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Rising NFL Stars to Keep an Eye On in 2015

Matt Bowen @MattBowen41NFL National Lead WriterMay 15, 2015

Joe Robbins/Getty Images

With the NFL draft behind us and offseason practice sessions about to start across the league, who are the "rising stars" we should focus on heading into the 2015 season? 

Here are five players on my list, guys who are in a prime position to become household names in the years to come, based on their skill sets, where they're at in their careers and how they fit into their team's systems.

 

WR Martavis Bryant, Steelers

Bryant was a legit playmaker for the Steelers in 2014, and I expect even more in his sophomore season working with Ben Roethlisberger. He has the speed and red-zone ability to make the developmental jump.

PITTSBURGH, PA - OCTOBER 26:  Martavis Bryant #10 of the Pittsburgh Steelers catches his second touchdown of the game in front of Josh Gordy #27 of the Indianapolis Colts during the third quarter at Heinz Field on October 26, 2014 in Pittsburgh, Pennsylva
Joe Robbins/Getty Images

The former Clemson wide receiver has the frame (6'4", 211 lbs) to earn his money in the red zone on the fade, skinny post or slant, and he can eat up the cushion of a cornerback outside of the numbers on the deep ball. He is a straight-line-speed guy who can flat-out go get it.

Remember, Bryant didn't even dress for the first six games of 2014 and still caught eight touchdown passes while running a limited route tree.

He needs to continue developing his route-running and find a way to consistently win at the top of the route (the break point). That's where he can focus on sinking his hips, creating separation and producing clean angles back to the ball on intermediate cuts.

Yes, the red-zone production and vertical ability is going to impact opposing defensive game plans, but look for Bryant to be even tougher to defend with an entire offseason to advance his route-running and technique.

CB Desmond Trufant, Falcons

If you are looking for a young cornerback who has coverage ability, ball skills and the transition speed to win matchups in the NFL, check out Trufant. He has smooth footwork, the ability to close on a receiver and the vision to drive on the ball.

The tape backs it up when Trufant is playing from an off-man position, walking up to challenge a receiver in a press alignment or staying in-phase (on the hip) at the break. This guy can play.

ATLANTA, GA - AUGUST 23: Desmond Trufant #21 of the Atlanta Falcons is introduced prior to a preseason game against the Tennessee Titans at the Georgia Dome on August 23, 2014 in Atlanta, Georgia.  (Photo by Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images)
Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images

With Dan Quinn taking over in Atlanta and bringing his defensive system from Seattle, Trufant will have more opportunities to win one-on-one matchups outside the numbers in single-high-safety looks. In both man and zone coverages, the third-year pro can lean on his technique and skill set in Quinn's scheme to get hands on the wide receiver at the snap and dictate the flow of his matchup.

Every time the discussion shifts to the cornerback position in this league, it starts with the standard, go-to names: Richard Sherman, Darrelle Revis, Patrick Peterson, Joe Haden, etc. Good football players, right there. Trufant could join that list if he takes the next step under Quinn.

LB Pernell McPhee, Bears

McPhee has already played a lot of NFL football as he enters his fifth pro season, but he earned a spot on this list because he will now take on a full-time role in Chicago as a key piece for Vic Fangio's new 3-4 defensive scheme. That's why general manager Ryan Pace rewarded the former Ravens linebacker in free agency. He's an upgrade, a player who can be used creatively in a Bears uniform.

Oct 26, 2014; Cincinnati, OH, USA; 
Baltimore Ravens linebacker Pernell McPhee (90) against the Cincinnati Bengals at Paul Brown Stadium. Bengals defeated the Ravens 27-24. Mandatory Credit: Andrew Weber-USA TODAY Sports
Andrew Weber-USA TODAY Sports

When you watch the tape from 2014 on McPhee, the true versatility to his game stands out. He can play multiple roles for the Bears in both their 3-4 base and nickel packages. That's where McPhee will rush off the edge, play on the interior of the defensive front or line up off the ball. He gives you options as a coordinator to generate matchups while catering to his skill set given the size (6'3", 280 lbs) and athleticism he brings to the table.

McPhee only played 540 snaps during the 2014 regular season in Baltimore, per Pro Football Focus, so we have to project his talent as an every-down player for the Bears. However, the overall production he generated in those snaps is the story here. He can be an impact player under Fangio—one opposing teams have to game plan for.

RB Jeremy Hill, Bengals

I love running backs with pro size, power and the quick burst to accelerate through the second level of the defense. That's what I see with Hill, a second-year running back out of LSU.

At 6'1", 238 pounds, Hill can get downhill on the off-tackle runs and drop his pad level on defenders to run through contact. He can also bounce the ball to the outside, use his vision and produce in the open field.

CLEVELAND, OH - DECEMBER 14:  Jeremy Hill #32 of the Cincinnati Bengals carries the ball in front of Donte Whitner #31 of the Cleveland Browns during the third quarter at FirstEnergy Stadium on December 14, 2014 in Cleveland, Ohio.  (Photo by Jason Miller
Jason Miller/Getty Images

Bengals offensive coordinator Hue Jackson is building an offense that leans on the run game to control the tempo. Remember that Cincinnati drafted offensive linemen in the first and second rounds in 2015. The idea is to get bigger, stronger, tougher and feed the ball to Hill as the feature back in this system. The Bengals plan on playing to his strengths as a back who can move the sticks and wear down opposing defenses in the fourth quarter.

There are plenty of opinions on the shelf life of running backs due to the number of hits and collisions these guys experience on Sundays, but Hill has the frame and talent to consistently produce numbers. As a rookie in 2014, he registered 1,124 yards and nine touchdowns on just 222 carries. Keep giving him the ball.

LB Anthony Barr, Vikings

When the Vikings selected Barr at No. 9 overall in the 2014 draft, I was curious to see how he would transition and fit in Minnesota's new defensive scheme. He's a rare athlete, but could he make the jump to the league under Mike Zimmer?

Nov 23, 2014; Minneapolis, MN, USA; Minnesota Vikings linebacker Anthony Barr (55) runs during the third quarter against the Green Bay Packers at TCF Bank Stadium. The Packers defeated the Vikings 24-21. Mandatory Credit: Brace Hemmelgarn-USA TODAY Sports
Brace Hemmelgarn-USA TODAY Sports

The tape tells the story there: At 6'5" and 255 pounds, Barr has the ability and skill set to get to the quarterback and play the run in the 4-3 front while he's still developing in the sub-packages. Zimmer's ability to teach will be priceless in that regard. Barr should quickly advance his learning curve in this system and become a productive, three-down player who can create issues for opposing teams.

This Vikings defense, though young in key spots, is fast, athletic and still growing as a unit. However, with players like Barr, the upside here is something to watch. He can be a modern-day linebacker who hits the quarterback, defends the run game and makes plays in coverage.

 

Seven-year NFL veteran Matt Bowen is an NFL National Lead Writer for Bleacher Report.

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