The unofficial start of the 2021 NFL season is right around the corner with training camps set to open up across the league in just a few weeks. As we wait for clubs to hit the field and begin serious preparations for the upcoming year, now seems like as good of a time as ever to look at some of the stars who will be key to their club's success heading into the regular season. Below, you'll find a list of every team in the AFC and a player on the roster that could prove to be an MVP-like figure for his franchise this year.
As we comb through some of those players, it's important to point out that we'll primarily be focusing on predicting team MVPs rather than finding a player on each roster in the AFC to contend for the actual league award itself when the season comes to a close. There'll naturally be some crossover between legit MVP candidates and our list here, but this angle helps us better identify that second layer of pivotal players for some teams rather than simply settling on the quarterback.
With that caveat out of the way, let's jump in!
Buffalo Bills - Josh Allen, QB
Josh Allen is in that category of players who are not only looked at as the team MVP but could actually come away with the award when the season is all said and done. The fourth-year quarterback currently owns the third-best chance of winning league MVP this season, according to the odds posted at William Hill Sportsbook. Allen thrust himself into the conversation last year after taking a significant leap in production where he enjoyed career highs in completion percentage (69.2), passing yards (4,544), and passing touchdowns (37) while throwing just 10 picks. The former first-rounder also rushed for an additional 421 yards and eight scores, further highlighting his dual-threat ability. Allen had Buffalo on the doorstep of the Super Bowl with an AFC Championship Game appearance last season and if he can continue this trajectory after a breakout campaign in 2020, he'll certainly have the Bills knocking on the door once again, making him a true difference-maker.
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Miami Dolphins - Jaylen Waddle, WR
It's admittedly a tall ask for a rookie wide receiver to come in immediately and be an X-factor within an offense, but Waddle -- the No. 6 overall pick at the 2021 NFL Draft -- will likely be a key figure out of the gate. Really, this has to do with the development of Tua Tagovailoa, who played with Waddle at Alabama. Instead of looking at the quarterback position at the 2021 draft following a rookie season by Tagovailoa that left much to be desired, the Dolphins elected to double down with him by adding weapons. If Waddle can come in, stretch the field and rekindle that chemistry he had with Tagovailoa at Alabama, that -- in theory -- should help the young quarterback make positive strides in Year 2, making the receiver extremely vital heading into this year.
The Patriots went on a massive spending spree this offseason and added some high-profile figures on both sides of the ball. While Bill Belichick did add a couple of wide receivers (Kendrick Bourne, Nelson Agholor), the unit is still lacking a true top option, especially following the retirement of Julian Edelman. For New England to have an improved passing attack, someone in that group will need to step up and that could very well be third-year receiver Jakobi Meyers. The former N.C. State pass-catcher enjoyed a breakout season in 2020 where he saw a career-high 59 catches for 729 yards while hauling in 72.8% of his targets. If he continues on this track, the 6-foot-2, 200-pound receiver could be the go-to weapon at receiver that this offense is currently lacking. Naturally, the progression of either Cam Newton or Mac Jones will also be vital to the offense becoming more prolific in 2021, but Meyers' developing into something that resembles even a legit No. 2 option in this receiver group could go a long way toward helping this unit.
The Jets are stepping into a new era in the franchise's history after the club hired Robert Saleh to be its new head coach and drafted Zach Wilson No. 2 overall to become the new franchise centerpiece at quarterback. While the offense goes through its infancy with Wilson, the defense will be asked to keep opponents' scoring to a minimum to not force the young quarterback into a shootout on a weekly basis. That's where Williams comes in. The former No. 3 overall pick was one of the few bright spots in New York over the club's 2-14 campaign last year. The front-seven was nothing to squawk at and Williams was a big reason why. In just his second year in the league, he totaled 55 tackles, seven sacks and 14 quarterback hits. Williams also compiled 20 pressures and three forced fumbles over his 13 games played. He'll once again be asked to anchor this defense and could quite possibly cement himself as one of the NFL's best defensive linemen when the 2021 season concludes.
Houston Texans - Tyrod Taylor, QB
The Houston Texans are in a weird spot. On paper, they have one of the better quarterbacks in the league in Deshaun Watson. However, the 25-year-old is currently dealing with some serious off-the-field issues and that's not even mentioning the fact that he's previously requested a trade out of Houston. While he's talented, there's no guarantee that he'll ever wear a Texans uniform again, which brings veteran Tyrod Taylor into the limelight. He was signed as a clear insurance policy in the event that Houston would be without Watson at any point and -- as things stand right now -- it seems like he's more likely than not going to be the starting quarterback for the club. The Texans are hardly a team looked at as a Super Bowl contender and are more likely to compete for the No. 1 overall pick than anything else. That said, if they are able to even tread water and remain somewhat competitive in 2021, it'll be thanks to Taylor -- who is 24-21-1 as a starter in the NFL -- keeping them afloat amid some pretty wild circumstances.
The big move for the Colts this offseason was the trade for quarterback Carson Wentz and while Indy will hope that he can turn his career around as he reunites with Frank Reich, he also needs some weapons to throw to. Despite leading the team in receiving yards last year, T.Y. Hilton shouldn't be looked at as the pass-catcher to move the chains. Instead, Parris Campbell could prove to be that guy in the Colts offense. His 2020 season was erased due to a knee injury but the former second-round pick could end up being the go-to receiver now that he's fully healthy. He briefly flashed that potential in Week 1 last season, catching six of his nine targets for 71 yards. So long as he can remain on the field, Campbell could end up being Indy's top receiver by this time next year.
The arrival of Trevor Lawrence has left not just Jacksonville abuzz, but the entire NFL. While he'll be the main attraction for folks, his injection into the Jaguars offense could do a world of good for 2020 second-round pick Laviska Shenault. As a rookie last year, Shenault impressed while catching 58 balls for 600 yards and five touchdowns, and is poised to make a Year 2 leap in 2021 -- especially with increased quarterback play with Lawrence at the helm. The 22-year-old has reportedly been flashing the prospects of a potential breakout season during the offseason program and could very well solidify himself as Lawrence's No. 1 option out of the gate.
Can't really get cute when looking at possible team MVPs with the Titans. Derrick Henry has been the key engine to Tennessee's offense for the past few years and there's no reason to suggest that he'll slow down in 2021. He's led the NFL in rushing yards and rushing touchdowns for the past two years and is hot off a 2020 season where he led the entire league in scrimmage yards. While it's unrealistic to expect him to keep this pace up forever, he should still be a bruising weapon in a Tennessee offense that now includes Julio Jones. Henry is also the top non-quarterback MVP candidate heading into next season at William Hill Sportsbook.
Jackson is only looking up to Patrick Mahomes, Aaron Rodgers and Josh Allen in the MVP odds heading into next season and is tied with Tom Brady. While he didn't have quite the same success in 2020 as his record-breaking campaign in 2019, Jackson is still considered to be one of the top quarterbacks that this conference has to offer. That said, his continued development as a passer will be worth watching as we enter this coming season. If he can become more prolific in that regard -- similar to his 2019 season where he led the league in passing touchdowns -- that will raise the ceiling for Baltimore's Super Bowl chances exponentially.
Cincinnati Bengals - Joe Burrow, QB
For the Bengals to sniff competitiveness next season, it'll have to be on the shoulders of 2020 top overall pick Joe Burrow. The former LSU product is coming off a rookie campaign where he suffered a torn ACL that sidelined him for the second half of the year. What we did see from Burrow when healthy was impressive: he completed 65% of his throws for 2,688 yards, 13 touchdowns, and five picks. His recovery from that torn ACL and ability to return to that quarterback who dominated in college will be the key storyline to follow in Cincinnati during the early stages of the regular season. So long as he returns to full health, it'll be up to him to carry the Bengals toward contention.
Baker Mayfield is a sneaky league MVP candidate heading into this season. Currently, William Hill Sportsbook has him at +3500 to win the award, which is tied with Matt Ryan and Carson Wentz. That said, as he enters his second season in Kevin Stefanski's offense, there's a lot to like about his prospects for a career year. During his first season with Stefanski, Mayfield saw his turnovers drop tremendously, throwing 21 picks in 2019 to just eight in 2020. Mayfield's completion percentage (62.8) and passing yards (3,563) were also respectable. Now that he's even more familiar with the system, he could be in for a strong campaign. Also, the Browns made a number of savvy moves throughout the offseason which has put them in a position to contend for a Super Bowl appearance this year. That said, if Mayfield reverts back to the quarterback we saw in 2019, he'll limit the club's potential. If he takes a positive step in Year 2 with Stefanski, however, that could be the difference between a deep playoff run or watching the action from home.
Pittsburgh Steelers - T.J. Watt, DE
Had it not been for Aaron Donald's generational play as of late, T.J. Watt is likely your reigning Defensive Player of the Year for 2020. The Steelers pass rusher led the NFL with 15 sacks and 23 tackles for a loss while also totaling 53 tackles and an eye-popping 61 pressures. Watt was a main reason why Pittsburgh had the No. 1 defensive in the NFL last year in terms of DVOA and he'll continue to be asked to be the face of that unit heading into 2021. Ben Roethlisberger is likely heading into the final year of his career and the Steelers would like for nothing else than to end his tenure with a playoff run. For that to happen, this Pittsburgh defense will need to continue to wreak havoc on opposing offenses while being led by Watt.
Denver Broncos - Kyle Fuller, CB
Denver's offense still needs some sorting out, particularly at the quarterback spot with a competition looming between Teddy Bridgewater and Drew Lock (not to mention a possible Aaron Rodgers trade). With that unit in a state of flux, let's look at the Broncos defense, which has the potential to have a stout secondary in 2021. Of course, safety Justin Simmons needs no introduction and the club also used its first-round pick on corner Patrick Surtain II. The X-factor, however, could very well be veteran corner Kyle Fuller, who signed with Denver immediately after he was cut by Chicago earlier this offseason. With this latest stop with the Broncos, Fuller reunites with coach Vic Fangio, who was the Bears defensive coordinator during a sizable chunk of Fuller's time with the team. Under Fangio in 2018, Fuller led the league in interceptions (seven) and passes defended (21) while being named first-team All-Pro. If he can get back to being that type of player in Denver, the Broncos will be extremely tough defensively, which will be key in a highly competitive AFC West.
Chris Jones simply continues to be one of the better defensive linemen that the NFL has to offer. While the likes of Patrick Mahomes, Travis Kelce, and Tyrann Mathieu may take most of the limelight in Kansas City, Jones is a key piece to what the team does defensively. Heading into this season, the club is said to be working Jones as not just a defensive tackle, but as an edge rusher as well. This is an effort by the Chiefs to apply better pressure on the quarterback and Jones has shown the ability to succeed in limited opportunities lining up on the edge. If Jones thrives in this role, that could bring a new dynamic to the Chiefs' front-seven and make them that much more of a force in the AFC as they look to rebound from their loss in Super Bowl LV.
The rise of Darren Waller has been one of the better feel-good stories in the NFL over the last few years. The 28-year-old has blossomed into one of the game's better tight ends and the Raiders offense has continued to move through him. That was evident last year when he received 145 targets, which was tied with Travis Kelce for the sixth-most in the NFL among all pass-catchers. He led Las Vegas in every receiving statistic in 2020 and will be Derek Carr's top option once again this season. For the Raiders to contend in this division, they'll need to be able to put up points. The best person to lean on in that regard on the roster is Waller.
We've never seen a rookie season quite like Justin Herbert's in 2020. The Rookie of the Year winner threw more passing touchdowns, completions, and 300-yard games than any other first-year player in league history last year. That instant success only leaves the mind daydreaming about what he'll do for an encore heading into Year 2. Even if he takes just a modest jump during his sophomore season, that would likely put Herbert in the actual MVP conversation. As it relates to the Chargers contending against the Chiefs in the AFC West, it'll come down to just how big of a jump he makes in 2021. If they do give K.C. a run for its money, it'll be on the arm of Herbert in a Chargers offense that is ready to win in the here and now.