The Biggest Emerging NFL Star at Every Position in 2017
It's our last chance to take stock and view the league and its players broadly before the fog of football complicates everything between September and January.
From a career-status perspective, professional football generally has three types of notable players: those beyond their prime, those in their prime and those emerging. Here, we'll take a look at guys emerging.
Of course, the experiment is complicated by the fact we may have differing standards for "emergence." To avoid ambiguity, let's put some criteria in place.
Players listed below must be 26 years of age or younger; they must be entering their second, third or fourth pro seasons; they must not have an All-Pro nod on their resumes; they must not have been elected to more than one Pro Bowl.
Otherwise, they've already emerged or have/haven't had a chance to.
Quarterback: Marcus Mariota, Tennessee Titans
The most obvious candidates at the quarterback position are the top two picks from the 2015 draft: Jameis Winston of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers and Marcus Mariota of the Tennessee Titans. Derek Carr of the Oakland Raiders technically qualifies, but c'mon—the man was the second runner-up in MVP balloting in 2016. He has arrived.
Two years into their respective careers, both Mariota and Winston are on track to become superstars. That said, Mariota has been better. He's less prone to making poor decisions (0.7 interceptions per game versus 1.0 for Winston), and his rate-based numbers are stronger (61.6 completion rate, 7.6 yards-per-attempt average, 93.8 passer rating versus 59.6, 7.4 and 85.2 for Winston).
Mariota also put up those numbers without having a stud receiver like Mike Evans, who has gone over 1,000 yards in each of his first three seasons with Winston's Bucs. And to boot, he's rushed for nearly twice as many yards per game.
Momentum is also on Mariota's side. He took a big step forward before breaking his leg late last season, while Winston's interception rate rose in his sophomore campaign.
Honorable Mentions: Jameis Winston, Dak Prescott
The future is bright for both Mariota and Winston as well as Prescott, who broke rookie records in 2016. But the fourth-round pick was insulated by an incredible offensive line and a stacked arsenal of weapons.
It's too early to start looking for his crown, but we'd better start polishing a couple of 'em for Mariota and Winston—two signal-callers who will inevitably be compared to each other for many years to come.
Running Back: Jordan Howard, Chicago Bears
It doesn't seem fair that Chicago Bears running back Jordan Howard was a rookie the same year Ezekiel Elliott of the Dallas Cowboys rocked the league with an NFL-high 1,631 rushing yards to go along with 16 total touchdowns.
As a reigning first-team All-Pro, Elliott has already fully emerged. But because Howard carried the ball 10-plus times in only three of Chicago's first seven games last season—and because the Bears stunk in general—Howard is still arriving.
Despite that slow start, the fifth-round pick out of Indiana managed to rank second to only Elliott with 1,313 rushing yards. And among 27 backs who carried the ball at least 150 times, he ranked second to only LeSean McCoy of the Buffalo Bills with a yards-per-attempt average of 5.2 (Elliott placed third at 5.1).
Most promising is the fact the powerful 22-year-old improved over the course of his rookie campaign. That yards-per-attempt average shot up to 6.0 during the final four weeks.
"He's a guy who's never satisfied, who's continually growing and critiquing himself," then-Indiana running backs coach Deland McCullough told me in December. "He'll never get the big head, and he'll just keep on coming. Because he knows he'll have to keep proving himself."
If he can keep doing that and the Bears can provide him with more support on offense, Howard could become an unexpected superstar soon.
Honorable Mention: Isaiah Crowell
Also handcuffed by a bad offense, the 24-year-old Alabama State product averaged 4.8 yards per carry and went over 110 yards twice in the last four weeks of his breakout third season.
He's yet to put together a 1,000-yard campaign, but that might come now that the Browns have bolstered their offensive line for 2017.
Fullback: Aaron Ripkowski, Green Bay Packers
After hardly factoring as a rookie sixth-round pick, Green Bay Packers fullback Aaron Ripkowski played a nice complementary role for the Pack in 2016.
The 24-year-old averaged a solid 4.4 yards per carry on 34 carries and was a factor as a blocker, rusher and receiver during Green Bay's late-season run to the playoffs (he had 76 yards on 11 touches against the Detroit Lions in the regular-season finale).
A killer fumble in the NFC Championship Game might stick with him for a while, but the Oklahoma product still has a bright future.
Wide Receiver: Tyreek Hill, Kansas City Chiefs
So many receivers have emerged so quickly that it's tough to find young ones who haven't already reached potential pinnacles. For instance, Mike Evans, Odell Beckham Jr., Jarvis Landry and Amari Cooper have been named to multiple Pro Bowls, disqualifying them from consideration.
And yes, Tyreek Hill of the Kansas City Chiefs was technically an All-Pro as a rookie in 2016, but not as a receiver. He received that honor as a return specialist, and only six of his 12 touchdowns came through the air.
So as a wideout (and as a running back on occasion), Hill is still emerging. And as an offensive force, nobody is emerging as quickly as he is.
The West Alabama product registered 69 touches (48 receptions, 21 carries) for 779 yards from scrimmage during the final 11 weeks of his rookie campaign. He averaged 13.0 yards per carry on those rushes and caught 71.6 percent of the passes thrown his way for 10.5 yards per reception, scoring seven touchdowns in the process.
The guy had four separate runs of 20-plus yards in the final three weeks of the year, two of which went for touchdowns of 68 yards and 70 yards. He was one of seven players with at least four 20-yard runs and four 20-yard catches, despite the fact he took part in only 41 percent of Kansas City's offensive snaps.
Honorable Mentions: Michael Thomas, Brandin Cooks
How much of this has to do with Drew Brees? We'll soon find out. Thomas went wild as a rookie in New Orleans, catching 76 percent of the passes thrown his way for 1,137 yards and nine touchdowns in 2016.
That stellar campaign might have inspired them to trade Cooks to the Patriots after the 23-year-old went over 1,100 yards while scoring a combined 17 touchdowns the last two seasons. He'll team up with Tom Brady in a deeper offense, but both will have great quarterbacks throwing to them in 2017.
Tight End: Hunter Henry, Los Angeles Chargers
Last time the Los Angeles (San Diego) Chargers had an emerging tight end, Bleacher Report didn't exist and Hunter Henry had yet to celebrate his 10th birthday. Now, that emerging tight end, Antonio Gates, has become a potential Hall of Famer. But before he walks away, it appears the 37-year-old will pass the baton to Henry, who led the team with eight TDs while gaining clout with each passing week.
The second-round pick out of Arkansas scored five of those touchdown passes in the final seven weeks, and he caught 70 percent of the passes thrown his way during that stretch. He entered the league with a reputation for being consistent, reliable and sure-handed, and while he might not have Gates-level hops he's not void of athleticism.
Henry played just 53 percent of the Chargers' offensive snaps while splitting time with Gates last season, but expect that rate to climb as he continues to progress entering 2017.
"For a young player, he's got a tremendous amount of poise," Bolts tight ends coach John McNulty said recently, per Ricky Henne of Chargers.com. "You don't have to spell everything out A-Z for him."
It won't be long before we're all looking for athletic rookies O.J. Howard and David Njoku to become superstars, but with one year under his belt, Henry might beat them to the punch.
Honorable Mention: Eric Ebron
Aside from the fact his touchdown total fluctuated from one to five and back to one, Ebron's numbers have risen steadily across the board during his first three seasons in the NFL.
The 24-year-old former first-round pick out of North Carolina caught 25 passes for 248 yards with a reception rate of 53.2 in 2014; he caught 47 passes for 537 yards with a reception rate of 67.1 in 2015; and he caught 61 passes for 711 yards with a reception rate of 71.8 in 2016.
No reason to think he won't take off in 2017.
Offensive Tackle: Morgan Moses, Washington Redskins
We have to exclude Titans phenom Jack Conklin because he was a first-team All-Pro in 2016, but 26-year-old Washington Redskins offensive tackle Morgan Moses has been a stud in each of his first three seasons at right tackle, so he'll do.
He's a mountain who is impossible to move and rarely gets beat, and he has the versatility to consistently open up holes in the running game. The advanced stats also back him up. Pro Football Focus graded Moses as the 17th most efficient pass-blocker among 74 qualified offensive tackles last season, and PFF graded him as the eighth-best qualified right tackle overall.
Remember, he's started just 33 career games, but the Redskins were smart enough to lock him up before what would have been a contract year in 2017. Now, after signing a five-year, $38.5 million deal in April, the Virginia product is the third-highest-paid right tackle in football, per Spotrac.
Watch for him to make his first Pro Bowl this year.
Honorable Mention: Taylor Lewan
Like Moses, the 2014 first-round pick has steadily improved during his first three seasons in the league. Unlike Moses, he made the Pro Bowl in 2016.
He has every trait one needs to become a cornerstone left tackle, and it appears that's happening before our eyes. Love the 26-year-old's mean streak, too, but there is a fear it'll hurt him at times.
Guard: Andrew Norwell, Carolina Panthers
Like Lewan, rising Carolina Panthers guard Andrew Norwell has a nasty streak. In his case, it's helped him develop into one of the best young offensive linemen in the game.
He's a scrapper and a pleasure to watch. While those tendencies can sometimes backfire, he almost never costs his team by ditching technique or assignments, and you'll hardly ever seen him have a bad game (or even a bad play). He's a model of consistency, and he rarely takes penalties.
The 25-year-old could still manage to refine his pass-blocking game, but he delivers on what the Panthers need him for most. He's on track to become a star in 2017 before earning a lucrative new contract before/when his rookie deal expires next offseason.
Honorable Mention: Brandon Scherff, Gabe Jackson
Scherff, who abuses defensive linemen while opening up massive holes for the running game, is coming off a Pro Bowl sophomore season.
It's unclear how Jackson has yet to make a Pro Bowl, but one of the best pass-blocking guards in the game has started 44 of 48 possible contests. The Raiders know his potential; otherwise they wouldn't have given him an extension this offseason that makes him the third-highest-paid guard in football.
Center: Justin Britt, Seattle Seahawks
Another 26-year-old entering his fourth year, versatile Seattle Seahawks center Justin Britt found his groove in his first season at that position in 2016. The 2014 second-round picked spent time at tackle and guard during his first two seasons but became a lone bright spot along an offensive line that struggled.
"His improvement is very noticeable," Seahawks offensive line coach Tom Cable said earlier in camp, per the team's official website. "His command, his leadership has really showed up. Playing the position with the fundamentals, he's a whole year better. After doing it for a year, [he] understands what you're talking about from the get go. He's able to really make a difference."
He should join the Pro Bowl conversation in 2017.
Honorable Mentions: Ali Marpet, Weston Richburg
Marpet is only now making the move to center after a strong season as a run-blocker at right guard. He was already good inside but could be even better after the transition. We could see him becoming the Britt of 2017.
Meanwhile, the solid Richburg has missed just one start in three seasons but needs to become a more well-rounded lineman before he can be considered elite. That could happen this year; he was playing hurt while lacking consistency as a run-blocker in 2016.
Interior Defensive Lineman: Leonard Williams, New York Jets
The rebuilding/tanking New York Jets are not in good shape, but defensive tackle Leonard Williams has the potential to become such a dominant player that his mere presence in 2017 could pacify some frustrated fans. He's only 23 and coming off his first Pro Bowl season, and it's hard to find a flaw in the big man's game.
The 2015 No. 6 overall pick has already become one of the most effective run-stoppers in the game, which seemed inevitable when he came out of USC with so much hype. But then he went out in 2016 and recorded seven sacks, two forced fumbles and 68 tackles in 16 starts. There isn't much Williams can't do that other interior defensive linemen can.
Williams might not be at Aaron Donald's level yet, and the two are different players. But expect the 6'5", 298-pounder to put together a Hall of Fame-level career.
Honorable Mentions: DeForest Buckner, Kenny Clark
Buckner's technique isn't there yet, but he's a physical presence coming off a six-sack, 73-tackle rookie season. He put up those numbers because he's bigger and stronger than almost all of his opponents. Just wait till the 23-year-old starts mastering the technical aspects of a position that should allow him to let loose in San Francisco's new defense.
Edge-Rusher: Joey Bosa, Chargers
This feels a little unfair considering he's the reigning Defensive Rookie of the Year, but Los Angeles Chargers defensive end Joey Bosa wasn't an All-Pro as a rookie and has to be considered an emerging player after appearing in just 12 games.
He had 10.5 sacks in those 12 games, earning the highest PFF pressure percentage among rookie edge-defenders by a large margin despite missing a quarter of the season and sitting out training camp. He also had a league-high (among rookies) 29 stops and was deemed by PFF to be the second-most-productive rookie pass-rusher in the last decade (behind only Aldon Smith).
And to think he only just turned 22.
Right now, Bosa and Jadeveon Clowney of the Houston Texans have to be viewed as the next great pass-rushers. Bosa gets the credit here because he's had less time to develop, and Clowney was a second-team All-Pro in 2016.
Honorable Mentions: Danielle Hunter, Trey Flowers
Hunter is an exceptional pass-rusher who could make a run at the sack crown in 2017 after recording 12.5 takedowns despite not starting a single game in 2016.
Flowers is a superb run-defender who also picked up seven sacks despite playing only 54 percent of New England's defensive snaps last season.
Linebacker: Deion Jones, Atlanta Falcons
Apologies to C.J. Mosley of the Baltimore Ravens, who has already been to a pair of Pro Bowls and has thus emerged entering his fourth season. Deion Jones of the Atlanta Falcons might have a higher ceiling anyway.
The second-round pick out of LSU was freakin' everywhere last season, flashing his speed and coverage skills while registering 106 tackles and three picks. He also scored on two interception returns (one from his own 10-yard line) and became a vocal leader of one of the league's youngest defenses. He's a big reason why the Falcons made the Super Bowl, and if they contend again in 2017, it'll likely be because Jones took another step.
Most importantly, the 22-year-old isn't satisfied after making it that far and being named to the All-Rookie Team in 2016. Per the team's request, the undersized linebacker has put on some weight this offseason, according to Knox Bardeen of 92.9 The Game in Atlanta. That should help him become a stronger run-defender.
Honorable Mention: Jordan Hicks
According to PFF, opposing quarterbacks had a passer rating of just 53.7 when throwing to players Hicks covered in 2016. That number led all linebackers. The 2015 third-round pick also had five interceptions, 86 tackles and 11 passes defended.
He should have been a Pro Bowler, and it's unlikely he's snubbed again in 2017.
Cornerback: Jalen Ramsey, Jacksonville Jaguars
It was always going to be tough for Jacksonville Jaguars cornerback Jalen Ramsey to live up to the hype of being a top-five pick at that position, but he got off to a hell of a start in 2016.
The 22-year-old Florida State product didn't make the Pro Bowl but still had a lights-out season as both a shutdown corner and run-defender. Per PFF, Ramsey led all AFC corners with nine run stops and had more pass breakups (10) than any other rookie corner. He also intercepted two passes (bringing one back for a touchdown to seal a victory over the division-rival Titans), forced a fumble, defended 14 passes and recorded 65 tackles.
Ramsey should only get better. A lot better. He came into the league possessing all the tools required to become a superstar corner, and every indication is he's on the right track.
Honorable Mention: Anthony Brown
Picked 184 spots after Ramsey, there was much less hype surrounding Brown. And like most human beings at that position, he struggled early on. But as the 2016 season progressed, few corners were as strong in coverage as the 23-year-old sixth-round pick out of Purdue.
Per PFF, Brown surrendered a league-low 0.21 yards per coverage snap during the final five weeks of the regular season. That makes it a little easier to understand why the Cowboys let veteran corners Brandon Carr and Morris Claiborne walk in free agency.
Safety: Keanu Neal, Atlanta Falcons
In his rookie season with the Falcons, Keanu Neal was one of seven players to force five-plus fumbles. He recorded 105 tackles and nine passes defended, despite missing two games. He was PFF's highest-rated rookie safety, thanks mainly to the fact he was exceptional in coverage while also showing off a tantalizing combination of speed and strength.
"Not bragging or anything, but I intimidate guys," Neal told Bleacher Report's Tyler Dunne this offseason. "And that I could use to my advantage. Guys aren't going to catch the ball in the middle of the field if I'm there."
The 22-year-old Florida product is more than just a thumper, and if he can develop more discipline in run defense and/or the ability to rush the passer, he'll become a perennial All-Pro.
Honorable Mention: Byron Jones
The third-year converted cornerback had 81 tackles and 10 passes defended while excelling in coverage and run defense in his first full season at that position last year. Jones has all the tools, which is why he was a first-round pick in 2015, but he has to make more impact plays.
The 24-year-old has just one interception and one forced fumble in two years. He's been working on that, and apparently it has showed in camp.
Kicker: Cairo Santos
The 25-year-old has nailed 84.3 percent of his kicks through his first three seasons in the NFL, ranking 12th all time in that metric. He missed only four of 35 kicks in 2016, going 8-of-9 from 40-plus yards. He did miss three extra points, but the Tulane product is on track to have a heck of a career.
Punter: Riley Dixon
The seventh-round pick made the All-Rookie Team with a 41.3 net average (ranking ninth) and 28 punts inside the 20 (10th) as a 23-year-old in 2016.