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The 10 NFL players who defined the 2010s, and the 10 who will define the 2020s

Omnisport
NEWS
News
Published Jan 02, 2020
Jan 02, 2020 IST
2010sv2020s-Cropped
Tom Brady and Colin Kaepernick defined the 2010s in the NFL. Lamar Jackson and Trevor Lawrence are set to do the same in the 2020s

Tuesday marked the end of an incredible decade for the NFL, which will crown the champion of its 100th season in February at the end of a campaign that has seen the man who dominated the past 10 years show signs of fallibility.

The 2010s largely belonged to a sixth-round pick from the University of Michigan who turned the New England Patriots into the greatest NFL dynasty.

However, there were plenty of others who helped define a fascinating period and a plethora of exciting talents queueing up to try to ensure it is they who stand out when the world looks back on the 2020s.

Here we reflect on 10 players who made the most lasting impact on the 2010s, and assess the players most likely to have the same influence on the 2020s.


2010s

Tom Brady

Five seasons into his NFL career, Brady had already secured a remarkable legacy, as a sixth-rounder who rose from Drew Bledsoe's injury replacement to a quarterback who guided the Patriots to their first three Super Bowl titles.

He led what many consider to be best offense ever in 2007 when the Patriots went 16-0, however, when the story of the greatest quarterback in NFL history is told, his and New England's second act will be the most compelling chapter.

The 2010s proved a decade in which Brady consistently and spectacularly defied Father Time. After a heart-breaking Super Bowl XLVI defeat to the New York Giants at the end of the 2011 season, a 37-year-old Brady authored a Super Bowl MVP performance three seasons later as the Patriots won their fourth title by defeating the Seattle Seahawks. 

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His stunning response to a four-game 2016 suspension for his role in the Deflategate saga was a dominant 15-game stretch in which the Patriots lost only once and completed the greatest comeback in Super Bowl history in a 34-28 defeat of the Atlanta Falcons.

Brady followed that with an MVP campaign in 2017 that may unfairly be forgotten by many due to New England's 41-33 defeat to the Philadelphia Eagles in which he threw for 505 passing yards, breaking his record from the previous year.

Super Bowl LIII was won largely on the back of the Patriots defense and the 2019 season has provided further evidence the 42-year-old is finally declining. No player can outrun Father Time, but Brady has redefined what is possible for ageing quarterbacks.
 

Peyton Manning

Manning's career appeared to be nearing its end at the start of the decade. A playoff defeat to the New York Jets marked his final appearance for the Indianapolis Colts as neck surgery ruled him out of the 2011 season and he was released in March 2012.

However, Manning landed in the perfect environment to prove he was still among the elite. His Denver Broncos spell was historic as he helmed an explosive offense that reached its apex in 2013, Manning delivering arguably the greatest season ever for a quarterback.

He set single-season records for passing yardage (5,477) and touchdowns (55) that have yet to be broken. However, after a 43-8 Super Bowl thrashing at the hands of the Seattle Seahawks, Manning would have to wait until the 2015 campaign – during which he suffered the ignominy of being benched for Brock Osweiler – to win his second ring.

Manning regained the starting job and, despite his clearly declining abilities, won Super Bowl 50 with significant help from the Denver defense. It may not have been in the fashion many expected but, four years after his career was threatened by injury, Manning was able to go out on his own terms.

Rob Gronkowski

The Patriots' second spell of superiority owed much to their decision to draft a tight end out of Arizona with durability concerns in the second round of the 2010 draft.

New England's addition of Gronkowski paid instant dividends. He caught 10 touchdowns in his rookie season and developed into the league's ultimate red-zone weapon.

With four 1,000-yard seasons and five years with double-digit touchdowns – including a 17-score campaign in 2011 – Gronk's blend of athleticism, brute force and blocking ability saw him become the best tight end of his generation and the focal point of the New England offense.

Colin Kaepernick

Even with the dominance enjoyed by the likes of Brady, Manning and Gronkowski, no player from the past decade has transcended the sport more than Kaepernick.

A supremely athletic, gangly, long-striding dual-threat dynamo, Kaepernick exploded onto the scene in 2012, setting the record for rushing yards by a quarterback in a playoff game with 181 against the Green Bay Packers as he led the San Francisco 49ers to Super Bowl XLVII, coming within a few yards of victory in an agonising 34-31 loss to the Baltimore Ravens.

But, for all he did on the big stage, it was his actions during a preseason game that had the greatest impact on the sport, Kaepernick's life, and wider society.

His decision first to sit and then to kneel during the national anthem in 2016 to protest police brutality and racial injustice sparked both admiration and condemnation and led to a plethora of players replicating him. Though he gained plenty of supporters and attention for his cause, the movement he started cost Kaepernick his NFL career.

He has not been signed since parting with the Niners in 2017 and filed a since-settled grievance against the league, accusing the 32 franchises of colluding to keep him out of a job.

An NFL-organised workout last month fell apart at the last minute but the large crowd that attended a hastily arranged session on a high-school field the same day was indicative of his massive societal influence. That he is still unemployed remains the greatest stain on the reputation of a league obsessed with image.

Aaron Donald

In years gone by, a dominant edge rusher was often seen as the final piece of the puzzle. Now, teams are just as committed to unearthing the next Donald as they are to finding difference-making outside pass rushers.

Donald has transformed the value of interior defensive lineman by rapidly blossoming into arguably the NFL's best player. His quickness, power, intelligent hand usage and versatility have made him near-impossible to block. He can play every position on the defensive line and is devastatingly effective from each spot.

A two-time Defensive Player of the Year, Donald had 20.5 sacks in 2018 and still managed 12.5 sacks in 2019, a season viewed as a disappointment. Donald is already close to a certainty for the Hall of Fame and may well go down as the finest defensive player of his generation.

J.J. Watt

Five first-team All-Pro selections, five double-digit sack seasons and three Defensive Player of the Year awards, the most incredible aspect of Watt's career is that injuries may have prevented the NFL from witnessing his true ceiling.

Watt has been robbed of much of his prime years, only completing a full regular season once since 2015, yet his CV, which includes two 20.5-sack campaigns, is likely already good enough for the Hall of Fame. 

Firmly in the MVP discussion in 2014, Watt was the face of defensive football for much of the decade but, as the 2010s end, there is danger he will come to be partly defined by an inability to stay on the field at a time when the Texans have been most competitive. Thankfully, at 30, he still has the time and the talent to make sure that is not the case.

Adrian Peterson

Only one non-quarterback won the MVP award in the decade, and that came in 2012 when Peterson produced one of the best running back seasons in history.

Peterson rushed for 2,097 yards and 12 touchdowns, averaging an astonishing 131.1 yards per game on the ground. Off-field controversy interrupted his career and, though he enjoyed a renaissance in 2015 with a 1,485-yard campaign, he has never recaptured his unbelievable best. 

He has, however, succeeded in remaining effective enough to stretch his career well into this thirties and achieved his long-held ambition of passing Walter Payton on the all-time touchdowns list with his 111th score.

Drew Brees

While Manning and Brady took the majority of the acclaim and, in the latter's case, the titles in the 2010s, Brees has enjoyed consistency unmatched by most quarterbacks and racked up a plethora of records.

Brees led the league in passing yards five times in the decade and broke Brett Favre's all-time pass completions and passing yardage records in a 2018 season where his New Orleans Saints were a controversial non-called pass interference penalty away from the Super Bowl.

Week 15 of the 2019 season saw him break Manning's record for career passing touchdowns with his 540th. His arm strength may have declined but, Brees is still poised to enter his third decade in the league upholding the remarkable standard he has met since arriving in New Orleans.

Odell Beckham Jr.

The man who produced perhaps the defining play of the decade, Beckham has not quite hit the heights he once promised.

However, his scarcely believable one-handed catch against the Dallas Cowboys on November 23, 2014, is one of the NFL's indelible images. Falling backwards as Brandon Carr attempted to drag him down, Beckham arched his back and plucked the ball out of the air with his fingertips before tumbling into the endzone.

Whether through remarkable catches, arguments with coaches or an on-off relationship with a kicking net, Beckham has made the headlines throughout the decade and will surely continue to do so in the 2020s.

Antonio Brown

Brown's status as one of the players of the decade was already secured prior to his tumultuous 2019.

He made the unlikely journey from Pittsburgh Steelers sixth-round pick to a premier NFL receiver. Boasting incredible speed, agility and ability to make spectacular contested catches in spite of his smaller stature, Brown racked up four seasons of at least 1,400 receiving yards, including a 1,698-yard year in 2014. 

Yet for all his on-field exploits, Brown may well end up being most remembered for a 2019 offseason in which he forced an exit from the Steelers, left the Oakland Raiders without playing a snap after a series of controversies and was then cut by the New England Patriots after allegations of sexual assault. Despite an outstanding on-field career, Brown ends the 2010s with an asterisk against his name. 

2020s

Patrick Mahomes

No quarterback has taken the league by storm in their first season as a starter in the manner that Mahomes did in 2018.

Mahomes threw for over 5,000 yards and 50 touchdowns as the Kansas City Chiefs just missed out on the Super Bowl, defying belief with his ability to make plays on the move from a variety of arm angles.

After returning from a knee injury, Mahomes looks back to his best in 2019 and, with one of the best offensive minds in the league as his head coach in Andy Reid, he is primed to secure his place as the NFL's pre-eminent gunslinger in the 2020s.

Lamar Jackson

While Mahomes may be the most spectacular thrower to grace the NFL, Jackson is well on his way to cementing a reputation as the best running quarterback of all time.

Jackson and the Ravens have dominated the NFL in 2019 with a near-unstoppable offense. Defenses have found it almost impossible to decipher whether he is going to throw or run, with defenders frequently embarrassed by his elusiveness when he does the latter.

The only quarterback to throw for 3,000 yards and rush for 1,000 in a season, Jackson has already surpassed the achievements of Atlanta Falcons legend Michael Vick. He broke Vick's single-season quarterback rushing record by racking up 1,206 yards in 2019.

The final campaign of the 2010s could end with Jackson lifting the Lombardi Trophy. If he continues on this trajectory, the 2020s will see him become the greatest dual-threat quarterback of all time.

Trevor Lawrence

A pre-ordained NFL superstar since his high school days, the Clemson phenom has lived up to the massive hype in college and is effectively a lock to be the first overall pick in the 2021 draft.

Composed, mobile and possessing a cannon for an arm, several NFL teams in need of a quarterback will likely already be considering tanking 2020 to have a shot at landing Lawrence.

Regardless of whether he joins the league's elite or spectacularly fails, how Lawrence performs at the highest level is certain to be one of the most compelling storylines of the 2020s.

Kyler Murray 

The Arizona Cardinals took a significant risk in giving up on Josh Rosen to select a quarterback for the second successive year and pick Murray first overall.

Despite another losing season for Arizona in 2019, Murray's development as a rookie should provide great encouragement for the Cardinals, whose fans were treated to a series of dazzling displays from the former two-sport star, who was drafted ninth overall by MLB's Oakland Athletics in 2018.

Murray's decision to eschew baseball for the NFL was the most intensely debated issue of last year's draft. However, a year into his career, the dual-threat star has gone a long way to silencing the doubters and more two-sport athletes will follow his lead if he continues to excel.

Saquon Barkley

The second overall pick of the New York Giants in the 2018 draft, Barkley's career will, for many, settle the argument over the value of selecting a running back that high.

With a remarkable 2018 followed by an injury-affected 2019, it is the 2020s that will see Barkley provide the answer to whether it is worth using premier draft capital on a tailback in a league dominated by the passing game.

Those with a passion for analytics have largely already decided it is not. However, Barkley – regarded as the best running back prospect since Barry Sanders – has the talent to make a spectacular impact on the ground and in the passing game and prove them wrong.

George Kittle

Already cemented as the successor to Gronkowski as the NFL's premier tight end, Kittle is a bona-fide superstar with everything in his armoury to compile a Hall of Fame CV in the 2020s.

Kittle broke the record for single-season receiving yardage by a tight end in 2018 and in 2019 has proven himself the most valuable player for a San Francisco 49ers team two wins from Super Bowl LIV.

A freakish athlete and monstrous blocker whose sheer refusal to be tackled has seen him become the top yards-after-catch threat, Kittle produced one of the defining NFL images of the 2019 season as he carried three New Orleans Saints defenders with him on the game-clinching play of a Superdome shootout. Defenders across the league can expect to regularly receive the same treatment in the new decade.

Michael Thomas

The most astonishing aspect of Thomas breaking Marvin Harrison's record for receptions in a single-season is that the Saints star did so while still only 26.

As the focal point of arguably the NFL's most consistently potent offense, the sky is truly the limit for Thomas, who finished his record-breaking 2019 with 149 catches for 1,725 yards. 

He did so despite being subject to extremely tight coverage on seemingly every snap. Thomas rarely has the benefit of separation, but the 2020s could be the decade in which he separates himself from his contemporaries and becomes an all-time great receiver.

The Bosa brothers

There is a history of success between siblings in the NFL, and Joey and Nick Bosa are well on their way in joining Peyton and Eli Manning and J.J. Watt and T.J. Watt as two of the best brothers to play in the league.

Joey, selected third overall in 2016, has 40 sacks through four seasons for the Los Angeles Chargers, establishing himself as a dominant pass rusher, and Nick needed only one year to join him.

In his maiden season with the 49ers after being picked second overall, the younger Bosa racked up 80 quarterback pressures, the most ever by a rookie, according to analytics website Pro Football Focus.

He is among the favourites to win Defensive Player of the Year and, providing they avoid injury, the two best edge rushers in the 2020s may well be from the same family.

Jamal Adams

Though much of the focus for those of a Jets persuasion is on the growth of Sam Darnold, Adams is just as crucial to their hopes of crawling out of the doldrums.

The heart and soul of New York's defense, Adams is a ferocious, hard-hitting safety who could quickly vault to superstar status should the Jets become one of the AFC's best.

Reportedly close to being traded to the Dallas Cowboys during the 2019 season, Adams is in the perfect market to become one of the faces of the league if Gang Green can wrest AFC East superiority from Brady's Patriots.

The Jets are a franchise starved of success since the days of 'Broadway Joe' Namath. 'Broadway Jamal' may not have the same ring, but he can expect similar levels of hero-worship if the Jets return to postseason relevance.

Modified Jan 02, 2020
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