Each and every year, there’s a list of usual suspects who go out and dominate the NFL — e.g., primo quarterbacks, dominant running backs, electric wide receivers, wrecking ball pass rushers and ballhawking defensive backs we all expect greatness from. The challenge is identifying who might be a sleeper on every roster, because one or more players flying under the radar will inevitably break out and send a message to the league that they’ve finally arrived. In looking at the list of NFC potentials in this category, there were many players who have the talent to be a force for their respective teams in 2021, but a few stood out in a major way; and they’ll likely be the difference in how far their club goes this coming season.
And when/if they do, the NFL will be turned on its head a bit, with parity fully unleashed.
With OTAs wrapping up around the NFL and training camp only a few weeks away, let’s take a look at each NFC team and who has a great chance of stealing headlines while no one’s looking. Remember these names, because you’ll see several — if not all — of them do something special a few months from now.
Some get knocked off of their path and give up on trying to finish the journey. That’s never been the case with Randy Gregory, who fought to return to the NFL in 2020 and was again met with adversity, this time from within the defensive coaching staff — one that saw his coordinator and D-line coach refuse to unleash him fully as he and Jerry Jones had hoped. With coaching changes again made, Gregory is essentially the starter opposite DeMarcus Lawrence, setting him up to finally be what the Cowboys wanted when they used a second-round pick on him. Revisions to the CBA also help pave the way for a matured, focused and serene Gregory, who has already become a favorite of Mike McCarthy — who named him a “primary, premier” player for the Cowboys in 2021 — and new coordinator Dan Quinn (who’s had interest in coaching him since Gregory was at Nebraska). Toss in a contract year in 2021 and Gregory is basically standing in a pool of gasoline while holding a lit match in his teeth.
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OK, I’ll admit this is very tongue-in-cheek, but I’d be remiss if I ignored he fact Aaron Rodgers is now absent from mandatory minicamp and appears dug in on never taking another snap in Green Bay. That means, unless he budges, it’s the Jordan Love show in 2021, and while the verdict is out on if Love can be a franchise QB in the NFL — he’s getting the offseason reps and has weapons like Davante Adams and Aaron Jones to help set him up for success. So maybe he’ll surprise with Matt LaFleur molding him, and maybe he won’t, but he’s clearly facing a mountain of doubters in a situation wherein he’s also potentially trying to replace a legend; and there are few on this list who are between this same rock and a hard place. The Packers are hoping that rock is a diamond, though.
With so many starters returning in 2021 to defend the championship earned in Super LV, it’s not easy figuring out who might break out for the Buccaneers this coming season, but Scott(y) Miller definitely fits the bill. A former sixth-round pick in 2019, Miller was tasked with sharing the load with talent like Antonio Brown, Mike Evans, Rob Gronkowski, Chris Godwin and more. He was still able to carve out a niche for himself en route to producing 501 receiving yards with three touchdowns — a 300+ yard increase in production over his rookie season. It’s unknown what will happen with Godwin in contract talks, but it feels like Miller takes the next step and makes the Bucs think that much harder before handing Godwin a multi-year deal.
To this point, the tight end position in Minnesota has gone mostly through Kyle Rudolph, but no more. Rudolph has now taken his ball and signed on with the New York Giants, and it’s time for the Vikings to look for the next big thing at the position. That could very well be Smith, who has been quietly producing behind Rudolph the last two seasons. Having earned a national championship from his days with the Crimson Tide, Smith is no stranger to the bright lights and that’s what led the Vikings to use a second-round pick on him — for this very moment. He’s produced 676 receiving yards and seven touchdowns in his first two NFL seasons with 14 starts under his belt, but it’s expected he’ll blow past both of those marks in 2021. Pencil him in as TE1 in Minnesota, and for a potential breakout season in complement to Justin Jefferson and Adam Thielen.
You’ll often hear about offensive superstars like Michael Thomas and Alvin Kamara in New Orleans, and rightfully so, but it feels like Smith is entering 2021 with a whole lot to prove and the talent to do it. A former third-round pick of the Saints in 2018, there’s no fifth-year option for Smith, and that means he’s walking right into a contract year. That’s more than enough motivation to continue improving has he has been, bounding back from a bout with injury in 2019 to post his second season with more than 400 yards receiving to go along with four TDs (14 total in three seasons). His ability to break out will largely be predicated upon the abilities of Jameis Winston and/or Taysom Hill and/or Ian Book, but with no more interference from veteran free agent signings, the stage is set.
How can a former first-round pick fly under the radar? Easy, when he’s on the same team as a rookie fourth-overall pick who happens to play the same position. Thus is the situation with Hurst and the Falcons, after the team traded away Julio Jones and welcomes in collegiate phenom Kyle Pitts — a player who has what many to believe to be generational talent. Hurst isn’t exactly a throwaway though, having become a key offensive piece in 2020, when he grabbed 571 receiving yards and six touchdowns. Now in Year 4 of his rookie deal, he’s not naive to what lies before him in order to secure big money from either the Falcons or another club in free agency to come in 2022, considering Atlanta declined to exercise his fifth-year option. A very talented offensive weapon, if he gets the targets that will allow him to have a breakout season, he will do just that: break out.
It’s known what Ford means to the Seahawks on the defensive interior, but two things here: It’s not well-known outside of Seattle and he has not reached his full potential yet. To climb the ranks from an undrafted talent in 2018 to starter shows what he’s capable of, but business is about to pick up in a major way, presumably. Ford was entering the final year of his rookie deal before getting a two-year extension from the Seahawks. It’s not a big-money deal, however, nor does it provide the longterm security he’s ultimately chasing, and Ford wants nothing more than to use this extra time to both cash in soon and to prove to every NFL team he should’ve never gone undrafted in the first place — two very powerful motivators for any NFL player. Having started every game for Seattle last season, he’s prepped for a level up.
There’s been a ton of talk about who’ll be throwing the ball in San Francisco, and rightfully so, but be it Jimmy Garoppolo now and Trey Lance later or Trey Lance now and Jimmy Garoppolo never again — Brandon Aiyuk is one hell of a talent on the receiving end of those throws. A former first-round pick himself in 2020, Aiyuk made his presence felt in an otherwise disappointing 49ers season ravaged by injury. He started 11 times in 12 games and was on pace to scrape the 1,000-yard mark (996) had he been on the field for the complete 16-game slate. The fact he gave the 49ers five touchdowns and 748 yards hints at what he’ll be able to do in Year 2, once the team gets their QB situation sorted out. Having Deebo Samuel play opposite him only helps Aiyuk’s odds of doing damage.
It’s “now or never” for Edmonds, in his own words. The Cardinals added James Conner in free agency and that’s a message if you’ve ever seen one. Of course, it can be spun as Arizona hoping to create a dynamic twofer at the RB position, but Edmonds is smartly not putting his feet up on that assumption. He’s entering a contract season and if he doesn’t make a major impact on the outcome of the 2021 season, he may be elsewhere in 2022. The former fourth-round pick was expected to take a leap last season and statistically did — in rushing yards and more than doubled his yards from scrimmage to go along with five touchdowns — proving he can be a threat as both a running back and receiving threat out of the backfield. All he has to do now is send the Cardinals a message, one that says he’s too valuable to let walk one year from now.
Speaking of a split backfield, there’s one in Los Angeles as well, with Akers sharing the load with Darrell Henderson. The latter has been around a smidge longer, but Akers wasted no time putting his stamp on the RB unit. The former second-round pick (2020) hit the ground running (literally) with 625 rushing yards and two rushing touchdowns — 748 yards and three TDs from scrimmage on the whole. He led the team in rushing by narrowly edging out Henderson and while both expect to carry their roles into 2021, Akers could potentially take the next step as a receiver out of the backfield when Matthew Stafford begins digging in. This spells good things for Akers this coming season, and likely Henderson as well, to be honest.
Ryan Fitzpatrick is the starter in Washington, for now. It doesn’t feel like Ron Rivera is super over-the-moon about it at the moment, when you hear him step out of character and point at how having good weapons mean they don’t have to rely as much on the quarterback. What he’ll soon be reminded of is how untrue that statement is, and it’s not like Fitzpatrick hasn’t been in a situation wherein the guy behind him became the guy in front of him in the middle of a season. Heinicke is a fan-favorite who did good things in the absence of Alex Smith (and Dwayne Haskins) last season, leading to a contractual re-up this offseason. Heinicke could very well overtake Fitzpatrick in 2021, and especially if Fitzpatrick has more turnovers than magic tricks. So don’t go forgetting about QB2 in Washington, because he might be QB1 before it’s all said and done.
Choosing Justin Fields here would not only be the easy route to take, but he’s far from under-the-radar. Jaylon Johnson is, however, at least from the standpoint of the national limelight. The Bears gave Johnson the nod as their second-round pick in 2020 because they saw something in him, and the two-time First-team All-Pac 12 talent is flashing some serious potential. Did he have his rookie hiccups? Sure, but everyone does. Fact is, Johnson started in 13 games and although he didn’t grab his first NFL interception, he was always around the ball — his 15 pass break-ups providing evidence of that claim. Once two or three of those defensed passes become interceptions, possibly in 2021, the league will begin seeing how close he is to becoming a star cornerback for the Bears.
Leonard Williams is secured and rookie linebacker Azeez Olujari is impressing in OTAs, but let’s not go overlooking Lawrence. This time two years ago, he was the first-round pick in New York, and he’s been starting since. That said, it’s fair to demand more from him, seeing as he has only 6.5 sacks in his first two seasons, but four of them landed in 2020 (nearly doubling his production as a rookie) which shows the needle on his potential is aimed due north. With Williams coming off of a breakout season, the presence of Olujari, Blake Martinez (and others) and a seemingly upgraded secondary, Lawrence should see room to impose his will upon opposing offenses more in Year 3. And if he wants the Giants to start considering picking up his fifth-year option, now’s the time to break out and make sure they do.
Luke Kuechly isn’t walking out of that locker room for the Panthers anymore, so locating a worthy successor continues to be paramount for what their defense is trying to build under Matt Rhule. So while Rhule places his offensive bet on quarterback Sam Darnold, and while Darnold might have the breakout NFL season he’s been thirsting for — he’s not under-the-radar, is he? Perryman is though, and although he was signed to a two-year deal this offseason, that actually translates to a one-year deal with the Panthers having the option to move on in 2022. Perryman will do his best to keep that from happening, and has proven he can be a starter in the NFL (51 starts in 69 games played with 349 career tackles), and the 28-year-old is a good fit for Carolina at middle LB. Flanked by Shaq Thompson and Haason Reddick, this could be a highlight season for the former Charger.
Swift was a dynamo for a Georgia team that boasted a complement of dominant halfbacks, but he struggled to blow the roof off of Detroit in his rookie season. Staying available going forward will determine just how good he will be, but the potential is there in spades. Swift logged only four starts in Year 1 — a load shared with Adrian Peterson — but averaged 4.6 yards per carry en route to 521 rushing yards and eight rushing touchdowns. That’s not the only part of his game Jared Goff will enjoy though, because Swift is also a home run threat as a receiver out of the backfield, and finished last season with 878 total yards from scrimmage with 10 touchdowns. The RB room in Detroit is loaded with bodies and the team isn’t yet out on possibly adding another Georgia talent in Todd Gurley, but it’s Swift’s show, for all intents and purposes.
Make no mistake about it, Reagor knows he didn’t have the year the Eagles expected from him when they used a first-round pick on him in 2020. To make matters worse, CeeDee Lamb and Justin Jefferson (other rookie receivers selected in the first round last April) are coming off of breakout seasons, and the Eagles traded with the Cowboys this time around to get in position to select Heisman Trophy winner DeVonta Smith. If that’s not pressure added to what was pre-existing, nothing is. Reagor wants nothing more than to be an impact player in Philadelphia and the presence of Smith might be more of an aid than a threat, along with the permanent change from Carson Wentz to Jalen Hurts — the latter seemingly having more chemistry with the offense as a whole. If Reagor and Hurts can get on the same page and stay on it in 2021, he could double his production in Year 2.