Identifying the Next NFL Superstar at Every Position
There's an abundance of young and exceptional NFL talent ready to explode on the professional football scene, but only a small portion of that group will ultimately morph into the league's legitimate superstars.
These players have yet to enter the prime of their respective careers, but those peaks are bound to be ultra productive and will lead to All-Pro distinctions and massive paydays.
This is a look at the next wave of NFL superstars.
Criteria is as follows:
- 25 or younger during the 2013 regular season;
- Named to fewer than two Pro Bowls;
- Never named to an All-Pro team;
- Playing under rookie contract;
- Drafted in 2011 or later.
Quarterback: Andrew Luck, Indianapolis Colts
Andrew Luck is the quintessential quarterback specimen, a create-a-player-on-Madden-esque composition of every desired physical and mental attribute for his position.
At 6'4'' and 234 pounds, he possesses prototypical height and bulk.
The former No. 1 overall pick has a strong arm with pinpoint accuracy all over the field, and his pocket presence can be likened to that of a successful, 10-year veteran.
Beyond all that, he's a deceptively athletic scrambler and exudes leadership.
Although his statistics weren't gaudy in 2012—especially compared to Robert Griffin III and Russell Wilson—he guided his formerly 2-14 Indianapolis Colts to an 11-5 record and a postseason berth as a rookie. All this with a brutal offensive line and a mediocre assortment of talent across the board.
Luck also led four fourth-quarter comeback wins last year. As renowned football researcher Scott Kacsmar explained, fourth-quarter comebacks "does the best job of encapsulating the top five quarterbacks in NFL history," as Peyton Manning, Dan Marino, John Elway, Joe Montana and Johnny Unitas top the list today.
Probably the second-best statistic that correctly highlights the greatest quarterbacks in history is game-winning drives. Marino, Manning, Elway, Brett Favre, Warren Moon and Tom Brady are currently the cream of that statistical crop.
Luck, meanwhile, orchestrated seven game-winning drives a season ago.
Do Luck's late-game heroics in his debut campaign foreshadow all-time greatness?
Running Back: Doug Martin, Tampa Bay Buccaneers
Doug Martin—otherwise known as "Muscle Hamster" or "Martinscoreseasy"—was a dynamic offensive weapon as a rookie.
He carried the ball 319 times for 1,454 yards on the ground and snagged 49 passes for another 472 yards with 12 total touchdowns overall.
His 1,926 yards from scrimmage were only outdone by Calvin Johnson and Adrian Peterson in 2012.
The Boise State product's low center of gravity, sudden shiftiness and astounding leg drive will provide him the necessary physical tools to emerge as a prolific feature back. He also has the perfect mix of scat-back attributes that work effectively in today's spread-out NFL.
Running behind an underrated offensive line and with scary outside receivers—Vincent Jackson and Mike Williams—on the Tampa Bay Buccaneers' roster, Martin will find plenty of seams through which to run in his professional career.
He's a fantasy owner's, well, fantasy.
Fullback: Rhett Ellison, Minnesota Vikings
Rhett Ellison was a 6'5'', 250-pound wrecking ball armed with a tremendous ability to find and lock on to opposing defenders in his path in 2012.
Some of Adrian Peterson's big-gainers were sprung by Ellison's devastating and fundamentally sound lead blocks.
While he's not as compact as other punishing fullbacks, his athleticism is quickly converted to sheer overwhelming power when he connects with a defensive lineman or linebacker at the second level.
As Ellison is slowly incorporated to the Minnesota Vikings' passing game, he'll be one of the most complete fullbacks in the NFL. He was already one of the most violent lead blockers as a rookie.
Wide Receiver: Julio Jones, Atlanta Falcons
Julio Jones is a rocked-up, 6'3'', 220-pound, havoc-creating wide receiver.
The prized high school recruit and former Alabama star can impose his will on opposing defenders with unadulterated forcefulness and is blessed with electrifying 4.39 speed.
The 133 catches, 2,157 receiving yards and 18 touchdowns he's accumulated in his first two NFL seasons bears a striking resemblance to Andre Johnson's first two years. The Texans star reeled in 145 passes for 2,118 yards and 10 touchdowns.
Jones' size-to-speed ratio is downright freaky, and with Matt Ryan throwing him the football, it's only a matter of time before his physical freakiness leads to an assortment of individual accolades.
Frankly, that time is now.
Tight End: Dwayne Allen, Indianapolis Colts
Coby Fleener was supposed to be Andrew Luck's go-to tight end target in 2012, but Dwayne Allen's presence made that impossible.
Like his quarterback, the Clemson product almost instantly adapted to the professional game. He finished the year strong, with 45 receptions for 521 yards with three touchdowns.
While those numbers don't necessarily indicate future productivity, Allen was also an exceptionally sound blocker as a rookie.
Per Pro Football Focus (subscription required), Allen was the No. 2 pass-blocker and No. 3 run-blocker last year.
In the new Pep Hamilton-designed offense—the same one Luck ran at Stanford that highlighted the tight ends—Allen is on the verge of blossoming into one of the steadiest, most well-rounded players at his position.
Offensive Tackle: Tyron Smith, Dallas Cowboys
Tyron Smith was unquestionably dominant as the Dallas Cowboys right tackle in 2011.
He had growing pains on the left side in 2012; however, his comprehensive skill set points to an extraordinarily bright NFL future.
As a run-blocker, this former USC Trojan paves the way like an unfairly oversized yet speedy guard. His technique as a pass-blocker needs fine-tuning, but the feet and anchoring power are there.
2013 will be a breakout season for this 6'5'', 307-pound left tackle. He is oh so close to turning the corner to elite distinction.
Guard/Center: Kevin Zeitler, Cincinnati Bengals
Does Wisconsin more efficiently produce mass quantities of cheese or studly offensive linemen?
Cincinnati Bengals guard Kevin Zeitler may be the next great one from Madison.
In 2012, he was most impactful as a pass-blocker, but he also has the size, speed and fundamental skills to emerge as a top-flight run-blocker as well.
He wins with brute strength and stunningly quick feet that are put into place by sharp recognition ability, and he possesses a sudden, pad-popping punch.
There's plenty to like about what Zeitler brings to the field on the interior of the offensive line, and he'll only get better from here.
Pass-Rushing Outside Linebacker: Justin Houston, Kansas City Chiefs
At 6'3'' and 270 pounds, the ripped-to-shreds Justin Houston has the model NFL linebacker frame and physique.
But he's much more than muscle man.
After accumulating 5.5 sacks as a rookie in 2011, the former Georgia Bulldogs standout tallied 10 quarterback takedowns in 2012, deflected five passes, forced one fumble and had one interception.
Houston has all the required athletic traits to beat offensive tackles.
He can do it with a deluging bull rush as well as a sneaky quick and tightly bent speed rush around the edge.
With Tamba Hali on the other side of the Kansas City Chiefs defensive line, Houston is destined to create an abundance of backfield disruption in 2013 and beyond.
Defensive End: Chandler Jones, New England Patriots
Though injuries curtailed Chandler Jones' rookie campaign, the 6'5'', 260-pound Syracuse alum is a rangy defensive end with above-average athleticism and unsuspecting power when flying off the edge.
His 35.5-inch arms were the longest of any defensive linemen at the 2012 combine, and Jones uses those tentacles to fight offensive tackles before they can get into his body.
He had five sacks in his first six games but only one the remainder of the season, yet his early success flashed what he's capable of.
With a clean bill of health, don't be surprised if Jones materializes as one of the NFL's premier pass-rushers.
4-3 Outside Linebacker: Lavonte David, Tampa Bay Buccaneers
Lavonte David was absolutely inconsiderate to opposing offenses in 2012.
The swift yet rugged outside linebacker had 112 solo tackles as a rookie and, according to Team Rankings, registered a whopping 20 tackles for loss, which trailed only Von Miller and J.J. Watt for the league lead.
At 6'1'' and 233 pounds, David possesses the prototypical size for the weak-side linebacker position in the Buccaneers' famed 4-3 defense, as he's lightning quick to the ball on runs and is fast enough to run with slot receivers and tight ends down the field.
In a pass-predicated NFL that isn't changing any time soon, David will continue to thrive.
Inside Linebacker: Bobby Wagner, Seattle Seahawks
Bobby Wagner, the 2012 Senior Bowl MVP, silenced critics who believed he was too small coming out of Utah State a season ago.
At 6'0'' and a wiry 230 pounds, Wagner flourished at the ever-important middle linebacker position for the Seattle Seahawks.
His natural speed was aided by his rapid reaction skills against the run, and he exhibited a calm demeanor dropping into coverage, all while showing off solid tackling technique.
When the regular season came to a close, Wagner had 139 total tackles, four passes defensed, three interceptions and two sacks.
Playing with an array of talent in Seattle, Wagner will ultimately be the piece that holds everything together.
Defensive Tackle: Mike Martin, Tennessee Titans
Pass-rushing defensive tackles are more valuable today than ever before. As a rookie, Mike Martin of the Tennessee Titans was a nightmare for offensive guards and centers.
Playing at the relatively small size of 6'1'' and 306 pounds for his position, this former Michigan star propels himself into the backfield with never-quitting effort, quick-twitch athleticism and an inordinate amount of upper-body strength.
Though he registered only three sacks, according to Pro Football Focus, among defensive tackles who took at least 25 percent of their respective team's snaps in 2012, only Ndamukong Suh, Nick Fairley and Geno Atkins registered a higher Pass-Rush Productivity rating than Martin.
(PFF classifies Pass-Rush Productivity as "the percentage of pressure a defender gets a sack, hit or hurry on a quarter relative to the amount of times they rush the passer.")
Martin was far from a liability against the run, but with more lower-body strength, he'll be sturdy as a run-stuffer in the future.
Cornerback: Stephon Gilmore, Buffalo Bills
Stephon Gilmore was hit with a variety of pass-interference and holding penalties as a rookie, and Dave Wannstedt's vanilla scheme certainly didn't accentuate the former South Carolina Gamecock's strengths.
Gilmore's an ultra-physical, stick-to-your-hip defensive back who was born to play Darrelle Revis-like press man on the outside.
He was a little lost in zone coverage as a rookie, and the lack of pass rush generated by the Buffalo Bills' unimaginative, blitz-averse defensive front didn't help either.
But in Mike Pettine's creative, blitz-happy system, Gilmore has a prime opportunity to take a major leap into the prestigious class of NFL shutdown corners.
Safety: Harrison Smith, Minnesota Vikings
Harrison Smith asserted himself as one of the NFL's most instinctive playmaking coverage safeties as a rookie.
He snagged three interceptions and returned two for scores for the Minnesota Vikings in 2012.
The former Notre Dame star finished his stellar debut season with 97 total tackles, 11 passes defended, one forced fumble and one sack.
While the 6'2'', 213-pound defender was a bit slow to process against the run, he's surprisingly athletic and has stunning acceleration when tracking the football.
On an underrated defense in Minnesota, Smith will be a household name very soon.