As each NFL season comes and goes, there are always takeaways to learn from not only on the field but in the front office as well. The time between the Super Bowl and the start of free agency is a meaningful time to reflect and prepare for the upcoming improvements each team will look to make. Labeling the biggest “impacts” of the 2021 season is one that is a difficult task, do you look specifically at trades, free agent signings or draft picks? We wanted to touch on the top 5 impact people of the 2021 season and what we can garner from each experience.
We would be remiss to not start with the move, that in my opinion, took a team that was good to a Super Bowl winner. We talk often about the need for good teams to become great. A great example of taking what you have in good and making it great is what the Rams did this offseason in acquiring Matthew Stafford. The Rams traded their then starter Jared Goff, 2022 1st round pick, 2023 1st round pick and 2021 3rd round pick (Ifeatu Melifonwu) for Stafford. Without Stafford on the Rams, I do not believe that the Rams end up as Super Bowl Champions. The Rams were not content with good and credit to Les Snead and staff on executing on being great.
In the same vein, the Bengals, a team coming into the season that I felt was a B- team at best, were propelled to the Super Bowl behind the superstar QB that emerged, Joe Burrow. Burrow not only got them into the Super Bowl but put them into a position where they had a chance to win the Super Bowl. All this with a team that had glaring issues on their offensive line. It is going to be exceptionally hard for the Bengals to make it back to the Super Bowl as we now have at least 5 superstar QBs in the AFC. Looking at the quality of QBs in Patrick Mahomes, Joe Burrow, Justin Herbert, Josh Allen, and Lamar Jackson, this will set up the NFL and the AFC for intoxicating battles for the next 10+ years.
When looking at the impact of Dan Quinn, it must be approached from a three tiered perspective. First, Dan Quinn took a defense that was 28th ranked in points against per game in 2020 and coached them to become the 7th ranked in the same category in 2021. Outside of the major addition of Micah Parsons, the Cowboys defensive roster was essentially the same as the year prior. Secondly, by all accounts, with the move to stay with Dallas, Dan Quinn will lead a top defense in the NFL once again in 2022. Thirdly, if the Cowboys decide they want to make a move on from Mike McCarthy, they now have a potential Head Coach in house currently. The Cowboys in recent memory have been a team that has been missing a crucial component, a top tier defense. Now they are positioned to be a top 8 team in 2022 and potentially were a top 8 team in 2021, if it had not been for injuries. The value that Dan Quinn has brought to the Dallas Cowboys defense to pair with their explosive offense, can not be understated. This now puts them in a premier position to be a team that has taken their weakness and made it a strength.
While year after year, many important aspects of football remain the same, but teams will always push to find the next “football innovation”. In 2021, we can point to two players who have made a major impact on not only this past season but potentially the future of football innovation as well.
The Cowboys added Micah Parsons with the 12th overall pick in the 2021 Draft and he went on to become a 1st Team All Pro, Pro Bowler and 2021 DROY. In 16 games started, he tailed 13 sacks, 84 tackles, 30 QB Hits and 3 forced fumbles. Oftentimes, when talking about the word versatility, it can mean that a player is good at multiple different parts of the game, but not great at any. In Parsons’ case, we have seen him be an elite pass rusher as well as, in his rookie season, be up there amongst the best in the NFL as a true LB.
His ability to rush the passer at the caliber of which he does, while being able to cover in space and contribute as a run stopper is versatility that would be qualified as rare. We see the impact of Parsons not only on the Cowboys defense but across the NFL as well, as many teams will try to look for the “next Micah Parsons,” a trope that will be heard often amongst draft talk. He does not only rush the passer, but he has the rare ability to truly, single handedly impact games. It will be interesting to see as the Draft rolls around if current NFL teams put an extra emphasis on versatility since seeing the impact it can have at the highest level. The caution would be, that it could be quite possible that there aren’t many like Micah Parsons and he is a special breed of defensive athlete.
The offensive player and player usage that we could see make changes to future NFL years and Drafts would be that of Deebo Samuel. The value Samuel can bring at the RB and WR position is unique and his usage in Kyle Shanahan’s offense is even more unique. As previously stated, it is extremely rare to find a player who is great at two aspects of football the way Samuel is. It can create major advantages to think non-traditional when it comes to football in finding ways to create a mismatch. If Samuel is able to run routes of the backfield at the caliber of a high quality WR and be a top tier rusher of the football, it will create immense struggles for a defense to try to stop.
Thinking about the situation objectively, it is an interesting approach from Shanahan as he is taking a WR, who has had a semi-lengthy injury history and put him in a position that involves far more wear and tear. Looking at the shorter lengths of RBs careers and primes, this can be evident. But in this case, the risk is worth the reward. The difference he makes in this hybrid role makes taking the risk that much more worthy of consideration. Across the NFL, it is not only Deebo Samuel who we have seen this usage from. We saw, in a slightly different capacity, this type of usage from Cordarrelle Patterson in Atlanta and even the drafting of Laviska Shenault a few years back, a similar plan was in mind.
As all of this comes into perspective, it is necessary to realize that it will not be easy to find the Deebo Samuel and Micah Parsons of the world. They could truly be unique players put in a situation to be successful with their versatility, or could this “process” be repeatable?
While every team in the NFL will try to find the next mismatch to be able to be created within the game, we have seen certain areas of football trend in this direction. Most notably:
- Tight Ends who can play inside/outside and in the SLOT
- CBs and Safeties who can be interchangeable in these positions
- Strong safeties who can play in the box, cover and rush the passer (ex: Jeremy Chinn, Jayron Kearse)
- Big bodied Wide Receivers who can play the “Big SLOT”
- Pass Rushers who can line up over the guard instead of outside the tackle
In a game dictated by exploiting or minimizing mismatches, the more a player can do well on the field, directly impacts game plans and outcomes. When looking back at the 2021 season, these 5 people’s impact changed the outcome of not only this past season, but years to come.