Every season, a handful of new stars burst onto the national stage and cement themselves as the future of the NFL. In 2020, the world was introduced to the likes of 49ers linebacker Fred Warner, Vikings wide receiver Justin Jefferson, and Bills quarterback Josh Allen. Sure, you may have heard of them before, but it is quite memorable when a player goes from flying below the radar to jumping off the television screen.
As the NFL kicks off, the 2021 season is less than two weeks away. It’s time to put the spotlight on these players who are destined to be the next big thing. This week, we will break down the next NFC stars. Come back next week to find who is next to break out in the AFC.
Five NFC Stars on the Rise
Chase Young, Defensive End (Washington Football Team)
Being the kings of the NFC East doesn’t really mean much. In what is clearly the worst division in the NFL, they can claim to host one of the very best defenses in the NFL. That defense belongs to the Washington Football Team.
That Washington defense excelled to high heights due to the coaching acumen of Head Coach Ron Rivera and the dominant play of the 2021 Defensive Rookie of the Year: defensive end Chase Young. Following 49ers’ Nick Bosa, WFT’s Young was the second consecutive Ohio State defensive end selected second overall in the NFL draft in as many years. Like many that have come before him, Young displayed just how transformative a ferocious defensive end can be.
In 2020, Young earned an incredible 87.2 score, according to Pro Football Focus. Registering six sacks, five forced fumbles, and 33 tackles, this rookie became the first player since Hall of Famer Lawrence Taylor to win the DROY award playing in the NFC East. Quite the company to keep.
More than individual statistics and superlative awards, Young helped his team win football games. The last time we saw Young on the field, he was busy giving the Super Bowl LV Champions the biggest challenge they would face during their entire playoff run while his team’s offense trotted out a third-string quarterback.
Expect Young and the WFT to pick up where they left off in 2021. With the NFC East still fielding a weak lineup of teams, Young might just be in the running for Defensive Player of the Year in 2021, solidifying his position as one of the NFC stars.
Jameis Winston, Quarterback (New Orleans Saints)
Yes, you read it right, Jameis Winston is going to be an NFC star in 2021. At this point in his career, it is easy to label the one-time first overall selection as a complete bust. After playing his way out of Tampa Bay, Winston found himself riding the bench behind a decrepit Drew Brees in 2020.
With Brees finally calling it quits, Winston has wrestled the Saints starting quarterback job away from the one-time chosen one Taysom Hill during this pre-season. While that isn’t impressive because Hill is not a good quarterback by any metric, the way Winston has thrown the ball has been.
Launching deep balls with pinpoint accuracy, Winston has looked like the good Jameis. The one who threw 33 touchdowns and over 5,000 yards in 2019. Is it possible that he has somehow killed the bad Jameis? The one who also threw for 30 interceptions in 2019. Saints Head Coach Sean Payton has consistently produced one of the best offenses in the league for well over the last decade, doing so with a less physically gifted Drew Brees. When Jameis Winston takes off, look to Payton as the true culprit who put an end to bad Jameis.
Brandon Aiyuk, Wide Receiver (San Francisco 49ers)
The 49ers simply could not stay healthy in 2020. Bitten viciously by the injury bug, it was difficult to find bright spots from their completely lost season. The play of then-rookie wide receiver Brandon Aiyuk may have been one of the few highlights of the 2020 campaign.
There were six wide receivers taken in the first round of the NFL draft in 2020; Aiyuk was the sixth. If that draft happened again today, he certainly wouldn’t be the last one picked. According to Pro Football Focus, only one rookie wide receiver graded higher than Aiyuk’s 80.2 grade, and that was Vikings wide receiver, Justin Jefferson. The big three receivers in that draft were Henry Ruggs III, Jerry Jeudy, and CeeDee Lamb. Aiyuk played better than all of them.
In 12 games, Aiyuk recorded 60 catches, 748 yards, and five touchdowns. Add 77 yards rushing and two more touchdowns and you get to see the clear picture of what has 49ers fans so excited. As a rookie, these numbers were impressive. Then, take into account that, for the majority of the time, Nick Mullens was the one tasked at getting him the ball. Whether it be Jimmy Garoppolo or Trey Lance, whoever is throwing the ball for San Francisco, Aiyuk will often be the one on the other end of it.
Antoine Winfield, Jr., Safety (Tampa Bay Buccaneers)
Super Bowl LV did not have a lot of memorable moments. Aside from Patrick Mahomes running for his life and Tom Brady hoisting his seventh Lombardi trophy. Most people would be hard-pressed to recall any single moment from that game. If they do, they may mention Buccaneers safety Antoine Winfield Jr. flashing the peace sign to Chiefs wide receiver Tyreek Hill as the Bucs defense smothered the Chiefs in a dominating victory.
Safeties don’t usually get a good deal of praise in the NFL landscape in 2021. With the NFL negating their effectiveness to make a highlight play with a big hit, the safety has to make a splash on fundamentals rather than flash. Winfield exhibited such skills in 2020, fitting perfectly into a Bucs defense that eliminated yards after the catch by blanketing receivers once the ball hit their hands.
In 2021, expect Winfield Jr. to take the next step into the class of NFC stars. To see Winfield’s future, look at the career of another undersized safety, Chiefs’ Tyrann Mathieu.
Justin Fields, Quarterback (Chicago Bears)
Let’s start with a question. Why in the world is Bears’ Head Coach Matt Nagy starting Andy Dalton at quarterback Week 1? Maybe he wants to get fired. Certainly, the job of an NFL Head Coach has to be a stressful one. If Nagy gets fired, he can still cash his checks. If he quits, he cannot. This is the only possible reason for the Bears to start Dalton at quarterback, Matt Nagy wants to be fired.
If you were paying any amount of attention to football this month, you would know that quarterback Justin Fields has looked nothing short of phenomenal for the Bears. Displaying all the talent that made him a superstar at Ohio State, Fields has evaded pressure and tossed dimes on a regular basis. He is NFL ready, much more so than Andy Dalton.
Dalton is NFL well-done: burnt, flavorless, and bringing not much joy to anyone who experiences it. Sure, Dalton won’t kill you with food poisoning, he is thoroughly cooked to the point of no return. Nobody wants an Andy Dalton at quarterback. Well, nobody but Matt Nagy, apparently.
It won’t take long for Nagy to come to the realization that keeping Dalton in the starting lineup will lead to a near mutiny in his locker room. Expect the next of the NFC stars on the field by Week 2, and expect Lamar Jackson-level results in his first season. The Bears finally got their quarterback, now the coach just needs to get out of the way.