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The NFL is undoubtedly a star-driven league. Football is also a team-based sport. This means that many fans root for the uniforms more than for individuals, and only the league’s biggest names are easily recognizable.
When the Tampa Bay Buccaneers made a run to Super Bowl LV, for example, players like Tom Brady, Mike Evans and Rob Gronkowski regularly grabbed the spotlight. Casual fans were far less familiar with wideout Scott Miller, who recorded 501 yards and three touchdowns in the regular season and was arguably the team’s offensive secret weapon.
Now that Miller is a Super Bowl champion, he’s far less likely to fly under the radar, and similar players on each NFL franchise are waiting to emerge.
Here, we’ll take a look at each team’s secret weapon for 2021. We’ll focus primarily on players who have never been named to the Pro Bowl or a first-team All-Pro selection but who could be key cogs during the 2021 season. For some teams, assistant coaches who aren’t regularly recognized will be considered.
Rookie first- and second-round picks will also be excluded, as most of them got their fair share in the spotlight before, during and after this spring’s draft.
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Though Haason Reddick had a breakout 12.5-sack campaign in 2020, the Arizona Cardinals allowed him to depart in free agency after they signed J.J. Watt to a two-year, $28 million deal.
Watt and Chandler Jones should form the foundation of a solid pass rush, but they aren’t the only players who made Reddick expendable.
Markus Golden, a 2015 second-round pick of the Cards, signed with the New York Giants in 2019 and was dealt back to Arizona before last year’s trade deadline. In his nine appearances with the Cardinals in 2020, Golden was superb. The Missouri product finished with three sacks, four tackles for loss and 20 quarterback pressures.
While Watt and Jones are the headliners of the defense, Golden is perhaps an underappreciated piece who can wreck an opposing game plan.
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Kevin Sabitus/Associated Press
Tight end Hayden Hurst was a first-round pick of the Baltimore Ravens in 2018, but he quickly slipped below the radar. Outperformed by tight end Mark Andrews, Hurst became a role player and was traded to the Atlanta Falcons last offseason.
With the Falcons selecting Kyle Pitts fourth overall in April, Hurst could again be headed for a somewhat obscure role. However, this doesn’t mean that he won’t be a key cog in the offense.
For one, Hurst is a capable receiving tight end. He showed that last season, when he racked up 571 yards and six touchdowns. He is also going to help create mismatches by allowing Pitts to move away from the tight end spot. The Falcons have made it clear that Pitts won’t be shoehorned into a single role.
“Not sure I’ve seen the same set or Kyle Pitts line up in the same place twice,” The Athletic’s Jeff Schultz tweeted during minicamp.
Expect Hurst to have a significant impact in 2021 even if he doesn’t regularly highlight the stat sheet.
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During his first two NFL seasons, Ravens running back Gus Edwards largely played the sidekick role, including behind starter Mark Ingram II in 2019. He played a similar role behind then-rookie J.K. Dobbins in 2020 and will likely continue being Baltimore’s No. 2 back.
However, opponents who underestimate his ability are going to regret it.
The reality is that Edwards has starter potential and might be the lead back in almost any other offense. Despite logging just 414 career carries, the 26-year-old has averaged 717 rushing yards per season.
Dobbins and quarterback Lamar Jackson will likely lead Baltimore’s rushing attack again in 2021, and new receiving additions like Sammy Watkins and first-rounder Rashod Bateman will get their time in the spotlight. There will be times, though, when Edwards slips into the lineup and takes over ballgames.
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Brett Carlsen/Associated Press
When the Buffalo Bills traded for Stefon Diggs last offseason, they got Josh Allen the first legitimate No. 1 receiver he’s had as a pro. The move paid immediate dividends, as Diggs finished his first campaign with the team as the NFL’s leader in both receptions (127) and receiving yards (1,535).
Diggs is unquestionably the centerpiece of Buffalo’s receiving corps, but the Bills have a tremendous young complement in 2020 fourth-round pick Gabriel Davis.
Last season, Davis racked up 35 receptions for 599 yards and seven touchdowns. He quickly slotted in as the No. 3 option behind Diggs and Cole Beasley and played 73 percent of the offensive snaps.
While Davis may remain a relative unknown for those outside of the Bills fanbase, that’s likely to change in 2021. Buffalo is a legitimate Super Bowl contender, and if the team makes it to the big game for the first time since 1993, Davis is likely to have a huge hand in it.
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The Carolina Panthers have a new quarterback in 2018 third overall pick Sam Darnold. While Darnold didn’t pan out with the New York Jets, there’s one big reason to believe that he can turn around his career in Carolina.
That reason is offensive coordinator Joe Brady. He is a proven offensive mind who has already turned one relatively average passer into a champion and bona fide star.
Brady took over as LSU’s passing game coordinator in 2019 and helped Joe Burrow achieve a magical season. The year before Brady arrived, Burrow threw for 2,894 yards with 16 touchdowns and five interceptions. In 2019, he threw for 5,671 yards with 60 touchdowns and six interceptions. He also won the Heisman Trophy and became the No. 1 pick in the 2020 draft.
While Burrow showed last season that he wasn’t a one-year wonder, Brady did the same. He coaxed a solid campaign out of journeyman quarterback Teddy Bridgewater, who threw for 3,733 yards and posted a 92.1 passer rating. Both figures were higher than they were during Bridgewater’s 2015 Pro Bowl season.
If anyone is going to help Darnold become the quarterback he was supposed to be as a No. 3 overall pick, it’ll be Brady.
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The Chicago Bears have a new quarterback of the future in Justin Fields. Should the rookie see regular-season action this season, he’ll have quality receiving weapons at his disposal.
No. 1 wideout Allen Robinson II is a legitimate star, and tight end Jimmy Graham (456 yards, eight touchdowns) showed last season that he still has something left in the proverbial tank. Second-year wideout Darnell Mooney, who racked up 631 yards and four scores last year, should be on opponents’ radars too.
However, one offseason addition could really make Chicago’s passing attack go. The Bears signed Damiere Byrd to a modest one-year, $1.1 million contract in free agency. That minor investment has the potential to pay off in a big way.
Byrd was one of the New England Patriots’ only reliable pass-catchers in 2020. He finished second on the squad with 604 receiving yards, which was nearly 20 percent of the team’s production. He should slot in nicely alongside Robinson, Mooney and Graham to give Chicago’s passing game a little more punch than opponents might initially expect.
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The Cincinnati Bengals appear to have a star in the making in quarterback Joe Burrow. Between Tyler Boyd, Tee Higgins and rookie Ja’Marr Chase, they also have some notable names at wideout. What they don’t have is a well-known commodity at tight end.
C.J. Uzomah, however, has the potential to be the secret weapon in Cincinnati’s passing attack.
A fifth-round pick out of Auburn in 2015, Uzomah has quietly become a staple of the offense. He’s never produced more than 439 receiving yards in a season, but he could be in store for a breakout campaign.
The 28-year-old had eight receptions for 87 yards and a touchdown before tearing his Achilles in Week 2 last season. If he hasn’t lost his chemistry with Borrow, those numbers would put him on pace for 740 receiving yards over a 17-game campaign.
While Uzomah may be overshadowed by an increasingly star-studded cast, he should be a valuable veteran outlet in 2021.
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Cleveland Browns guard Wyatt Teller landed on the All-Pro Second Team in 2020. However, he has not been to a Pro Bowl and may only be known by Browns fans or by those who love diving into interior offensive line play, like me.
Teller is arguably the most underappreciated piece of Cleveland’s O-line. He isn’t a first-team All-Pro like Jack Conklin, a three-time Pro Bowler like Joel Bitonio or a first-round pick like Jedrick Wills Jr. (2020).
“One of the most unlikely elite seasons of the 2020 campaign came from Browns guard Wyatt Teller, whose unexpected leap in play helped give the Browns the game’s best offensive line,” Sam Monson of Pro Football Focus wrote in February. “Teller earned a PFF run-blocking grade of 93.6, the highest of any offensive lineman at any position.”
Teller missed five games in 2020, which likely kept him off the Pro Bowl team and a bit of a secret. If he can play a full campaign in 2021, though, the 26-year-old could become a familiar face even among more casual fans.
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Michael Ainsworth/Associated Press
The Dallas Cowboys might have the most star-studded receiving corps in the NFL. Amari Cooper and Michael Gallup have both recorded 1,000 yards in a season, and first-round pick CeeDee Lamb narrowly missed the mark as a rookie, finishing with 935 receiving yards and seven all-purpose touchdowns in 2020.
With Dak Prescott on the mend from last year’s broken ankle, the Cowboys’ passing attack could be the most explosive in the NFL. Tight end Dalton Schultz will be a significant piece of it, even if he doesn’t garner the attention that the receiver trio gets.
Schultz had a breakout campaign in 2020, catching 63 passes for 615 yards and four touchdowns. He provided a passer rating of 95.5 when targeted. He could be even more productive this season if Prescott is pulling the trigger for all 17 games.
With Ezekiel Elliott commanding attention up front and Dallas wideouts stretching the field, Schultz could easily be overlooked by opposing defenses. Expect him to make them pay when that happens and to be a difference-maker in the mid-level passing game.
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NFL Network’s Steve Wyche recently named the Denver Broncos defense as the one he’s most excited to see in the AFC. This isn’t a surprise, as Denver is loaded with well-known defenders like outside linebackers Von Miller and Bradley Chubb, safety Justin Simmons and cornerback Kyle Fuller.
However, not every key contributor is a star. Fourth-year linebacker Alexander Johnson is still relatively unknown by a national audience.
Though he’s not yet received Pro Bowl recognition, Johnson is one of the most productive young linebackers in the game. Last season, he amassed 124 tackles, two forced fumbles, two pass breakups, a sack and nine quarterback pressures. He allowed an opposing passer rating of just 88.7 in coverage.
Johnson has also taken on a consistently rising role. He was purely a special teamer as a rookie, played 69 percent of the defensive snaps in 2019 and played 98 percent last season. Don’t be shocked if he takes the next step and becomes a Pro Bowler in 2021.
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The Detroit Lions might have overpaid a bit when they signed pass-rusher Romeo Okwara to a three-year, $37 million deal after only one strong season. Okwara produced 10 sacks in 2020 after only logging 10 over the first four years of his career.
Still, he was arguably Detroit’s best defender last season, and he’s going to be a real pain for any opposing offense that overlooks him.
Okwara played just 67 percent of the defensive snaps in 2020 but still finished with those 10 quarterback takedowns and 31 quarterback pressures. Those might be Pro Bowl-caliber numbers for a player with a profile higher.
Signed as an undrafted free agent by the New York Giants in 2016, Okwara has largely flown under the radar. If he has another season like the one he had in 2020, however, he will be a Detroit secret no more.
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Rashan Gary was a first-round draft pick out of Michigan in 2019. However, he’s spent little time in the spotlight for the Green Bay Packers—largely because the team added pass-rushers Za’Darius Smith and Preston Smith in the same offseason.
Gary played just 24 percent of the defensive snaps as a rookie and 44 percent of them last season. While he hasn’t been a huge piece of the defensive game plan, though, he has become a surprisingly impactful contributor.
Gary had five sacks and 19 quarterback pressures in a rotational role last season. According to Pro Football Focus, he also had the highest pressure rate (18.7 percent) in the NFL from Week 10 on.
This could be the season in which Gary explodes as a true defensive centerpiece. If he can be as productive as he was over the last third of 2020, he could be a legitimate All-Pro candidate. Expect the 23-year-old to become a well-known commodity outside of Green Bay this season.
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The Houston Texans are likely to have a new starting quarterback in 2021.
In January, Watson had requested a trade out of Houston. By April, there had been 22 different lawsuits filed against Deshaun Watson by women alleging sexual assault or misconduct. Watson is not scheduled to be deposed until February 2022 at the earliest.
This likely leaves the Texans with some combination of Tyrod Taylor, Jeff Driskel and rookie Davis Mills under center. One unheralded player who could make the transition easier is tight end Jordan Akins.
Akins is far from an offensive star. However, he has topped the 400-yard mark in each of the past two campaigns and was reliable in 2020. Last season, he produced a quarterback rating of 106.1 when targeted.
Houston will likely lean on the backfield trio of David Johnson, Mark Ingram II and Phillip Lindsay. Receivers Brandin Cooks, Randall Cobb and Andre Roberts will headline the passing attack. However, Akins should serve as a security blanket in the passing game. While that’s often a thankless job, it’s an important one.
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In the 2018 draft, the Indianapolis Colts snagged guard Quenton Nelson sixth overall. In the three years since, Nelson has been a three-time Pro Bowler and a three-time first-team All-Pro.
Right tackle Braden Smith, taken in the second round of the same draft, hasn’t amassed those accolades. However, he’s been an equally important piece of the Colts’ standout offensive line.
“He has been a model of consistency,” head coach Frank Reich said, per The Athletic’s Stephen Holder. “I’m not sure he’s had a bad day in practice or on Sunday, so the guy is a stud.”
Smith has started 43 games in his three seasons and has played at least 75 percent of the offensive snaps every year. In 2020, he didn’t allow a single sack, according to Pro Football Focus.
Reich and the Colts are trying to rebuild their offense around Carson Wentz, who was traded to the team in February, and without longtime left tackle Anthony Castonzo, who retired. If Indy is successful, Smith is going to be a significant, if significantly underappreciated, piece of the puzzle.
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The Jacksonville Jaguars took Clemson quarterback Trevor Lawrence with the first overall pick in April. While most assume that Lawrence is a can’t-miss prospect, the fact that head coach Urban Meyer has no NFL experience could make Lawrence’s transition difficult.
Fortunately, Jacksonville has an experienced offensive coordinator in Darrell Bevell.
Bevell began his NFL coaching career in 2000, and he’s held an offensive coordinator job since 2006 (excluding the 2018 campaign, when he was out of the league). He’s worked with very different quarterbacks, from Brett Favre to Russell Wilson to Matthew Stafford. If anyone knows how to make Lawrence’s transition from college to the NFL as smooth as possible, it’ll be Bevell.
While Meyer may know how to build a roster and motivate a team, he has no experience in preparing for an NFL defense. Bevell is likely to be the secret ingredient to any success that Lawrence experiences as a first-year signal-caller.
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A broken collarbone may have been the only thing standing between cornerback L’Jarius Sneed and the Pro Bowl in 2020. The fourth-round rookie out of Louisiana Tech was phenomenal when he was on the field for the Kansas City Chiefs.
He finished with 41 tackles, two sacks, seven pass breakups and three interceptions. He also allowed an opposing quarterback rating of just 54.2.
While Chiefs fans are undoubtedly familiar with Sneed by now—and many casual fans may have gotten to know him during the playoffs—he is not one of Kansas City’s standouts. On a team that features Patrick Mahomes, Tyreek Hill, Travis Kelce, Chris Jones and Clyde Edwards-Helaire, the second-year cornerback remains a bit under the radar.
Expect this to change in 2021. If Sneed continues to play at a high level and is healthy for the entire season, it will be virtually impossible to keep him out of the Pro Bowl conversation.
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The Las Vegas Raiders’ passing attack is going to look different in 2021. Standouts Hunter Renfrow and Darren Waller will be back, along with 2020 first-round pick Henry Ruggs III. However, Nelson Agholor departed in free agency, while the Raiders brought in John Brown and Willie Snead IV.
The biggest change, though, might be that 2020 third-rounder Bryan Edwards will be healthy. The South Carolina product won a starting job out of training camp last year but suffered an ankle injury in Week 3, missed a month and never regained the starting gig.
“It definitely was a process, and it obviously was frustrating,” Edwards said of his rookie year, per Adam Hill of the Las Vegas Review-Journal.
Edwards caught four passes for 90 yards in his last two starts and might have been on his way to a strong season if not for the injury. Now that Agholor is gone and Edwards is healthy, the second-year wideout should be poised to pick up where he last left off as a starter.
While the offense will still run through Waller, Renfrow and running back Josh Jacobs, the 6’3″, 212-pound Edwards could be the sort of complementary weapon who regularly catches opposing defenses unawares.
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The Los Angeles Chargers have yet to re-sign pass-rusher Melvin Ingram, who remains a free agent. Some AFC West opponents may breathe a sigh of relief if Ingram—who has 49 sacks in nine seasons as a Charger—doesn’t return. However, L.A. is set to unleash linebacker Uchenna Nwosu on them.
Nwosu, a 2018 second-round pick out of USC, hasn’t spent much time in the spotlight. He played only 34 percent of the defensive snaps in 2020 and has never played more than 37 percent of them in a season. When he has been on the field, however, he’s been productive.
Last year, he finished with 33 tackles, 4.5 sacks, two pass breakups, five tackles for loss and 17 quarterback pressures in 13 games. If Ingram doesn’t return, Nwosu could be the primary edge-rusher opposite Joey Bosa.
Nwosu is the sort of emerging playmaker some opponents may not see coming. He hasn’t been an every-down defender yet, but he could be a sneaky-good contributor in his fourth season with the Chargers.
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Jae C. Hong/Associated Press
The Los Angeles Rams acquired quarterback Matthew Stafford in a trade this offseason, and their new gunslinger will have plenty of star power at his disposal. The Rams have wide receivers Cooper Kupp, Robert Woods and DeSean Jackson. They also have a potent backfield duo in Darrell Henderson and Cam Akers.
With these aforementioned players headlining the Los Angeles offense, it’s easy to overlook tight end Tyler Higbee. By the end of this season, though, doing so may be impossible.
The 28-year-old has spent the past few seasons sharing targets at the position with Gerald Everett. He’s still managed to produce 1,255 receiving yards over the past two campaigns, though. With Everett departing for the NFC West rival Seattle Seahawks in free agency, Higbee is likely to see an expanded role in 2021.
With the bulk of the targets at tight end this season, he could easily put himself in Pro Bowl consideration. The 6’6″, 255-pounder is also going to become a heck of a mismatch with guys like Kupp and Akers demanding attention and Stafford under center.
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In his two seasons as the Miami Dolphins head coach, Brian Flores has helped change the culture in South Beach. Miami appeared to be tanking at the start of Flores’ first campaign but then finished 5-11. In 2020, the Dolphins won 10 games and narrowly missed the playoffs.
While Flores rightfully deserves credit, the promotion of Josh Boyer to defensive coordinator last offseason was a catalyst. He helped create a sense of urgency on that side of the ball and built a system that the players bought into.
“He definitely has an aggressive mindset, which I like,” safety Eric Rowe said, per Travis Wingfield of the team’s official website. “I like being the aggressor instead of being passive and kind of just playing back. He wants to dictate what the offense does.”
The defensive turnaround under Boyer was dramatic. The Dolphins finished 30th in total defense and last in points allowed in 2019. In 2020, they ranked 20th in total defense and sixth in points allowed.
Yes, Miami has upgraded its roster over the last two years; Rowe isn’t solely responsible for the success. He is, however, the secret ingredient that makes the defense cook.
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Running back Dalvin Cook and wideout Justin Jefferson became the stars of the Minnesota Vikings offense in 2020, and that isn’t likely to change this season.
In Cook’s case, however, injuries are a legitimate concern. The Florida State product has missed 21 games in four NFL seasons and at least two every single year. Fortunately, the Vikings can overcome the injury risk because of backup Alexander Mattison.
Mattison, a 2019 third-round pick out of Boise State, may not be well-known by non-Vikings fans. However, Minnesota fans know just how valuable he is as a change-of-pace back and spot starter.
Over his two pro campaigns, Mattison has rushed for 896 yards and averaged 4.6 yards per carry. He has also caught 23 passes for 207 yards and scored four touchdowns from scrimmage. While starting in Week 17 of last season, Mattison racked up 145 yards from scrimmage and two touchdowns.
While the 23-year-old doesn’t see a lot of work when Cook is healthy, he does help shoulder the load and is an underappreciated piece of injury insurance. There is a ton of value in that.
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After a one-year stint with the AFC East rival Dolphins, linebacker Kyle Van Noy is back with the New England Patriots. His return may have been overlooked by casual fans, but it will have a dramatic impact.
Van Noy has never been a star, but he’s regularly been one of the most versatile chesspieces in New England’s defense. Two years ago, he produced 56 tackles, 6.5 sacks, three forced fumbles, three pass breakups and 24 quarterback pressures.
“Kyle has a legacy here, Super Bowls won. He’s done a lot for the team,” fellow Patriots linebacker Josh Uche said, per Nick O’Malley of MassLive.
The Patriots went on a spending spree in free agency, adding the likes of Matt Judon, Hunter Henry, Jonnu Smith and Nelson Agholor. However, bringing back Van Noy may be the most important move New England made aside from drafting its quarterback of the future in Alabama’s Mac Jones.
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Under different circumstances, tight end/quarterback/utility man Taysom Hill might qualify as a secret weapon. However, he is being given a crack at the starting quarterback job this offseason, which pretty much ends his time as a secret.
Wide receiver Tre’Quan Smith, however, remains a relative unknown among non-Saints fans.
Smith has shown flashes during his three seasons in the NFL, with 1,109 receiving yards and 14 touchdowns on his resume. However, he has largely been overshadowed by Michael Thomas, Alvin Kamara and tight end Jared Cook.
Cook is now gone along with last year’s No. 2 receiver, Emmanuel Sanders. Smith should be in store for a bigger role opposite Thomas, and everyone is going to get a better idea of just how reliable Smith can be.
The 25-year-old has provided a quarterback rating of 122.7 or higher when targeted in every one of his pro campaigns. Whether Hill or Jameis Winston claims the starting job, he will be able to rely on Smith as a perimeter target.
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The New York Giants only won six games in 2020, but they did come close to winning the weak NFC East. Perhaps the biggest reason why they remained competitive was the presence of assistant head coach/defensive coordinator Patrick Graham.
Graham helped transform a defense that ranked 25th overall and 30th in points allowed in 2019 into the league’s 12th-ranked overall defense and ninth-ranked scoring unit. While New York added a few pieces during the 2020 offseason, including James Bradberry, Kyler Fackrell and Blake Martinez, Graham made the the unit become a whole.
“Coach Graham is a very, very smart guy. I know he went to an Ivy League school too. His football knowledge, his football IQ, is above a lot of guys that I have been around,” Bradberry said, per Paul Schwartz of the New York Post.
A lot of the attention this offseason has been on the offense, including the return of Saquon Barkley from his ACL tear and the additions of pass-catchers Kenny Golladay, Kyle Rudolph and rookie Kadarius Toney. If the Giants are going to make a push in 2021, though, Graham’s defense will likely be leading the way.
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Kathy Willens/Associated Press
The New York Jets offense will have several new parts in 2021, from quarterback Zach Wilson and running back Michael Carter to guard Alijah Vera-Tucker and receivers Corey Davis and Elijah Moore. Making all of the pieces fit will be a challenge, but the Jets have a secret weapon in offensive coordinator Mike LaFleur.
Though not as well-known as his brother and Packers head coach Matt LaFleur, Mike has been coaching in the NFL since 2014.
As the San Francisco 49ers’ passing-game coordinator from 2017 to 2020, LaFleur worked alongside new head coach Robert Saleh. He also regularly had to overcome injuries to starting quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo. Despite having Garoppolo, Nick Mullens and C.J. Beathard start games under center last season, LaFleur managed to field an offense that ranked 12th in passing.
The Jets offense should rapidly show improvement with LaFleur running the show in 2021. Saleh—the defensive mastermind behind San Francisco’s 2019 Super Bowl run—will rightfully get a lot of credit for any franchise turnaround this season. However, LaFleur is going to play a critical role too.
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David Richard/Associated Press
The Philadelphia Eagles offense will likely belong to second-year quarterback Jalen Hurts in 2021. In the first round of the draft, Philly added Hurts’ former teammate and standout Alabama receiver DeVonta Smith.
However, Smith isn’t the only Eagles wideout who could shine. Travis Fulgham, a 2019 sixth-round pick who made his Eagles debut last season, could emerge as a star.
“Fulgham is a big kid, runs well. I thought he showed good cutting ability. I thought he made contested catches,” NFL Films analyst Greg Cosell said recently on the Inside the Birds podcast (h/t Josh Lynch of Eagles Wire).
The 6’2″, 215-pound wideout led the Eagles with 539 receiving yards in 2020. He caught 38 passes, scored four touchdowns and provided a passer rating of 96.5 when targeted. While players like Smith, 2020 first-round pick Jalen Reagor and tight end Dallas Goedert are going to command plenty of defensive attention, Fulgham could be the team’s sneaky difference-maker.
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Gene J. Puskar/Associated Press
Interior offensive linemen are rarely stars, and the same is true for rookie third-round picks. However, Kendrick Green, taken by the Pittsburgh Steelers at No. 87 overall out of Illinois, might just be the team’s sleeper player of the offseason.
Pittsburgh desperately needs to replace retired center Maurkice Pouncey, and Green may have the goods to take over the starting gig.
“He is exceptionally explosive and twitched up with outstanding core strength and natural leverage that make him a plug-and-play starter at the pivot in a zone-based run scheme,” Brandon Thorn of the B/R NFL Scouting Department wrote.
Center will be an important position for a couple of reasons. For one, 39-year-old quarterback Ben Roethlisberger needs to remain upright and healthy if the Steelers are going to make a playoff push. Secondly, the Steelers had the league’s worst rushing attack in 2020 and will need to open holes for rookie first-round pick Najee Harris.
Pittsburgh’s offensive line is undergoing a few changes in 2021—left tackle Alejandro Villanueva also departed in the offseason—and Green may be the secret weapon that makes the transition work.
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Michael Ainsworth/Associated Press
Over the past couple of seasons, the 49ers have earned a reputation as a defensive football team. That unit helped pave the way for a Super Bowl run in 2019. In 2020, the defense ranked fifth overall despite injuries to players like Nick Bosa, Dee Ford and Richard Sherman.
San Francisco will likely lean on its defense again in 2021, and cornerback K’Waun Williams might be the most overlooked member of that unit.
Williams has never been a Pro Bowler, and he operates primarily as a nickelback. However, despite missing eight games in 2020, Williams amassed 22 tackles, two sacks, four passes defended and a forced fumble. He allowed an opposing passer rating of just 81.9.
When healthy in 2019, Williams was even more productive. He notched two interceptions and allowed an opposing passer rating of 76.1. Expect him to be one of the most important pieces of San Francisco’s secondary this season.
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Ted S. Warren/Associated Press
For the Seattle Seahawks, the Legion of Boom days are long gone. Seattle is now an offensive team built around quarterback Russell Wilson. However, this doesn’t mean there aren’t legitimate playmakers on defense.
Safety Jamal Adams is arguably the face of that unit. Defensive tackle Poona Ford, while unheralded now, could be a star in the making.
“Ford, 25, has the potential to be one of the game’s top defensive tackles,” The Athletic’s Michael-Shawn Dugar wrote earlier this month.
Signed as an undrafted free agent out of Texas in 2018, Ford has seen both his role and his production grow. He played 23 percent of his team’s defensive snaps as a rookie, 47 percent in 2019 and 58 percent last season. He has produced 21, 32 and 40 tackles, respectively, over his three campaigns. Last year, Ford also had two sacks and 14 quarterback pressures.
With Jarran Reed’s release, the Seahawks lost a significant piece of their front seven. Fortunately, Ford has been waiting in the wings.
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Daniel Kucin Jr./Associated Press
As mentioned earlier, the Buccaneers might have more notable names on their roster than any other team. Defensive players like Shaquil Barrett, Jason Pierre-Paul, Devin White and Lavonte David are all recognizable players who helped spark last year’s Super Bowl run.
Free safety Jordan Whitehead isn’t nearly as well known, but he was a critical piece of the Super Bowl puzzle.
A fourth-round pick out of Pittsburgh in 2018, he has quietly emerged as one of the better young safeties in the league. In 2020, he played 86 percent of the defensive snaps and finished with 74 tackles, two sacks, a forced fumble and two interceptions. He allowed an opposing passer rating of only 86.5.
While Tampa’s ferocious front seven headlines the defense, the 24-year-old Whitehead is a tremendous, if often overlooked, playmaker on the back end.
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Brett Carlsen/Associated Press
The Tennessee Titans lost two key offensive pieces in free agency this offseason: wideout Corey Davis and tight end Jonnu Smith. While the Titans traded for Julio Jones to replace Davis, they’ll look internally to Anthony Firkser to replace Smith.
One former Titan believes that Firkser is going to make the transition successful.
“He sat under me for years, and I tried to teach him everything I know, but the dude got wiggles. He can get open, he can catch the ball. I think he going to be elite,” Delanie Walker said on the Talking w/TD podcast (h/t Grant Gordon of NFL.com).
Firkser made a mark in the offense last season, catching 39 passes for 387 yards and a touchdown despite splitting reps with Smith. He provided a quarterback rating of 100.1 when targeted. With Smith out of the equation, the 6’2″, 246-pound Firkser will have the opportunity to flourish as a major offensive mismatch.
“He destroys linebackers within seconds,” Walker said.
While Jones, A.J. Brown, Derrick Henry and quarterback Ryan Tannehill will be the stars of the Tennessee offense in 2021, Firkser can be its secret weapon.
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Gerry Broome/Associated Press
The Washington Football Team offense will have a new look in 2021. Washington added quarterback Ryan Fitzpatrick and receiver Curtis Samuel in free agency, and those two will partner with Terry McLaurin to form the foundation of the passing attack.
While defenses will take notice of Fitzpatrick and Samuel, they may overlook third-round pick Dyami Brown. However, that would be a major mistake, as the rookie has the potential to make an immediate impact as a deep threat.
“Overall, Brown projects as an outside-only WR who will bring a vertical threat right away to an NFL offense with the room and traits to develop into a very good No. 2 option,” Nate Tice of the B/R NFL Scouting Department wrote.
Brown, who amassed 1,099 and eight touchdowns in 11 games for North Carolina last season, was not a high-profile draft pick. However, he could be as impactful as any rookie receiver in 2021.
*Contract information via Spotrac. Advanced statistics from Pro Football Reference unless otherwise noted.