It takes just one hit.
The difference between enshrinement in Canton and a new career outside of football can come down to one collision, one fall, one bad twist, turn or cut.
According to a recent NFL Management Council study, the average length of an NFL career is just over six years. For some players, it takes that much time to be recognized as an elite NFL player.
Pittsburgh's James Harrison went undrafted in 2002, spent multiple years on the Steelers’ practice squad and was released on three occasions. Harrison is now regarded as one of the best linebackers in the NFL, having been selected to the Pro Bowl each of the last five seasons.
There are many young, supremely talented players in the league with obvious, undeniable potential—the potential to be the best of the best in the NFL. Not in four or five years. Some of these guys are already part of the discussion.
If you don’t know them now, don’t worry. You will.
Picture the perfect NFL receiver. Now erase that image of Calvin Johnson and think about this:
Julio Jones is 6’3”, 220 lbs. and ran a 4.39 40-yard dash at the NFL combine. He has freakish athletic ability, incredible hands and route-running skills to match. He also has a terrific quarterback throwing to him.
Jones nearly eclipsed the 1,000-yard mark in his 2011 rookie campaign, and he’s just warming up. Jones is supremely talented. He’s entrenched in a dynamic offense with playmakers all around him. His ceiling is as high as they come.
It’s not often a player is so highly regarded after just one season, but Jones is a rare talent and a future NFL superstar.
It’s a common conception that Cincinnati has the potential to be a bad landing spot for young players. Between a lack of success on the field and a laundry list of problems off it, the Bengals haven’t exactly provided the best environment for maturation.
But success begets motivation to get better, and the Bengals experienced some success last season, led by rookies Andy Dalton and A.J. Green.
Green surpassed 1,000 receiving yards last year and showed what he’s capable of doing to opposing defenses. Simply put, he’s a game changer.
Few players have the physical ability Green possesses.
The Bengals can build around Green and his success, but they won’t find another receiver with as much talent. If Green stays healthy and can avoid the pitfalls many other Cincinnati players have not, he has the potential to be the best receiver in the NFL for many years.
Never has a rookie inherited bigger shoes to fill.
Peyton Manning exited Indianapolis last offseason and took with him one of the most impressive resumes of any quarterback in the history of the NFL. He rejuvenated the franchise in so many ways, but he also left the Colts without a quarterback.
It was probably the best way for Manning to leave, however. He allowed Indianapolis to pull the trigger on Andrew Luck without any hesitation. It’s Luck’s franchise now.
Luck is capable of greatness, and he’s already shown what he can do at the helm. Through two games, Luck has thrown for 533 yards and three touchdowns, and he already has a win under his belt.
It’s not just about stats, though. Luck looks exactly as advertised. He’s poised, intelligent, humble and driven—not to mention his physical abilities. Luck can make every throw. He’s the total package.
He may not put up Manningesque numbers this season, but Luck will be a superstar of the same repute when his final touchdown has been thrown.
Featured running backs are becoming more and more scarce in the pass-heavy NFL. Running backs are expected to pass block and catch balls out of the backfield, and the three-down back is becoming a rarity.
The fact is every team wants to protect its best assets, which often means lighter workloads at the running back position. There are, however, players too good to only be on the field on first and second down.
Richardson is one of those exceptional players. He has been heralded as the best running back prospect since Adrian Peterson and for good reason.
Richardson displayed how good he can be during his college years at Alabama, amassing more than 3,000 rushing yards and 35 touchdowns in three years. He is a 220-pound brusier but can also catch the ball out of the backfield. He’ll juke a linebacker out of his spikes on first down and run him over on second.
If he can stay healthy, Richardson can be as important to Cleveland as Peterson has been to Minnesota. He’s that good.
We’ve all heard the knocks on RG3: He’s too small. He’s a run-first quarterback. He can’t be a prototypical NFL quarterback.
Nothing could be further from the truth. Griffin isn’t Mike Vick or Cam Newton, though his athletic ability is similar in a lot of respects. Griffin has the speed and quickness. He just doesn’t need to use his legs to do a lot of damage.
Griffin is a pass-first quarterback. He’s cerebral, calculated and extremely intelligent. He can make all the throws, be it a deep out pattern or a back-shoulder fade. Griffin has the potential to be the best dual-threat quarterback the NFL has ever seen.
One good game can be a fluke. Two good games are a pattern. If Griffin keeps playing as he has thus far, he is going to be an NFL superstar.
Miller has done something in one season that I never thought could be done—he changed my mind.
I didn’t think Miller could make as big an impact as he has in the NFL. I thought he was too small and one-dimensional to be an effective pass-rusher at the highest level. I was wrong.
Miller was the defensive Rookie of the Year in 2011 after notching 64 tackles and 11.5 sacks in 15 games. He may be the best speed rusher in the entire NFL right now.
Miller is extremely quick off the snap and possesses elite explosiveness and agility from the linebacker position. If he continues to hone his pass-rushing skills, Miller could be the best pure pass-rusher in the NFL in the near future.
Of all defensive ends in the NFL, JPP may be the most athletically gifted—Julius Peppers and Mario Williams included.
Pierre-Paul notched 16.5 sacks in his 2011 sophomore campaign with the Giants, and he’s far from done. Pierre-Paul has freakish athleticism, exceptional pass-rushing moves and, above all, a motor that just doesn’t stop.
JPP has benefited from learning from one of the best defensive line units in the entire league. He hasn’t had to be “the guy” in New York—but he is anyway. In a division with Tony Romo, Mike Vick and Robert Griffin III opposing the Giants, JPP has stepped up to fill a desperate need.
If sack numbers are the litmus test for production, Pierre-Paul is one of the best. If effort is the measure of potential, he will be the best. Don’t expect it to take very long, either.
It’s often hard to measure the ability of NFL safeties based purely on statistics. There are the obvious exceptions, of course. Game changers like Ed Reed and Troy Polamalu have always put up extraordinary numbers.
Given Barron’s limited career in the NFL (only two games at this point in the season), it’s hard to find statistical evidence to support claims of stardom. He’s made 14 tackles and defended four passes.
All Barron needs is a little time. He has the potential to be the best safety in the NFL in the near future. He has the speed of a much smaller safety but the size of LaRon Landry and an indefinable ability to find the football.
Barron has already proved himself to the Buccaneers, and in the next few years, he will have proved himself to the rest of the league. Barron is a superstar in the making.
If you don’t know Aldon Smith, you probably didn’t watch the Niners play last year.
In his 2011 rookie season, Smith recorded 14 sacks and two forced fumbles. He was a nightmare for opposing offenses and was a big part of one of the best defenses in the NFL last season.
At 6’4”, 258 lbs., Smith has the ideal frame for a 3-4 outside linebacker. He has a terrific mix of speed and power-rushing moves in his arsenal but can also be an effective run and pass defender.
As the 2012 season progresses, Smith should see an even larger role on defense. He’s still somewhat raw but has one of the highest ceilings in the entire league at his position. Given some time to hone his skills and learn alongside Patrick Willis, Smith could evolve into one of the best outside linebackers in the NFL.
I’ll make a bold statement: Patrick Peterson is one of the five best all-around players in the entire NFL.
The Arizona Cardinals selected Peterson fifth overall in 2011, and no one questioned using such a high pick on a cornerback. Peterson had a terrific career at LSU and showed how physically gifted he is on defense and in the return game.
Peterson has exceptional size for a cornerback (6’1”, 219 lbs.) and ran a 4.34 40-yard dash at the NFL combine.
It isn’t just his physical attributes that make Peterson so talented.
Peterson has great awareness and field vision, which makes him deadly on special teams. He returned four kicks for touchdowns in 2011 and showed the Cardinals how multi-dimensional he can be as a football player.
Peterson is already considered one of the best athletes in football. He’ll soon be considered one of the game’s brightest stars.