NFL's Greatest Franchise Rankings: Futures

Mike Freeman@@mikefreemanNFLNFL National Lead WriterOctober 21, 2016

NFL's Greatest Franchise Rankings: Futures

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    The future is fluid and unpredictable. It's like trying to capture running water with your hands. You can't see it. You can't get into a machine and watch it fly by. The future does, however, leave clues.

    In football, those clues are named Russell Wilson, Todd Gurley and Antonio Brown. The clues are franchises that draft wisely...and don't.

    This chapter of Bleacher Report's special series ranks the franchises in terms of promise. Some teams rank well, while others could use a time machine.

    We'll look at the top five young players on each team (under 30) as well as give a "Young Prospect Rating" where we are looking at the rest of the young players on the roster and their future outlook/productivity. These will be graded either Bleak, Solid, Good or Excellent.

    This is the fourth of five chapters to determine the greatest NFL franchise in history. This is one of the more significant since it's about hope, and hope is the best part of being a fan, a player or a franchise. There is hope for all. Even the Cleveland Browns.

32. San Diego Chargers

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    Top Five Young Players: Joey Bosa, Hunter Henry, Melvin Gordon, D.J. Fluker, Manti Te'o

    Young Prospect Rating: Bleak


    One of the most promising defensive prospects in years is Joey Bosa…and the Chargers screwed up the negotiations with him, causing Bosa to miss all of training camp and impacting his rookie season. Great job.

    Despite his front office's bungling of his contract, Bosa is demonstrating why he can be such an outstanding talent. He's helped transform that defense.

    Melvin Gordon is showing signs of life, but who knows what he will become?

    The main problem is the age of Philip Rivers. He's 34 and breaking down, and there's no decent plan to replace him. This is where the team gets hit hard and why it gets a Bleak rating. Who is going to play quarterback for the Chargers once Rivers retires?


    Total Points: 30/100

31. Houston Texans

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    Top Five Young Players: Brock Osweiler, J.J. Watt, DeAndre Hopkins, Jadeveon Clowney, Lamar Miller

    Young Prospect Rating: Bleak


    The young star is obviously J.J. Watt. He's going in the Hall of Fame and will be a big part of the future of the Texans and the NFL. That's obvious. Jadeveon Clowney might also be a star.

    After that, it's a mess. Brock Osweiler is terrible. He just is. I mean, absolutely terrible. And I was dead wrong about him. I thought he'd be so good that he'd transform this team into a championship club quickly. No way. He may end up being one of the worst free-agent signings of all time.

    He is so bad that he has transformed the electric DeAndre Hopkins into the invisible man. His overthrows and footballs tossed into the turf also injure the value of Lamar Miller. Miller is good, but his worth takes a dip if his quarterback is so inconsistent.

    Why am I listing Osweiler as a key young player even though he's so bad at his job? By virtue of his position—and the massive contract they gave him—he has to be listed.

    Can Watt play quarterback too?


    Total Points: 31/100

30. Miami Dolphins

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    Top Five Young Players: Ryan Tannehill, Jarvis Landry, Ndamukong Suh, DeVante Parker, Laremy Tunsil

    Young Prospect Rating: Bleak


    The Dolphins have hitched their wagon to Ryan Tannehill, and that wagon is on fire.

    Dolphins management will have to blow this entire thing up soon. What's clear is that Tannehill isn't the answer. Yes, he gets hit. Yes, his line sometimes plays like crap, but it's also time to say Tannehill just isn't that good.

    Ndamukong Suh was a massive free-agent expenditure, and at this point it's hard to say he was worth it. Jay Ajayi could be good, but we don't know if what we are seeing is a blueprint or a quirk.


    Total Points: 31/100

29. Cleveland Browns

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    Top Five Young Players: Joe Haden, Robert Griffin III, Isaiah Crowell, Joel Bitonio, Terrelle Pryor

    Young Prospect Rating: Solid


    People forget that RG3 is still just 26 years old. He may stink. He may be a brat (or used to be), but he is just 26. If the Browns get lucky—I know, no one puts "lucky" and "Browns" in the same sentence—they could have a good thrower for years.

    But that is the longest of long shots. The Browns are running an experiment, bringing an element of Moneyball to the NFL. It may work, but for the immediate future, they are many years away from contending.

    If you're honest, there are just three young players in their top five you can really look at as part of their future. The Browns have essentially tanked this season, and they have a cache of future draft picks.

    There is a new regime that will be picking players, and we simply don't know enough yet about what type of player they want to select or how good they are. We have never seen such an unknown like the Browns right now.

    I rank them ahead of other teams because their unknown is better than the known of franchises like Miami.

    One thing that is known: Hue Jackson has shown to be an excellent coach. The record doesn't show it, but the Browns have played hard with him at the helm.


    Total Points: 32/100

28. New York Giants

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    Top Five Young Players: Odell Beckham Jr., Jason Pierre-Paul, Johnathan Hankins, Sterling Shepard, Eli Apple

    Young Prospect Rating: Solid


    Eli Manning is 35 years old. His window is closing rapidly. It's possible that window is already shut.

    My issue with the Giants is they are vastly underprepared to replace him. Don't tell me it's Ryan Nassib. It's fair to state the Giants have one of the worst future quarterback situations in football.

    They get a higher ranking over several other teams with troubling quarterback futures because of Odell Beckham. He's that good. He will make a terrible quarterback solid and an average one good.

    The Giants defensive line has been putrid so far this season, but Jason Pierre-Paul is still a star.


    Total Points: 33/100

27. San Francisco 49ers

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    Top Five Young Players: Carlos Hyde, NaVorro Bowman, Colin Kaepernick, DeForest Buckner, Rashard Robinson

    Young Prospect Rating: Solid


    The 49ers talk often about how their roster is one of the youngest in football. That may be true, but it doesn't mean it's a good roster.

    One thing that concerns me is just how poorly the franchise has handled the quarterback spot. There's no way the team should be in a position where Blaine Gabbert is the starter for much of the season.

    But the 49ers get a boost in rankings because there is some talent on defense like NaVorro Bowman and Rashard Robinson to give the franchise hope.

    Also, to me, Colin Kaepernick has the potential to regain the skill he once possessed. It may not show this season, but it can in the future.


    Total Points: 34/100

26. Chicago Bears

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    Top Five Young Players: Jordan Howard, Alshon Jeffery, Jeremy Langford, Bryce Callahan, Kevin White

    Young Prospect Rating: Solid


    Alshon Jeffery is one of the best young receiving talents in football.

    Unfortunately the Bears are quarterbacked by Jay Cutler, a turnover machine. Apples look at Cutler and say: We wish we could turn over as well as you do. The Bears are weighted down by Cutler's future, which is questionable at best.

    Yet what you do see across certain spots of the roster is some brilliant young talent. In spots.


    Total Points: 35/100

25. New York Jets

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    Top Five Young Players: Muhammad Wilkerson, Calvin Pryor, Leonard Williams, Lorenzo Mauldin, Sheldon Richardson

    Young Prospect Rating: Solid


    Another franchise that has gotten the quarterback situation all screwed up. Geno Smith isn't the future. Not sure any of their quarterbacks are.

    What will keep the Jets interesting to watch is that defense. It has a chance to be dominant into the future, and this is why their position at No. 25 is warranted. Muhammad Wilkerson is a force and will be for years. Same with Sheldon Richardson.

    The defense is terrific, yes, and pushes the Jets' ranking higher, but they need to find a quarterback.


    Total Points: 37/100

24. Atlanta Falcons

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    Top Five Young Players: Julio Jones, Devonta Freeman, Desmond Trufant, Vic Beasley, Tevin Coleman

    Young Prospect Rating: Solid


    Matt Ryan is 31 years old. Not terribly old (by NFL standards), but his age isn't the problem. The problem is that he's just an OK player. Yes, he's had a terrific year so far, with emphasis on so far.

    I like Devonta Freeman a lot and not because we have the same last name. There's a great deal of promise there. Where I've been wrong about the Falcons is the promise of that defense. What was once an awful defense is now a solid one. Part of it is coaching, but most of it is that the draft picks and free-agent choices on that side of the ball are working.

    It also doesn't hurt the ranking of a team to have Julio Jones on it. The argument about who will become the best receiver in the sport is now between Jones, Antonio Brown and Odell Beckham.


    Total Points: 40/100

23. Los Angeles Rams

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    Top Five Young Players: Jared Goff, Todd Gurley, Tavon Austin, Aaron Donald, Alec Ogletree

    Young Prospect Rating: Solid


    Todd Gurley is such a remarkable talent, his presence alone should move the Rams' future ranking higher.

    The problem is it's impossible to trust Jeff Fisher when it comes to developing quarterbacks and growing an offense. It's just not what he does. As a result, you've seen Gurley's play take a small step back this season. Not a huge one, but a small one. This in part damages his future prospects and the team's.

    What Fisher is good at is building defenses. And the Rams have a chance to build a helluva one. That's where much of the team's future promise is.


    Total Points: 41/100

22. Detroit Lions

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    Top Five Young Players: Matthew Stafford, Ameer Abdullah, Darius Slay, Ezekiel Ansah, Eric Ebron

    Young Prospect Rating: Solid


    The Lions should probably be ranked lower, closer to 30, but I'm giving Matthew Stafford benefit of the doubt. It seems like he's been in the NFL forever, but Stafford is just 28 years old. He's actually played slightly better after the retirement of Calvin Johnson. He's become a more complete pass-thrower, using all of his weapons instead of just focusing on and lobbing passes up to Megatron.

    There's hope in Detroit because I see a team that is slowly building up its roster with players like Eric Ebron. The Lions are upgrading athleticism across the board. This bodes well for the future as well.


    Total Points: 43/100

21. Tampa Bay Buccaneers

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    Top Five Young Players: Jameis Winston, Doug Martin, Donovan Smith, Vernon Hargreaves, Mike Evans

    Young Prospect Rating: Solid


    The good news is that the Bucs have found a franchise thrower—the first one they've found in a long time. They also have a good, young back.

    Winston has shown how vulnerable even a smart young thrower is to the quickly adapting league. He hasn't been as good this season because NFL defensive coaches and players have spent the offseason studying tape of Winston and looking for weaknesses in his game. Still, when it comes to the future, his prospects are solid, and that's why the Buccaneers are in the top 25.

    You are also seeing the franchise put some weapons around Winston. This is something that should be obvious but is often one of the biggest mistakes teams make. The Bucs are not making this mistake.


    Total Points: 44/100

20. Baltimore Ravens

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    Top Five Young Players: Kenneth Dixon, C.J. Mosley, Maxx Williams, Timmy Jernigan, Ronnie Stanley

    Young Prospect Rating: Solid


    The Ravens face the same issue as a few other franchises. Joe Flacco is a good quarterback. Dare I say…elite even. But he is 31, and again we are looking at a limited window with him. Kenneth Dixon has terrific potential, though.

    You will not see the Ravens have immediate success this season or possibly even next. But I do see a team slowly gaining steam when it comes to infusing talent up and down its roster.

    Look at the talent on the Ravens. While the names are not household ones, I do see ability that could take shape in a few years. The secondary is an example of that. They have, in some ways, one of the prototypical future rosters.


    Total Points: 45/100

19. Philadelphia Eagles

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    Top Five Young Players: Carson Wentz, Vinny Curry, Malcolm Jenkins, Fletcher Cox, Zach Ertz

    Young Prospect Rating: Solid


    A team that I should probably put in the top 10, but so much is unknown about just how good Carson Wentz will be. My guess: He'll be good. He already is.

    This roster is potentially stacked, and the new/old front office has proved to be as excellent as they were/are. The highway robbery, er, trade they pulled with the Minnesota Vikings shows how crafty they can be.

    The Eagles are also going to continue putting weapons around Wentz. This Eagles front office gets it.

    The Eagles are like the Ravens in that their defense is young and athletic. While Wentz will get the attention, players like Malcolm Jenkins are also key to Philadelphia's future.


    Total Points: 45/100

18. Arizona Cardinals

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    Top Five Young Players: David Johnson, John Brown, Tyrann Mathieu, Patrick Peterson, Markus Golden

    Young Prospect Rating: Solid


    Tyrann Mathieu is one of the most impressive players I have ever been around. His combination of smarts and speed is as good as it gets in the NFL. This roster has talent up and down it. The Cardinals will be a force, and Mathieu will be one of the primary components.

    The problem is after Carson Palmer retires. The drop-off will be one of the larger ones any franchise has ever seen.

    The Cardinals are helped, however, by a tremendous amount of youth on the roster. David Johnson is a monster at running back, and Peterson is his defensive equivalent. There's a chance that Johnson could end up as maybe a top-two or top-three back, if not No. 1.


    Total Points: 50/100

17. Jacksonville Jaguars

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    Top Five Young Players: Blake Bortles, Allen Robinson, Allen Hurns, T.J. Yeldon, Myles Jack

    Young Prospect Rating: Solid


    The offense is stacked and will be for years. That's why this ranking is somewhat flawed. It's possible they should be ranked higher. Much higher. That offense alone might justify a top-five ranking. Fair enough.

    My issues with the team are mainly twofold. First, Blake Bortles still turns the ball over a bit much. Second, that Jaguars defense, at times, is absolutely horrific.

    But they have so much raw talent on offense that it's difficult to not like the prospects of the Jaguars. A lot.


    Total Points: 51/100

16. New Orleans Saints

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    Top five young players: Mark Ingram, Willie Snead, Brandin Cooks, P.J. Williams, Kenny Vaccaro

    Young prospect rating: Solid

    This is more a vote for Sean Payton than almost anything else. The team will take a step back when Drew Brees retires, but I've always thought that Payton is so good with quarterbacks he could have turned Johnny Manziel into Johnny Unitas.

    What's certain is that Ingram is one of the most underrated backs in football. He's got the potential to be a top-five back.

    As long as Payton stays for a while, and he likely will, this franchise's future is rock solid.

    Total Points: 55/100

15. Washington

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    Top five young players: Kirk Cousins, Jordan Reed, Josh Norman, Matt Jones, Josh Doctson

    Young prospect rating: Solid

    Kirk Cousins and Jordan Reed can be the next Gronk and Brady. OK, that's a little much, but that duo is already lethal.

    The fact that Washington didn't sign Cousins to a long-term deal can indeed be seen as a sign that the franchise wants to see more from him. I've seen plenty. He has a bright future. You like that?

    Josh Doctson has been injured most of this season, but that's not reason to give up on his future. He's still got a tremendous amount of potential. Josh Norman is still under 30 and has proven that he's one of the top three-to-five corners in the NFL. That won't change anytime soon.

    Total Points: 56/100

14. Minnesota Vikings

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    Top five young players: Teddy Bridgewater, Danielle Hunter, Stefon Diggs, Sam Bradford, Jerick McKinnon

    Young prospect rating: Solid

    Teddy Bridgewater's knee implosion is bad for this year, obviously, but not necessarily for the future. The technology to repair even badly damaged knees is so impressive now Dr. McCoy would be proud.

    The issue for the Vikings is they have a great deal of quarterback. Sam Bradford has surprised everyone, including me, with how good he's been. What do the Vikings do? Probably keep Bridgewater, but having too many good quarterbacks is an excellent problem.

    Notice there's no Adrian Peterson here. He's 31, and running backs that age are like 50 in normal years.

    Total Points: 60/100

13. Buffalo Bills

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    Top five young players: Tyrod Taylor, LeSean McCoy, Ronald Darby, Cordy Glenn, Sammy Watkins

    Young prospect rating: Solid

    Rex Ryan talks the best game of maybe any coach in history, but he has rarely backed up the talk. Maybe this is the year he finally does that; maybe it's not. We just don't know with Ryan.

    The issue is how good Tyrod Taylor will be. If you think he's going to be good, that's OK. If you think the opposite, as I do, that's OK too. I'm also not so certain Ryan is a good enough head coach to lead an NFL franchise. This season, in particular, will go a long way toward determining Ryan's future.

    But there's a good chance I'm underestimating Taylor. One general manager told me Taylor has the potential to be a top-five to top-seven quarterback. So I'm listening to him and other team executives and ranking the Bills higher based on Taylor.

    The Bills will also be helped by the most underrated player in the NFL in LeSean McCoy.

    Total Points: 61/100 

12. Cincinnati Bengals

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    Top five young players: Andy Dalton, A.J. Green, Jeremy Hill, AJ McCarron, Vontaze Burfict

    Young prospect rating: Solid

    Andy Dalton and A.J. Green are both just 28 years old. That's really good for the Bengals. That's one hell of a future.

    The Bengals could arguably be ranked higher. My only concern for the team is it's still full of dudes who are hotheads, as evidenced by what happened during the Steelers playoff game last year. The concern is, will that culture be passed down to the younger dudes?

    If it is, this is about where the Bengals should be ranked. If it isn't, this franchise could arguably be in the top five.

    Total Points: 68/100

11. Pittsburgh Steelers

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    Top five young players: Antonio Brown, Le'Veon Bell, Jesse James, Martavis Bryant, Ryan Shazier

    Young prospect rating: Solid

    A stacked offense, a good defense and an excellent head coach of a fairly young team. So why are the Steelers ranked just 11th?

    The reason is we will soon see a Steelers team without Ben Roethlisberger. He's 34, but that is not a normal 34 even by NFL standards. Few quarterbacks in recent history have taken the kind of beating Big Ben has.

    In the next two years, we'll still see the Steelers contend because of Roethlisberger. It just won't be much longer than that.

    But there is a great deal of other talent on the offense, like Antonio Brown and Le'Veon Bell. If the Steelers ever find a replacement for Big Ben, they'd just keep winning as they are now.

    Total points: 70/100

10. Tennessee Titans

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    Top five young players: Marcus Mariota, Derrick Henry, Jurrell Casey, Taylor Lewan, Tajae Sharpe

    Young prospect rating: Good

    I'm placing a lot of faith in Marcus Mariota here, but it's well deserved. It's also possible Derrick Henry becomes a major force, giving Mariota breathing room.

    Mariota also seems to have slightly more organizational stability around him, something that has been missing with the Titans for some time.

    When you speak to Mariota, one thing becomes crystal clear—he gets it. That is half the battle.

    One other important factor: The Titans' future is bright because they own the Rams' 2017 first- and third-round picks.

    Total Points: 75/100

9. Kansas City Chiefs

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    Top five young players: Marcus Peters, Justin Houston, Travis Kelce, Spencer Ware, Eric Berry

    Young prospect rating: Good

    Justin Houston has missed the early chunk of the season on the PUP list, but that doesn't take away from the fact he'll be a dominant force in the near future. Marcus Peters had one of the best seasons any rookie ever has.

    The Chiefs are building a Seahawks type of team (mostly), centering everything on the running game and defense (mostly). It's a retro way of approaching offense in the 21st century NFL, but it works for them.

    One of the keys is Andy Reid. He is often frustratingly conservative. Reid thinks a pass play is for those fancy whippersnapper offenses. What Reid does do well, however, is build a solid base. Overall, he makes smart franchise decisions, and this is part of why the Chiefs make the top 10.

    Total Points: 80/100

8. Denver Broncos

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    Top five young players: Trevor Siemian, Von Miller, Paxton Lynch, Chris Harris, Brandon Marshall

    Young prospect rating: Good

    This is more about faith in John Elway than anything else. He's probably running the second-best front office in football with Seattle's being first. But Trevor Siemian remains a huge gamble. Elway knows quarterbacks (duh), and he's to be trusted, but he is nonetheless taking a massive chance.

    Von Miller looks like he could last in this league for decades. His youth and great athletic ability make Denver's defense probably the best in football. Chris Harris is the heir apparent to Aqib Talib.

    Total Points: 82/100

7. New England Patriots

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    Top five young players: Rob Gronkowski, Jimmy Garoppolo, Dont'a Hightower, Jamie Collins, Malcolm Butler

    Young prospect rating: Good

    The players make the coach. I get it. But far too many people, far too often, underestimate the abilities of Bill Belichick.

    He's the best coach of all time, and when Tom Brady retires soon, it will hurt. Belichick will adapt, however. He'll work with Jimmy Garoppolo and build a solid defense and do what Belichick always does: Win and win a lot.

    There's also the fact the Patriots have the best tight end of all time in Rob Gronkowski. He's just 27. It's true that you're starting to see Gronk break down a bit, but he'll be part of the Patriots' future for some time. That alone makes them formidable.

    Total Points: 85/100

6. Green Bay Packers

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    Top five young players: JC Tretter, Ha Ha Clinton-Dix, David Bakhtiari, Nick Perry, Mike Daniels

    Young prospect rating: Good

    Ha Ha Clinton-Dix is becoming one of the better defensive backs in the sport. Nick Perry is one of the possible bright spots at linebacker. Mike Daniels has been called a game-changer.

    Oh yeah, about that Aaron Rodgers guy. He's 32 and right on that young/old border, but Rodgers has at least another three years or so playing at his Hall of Fame level. As long as he's healthy and playing, the Packers have top-five potential.

    Total Points: 86/100

5. Indianapolis Colts

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    Top five young players: Andrew Luck, T.Y. Hilton, Jack Doyle, T.J. Green, Joe Haeg

    Young prospect rating: Good

    This position for the Colts is based on the belief that Luck will rebound from an injury-plagued, mistake-filled 2015 season. He will...eventually. There may be another rough season or two, but eventually Andrew Luck is going to be Andrew Luck (a top-five talent at the position). He's too good to struggle for long.

    The main thing about the Colts now is they seem to understand that you need to, you know, draft people to protect your franchise thrower, as they took four offensive linemen in the 2016 NFL draft. They've done a crappy job of it, but they are finally getting it.

    Luck is the reason for the high ranking here. He's that talented. Luck is so talented he can overcome one of the worst front offices in all of sports.

    Total Points: 88/100

4. Oakland Raiders

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    Top five young players: Derek Carr, Amari Cooper, Khalil Mack, Latavius Murray, DeAndre Washington

    Young prospect rating: Excellent

    The Raiders are stacked and getting better. What makes them special is they have young, vibrant stars on both sides of the football. Derek Carr and Amari Cooper have lived up to the hype, which is tough to do.

    The young talent on defense is better than what we've seen. They're not showing it as much now, but this Raiders team overall is easily one of the more talented in football. It will just require some growing up.

    Head coach Jack Del Rio is a perfect fit for this young group. He's a former player who knows how to balance discipline and letting players be players.

    Total Points: 90/100

3. Seattle Seahawks

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    Top five young players: Russell Wilson, Bobby Wagner, Christine Michael, Tyler Lockett, Earl Thomas

    Young prospect rating: Excellent 

    The key here, not shockingly, is the quarterback. Russell Wilson continues to get better, and that's a scary proposition for the rest of the league. Wilson is just 27 years old, and there's the potential for him to win at least two more Super Bowls. At least.

    I wasn't sure how Christine Michael would be as a replacement for Marshawn Lynch, but he's perfect for what the Seahawks like to do on offense.

    Another key is the Seahawks front office. It's the best in football and keeps replenishing the cupboard. This is another one of those teams that could have easily ranked No. 1. I put it third only because two other franchises have even better potential—as hard as that is to believe.

    Total Points: 92/100

2. Carolina Panthers

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    Top five young players: Cam Newton, Kelvin Benjamin, Luke Kuechly, James Bradberry, Kawann Short

    Young prospect rating: Excellent

    Cam Newton inspires a lot of [different] emotions in people, but the one [common] thing he should generate is hope. He is the best young quarterback in football, and he continues to grow and get better.

    One thing that's always been true about Newton is that he works his ass off. That will continue, and the Panthers will continue putting pieces around him.

    This will seem like an odd spot to put a team that's struggling so much this year, but remember: this is looking at the future. The Panthers just made the Super Bowl, and numerous Super Bowl losers have struggled the next season.

    The Panthers were arrogant in their view of Josh Norman, letting him go to Washington and believing the Panthers system could replace him. Yet that Panthers system, the front office, is tremendous and will continue to be.

    As long as they have Newton, the Panthers will be just fine in the future.

    Total Points: 96/100

1. Dallas Cowboys

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    Top five young players: Dak Prescott, Dez Bryant, Ezekiel Elliott, DeMarcus Lawrence, Tyron Smith

    Young prospect rating: Excellent

    Dak Prescott has great potential, and Dez Bryant has the ability to be a Hall of Famer—assuming he keeps his head on straight. That is a big assumption, I know.

    Prescott, in fact, has the chance to be one of the top five throwers in the league for the next 10 years. It is rare for a rookie to show such smarts and poise. It almost never happens.

    Ezekiel Elliott is another future great.

    But you cannot talk about the future of this team without mentioning the young and vibrant offensive line. It's already one of the best we've seen maybe in decades. They will only get better.

    This isn't necessarily solely a reaction to what the Cowboys are doing now. That's part of it. But what you can see is just how quickly Prescott learns. It's Joe Montana-like. That's not hyperbole. It's true. And if you can find a franchise quarterback, that is half the battle.

    One of the keys here is I have faith in how the team is drafting. It's making smart decisions, like not drafting Johnny Manziel.

    Total Points: 100/100


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