Now that the 2020 season is almost in the books, there are several teams guaranteed a spot in the 2021 NFL playoffs who have underrated players liable to become X-factors in the chase for Super Bowl LV.
These can be unheralded men in the trenches, backups suddenly pressed into duty or perhaps prior stars who have the chance for an epic postseason resurgence.
With Week 17 closing in, here are some players to keep in mind before the playoffs roll around.
Biggest potential X-factor players in 2021 NFL playoffs
Elgton Jenkins, offensive lineman, Green Bay Packers
Just before Week 17 and their bid to lock up the No. 1 seed in the NFC, the Packers received horrible news that left tackle David Bakhtiari would be out the rest of the way with a serious injury. Bakhtiari isn’t easily replaced, and it’s left Green Bay scrambling to protect superstar quarterback Aaron Rodgers.
This is where Jenkins comes into play. With experience playing literally all five positions across the line, the second-year pro has versatility perhaps unparalleled in the modern NFL.
“Elgton could be a solid starter at all five positions, he’s that talented. He possesses those abilities,” said Packers offensive line coach Adam Stenavich, per the team’s official website. “I think interior guard and center is his best spot, but he definitely has the flexibility to play tackle, which he has shown and done a good job.”
Talk about a clutch guy to have around with someone as elite as Bakhtiari going down.
If Green Bay can pull off a win over the Chicago Bears on Sunday, Jenkins and Co. will get that first-round bye. That’ll offer up some time to get everyone on the same page prior to the NFC Divisional Round. In the event the Packers lose to Chicago, though, it seems Jenkins will be prepared to fill whichever role he’s asked to.
As long as there’s competent protection for Rodgers and just enough run blocking to keep the offense balanced, coach Matt LaFleur should continue dialing up explosive plays for Green Bay’s attack — in no small part thanks to Jenkins’ adaptability.
LeVeon Bell, running back, Kansas City Chiefs
Rookie first-round tailback Clyde Edwards-Helaire has been rather electrifying in spurts throughout the 2020 campaign. Unfortunately, he went down with injuries in Week 15, casting his status for the playoffs in doubt.
Enter Bell. Once a superstar for the Pittsburgh Steelers who was a stud pass-catcher and patient, explosive runner, Bell took a year away from the gridiron, had a horrendous stint with the New York Jets and suddenly found himself with the reigning Super Bowl champions.
Because his running style is so unique, it takes some time for an offensive line to get accustomed to Bell. With other options on the depth chart and Patrick Mahomes slinging it all over the yard on Sundays, it’s understandable Bell hasn’t gotten enough chances to get completely in sync.
That said, Kansas City’s o-line is actually not a great blocking unit. They rank dead-last in power success rate (50%) and 28th of 32 teams in open-field yards (0.5 per carry), per Football Outsiders. Given how dynamic and shifty Edwards-Helaire is, none of that is his doing.
Should Bell find his stride and get into a rhythm more than he has to date with the Chiefs, look for him to come out of the playoff bye week with fierce determination to validate his spot on a championship contender.
That is, as long as Bell is healthy enough. He’s been out of practice leading into Week 17 with knee swelling. Bell’s absence and inactivity in Week 17 may be more out of extreme caution than his injury situation, though.
Jerry Hughes, defensive end, Buffalo Bills
With just 4.5 sacks in 2020, it might seem perplexing to see the 32-year-old veteran on this list. However, Hughes is playing than those raw box score numbers indicate. Pro Football Focus grades the Bills edge defender as a top-five pass-rusher.
Hughes’ ability to generate consistent pressure opens up opportunities for his teammates to get the glorified sacks, and also has been a big contributor to helping out Buffalo’s stout secondary yield only an 89.4 opponent’s passer rating on the season.
Can that continue in the postseason? Will Hughes wind up racking up more sacks to back up his snap-to-snap consistency. For a franchise that hasn’t won a playoff game since the 1995 campaign, everyone is sure hoping so.
The good news, too, is Buffalo’s offense is humming of late thanks to the rapid development of quarterback Josh Allen amid his third season as a pro. If Allen can keep lighting up the scoreboard, the Bills will force opponents to play from behind, allowing Hughes and Co. to tee off in obvious passing situations.
Provided he can make as big of an individual splash as he has in the regular season, Hughes could prove to be the X-factor that helps Buffalo dethrone Kansas City for AFC supremacy and a Super Bowl LV berth.
Corey Davis, wide receiver, Tennessee Titans
It’d take some sort of catastrophe for Tennessee not to make the postseason. Considering this core of players made the AFC Championship Game last year and the Titans face the 4-11 Houston Texans on Sunday, let’s assume they’ll find a way to win and with that, claim the AFC South crown.
Much of the fanfare around this team rightly revolves around running back Derrick Henry, and rightly so. The bruising ball-carrier is bound for his second straight NFL rushing title, and he sets up favorable play-action passing situations for quarterback Ryan Tannehill.
The epic second act of Tannehill’s career draws deserved praise as well, as does second-year wideout A.J. Brown due to his explosive playmaking ability.
Meanwhile, Davis is kind of the forgotten man in Tennessee, yet he’s quietly shedding his former first-round draft bust label with a magnificent 2020 campaign. On the strength of 945 yards receiving on 60 catches (15.8 average), Davis boasts Pro Football Focus’ sixth-best grade among all receivers. That’s ahead of players like Atlanta’s dynamic duo of Calvin Ridley and Julio Jones. Oh, and Adam Thielen, DK Metcalf and Tyreek Hill just to name a few more.
Don’t sleep on Davis as someone who could really take the Titans’ offense to the next level in the 2021 NFL playoffs. He’ll especially be needed if the team’s lackluster defense isn’t up to snuff.
David Onyemata, defensive tackle, New Orleans Saints
Not often do you hear Onyemata’s name when the Saints’ stout defense is discussed. For a unit to yield the third-fewest yards per game in the NFL, there must be dynamic players at all three levels. New Orleans’ pass-rushing depth is real, with Cameron Jordan and Trey Hendrickson wreaking havoc and screaming in off the edge.
But Onyemata isn’t too shabby himself, collecting 6.5 sacks on the season and rating as PFF’s ninth-best interior defender of the 2020 season.
That ability to push the pocket from inside is critical to the Saints’ hopes of going deep in what will probably be legendary quarterback Drew Brees’ final year. If New Orleans faces Tom Brady and Tampa Bay for a third time in the playoffs, Onyemata has the tools to be an extremely disruptive force who can knock TB12 off his spot and force errant throws that lead to turnovers.
Several of the top NFC contenders like the Buccaneers, Seahawks and Packers all have pass rushes that have produced 40-plus sacks this season. It’s vital for Onyemata and the Saints to keep up in that area.
Of that trio of teams mentioned above, given Brees’ injury situation this year, they all have comparable knacks for pressuring the opposing quarterback. The difference? Brady, Seattle’s Russell Wilson and Rodgers all feel like clearly superior options to Brees at this juncture of his career.
In other words, Onyemata and New Orleans’ front seven will need an extraordinary effort to make it out of the NFC, particularly if star running back Alvin Kamara isn’t back in time for Wild Card Weekend.