Everyone knows that Tom Brady is important. So important that it's hardly worth talking about.
So are Drew Brees, Aaron Rodgers and the other veteran franchise quarterbacks. So are big-name/big-play/big-mood receivers like Antonio Brown, Odell Beckham Jr., elite pass-rushers like Von Miller and Aaron Donald, and so forth.
This list of the NFL's most pivotal players for 2019 isn't meant to overlook these superstars. Instead, it looks past them to those whose impact and production aren't such a sure thing: the new faces in new places, youngsters taking on bigger roles, guys returning from injuries, etc.
These are players with a whole lot riding on them—money, draft capital, expectations and pressure, etc.—who have the potential to propel their teams to the next level if they come through. The fate of the entire league, not to mention the fates of some of those too-obvious-to-mention superstars, hinges on what the following individuals do over the next eight months.
10. DeSean Jackson, WR, Eagles
There were times last year when the Eagles wide receiver corps consisted of Nelson Agholor (a slot guy), Jordan Matthews (a less effective slot guy) and Kamar Aiken (no idea). Even when Alshon Jeffery returned from injury and Golden Tate (yet another slot guy) arrived via trade, the Eagles offense lacked a credible deep threat, allowing defenders to squat on all of those short passes into the flats.
Jackson earned rave reviews (per The Athletic's Sheil Kapadia) in his return to Philly this offseason: He looked as fast as ever, and he was reportedly dialed in with Carson Wentz. After leading the NFL in yards per catch (18.9) for the third time in five years in 2018, it's clear that even at the age of 32, Jackson still has wheels.
A couple of Jackson bombs are all the talent-laden Eagles need to make another Super Bowl push—and help Wentz justify his new $128 million extension with an MVP-caliber campaign.
9. Gerald McCoy, DT, Panthers
The Panthers offseason looked a little underwhelming before they signed McCoy. They lost veterans like Julius Peppers, Thomas Davis and Ryan Kalil, added some free agents that don't exactly move the needle and have had trouble even signing their draft picks.
But sometimes the best roster move is the one a team makes after all the offseason grades have been handed out.
McCoy, a six-time Pro Bowler the cap-strapped Buccaneers soured upon for reasons that don't appear to be totally financial, completes a three-man defensive front that also includes All-Pro Kawann Short and mammoth Dontari Poe. Add new arrival Bruce Irvin and rookie Brian Burns as edge-rushers (and, of course, Luke Kuechly in the middle), and the Panthers' all-new defense (which will incorporate more three-man fronts) could feature one of the strongest fronts in the league.
With Cam Newton rehabbing from shoulder surgery and his offensive line and receiver corps still piecemeal, the Panthers have a lot of work to do on offense. But if McCoy and the revamped defense keeps games close enough to give a healthy Newton a chance…well, we all know what could happen next.
8. Cooper Kupp, WR, Rams
When Kupp was healthy in the first half of 2018, the Rams had the third-best passing game in the NFL, per Football Outsiders. After Kupp tore his ACL, the Rams passing game dropped to 12th. And you saw how easy they were for the Patriots to shut down in the Super Bowl. Sean McVay's three-receiver system relies on Kupp's slot versatility, along with Brandin Cooks' explosiveness and Robert Woods' rugged possession skills, to fire on all cylinders.
Kupp only participated in jog-throughs and sideline work in OTAs. The Rams are targeting a Week 1 return. Then again, the Rams also claimed Todd Gurley was totally healthy in the playoffs last year.
The Rams cannot afford to rush Kupp, but if they're bluffing about his early-season availability, the NFC contenders represented on this list are sure to call it.
7. Kicker to Be Named Later, Bears
The fate of the entire NFC may rest on the feet of guys named Eddy Pineiro or Elliott Fry. Or on someone even more obscure.
Pineiro and Fry are the last kickers standing in the Bears' Bachelorette-style competition to find a replacement for Scourge of the Uprights Cody Parkey, whose partially blocked 43-yard miss in last year's playoffs dashed the team's Super Bowl dreams.
Judging from reports out of Bears camp, the competition—which featured as many as eight kickers at times—has had plenty of ups and downs.
The Bears must not just find a kicker in training camp but find faith in that kicker. The eight-kicker showdown suggests that Parkey's pachinko-doinks may still be rattling around in the team's consciousness.
If the Bears settle on a decent kicker, they are Super Bowl contenders. If they start going for 4th-and-10 from the 26-yard line with the score tied or changing kickers like they change sweat socks, they are in for a long, frustrating year.
6. Marcus Davenport, DE, Saints
Davenport wasn't just the Saints' first-round pick last year; he's the Saints' first-round pick this year as well. The Saints traded two first-rounders to move up and take the gifted-but-raw edge-rusher from Texas-San Antonio last season. But all Davenport provided last year were flashes of brilliance, nagging injuries and lots of growing pains.
As you may recall, the Saints were one blown call (and several subsequent blunders that everyone seems to have forgotten about) away from the Super Bowl last year. But with no first-round pick and a messy salary-cap situation, they made few significant offseason upgrades. They need Davenport—who was limited in OTAs due to foot surgery but attended Von Miller's Pass Rush Summit—to grow into the double-digit sack producer worthy of their investment in him. And it better happen fast, before Drew Brees starts to act his age and the Super Bowl window slams shut.