Analysis

2021 NFL season: One potential first-time Pro Bowler from each NFC team

Marc Sessler has chosen one prime candidate from each team to earn a first Pro Bowl nod in 2021. Below are his NFC picks.

His rookie campaign began with a whimper, but Simmons showed up down the stretch. Despite playing just 376 snaps, the eighth overall pick flashed his advertised versatility, operating inside and out, on the edge, in the slot and at safety. Linebackers coach Bill Davis acknowledged that Simmons was given a ton to do, recently saying: "We trained Isaiah in six different defensive positions." Tall order over video-conference sessions amid a pandemic. The Cardinals are bound to have a better plan for Simmons in 2021, and this freaky athlete is a solid candidate to confound offensive schemers for years to come. 

Only four players racked up more receiving yards a season ago, but Ridley's Pro Bowl invite was lost in the mail. Few wideouts enter 2021 doused in more upside, with the 26-year-old frolicking around as Atlanta's clear-cut No. 1 now that Julio Jones is a Titan. Besides, Ridley excelled last season when Jones wasn't on the field en route to finishing with a league-high eight 100-yard outings. The Pro Bowl is simply a box to be checked for a player who could lead the NFL in receiving yards. Throw in rookie tight end Kyle Pitts alongside Arthur Smith calling plays, and Ridley is set up to fly.

Burns jumps off the screen as a pass-rushing nuisance with the most total pressures last season of any player under the age of 25. Leading a young Panthers defense with nine sacks in 2020, the former Florida State star nabbed an 86.9 pass-rushing grade from Pro Football Focus, trailing only Khalil Mack, T.J. Watt, Joey Bosa and Myles Garrett. His speed and power off the edge suggest Burns could be mentioned among those names on a regular basis in 2021.

I never bought a ticket for the Montgomery Hype Train. It felt like a rough ride inside a dull Chicago offense in search of itself. From Week 12 on, though, the young runner morphed into something special, averaging 99.7 ground yards per tilt. He's a help through the air, too, hauling in 24 catches over that stretch and 54 grabs on the year. It's no small chore making the Pro Bowl as a back, but if Justin Fields can flip the switch under center (after we collectively tolerate Andy Dalton for a week or two), this offense has a shot to be fiery.

Before Dak Prescott was lost to a grisly ankle injury in Week 5, Lamb averaged 5.8 receptions for 86.6 receiving yards per game. That chemistry hints at a big campaign from the second-year wideout, even with Amari Cooper and Michael Gallup competing for targets. A dangerous weapon out of the slot, Lamb saw action all over the field in minicamp and garnered praise from coach Mike McCarthy, who said: "I see CeeDee making that jump. He is very comfortable, very natural."

If you're Detroit, you'd like Sewell to mimic the first season of future Hall of Famer Joe Thomas, who starred at tackle from wire to wire in 2007 and waltzed directly into the Pro Bowl. Preparation will be key as Sewell is being asked to switch from left to right tackle after opting out of his final season at Oregon. So far, so good, though, with Lions guard Jonah Jackson saying in June: "They say he's a 20-year-old, but he acts like a grown man with how he handles himself. ... You see why he was the No. 7 overall pick." By comparison, at age 20, I was softly released from a summer house-painting gig after spilling a bucket of white paint all over somebody's precious roof.

The future of the Packers is a comprehensive mystery until Aaron Rodgers decides if he feels like putting on a green and gold helmet. We know this much: The athletically blessed signal-caller enjoyed working with Robert Tonyan in 2020. The 6-foot-5, 237-pound target was Green Bay's second-leading receiver and netted the highest passer rating when thrown to (147.6) among tight ends with at least 25 catches last season, per Next Gen Stats. Besides tallying a spicy 11 touchdowns last year, Tonyan hasn't recorded a single drop in 81 targets over the past two seasons, according to Pro Football Focus. Sitting in that window when NFL tight ends turn into raging fires, Tonyan is a candidate to become something special.

Jalen Ramsey deserves every drop of praise, but don't forget about Williams, who graded out as PFF's fourth-ranked cornerback in 2020. The undrafted Williams has emerged as a sticky defender with a knack for making game-altering plays. L.A.'s secondary will be challenged after losing both John Johnson III and Troy Hill, but Williams is ready to step into the spotlight as the most underrated cornerback in the NFC.

Kyle Rudolph exiting stage left opens the door for Smith to fulfill his juicy potential. His 30/365/5 line from 2020 should balloon, but there's a potential fly in the ointment here: Mike Zimmer needs some convincing. The Vikings coach threw cold water on Smith's presumed rise by telling reporters in June, "Honestly, I don't think it's any bigger role for him whatsoever." Zimmer pointed to Tyler Conklin seeing more work at the position. Is the coach playing head games with Fantasy Heads (and my precious mid-summer article!) or attempting to motivate Mr. Smith? September will reveal the truth. 

Game behind the game: If I sprinkle this thinkpiece with an onslaught of young tight ends, one of them is bound to light it up. Then I simply copy and paste that portion of the column and send it to my parents in hopes they'll finally be proud of my path through adulthood. Maybe it's Trautman who flips the switch for a Saints team that parted ways with Jared Cook and Josh Hill. He's a reliable blocker and skilled route runner who produced a handful of intoxicating moments catching the football as a rookie. Trautman was brought along slowly in a pandemic-soiled campaign, but the door has been flung wide open.

The G-Men quietly allowed the ninth-fewest points league-wide, a feat helped by a gentleman who refers to himself as "Sexy Dexy." Brute strength, quick feet and a flair for punishing hits make up Lawrence's game. Check out his handiwork here against a flock of beguiled interior linemen and would-be blockers. This is no wilting flower, but instead a pile of bricks dropping 90 mph off a Gotham rooftop. Chalk up this first-round pick as a win for oft-maligned general manager Dave Gettleman.

The last time we saw them, the Eagles were a bubbling on-field disgrace. Not just bad, but boring and a stench to the senses. That's playing into today's perception that Philly barely exists in the NFC. Look closer, though, and you can see the makings of a productive offense if the line stays healthy and wideout DeVonta Smith hits the ground running. So much depends on Hurts, who brought life to the team during his four starts to close the year. If anything, Hurts offers a spicy floor due to his ability to take off on the ground. I want this to work -- desperately -- because the concept of watching Joe Flacco lumber around in the pocket chips away at my will to exist.

With George Kittle and Deebo Samuel missing a combined 17 games due to injury, Aiyuk finished his workmanlike rookie campaign with 748 receiving yards off 60 grabs. The first-rounder also showed versatility on the ground, something Kyle Shanahan values in his wideouts. Aiyuk is enjoyable to watch, but making a Pro Bowl boils down to his target share inside a healthy, run-first offense. How the Niners handle Jimmy Garoppolo and Trey Lance matters, too, but Aiyuk has proven he's ready for a big-boy role. 

Large chunks of Seattle's roster have been sent to the Pro Bowl. Making the case for a nose tackle in 2021 is an uphill climb, but Ford has grown into a reliable, run-stuffing behemoth. The undrafted free agent won over coach Pete Carroll by showing tangible improvement over each of his three campaigns. Last season, the burly, 310-pound hammer-dropper added a dash of pass-rushing spice up the gut. With Jarran Reed out the door, Ford now takes over as Seattle's lead dog up the middle on a new two-year deal. A Pro Bowl berth is no pipe dream.

White took last year's Pro Bowl snub to heart before Tom Brady sat him down to talk about what matters most in the NFL: big, shiny trophies. White listened, terrorizing the Saints in the Divisional Round of the playoffs with 11 tackles, a fumble recovery and a pick. One week later, the 2019 first-rounder tallied 15 tackles against the Packers. White's onslaught crescendoed against the Chiefs with another 12 tackles paired with an interception to help the Bucs win it all. One gets the sense he might look good in a Pro Bowl uniform.

No Russian novel required on this entry. Football is supposed to be fun. Fitzmagic in the Pro Bowl (it's never happened, guys) is the type of fun that might convince gridiron diehards to actually watch this annual all-star clash.

ALSO CONSIDERED: Christian Darrisaw, OT, Minnesota Vikings; Romeo Okwara, DE, Detroit Lions; Dallas Goedert, TE, Philadelphia Eagles; Deebo Samuel, WR, San Francisco 49ers; C.J. Gardner-Johnson, DB, New Orleans Saints; Terry McLaurin, WR, Washington Football Team; Chase Edmonds, RB, Arizona Cardinals; Robby Anderson, WR, Carolina Panthers; D.J. Moore, WR, Carolina Panthers; Taylor Moton, OT, Carolina Panthers.

Follow Marc Sessler on Twitter.

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