Projecting the rise of the NFL's next megastar is not a simple task.
First and foremost, what exactly is a megastar? In the past it could be argued that a Pro Bowler was a megastar, but that's certainly not the case anymore. Even being an All-Pro doesn't have the same impact as being labeled a megastar, because All-Pros are rewarded for just one single season of play.
Brandon Lloyd was an All-Pro. Jason Babin was an All-Pro. Michael Turner was an All-Pro. Any player can peak for a season or two and become an All-Pro without ever being the best in the league for a sustained period.
A megastar suggests that the player is at the very top of his game. As such, anyone who is a megastar needs to be one of the two best players at his position. Furthermore, he needs longevity, so he has to be one of the very best for at least four years.
Indianapolis Colts quarterback Andrew Luck or Seattle Seahawks signal-caller Russell Wilson are the first players who come to mind, but Wilson and Luck have some stiff competition for those top two spots.
A key part of this is understanding the relative quality of other players at the position. Luck and Wilson won't be the next megastars if Aaron Rodgers continues to be the best quarterback in the NFL or if Peyton Manning plays for a few more seasons. Even if they don't, Philip Rivers, Drew Brees, Colin Kaepernick, Cam Newton and a flurry of other worthy contenders are there to stall both Luck and Wilson's claim to a top-two spot.
Instead, the next megastar is likely to emerge at a position where the best players are coming to the end of their respective careers.
Right now, there are four players who can argue that they are the best running backs in the NFL: Adrian Peterson, Jamaal Charles, LeSean McCoy and Marshawn Lynch. Running backs have a short shelf life and only McCoy will be younger than 28 by the end of this upcoming season.
With that in mind, the next megastar is most likely to come at the running back position.
The safest bet to usurp McCoy as the best back in the league, or join him on the top tier over the coming three or four seasons, is Eddie Lacy of the Green Bay Packers. Lacy is just 24. He was a second-round pick of the 2013 draft and led all rookies in yards per game, rushing yards, attempts and touchdowns.
What makes those numbers even more impressive? He missed one game and played a large chunk of the season without Aaron Rodgers at quarterback.
It's not hard to highlight the importance of vision. Despite the importance of physical talent for NFL running backs, a long history of big, fast backs who have failed in the NFL exists as a reminder that there is more to the position than simply putting your head down to run in a predetermined direction.
Lacy is adept at breaking through the line of scrimmage with brute force, but he also understands how to find running lanes and when to be patient or aggressive to exploit them.
On this play, Lacy doesn't rush to a spot as soon as he gets the ball from his quarterback. He patiently scans his blocking and recognizes that the edge defender is in position to prevent him from running off the right tackle. He also can't run past the inside shoulder of his right tackle, because the edge defender knocked the right tackle backward to slow down the pulling center.
This forces Lacy to work back infield, past the inside shoulder of his right guard.
San Francisco 49ers linebacker Patrick Willis prevents Lacy from cutting the whole way back to the other side of the field by crashing on the outside of the left tackle, so Lacy is forced to run up the middle of the defense. Lacy gains four yards before being gang tackled. Considering his blocking didn't work as designed, that should be considered an effective gain.
Vision is often presented as a single entity, but realistically, it is a combination of different things.
Before the line of scrimmage, backs need to show discipline, awareness and good decision-making. At the line of scrimmage, ball-carriers need to understand when to be aggressive and how to anticipate arriving defenders to angle past them or brace for impact.
Lacy is impressive in each aspect of vision. Importantly, he is very consistent in this next area, too.
Listed at 5'11" and 230 lbs, it's no surprise that there were some concerns about Lacy's weight before the start of last season. He is not a small back by any measure, but what weight he does have he carries well and uses to consistently break tackles or finish plays moving forward.
Breaking tackles was a staple of Lacy's play during his rookie season. According to Pro Football Focus (subscription required), he broke the fourth-most tackles on running plays in the league last season.
Lacy is very difficult to take down for linebackers. Often it takes more than one defender to get him to the ground, and rarely does one defender stop him from finishing his run moving forward. Crucially, in the Packers offense, Lacy is going to face fewer linebackers/defensive linemen and more defensive backs.
Defensive backs are always in a mismatch situation when Lacy is running toward them.
Because the NFL is moving towards more pass-heavy offenses, defensive personnel are getting faster and smaller. Covering space is gaining ground on taking on blockers when evaluating linebackers. Having a big back in a pass-heavy offense makes it very difficult for the defense to make the offense one-dimensional.
As a rookie, Lacy averaged 4.1 yards per carry. Included in those carries was a 60-yard burst as well as three 20-plus-yard runs and two 40-plus-yard runs.
The statistics aren't lying in this scenario. Lacy is not an explosive back who is consistently going to rip off 50-plus-yard runs. He doesn't need to be, though, because he has a combination of acceleration, agility and long speed that is good enough to consistently threaten the second level of the defense.
As Washington Redskins running back Alfred Morris proved last year, when he led the league in 20-plus-yard plays, you don't need to be as fast as McCoy or Charles to succeed in the NFL.
Lacy's longest run of his rookie season was a perfect example of both his strengths and limitations in terms of explosiveness. Though he doesn't have the second gear when he is 30 yards downfield to outrun defensive backs, he does have the speed to get 30 yards down the field in a hurry.
In terms of versatility as a receiver, Lacy will never be Reggie Bush. He will never be Darren Sproles, and he probably won't even become Andre Ellington. He isn't built to line up out wide or in the slot to run a variety of routes that create separation against NFL defensive backs.
Even as a runner, Lacy is more of a one-cut mover than a shifty back.
This simply isn't an area of his game where he should expect to be among the most effective players in the NFL; however, he also shouldn't need to be that kind of player. Playing with Aaron Rodgers and the Packers' cast of young receivers will likely result in very few targets to work with. Neither Lynch or Peterson have ever been above-average receivers despite being two of the best backs in the NFL.
Lacy just needs to be effective working from the backfield, running short curl routes, routes into the flat or catching screen passes. His play as a rookie suggests he can do that for years to come.
Because the running back position is so competitive in terms of the talent available, consistency is often what separates those at the very top. Of the 2013 rookie class, a class that produced a number of impressive rookie running backs, including Ellington, Le'Veon Bell and Zac Stacy, Lacy was the most consistent performer.
Though Lacy is only entering his sophomore season, it's already abundantly clear that he has the ability to become the very best running back in the NFL. The former Alabama prospect shares many similarities with Lynch, but unlike the Seahawks ball-carrier, Lacy has landed in a much better situation for the early stages of his career.
Lacy wasn't taken at the top of the first round like fellow Alabama running back prospect Trent Richardson, but as Richardson continues to falter, Lacy should move closer to the kind of player who many expected Richardson to be.
It may be hard to remember now, but when he was coming out of college, Richardson was widely billed as the next superstar running back. Don't be surprised when Lacy takes hold of that title soon enough.