NFL players who could regress in 2021

Father Time is undefeated in the NFL, though Tom Brady is currently attempting to change that. Other players aren’t so lucky, and it’s impossible to predict exactly when a given player might go from star to scrub. Sometimes declines are gradual, while in other cases, a player falls off a cliff and turns into a liability almost overnight. Let’s take a look at some players who, either because of age or other factors, might be on the decline heading into the 2021 season.


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Please do not put me through a table, Bills fans. Surely you can understand why some folks need to see Allen duplicate his 2020 performance before they start to fully believe, right? Allen made a massive jump from year two to year three, going from 20 to 37 touchdowns while only adding one interception in the process. He also added eight rushing touchdowns for good measure, and he completed nearly 70 percent of his passes, despite many believing he would never be an accurate NFL passer. Most of the peripheral, advanced numbers looked good, too, so this is more a guess than anything that Allen has to come back to earth a little bit. If he doesn’t, the Bills will be an AFC force for the next decade.


Calais Campbell

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After four straight seasons posting a Pro Football Focus grade of 90 or better, Campbell’s play, while still good, dropped off considerably in 2020, as he graded out at 74.7 overall at PFF. Campbell played in just 12 games after having not missed one in five straight seasons and wasn’t the elite run-stuffer he had been in the past. He will be 35 years old at the start of the coming season, and it’s reasonable to assume that he might fall off further, though even if he does, he’ll have put together an exemplary career.


Fletcher Cox

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Next to Aaron Donald, there might not have been a more well-regarded interior lineman in the league the last several years. No one is on Donald’s level, but Cox was often the only one coming even remotely close. Having said that, his Pro Football Focus grade dropped from 89.5 in 2019 to 74.1 in 2020. That’s still a good number, and Cox is still a good player, but good is not the same as dominant, which is what he was for the last half of the 2010s. Philadelphia’s defense doesn’t have much depth around him, which is inconvenient at a time in his career when putting him on a lower snap count might actually make him more effective overall.


Lavonte David

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After toiling in anonymity for the better part of a decade despite being one of the league’s best off-ball linebackers, David finally got recognition as a major cog in the Buccaneers’ dominant defense. That should help him when it comes to free agency, but given his age – he’ll be 31 for the entirety of next season – and the fact that his game has always been predicated on speed and lateral quickness, it’s fair to wonder whether he will be as effective if he leaves the Buccaneers for a big deal elsewhere. If David sticks around next to Devin White, I suspect he’ll still be very good; outside of Tampa I’m not nearly as confident.


Kenyan Drake

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Drake was very good once he arrived in Arizona midway through last season, putting up 814 yards from scrimmage, and 5.2 yards per carry in eight games. His productivity diminished in 2020, as he averaged just 4.0 yards per carry, despite falling just 45 yards short of 1,000, and his 25 receptions were half as many as he had in 2019, and aside from his rookie season, where he got very limited exposure, a career-low. Drake’s average yards per touch was 4.1, down from 5.3 in 2019. He’s a useful back and is set to hit free agency in a month, but it’s reasonable to assume that he’s already played his best football.


Ezekiel Elliott

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Elliott had his worst season, in terms of rushing yards per game, in 2020. A large part of that could be chalked up to Dak Prescott‘s injury, but some of it may have had to do with Tony Pollard performing well when he got the chance. Elliott will still be Dallas’ feature back, but it’s worth wondering if the Cowboys might not see value in lessening his workload, and therefore his statistical output, in service of keeping two fresh backs available at all times. If they want an object lesson in how that can work well, they should look no further than their loss to the Browns last year.


Jimmy Graham

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After catching just five touchdowns with Green Bay in 2018 and 2019 combined, Graham snagged eight with the Bears this past season. Go figure. Still, while his scoring production was impressive, Graham is more of a situational threat than anything at this point in his career, and with him turning 35 in the middle of next season, it’s unlikely that he’s going to have a year as he did with Chicago again, unless he lands in the perfect situation and gets plenty of targets. Graham has had an excellent career, one ultimately overshadowed by Rob Gronkowski, but it wouldn’t be a surprise to see his numbers take a dip in 2021.


A.J. Green

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Green was banged up in 2019 but had he played an entire season, would have easily eclipsed 1,000 receiving yards. Last year, despite playing in every game, Green finished with 523. Part of that is attributable to Cincinnati’s quarterbacking situation, but Green wasn’t putting up much in the way of numbers even when Joe Burrow was healthy. Green will be 33 this season, and while he still may be serviceable for either the Bengals or some other team, his days as an elite wide receiver seem to have emphatically ended. 


Joe Haden

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Haden has long been one of the NFL’s most consistent corners, and he allowed just a 75.9 passer rating when targeted last season, but he’ll be 32 this coming season, and there were times last year where it did look like he had lost a half step. Pittsburgh’s aggressive defense often made life easier for its corners by getting to the quarterback quickly, but if Haden ends up a cap casualty for Pittsburgh, it’s fair to wonder whether he would enjoy the same level of success elsewhere.


Derrick Henry

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This is more of a guess based on what typically happens to workhorse running backs after a huge number of touches, and Henry very might well be an outlier, but it’s hard to imagine he’ll be anywhere near his dominant 2020 form again in 2021. Henry led the league in carries for the second straight season and led the league in overall touches as well. It is unlikely he’ll hit 2,000 yards again, and it wouldn’t be surprising if the accumulated punishment from the last two seasons slows him down in the latter half of the 2021 campaign.


Justin Herbert

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If you paid attention to my rankings of players who could make a leap to true stardom in 2021 – helpfully found right here – you might be surprised to see Herbert’s name pop up here as well. He’s a unique case; it’s obvious that the Chargers need to do a much better job of protecting him, but as electrifying as his season was, it was pockmarked with turnover-worthy plays that he got away with, and his excellence when pressured is likely unsustainable. He also has a new play-caller to learn from this season, which is another potentially tough adjustment. I love Herbert’s long-term career arc, but his second year in the league really could go either way, which makes him one of the most interesting players to watch.


Malcolm Jenkins

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As ever, Jenkins was solid in pass coverage for the Saints this past season, allowing just an 85.6 passer rating when targeted, and he was more of a ballhawk than had been for Philadelphia in 2019. Jenkins intercepted three passes after not having a pick in his last season with the Eagles. Still, he’ll be 34 in the latter stages of this coming season, and while he’s one of the league’s savviest, smartest players, he doesn’t have the speed or overall physical skill set that he did in his prime. Jenkins can still be a solid player, but his days as one of the league’s upper-echelon safeties seem numbered.


Devin McCourty

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McCourty is similar to Malcolm Jenkins. He’s not quite a year younger than Jenkins, and his play dramatically fell off last season after years spent as one of the NFL’s best safeties. After 2019 where opposing quarterbacks managed just a 61.0 passer rating when targeting McCourty, they feasted on him in 2020, with a 113.8 passer rating when throwing his way. Some of that is attributable to New England’s spotty overall pass defense, but the overall drop in performance, plus his advancing age makes me think that McCourty’s best days are behind him.


Jason McCourty

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Dear McCourty family: I’m sorry. Whereas Devin McCourty will be back for the Pats next year, and safety is a position where a decline in physical skills can be more easily masked, cornerback offers no such luxuries. After three straight strong seasons, Jason McCourty’s play fell off badly last year, at least according to Pro Football Focus grading, which had him drop from a career-best 82.3 in 2018 all the way to 55.7 last year. McCourty is no lock to be back with the Pats next year, and it’s not altogether unreasonable to think that he might retire. If he is back – with New England or anyone else – it will likely be in a situational role, at most.


Von Miller

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Miller has been one of the NFL’s premier edge rushers his entire career, but he lost the entire 2020 season to injury, and perhaps more troublingly, had his worst full season in 2019, posting just eight sacks, as well as his first sub-90 Pro Football Focus season grade. Miller is still in his early thirties, but the combination of his injury and the lack of explosiveness and game-changing ability he showed the last time he was healthy suggests that, while he still might be a good-to-very-good pass rusher, his days as one of the league’s true elites are over.


Ben Roethlisberger

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Roethlisberger looked like he was going to take the Steelers to a gaudy 15-1 or 14-2 record, but the wheels started to wobble in an underwhelming win over a severely undermanned Ravens team, then starting coming off in Pittsburgh’s loss to Washington. From that point on, Roethlisberger struggled mightily in losses to the Bills and Bengals, played one good half against the Colts, and then was perhaps the biggest culprit in the Steelers’ shocking playoff meltdown against Cleveland. Roethlisberger will likely be back under center for the Steelers next year, but at this point, he looks like a middle-of-the-pack starter, not a Super Bowl-caliber passer.


Matt Ryan

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Ryan’s counting numbers the last few seasons don’t look that bad, but the writing is on the wall. Similar to Ben Roethlisberger in 2018, Ryan led the NFL in both completions and attempts last season, but the Falcons had little to show for his work. His passer rating of 93.3 was only a slight improvement from 2019 when it was 92.1. Ryan isn’t young, but he is at an age where other elite-tier quarterbacks are still playing well. The Falcons can’t rebuild their terrible offensive line easily with his contract on the books; a change of scenery might help him, but it’s more likely that he’ll continue to play like a league-average passer from here on out.


Ndamukong Suh

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Suh had a handful of standout games for the Bucs, and he did post six sacks, his highest total since 2015. That said, he was just one cog in an outstanding Tampa Bay defense and thrived in large part because the Bucs’ front seven required opponents to game plan for multiple difference makers. Suh can still handle a heavy workload – he logged nearly 1,000 snaps this past season – but his prime, which came mostly with Miami, is in the past. He and the Buccaneers seem to have a mutual interest in his return, but Tampa better get him at the right price, or else they may be overpaying for what he has left.


Ryan Tannehill

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Tannehill’s play slipped some from his 2019 performance, but considering that most of his numbers in his 10 games as the starter were absurd, and clearly unsustainable, the drop off to “merely very good” was something most Titans fans probably didn’t mind one bit. Tannehill should still be one of the better quarterbacks in the NFL, but Arthur Smith is gone, having taken over as Falcons head coach, and there’s no guarantee that Tennessee is going to be as dynamic under the stewardship of new offensive coordinator Todd Downing. Add in the chance that Derrick Henry shows some wear and tear, and Tannehill’s numbers could take another hit, even if a marginal one, next season.


Adam Thielen

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Thielen hasn’t had a 1,000-yard season since 2018, was banged up for part of 2019, and ceded his spot as the Vikings’ top receiver to rookie Justin Jefferson last season (no shame at all in that). It all adds up to a situation where one of the NFL’s toughest covers because of his catch radius, route-running, and speed might have reached the apex of his production, despite the fact that he’ll be just 31 to start next season. Thielen’s biggest area of regression is probably in the touchdown department. Despite being Minnesota’s third option on offense, behind Jefferson and Dalvin Cook, he hauled in a career-high 14 touchdowns.


Robert Tonyan

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Not all regression candidates are great players aging out of their primes. In the case of Tonyan, it’s more a situation where a player entering his prime years is highly unlikely to match a season that saw him catch 11 touchdowns after notching just two in his first two seasons. Tonyan feasted off the attention that Davante Adams commanded, and it’s always possible that he’ll do it again since Aaron Rodgers looked every bit his vintage self in 2020. What’s more likely, though, is that the Packers add another dynamic weapon and Tonyan’s touchdown totals drop considerably.


J.J. Watt

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Watt was two things in 2020: healthy and very good. If he hadn’t played three, five, and eight games in 2016, 2017, and 2019, respectively, there would be ample reason to think that he would not slow down in 2021. However, one of the best abilities for any NFL player is availability, and Watt, for his continued excellence on the field, is a more likely bet to miss significant time than he is to play an entire season, at this point. If he can stay healthy, he could still be a force, especially on a defense where he wouldn’t be the focal point of an offense’s game-planning focus. That’s a big “if,” however. 


Andrew Whitworth

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Whitworth overcame a potentially career-threatening knee injury to return for the Rams in the playoffs, and despite the fact that he turned 39 late in the season, he remained one of the league’s sturdiest tackles and a true physical marvel. Whitworth has said he’s ready for one more season, and given the way that his career has played out to this point, you’d have to give him the benefit of the doubt and assume that he’s going to find a way to go out while playing at a high level. Still, tackle is a demanding position, and he’ll be 40 in December. It just seems unfathomable that there won’t be some regression in the cards for Whitworth in 2021.


Russell Wilson

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As brilliant as he was at the outset of the 2020 season, turnovers started to derail Wilson and Seattle, particularly during a four-game stretch where he had two or more interceptions three times, and the Seahawks went 0-3. Wilson is still a top-5 quarterback in the league, at worst, but with Shane Waldron coming in as a new offensive coordinator, there could be a brief bump in the road while Wilson adjusts to a new scheme. That said, many Seahawks fans and NFL analysts felt that departed O.C. Brian Schottenheimer was the source of Seattle’s problems, so this prediction of a one-year downturn may turn out to be foolish.


Tom Brady

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Chris Mueller is the co-host of The PM Team with Poni & Mueller on Pittsburgh’s 93.7 The Fan, Monday-Friday from 2-6 p.m. ET. Owner of a dog with a Napoleon complex, consumer of beer, cooker of chili, closet Cleveland Browns fan. On Twitter at @ChrisMuellerPGH – please laugh.

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