Shaq Thompson - Carolina Panthers LB
With questions surrounding quarterback Desmond Ridder and whether he can provide the stability needed, the Atlanta Falcons will likely rely heavily on their running game over the first few contests of 2023. Fortunately for Arthur Smith, he has a potent trio within the room that can all do significant damage if given enough space.
Bijan Robinson is projected to become the next great running back following an exceptional college career at Texas. Tyler Allgeier is a more than capable understudy who'll get his fair share of touches, with veteran Cordarrelle Patterson providing another explosive element to the equation that cannot be overlooked.
This makes it imperative that the Carolina Panthers' run defense shows up. In particular, those at the defensive second level need to identify running lanes and move quickly to ensure space is at a premium.
That ensures Shaq Thompson is among the most important Panthers players in Week 1. His instincts and exceptional communication pre-snap will be required on almost every down in pursuit of counteracting a rushing attack that can do damage once early momentum is generated.
Thompson took a pay cut this offseason to get a one-year extension. He remains an integral part of the team's plans and the former first-round selection's leadership within the locker room is something else that can be of significant use in times of trouble.