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Northwestern football’s most important players — No. 3: Flynn Nagel

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Flynn Nagel had a breakout year with the Wildcats in 2016. Can he repeat the feat?

NCAA Football: Northwestern at Minnesota Jesse Johnson-USA TODAY Sports

To kick off a summer of football at Inside NU, we are counting down Northwestern's Top 10 Most Important Players in 2017. We've put our heads together as a staff, used the unruly power of democracy, and created a list that will undoubtedly cause plenty of disagreement.

We've chosen to loosely define the criteria for our list as the players "who will have the biggest impact on the overall outcome of the season." However, we recognize that that's still open to interpretation. For some, it could mean the value of a player over his replacement. It could just mean best player. It could mean players in crucial roles. It could mean players who have underperformed who need to step up.

One thing is certain though: no two lists will be the same. That's why for each player, we'll enlist two of our writers to debate the merits of the player in question.

Next up is Flynn Nagel, who will play a big role on special teams for the Wildcats.

Davis Rich (Nagel rank: 2): Come September 2nd, Northwestern’s offense will have an Austin Carr-sized hole in it. The now-New England Patriot accounted for over 1,200 receiving yards and 12 touchdowns in 2016, and it seemed like whenever there was a third-and-long to convert, Carr was fearlessly streaking across the middle of the field to make a play.

The main question for 2017 will be which receiver, or receivers, can step up to fill Carr’s lost production and become Clayton Thorson’s top target. The early favorite is Flynn Nagel, who is ranked second on my list, behind only Thorson himself. In his sophomore campaign, Nagel showed Swiss Army knife-like playmaking potential, hauling in 40 catches for 447 yards and five touchdowns, while averaging 6.9 yards per punt return, good for sixth in the Big Ten.

Like Carr, Nagel is versatile enough to play the slot in addition to lining up out wide. Listed at 5-foot-11, he is exceptionally quick, but has the ability to turn on the jets and burn secondaries over the top as well. His route-running capabilities are strong as well. I understand that the defensive backs in this video aren’t exactly Malik Hooper, but I cannot help but get excited watching this video of Nagel snatching some ankles before his senior year in high school.

I wouldn’t be surprised if Nagel sees his special team duties reduced because he will be used liberally when Northwestern has the ball, though Northwestern will opt for a more committee-like setup in the passing game this season. Guys like Macan Wilson and Garrett Dickerson figure to settle into roles at the slot and superback, respectively, while Nagel will start the season as Thorson’s number one target given his experience and talent. If the junior can rise to the occasion and produce at 60-70% of Carr’s level, Northwestern’s offense will be in good shape.

Josh Burton (Nagel rank: 7): My lower ranking of Nagel is not a knock on his talent — which I’m a big believer in — but of the impact I think he’ll have on the offense.

In the return game, as Davis noted, Nagel is a game-changer. The kick return numbers aren’t great — that’s where the Wildcats will assuredly miss Solomon Vault, whose straight-line speed plays better there — but punt returns are where the Lemont, Ill. native shines. His agility and field vision, not unlike that of Justin Jackson from the line of scrimmage, allows Nagel to to weave in and out of defenders. Even if those returns don’t directly lead to touchdowns, they help swing that all-important field position game in favor of a Northwestern team that relies on winning it.

As high as I am on Nagel’s potential as a special teams ace, I don’t think he’ll be a huge difference-maker as a wide receiver. It’s asking a lot for him to assume the role of a guy like Austin Carr, mostly because he just isn’t that kind of possession receiver. He has pretty good hands but isn’t his strength; it’s making plays once the ball is in his hands.

The Wildcats will need a team effort to make up for Carr’s lost production and while Nagel can contribute to that effort, I just don’t think he can absorb the lion’s share of it. He’s best when he has a one-on-one matchup and can make a guy miss out in the flat. But since most of his impact will be felt in the punt game — of course, this assumes Northwestern’s defense forces a lot of punts — it will be constricted somewhat.