For many, the NFL journey is one of great patience, perseverance and discipline. Often, that road to football stardom is first met with adversity and failure. Sometimes it’s just a matter of timing and opportunity that catapult a career into the upper stratosphere.
Clearly, talent alone does not make a successful career in this sport.
Here is a list of names, broken up into four tiers, of the most talented young players in the NFL who have yet to emerge.
No player on this list has been in the league longer than two seasons.
Tier 1: Near-Certainties
Tyler Eifert, Bengals
Those familiar with my work know that I’m rather partial to this rookie tight end from Notre Dame. Through his first 12 games, Tyler Eifert has 386 receiving yards with one touchdown. His numbers and targets have been limited while he has split time with incumbent starter Jermaine Gresham. The Bengals are slowly learning that Eifert is, by far, the better option in nearly every aspect.
Heading into this year's NFL draft, many questioned his blocking ability in college. However, I never saw much to be concerned about there. In fact, his effort and energy level looked more promising than anything else. Pro Football Focus (subscription required) grades him right in the middle of the pack in terms of run-blocking among tight ends.
His strength is his athleticism and ability to haul in the tough, contested catches. Dalton does need to learn how to utilize his skills more effectively and throw him some jump balls from time to time.
This is merely the tip of the iceberg for one of the most versatile young receivers in the NFL.
Whitney Mercilus, Texans
This highly athletic pass-rusher tends to be extremely creative with his hand technique but is still struggling to put all of his tools together in his first full year as a starter.
Whitney Mercilus has not been able to establish an effective bull rush in his arsenal, which has made him somewhat one-dimensional as a rusher. This is primarily the result of leverage, timing and functional strength—in that order—which means he should be fully capable of figuring out that part of his game with further experience.
While his second season in the NFL has not come with quite the bang I was expecting, he is definitely talented and has all the tools needed to succeed. Do not sleep on this former first-round draft pick because his day will arrive soon.
Ladarius Green, Chargers
Ladarius Green is another one of those extremely gifted pass-catching tight ends who has really developed over the last year. He has the combination of length and speed, which makes him a mismatch against nearly anyone he faces. We’re seeing this model of big-bodied targets flourish as of late, and it appears as though the San Diego Chargers have added another one to the mix.
Of all the tight ends in the NFL this season, Green ranks third in average yards after the catch (9.9). He has already shown signs of a promising future with his big-play ability. It won’t be long before he becomes Philip Rivers’ No. 1 option in a way similar to what we’re seeing with Drew Brees and Jimmy Graham.
Tier 2: Bright Futures
Vinny Curry, Eagles
While at Marshall University, Vinny Curry had a highly productive career, racking up sacks and playing stout against the run. His most natural position is defensive end in a 4-3 front. However, the Eagles made the transition to a 3-4 defense with the arrival of new head coach Chip Kelly last offseason. That has essentially forced Curry to play outside of his position while adjusting to a more run-stopping role as a down lineman in a 3-4 front.
Despite being out of position, Curry has the fourth-highest PFF grade on the Eagles defense. He certainly needs to be utilized more in that defense considering that he’s averaging about 21 snaps a game, per Pro Football Focus (subscription required).
Johnthan Banks, Buccaneers
One of the biggest assets to Johnthan Banks’ game is his playmaking ability. In fact, of all the cornerbacks in this year's NFL draft, only Tyrann Mathieu entered the league with a more prominent reputation as a playmaker than Banks.
One of his greatest weaknesses has been his tackling. This seems to be an ongoing issue with Banks that haunted him well into his collegiate days.
However, he has already flashed his impressive instincts and savvy as a playmaker. He currently has two interceptions and a sack.
With his incredible quickness in tight spaces and good length (6’2”), the future is certainly bright for Banks.
Christine Michael, Seahawks
In a system that I used to determine which prospects have the best physical tools, Christine Michael ended up being the highest-graded prospect out of more than 500 NFL hopefuls over a two-year span.
Bleacher Report's Sigmund Bloom wrote in his scouting report of Michael:
There are questions about his character, which caused him to be used in a smaller role during 2012 and also resulted in Michael sleeping through some meetings with teams at the Combine. He has also never had more than 166 carries in a season...Michael's relationship with the A&M coaching staff cost him playing time in 2012. He made a bad impression off the field at the combine with his missed meetings, and he also has two serious leg injuries in his past.
Once Michael is introduced into the Seattle rotation more, it will be hard to keep his explosive abilities on the bench.
If he can get his head together and stay focused, the sky is the limit for him. Expect his time in Seattle to come in his second season.
This crowded backfield could end up pushing Marshawn Lynch out the door and onto greener pastures. It may seem crazy now, but a running back like Michael could actually make Lynch expendable.
Tier 3: Hidden Gems
Quanterus Smith, Broncos
Not many fans out there are aware of Quanterus Smith at this point, but within the next year or two, people will quickly take notice.
He is a long, thin-framed pass-rusher, but he plays tough and strong. He has a nice dip move to get around the edge and bends with impressive flexibility and balance.
Smith looks like a good athlete who has a deep arsenal of pass-rush moves, using sound technique and quick feet. When he played Alabama in his final collegiate season, he beat both of the Crimson Tide's starting tackles for sacks, including one sack-fumble.
Unfortunately, this small-school prospect with big-time talent out of Western Kentucky suffered a torn ACL last November, causing him to miss his final three games of his senior season, although he still managed to rack up 12.5 sacks.
The Broncos drafted Smith despite his inability to work out during the pre-draft process.
During training camp and the preseason, Smith flashed a bit of talent, but was clearly still recovering from his recent knee surgery. The Broncos wisely stored him on injured reserve to allow him time to make a full recovery.
When healthy, he has the potential to become one of the best pass-rushers from the 2013 draft class.
Tavarres King, Panthers
If asked which receiving prospect in the 2013 draft class is the best route-runner, I would answer either DeAndre Hopkins or Tavarres King.
At 6’1” and 195 pounds, King has an alluring frame for NFL success.
Last season at Georgia, he demonstrated an elite ability to create separation from defenders while emerging as one of the nation's most productive deep threats. King averaged just over 22.6 yards per catch his senior season and scored nine touchdowns.
He was drafted in the fifth round by the Denver Broncos, but failed to make the active roster due to the depth at the Broncos' receivers position. Eventually, he was picked up by the Carolina Panthers where he remains on the 53-man roster. King has yet to see action in an NFL game.
C.J. Anderson, Broncos
I've seen every game that C.J. Anderson played in college. This talented, and vastly underrated, runner spent most of his Cal days sharing the load with backs far less capable than him. As a result, Anderson was criminally underutilized by his head coach, Jeff Tedford.
With his opportunities in college cut short, Anderson eventually made the Denver Broncos’ active roster as an undrafted free agent.
The biggest reason for Anderson making Denver's roster had to have been his preseason performance against the 49ers. Anderson looked like the most talented running back on the field that day. He has the size and strength to withstand an NFL pounding, but also can make defenders miss with finesse en route to big runs. That kind of skill is paramount to his success as a pro.
He currently is competing with veteran Knowshon Moreno and fellow rookie Montee Ball for playing time.
Tier 4: Long Shots with talent
Joe Adams, free agent
It has been a tough road for the former Arkansas All-American. Joe Adams is a somewhat undersized receiver and return man who has struggled to stay healthy. However, his problems go much deeper than just health.
Adams has struggled with being able to hold onto the ball on punts and as a receiver. He has also had difficulty in getting separation on his routes. But this could all be an extension of a nagging calf injury that eventually contributed to his release from the Carolina Panthers.
If he can stay healthy, Adams is one of the most electrifying players I’ve seen with the ball in his hands. His elusiveness and anticipation for evading tacklers is unrivaled.
Adams is surprisingly still a free agent. Since his release, he has worked out for the Oakland Raiders, Indianapolis Colts and Houston Texans, but remains unsigned.
I believe that, if given a chance, Adams can be a valuable contributor to an NFL franchise. Let us not forget he was a fourth-round pick just a year ago and made some impressive plays in the preseason with limited opportunities.
Mark Harrison, Patriots
Mark Harrison originally signed with the Chicago Bears after the draft but was released in the summer. He was quickly picked up by the New England Patriots, but has been on the Non-Football Injury list while still recovering from a foot injury that kept him out of Rutgers' pro day.
Although Harrison has the type of physical measurements that make coaches drool, he has had a very unproductive career so far considering that he has been blessed with a massive frame and incredible speed.
Terrence Frederick, Browns
This talented cornerback was selected by the Steelers in the seventh round of the 2012 draft with the 246th pick overall. Terrence Frederick has bounced around quite a bit for a youngster, having signed with the Steelers, Giants and now the Browns in less than two years.
His opportunities to shine in games have been limited in the NFL, but he demonstrated impressive instincts while at Texas A&M. Frederick is a natural playmaker and good athlete. The lack of interest in him by NFL teams has fascinated me considering how talented I think he is.
If given a proper chance to shine, I believe this defensive back can end up having a very productive career in the NFL.
Ryan Riddle is a former NFL player and currently writes for Bleacher Report.
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