50 Young NFL Players with the Most Upside in 2012 and Beyond

Tony Santorsa@@TonySantorsaSenior Writer IIApril 13, 2012

50 Young NFL Players with the Most Upside in 2012 and Beyond

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    During the 2011 NFL season, we saw players like Matthew Stafford rise to the occasion and emerge as up-and-coming stars.

    Heading into 2012, which young players will take a major step forward and prove that they'll be stars in this league, much like Stafford?

    Also, which players, like Stafford—who had an impressive season a year ago—will continue their dominance and only get better in a year's time?

    Let's take a look at 50 young NFL players with the most upside in 2012 and beyond.

Cam Newton

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    Cam Newton's rookie season could not have been much better.

    Newton threw for 4,051 yards and 21 touchdowns while rushing for 706 yards and punching in 14 rushing touchdowns.

    Heading into 2012, Newton will only get better.

Stevan Ridley

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    Many of you may not know who Stevan Ridley is, but he will soon emerge as one of the better running backs that the NFL has to offer.

    During Ridley's rookie season with the New England Patriots, he ran for a solid 441 yards on 87 carries, averaging 5.1 yards per carry and scoring one touchdown.

Josh Freeman

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    Josh Freeman may have had a putrid season a year ago, but I truly believe that he will bounce back well in 2012—especially with newly acquired wide receiver Vincent Jackson and offensive guard Carl Nicks.

    Freeman has shown that he can compete at a high level, and he'll prove it again in 2012.

Aaron Hernandez

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    Aaron Hernandez may not be the best tight end on the New England Patriots roster, but he's sure going to rack up the stats in the upcoming seasons.

    Hernandez caught 79 passes for 910 yards and seven touchdowns this past season for the Patriots, and keep in mind that he's only 22 years old.

Sam Bradford

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    Sam Bradford had a bit of a down year this past season with the St. Louis Rams, but I fully expect that he'll bounce back in a big way in 2012.

    Bradford will enter next season with a career 74.2 quarterback rating with 24 touchdowns compared to 21 interceptions.

Golden Tate

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    Golden Tate is one of the more talented young wide receivers that the NFL has to offer.

    Tate caught 35 passes in 16 games this past season for the Seattle Seahawks, as he compiled 382 yards and scored three touchdowns.

    With Matt Flynn now at quarterback, I'm sure those numbers are definitely going to increase tremendously.

Ndamukong Suh

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    As long as Ndamukong Suh can control his anger, he will be a dominant force along the Detroit Lions defensive line for many years to come.

    Entering his third season in the NFL, Suh has racked up 14 sacks and 102 total tackles.

C.J. Spiller

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    C.J. Spiller didn't have the greatest rookie season in 2010, but he played very well in 2011 with the Buffalo Bills.

    Spiller ran for 561 yards and four touchdowns while catching 39 passes for 269 yards and two touchdowns.

Ryan Mathews

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    Ryan Mathews ran for 678 yards his rookie season and then got even better in 2011, as he ran for 1,091 yards and six touchdowns.

    Mathews should continue his improvement heading into 2012 with the San Diego Chargers.

Tim Tebow

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    This may surprise you, but I really do believe in Tim Tebow, and I see him having an impact in 2012 with the New York Jets.

    Whether Tebow is a starter or not, I see him playing very well and producing at a high level, even if it's in the Wildcat offense.

Dez Bryant

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    Be on the lookout for Dez Bryant—he will be an elite wide receiver by the end of 2012.

    I guarantee it.

    Bryant enters his third season in the NFL with 108 receptions, 1,489 receiving yards and 15 receiving touchdowns.

    As long as Tony Romo plays well, Bryant will be able to produce at a high level.

Rob Gronkowski

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    Rob Gronkowski already is an elite tight end, and he's only going to get better heading into next season.

    In 2011, Gronk caught 90 passes for a whopping 1,327 yards while scoring 17 touchdowns, an NFL record for tight ends.

Christian Ponder

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    Be on the lookout for Christian Ponder.

    Ponder may have only posted a 70.1 rating during his rookie season with the Minnesota Vikings a year ago, but he has enough upside to be a great NFL starting quarterback for a very long time.

Brandon Spikes

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    Brandon Spikes has the potential to be quite the animal at inside linebacker for the New England Patriots.

    Spikes has been a playmaking machine over the past two seasons for the Patriots, as he's come up with timely stops and interceptions when the team has needed it the most.

Andy Dalton

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    Andy Dalton was brilliant his rookie season with the Cincinnati Bengals.

    Dalton threw for 3,398 yards while posting an 80.4 quarterback rating and throwing 20 touchdown strikes.

    The potential for Dalton is unreal, if you ask me.

Arian Foster

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    You can certainly make the case that Arian Foster is already an elite running back, as well as a superstar. However, I think that he's only going to get better.

    Foster has run for 3,097 total yards entering 2012, and I think he's got a legitimate shot at racking up 2,000-plus yards in one season.

Matthew Stafford

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    Matthew Stafford is going to be an elite quarterback by the end of 2012. I guarantee it.

    Stafford had an incredible season for the Detroit Lions a year ago, as he racked up a whopping 5,038 passing yards while tossing 41 touchdowns and posting a 97.2 quarterback rating.

    If Stafford can stay healthy, there's no doubt that he will be an elite quarterback in this league.

Jimmy Graham

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    Like many of the guys on this list, Jimmy Graham is already a star—but he's only going to get better, especially with Drew Brees at quarterback.

    Graham caught 99 passes for 1,310 yards and 11 touchdowns this past season for the Saints.

Jake Locker

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    I am a huge Jake Locker fan, and I believe that he's going to be one of the next great quarterbacks.

    Locker appeared in just five games this past season for the Tennessee Titans, and he still posted a 99.4 quarterback rating while throwing four touchdowns and no interceptions.

    Locker is sure to be the face of the Titans franchise for many years to come.

Eric Berry

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    Eric Berry missed virtually all of last season with a torn ACL, but he will be back and have a huge impact in 2012, as in his rookie season he was one dominant safety.

    Berry recorded 92 tackles, two sacks and four interceptions during his rookie season with the Chiefs, and he will look to reproduce those numbers this upcoming season.

Von Miller

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    Von Miller is going to be elite by next season—I guarantee it.

    Miller had an incredible rookie season, as he racked up 11.5 sacks and 64 tackles in 15 games for the Denver Broncos—and he is only going to get better.

Marcell Dareus

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    Marcell Dareus is arguably the most underrated player in the NFL. But trust me, he is quite the dominant force along the Buffalo Bills defensive front.

    During his rookie season this past year, Dareus racked up 43 total tackles while adding in 5.5 sacks for the Bills.

Nate Solder

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    Nate Solder is the New England Patriots' left tackle of the future and played very well this past season for the team, as he played most of his time at right tackle.

    Solder is an outstanding pass-blocker as well as a very productive run-blocker and should be New England's blindside protector for many years to come.

BenJarvus Green-Ellis

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    BenJarvus Green-Ellis was a 1,000-yard rusher in 2010 with the New England Patriots, and I think that he can be one yet again with the Cincinnati Bengals.

    Green-Ellis is a touchdown machine, as he's run for 24 touchdowns over the past two seasons and has a career average of 4.0 yards per carry.

Patrick Peterson

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    Patrick Peterson has all the talent in the world to be an elite cornerback and elite return man.

    This past season for the Arizona Cardinals, Peterson averaged 15.9 yards per punt return while scoring an impressive four touchdowns.

Julio Jones

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    Julio Jones is simply a freak of nature. He's that next wide receiver to be as productive as Randy Moss and Terrell Owens.

    Jones is simply so strong and powerful that he can physically beat opposing defenders while being so fast and athletic that he can outrun just about anyone.

    During his rookie season with the Atlanta Falcons, Jones caught 54 passes for eight touchdowns while racking up 959 receiving yards.

J.J. Watt

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    I don't think anyone realizes how dominant J.J. Watt really was during his rookie season.

    Watt recorded 5.5 sacks while compiling 56 total tackles and being a complete force along the Houston Texans defensive front.

Aldon Smith

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    Aldon Smith is going to be an absolute stud for the San Francisco 49ers for many years to come.

    In his rookie season this past year, Smith played in all 16 games while recording 37 tackles and a phenomenal 14 sacks while forcing two fumbles and recording one safety.

Joe Haden

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    Joe Haden is one of the up-and-coming cornerbacks who will be an elite player this season or the next.

    Haden is arguably the only bright spot on the Cleveland Browns roster entering 2012 and should play extremely well, like his track record says.

Prince Amukamara

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    Prince Amukamara didn't really do too much during the New York Giants' 2011 Super Bowl season, but he's still very talented and has the potential to be very productive.

    In fact, I believe that Amukamara has enough upside to be an elite shutdown cornerback in the NFL.

Darren McFadden

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    If Darren McFadden can stay healthy, then he will be one of the best running backs in the NFL.

    Run-DMC certainly has elite talent, but he has yet to stay healthy throughout his NFL career.

    Heading into 2012, McFadden is averaging 4.8 yards per carry while having recorded 16 carer rushing touchdowns as well as four career receiving touchdowns.

Jamaal Charles

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    Jamaal Charles missed nearly all of last season with a torn ACL, but I truly believe that he's going to turn it up in a big way in 2012.

    Back in 2010, Charles averaged an incredible 6.4 yards per carry while racking up a whopping 1,467 rushing yards and scoring five touchdowns.

    With Charles' blazing speed and amazing field vision, he's going to be a very special runner.

A.J. Green

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    I definitely believe that A.J. Green is going to be an elite wide receiver by the end of 2012—he's just so talented.

    In Green's rookie season with the Cincinnati Bengals last year, he snagged 65 passes for a whopping 1,057 yards while scoring seven touchdowns.

LeGarrette Blount

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    Some of you may not believe in LeGarrette Blount, but the talent and upside are there.

    Blount ran for 1,007 yards in just 13 games as a rookie and ran for 781 yards this past season for the Tampa Bay Buccaneers.

    If Blount can continue improving, then he should be one of the better running backs that the NFL has to offer.

Percy Harvin

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    Percy Harvin is one of my favorite wide receivers who continues to get better and better.

    This past season for the Minnesota Vikings, Harvin caught 87 passes for a whopping 967 yards and six touchdowns.

    As long as Christian Ponder continues to get better, I'll expect huge numbers out of Harvin.

Shonn Greene

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    In Shonn Greene's third season last year with the New York Jets, he broke the 1,000-yard mark for the first time, as well as scoring a career-high six touchdowns.

    Now with Tony Sparano as New York's offensive coordinator, I only see Greene's numbers getting better and better.

Blaine Gabbert

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    Blaine Gabbert may have had one putrid rookie season for the Jacksonville Jaguars, but I see him turning it around in 2012.

    Gabbert is definitely talented—hence why he was the 10th overall pick in the 2011 NFL draft—which leads me to believe that he will find his own in the NFL.

Victor Cruz

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    In Victor Cruz's first full NFL season this past year with the New York Giants, he caught 82 passes for an astronomical 1,536 receiving yards while snagging nine touchdowns.

    All that I have to say is that Cruz is going to be a very special wide receiver in a few seasons.

Sebastian Vollmer

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    Sebastian Vollmer is an absolute monster. That's all that I have to say.

    Vollmer will certainly be a dominant force as the New England Patriots' starting right tackle for many years to come.

NaVorro Bowman

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    In just NaVorro Bowman's second season in the NFL, he really proved to be a tackling machine for the San Francisco 49ers.

    Bowman racked up an unbelievable 143 tackles while adding two sacks and being a complete monster in the middle of San Fran's defense.

Mike Williams

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    Mike Williams has been a steady option for Josh Freeman and the Tampa Bay Buccaneers over the past two seasons, as he's caught 130 passes for 1,735 yards while reeling in 14 touchdown passes.

    Now that Williams will be opposite Vincent Jackson, I really see him improving his numbers in the upcoming seasons.

Titus Young

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    Titus Young had a very impressive rookie season with the Detroit Lions.

    Young was a very productive weapon for quarterback Matthew Stafford, as he caught 48 passes for 607 yards and six touchdowns in 2011.

Ryan Kerrigan

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    Ryan Kerrigan is going to be a monster for the Washington Redskins for many years to come.

    Kerrigan played in all 16 games this past season as a rookie, compiling 63 total tackles and recording 7.5 sacks while picking off one pass and returning it for a touchdown.

Mike Pouncey

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    Mike Pouncey is going to be the Miami Dolphins' starting center for many years to come.

    During his rookie season in 2011, Pouncey played very well, and he should continue to develop as one of the NFL's more dominant centers.

Darrius Heyward-Bey

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    Many of you may not realize how productive Darrius Heyward-Bey was this past season for the Oakland Raiders. He caught 64 passes for 975 yards while scoring four touchdowns.

    With Carson Palmer at quarterback, Heyward-Bey should rack up some major yardage in the upcoming seasons.

Matt Flynn

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    Matt Flynn is now the face of the Seattle Seahawks, and I truly believe that he's going to have an incredible career with them.

    Flynn has played sporadically over the past few seasons with the Green Bay Packers but enters 2012 with a career 92.8 quarterback rating while completing 62.1 percent of his passes for nine touchdowns and five interceptions.

Brooks Reed

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    I really like what I saw out of Brooks Reed this past season with the Houston Texans.

    During his rookie campaign, Reed played in all 16 games while recording six sacks and racking up 45 total tackles.

    Reed should emerge as one of the more dominant pass-rushers for many years to come.

Randall Cobb

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    Randall Cobb has the upside to be one of the more explosive wide receivers in the NFL, as well as one of the best returners that the league has to offer.

    Cobb averaged 27.7 yards per kick return his rookie season as well as 11.3 yards per punt return while scoring two return touchdowns, as well as one receiving touchdown on 25 receptions for 375 yards.

Jordy Nelson

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    Jordy Nelson really came on in a big way for the Green Bay Packers in 2011.

    Nelson caught 68 passes for 1,263 yards while averaging an incredible 18.6 yards per reception as well as scoring 15 receiving touchdowns.

    With Aaron Rodgers at quarterback, Nelson's numbers are only going to get better.

DeMarco Murray

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    Forget Felix Jones—DeMarco Murray is the future of the Dallas Cowboys running game.

    During Murray's rookie season, he racked up 897 yards while averaging 5.5 yards per carry in just 13 games.

    If Murray can stay healthy, then he can be easily a 1,500-yard rusher.