Montreal Gazette

TOP NFL PLAYERS TO WATCH IN 2021

10 stars who could carry their team to the Super Bowl

- JOHN CLAYTON

The NFL has long been a quarterbac­k-driven league, so it should come as no surprise that a list of the league's most important players is heavy on signal callers. But there are still plenty of non-quarterbac­ks who play essential roles for contending teams.

A top running back can, in some cases, carry an offence. A top defensive player can be a difference maker in getting his team to the Super Bowl. And as we see more and more each season, every offence needs good wide receivers.

Here's our look at the 10 most important players in the NFL entering the 2021 season:

Patrick Mahomes, quarterbac­k, Kansas City Chiefs: We'll get to his loss to the Tampa Bay Buccaneers in the Super Bowl in a moment, but first let's state the obvious: Mahomes is arguably the best quarterbac­k in the NFL. Since taking over the starting job in 2018, his record is 37-8 in the regular season, he has completed 66 per cent of his passes, and he has thrown for 114 touchdowns. He's a great leader and a phenomenal talent.

When he has a strong supporting cast around him, he's been impossible to stop — but that wasn't the case in the Super Bowl. The Chiefs' offensive line was decimated by injuries, and the Buccaneers took advantage with a strong pass rush and a cover-two defence that took away some of his throwing options and forced him to scramble. They beat up Mahomes with several hits and his play suffered.

The Chiefs took several steps to fix the offensive line in the off-season, and head coach Andy Reid can help by running the ball a bit more. Aaron Donald, defensive tackle, Los Angeles Rams: Donald can be double- or triple-teamed by blockers and still not be stopped. Since coming into the league in 2014, he's missed only two games. With seven Pro Bowls and 85.5 sacks in seven years, he's already in the discussion for best interior lineman ever.

You could argue that new quarterbac­k Matthew Stafford is more important to the Rams' success, but there's no denying that Donald is essential to the Rams' defence, which relies on a lot of late-round picks and undrafted players to surround Donald and star cornerback Jalen Ramsey. Los Angeles had one of the best defences in the league last year, and for the Rams to be a Super Bowl contender, they'll need a repeat of Donald's usual excellence. Aaron Rodgers, quarterbac­k, Green Bay Packers: His rift with the franchise was the talk of the off-season, but the sides reached an agreement to have Rodgers return by training camp and set up his likely departure after this season.

Had he refused to play for the Packers this year, they probably would have been a fringe playoff contender, at best. With Rodgers back in the fold, they're a candidate to win 12 or 13 games and advance to the Super Bowl.

Tom Brady, quarterbac­k, Tampa Bay Buccaneers: If anyone needed a reminder as to why Brady is the best quarterbac­k ever to play in the NFL, he led the Buccaneers to a Super Bowl victory as the New England Patriots went 7-9 without him. His importance was even obvious this off-season, when Tampa Bay was able to retain its entire group of Super Bowl starters, some of whom returned on relative discounts for the chance at another title with Brady.

If, at 44, he can again play to his usual level, the Buccaneers will be a front-runner in the NFC. Derrick Henry, running back, Tennessee Titans: Henry followed up his 1,540-yard, 16-touchdown season in 2019 with a 2,027-yard, 17-touchdown performanc­e last year. In a passing league, Henry was a uniquely dominant force, helping Tennessee to a second consecutiv­e post-season berth.

This off-season, the Titans traded for star wideout Julio Jones to line up opposite A.J. Brown, meaning Henry could see fewer carries, but also fewer eight-man boxes. Tennessee's success still will ultimately be tied to whether Henry can wear down the opposing defence and help the Titans control the game. Russell Wilson, quarterbac­k, Seattle Seahawks: Since coming into the league as a third-round draft choice in 2012, Wilson has been one of the winningest quarterbac­ks in the NFL, posting a career record of 98-45-1. What's even more amazing is that he's never missed a game because of an injury. Wilson and Seattle faded down the stretch last season, but his elusivenes­s inside and outside the pocket and his deep-ball throwing ability make him one of the top quarterbac­ks in the NFL.

T.J. Watt, edge rusher, Pittsburgh Steelers: If Pittsburgh is going to make it back to the post-season in the competitiv­e AFC North, in what could be quarterbac­k Ben Roethlisbe­rger's final season, it will need its defence to rank among the league's best again. No player is more important to that unit than Watt.

He has continued to get better every season — he had 13 sacks in 2018, 14.5 in 2019 and 15 last year — and at 26 years old, he has more room to grow. He could soon become the NFL'S highest-paid defender.

Josh Allen, quarterbac­k, Buffalo Bills: Allen had the type of breakthrou­gh season that few saw coming last year, and he made the Bills the second-best team in the AFC behind the Chiefs. They rewarded him this off-season with a massive contract, and after a few roster upgrades they hope they are well positioned to challenge Kansas City for the conference title.

Allen will need to prove he can maintain the huge improvemen­t he displayed last season — his completion rate jumped from 59 per cent to 69 per cent — but if he continues to get better, watch out.

Lamar Jackson, quarterbac­k, Baltimore Ravens: After disappoint­ing playoff exits in each of the past three seasons, there appears to have been an overreacti­on against Jackson. The players voting in NFL Network's top 100 dropped him from No. 1 to No. 24 this year. An ESPN report said some teams believe they have figured out Jackson and the Ravens' offence.

I'm not buying that. Two years ago, Jackson was the league's MVP. While he may not throw for a ton of yards, he creates nightmares for defences with his feet. If anything, Jackson has the chance to get even better, and he should have the Ravens in the Super Bowl mix again this season.

Davante Adams, wide receiver, Green Bay Packers: The best wide receiver in football last year, Adams is essential to Rodgers and the Green Bay offence, which is lacking a legitimate secondary pass-catching threat, and the numbers back that up: 115 catches for 1,374 yards and 18 touchdowns in 2020.

 ?? MIKE WATTERS/USA TODAY SPORTS FILES ?? Titans running back Derrick Henry rambled for 2,027 yards and 17 TDS last year. In a pass-heavy league, Henry is a dominant force on the ground.
MIKE WATTERS/USA TODAY SPORTS FILES Titans running back Derrick Henry rambled for 2,027 yards and 17 TDS last year. In a pass-heavy league, Henry is a dominant force on the ground.
 ??  ?? Patrick Mahomes
Patrick Mahomes

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