Which player on the Packers do you think will have the biggest impact on their 2021 season? OK, fine, it’s Aaron Rodgers—but everybody knows that. We all know how much the stars matter, and they get discussed ad nauseam. I’m here for the underappreciated and under-discussed players who will have a bigger impact on their squad’s win-loss total than you’d initially think. Young players forced into new roles, developmental draft picks who are starting to pan out, veterans with new responsibilities on their plate—every team has an X factor or two, and while the entire season may not depend on those players, one or two games certainly will.
Here are the biggest X factors for each NFL team entering the 2021 season—and what’s at stake if those X factors break the right way.
Cincinnati Bengals: WR Tee Higgins
When the Bengals snagged LSU wide receiver Ja’Marr Chase at the top of last year’s draft, they hoped to create one of the league’s most explosive receiving trios with Chase, Tyler Boyd, and Higgins. But Chase is struggling early, and doesn’t look ready to unseat Higgins as the no. 1 wideout in this offense just yet. Higgins was seventh in the league in deep targets last year, bringing the same contested-catch ability he showed at Clemson—and he’s spent the offseason working on his fluidity and explosiveness, positioning himself to become a balanced, three-level threat. The Bengals are going to throw the ball a ton, and while the plan in May was likely to feature Chase as the centerpiece of that aerial attack, the closer we get to Week 1, the more it seems like Higgins needs to ascend for their passing game to reach expectations.
Pittsburgh Steelers: Edge Alex Highsmith
When Bud Dupree went down late in the 2020 season, the Steelers had little choice but to rely on rookie third-round pick Alex Highsmith. He survived the sudden plunge into the deep end, but in 2021, the Steelers need him to be more than a flashy player and exciting rookie. To keep offensive lines from dedicating all their resources to stymying T.J. Watt on the opposite side, Highsmith must deliver quick wins on passing downs, while relying on his increased bulk to keep him on the field for base downs. The Steelers need a successful pass rush to remain in the top tier of NFL defenses, and Highsmith is integral to that.
Cleveland Browns: Edge Jadeveon Clowney
What a confusing career arc. Since leaving Houston, Clowney has three sacks in 21 games and has seen tepid free agent interest in the past two cycles. He seems like a massive disappointment for a former first pick—but Clowney’s still a good player. If allowed to stand up on the line of scrimmage and knife through gaps, he can collapse pockets and create sack opportunities for Myles Garrett. The Browns have retooled much of their defense, but remain thin up front. Their version of Clowney must be the Houston version if this defense is going to be playoff caliber.
Baltimore Ravens: LB Malik Harrison
Eric DeCosta’s Ravens love to double-dip at positions of need. They did it this year, selecting WRs Rashod Bateman and Tylan Wallace in the first and fourth rounds; same thing in 2019, with Marquise Brown and Miles Boykin in the first and third rounds. In 2020, their position to target was linebacker: LSU’s Patrick Queen in the first round, then Ohio State’s Malik Harrison in the third. Both had rocky rookie seasons, but got better over time, and Harrison has officially won the starting role opposite Queen. With L.J. Fort down long term with a knee injury, Harrison—and Queen—is in sink-or-swim mode on a Ravens defense that is loaded at almost every other position.
Denver Broncos: DL Dre’Mont Jones
A third-round pick in 2019, Jones was a prototypical “project” defensive lineman: length and quickness helped him win, but he needed more mass, better rush plans, and improved technique in terms of body control and pad level. He landed in a great environment in Denver behind Shelby Harris and under head coach Vic Fangio, and has improved across the past two seasons. Last season he was forced to start after injuries struck the Broncos and flashed potential. The Broncos will depend heavily on Jones, now that DeMarcus Walker and Sylvester Williams have left in free agency—and with Von Miller returning from major injury, they hope the pass rush can once again be a source of strength in 2021.
Kansas City Chiefs: WR Mecole Hardman
Who else could this be? The Chiefs’ WR depth is one of the few points of concern for the 2021 Super Bowl favorites, with Sammy Watkins out the door and no emerging players in camp. Hardman enters the regular season as the de facto WR2 (functionally WR3, as Travis Kelce lines up as a wideout about 50 percent of the time). And while the Chiefs have always found creative ways to get Hardman the football, the blazing speedster has yet to grasp the finer points of receiver play. He doesn’t need to be a Stefon Diggs technician to succeed, and has been playing full-time wide receiver for only four seasons, so there’s reason for faith. But it’s put-up-or-shut-up time for an early-drafted receiver with all the opportunity in the world.
Las Vegas Raiders: WR Henry Ruggs
Speaking of receivers drafted at a premium for their speed, Henry Ruggs III is at an early crossroads in his career. It’s not that Ruggs’s career hangs in the balance—John Ross just made the Giants’ roster; speed sticks in the NFL—it’s that he needs to work out some lumps in his second season to reach his potential. Nelson Agholor left in free agency, opening up the deep targets in the offense, and veteran speedster John Brown asked for his release, leaving Ruggs without much competition for the Raiders’ downfield target share. And before you snicker, note that Derek Carr pushed the ball downfield with decent willingness (11 percent of his targets) and shocking efficiency (53.3 percent adjusted completion percentage). Jon Gruden’s Raiders want to blow the roof off this thing, and Ruggs can be the man for the job.
Los Angeles Chargers: OT Rashawn Slater
Slater is one of a few rookies on this list, but I’d argue he’s the most important non-QB rookie in the league. Every year, the Chargers have three things: playoff aspirations, horrible injury luck, and poor offensive line play. If they’re to realize the first, they need to avoid the second and third—and Slater is their avenue to doing so. Rookie offensive tackle expectations should usually be tempered, but Tampa Bay’s Tristan Wirfs showed us what a top-flight athlete can do in the right circumstances. Slater has that elite athleticism, as well as a great nucleus of veterans to lean on in Corey Linsley, Bryan Bulaga, and Matt Feiler. He doesn’t need to be Wirfs-level good, but the first thing that could muck up this downfield Chargers offense is poor pass protection on those deep dropbacks. A good Slater would immediately give this offense a high floor.
New York Jets: DT Quinnen Williams
Most football fans are familiar with Williams’s arc over his first two seasons: shaky as a rookie, explosive as a sophomore. But two things get understated: just how well he played, and just how much better he can get. Quinnen was a tectonic force against smaller interior linemen and has the explosiveness to beat heavy-footed guards, but he’s still playing out of control and off-balance at times. Robert Saleh figures to feature Williams as a single-gap penetrator on the interior—something he did with DeForest Buckner in San Francisco—and let him play at top speed at all times; if he can also get Williams playing with more coordination and body control, Williams is a potential six-plus-sack player on the interior and the star of a sneaky good Jets defense.
Miami Dolphins: QB Tua Tagovailoa
I generally tried to skirt quarterbacks on this list, but there’s no way to deny just how much Tua Tagovailoa’s play will impact this Dolphins season. The team benched veteran Ryan Fitzpatrick last season for the chance to get Tua some reps, and in doing so, may have lampooned its 2020 playoff hopes—but if Miami makes it in 2021, it’ll all have been worth it. Early viewings of the new-look Dolphins offense with Tagovailoa at the helm get me pumped: It’s a college-style offense with tons of RPOs, and Tua looks more spry and decisive another year removed from his hip injury. There’s a formula in place for this passing offense to slice up defenses with a thousand pitch-and-catch paper cuts.
Buffalo Bills: Edge A.J. Epenesa
Once upon a time, A.J. Epenesa was mentioned in the same breath as Chase Young. It was a while ago—before the 2019 college football season, when Epenesa was coming off a 10.5 sack, 16.5 TFL sophomore season. He’d match those numbers as a junior, but Young truly exploded while Epenesa looked slower and less flexible at 280 pounds. After the Bills snagged him in the second round, they asked Epenesa to cut weight, and he struggled to play at his new size early in the 2020 season. He had gotten as low as 245 and couldn’t hang in the running game; the Bills drafted two rookie edge defenders, Gregory Rousseau and Carlos Basham Jr., to challenge for his spot. But now, back up to 255 and hoping to hit 260, Epenesa is getting good reviews from the coaching staff and opposing offensive linemen like Bills starting LT Dion Dawkins. The job is there for the taking, and if Epenesa’s weight and play style are settled, he has the inside track to add to the Bills’ pass rush.
New England Patriots: QB Mac Jones
The Patriots seem ready to compete. Maybe that’s just a residual sense from the past two decades, when the Patriots were always ready to compete, but the defense has been retooled, the offensive cupboards restocked, and the offensive line looks as staunch as ever. A lot of new and unproven pieces need to step up—second-year edge rusher Josh Uche is a breakout candidate to watch, as is LT Isaiah Wynn—but no one matters more than rookie starter Mac Jones. Decisive, accurate, and risk-averse, Jones has all the traits you’d like in a rookie starter. If he can just keep the offense on schedule and avoid mistakes, the Patriots have a clear angle on a wild-card berth. But if he struggles with the easy stuff, the Patriots’ passing game isn’t built to hunt explosive gains—and Jones doesn’t have the creativity or athleticism to make it happen on his own. He needs to be clean and efficient from Day 1—that’s tough for any rookie.
Tennessee Titans: OC Todd Downing
Is this cheating? There are no real rules; it’s my piece, isn’t it? I say it’s not cheating.
Offensive coordinator Todd Downing steps into big shoes vacated by Arthur Smith, who oversaw the resurgence of QB Ryan Tannehill and the dominance of RB Derrick Henry over the past two seasons. Downing’s offense in Oakland in 2017 was a little lighter in personnel and on play-action, which were defining traits of Smith’s offense during the Titans’ consecutive playoff berths. How Downing retains the core of the Smith attack, while also adjusting to a thinner TE depth chart and new WR Julio Jones, is one of the most interesting story lines to monitor as the season kicks off. If the Titans offense takes a step back, their defense likely won’t be able to make up for it.
Jacksonville Jaguars: WR Laviska Shenault Jr.
Everything is weird in Jacksonville, where head coach Urban Meyer is learning the ropes of the NFL job on the fly. The offense is blending college tropes and Clemson staples with mainline NFL ideas from offensive designers Brian Schottenheimer and Darrell Bevell; the offensive line has been too banged up this preseason for us to learn much about Trevor Lawrence; Travis Etienne is out for the season with an injury. One thing remains clear: Laviska Shenault Jr. will be a huge part of this offense. He saw 13 targets across three games in the preseason (almost all of which came from Lawrence), lined up both in the slot and out wide, and saw his share of designed looks and traditional routes alike. Shenault is a skeleton-key player who’s dynamic with the ball in hands—an archetype Meyer has historically relied on for the core of his spread offense. If he’s healthy and featured, he’ll make things easier for Jacksonville’s nascent offense.
Houston Texans: Edge Jon Greenard
It’s tough to make sense of the Texans’ roster, and accordingly difficult to define an X factor. What are their long-term goals? On which players do those long-term goals hinge? Everybody’s new in Houston, and with the direction of the franchise up in the air, defining those long-term looks is mighty tough. As it is, I’ll tag Greenard, a second-year outside linebacker out of Florida who started to earn some run late last season. Greenard has incredible length for a smaller body (34 ⅞-inch arms!), which helps him hold the edge on rushing downs. If he can continue to develop a speed-to-power rush featuring that length, he’ll be a promising young piece with staying power for the Texans defense.
Indianapolis Colts: WR Michael Pittman Jr.
I waffled on this one for a while. The Colts are very close to being very good, but need things to break right for QB Carson Wentz, LT Eric Fisher, LB Bobby Okereke, and CB Xavier Rhodes for this to work—that’s a lot of X factors, folks. But I was surprised when the Colts passed on the WR position in free agency and early in the draft, though their excitement about second-year WR Michael Pittman Jr. explains some of that. Pittman needs to be good immediately, as veteran wideout T.Y. Hilton will start the season on IR—and Pittman looked plenty flashy last season, so there’s reason to have faith here. Creating more consistent separation is important for a player who cannot big-boy NFL corners as often as he did Pac-12 corners when at USC.
Minnesota Vikings: TE Tyler Conklin
The Vikings moved on from franchise cornerstone Kyle Rudolph this offseason—an inevitability after they drafted Irv Smith Jr. as his heir apparent in the second round of the 2019 NFL draft. And Smith would likely be the X factor here, if not for a torn meniscus that ended his 2021 season before it ever began. A heavy two-TE team under OC Gary Kubiak last season, the Vikings and new OC Klint Kubiak (Gary’s son) must quickly onboard Tyler Conklin into the starting TE role to keep the core of Minnesota’s wide zone running game intact. Conklin has never been a dominant blocker, but now that he’s being shoehorned into that role, he must deliver early. Expect him to get a heavy dose of underneath targets on boot-action as well—that’s where his hands and YAC toughness should shine.
Chicago Bears: CB Jaylon Johnson
Everyone wants to talk about rookie QB Justin Fields and that offensive line. (I am everyone. I want to talk about Justin Fields.) But the Bears’ biggest question mark is overshadowing a huge position in flux on the other side of the ball: cornerback. After releasing Kyle Fuller during free agency, and with veteran Artie Burns underwhelming in camp, the Bears’ starting three corners—Jaylon Johnson, Kindle Vildor, and Duke Shelley—have 16 career starts among them. Johnson brings 13 of those starts, and showed flashes as a rookie with 15 pass breakups. He was a risk-taker at times, but if new DC Sean Desai plays him in off coverage and lets him read the quarterback’s intentions, he should produce again. The Bears need him to win against top wide receivers every week—they have no other option but to let him shadow and hope for the best.
Green Bay Packers: Edge Rashan Gary
Aaron Rodgers’s umbrage with the front office dominates the news cycle in Green Bay—and appropriately so. But the offense will be good this season—there’s little doubt of that. It’s the defense that’s truly in flux, with a new DC in Joe Barry hoping to exorcise the ghosts of the Mike Pettine era and finally get the Packers over the NFC championship game hump. Pettine often used edge rusher Preston Smith as a zone dropper last year, which was a cute gag, but faded down the stretch. This year, expect Preston Smith, Za’Darius Smith, and third-year pro Rashan Gary to all see the field as potential rushers. Gary particularly looks like the player Green Bay hoped to get out of Michigan in 2019: explosive into contact, with knockback power and surprising bend in tight areas. Getting all three of the Packers’ supersized edge defenders on the field on late downs is the best way for Green Bay to establish a dominant passing defense.
Detroit Lions: WR Amon-Ra St. Brown
It’s rare to see a fourth-round rookie listed as a starter on his team’s depth chart, but the Lions’ WR room is perhaps the worst in the league. Plus, St. Brown is no regular fourth-round rookie. He’s a jack-of-all-trades without cardinal athletic traits; while most teams didn’t need a player in that mold, the Lions did. St. Brown will give QB Jared Goff a safety valve over the middle of the field, and can erase inaccuracy with a surprisingly large catch radius and toughness through contact. St. Brown will have the opportunity to cement a starting role on the Lions for seasons to come if he delivers on the passing game volume likely to come his way.
Los Angeles Rams: RB Darrell Henderson Jr.
Henderson’s a largely misunderstood player. He ran almost exclusively behind pullers and power-blocking at Memphis, winning with straight-line explosiveness and speed against AAC defenses. He had to change everything when he landed with the Rams, running behind a wide-zone offensive line and no longer being remarkably faster and more explosive than the defenses he was facing. Just as he got his eyes right and his play style adjusted, rookie RB Cam Akers emerged for the Rams. With Akers injured and the Rams seemingly moving to more power/gap running schemes as they look to diversify their play-action passing game, Henderson once again has to recalibrate his eyes and tempo—but the starting job is clearly his, and I see a much more mature runner now than I did when Henderson was a rookie. Even with Sony Michel waiting in the wings, I have faith in Henderson to deliver on his opportunity.
Seattle Seahawks: LB Jordyn Brooks
It’s tough to let a player like K.J. Wright walk out the door. A Seahawk for a decade and a true skeleton key, Wright famously stepped into an on-ball Sam linebacker role for Seattle’s defense last year, taking on a new position at the ripe age of 31 and somehow dominating regardless. He was displaced by rookie first-rounder Jordyn Brooks, a huge gamble by the Seahawks front office that seems to be paying off. Brooks looked mighty explosive and comfortable in coverage last season, and should be a three-down player beside stars like Bobby Wagner and Jamal Adams this year. As Wagner’s athleticism starts to tail off, Brooks’s ability to run with tight ends down the field will become paramount to Seattle’s pass coverage.
San Francisco 49ers: DT Javon Kinlaw
Watch some Javon Kinlaw film and you’ll find some of the funniest reps of the entire 2020 season. It’s rare to see a rookie who’s that physically dominant in the trenches. Kinlaw’s eyes, hands, pad level, and balance all need smoothing along their rough edges, but that young man is big, long, strong, and disruptive on the interior. Kinlaw made his way into offensive backfields a ton, regularly holding ground at the point of attack and freeing up other defenders to make plays near the line of scrimmage. After the DeForest Buckner trade and Nick Bosa injury, San Francisco’s defensive line took a step back in 2020—but a group led by Bosa, Dee Ford, Arik Armstead, DJ Jones, and Javon Kinlaw should be one of the league’s best in 2021, assuming Kinlaw comes along as expected. With a thin secondary behind them, they’ve gotta be.
Arizona Cardinals: CB Byron Murphy Jr.
The Cardinals were candidates to grab a corner in Round 1 and Round 2—they drafted a LB and WR instead. It was a huge vote of confidence that Byron Murphy would continue growing in the CB2 job, and that veteran journeyman Malcolm Butler would hold down CB1 after Patrick Peterson’s departure. Murphy would maybe even win the CB1 job over Butler during the season.
Well, the chickens are home to roost. With Butler’s surprise retirement late in the offseason, Murphy is CB1 for the Cardinals by default—and for a defense that plays a ton of man coverage, that means 60 minutes of DK Metcalf, Brandon Aiyuk, Tyler Lockett, Deebo Samuel, Robert Woods, and Cooper Kupp. While Murphy is often picked on for his worst plays, he’s an underrated talent who had a strong camp and preseason. Here’s hoping he takes off in Year 3.
New York Giants: DT Dexter Lawrence
Defensive coordinator Patrick Graham runs a smart defense that prioritizes two-gappers in the interior, a prototype of defensive line play that is back in vogue across recent seasons. And after stalwart nose tackle Dalvin Tomlinson left in free agency, the stars are aligning for a Dexter Lawrence breakout season. One of the most powerful players in the NFL, Lawrence has the ability to collapse pockets as a pass rusher, while his stopping power and technique as a two-gapping run defender are among the best in the league. Lawrence is a star in the making that should get a national spotlight on a staunch Giants defense this season.
Philadelphia Eagles: QB Jalen Hurts
All teams go as their quarterbacks go, but that’s especially true for Philadelphia. If second-year quarterback Jalen Hurts plays well, the Eagles will have their QB of the future and can build an offense around him. With a young receiver corps and veteran offensive line, they can feel solid about their nucleus on offense. And if Jalen Hurts plays poorly, the Eagles will have to reload at quarterback with a top 2022 draft pick or a massive trade for a veteran. Only the Lions and Texans have murkier futures at QB than the Eagles, which makes Hurts’s performance the X factor both for this season and for seasons to come in Philadelphia.
Dallas Cowboys: CB Trevon Diggs
Starting rookie corners is a risky proposition, and Trevon Diggs is living proof: His early performances for Dallas were mighty rough. He didn’t have much help in Mike Nolan’s forsaken defense, and in Dan Quinn’s heavy Cover 3 system, that remains true. The Cowboys lack a dominant free safety, so Diggs must show a better ability to press top receivers on the line, and run with them on vertical routes. There are no veterans waiting in the wings to replace him, and the rookie corners behind him are largely projects. Diggs must take a big step forward in Year 2 for the Cowboys defense to hang this season.
Washington Football Team: RB Antonio Gibson
The light bulb turned on for Gibson down the stretch of the 2020 season. Only 33 career carries at Memphis left Gibson with a lot to learn as a true running back, but Washington tossed him into the deep end and let him learn by doing—a wise move, as Gibson began hitting the right holes with the right tempo on zone runs late last year. A uniquely spry player at 220 pounds, Gibson’s ceiling as a three-down back with receiving ability is as high as any young back’s in the league. The Washington Football Team turned both tackle spots over to new starters, and have introduced two new wide receivers in Curtis Samuel and Dyami Brown behind incumbent star Terry McLaurin. Throw in Ryan Fitzpatrick as a new starter, and it could take a few weeks for Washington’s passing attack to find its rhythm. If Gibson can build on last year’s momentum, Washington can rely on the running game to keep the offense chugging while the passing game finds its footing.
Tampa Bay Buccaneers: Edge Joe Tryon-Shoyinka
I almost put rookie punt returner Jaelon Darden here—only half-jokingly, too. The Buccaneers won a Super Bowl and then invited the whole team and coaching staff back, an unbelievable luxury rarely afforded to championship teams. That makes it tough to find one X factor, but rookie first-round edge Joe Tryon-Shoyinka has a lot of potential to improve this defense. The Bucs are focused on January football, which means they’re focused on health and longevity; for 32-year-old pass rusher Jason Pierre-Paul, that means playing fewer snaps in the regular season. He barely dipped below 80 percent in any game last season, which is rare in a league that increasingly relies on hockey-like rotations for defensive fronts. If Tryon-Shoyinka, who has had a dynamic camp, can find success as a rookie, he’ll take snaps from Pierre-Paul and Shaquil Barrett, leaving them fresher for the Bucs’ eventual playoff run.
Atlanta Falcons: CB A.J. Terrell
The most talented defensive player on the Falcons’ roster is DT Grady Jarrett. That isn’t difficult to see. What is tricky is finding the second-most talented defensive player on the Falcons’ roster.
Deion Jones and Foyesade Oluokun are both good linebackers, but the cupboards are generally bare in the wake of ex-GM Thomas Dimitroff’s aggressive spending. Fortunately, Dimitroff’s last first-round selection—Clemson CB A.J. Terrell—looks like he has the goods. Considered a bit of a reach at the time, Terrell is still a raw player, but he has legit NFL size, natural mirror quickness, and great ball awareness as a man-cover defender. He’ll take on WR1s all season, and that trial by fire could produce a cornerstone defensive player for the Falcons’ upcoming rebuild.
Carolina Panthers: Edge Brian Burns
Brian Burns is the indie band that’s becoming popular—better get in early so you can claim you were here before he really took off. Burns was undressing top offensive tackles last season with an obnoxious blend of quickness and bend; his 16.5 sacks over the past two seasons is tied for 15th in the league, despite the fact that he started only 19 games over that stretch. With a legit rusher opposite him in Haason Reddick and a year in Phil Snow’s defense under his belt, a double-digit sack season feels like an inevitability for Burns, who is only growing as a technician to become one of the best speed rushers in the NFL. If he ascends and Reddick hits, the Panthers’ defensive front (including second-year pro Derrick Brown) will suddenly become a strength.
New Orleans Saints: QB Jameis Winston
We have to end on the biggest individual question mark of the entire NFL season: Saints QB Jameis Winston. Even over his roller-coaster seasons in Tampa Bay, you could squint and see a dangerous starting NFL quarterback—if only he could cut out one or two back-breaking plays a game. With a season on the bench behind one of the most precise, risk-averse QBs in league history in Drew Brees, there’s a chance we’ll get that Winston—and if we do, the Saints have enough talent to make the playoffs. And a playoff berth could lock up the Saints’ starting job for Winston over the next few years, potentially saving his career altogether.