Projecting the NFL's Most Marketable Next-Generation Players

Vincent FrankCorrespondent IDecember 1, 2012

Projecting the NFL's Most Marketable Next-Generation Players

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    The public image of a specific NFL player is huge for his marketability moving forward. Just take a look at what happened to Michael Vick during his whole dog-fighting scandal: he lost millions in endorsements. 

    Meanwhile, a marginal player such as Tim Tebow, who is perceived to be wholesome, can acquire countless millions of dollars because he has "marketability." 

    It is also important to look at how much fanfare the particular player had when he entered the league and the type of impact he has made since going pro. The market that a specific player is drafted into plays a huge role as well. 

    Sorry, Buffalo, but no one on the Bills is going to be as marketable as say a Mark Sanchez in New Jersey. I know that doesn't make sense, but it is the God's-honest truth. 

    Today's article is going to take a look at the 15 most marketable next-generation players. In doing so, I will endeavor to utilize both public image and a players' ability to actually lead his team to the Lombardi Trophy as well as maintain a relatively clean persona off the field. 

    Keep in mind; I am only going to focus on players that have entered the league within the last three years. We already know Calvin Johnson is a star. 

Rob Gronkowski, Tight End, New England Patriots

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    Rob Gronkowski isn't just a hell of a football player; he is a perfect representation of that new breed of tight ends that have come into the NFL over the course of the last few seasons. 

    Not quiet and unassuming like a Tony Gonzalez. No, "Gronk" spits out an egocentric personality that would make Shannon Sharper hover in the corner asking what was wrong with the dude? This is the type of individual the New England Patriots star is. 

    You cannot deny the fact that he backs up that personality with pure dominance on the football field. Gronkowski has tallied 37 touchdowns in 42 career games. He led the NFL in touchdowns last season and is currently tops on that list in 2012. 

    Equally as important for marketability, Gronkowski has that appeal that many lady fans enjoy. You know the kind. 

Aldon Smith, Linebacker, San Francisco 49ers

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    Some may question Aldon Smith's inclusion on this list because of the off-field issues we have seen since his stellar rookie season, but that is just part of the story. 

    Smith, still young at the age of 23, has a whole heck of a lot to learn about maturing as a person off the football field. 

    That being said, he is as mature and dominating as they come on the field on Sundays. 

    Smith is close to possessing (one-half sack behind Reggie White) the NFL record for the most sacks for a player in his first two NFL seasons. He is currently on pace to break Michael Strahan's single-season sack record in his first year as a full-time starter for the San Francisco 49ers. 

    As marketability goes, Smith is a dynamo. He plays on a team that promises to be Super Bowl contenders for a foreseeable future, is linchpin on one of the best defenses in the NFL and plays in a huge market. 

    This doesn't even take into account the fact that San Francisco will be opening up a new stadium in 2014, only strengthening its brand around the world of sports. 

Von Miller, Linebacker, Denver Broncos

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    Von Miller was one of the most coveted defensive players to enter the NFL draft in quite some time when he came out of Texas A&M in 2011. The pass rusher didn't disappoint when the Denver Broncos made him the No. 2 overall pick behind Cam Newton that season. 

    Miller went on to win the NFL Defensive Rookie of the Year Award, compiling 11.5 sacks and earning a trip to the Pro Bowl. 

    The imposing linebacker has been even more dominating this season. He ranks second in the NFL to Aldon Smith with 14 sacks through 11 games and is currently in the conversation for Defensive Player of the Year. 

    After Miller compiled 17 sacks for the Aggies in 2009, it was assumed that he would forgo his senior season and enter the NFL draft. Instead, the talented young player decided to return to College Station in order to get his degree.

    This was huge considering a year earlier he was nowhere near a good student at Texas A&M, so much so that head coach Mike Sherman had to talk to him about his work ethics as it relates to academics. 

    At the age of just 20, Miller proved himself to have matured a great deal. This has only helped him since entering the NFL. 

Jason Pierre-Paul, Defensive End, New York Giants

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    There is a common misperception out there that Jason Pierre-Paul is purely a pass-rush specialist. Of course, this couldn't be further from the truth and comes from "experts" who have yet to watch tape on the dynamic young defender. 

    He can drop back into coverage, plays the run extremely well and take on double teams with the best of them. 

    This is a far cry from when Pierre-Paul entered the league back in 2010. 

    Some scouts indicated that the South Florida product had "major bust factor" when he entered the '10 draft. A lot of that had to do with the perception that he was raw because he had started only one season of major college ball. 

    As is the case with stuff like this, I enjoy looking at what our own Matt Miller has to say about the potential of pro prospects. This is from New Era Scouting back prior to the 2010 draft. 

    Although he only played one year at USF, Pierre-Paul quickly became known as a dominating pass rusher and will attract general managers and coaches looking for an edge rush. When scouting Pierre-Paul, you must look at the athleticism and potential and look past the raw technique. He is definitely a project, but one with huge dividends.

    It seems that Miller was, once again, correct in his projections. 

    In terms of marketability, it sure does help that Pierre-Paul plays for the "only" NFL team in New Jersey and has a ring after just two NFL seasons. 

Victor Cruz, Wide Receiver, New York Giants

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    This NBC music might have to go yesterday, but what Victor Cruz has done in his first two "playing" seasons with the New York Giants is nothing less than extraordinary. 

    Coming out of UMASS in 2010, Cruz wasn't even on the radar of most teams around the National Football League. As I mentioned in an article earlier this year, CBS Sports had the talented young receiver as the 593rd ranked player in the draft (73rd among wide receivers). 

    After sitting on the practice squad for the majority of the 2010 season, Cruz earned his way into New York's regular wide receiver rotation last season. 

    The results were awe-inspiring. Cruz caught 82 passes for over 1,500 yards and nine touchdowns. He also put up 21 receptions for nearly 300 yards in the Giants' Super Bowl run. 

    While his yardage numbers are down this season, Cruz ranks ninth among wide receivers in receptions and is currently a solid WR1 option in fantasy football. 

    That dance, which is so bad it's good, adds to Cruz's marketability and may set into motion a new "Macarena" around NFL stadiums...God forbid. 

Doug Martin, Running Back, Tampa Bay Buccaneers

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    Doug Martin was one of my favorite players in the 2012 NFL draft. He simply dazzled me on tape and watching him live. 

    Needless to say, I wasn't too surprised when the Tampa Bay Buccaneers traded back into the first round to acquire a running back that can be of the franchise variety. 

    After a slow start this season, "Muscle Hamster" (don't tell him I called him that) is currently among the most productive running backs in the entire National Football League. During a two-game stretch earlier this season, the Boise State product put up a whopping 486 yards and six touchdowns against the Minnesota Vikings and Oakland Raiders.

    Those two performances represented the best consecutive game stretch in the NFL since Walter Payton in 1977. Yes, "His Sweetness." 

    All said, Martin ranks second among all running backs in fantasy points this season, behind Arian Foster and just ahead of Adrian Peterson. That is simply insane. 

    Last week I covered just how dynamic Tampa Bay's offense can be moving forward. The trio of Martin, Josh Freeman and Vincent Jackson has to scare the collective jockstraps off of opposing defenses. 

A.J. Green, Wide Receiver, Cincinnati Bengals

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    There was a healthy debate in the comment section in a recent article of mine. Some readers concluded that A.J. Green is what makes Andy Dalton a good quarterback. Others countered that you need to have a good quarterback in order for a wide receiver to succeed. 

    While Larry Fitzgerald's situation with the Arizona Cardinals may sway that argument a specific way, I don't plan on touching it here. 

    Instead, I will just say that they complement one another well. What is most interesting about this dynamic duo is that it was just two seasons ago that the Cincinnati Bengals attempted to catch lightning in a bottle by signing Terrell Owens to team up with Carson Palmer. 

    As we all know, that didn't work out too well. 

    Instead, Cincinnati has found success by actually building through the draft; imagine that. 

    To put what A.J. Green has done since joining the NFL in 2010 into perspective, let's take a look at the greatest wide receiver of all time, Jerry Rice and how he fared in his first two seasons with the San Francisco 49ers. 

    Rice accumulated 135 receptions for 2,497 yards and 18 touchdowns. He was a First-Team All-Pro in his sophomore season and led that league in touchdowns that season. 

    Green is currently on pace to shatter all three of those statistics. He has already tallied 132 receptions for 2,097 yards and 17 touchdowns with five games still remaining in his sophomore campaign. 

    I don't really need to write much more here. 

J.J. Watt, Defensive End, Houston Texans

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    It could easily be concluded that J.J. Watt should be in the NFL MVP conversation. His performance as a sophomore has left many a quarterback left shaking his head in utter disbelief.

    Not only has the former first-round pick tallied 14.5 sacks through 11 games, he has a whopping 13 passes defended, mostly by virtue of batted balls at the line. 

    He has single-handily changed the outcomes of games due to a ridiculous motor at the line of scrimmage and ability to penetrate past opposing blockers. What Watt has done this season is really a thing of art, especially for those of us who love to watch dominating defensive performances.

    Watt, Aldon Smith and Von Miller, who represent the top three sack artists this season, were all selected in the top 11 of the 2011 NFL draft. Just think about that for a second. 

Tim Tebow, Quarterback, New York Jets

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    Yeah, I know. 

    This doesn't seem to make a whole lot of sense on the surface. How could a backup quarterback for a New York Jets team that has Mark Sanchez as a starter to be on this list? 

    Folks, it has absolutely nothing to do with Tim Tebow being a viable NFL quarterback, which he isn't. Instead, it is all about marketability. 

    As long as No. 15 is in the National Football League, he will be a hot topic, trendy story and much-ballyhooed individual. 

    Of course, most of this has to do with public perception as it relates to Tebow. There are some, who will be unnamed in this slide, that still buy into the archaic ideology of what a starting quarterback in the NFL is supposed to "look like."

    While I don't believe that makes any sense, it is exactly what makes Tebow marketable to the masses. 

Jimmy Graham, Tight End, New Orleans Saints

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    When Jimmy Graham was selected in the third round of the 2010 NFL draft, New Orleans Saints head coach Sean Payton had the following to say: 

    When you look at watching him run and catch and you see him progress....You watch the improvement he made already and you look at some of the things he can do right now and you continue to develop everything else

    "Everything else" clearly means what Payton intended it to mean: everything else. 

    Graham is a physical beast at the line of scrimmage. It is almost comedic to see opposing defenders attempt to jam him at the line. Equally as important, the Miami product causes a tremendous amount of mismatches down the field and between the hashes. 

    This was evident during a breakout 2011 campaign that saw Graham tally nearly 100 receptions for 1,300 yards and 11 touchdowns from the tight end position. 

    Despite losing to the San Francisco 49ers in the playoffs, Graham put up 103 yards and two scores against two of the best coverage linebackers in the form of NaVorro Bowman and Patrick Willis. Simply put, he is one of the most dynamic receiving threats I have seen enter the NFL in quite some time. 

    Adding to Graham's marketability is the fact that he has an electric personality on and off the football field. The patented dunk has been one of his MO's since taking over for Jeremy Shockey as the Saints starter last season. 

Cam Newton, Quarterback, Carolina Panthers

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    Cam Newton's four-touchdown performance against the lowly Philadelphia Eagles on Monday Night Football was a perfect canvas upon which Newton could show a national audience that he still has a tremendous amount of talent despite recent struggles. 

    You simply don't light the football world on fire like Newton did as a rookie in 2011 and not be able to have sustained success in the NFL moving forward. 

    The former Heisman Trophy Award Winner broke a wide array of rookie records, including Peyton Manning's single-season passing mark. He also tallied the most rushing touchdowns for a quarterback in NFL history during this electrifying campaign.  

    While Newton still has a relatively large maturation process to go through, both on and off the field, he is the face of the new athletic quarterback. Gone are the days that immobile signal-callers are going to go No. 1 overall in the NFL draft. 

    As evidenced with Andrew Luck and Robert Griffin III going first and second overall in the 2012 NFL draft, both athletic quarterbacks, the guard has changed in regards to what teams look for at this position. 

    Geno Smith, among other top prospects entering the NFL next season, can thank Newton for that. 

Russell Wilson, Quarterback, Seattle Seahawks

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    It wasn't until about midway through the 2011 college football season that Russell Wilson started to get a lot of play as a possible starting quarterback at the next level. His slow rise to the top of the rankings never materialized, however, as Wilson wasn't selected until the third round of the 2012 NFL draft. 

    The primary reason for this was a lack of prototypical quarterback size. At under 5'11", there were many skeptics that concluded that this former North Carolina State and Wisconsin standout just couldn't cut it in the NFL. 

    They couldn't have been more wrong. 

    Through the first 12 weeks of his rookie season, Wilson has not only put up solid numbers, he has the Seattle Seahawks in the midst of the NFC playoff race.

    Wilson's 93.9 rating is second among rookie quarterbacks behind Robert Griffin III. He has also accounted for 17 touchdowns compared to eight interceptions and is completing nearly 65 percent of his passes. 

    Just how marketable can Wilson be going forward? This all depends on the type of success Seattle has in what has proven to be an improved NFC West, especially with the San Francisco 49ers returning to elite status. 

    I will say one thing; everybody loves an underdog story, and Wilson defines that to a T. 

Colin Kaepernick, Quarterback, San Francisco 49ers

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    There is no way that Colin Kaepernick would have found himself on this list at the start of the season. The San Francisco 49ers were one win away from the Super Bowl last year and had just inked Alex Smith to a three-year contract extension. 

    For his part, Kaepernick looked nowhere near ready to be a solid starting quarterback in the National Football League during the preseason. He didn't display a whole lot of accuracy and seemed to have that "deer in the headlights" look on the football field. 

    This just goes to show you how much things can change around the NFL in such a short period of time. Kaepernick has started San Francisco's last two games, both wins against the Chicago Bears and New Orleans Saints. He has looked like a seasoned veteran out there and was just named the 49ers' starting quarterback against the St. Louis Rams tomorrow. 

    All told, this shouldn't be too surprising. Kaepernick has all the physical tools that you look for in a winning quarterback. He has ridiculous athleticism, a strong arm and seems to now fully understand the speed of the game in the NFL. 

    At 8-2-1, San Francisco possesses the second-best record in the NFC. It has, mostly due to a concussion suffered by the aforementioned Smith a couple weeks ago, put its Super Bowl hopes on the right shoulder of a quarterback that had not started a game up until two weeks ago. 

    If Kaepernick is able to continue the type of performances we have seen in the last couple weeks and lead San Francisco to a championship, he will become a rock star in the Bay Area. As you already know, any quarterback that succeeds in that climate will be a marketing phenomenon. 

Andrew Luck, Quarterback, Indianapolis Colts

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    Andrew Luck was destined to be the No. 1 overall pick in the 2012 NFL draft long before he made the decision to leave Stanford. In fact, it could be stated that he would have been the first pick, even ahead of Cam Newton, the year before. 

    Luck just seemed so much better than the competition he was playing in college. He clearly wasn't challenged a great deal his final season, as it seemed the talented young quarterback looked bored at times. 

    Needless to say, many came to the conclusion that Luck would be the most pro-ready quarterback to enter the NFL since Peyton Manning in 1998. 

    Luck hasn't done much to prove us wrong. He has the Indianapolis Colts at 7-4 and right in the thick of the AFC playoff race through 12 weeks. His ability to turn around a franchise that had won just two games the prior season is simply remarkable. 

    If Luck is able to take over for Manning in Indianapolis and lead that city to consistent Super Bowl contention, he will easily become the media darling in that fast-growing media market.

    What makes Luck such an interesting marketing tool is the fact that he is mature beyond his years and seems to just do everything right off the field. 

    You simply don't see that with young players in the professional sports world. 

Robert Griffin III, Quarterback, Washington Redskins

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    Talk about maturity. 

    Robert Griffin III has not only lit the NFL world on fire with his tremendous play as a rookie, he continues to show what it means to come into the league humble and excited to play a grown man's game. You can simply see his excitement by looking at that smile, from ear to ear, on a consistent basis while he is playing. 

    It also doesn't hurt that RGIII is currently in the midst of one of the best rookie campaigns for a quarterback in the history of the league. 

    He is coming off a two-game stretch that saw him throw eight touchdowns and lead the Washington Redskins right back into the NFC playoff picture. In the process, RGIII has continued to show fans in D.C. why he is going to be the face of that franchise for at least the next decade. 

    In reality, both RGIII and Andrew Luck are reminders of what it means to have a level head, enjoy playing the game and show a level of maturity rarely before seen. 

    Bravo to them both. 


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