Which Young Player Is the Future of Each NFL Franchise?
Different general managers choose to build their organizations in different ways. The Pittsburgh Steelers and the Green Bay Packers solely build their franchises through the draft, while the Miami Dolphins and the Philadelphia Eagles have spent big bucks to upgrade their rosters through free agency.
No matter which way an organization chooses to go, all 32 teams hope to find a young player who is already a star or a star in the making. Let’s take a look at young players who will be the stars of their respective franchises on an annual basis.
Daryl Washington, LB, Arizona Cardinals
When quarterback Kurt Warner decided to hang it up after the 2008 season, Arizona’s offense decided to hang it up as well. Over the course of the past few seasons, the defensive side of the ball has kept the Cardinals somewhat relevant in the NFC West.
Calais Campbell, Darnell Dockett and Patrick Peterson have all been solid contributors, but no one player has stood out quite like linebacker Daryl Washington. According to the analysts at Pro Football Focus (subscription required), Washington was the third-best inside linebacker in the NFL last year.
He tallied 108 tackles, nine quarterback sacks and one interception. Moreover, he was a monster against the run with 61 defensive stops.
The only things standing in Washington’s way are his run-ins with the law. If he can stay on the field at a consistent rate, Arizona’s defense will be in good hands for years to come.
Julio Jones, WR, Atlanta Falcons
When the Atlanta Falcons gave up a king’s ransom for Julio Jones in 2011, they decided it was Super Bowl or bust from there on out. Aside from Roddy White, franchise quarterback Matt Ryan had little to work with at wide receiver.
The move to trade up for Jones made a ton of sense. Sure, the organization could have waited to draft a wideout, but they would have missed out on one of the most explosive players in the draft. Looking back, general manager Thomas Dimitroff has to be happy with the decision he made.
Jones has been as good as advertised through two seasons in the NFL. In 29 games, No. 11 has amassed 2,157 yards receiving on 133 catches. Additionally, he has 18 touchdowns to his name. At 24 years of age, the former first-round pick should have no problem garnering Pro Bowl selections on an annual basis.
Joe Flacco, QB, Baltimore Ravens
Super Bowl champion quarterback Joe Flacco may not be as young as some of the players on this list, but that’s OK. After his 2012 playoff performance, his age is a non-factor. Plain and simple, he put the Baltimore Ravens on his back and led them to the promised land.
It’s also worth mentioning the organization lost more than a few key pieces on the defensive side of the ball this past offseason. Middle linebacker Ray Lewis rode off into the sunset, while safety Ed Reed and outside linebacker Paul Kruger found new homes in free agency.
This in turn will force No. 5 to shoulder even more of the load going forward. It didn’t take long, but the Baltimore Ravens now belong to Flacco. It’s hard to believe a team once predicated on defense is now viewed as some sort of offensive juggernaut.
C.J. Spiller, RB, Buffalo Bills
Outside of Minnesota Vikings running back Adrian Peterson, one could easily argue that Buffalo Bills running back C.J. Spiller is the best back in the NFL. After a breakout season in 2012, the 25-year-old Spiller seems primed for stardom.
Last season he reached the 1,000-yard rushing plateau on 154 carries, the fourth-fewest needed to reach that mark. Spiller’s six yards per carry average tied for the NFL lead among running backs.
Per Pro Football Focus (subscription required), Spiller forced 53 missed tackles on 207 attempts. No other running back in the league forced more missed tackles on a per-carry basis.
Head coach Doug Marrone should be elated to have such a dominant force in the backfield.
Cam Newton, QB, Carolina Panthers
In 2011, the Carolina Panthers drafted quarterback Cam Newton No. 1 overall to be the franchise's saving grace. Even though Newton’s on-field success hasn’t immediately translated into wins, he has been everything the organization could have hoped for when it drafted him.
Newton set multiple passing and rushing records as a rookie. He also improved in some key statistical areas in 2012. First-year general manager Dave Gettleman now has to improve the offensive weapons around the former Heisman Trophy winner.
Wide receiver Steve Smith won’t be around too much longer, and the tight end position lacks a proven playmaker. Once the level of talent around Newton improves, the Panthers' future will look even brighter then it already does.
Alshon Jeffery, WR, Chicago Bears
When the Chicago Bears fired longtime head coach Lovie Smith at the end of the 2012 season, it became clear that they were looking for a more offensively-minded head coach. The transition to a more offensive team does make sense from a personnel standpoint.
Running back Matt Forte is one the most talented running backs in the league, and Jay Cutler is one the most talented quarterbacks in the league when given time to throw. Also, Brandon Marshall is up there with some of the league’s most elite wide receivers.
Yet none of those three players mentioned above will be the future of the Bears under head coach Marc Trestman. The future of Chicago’s offense is second-year wide receiver Alshon Jeffery. Jeffery is a big target that presents a size mismatch on every play. His leaping ability will make him Cutler’s best friend in 2013 and beyond.
Andy Dalton, QB, Cincinnati Bengals
When the Cincinnati Bengals drafted quarterback Andy Dalton in the second round of the 2011 NFL draft, they officially closed the door on quarterback Carson Palmer. After closing the door on Palmer, owner Mike Brown made sure everyone knew Dalton was going to be the lifeline of the Bengals for years to come.
Dalton hasn’t disappointed Mr. Brown. As a two-year starter, the “Red Rifle” has thrown for 7,067 yards, posted a quarterback rating of 83.9 and led Cincinnati to the playoffs in back-to-back seasons.
His next biggest step will be leading the Bengals to their first playoff win since the 1990 season. This accomplishment alone will have the entire city praising the young quarterback.
Trent Richardson, RB, Cleveland Browns
The NFL has become a quarterback-driven league. No longer can teams win with a Trent Dilfer type playing quarterback. This, in turn, has devalued the importance of a strong running back and a top-notch running game.
Shoot, teams like the Green Bay Packers have proven that a consistent running game won’t slow them down over the course of a season. Yet not every team is fortunate enough to have Aaron Rodgers playing quarterback. Some teams still need a Pro Bowl-caliber running back to provide offensive balance.
The Cleveland Browns are one of those teams, which is exactly why they invested the third pick in the 2012 draft on Alabama running back Trent Richardson. When healthy, Richardson is a force that can’t be contained. His rookie season consisted of three 100-yard games and 11 trips into the end zone, along with one receiving touchdown.
An improved passing attack will help Richardson reach his full potential. His game is similar to Adrian Peterson’s, so it is only a matter of time until he becomes a running back mentioned among the NFL’s elite runners.
Dez Bryant, WR, Dallas Cowboys
Say what you want about Dez Bryant’s off-field problems, but when he is on the field, his talent shines through. His presence alone hasn’t helped the Cowboys reach the playoffs, yet Dallas’ problems run much deeper than one player.
Ever since Bryant stepped onto the field for the first time in 2010, he has posed a mismatch problem for opposing defenses. He has 27 touchdowns in three years, while averaging over 100 targets a season.
Whether it's quarterback Tony Romo throwing Bryant the ball or his future replacement, No. 88 is primed to be the Cowboys' most valuable weapon for the next decade.
Von Miller, LB, Denver Broncos
Over the past two seasons, Tim Tebow and Peyton Manning have been praised up and down when the Denver Broncos win. The praise is warranted based on Tebow’s late-game success and Manning’s Hall of Fame ability.
However, that doesn’t mean the quarterback position is the key to Denver’s success. The steadiest player in 2011 and 2012 wasn’t even a quarterback. Outside linebacker Von Miller has led the way with his relentless attack as a pass-rusher and run-stuffer.
Pro Football Focus (subscription required) has pegged Miller as the most dominant defensive player since it started grading him. In two seasons, he has tallied 146 quarterback pressures. No player during that two-year span has as many quarterback pressures as Miller.
Matthew Stafford, QB, Detroit Lions
When the Lions were firing on all cylinders in 2011, quarterback Matthew Stafford led the charge. He put up MVP-type numbers while leading the Lions to their first postseason appearance since 1999.
Yet, his poor showing in 2012 went to show that Detroit’s success is predicated on his individual success. A team may not want to rely on one player alone, but oftentimes that one player proves to be the difference between a winning season and a losing season.
Stafford may not be the most mechanically sound quarterback, but he sure can sling when the Lions need him to. An improved running game and overall play on the defensive side of the ball will help the former No. 1 overall pick regain his footing as one of the most promising signal-callers in the NFL.
Casey Hayward, DB, Green Bay Packers
Without question, Aaron Rodgers fuels the Green Bay Packers on the offensive side of the ball. But who fuels Green Bay’s defense? Some would say outside linebacker Clay Matthews, but in all reality no one player was more effective than rookie cornerback Casey Hayward in 2012.
Analysts viewed Hayward as a promising player out of college, yet no one expected him to burst onto the scene as a rookie. His coverage skills held the Packers secondary together when the injury bug bit the hardest.
When opposing quarterbacks threw into his coverage area, Hayward picked off six passes and surrendered 456 yards receiving. Additionally, quarterbacks only managed a quarterback rating of 30.4 when they targeted the rookie corner.
Hayward will be given every opportunity to become Green Bay’s biggest star.
J.J. Watt, DE, Houston Texans
Wide receiver Andre Johnson and running back Arian Foster are both outstanding players, but do they impact a game the way defensive end J.J. Watt does? The simple answer to that question is no. There isn’t a defender in the league who wreaks more havoc at the line of scrimmage than Watt.
He is truly one of the most unique players in the NFL because there doesn’t appear to be a single hole in his game. Last year he put up Madden-type numbers as a 3-4 defensive end. He finished the season with 20.5 quarterback sacks, 25 quarterback hits and 30 quarterback hurries.
Moreover, he batted down 15 passes and made 72 defensive stops against the run. At 24 years of age, Watt has the potential to go down as one of the most celebrated defensive players in NFL history.
Andrew Luck, QB, Indianapolis Colts
In terms of quarterback play, is there any one team that has been more blessed than the Indianapolis Colts? First, they hit the jackpot when they drafted Peyton Manning over Ryan Leaf in 1998. Then they seemingly struck gold again in 2012 when they drafted Andrew Luck.
Was Luck perfect during his rookie season? No, he made plenty of mistakes. But he did play well enough to get the Colts to 11 wins. The 11 wins earned Indianapolis a playoff berth and momentum heading into the 2013 season.
Luck has all the tools to become one of the most talked-about quarterbacks for the next 10 years. With another year under his belt and an improved supporting cast, No. 12 should have no problem avoiding the abominable sophomore slump.
Eugene Monroe, LT, Jacksonville Jaguars
The Jacksonville Jaguars have been an absolute mess the past few years. Quarterback Blaine Gabbert hasn’t lived up to his lofty draft status, and running back Maurice Jones-Drew has started to slowly decline after an injury-plagued 2012 season.
All signs point to Jones-Drew bouncing back in 2013, but he is no spring chicken anymore. The only player on Jacksonville’s roster who exudes future star potential is left tackle Eugene Monroe.
Monroe graded out as Pro Football Focus’ (subscription required) 15th-best offensive tackle in 2012. He only surrendered five quarterback sacks, seven quarterback hits and 22 quarterback hurries.
For the sake of Jacksonville, let’s hope someone besides Monroe turns in a Pro Bowl-caliber season in 2013.
Justin Houston, LB, Kansas City Chiefs
When we observe the Kansas City Chiefs, Jamaal Charles and Dwayne Bowe are viewed as organizational building blocks. Both players have put themselves in the spotlight with ultra-productive seasons in years past.
But there is one player that is quickly standing out more than Charles and Bowe on a weekly basis. His name is Justin Houston. Houston is an outside linebacker entering his third season with the Chiefs.
Even though Houston didn’t burst onto the scene right away as a rookie, he took a giant leap forward in 2012 by notching 10 quarterback sacks, seven quarterback hits and 27 quarterback hurries. He also made 40 defensive stops against the run.
His impressive statistical displays week after week have officially put him on the map as one of the most star-studded players no one knows about. At 24 years of age, Houston has the potential to make an impact for years to come.
Ryan Tannehill, QB, Miami Dolphins
Ever since Dan Marino retired, the Miami Dolphins have spent countless hours searching for his potential replacement. Thirteen years later, it finally appears as if general manager Jeff Ireland has delivered Marino’s replacement.
By no means is Ryan Tannehill the quarterback Marino was, but the second-year player out of Texas A&M has shown that he has what it takes to make the Dolphins relevant again. In 2012, the rookie quarterback made a few big-time throws in crucial situations.
When you turn on the tape from the Dolphins-Seahawks game, Tannehill’s leadership really stands out. He took over the game late in the fourth quarter and orchestrated a magical game-winning drive.
The former first-round pick should only improve in the coming years. Miami made it a point to add a plethora of offensive talent around him during the offseason.
Harrison Smith, S, Minnesota Vikings
When the Minnesota Vikings traded back into the first round in 2011, analysts felt safety Harrison Smith was a bit of a reach at the end of Round 1.
However, the truth is Smith wouldn’t have been there when Minnesota was on the clock for the second time. It’s hard to deem Smith a reach based on that notion alone.
The Vikings made a bold move to get the player they coveted on Day 1. Smith went on to show fans and media members alike that Minnesota’s bold move paid off. He amassed 104 total tackles, intercepted three passes and surrendered a measly 167 yards through the air.
Not to mention, opposing quarterbacks only completed 43.2 percent of their passes when they targeted his coverage area.
As a player, Smith should have a comparable career to San Diego Chargers safety Eric Weddle.
Devin McCourty, S, New England Patriots
Moving Devin McCourty to safety was a risky move after he experienced early success at cornerback. Yet Bill Belichick has proven over the years that he is right more often than not.
According to Pro Football Focus (subscription required), McCourty finished the 2012 season as an above-average defender against the pass.
To be exact, McCourty’s coverage grade was better than those of Kam Chancellor, Ed Reed and Troy Polamalu. This came as a surprise because the Patriots switched him to safety during the middle of the season.
As New England’s starting free safety, McCourty picked off three passes and only gave up one touchdown pass to opposing quarterbacks. While playing corner, he surrendered two touchdown passes in a three-game span.
If the Patriots keep McCourty at safety, they will have a star at one of the team’s weakest positions.
Jimmy Graham, TE, New Orleans Saints
Top-notch tight end play in the NFL is becoming more and more prevalent every year. Tight ends are no longer sought after because of their blocking ability, but for their receiving skills.
When the New Orleans Saints drafted tight end Jimmy Graham in 2010, they envisioned him as a pass-catching vertical threat that would open up coverage down the seem. So far, Graham has been a perfect fit for the Saints' pass-heavy offense.
In three years, he quickly ascended to Pro Bowl and All-Pro status. Quarterback Drew Brees has hooked up with Graham 215 times for 2,648 yards through the air. The two have also found a nice red-zone connection, as they have scored 25 touchdowns during that three-year span.
Graham’s rise to stardom has placed him as the top pass-catching tight end in the league.
Jason Pierre-Paul, DE, New York Giants
When general manager Jerry Reese took over the New York Giants front office, he started hoarding pass-rushers. He eventually hoarded enough pass-rushers to win the Super Bowl twice under his watch.
To this day, this still proves to be the method to his madness—which should explain why defensive end Jason Pierre-Paul is the best defensive player on New York’s roster. Since entering the league in 2010, Pierre-Paul has spent his finer days harassing every quarterback in the NFL.
In 48 games, Pierre-Paul has sacked opposing quarterbacks 27.5 times. No Giants defender has been able to tally more sacks, hits or hurries than JPP. Despite a low sack total in 2012, the former first-round pick should have no problem imposing his will on the opposition for years to come.
Muhammad Wilkerson, DE, New York Jets
It’s hard to believe that there are two 3-4 defensive ends that have played well enough to be considered the cornerstones of their respected franchises. J.J. Watt is by far the most talented 3-4 defensive end, but New York Jets defensive end Muhammad Wilkerson isn’t far behind.
Wilkerson doesn’t quite have the pass-rushing skills of Watt, but he arguably plays the run just as well as Watt does. Per Pro Football Focus (subscription required), Wilkerson only finished 9.8 points behind the Defensive Player of the Year in run defense.
Going forward, an improved pass rush from the linebacker position will only help Wilkerson become a better player. It will be hard to dethrone Watt as the top 3-4 defensive end in the league, but Wilkerson has already proved to be a dominant player on an underachieving defense.
Jared Veldheer, LT, Oakland Raiders
Much like the Jacksonville Jaguars, the Oakland Raiders have been in complete disarray over the past few seasons. Questionable front office moves have ultimately left the Raiders without much star studded potential at any position.
However, there is one player who has exceeded expectations since entering the league in 2010. Left tackle Jared Veldheer has improved every year over the course of his three-year career.
His most noticeable improvement took place from Year 2 to Year 3. Veldheer finished his junior season as one of the 10 best left tackles in the NFL. He only gave up 33 quarterback pressures total. Five of the 33 were quarterback sacks, three were quarterback hits and 25 were quarterback hurries
Oakland should be pleased that Veldheer is just now entering the prime years of his career.
Matt Barkley, QB, Philadelphia Eagles
How the Philadelphia Eagles finished the 2012 season with a 4-12 record is beyond me. The Eagles had one of the most talented rosters on paper going into the season. But as they say, the most talented team on paper rarely makes the most noise by season's end.
Even though head coach Chip Kelly inherited an extremely talented roster, he managed to add plenty of his own talent during the offseason. Drafting offensive tackle Lane Johnson in the first round and tight end Zach Ertz in the second round proved that Kelly’s offense needed to get better.
However, there wasn’t a better pick than USC quarterback Matt Barkley. Barkley is a potential star in the making. He is the most pro-ready rookie quarterback, he is a very good decision-maker and his accuracy is pinpoint.
When Barkley is given the opportunity to succeed, he may very well turn Kelly’s first draft class into a historic one.
Cortez Allen, CB, Pittsburgh Steelers
When one takes the time to examine the Pittsburgh Steelers roster, you realize the Steelers are dying for a youth infusion. They have one of the oldest rosters in the league, and they have been that way for some time now.
That doesn’t mean there isn’t youthful talent shuffled in amongst the aging veterans. Arguably, the Steelers' best defensive player is one of their youngest defensive players.
Cornerback Cortez Allen put together a strong sophomore campaign in 2012. Opposing quarterbacks targeted Allen 77 times in coverage, but he only allowed 58.4 percent of their targeted passes to be completed. Additionally, Allen only allowed one touchdown reception in coverage.
Like Justin Houston, Allen was easily one of the NFL's most underrated stars in 2012.
Sam Bradford, QB, St. Louis Rams
This is the year where Sam Bradford reaches superstardom, right? That’s exactly right. The chips are in place for the former No. 1 overall pick. General manager Les Snead and head coach Jeff Fisher made a statement this offseason when they did everything in their power to stack Bradford’s offensive arsenal.
Not only did they add key players at every offensive skill position, but also they solidified the most important position along the offensive line. All of these additions should help Bradford build on an impressive 2012 season.
In his third year in the league, No. 8 passed for 3,702 yards; he threw 21 touchdown passes and posted a quarterback rating of 82.6. At 25 years of age, Bradford has a lot of good football ahead of him in the coming years.
Ryan Mathews, RB, San Diego Chargers
Pegging running back Ryan Mathews as the future of the San Diego Chargers wouldn’t sound crazy if he could actually stay healthy. Unfortunately for him and the organization, his career up until this point has been plagued with a multitude of injuries.
First, it was an ankle injury in 2010. Then, in 2011, it was a nagging calf muscle. Finally, in 2012, a never-ending clavicle injury forced Mathews to miss four games. In three years, a wide variety of injuries have forced him to miss 10 games total.
But that doesn’t mean he will be injury prone for the length of his career. 2013 and beyond marks a new beginning for Mathews. He has the potential to go down as one of the most productive backs in the league.
His rise to stardom starts now.
Colin Kaepernick, QB, San Francisco 49ers
The San Francisco 49ers have done an incredible job at building one of the soundest rosters in the league. They are littered with All-Pro talent at just about every position—yet there is no bigger star in the making than third-year quarterback Colin Kaepernick.
Kaepernick exceeded expectations and took the 49ers to a whole new level in 2012. In 10 starts (playoffs included), No. 7 tossed 14 touchdown passes and threw for 2,523 yards. Moreover, his quarterback rating of 98.3 was the eighth-best mark in the league.
Wide receiver Michael Crabtree’s Achilles injury will hurt Kaepernick’s stock a little bit, but he is talented enough to not let one player alone derail his rise to greatness. San Francisco fans appear to be in good hands for the next seven or eight years.
Russell Wilson, QB, Seattle Seahawks
From one NFC West quarterback to the next. Russell Wilson’s situation is similar to Colin Kaepernick’s. The Seahawks, like the 49ers, have immense talent on both sides of the ball. Seattle has the best secondary in the league, an up-and-coming linebacking corps and a fierce pass rush.
Yet no one player has more potential than second-year quarterback Russell Wilson. After a slow start to the season, the light bulb finally went off for Wilson against the Chicago Bears. He led a masterful game-winning drive to kick-start a late-season push.
From that point on, Wilson only threw two interceptions while piling up seven touchdowns through the air. Despite the fact that the pressure is on in 2013, no one handles pressure better than No. 3.
Seattle will push San Francisco for the division crown on a yearly basis with Wilson under center.
Doug Martin, RB, Tampa Bay Buccaneers
We all had a good idea that running back Doug Martin would be a quality NFL player coming out of Boise State. However, very few predicted that Martin would prove be an instant game-changer.
As a rookie, Martin graded out as Pro Football Focus’ (subscription required) eighth-best running back. On 319 carries, he rushed for 1,454 yards and 11 touchdowns. Along the way, he forced 53 missed tackles and averaged 3.2 yards after contact.
Improved play on the defensive side of the ball should help garner Martin more touches going forward. The Buccaneers would be smart to hitch their wagon to No. 22 and ride him for as long as they possibly can.
Derrick Morgan, DE, Tennessee Titans
After two subpar seasons in 2010 and 2011, defensive end Derrick Morgan turned it on in 2012. He registered 6.5 quarterback sacks, 21 quarterback hits and 42 quarterback hurries. Prior to the 2012 season, his career high for sacks in a season was 2.5.
Without Morgan, Tennessee’s pass rush would have been anemic. Defensive end Kamerion Wimbley hasn’t lived up to his lofty contract, and Akeem Ayers hasn’t been able to provide a consistent rush from his strong-side linebacker position.
If Morgan could get some help from the defensive tackle position, he would have the opportunity to turn into an even bigger force off the edge.
Robert Griffin III, QB, Washington Redskins
Could the 2013 quarterback class go down as one of the best classes in history? With the likes of Andrew Luck, Russell Wilson, Robert Griffin III and Ryan Tannehill, one has to believe last year's quarterback class will go down as one of the best the NFL has ever seen.
Out of the four names mentioned above, Griffin may end up being the league's biggest star. He certainly has the most potential. On his way to the Offensive Rookie of the Year award, he put up mind-boggling numbers.
RGIII threw for 3,200 yards, rushed for 815 yards and tallied 27 total touchdowns. Additionally, he only turned the ball over seven times during the regular season. His knee injury may set his continuous rise back a little bit, but he ultimately has no reason to worry.
With the help of modern medicine, ACL injuries are nowhere near as serious as they were before.