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Top 10 red-zone threats entering 2021 NFL season

NFL Network's "Top 100 Players of 2021" continues Sunday, Aug. 22. Players ranked 40-11 will be revealed Sunday over the course of three hours -- with each one-hour episode unveiling a new set of 10 honorees -- beginning at 4 p.m. ET. Five major scoring threats make an appearance in the list, which is voted on by the players themselves, between Nos. 30 and 21. With that in mind, NFL Network analyst Steve Smith Sr. -- who notched 81 TD receptions during his 16-year career -- provides his own ranking of the league's top 10 red-zone threats heading into the 2021 regular season.

Rank
10
Adam Thielen
Minnesota Vikings · WR

Thielen made his money in the red zone in 2020, hauling in 13 touchdowns (second-most in the NFL) on 20 targets. With his precise route-running and superb hands, Thielen has gone from undrafted free agent to two-time Pro Bowler. The Vikings must have a player they can count on in the red zone if they want to keep up with the Packers' explosive offense in the NFC North, and Thielen has proven to be that guy.

Rank
9
Ezekiel Elliott
Dallas Cowboys · RB

Zeke had six rushing touchdowns in the red zone last season, down from 11 in 2019. Much of Zeke's decline can be attributed to working behind a carousel of quarterbacks and an injury-plagued offensive line in 2020. Some question whether Zeke is still an elite back -- which is fair -- but the talent and hunger to get back to the top of the rushing charts is there. Get ready for the two-time league rushing champion to get a lot of action -- especially in the red zone if Dak Prescott returns to full health -- in a bounce-back 2021 campaign.

Rank
8
Russell Wilson
Seattle Seahawks · QB

Wilson threw the second-most passing TDs in the red zone last season with 29. He'll be cooking again in 2021 with a healthy crew in the backfield and DK Metcalf and Tyler Lockett on the perimeter. What also gives Wilson a leg up on other QBs is his ability to execute under pressure and outside the tackle box, an area where he ranks first in every major passing category since 2016, per Next Gen Stats. He's so in tune with his strengths as a playmaker and it shows every time he takes the field.

Rank
7
Alvin Kamara
New Orleans Saints · RB

The Saints' stud running back is a scoring machine. Of his league-leading 21 scrimmage touchdowns last season, 19 came in the red zone with 15 being rushing scores. The most notable thing here is that Kamara scored 15 rush TDs on 45 red-zone carries. That's 19 attempts fewer than Derrick Henry and Dalvin Cook, who each had 13 red-zone rush TDs. Now with Jameis Winston or Taysom Hill under center this season, expect Sean Payton to use his running back more than ever. This is Kamara's team now. Sit back and enjoy it.

Rank
6
Josh Allen
Buffalo Bills · QB

Allen has improved each year. That's a credit to his athletic ability, no doubt, but also to how much time he spends studying the game. You don't make huge leaps without putting in the work, and Allen and the Bills are reaping the benefits of that dedication. He's seen his production in the red zone soar over the last three seasons, with four TD passes in 2018, 13 in 2019 and 25 in 2020. Oh, and he threw only one red-zone pick during that span. He also rushed for seven touchdowns in the red zone last season (fourth among QBs). The sky is the limit for the Bills' offense with Allen at the helm.

Rank
5
Patrick Mahomes
Kansas City Chiefs · QB

Mahomes has done everything and then some throughout his young NFL career, so who am I to deny him a spot on this list? He might not rank atop the stat sheet in terms of the red zone, but he still posted a highly impressive TD-INT ratio of 26:2 in the red zone last season. He can make every throw on the planet, evade pressure in the pocket, extend plays for days and fool defenders with his "little old man jog." Not to mention, I expect the Chiefs to come out swinging in Week 1 after the way their season ended in February. The name of the game for K.C. this year? Points, points and more points!

Rank
4
Darren Waller
Las Vegas Raiders · TE

After posting back-to-back 1,000-yard seasons and leading the Raiders in targets, receptions and receiving yards over the past two seasons, Waller is the primary target for quarterback Derek Carr. Waller is not only a big, physical target, measuring 6-foot-6 and 255 pounds, but he knows how to get open with sharp route-running ability -- much like a wide receiver playing tight end. He caught 19 of his 23 red-zone targets last season, with six touchdowns. He should build on his production in 2021 as improved weaponry within the Raiders' offense should allow Waller more one-on-one opportunities. 

Rank
3
Tom Brady
Tampa Bay Buccaneers · QB

On their way to a Super Bowl LV victory, the Buccaneers converted scores on 68.9 percent of their trips to the red zone last season, ranking seventh in the NFL. A lot of that success has to do with the G.O.A.T. Tom Brady. He's seen every coverage in his 21-year career and understands the game better than anyone. Brady sliced and diced defenses in the red zone in 2020, tossing 28 touchdowns while not throwing a single pick. 


Back in January, I put my foot in my mouth when I predicted that Brady and the Bucs would be bounced in the first round of the playoffs. I'm not going to make that mistake again. 

Rank
2
Davante Adams
Green Bay Packers · WR

Fourteen of Adams' league-high 18 receiving touchdowns in 2020 came inside the red zone. Translation: If you need to score, look Adams' way. Entering a contract year, you can bet that the four-time Pro Bowler will ball out and show the Packers what they'll miss out on if they don't offer him big money. Actually, it might be too late for that. 

Rank
1
Aaron Rodgers
Green Bay Packers · QB

Rodgers led the league in just about every major passing category last season, resulting in his third league MVP award. He completed a 72.6 percent of his pass attempts in the red zone last season, ranking first among QBs with at least 10 red-zone throws, per Next Gen Stats. In addition, 35 of his league-leading 48 pass TDs occurred in the red zone. He's nearly unstoppable in this area of the field, especially when Davante Adams is present. 


After a rocky offseason with the organization, Rodgers returns to the Packers under a restructured contract. We saw an unapologetic Rodgers during his first training camp press conference last month and I'd imagine his play in 2021 will match the heat he brought that day. 

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