Heading into the season, all 16 NFC teams had concrete expectations. Some were higher than others, but every team had a goal. Moreover, this extends to the player level, and each player sets goals for themselves. Some have gone above and beyond, blasting past even the loftiest of estimations.
Let’s look at five colossal surprises in the NFC. These players had been anticipated to perform at a low level entering the 2021 season, and have been thoroughly surprising. All six of these players have registered Pro Bowl-caliber campaigns in 2021 despite having average expectations entering the season.
The players are listed in alphabetical order by last name.
No.1: De’Vondre Campbell, Linebacker, Green Bay Packers
The NFC has had an embarrassment of riches at the linebacker position for the last decade. There has been Luke Kuechly, Patrick Willis, Bobby Wagner, and other players that emerged in the last few seasons. Even in the NFC North, Eric Kendricks and Roquan Smith are among the league’s top linebackers. However, the best linebacker in the NFL in 2021 has, by a wide margin, been De’Vondre Campbell. He has been infallible in run defense, and he has been a clinical cover player. Campbell is playing at a higher level than almost any other NFL linebacker has since Kuechly’s retirement. Furthermore, he has had a massive impact on the Green Bay defense. Heading into the season, Green Bay’s linebacker corps was one of the worst in the NFL, but the former Golden Gopher has stepped in and turned it into a positive.
No.2: Trevon Diggs, Cornerback, Dallas Cowboys
Trevon Diggs has thus far showcased a true boom-or-bust identity in 2021. On the one hand, he has seven interceptions in just seven games. On the other hand, he has been burned for several touchdowns, and he is among the league leaders in yards allowed. However, this combination of coverage is generally helpful for the Cowboys. If an opponent nickels and dimes Diggs, they can have a productive day. However, once Diggs gets his hands on the football, he always brings it in. All it takes is one turnover to swing the tide of a game, and when Diggs is as effective at forcing turnovers as he has been the season, it is a huge reason why the Cowboys have just two losses through eight games. He may allow a lot of yards and a handful of touchdowns, but any momentum swing can be the difference between a win and a loss.
No.3: Randy Gregory, EDGE, Dallas Cowboys
As regards Randy Gregory, no one has ever questioned the talent. It has always been a question of whether or not he is committed to being on the field. In 2021, Gregory has stayed on the field and has been pound-for-pound one of the best pass rushers in the NFL.
Take his last three weeks as an example. By PFF pass-rush grade, his worst game came against the New York Giants. Even then, he earned a 90+ pass-rush grade and recorded nine pressures. In the last two weeks, Gregory has posted three total sacks and a pair of forced fumbles, earning ridiculously high grades in the process. Gregory may have missed a significant chunk of his prime with substance abuse issues, but now that he is on the field consistently, he has been nothing short of elite.
No.4: Khalil Herbert, Running Back, Chicago Bears
Khalil Herbert did not get much run early in the season when David Montgomery was healthy, but he has been incredibly productive in the last few weeks for the Bears. He breaks many tackles, and he’s one of the most productive players in the NFL after contact. Khalil Herbert has been a workhorse when needed for the Bears, and he’s been their most effective offensive threat, including Montgomery. He may not get many more chances to shine later in the season. However, overall, Herbert has certainly been a surprise after being a late-round pick in late April.
No.5: Jason Peters, Chicago Bears
While almost every other player on this list is young and full of potential, Jason Peters seemed to be on the wrong side of the age curve. However, he is turning back the clock for a vintage season. He will not be an All-Pro, and he will not make the Pro Bowl, but he has been a wildly stable left tackle for Chicago. Peters ranks well among pass blockers and run blockers. In addition, if it was not for legendary seasons from Trent Williams and Tyron Smith, he would have been in the conversation for the best left tackle in the NFC with David Bakhtiari out. As it stands, Peters is having a tremendous season, but he is overshadowed by the spectacular campaigns taking place in Santa Clara and Arlington.
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