Less than a week from now NFL games will be played again before packed audiences in surroundings as close to normal as we could hope in times like these. Football is truly back.
The expanded season will make this a season unlike any other with the specter of numerous single-season records falling given the expanded sample size, and the fact that this is already the most pass-happy era in the game's history. No one knows precisely what to expect, but anticipation is growing and, with a vast majority of the league vaccinated, there are high hopes that this season can be played largely as scripted and on schedule.
With 53-man rosters now set and the flurry of later-summer roster transactions settled, I couldn't help but think about a few individual players who could shift the balance of power in their division. Players who might not be at the top of your mind when you consider the start of the 2021 season on the whole, but who could end up being difference-makers in deciding a division crown, and the playoff rewards that come from that title.
I wouldn't call them under-the-radar players; more like players who are largely obscured by others on their roster but who I believe could end up playing a vital role in how things go down in their division. Their availability and productivity will be paramount even if they aren't the face of their respective franchise, or even, in some cases, if they haven't ever played a real game in their team's uniform yet.
These were the individuals who came to mind:
AFC North – Jadeveon Clowney
I know the injury history, both recent and going back to college. I understand the inherent gamble that comes from counting on this dynamic edge presence to be a core performer for you and able to be productive week in and week out. Especially now, with an additional regular-season game to be played. But I love the way he got through the summer and I am buying the improved depth and ability of the other men along this Browns defensive line, and the interchangeability between him and Myles Garrett is going to be a problem for opposing teams. The Browns sports medicine people and coaches will be smart about getting him through the practice week and he will be put into positions to thrive. And if Cleveland prevails in this division, as many believe they might, it stands to reason that Clowney has played a significant role in that. His ability to set the edge, in what very much remains a black-and-blue division with Baltimore running more than any other team and Pittsburgh re-committed to the run game with a first-round back, is imperative. And he will create havoc in the backfield as well.
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NFC North – Michael Pierce
The massive defensive tackle (340 pounds) opted out last season due to COVID-19, and realized he wasn't close to being done playing this game. One of the jewels of Minnesota's 2020 offseason can do an awful lot for a man of his size, and Mike Zimmer is just the kind of coach to know how to best deploy him. More than just a run-stuffer – though his mere presence alone will add heft and girth to a DL that sorely needed it a year ago – he can also penetrate from the inside and collapse the pocket. He should be as fresh as ever and fortified for the longer season after not taking a hit last season. He has no shortage of motivation and if the Vikings can close the gap on the Packers this season I suspect Pierce has plenty to do with it. Not the first guy you think of, but a potential glue guy for this defensive line and someone who could give Aaron Rodgers some fits, especially as Green Bay works through some injuries up front. His return, and Danielle Hunter getting back in form, could transform a defense that fell hard a year ago.
AFC East – Tremaine Edmunds
If you read this space with any regularity, you know how bullish I am on this uniquely gifted linebacker. So much wingspan and so fast and so young. The cast around him in this Buffalo front seven is much improved and they have the beef up front now to allow Edmunds to run to the ball and through some open lanes and become much more disruptive in the backfield. He has ball skills, too, which I suspect come to the fore this season. He is at ease in Leslie Frazier's defense and accustomed to wearing the green dot and getting everyone where they need to be. He is ready to play more free-and-easy and let his instincts and body take over. Get ready for more flash plays and some highlight reel moments. They are on the horizon, with this entire defense primed to get back to lofty heights after suffering in some key areas like pass rush a year ago.
NFC East – Antonio Gibson
I anticipate the WFT offense being a much smoother, more cohesive operation than a year ago. Stability, alone, at the QB spot would ensure improvement in that area. Gibson, still converting to running back, has so many of the skills coveted in the modern game, and he had a true preseason and training camp to continue growing from the foundation he made as a very raw rookie under less-than-ideal conditions. The offensive line should be better, the QB play should be better, the familiarity is there now and this young man has the speed and ability to help you win on any down. Ron Rivera saw Run CMC at his very best pre-injury and he is not afraid to run his offense through the running back. Gibson, a converted receiver, has so much explosion and is working hard on his craft to get better with decision making and pass protection. He is a match-up problem and can be deployed in a multitude of ways and I am buying it, big time. I'm also buying the Washington defense to be elite, and for this team to have a bit of an old-school approach, which will incorporate a lot of touches for Gibson.
AFC South – Carson Wentz
Your guess is as good as mine as to what to really expect from a player who has fallen so far, so fast. Factor in his vaccination status and the overall issue the Colts have in that regard compared to most other teams, and things could get even murkier for this group from week to week. Can he get anywhere close to his MVP form under Frank Reich? If so, with this line and this running game and some excellent pieces on defense, the Colts could prevail in what should be a weak division. Can Wentz force teams to defend them differently by moving the pocket around and being athletic out in space and making better decisions with the football? The Colts reached the postseason a year ago without dynamic QB play, and Reich was a vital sensei for Wentz during their time together in Philly. Am I banking on a big turnaround from the QB? No. But I'm not ruling it out, either, and the tale of the AFC South might be told through the play of this QB, with no proven backup behind him.
NFC South – Jameis Winston
There had to be a few quarterbacks in here somewhere. This is football in the year 2021. And while I don't think anyone is going to prevent the Bucs from winning this division, I do think the Saints have the best chance to at least keeping in interesting if we see the best of Winston. New Orleans is no slouch downfield anymore and you had best cover all quadrants down the field – including deep down the sidelines. Sean Payton went out of his way to put that on tape in the preseason lest you think this is gonna be all Alvin Kamara in a post-Drew Brees Saints offense. I am big on Marquez Callaway as a deep threat and at some point Michael Thomas will be back. This is one of the best offensive lines in the NFL that will allow Winston the time to make those seven-step drops and survey the field. This is going to be a very different Saints attack and if Winston can avoid the back-breaking turnovers – I know, it's a significant if – then the Saints are going to be a factor in the NFC.
AFC West – Rashawn Slater
I didn't want to list a bunch of rookies in this exercise, but I am making an exception for the Chargers new left tackle. It's going to take an awful lot for anyone to dethrone the Chiefs in this division. But Justin Herbert just might have the generational talent to close the gap if incubated and protected adequately. Slater is a mountain of a young man, my man Brian Baldinger has been gushing to me about him, and at some point the Chargers have to put a decent line together, right? Securing the blind side would be huge, and that is what I anticipate Slater providing. He can be an engine for the pass game and the run game. Give Herbert close to enough time and points can come in a hurry. Going against the likes of Joey Bosa in practice everyday has to help. I expect an immediate impact and upgrade at this spot, that will help settle down a line that the front office has been trying to sort out for quite a while now.
NFC West – Trent Williams
Notice a trend here? When he is healthy he remains as good as it gets at left tackle. But the drop-off without him can be huge and, especially with the 49ers seemingly transitioning to Trey Lance at some point (and getting him on the field in some capacity right away), having left tackle locked down is huge. Can that outside zone scheme still be effective without Williams? Sure, but not as effective, a young QB tends to hold the ball a little longer than you would like and they gave this guy $23M a year despite having played very little football the last few years for good reason. His injury luck has been awful, though, and his medical issues in Washington are well documented. The 49ers have suffered bad injury luck overall for a long time. That's a lot of trend to buck, but if they do and Williams is in All Pro form, then this could be your Lombardi Trophy winner right here.