25 Players Who Are Clearly the Future of the NFL

Russell S. Baxter@@BaxFootballGuruContributor IAugust 26, 2012

25 Players Who Are Clearly the Future of the NFL

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    The latest installment of the game and the season we love so much begins in a week and a half, but let us get ahead of ourselves for a moment. In fact, let’s get quite a bit ahead.

    In 2019, the National Football League will be celebrating its centennial. One can only imagine what the league could have in store to mark the occasion.

    More importantly, which players are we currently watching (or getting ready to watch) that will become the faces of the game? And while there are a handful of rookies here, there are also a few established stars that could be on the verge of some bigger and better things.

    In case you’re wondering, we’ve grouped this short list positionally and alphabetically.

    Suggestions are not only welcomed, but encouraged.

QB Robert Griffin III (Rookie, Washington Redskins)

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    After three games, we’ve seen a little bit of everything from last year’s Heisman Trophy winner Robert Griffin III.

    The rookie signal-caller looked sharp against the Bills, was under siege against the Bears and was very effective against the Colts.

    For the summer, the second selection in April’s draft has hit on 64.5 percent of his throws (20-of-31) and thrown a pair of touchdown passes without an interception.

    Griffin did lose a fumble in each of his first two starts, and that’s something he needs to address, but he has the tools and apparently the leadership skills to lead a Redskins team anxious to once again become a factor in the NFC East.

QB Andrew Luck (Rookie, Indianapolis Colts)

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    We’re only a few weeks into the first overall pick’s playing career, and he’s done nothing to show that he wasn’t worthy of the top spot in April’s draft.

    After all the glowing praise from his debut against the Rams, Andrew Luck may have been even more impressive against the Steelers the following week after rebounding from a tough start.

    Against the Redskins on Saturday, he completed 14-of-23 passes for 151 yards and a touchdown while shaking off a couple of sacks.

    Luck has already shown a sense of command as well as a quiet confidence this summer, which will be very important for a Colts team clearly in rebuilding mode.

QB Cam Newton (2nd Season, Carolina Panthers)

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    Cam Newton is looking for an encore after a rookie-record 4,051 passing yards and a league-record 14 rushing touchdowns by a quarterback.

    The former Heisman Trophy winner will probably tell you that he needs to cut back on those 17 interceptions. His concern with wins and losses is what makes him a star with a very bright future.

    And perhaps we’re getting ready to see something special with this team, especially if they can build on last season’s 4-2 finish after an entertaining but rough 2-8 start.

QB Russell Wilson (Rookie, Seattle Seahawks)

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    Another week and another standout performance by the third-round pick from Wisconsin.

    And even if the exciting Russell Wilson doesn’t get the start Week 1 vs. the Cardinals, it seems like just a matter of time before he winds up in the lineup.

    It appears the same old questions about his lack of ideal height have been answered, and his comfort level is evident.

    Given the direction the league is heading in at the quarterback position, where the ability to make plays with your legs is becoming more important, Wilson has the potential to do some big things.

RB Arian Foster (4th Season, Houston Texans)

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    You could have made a case that the undrafted free agent was the best player on the field during the first two rounds of the playoffs, as he had few problems running past both the Bengals and Ravens defenses.

    The versatile Arian Foster, who led the NFL in rushing and total yards from scrimmage in 2010, was at it again last season.

    Including the postseason split with Cincinnati and Baltimore, the Texans back ran for 100-plus yards in nine games (he also totaled 100 or more yards receiving in three contests).

    Still plenty of life left in those legs for the explosive Foster, who’ll challenge for the league rushing title once again.

RB LeSean McCoy (4th Season, Philadelphia Eagles)

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    It wasn’t that long ago that versatile Brian Westbrook was one of the keys to Philadelphia's offense. These days, LeSean McCoy is perhaps the Eagles’ most reliable offensive player.

    A year ago, the Pro Bowl runner led the NFL with 20 total touchdowns. Dating back to 2010, McCoy has scored 29 touchdowns (24 rushing, five receiving) in 30 games, reaching the end zone at least once in 19 of those contests.

    While the home-run threat has seen his workload increase each season in the league, McCoy may be just getting ready to hit his stride.

WR Antonio Brown (3rd Season, Pittsburgh Steelers)

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    We barely heard from the sixth-round pick from Central Michigan in his 2010 rookie season, until the postseason that year when he made a pair of key catches in wins over the Ravens and Jets.

    Last season, Antonio Brown was named to his first Pro Bowl as a kick returner. He totaled more than 1,000 combined yards on punt and kickoff returns.

    He also managed 1,108 yards receiving last season, perhaps going under the radar because he only caught two touchdown passes.

    With Mike Wallace missing training camp and the majority of the preseason, Brown has taken advantage of that situation and opened even more eyes this summer.

WR A.J. Green (2nd Season, Cincinnati Bengals)

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    It’s not often that receivers reach the 1,000-yard mark during their rookie seasons, but A.J. Green did accomplish that feat.

    He led the Bengals in receptions (65) and touchdown grabs (seven) in his debut campaign.

    His rapport with fellow second-year performer and quarterback Andy Dalton (both of whom wound up in the Pro Bowl) is evident, and the duo was a big part of the team’s unexpected playoff appearance in 2011.

    In a league loaded with quality wide receivers, don’t be surprised if Green separates himself a bit this season.

WR Calvin Johnson (6th Season, Detroit Lions)

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    Isn’t “Megatron” already a star after being named to the last two Pro Bowls?

    While he put up some very good numbers in his first four seasons, he exploded in 2011 thanks in large part to the health of quarterback Matthew Stafford, who had his own breakout year.

    Calvin Johnson caught 96 passes for 1,681 yards and 16 scores, and those numbers may even increase this year.

    The last statistic may be the most intriguing—the NFL record for touchdown receptions is held by Randy Moss (23) in 2007.

WR Julio Jones (2nd Season, Atlanta Falcons)

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    The Falcons organization gave up plenty in the 2011 draft to get the former Alabama standout, and he looks like he will be paying big dividends very soon.

    While Julio Jones caught just 54 passes last year, he averaged 17.8 yards per catch and tied for the team lead with eight touchdown receptions—six of those scoring grabs came in the final four games.

    Quarterback Matt Ryan has focused on getting him the ball this summer. In Friday night’s preseason win at Miami alone, Jones was targeted nine times, catching four passes for 90 yards.

    Could the Falcons have a pair of 100-catch wideouts in 2012?

WR Hakeem Nicks (4th Season, New York Giants)

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    While undrafted wideout Victor Cruz set a franchise record for receiving yards last season, Hakeem Nicks was a somewhat distant second despite catching only six fewer passes.

    Still, the former first-round pick saved his best for the latest successful postseason run by Big Blue, totaling 28 receptions for 444 yards and four touchdowns in the playoffs (100-plus yards in three of those contests).

    Nicks’ size and hands make him an imposing target, and the Giants wideout may be just scratching the surface as he looks to join the league’s elite at the position.

WR Kendall Wright (Rookie, Tennessee Titans)

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    It seems the rookie has already developed a rapport with new starting quarterback Jake Locker.

    And although it has only been three preseason games for the run-oriented Titans' attack, Kendall Wright leads Tennessee with eight receptions for 100 yards (one touchdown).

    While those numbers are far from eye-popping, he has looked like a true playmaker after the catch.

    Mike Munchak’s team has a few issues regarding former first-rounder Kenny Britt, and Wright appears ready to seize the opportunity.

TE Jimmy Graham (3rd Season, New Orleans Saints)

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    Talk about a warm-up act.

    Down the stretch during his rookie season of 2010, the former Miami Hurricane made his presence felt by catching 11 passes—four for touchdowns—in the final three games that year.

    That was nothing compared to the splash Jimmy Graham made in the Big Easy during his sophomore campaign, grabbing a team-high 99 passes for 1,310 yards and 11 scores.

    It wouldn’t be a shock to see all of these numbers increase in 2011 with prolific quarterback Drew Brees behind center.

TE Rob Gronkowski (3rd Season, New England Patriots)

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    If you think Rob Gronkowski's less-than-healthy status had an impact in the Super Bowl loss to the Giants in February, you may be putting it mildly.

    His combination of size, quickness and determination make Gronkowski the perfect tight end for any offense, and last season’s performance was almost mind-boggling.

    The All-Pro target caught 90 passes for 1,327 yards and set an NFL record for tight ends with 18 total touchdowns (17 receiving). That follows a rookie campaign in which he totaled only 42 catches (10 TDs).

    In two seasons, “Gronk” has totaled 132 receptions and 27 touchdowns—numbers that would make for a respectable career in some corners.

T Joe Thomas (6th Season, Cleveland Browns)

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    How can you consider Joe Thomas a future star when he’s already been to a Pro Bowl every season he’s been in the league since becoming the third overall pick in 2007?

    Because you can’t shortchange the longevity of offensive linemen, especially reliable tackles such as Thomas, who 10 years from now might be in five or six more Pro Bowls.

    While the Browns haven't been competitive the last five seasons, opponents are very aware of the challenge they face when lining up against Thomas.

C Maurkice Pouncey (3rd Season, Pittsburgh Steelers)

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    Two seasons and a pair of Pro Bowls for Maurkice Pouncey.

    Despite injury problems, he has established himself as one of the best pivots in the league.

    The Steelers center is primed for another stellar season, and he has the look of a perennial Pro Bowler as long as he can stay on the field.

DT Ndamukong Suh (3rd Season, Detroit Lions)

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    One year after taking the league by storm on his way to NFL Defensive Rookie of the Year honors and a berth in the Pro Bowl, the sky appeared to be the limit for the talented defender.

    While the Lions made their first playoff appearance since 1999, it appeared to go a little sideways for Ndamukong Suh thanks to his over-the-top play.

    Suh will look to put that behind him, and despite some knocks, he figures to be a Pro Bowler for years to come.

DE Jason Pierre-Paul (3rd Season, Giants)

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    The former first-rounder enters his third NFL season. Last year, he made quite the jump from rookie specimen to All-Pro defensive end.

    Jason Pierre-Paul finished third on the team with 88 tackles, and he totaled just over a third (16.5) of New York’s 48 sacks.

    Don’t forget his key block of a game-winning field-goal attempt in Dallas last December.

    The Eagles may arguably be deeper on the defensive line, but the G-Men have cornered the market when it comes to finding quality pass-rushers.

DE J.J. Watt (2nd Season, Houston Texans)

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    The 11th overall pick in 2011 enjoyed a solid debut season, finishing sixth on the team with 56 tackles and chipping in with 5.5 sacks.

    J.J. Watt saved his best for the Texans’ first-ever playoff run, totaling 3.5 sacks in two games. He also returned an Andy Dalton interception 29 yards for a touchdown in the wild-card win over the Bengals.

    Watt is a perfect fit in Houston’s 3-4 defense, and he could fit in just as well in another scheme should he need to.

    A lot of big things are expected from Gary Kubiak’s team as they look to build on last season’s first-ever postseason appearance. Watt may be the defense’s most important piece.

LB NaVorro Bowman (3rd Season, San Francisco 49ers)

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    It didn’t take long for the former Nittany Lion to make an impression on the 49ers' defense.

    NaVorro Bowman’s second season saw him start all 16 games and total a team-high 173 tackles. His steady play enabled Jim Harbaugh’s team to deal with the loss of perennial Pro Bowler Patrick Willis for three games.

    San Francisco gave up an NFC-low 229 points—the best performance by the franchise in that department since 1984.

LB Mychal Kendricks (Rookie, Philadelphia Eagles)

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    Last season, the Eagles linebackers were extremely raw.

    Mychal Kendricks was the first of the Birds’ two second-round draft choices in April, so there’s obviously a lack of experience here as well.

    That said, Philadelphia’s addition of former Texans Pro Bowl linebacker DeMeco Ryans will do wonders for the defensive unit and help the development of the younger players.

    Kendricks showed his range during the preseason, and he and Ryans could have big years ahead in Philadelphia.

LB Ryan Kerrigan (2nd Season, Washington Redskins)

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    Yes, 49ers outside linebacker Aldon Smith managed an impressive 14.0 sacks during his rookie season, but he was a pass-rushing specialist.

    Ryan Kerrigan’s overall numbers were far more impressive: 70 tackles, 7.5 sacks and he led the Redskins in quarterback pressures and forced fumbles.

    Jim Haslett’s defense made some considerable strides last season, and Kerrigan was an obvious factor in that improvement.

    He certainly has the look of a future Pro Bowler.

LB Von Miller (2nd Season, Denver Broncos)

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    It was quite a debut season for Von Miller.

    He combined with Elvis Dumervil (the NFL sack leader in 2009) to revive the Broncos' pass rush, which managed only 23 sacks the previous season.

    Miller totaled 64 tackles and a team-high 11.5 sacks in just 15 games on his way to NFL Defensive Rookie of the Year honors and a berth in the Pro Bowl.

    With new defensive coordinator Jack Del Rio on the job, the youngster could blossom into something extremely special.

    If Miller does indeed develop as expected, you’ll be seeing him as a mainstay on the AFC Pro Bowl roster for seasons to come.  

CB Patrick Peterson (2nd Season, Arizona Cardinals)

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    Last year proved to be quite a debut for the NFL’s fifth overall pick in 2011.

    Patrick Peterson tied an NFL record with four punt returns for touchdowns in a season (a mark first set by Hall of Famer Jack Christiansen in 1951, also as a rookie) on his way to being named the NFC Pro Bowl kick returner.

    Throw in 63 tackles, two interceptions and two blocked field goals, and you can bet he will be a force all over the field for a long time.

    In an era where rule changes are helping offenses, Peterson appears primed for the challenge ahead.

S Mark Barron (Rookie, Tampa Bay Buccaneers)

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    There was a reason that the team that gave up 494 points in 2011 (tied for the fourth-highest single-season total in NFL history) made sure they secured the services of Mark Barron, who steadily rose up the charts the last two weeks prior to the draft.

    On Friday night vs. the Patriots, he showed his nose for the ball and quickness by grabbing a deflected Tom Brady pass and racing down the right sidelines for a touchdown.

    His future looks extremely bright considering he will be playing and learning next to ball-hawking veteran Ronde Barber, who is making the conversion from corner to safety this season.