1 NFL Player at Each Position Who Will Explode into Stardom in 2021

Kristopher Knox@@kris_knoxFeatured ColumnistJuly 8, 2021

1 NFL Player at Each Position Who Will Explode into Stardom in 2021

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    Mark J. Terrill/Associated Press

    Every year in the NFL, promising young players become full-fledged superstars.

    Last season, players such as Buffalo Bills quarterback Josh Allen, Seattle Seahawks wideout DK Metcalf and Denver Broncos safety Justin Simmons made the Pro Bowl leap. In 2019, Cleveland Browns running back Nick Chubb, Baltimore Ravens quarterback Lamar Jackson and Tampa Bay Buccaneers pass-rusher Shaquil Barrett did the same.

    More budding standouts are likely to follow suit in 2021.

    Ruling out rookies and those who have already earned a Pro Bowl or All-Pro selection, we'll examine one player at each position, save special teams, poised to explode into stardom this season. Factors like past production, supporting cast and projected role will be considered, though as is always the case during the offseason, a little bit of guesswork will be involved.

Quarterback: Joe Burrow, Cincinnati Bengals

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    Aaron Doster/Associated Press

    Cincinnati Bengals quarterback Joe Burrow started strong as a rookie, passing for 2,688 yards with 13 touchdowns and five interceptions in 10 games. However, he also suffered a season-ending knee injury and was sacked an alarming 32 times in those 10 contests.

    The good news is that Burrow is expected to be ready by Week 1 and should have a much better supporting cast. The Bengals added veteran Riley Reiff and rookie Jackson Carman to their offensive line and drafted Burrow's former teammate and receiver Ja'Marr Chase fifth overall.

    With returning weapons like Tyler Boyd, Tee Higgins, Joe Mixon and Drew Sample, Burrow should be poised for a breakout campaign. One analyst believes the 24-year-old could vault toward the top of the divisional pack.

    "I got Joe Burrow throwing for more yards and more TDs than any quarterback in the AFC North," ESPN's Chris Canty said on Get Up.

    Don't be shocked if Burrow earns the first Pro Bowl selection of his career in 2021.

Running Back: Cam Akers, Los Angeles Rams

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    Kelvin Kuo/Associated Press

    Several second-year running backs—including J.K. Dobbins, Clyde Edwards-Helaire and D'Andre Swift—could break out in 2021. However, Los Angeles Rams runner Cam Akers is best poised to reach star status.

    The addition of quarterback Matthew Stafford should make Los Angeles a title contender, which will help Akers' profile. The departure of veteran back Malcolm Brown will help increase his workload. This combination of opportunity and team relevance could catapult Akers into the spotlight.

    "I spoke with Sean McVay on SiriusXM Radio a few weeks ago, and the Rams coach raved about his running back's versatility. He's clearly excited about what Akers can offer in year two," NFL Media's Adam Schein wrote. "I think the former second-round pick can become a legit top-10 running back this year for a championship-caliber team."

    Akers wasn't the featured back as a rookie, instead splitting time with Brown and Darrell Henderson Jr. However, he finished with 625 rushing yards, 123 receiving yards and three touchdowns despite only making five starts. The 22-year-old could easily double those numbers this season.

Wide Receiver: CeeDee Lamb, Dallas Cowboys

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    Ron Jenkins/Associated Press

    Dallas Cowboys wideout CeeDee Lamb was electric as a rookie last year. The Oklahoma product caught 74 passes for 935 yards and five touchdowns despite playing the bulk of the season without starting quarterback Dak Prescott.

    Lamb also returned 14 punts for 172 yards and had a kickoff return for a touchdown. When targeted on offense, he helped provide a quarterback rating of 100.2.

    If the bracelet Lamb wore during offseason workouts is any indication, the second-year receiver has even more entertainment in store. According to ESPN's Todd Archer, it read, "Get your popcorn ready."

    The Terrell Owens-inspired bracelet likely does provide sound advice for Cowboys fans. Dallas is expected to have Prescott back at 100 percent after ankle surgery, and Lamb is likely to show growth as part of the maturation process. He's also expected to continue contributing on special teams.

    "My expectations are super high," Prescott said of Lamb, per The Athletic's Jon Machota. "I'm so excited for CeeDee."

    A position on the high-profile Cowboys only helps Lamb's star potential, and he could emerge as one of the young faces of the NFL this season.

Tight End: Irv Smith Jr., Minnesota Vikings

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    Bruce Kluckhohn/Associated Press

    Minnesota Vikings tight end Irv Smith Jr. seems poised for a major leap thanks to roster subtraction. He has largely been a role player in the Vikings offense through two seasons, having posted 676 receiving yards and seven touchdowns. However, that was due to the presence of starter Kyle Rudolph.

    In 2019 and 2020, Smith played 60 and 50 percent of Minnesota's offensive snaps, respectively. With Rudolph gone to the Giants, the Alabama product should see the bulk of the receiving work at tight end. Tyler Conklin is also there, but he has just 32 receptions in three seasons.

    Smith does anticipate a change.

    "I feel like my role is obviously going to increase, which I wanted," he told reporters (at the 1:15 mark). "I just want to help this team make plays in any way possible."

    Minnesota has weapons in running back Dalvin Cook and receiver Justin Jefferson who will help Smith see one-on-one coverage. If he picks up the bulk of the targets that Rudolph is vacating, a 1,000-yard campaign and a Pro Bowl nod could be waiting for the 22-year-old in 2021.

Offensive Line: Joe Thuney, Kansas City Chiefs

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    Reed Hoffmann/Associated Press

    Kansas City Chiefs left guard Joe Thuney is set to achieve the accolades that eluded him with the New England Patriots. His massive five-year, $80 million free-agent contract has already raised his profile some, and a spot on a perennial Super Bowl contender won't hurt, either.

    And it's not as if Thuney hasn't been a tremendous player while flying under the radar. While he's never earned a Pro Bowl or All-Pro nod, the two-time champion has been incredibly reliable. In five seasons with the Patriots, Thuney never missed a start. He also played a minimum of 97 percent of the offensive snaps every year.

    The 28-year-old is eager to achieve success with his new teammates.

    "I think everyone just wants to try to take steps and make progress, myself included," he said, per Ed Easton Jr. of Chiefs Wire. "It’s been great being out on the field with those guys and looking forward to some more of it."

    The offensive line was a fatal flaw for the Chiefs in Super Bowl LV. Kansas City was without both starting tackles in that game and was dominated by the Tampa Bay Buccaneers' pass rush. As such, the revamped line will likely be one of the big storylines of the team's 2021 campaign. With Thuney a part of that storyline—and blocking for arguably the game's biggest star, Patrick Mahomes—he should get his fair share of national attention in 2021.

Defensive Line: Derrick Brown, Carolina Panthers

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    Nell Redmond/Associated Press

    Interior defensive linemen aren't often considered superstars. Exceptions exist, of course, especially when those linemen can pressure the quarterback. Rams defensive tackle and three-time Defensive Player of the Year Aaron Donald, for example, is arguably the NFL's biggest defensive standout.

    While it would be unfair to suggest that Carolina Panthers defensive tackle Derrick Brown can be the next Donald, he could move in that direction this season. 2020's seventh pick was productive as a rookie, finishing with 34 tackles, two sacks and 19 quarterback pressures while playing 70 percent of the defensive snaps. However, Brown was largely left out of the spotlight because the 5-11 Panthers weren't relevant in the playoff chase.

    This could change in 2021 with new quarterback Sam Darnold under center. While Darnold failed to become the New York Jets' franchise signal-caller, he could find redemption with Carolina and offensive coordinator Joe Brady.

    Should the Panthers become a bigger factor in the NFC South—you know, the division that features the defending-champion Buccaneers—Brown should creep further into the spotlight. His own physical talents will help, and the 23-year-old could make a year-two leap right into Pro Bowl consideration.

Edge-Rusher: Montez Sweat, Washington Football Team

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    Daniel Kucin Jr./Associated Press

    For Washington Football Team pass-rusher Montez Sweat, a jump into stardom is probably past due. He was largely overshadowed by 2020 Defensive Rookie of the Year Chase Young last season, but Sweat is a prolific sack artist in his own right.

    A first-round pick out of Mississippi State in 2019, Sweat logged nine sacks and 31 quarterback pressures in 2020. This came after he produced seven sacks and 27 pressures as a rookie. It's worth noting that the 24-year-old has never played more than 66 percent of the defensive snaps in a season either.

    With fellow pass-rusher Ryan Kerrigan (5.5 sacks in 2020) departing in free agency, Sweat should be in line for a bigger role. According to CBS Sports' Jason La Canfora, Sweat could help forge one of the league's best pass-rushing tandems.

    "Young is gonna be a Defensive MVP candidate. And if Sweat can be the Robert Mathis to Young's Dwight Freeney, then this team will be playing into January again," La Canfora wrote.

    The Football Team could indeed be a playoff team once again this season. If so, it will be extremely difficult to keep Sweat out of the spotlight—even if Young continues to hog much of it.

Linebacker: Dre Greenlaw, San Francisco 49ers

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    Ross D. Franklin/Associated Press

    Fred Warner is one of the NFL's most prolific young linebackers, having made his first All-Pro appearance last season after posting 125 tackles. Fellow San Francisco 49ers linebacker Dre Greenlaw isn't quite as well-known, but that should change in 2021.

    "When you look at another young player, I still see a young player talk about [LB] Dre Greenlaw and just how he's developed," defensive coordinator DeMeco Ryans said, per Jose Luis Sanchez III of All 49ers. "And he's gotten better throughout these OTAs, and I'm fired up to see his growth this year.”

    Any significant jump should push Greenlaw right into star territory.

    The 24-year-old has been fantastic in his two seasons, amassing 178 tackles, two sacks, three passes defended and an interception. He's already trending as one of the league's better off-ball linebackers, even if he's a tier behind Warner.

    Further aiding Greenlaw's push for stardom will be the likelihood of a healthier San Francisco roster in 2021. Key players like quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo, defensive end Nick Bosa, tight end George Kittle and receiver Deebo Samuel all missed significant time in 2020. With those players back—and/or rookie Trey Lance improving the quarterback position—the 49ers should return to playoff contention.

    This will place Greenlaw on a national stage, where he should thrive.

Cornerback: L'Jarius Sneed, Kansas City Chiefs

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    Reed Hoffmann/Associated Press

    We mentioned that a spot on the high-profile Kansas City roster is likely to help Thuney's bid for stardom. The same holds true for Chiefs cornerback L'Jarius Sneed, who could be the breakout cornerback of the 2021 season.

    Even if he weren't playing for the Chiefs, Sneed has the talent to make a Pro Bowl push. A fourth-round pick out of Louisiana Tech last year, the 24-year-old was a pleasant surprise for Kansas City and one of the league's best rookie pass-defenders.

    Sneed finished the regular season with 41 tackles, two sacks, seven passes defended and three interceptions. He allowed an opposing passer rating of just 54.2 and added nine tackles and two sacks in the postseason.

    Injury was really the only thing holding him back as a rookie, as he missed six games with a broken collarbone. Should he play a full campaign, it will be extremely difficult to keep him off the AFC's Pro Bowl roster—unless, of course, he's too busy playing in another Super Bowl.

Safety: John Johnson III, Cleveland Browns

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    Ron Schwane/Associated Press

    Safety John Johnson III never made the Pro Bowl with the Rams, but that may change now that he's a member of the Cleveland Browns. They will be in the national spotlight a lot in 2021 after winning their first playoff game as an expansion team last season.

    It will help that he is a tremendous back-end defender.

    "Johnson consistently makes plays on the ball (averaging eight pass breakups in those three healthy years) but has also tallied 68 defensive stops against the run across his last two healthy seasons," Sam Monson of Pro Football Focus wrote. "There may be more spectacular safeties in the league, but very few are as consistently excellent as Johnson."

    Last season, the 25-year-old logged 105 tackles, eight passes defended and allowed an opposing passer rating of just 71.9.

    He represents one of the more underrated free-agent additions of the offseason, but his presence on the Browns defense will be hard to overlook. If Cleveland makes a return trip to the postseason in 2021, expect the fifth-year defender to become a legitimate star.


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


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