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 Tom Brady and the Tampa Bay Buccaneers in the Super Bowl in a moment, but first let’s state the obvious: Mahomes remains 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 percent of his passes, and he has thrown for 114 touchdowns. He is a great leader and a phenomenal talent.
When he has a strong supporting cast around him, he has 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 defense 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 offseason, and Coach Andy Reid can help by running the ball a bit more. Mahomes will again have the opportunity to lead his team to the Super Bowl this season.
Aaron Donald, defensive tackle, Los Angeles Rams: Donald is virtually unblockable. He can get double- or triple-teamed by blockers and still not be stopped. Plus, since coming into the league in 2014, he has missed only two games. With seven Pro Bowls and 85.5 sacks in seven years, he is already in the discussion for the best interior lineman ever.
You could argue that new quarterback Matthew Stafford is more important to the Rams’ success, but there is no denying that Donald is essential to the Rams’ defense, 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 defenses in the league last year, and for the Rams to be a Super Bowl contender, they will need a repeat of Donald’s usual excellence.
Aaron Rodgers, quarterback, Green Bay Packers: His rift with the franchise was the talk of the offseason, 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 offseason, 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 postseason berth.
This offseason, the Titans traded for star wideout Julio Jones to line up opposite A.J. Brown, who has already flashed greatness in his young career, 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 defense 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 has 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 (he is considered one of the best in the league) make him one of the top quarterbacks in the NFL. He has a chance to carry the Seahawks to another division title.
T.J. Watt, edge rusher, Pittsburgh Steelers: If Pittsburgh is going to make it back to the postseason in the competitive AFC North, in what could be quarterback Ben Roethlisberger’s final season, it will need its defense 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 offseason 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 percent to 69 percent — 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’ offense.
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 defenses 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: This last spot was close between Adams and Arizona’s DeAndre Hopkins, but Adams gets the nod as the best wide receiver in football last year. He is so essential to Rodgers and the Green Bay offense, 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.
Adams is a free agent after the season, so it’s possible this is the last run in Green Bay for him and Rodgers. The Packers’ Super Bowl chances are tied to both being at or near their best.