鈥檛 done yet. I completely get why the Ravens had to move on, but there wasn鈥檛 a better place for him to land, joining Jim Harbaugh and old friends Greg Roman and Gus Edwards to form a West Coast version of the Baltimore offense that made Dobbins look like a star previously.

He can be the lightning to Edwards鈥 thunder in Harbaugh鈥檚 offense, which -- if it鈥檚 anything like the system that just won Michigan a national title -- won鈥檛 be shy about running the football. The injury concern can鈥檛 be overlooked, of course. But Dobbins hasn鈥檛 yet turned 26 years old. I鈥檓 betting on at least one more big NFL season from him.

Dobbins has averaged 5.8 yards per rush in his career. He鈥檚 never been a big volume guy, having logged one career game with more than 15 carries, but Dobbins can make the most out of a shared role with Edwards and rookie Kimani Vidal. Dobbins has downplayed the severity of his Achilles injury and proclaimed himself 鈥100 percent鈥 healthy. He鈥檒l be running behind an offensive line that features three recent first-round picks and should be among the better groups in the NFL.

Christian Watson
Green Bay Packers · WR

Last season was a strange one for Watson, who's been saddled with hamstring injuries during his first two years in the NFL. The 2023 campaign was especially frustrating, however, with Watson missing the regular season's first three games and its final five. He returned for the playoffs but caught only one pass in each of those games, playing roughly half the offensive snaps in both.

Watson believes he鈥檚 identified the root of his past hamstring troubles: leg strength symmetry, or a lack thereof. As it turns out, Watson visited hamstring specialists at the University of Wisconsin and found out that his right leg -- the one giving him most of his trouble -- was roughly 20 percent less developed than his left one. So far, the results appear to be pleasing Watson.

The receiver started coming on last season just about the time that Jordan Love did, catching four TDs in a three-game span from Weeks 11 through 13. Then Watson got hurt again. Had he stayed healthy, who knows what might have happened? As it was, Jayden Reed, Tucker Kraft, Romeo Doubs, Dontayvion Wicks and Bo Melton stepped up their production in pretty balanced fashion with Watson sidelined.

There鈥檚 no doubt Green Bay鈥檚 young group of pass catchers is the envy of the NFL, with ample firepower spread around. That might limit Watson鈥檚 star potential as the group鈥檚 pseudo-WR1, perhaps sharing those honors with Reed. But Watson was the assumed go-to target entering last season, and it鈥檚 too soon to forget that -- especially if his hamstring issues have been mitigated.

Kyle Pitts
Atlanta Falcons · TE

As the highest-drafted tight end in the Super Bowl era (fourth overall), Pitts faced immense pressure to produce when he entered the NFL in 2021. All he did was post the league鈥檚 second 1,000-yard season by a rookie tight end, doing so while turning 21 years old midway through the campaign.

In the two seasons since then, Pitts has combined for three fewer receiving yards than he had as a rookie, totaling 1,023 yards and five scores on 81 catches over his past 27 games. A lot of that can be blamed on poor quarterbacking and curious offensive usage, with Jonnu Smith stealing a lot of touches. Injuries also took their toll, with a lingering knee issue limiting Pitts鈥 effectiveness.

Assuming Pitts is healthy, the opportunity is there for him to have his best season to date.

With Kirk Cousins on board, Pitts should see plenty of targets. Cousins thrived with athletic, field-stretching tight ends in Washington (Vernon Davis and Jordan Reed) and Minnesota (T.J. Hockenson). Justin Jefferson was Cousins鈥 main target during his Vikings tenure, but the QB was starting to build a great rapport with Hockenson before Cousins got hurt last year. In 18 games with Cousins, Hockenson -- as the No. 2 and sometimes No. 3 target -- caught 111 passes for 974 yards, six TDs and a two-point conversion. Hockenson鈥檚 totals are greater than the ones Pitts amassed over the same span with the likes of Marcus Mariota, Desmond Ridder and Taylor Heinicke throwing him passes.

New Falcons offensive coordinator Zac Robinson comes from the Rams, where the wide receivers were featured more in the passing game. But Gerald Everett and Tyler Higbee were both consistent producers in that system, occasionally shining with big performances. In Atlanta, WR Drake London is really the main competition for workload in the passing game. London surely deserves his 8-10 touches per game, but so does Pitts.

Tight end is a notoriously slower-developing position, league-wide, even for physical marvels such as Pitts. Year 3 or 4 is often the breakout sweet spot, and with a stronger surrounding cast and new coaches in Atlanta, it would shock me if Pitts is not vastly improved this coming season.

Orlando Brown
Cincinnati Bengals · OT

It was by no means a bad year for Brown in his Bengals debut in 2023. But a confluence of events led to a less-effective season than I鈥檝e come to expect from the four-time Pro Bowler.

First, Joe Burrow was hurt in training camp, starting the year shakily before a different injury ended his season in Week 11. That thrust Jake Browning into the starting lineup, and as admirably as he threw the ball last season, there were protection issues on his watch. Browning was sacked at the NFL鈥檚 eighth-highest rate, with Burrow coming in at No. 20. Part of this can be blamed on Browning holding onto the ball longer; he averaged 2.73 seconds to throw, with Burrow far quicker at 2.54, per Next Gen Stats.

The Bengals signed Brown as their left tackle, and the assumption was that he would upgrade the blocking for them just as he had previously for the Ravens and Chiefs. The problem was that Jonah Williams was being shifted from left to right tackle, a position Williams hadn鈥檛 played since 2016, when he was a freshman at Alabama. The results weren鈥檛 great, and the Bengals often felt the need to slant protection toward Williams -- and away from Brown.

This offseason, Williams departed in free agency while Cincinnati signed veteran Trent Brown and drafted first-rounder Amarius Mims, giving them better talent and depth at tackle. And with Burrow back, the pass protection figures to be in a better place.

Daron Payne
Washington Commanders · DT

There鈥檚 something interesting brewing in Washington after another franchise reset. New GM Adam Peters had a strong offseason, quietly bringing about sweeping changes by adding a slew of competitive, hungry veterans and turning in what could be a very respectable draft class, perhaps even one that can upgrade this team鈥檚 talent immediately.

Defensively, there are still a lot of questions that need answering. There鈥檚 a new scheme, a handful of new starters and worries in the back end and off the edge. But defensive tackle should remain an unquestioned strength with Payne and Jonathan Allen back, along with the addition of early second-rounder Jer鈥橺han Newton. It also doesn't hurt that both the division-rival Eagles and Cowboys are breaking in new starters at center, having to replace long-term starters.

Payne didn鈥檛 have a poor season in 2023, mind you, but it was clear how much tougher life was for him and Allen after Montez Sweat and Chase Young both were traded on one franchise-changing day last Halloween. Even after that point, Payne showed what he could do, collecting three of his four sacks, including two in a late-season loss to the Rams.

Dan Quinn is a former DL coach who knows how to generate pressure with his fronts. The Cowboys attacked from all angles over the past few years, and I expect Quinn鈥檚 Commanders to do similar, even with less talent. The pass rush might have to be a committee effort and less star-driven than it was for Quinn in Dallas or with Sweat and Young previously in Washington. But don鈥檛 overlook some of the lesser-known edge rushers Washington brought in this offseason.

Payne has a lot on the line in 2024. He鈥檚 playing on a salary-cap number of more than $21 million this season, and that figure rises to more than $26 million and $28 million, respectively, over the next two years. Even with Jayden Daniels鈥 rookie-QB salary helping accounting matters out significantly, Payne and Allen might be playing for their jobs in Washington.

Two years younger than Allen and one season removed from an 11.5-sack, Pro Bowl campaign, Payne might have the better chance to shine in 2024 and remain a key fixture on the Washington defense going forward.

Brian Burns
New York Giants · OLB

Burns was pretty darned good last season, all things considered, but it was a trying final year in Carolina. In addition to not yet receiving his long-awaited payday, Burns also had to deal with an elbow injury that forced him to play strictly on the left side of the field for a big chunk of the season. He also played with no true pass-rush threat opposite him all season long on a team that rarely had the lead in games. The Panthers technically didn鈥檛 lead a single game in the fourth quarter all season, securing both of their victories on last-second field goals.

The result was that Burns鈥 sacks and pressure rate were both down from the previous two seasons, even though his performance hadn鈥檛 dropped off considerably. But now that Burns has been paid by the Giants, operating on a line featuring Dexter Lawrence and Kayvon Thibodeaux, the hope is that the 26-year-old can make his sixth season the best of his career.

The Giants head toward the 2024 campaign with offensive questions, and their secondary has concerns, too. New coordinator Shane Bowen surely has his work cut out for him, but it鈥檚 clear he has to unleash the pass rush for the group to be effective. That should play well into Burns having an even stronger season in 2024.

Jack Campbell
Detroit Lions · LB

The Lions鈥 2023 rookie class was a banner group, with Jahmyr Gibbs and Sam LaPorta carving out critical roles on offense and Campbell and Brian Branch doing the same on defense. All four delivered, with LaPorta and Gibbs finishing third and fourth, respectively, in the Offensive Rookie of the Year balloting and Branch and Campbell coming in fifth and eighth, respectively, in the Defensive Rookie of the Year voting.

However, Campbell had his share of struggles, too. After a promising opener against the Chiefs, Campbell had trouble in coverage. The Lions tried to moonlight him as a blitzer as a way to kick-start the pass rush, but Campbell struggled to generate much pressure. He also had games where missed tackles were an issue, something he almost never struggled with in college.

But Campbell wore the green helmet sticker as the team鈥檚 defensive play-caller when Alex Anzalone was injured and was tasked with a lot more than your typical rookie linebacker. Becoming the cerebral center for a defense on a team that carried itself like a world beater last season was no easy task. And Campbell was more good than bad, even while looking stressed and overloaded at times.

I expect less of the panicky, jittery Campbell we saw at times in his rookie season and more of the fire-branded field general he was at Iowa. Another year in the Lions鈥 system under Aaron Glenn should help, as should more help in the secondary with the additions of Carlton Davis, Terrion Arnold, Amik Robertson, Ennis Rakestraw Jr. and others.

The Lions have showered Campbell with praise this offseason, and I think he鈥檚 on tap for a breakout Year 2.

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