The Best-Kept Secret on Every NFL Roster Heading into 2021 Season

Kristopher Knox@@kris_knoxFeatured ColumnistMay 23, 2021

The Best-Kept Secret on Every NFL Roster Heading into 2021 Season

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    Keith Srakocic/Associated Press

    The NFL is largely defined by its stars. Quarterbacks like Patrick Mahomes and Baker Mayfield are frequently visible during commercial breaks; pass-catchers like Davante Adams and Travis Kelce sell jerseys; and millions tune into the NFL draft every year to see the next crop of superstars find a team.

    However, stars don't win games on their own. Role players, backups and practice squad members all contribute, some in a meaningful but unrecognized way. Many key contributors are well-known by their respective fanbases but largely overlooked by the national media.

    Here, we'll examine one player from each franchise who deserves more recognition than he's getting—young players on the verge of a breakout, underappreciated linemen, valuable low-profile veterans and situational standouts.

    The players on this list aren't likely to land on the cover of Madden or headline a Monday Night Football highlights package anytime soon—but they're more than capable of making a game-winning play.

Arizona Cardinals: CB Byron Murphy Jr.

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    Ashley Landis/Associated Press

    The Arizona Cardinals have forged a reputation as an offensive team, thanks to playmakers like Kyler Murray and DeAndre Hopkins, and the creative play-calling of head coach Kliff Kingsbury.

    However, Arizona was a balanced club in 2020, ranking 13th in scoring and 12th in points allowed. One member of the Cardinals' underrated defense who deserves more credit is cornerback Byron Murphy Jr.

    Murphy, a second-round pick out of Washington in 2019, has quietly become one of Arizona's best defenders. Last season, he amassed 40 tackles, two sacks and eight passes defended while playing 72 percent of the defensive snaps. He also returned a pair of punts and played 20 percent of the special-teams snaps.

    While Murphy isn't quite a Pro Bowl-level cornerback yet, he's a valuable contributor who could have a long career in the desert.

Atlanta Falcons: WR Russell Gage

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    Kevin Sabitus/Associated Press

    Atlanta Falcons fans are plenty familiar with wideout Russell Gage. Fantasy managers who had to navigate Julio Jones' seven missed games last year likely are too.

    However, Gage is far more than a fantasy fill-in. Over the past two seasons, he's developed into a reliable No. 3 receiver alongside Jones and Calvin Ridley. Even with Jones on the field for 15 games in 2019, Gage caught 49 passes for 466 yards, 25 first downs and a touchdown.

    Last season, Gage had 72 receptions for 786 yards and four scores. He helped produce a quarterback rating of 95.6 when targeted.

    Gage will likely be overshadowed once again in 2021, especially with the arrival of pass-catcher and No. 4 overall pick Kyle Pitts. That is, unless Atlanta moves Jones before the season. According to The Athletic's Jeff Schultz, Atlanta would like to do so for cap purposes.

    Regardless of what happens with Jones, Gage is a valuable member of the Falcons offense.

Baltimore Ravens: LB Tyus Bowser

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    Brett Carlsen/Associated Press

    The Baltimore Ravens have produced plenty of Pro Bowlers over the past few seasons. Lamar Jackson, Marcus Peters, Marlon Humphrey, Orlando Brown Jr. and Mark Andrews are just a few.

    Fifth-year linebacker Tyus Bowser has never been to a Pro Bowl, but Ravens fans know he is still a valuable rotational piece. A second-round pick out of Houston in 2017, Bowser has played at least 40 percent of the defensive snaps in each of the past two seasons. He has also been a regular contributor on special teams.

    In 2020, Bowser finished the season with 34 total tackles, two sacks, five passes defended and three interceptions. He allowed an opposing quarterback rating of just 42.2.

    This offseason, Baltimore signed Bowser to a four-year, $22 million contract. While he isn't a leaguewide star now, his time in the spotlight could be coming.

Buffalo Bills: WR Gabriel Davis

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    Brett Carlsen/Associated Press

    The Buffalo Bills have plenty of prolific pass-catchers. Stefon Diggs is the reigning NFL leader in receptions and receiving yards. Cole Beasley and Emmanuel Sanders are longtime NFL veterans with more than 5,000 career receiving yards each.

    Opponents who sleep on second-year receiver Gabriel Davis, though, could be in trouble. The 2020 fourth-round pick out of Central Florida racked up 599 receiving yards and seven touchdowns as a rookie. He helped deliver a quarterback rating of 100.1 when targeted.

    Davis also earned the confidence of his coaching staff.

    "He's a guy we have a lot of confidence in," offensive coordinator Brian Daboll said, per Jay Skurski of the Buffalo News. "He's earned that opportunity since he's been here from training camp."

    If Davis continues earning opportunities in 2021, he could easily approach the 1,000-yard mark. Regardless of how many yards he produces in 2020, Davis projects as a long-term member of the Bills passing attack.

Carolina Panthers: CB Donte Jackson

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    Daniel Kucin Jr./Associated Press

    In this year's draft, the Carolina Panthers used the eighth overall selection on former South Carolina cornerback Jaycee Horn. The team will look to group him with 2017 Pro Bowler A.J. Bouye and fourth-year cornerback Donte Jackson.

    Of the three pass-defenders, Jackson probably has the lowest profile. However, he is a fantastic player.

    Jackson has appeared in 43 of a possible 48 games since being drafted and has logged an incredible 10 interceptions in three years. He had three interceptions last season to go with 34 total tackles, 11 passes defended and an opposing quarterback rating of just 79.2.

    Horn and second-year safety Jeremy Chinn will likely become the faces of Carolina's secondary, but Jackson is a playmaker who has a bright future.

Chicago Bears: DT Eddie Goldman

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    Amr Alfiky/Associated Press

    Since 2015, defensive tackle Eddie Goldman has quietly been one of the most valuable members of the Chicago Bears defense. More than just a space-eater along the defensive front, Goldman is a disruptor with 12.5 career sacks and 17 tackles for loss.

    He doesn't get much national attention, though, and he disappeared entirely when he opted out of the 2020 season. Chicago, though, is excited to get him back.

    "Hopefully with Eddie Goldman it's like riding a bike," defensive line coach Chris Rumph said, per Gene Chamberlain of Bears Digest. "He'll just pick it back up and start pedaling again. He probably won't be able to pop any wheelies right now, but eventually he will be able to pop some wheelies."

    Goldman's impending return should provide Chicago's defense with a significant boost. He missed just one game over his last two seasons and produced 69 total tackles, four sacks, seven tackles for loss and a safety during that span.

Cincinnati Bengals: C Trey Hopkins

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    Wilfredo Lee/Associated Press

    The Cincinnati Bengals recently declined center and 2018 first-round pick Billy Price's fifth-year option. Trey Hopkins' play was a big reason.

    Signed as an undrafted free agent out of Texas in 2014, Hopkins got his first start in 2017, when he played primarily at right guard. He took over at center in 2018 and has started 31 of 32 games over the past two seasons.

    In 2020, Hopkins played 938 offensive snaps and was responsible for only one sack and three penalties, according to Pro Football Focus.

    Cincinnati's offensive line was not good last year, as it allowed 48 sacks and watched as rookie quarterback Joe Burrow was lost for the season to a knee injury. However, Hopkins was a bright spot and should once again have a prominent role in 2021.

Cleveland Browns: WR Rashard Higgins

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    Charlie Riedel/Associated Press

    The Cleveland Browns offense is loaded with standouts, from Nick Chubb and Mayfield to Jarvis Landry and Kareem Hunt. Wideout Rashard Higgins might not be a notable name, but he is a valuable member of the Browns' star-studded unit.

    A fifth-round pick out of Colorado State in 2016, Higgins has developed a clear chemistry with Mayfield. When he was thrust into a prominent role following Odell Beckham Jr.'s season-ending torn ACL, Higgins thrived. He only made one start before Week 11 and still finished second on the team with 599 receiving yards and four touchdown catches.

    From Sam Monson of Pro Football Focus:

    "Higgins produces over and beyond what you would expect every time he gets featured in the Cleveland Browns offense. In his two highest-volume seasons, Higgins has generated a passer rating of 122.3 and 119.2 when targeted, with the latter figure coming this past season. Baker Mayfield to Higgins is a connection that just works."

    With Beckham expected to be healthy this season and the Browns using a third-round pick on wideout Anthony Schwartz, Higgins will likely be the forgotten man again in 2021. However, opposing defenses that ignore him will pay.

Dallas Cowboys: TE Dalton Schultz

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    Michael Ainsworth/Associated Press

    The Dallas Cowboys could have the league's best passing offense in 2021. Quarterback Dak Prescott is expected to be back after last year's season-ending ankle injury, and the receiving corps is loaded with talent.

    While Amari Cooper, CeeDee Lamb and Michael Gallup highlight the group, tight end Dalton Schultz is an underrated contributor who could be on his way to stardom.

    A fourth-round pick in 2018, Schultz saw his career get off to an inauspicious start. The Stanford product had just 13 receptions in his first two seasons before exploding in 2020. Last year, Schultz caught 63 passes for 615 yards and four touchdowns.

    When targeted, he helped provide a quarterback rating of 95.5.

    If Prescott can remain healthy and the Dallas offensive line can rebound from its 2020 injury issues, the offense will be difficult to stop. Schultz will be a big part of it, even if he hasn't garnered a ton of attention yet.

Denver Broncos: LB Alexander Johnson

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    David Zalubowski/Associated Press

    The Denver Broncos defense left plenty to be desired in 2020. Star pass-rusher Von Miller was out for the season with an ankle injury, Denver ranked 25th in points allowed, and only three teams surrendered more yards per carry than the 4.8 given up by the Broncos.

    There were a couple of bright spots, however. Third-year pass-rusher Bradley Chubb had a Pro Bowl campaign, and linebacker Alexander Johnson solidified himself as a quality starter. Chubb, of course, was a first-round pick in 2018 and is a well-known commodity. Johnson, on the other hand, was an undrafted free agent in 2015.

    Still, Johnson has become a valuable member of the Broncos defense. He has started 28 games over the past two seasons and has racked up an incredible 217 tackles, 2.5 sacks, nine tackles for loss and an interception. Last year, he allowed an opposing quarterback rating of just 88.7 and did not allow a touchdown reception in coverage.

    It has taken time for Johnson to carve out a role—he's 29 years old—but he should be a defensive fixture for the foreseeable future.

Detroit Lions: CB Amani Oruwariye

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    Bruce Kluckhohn/Associated Press

    Plenty of fans are familiar with Jeff Okudah, the third pick in the 2020 draft who was supposed to become the centerpiece of the Detroit Lions secondary. However, Detroit's other starting cornerback, Amani Oruwariye, was quietly the better player last season.

    Okudah only appeared in nine games and allowed an opposing passer rating of 118.0. Oruwariye, meanwhile, appeared in all 16 games—with 15 starts—and allowed an opposing quarterback rating under 100.

    Oruwariye finished the 2020 season with 53 total tackles, seven passes defended and an interception.

    Originally taken in the fifth round of the 2019 draft out of Penn State, Oruwariye didn't enter the league with the high profile that Okudah possesses. However, the 25-year-old is just as likely to be a long-term contributor on the back end of Detroit's defense.

Green Bay Packers: LB Krys Barnes

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    Matt Patterson/Associated Press

    Green Bay Packers linebacker Krys Barnes is a prime example of why teams are eager to chase undrafted free agents. The UCLA product didn't hear his name called during the 2020 draft but was starting for a championship contender in Week 1.

    "I thought Krys did an amazing job. I thought he had a hell of a game," linebacker Christian Kirksey said after Barnes' first start, via the team's official website. "In the 15 plays that he was in, he made noise. He did a lot of damage."

    Barnes started 10 games as a rookie and appeared in 13 contests. He finished his inaugural campaign with 80 total tackles, five tackles for loss, a sack and a forced fumble. His emergence made Kirksey, a 2020 free-agent addition, expendable. Kirksey was released after only a year.

    As such, Barnes has a chance to further forge his reputation.

Houston Texans: TE Jordan Akins

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    David J. Phillip/Associated Press

    The Houston Texans used a fifth-round pick in this year's draft on tight end Brevin Jordan. The Miami (Florida) product could develop into Houston's receiving tight end, but Texans fans know they already have a quality pass-catcher at the position.

    Jordan Akins isn't a superstar by any stretch, but he's become a valuable piece of the Texans' receiving corps. He has played in 45 games through three seasons, largely in a rotational role. Over the past two years, though, Akins has tallied 73 receptions, 821 receiving yards and three touchdowns.

    When targeted, Akins allowed a quarterback rating of 106.1 in 2020.

    While he isn't likely to produce a Pro Bowl campaign or be a fantasy star any time soon, the 2018 third-round pick out of Central Florida is nevertheless dangerous if overlooked. Expect him to be a security blanket for Tyrod Taylor and/or rookie Davis Mills (assuming Deshaun Watson isn't on the field) in 2021.

Indianapolis Colts: OT Braden Smith

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    Kamil Krzaczynski/Associated Press

    Indianapolis Colts guard Quenton Nelson has been a star—as much as an interior lineman can be one, anyway—since being drafted in 2018. This offseason, much of the media focus has been on the left tackle position, which lost Anthony Castonzo to retirement and added Eric Fisher after the draft.

    While right tackle Braden Smith hasn't received nearly as much attention as Nelson or the Colts' left-tackle vacancy, he is a player on whom Indianapolis depends.

    Formerly a guard at Auburn, Smith entered the league as a second-round draft pick in the same class as Nelson. While the latter is a three-time first-team All-Pro, Smith has quietly been an anchor at right tackle. He has only missed three games and has played at least 75 percent of the offensive snaps each year.

    In 2020, Smith was responsible for only three penalties and did not allow a sack, according to Pro Football Focus. Smith might not pop on film as much as Nelson, but he's just as valuable to Indianapolis' offensive front.

Jacksonville Jaguars: WR Collin Johnson

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    Phelan M. Ebenhack/Associated Press

    The Jacksonville Jaguars have a new franchise quarterback in Trevor Lawrence. While he isn't surrounded with the best weapons the NFL has to offer—this was a one-win team in 2020, after all—the Jags aren't devoid of pass-catching talent. DJ Chark Jr. was a 1,000-yard receiver in 2019, while 2020 second-round pick Laviska Shenault Jr. showed plenty of promise as a rookie. He finished with 600 receiving yards and five touchdowns.

    Fellow rookie Collin Johnson was less of a factor in 2020, but he could emerge as a major threat in 2021. The fifth-round pick out of Texas came on strong late in the season before landing on injured reserve.

    From Weeks 11 to 13, Johnson caught 10 passes for 195 yards and a touchdown. Johnson then suffered a hamstring injury and was inactive for the final two weeks of the regular season.

    With Lawrence expected to immediately upgrade the quarterback position—and raise the Jaguars' national profile—Johnson should have the chance to make a name for himself this season.

Kansas City Chiefs: WR Demarcus Robinson

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    Charlie Riedel/Associated Press

    Since being drafted in 2016, wideout Demarcus Robinson has remained one of the least known members of the prolific Kansas City Chiefs passing attack—no small feat, given the national exposure the team has recently commanded.

    Largely overshadowed by Tyreek Hill, Travis Kelce, Mecole Hardman and Sammy Watkins, Robinson has nonetheless been a valuable complementary weapon for Patrick Mahomes—and Alex Smith before him.

    The Florida product has made just 32 starts in five seasons but has produced at least 449 receiving yards in each of the past two. In 2020, he also returned two punts and two kickoffs while helping to provide a quarterback rating of 108.4 when targeted.

    With Watkins departing for Baltimore in free agency, there's a good chance Robinson sees an expanded role in 2021. Don't be surprised if he makes more of a national name for himself.

Las Vegas Raiders: RB Jalen Richard

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    Steve Marcus/Associated Press

    After watching the Las Vegas Raiders give Kenyan Drake a two-year, $11 million deal in free agency this offseason, one might think they had an underwhelming backfield. They didn't, and adding Drake was a luxury move.

    Many fans are familiar with Josh Jacobs, Las Vegas' starting back, a Pro Bowler in 2020 and arguably the right pick for 2019 Offensive Rookie of the Year (the award went to Kyler Murray). Those outside the Raiders fanbase, however, are probably less familiar with receiving back Jalen Richard.

    Richard has spent all five of his pro seasons with the Raiders, and while he's rarely received starting opportunities, he's regularly contributed in both the running game and passing game. Richard's role was reduced last season as Las Vegas leaned more on Jacobs and Devontae Booker, but Richard still finished with 19 receptions, 261 scrimmage yards and a touchdown.

    Over the past five seasons, he has compiled 1,293 rushing yards, 1,518 receiving yards and seven total touchdowns. He's a complementary piece, but he's become one the Raiders can rely on.

Los Angeles Chargers: CB Michael Davis

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    Jeff Roberson/Associated Press

    Though he has played for the Los Angeles Chargers for four seasons, cornerback Michael Davis probably isn't recognized by non-Chargers fans. An undrafted free agent out of Brigham Young in 2017, Davis has quietly developed into a quality starter.

    He appeared in 15 games as a rookie before starting nine in 2018. He started 26 games over the past two seasons and played 92 percent of the defensive snaps in 2020.

    Last season, Davis finished with 64 total tackles, 14 passes defended, three interceptions and a defensive touchdown. He allowed an opposing passer rating of just 79.2. This offseason, the Chargers re-signed Davis to a three-year, $25.2 million deal—meaning he'll be a defensive mainstay for the foreseeable future.

    While Davis hasn't been named to a Pro Bowl yet, another season like the one he had in 2020 will likely change that.

Los Angeles Rams: G Austin Corbett

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    Stephen Brashear/Associated Press

    From Robert Woods and Cooper Kupp to Aaron Donald and Jalen Ramsey, the Los Angeles Rams are loaded with notable names on both sides of the ball. Their offensive line, however, is less recognized, and guard Austin Corbett is even more unheralded.

    A second-round pick of the Browns in 2018, Corbett quickly fell out of favor in Cleveland. He was traded to L.A. in 2019 and became a full-time starter at right guard last season. While he may be viewed as a bust by Browns fans, Corbett was fantastic for the Rams in 2020.

    The Nevada product started all 16 games and played 100 percent of the offensive snaps. According to Pro Football Focus, he was responsible for only four penalties and one sack all season.

    Corbett may not be a well-known asset yet, but he can become a long-term fixture along the interior of Los Angeles' offensive line.

Miami Dolphins: WR Preston Williams

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    Tony Avelar/Associated Press

    Miami Dolphins wideout Preston Williams has gone overlooked nationally for a couple of reasons. For one, he has played in the shadow of 2015 first-round pick DeVante Parker. Secondly, he has battled injuries through his first two pro seasons.

    Williams has missed eight games in each of his first two years. He suffered a torn ACL in 2019 and landed on injured reserve with a foot injury last season.

    However, Williams has been electric when healthy. The former undrafted free agent out of Colorado State has 50 catches, 716 yards and seven touchdowns in 16 games with 14 starts. Last season, he helped facilitate a passer rating of 93.5 when targeted.

    Williams will probably be overlooked again in 2021. Parker is still on the roster, and Miami added Will Fuller V and Jaylen Waddle in the offseason. If he can stay healthy, though, Williams will be a factor.

Minnesota Vikings: WR Chad Beebe

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    David Berding/Associated Press

    The Minnesota Vikings have two standout receivers in Adam Thielen and Justin Jefferson. Thielen is a two-time Pro Bowler, while Jefferson was a rookie Pro Bowler last season.

    Complementary receiver Chad Beebe has a far lower national profile, but he was a valuable member of the Vikings in 2020. He caught 20 passes for 201 yards and two touchdowns while appearing in 14 games. He helped provide a passer rating of 93.9 when targeted.

    Beebe also returned nine punts and a kickoff while playing 29 percent of the offensive snaps and 10 percent of the special teams opportunities.

    Minnesota has frequently utilized two-tight end passing formations—Irv Smith Jr. and Kyle Rudolph each played at least 50 percent of the offensive snaps in 2020—so the third receiver isn't likely to be prolific. However, Beebe can be a threat when he's on the field, and with Rudolph gone, he could be utilized more often as the third wideout in 2021.

New England Patriots: DT Davon Godchaux

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    Scot Tucker/Associated Press

    The New England Patriots added several big-name players during this offseason's spending spree—including Matt Judon, Hunter Henry and Jonnu Smith. The signing of former Dolphins defensive tackle Davon Godchaux largely flew under the radar.

    However, it could prove to be one of the best moves New England made. A fifth-round pick out of LSU in 2017, Godchaux was regularly the best-kept secret on Miami's defense.

    Though he played just five games in 2020 before landing on injured reserve with a torn biceps, Godchaux was a defensive force in the previous three seasons. He appeared in 15 games as a rookie and started all 32 contests over the next two years.

    In 2019, Godchaux amassed a whopping 75 total tackles, a ludicrous number for an interior defensive lineman. He also produced two sacks, four tackles for loss and a batted pass that season. As long as he is healthy, Godchaux will be a difference-maker for the Patriots.

New Orleans Saints: TE Adam Trautman

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    Chris Szagola/Associated Press

    If you're not a New Orleans Saints fan, you may not be familiar with tight end Adam Trautman. It's understandable, as he finished second among Saints tight ends with only 15 receptions, 171 yards and a touchdown in 2020.

    However, Trautman represents the future at the position for New Orleans. A 2020 third-round pick out of Dayton, Trautman established more of an offensive presence late in the season. He made one start in the first nine games of the year before starting five of the final seven.

    Trautman was a versatile player in college and will likely replace the departed Jared Cook as New Orleans' primary pass-catching tight end.

    "He became an offensive weapon in his first year on the field, lining up at tight end, in the slot, and as a Wildcat QB in 11 games (seven starts, 24 receptions, 238 yards, 9.9 average, three touchdowns),"'s Lance Zierlein wrote ahead of the 2020 draft.

    With Taysom Hill competing to be the starting quarterback, it wouldn't be a shock to see Trautman also take over as Sean Payton's proverbial Swiss Army knife.

New York Giants: RB Devontae Booker

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    Associated Press

    The New York Giants' signing of running back Devontae Booker might be one of the most underrated moves of the offseason. While star back Saquon Barkley is expected to be healthy following 2020's torn ACL, Booker can be a fantastic complement.

    A bruising 219-pound inside runner, Booker possesses the physicality needed to wear down defenses late in games and provide a change of pace. He served as a complement to Pro Bowler Josh Jacobs with the Raiders last season and should do the same with Barkley.

    Booker finished 2020 with 423 rushing yards, 84 receiving yards, three touchdowns and a 4.5 yards-per-carry average.

    The benefit of adding Booker will be twofold. First, he'll help keep Barkley fresh as the star works his way back toward 100 percent. Second, he'll force opposing defenses to adjust between running styles. While Barkley is plenty powerful, he moves well in space and will utilize lateral movement to his advantage. Booker takes more of a head-on approach. If defenses spread out to contain Barkley on the edge, Booker can pound them up the middle.

    Barkley will be the star of New York's rushing attack, of course, but expect Booker to play a significant role as his backup.

New York Jets: EDGE Carl Lawson

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    Aaron Doster/Associated Press

    Casual fans may have raised a few eyebrows when the New York Jets signed Carl Lawson to a three-year, $45 million deal. After all, Lawson has never been a Pro Bowler and isn't a household name outside Cincinnati.

    However, the former Bengal is a tremendously underrated pass-rusher who should make an immediate impact. While he has never produced double-digit sacks in a season, he can be incredibly disruptive.

    In 2020, for example, Lawson had only 5.5 sacks but also had an impressive 44 quarterback pressures.

    One could argue that the Jets overpaid for a player with limited sack production. Bad teams sometimes have to do so in free agency, though, and Lawson is far more valuable than his sack numbers—20 in four seasons—would suggest. Under the bright lights of the Big Apple, Lawson should start getting more national recognition.

Philadelphia Eagles: WR Travis Fulgham

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    David Richard/Associated Press

    The Philadelphia Eagles have every reason to be excited about new wide receiver DeVonta Smith. The rookie first-round pick out of Alabama is the reigning Heisman Trophy winner and will become the new No. 1 target for quarterback Jalen Hurts.

    The Eagles have another young receiver who will make an impact in 2021. Travis Fulgham, a sixth-round pick of the Lions in 2019, emerged as one of Philadelphia's most reliable weapons last season.

    The unheralded Old Dominion product finished his first year in Philly with 38 receptions, 539 receiving yards and four touchdowns. He helped facilitate a passer rating of 96.5 when targeted. The 25-year-old also led the Eagles in receiving yards.

    While Fulgham probably isn't a stranger to fantasy football diehards, he remains relatively unknown to casual fans. Expect that to change in 2021.

Pittsburgh Steelers: LB Alex Highsmith

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    Keith Srakocic/Associated Press

    The Pittsburgh Steelers had one of the NFL's top defenses in 2020, finishing the year ranked third in both points and yards allowed. While players like T.J. Watt, Minkah Fitzpatrick and Devin Bush were standouts, rookie linebacker Alex Highsmith was less heralded.

    However, the third-round pick out of Charlotte was thrust into a more prominent role when Bush tore his ACL in Week 6, and he flourished. Highsmith started five games and finished with 48 total tackles, two sacks, five tackles for loss and an interception.

    Additionally, Highsmith produced 12 quarterback pressures and allowed an opposing quarterback rating of just 35.2 in coverage. With pass-rusher Bud Dupree leaving in free agency, Highsmith should maintain a high-profile place in Pittsburgh's defensive plans.

    "In regards to the loss of Bud and the expectations and the depth at that position, the lynchpin of that entire discussion is the natural maturation of Alex Highsmith from year one to year two," head coach Mike Tomlin told reporters (28:40 mark).

    Don't be surprised if Highsmith develops into one of the faces of Pittsburgh's defense.

San Francisco 49ers: LB Dre Greenlaw

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    Ross D. Franklin/Associated Press

    The San Francisco 49ers have several recognizable names in their defensive front seven, including Dee Ford, Nick Bosa, Fred Warner and 2020 first-round pick Javon Kinlaw. Third-year linebacker Dre Greenlaw may not be as well-known, but he's no less important to what San Francisco wants to do up front defensively.

    A fifth-round pick out of Arkansas in 2019, Greenlaw has quickly developed into one of the 49ers' best rotational players. He has started 22 games and played at least 68 percent of the defensive snaps in each of his first two seasons.

    Greenlaw is more than just a young chase-and-tackle linebacker—though he is fantastic in that role. Over the past two seasons, Greenlaw has racked up 178 tackles, 10 tackles for loss, two sacks, three passes defended and an interception. He has allowed an opposing passer rating of 92.2 or lower in each of his seasons and has never surrendered a touchdown reception in coverage.

    Soon to be 24, Greenlaw should be a contributor for the 49ers for years.

Seattle Seahawks: DT Poona Ford

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    Ted S. Warren/Associated Press

    The Legion of Boom is long gone, and the Seattle Seahawks defense was downright awful early in the 2020 season. Seattle did finish the year ranked 15th in points allowed, but it surrendered 30 or more points in four of its first eight games.

    The Seahawks have few true defensive standouts, aside from 2020 acquisition and Pro Bowl safety Jamal Adams. Defensive tackle Poona Ford is one of them.

    While Ford is not a household name, the 2018 undrafted free agent out of Texans has become a fixture along Seattle's defensive front. He has appeared in 31 games with 30 starts over the past two seasons and has been extremely productive for an interior defender.

    In the last two years, Ford has amassed a combined 72 tackles, 2.5 sacks, 13 tackles for loss and a forced fumble. Those are big numbers for a rotational defender who has never played more than 58 percent of the defensive snaps in a season.

Tampa Bay Buccaneers: S Jordan Whitehead

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    Julio Cortez/Associated Press

    The Tampa Bay Buccaneers defense is loaded with stars, from Shaquil Barrett and Ndamukong Suh to Devin White and Lavonte David. Even 2020 second-round pick Antoine Winfield Jr. slid into the spotlight during Tampa's Super Bowl run.

    Safety Jordan Whitehead, meanwhile, has quietly gone about his business as one of the team's more underrated defenders.

    A fourth-round pick out of Pittsburgh in 2018, Whitehead quickly ascended to a starting role. He made 11 starts as a rookie and has started 41 games at free safety since being drafted. He has played at least 81 percent of the defensive snaps in each of the past two years and has become an invaluable member of the secondary.

    In 2020, Whitehead produced 74 total tackles, two sacks, nine tackles for loss, four passes defended, a forced fumble and two interceptions. Like the rest of Tampa's starting defense, Whitehead will be back for another run in 2021.

Tennessee Titans: TE Anthony Firkser

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    Brett Carlsen/Associated Press

    The Tennessee Titans lost tight end Jonnu Smith in free agency, which might be seen as a significant problem for the passing offense. Only, it might not be. While casual fans may not be familiar with tight end Anthony Firkser, he's well-equipped to take over the starting role.

    From Ben Linsey of Pro Football Focus:

    "Tennessee's decision not to bring back Smith at tight end is in part a reflection on how they feel about Firkser, who gave them a reason to be confident in his receiving ability last season. Firkser didn't drop a single target in 2020 and ended the year with a career-high 77.7 receiving grade that ranked ninth among qualifying tight ends."

    Originally signed by the Jets as an undrafted free agent out of Harvard in 2017, Firkser has finally found a home with Tennessee. Despite sharing time with Smith, he caught 39 passes for 387 yards and a touchdown last season.

    With Smith gone, expect Firkser to make a statistical jump in 2021.

Washington Football Team: RB J.D. McKissic

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    Rich Schultz/Associated Press

    Wideout Terry McLaurin and tight end Logan Thomas were the faces of the Washington Football Team's receiving corps in 2020. However, running back J.D. McKissic was an underappreciated piece of the passing game.

    McKissic finished second on the team with 80 receptions and third with 589 receiving yards in his first season with the franchise. He also added 365 rushing yards and three total touchdowns. McKissic averaged 4.3 yards per carry and 7.4 yards per reception in 2020.

    One could easily argue that McKissic, who never previously topped 500 scrimmage yards in a season, was vastly underutilized during stints with the Seahawks and Lions. With more than 900 scrimmage yards last year, he's found the right fit in Washington.

    Complementary backs rarely get the recognition of their workhorse brethren, but make no mistake: McKissic is a weapon, and opposing defenses know it.


    *Advanced statistics from Pro Football Reference unless otherwise noted. Contract information via Spotrac.


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