Which NFL Player Is the Future of Every Position?
The next big thing. It's what every NFL general manager tries to put on his roster when the draft rolls around. It's what every coach tries to develop from late-round selections. Every position has someone who's going to be added to that elite group sooner rather than later.
Every player in this slideshow isn't currently ranked in the top three of his respective position, but he will be there within a season or two. These are players who are either prototypical talents for their roles or are unique and finally have the necessary talent around them to let them shine.
Quarterback: Ryan Tannehill, Miami Dolphins
2013 Stats: 16 games played, 355-of-588 (60.4 percent) passes completed, 3,913 yards, 24 touchdowns, 17 interceptions; 40 carries, 238 yards, one touchdown
Leading off at quarterback isn't a member of the Andrew Luck-Robert Griffin III-Russell Wilson trio; it's Ryan Tannehill. After Tannehill's rookie year, where he showed he's a competent NFL quarterback, the Miami Dolphins brought in a deep-ball receiver in Mike Wallace. The offensive line then completely fell apart.
This past offseason, the Dolphins anticipated having their tackle situation fixed. This year Tannehill will show whether he's ready to take the next step. However, he's got the best skill set to work with right now, and the talent surrounding him is a perfect complement to his strong arm and advanced mobility.
The reason I went with Tannehill over Luck, Griffin or Wilson is solely due to his situation. Luck doesn't have the ideal No. 1 receiver to help his development, while Griffin has injury concerns. Wilson is also considered an elite talent already, so he can't be the future if he's the present.
Running Back: Andre Ellington, Arizona Cardinals
2013 Stats: 15 games played, 118 carries, 652 yards, three touchdowns; 39 catches, 371 yards, one touchdown; one kick return, 21 yards
Warrick Dunn, Ray Rice and Maurice Jones-Drew have all provided the blueprint on exactly how the Arizona Cardinals should look to use Andre Ellington. He's not going to be a 400-touch-a-year running back, but 300-plus touches shouldn't be out of his wheelhouse.
He was a heavy-duty back in college for the Clemson Tigers and showed that he could easily be the best fit for a Bruce Arians offense that will rely on his receiving abilities more than his rushing abilities. Ellington can line up both in the slot and in the backfield and can be effective catching the ball from either spot.
On top of that, he can still run effectively between the tackles. Getting anywhere from 250-260 carries and 60-70 catches should be the sweet spot that would give Arizona a back who could achieve over 1,000 yards rushing and over 600 yards receiving. Ellington has the potential to do even better than that if the offensive line performs well in Phoenix.
Wide Receiver: Alshon Jeffery, Chicago Bears
2013 Stats: 16 games played, 89 catches, 1,421 yards, seven touchdowns; 16 carries, 105 yards
The argument could be made that Alshon Jeffery is already an elite talent and just hasn't been recognized as such. The 24-year-old has shown he's not afraid to go over the middle and make catches while also being the outside threat he was in college at South Carolina.
The Bears used him as a No. 2 receiver, but he's a long-term No. 1 and should end up usurping Brandon Marshall for that role in 2014 or 2015. As receivers older and slightly better than him start to retire, the elite group of wide receivers is going to top out with Julio Jones, A.J. Green and Jeffery.
The SEC receiving talents are all big, fast and fearless. Jeffery will be the best of the three, though, because he doesn't have the health problems Julio has had through his career. He also has a better quarterback to work with than A.J. Green has in Andy Dalton.
Slot-Style Receiver: T.Y. Hilton, Indianapolis Colts
2013 Stats: 16 games played, 82 catches, 1,083 yards, five touchdowns; two carries, six yards; 17 punt returns, 159 yards
As good as Andrew Luck is, this shouldn't be his best receiver. However, people will look at T.Y. Hilton in the same way they used to look at Wes Welker a few years back.
He's not an elite outside receiver and doesn't have the skill set to ever become one, but you don't have to be an elite outside talent to be a top-notch receiver in the NFL. Just ask Victor Cruz. He plays more in the slot than outside and is a top-10 receiver in the NFL. Hilton is a nice blend between Cruz and Welker with some big-play potential.
Hilton also is entering the third year of his career, and that's normally when wide receivers make a huge jump to stardom. If he can put it all together this year, he will be talked about the way Welker and Cruz have been the past few seasons.
Tight End: Zach Ertz, Philadelphia Eagles
2013 Stats: 16 games played, 36 catches, 469 yards, four touchdowns
Teams who understand how to use tight ends properly wish they could have someone of Zach Ertz's talent level on their roster. As a receiver, there was no one better in the 2013 NFL draft. As a blocker, that's where he needed a lot of work.
Ertz has become a competent blocker for the Eagles. However, he needs to continue improving his all-around game to realize his full potential. He'll also have to beat out Brent Celek for the No. 1 tight end role. But he should be able to do both.
Ertz will be a favorite for Nick Foles because of how he uses his body to box out defenders on intermediate routes. But he can also destroy a team in the seams with speed and intelligence. Chip Kelly has a good one here and can turn Ertz into a top-tier talent at tight end.
Offensive Tackle: Tyron Smith, Dallas Cowboys
2013 Stats: 16 games started at left tackle; one sack, three hits and 27 hurries allowed on 665 pass-rushing snaps; plus-6.4 Pro Football Focus run-blocking grade
Before there was Joe Thomas and Jake Long, there was Orlando Pace, Walter Jones and Jonathan Ogden. The next generation looks to have Matt Kalil as one of the top tackles, but the player who looks to be even better than him is Tyron Smith from the Dallas Cowboys.
When watching a tackle, you focus on how well he protects his quarterback, then how well he knocks back a defensive lineman in the running game. Smith is a great pass protector. He has extremely quick footwork that allows him to stay between Tony Romo and the pass-rushing defender.
He also has a great initial punch to knock back the defender and throw him off balance more often than not. That shows up in his run blocking as well because he can drive back defenders while also sealing the edge for DeMarco Murray.
Offensive Guard: David DeCastro, Pittsburgh Steelers
2013 Stats: 16 games started at right guard; two sacks, five hits and 23 hurries allowed on 587 pass-rushing snaps; plus-8.1 PFF run-blocking grade
David DeCastro looked like the next Alan Faneca before the Pittsburgh Steelers even drafted him. After a poor rookie season marred by injuries, DeCastro looked like the player he was at Stanford destroying defensive linemen in 2013.
There's potential for him to get even better than he was in 2013. He needs to learn the most he can from new offensive line coach Mike Munchak. The former Titans head coach will be crucial for the Steelers enforcer on the interior of the offensive line.
After having poor lines for years, the Steelers have shown a commitment to actually getting better. Having a competent center in Maurkice Pouncey next to DeCastro will help as well. He is the next Steve Hutchinson or Faneca and only needs to continue on his current projection to get to that level.
Center: Stefen Wisniewski, Oakland Raiders
2013 Stats: 16 games started at center; zero sacks, two hits and nine hurries allowed on 550 pass-rushing snaps; plus-5.2 PFF run-blocking grade
The great centers in the NFL are intelligent and nasty. Stefen Wisniewski should have nasty as his middle name. The Raiders center fits the old-school Raider mentality that focuses on grit and toughness; he sets the perfect example for the linemen around him.
The problem is that the linemen around him have been mediocre at best. Tony Bergstrom coming back from injury and the combination of Kevin Boothe and Gabe Jackson being added this offseason should allow the Raiders to finally have a solid group of guards to surround Wisniewski with.
If they are even league-average, Wisniewski can help make them look better than they are because of his intangibles. It's only a matter of time before the entire league views him as the talented center he really is.
Nose Tackle: Damon Harrison, New York Jets
2013 Stats: 16 games played, 66 tackles, seven tackles for loss, 1.0 sacks, nine QB hurries, two pass deflections
The key piece to a Rex Ryan defensive line is his nose tackle. Damon Harrison is the ideal fit for a nose tackle in the 3-4 defenses the Ryan family uses. At 6'4", 350 pounds, he's a massive load for the interior offensive linemen to handle.
The thing that makes Harrison unique isn't that he's just big and powerful; he's also extremely quick off the snap and forces offensive lines to have two hats or a scheme around blocking him. When there's a guy as good as he is inside, it makes guys like Muhammad Wilkerson and Sheldon Richardson look even better.
That's what makes nose tackles great. They don't have to play more than half the snaps each game. But when they do play, they wear out the interior linemen quickly, making it even easier for the quicker ones like Wilkerson and Richardson to make plays.
Defensive Tackle: Nick Fairley, Detroit Lions
2013 Stats: 15 games played, 35 tackles, three tackles for loss, 6.0 sacks, 14 QB hits, 21 QB hurries, one fumble forced, two fumbles recovered, one pass deflection
The best interior linemen in the league are Ndamukong Suh, Geno Atkins and Gerald McCoy. All of them are young powerhouses who are extremely quick off the line. Suh and McCoy are tall with long frames and understand how to use their hands properly.
Nick Fairley fits into that same mold with them. While Fairley was at Auburn, he looked like a clone of Suh at Nebraska. He was an eater of worlds who destroyed interior lines, throwing around offensive linemen like a bull at a rodeo.
Fairley is finally coming close to his old college form. If he can keep his nose clean off the field, he and Suh will be known as this decade's Marcus Stroud and John Henderson: a pair of defensive tackles who can post double-digit sacks every year.
3-4 Defensive End: Cameron Jordan, New Orleans Saints
2013 Stats: 16 games played, 47 tackles, three tackles for loss, 12.5 sacks, 13 QB hits, 50 QB hurries, two fumbles forced, two fumbles recovered, four pass deflections
Cameron Jordan is a monster and the ideal fit for the Rob Ryan defense at defensive end. He had a ridiculously good year as the base left end in 2013. As a run defender, Jordan had almost perfect run fits playing at the 5-technique defensive end.
He would either eat a double-team or create disruption in the backfield on almost every run play. If the Saints had a better linebacker behind him, the defense could have been even more productive as a whole because of how much attention Jordan drew.
While he was a great run defender, he also destroyed offensive linemen who tried to block him one-on-one when he went after quarterbacks.
A big reason why the Atlanta Falcons took an offensive lineman No. 6 overall was because they had to figure out who could potentially neutralize Jordan. When an entire team changes its draft strategy to account for a rival player, that says he's elite.
4-3 Defensive End: Chandler Jones, New England Patriots
2013 Stats: 16 games played, 79 tackles, seven tackles for loss, 11.5 sacks, 14 QB hits, 39 QB hurries, one fumble forced, one fumble recovered, one blocked kick, one defensive touchdown
Defensive ends almost always take their biggest leap in their third season, but when they do, it's after having flashes shown in their first two seasons. Chandler Jones has shown a ton of flashes and looks like he'll be a legitimate pass-rushing threat for a long time.
He's able to play both defensive end positions and will even stand up to rush the passer in some looks in Bill Belichick's defense. His disruption is his production as well. The end has one of the best pass-rushing production rates when he's on the strong side of a defense.
But an underrated talent Jones has is setting the edge against the run. He's one of the best in the NFL at doing so. He doesn't draw many double-teams, but he does understand how to shed a tackle or a tight end to get to the ball-carrier for a minimal gain.
3-4 Outside Linebacker: Justin Houston, Kansas City Chiefs
2013 Stats: 11 games played, 44 tackles, three tackles for loss, 11.0 sacks, eight QB hits, 42 QB hurries, one fumble forced, two fumbles recovered, four pass deflections
As good as Justin Houston is, he's not the best 3-4 outside linebacker in the NFL. But he could be. Sometimes, the future of the position is the guy who's going to be the best player there for a long, long time. In this case, Houston definitely fits as the future.
His disruptive nature off the edge is even more impressive when you realize he just played 11 games. Averaging one sack every game is one way to bring yourself into an elite conversation. The other way is to compound that with additional pressures.
But when someone is a complete player, that's how he truly shows he is worthy of the "best in the NFL at his position" title. Houston has two parts of that covered, as he's a great run defender and disruptive pass-rusher. But he does need to become more competent in coverage.
4-3 Outside Linebacker: Lavonte David, Tampa Bay Buccaneers
2013 Stats: 16 games played, 145 tackles, 18 tackles for loss, 7.0 sacks, five QB hits, 17 QB hurries, five interceptions, two fumbles forced, one fumble recovered, 10 pass deflections
Lavonte David is one of the few players in the NFL whose stat line shows what film shows. In this case, it's that he's a complete and total beast in all facets of his defense. He's one of the best coverage linebackers in the NFL and has shown to be a ball hawk.
To compound that, he's shown he's a great pass-rusher and can get after a quarterback on designed blitzes to put the pressure on and force errant passes. He's also a productive pass-rusher, earning his combined 30 disruptions on just 107 rushes.
As a run defender, not only can he set the edge of the defense, but he also isn't afraid to attack the ball-carrier at or behind the line. He is one of the best at stopping ball-carriers for no gain or a loss. The Buccaneers have one of the best outside linebackers in the NFL yet again, one who is reminiscent of their last great—Derrick Brooks.
Inside Linebacker: Luke Kuechly, Carolina Panthers
2013 Stats: 16 games played, 156 tackles, 10 tackles for loss, 2.0 sacks, eight QB hurries, four interceptions, seven pass deflections
Originally, I was going to go with Kiko Alonso here. But he's moving to weak-side linebacker in the Bills' 4-3 defense, so the next best choice is Luke Kuechly. Kuechly is a solid coverage linebacker and extremely good tackler in open space.
The biggest thing that helps Kuechly out is the pair of massive defensive tackles in front of him. With Kawann Short and Star Lotulelei keeping offensive linemen away from Kuechly, he has free rein behind them and can roam to the ball cleanly.
That's a big reason why Kuechly's run defense is so effective. The only area he really needs to improve to become elite is his pass rush. But that will come with time. His instinctual play will keep him as one of the best inside linebackers even when his athleticism starts to fade.
Cornerback: Desmond Trufant, Atlanta Falcons
2013 Stats: 16 games played, 70 tackles, two tackles for loss, one QB hurry, two interceptions, one fumble forced, one fumble recovered, 17 pass deflections
Darrelle Revis and Richard Sherman will be the top two corners in the league for at least the next few years, but Desmond Trufant is the best up-and-coming outside cornerback in the NFL. His strong 2013 season showed just a glimpse of his overall potential.
The best talent Trufant has is the ability to play effectively in any sort of zone or man coverage. Considering Mike Nolan likes to switch up coverages quite often, this allows him to show off his full range of abilities. He's also a ball hawk who knocks away a ton of passes.
However, he really needs to get better at catching because he dropped at least four or five interceptions in 2013. Once he starts to either catch more interceptions or force quarterbacks to avoid him—or both—he'll end up as one of the top three corners in the league.
Nickel Defender: Tyrann Mathieu, Arizona Cardinals
2013 Stats: 13 games played, 68 tackles, five tackles for loss, 1.0 sacks, two QB hits, nine QB hurries, two interceptions, one fumble forced, nine pass deflections
Nickel defenders are tough to come by. Tyrann Mathieu isn't exactly a safety or a cornerback. He's someone you just have to keep on the field in the same vein as Charles Woodson.
Mathieu may not be able to cover everyone in man or even play the best zone, but he's definitely a playmaker who can help out in run support. The Cardinals have a unique defender who will chase down offensive playmakers to knock the ball out even when a play looks completely lost. On top of that, he isn't afraid to jump as many routes as possible.
The best nickel defenders take chances. They take risks that sometimes explode in their faces. But more often than not, the chance they take will be one that results in a positive play for the defense instead of one for the offense. Mathieu is one of those guys.
Safety: Eric Reid, San Francisco 49ers
2013 Stats: 16 games played, 77 tackles, one QB hit, four interceptions, two fumbles recovered, 11 pass deflections
The top safeties in the NFL right now are Earl Thomas, Jairus Byrd and Eric Berry. Eric Reid is the next great safety if he can continue on his current path. As an all-around safety, few are better than he was during his best play in 2013.
He can get after the passer on the few pass rushes he will have throughout the season. He's also a playmaker who understands how to play multiple zones and man coverages effectively. This translated to a ton of turnovers because he has great instincts to attack the ball.
On top of that, he is very solid in run defense and isn't afraid to come up and hit someone. Reid flows to the ball well and rarely overpursues. This was a drastic improvement from where he was during his final year of college.
All stats used are from Pro Football Focus' Premium Stats (subscription required), ESPN.com, CFBStats or NFL.com. All combine and pro-day info is courtesy of NFLDraftScout.com. All contract information is courtesy of Spotrac and Rotoworld.
Scott Carasik is a Featured Columnist for Bleacher Report. He covers the Atlanta Falcons, college football, the NFL and the NFL draft. He also runs DraftFalcons.com.
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