Rising NFL Stars to Keep an Eye on in 2017
The next wave of top NFL talent is always waiting to claim its spot among the league's elite.
The majority of the game's stars didn't step into the professional ranks and immediately dominate. A rare group did, but most needed a few seasons before they earned their reputations as the best of the best.
Last season, everyone saw the coronation of Khalil Mack, David Johnson and Mike Evans as three new faces of the league. The opposite also occurs to create more room for those ready to experience breakthrough campaigns. Veterans like Darrelle Revis and Jamaal Charles no longer live up to their previous lofty standards.
It's time to identify those players on the verge of earning their way into the NFL's upper echelon.
Two guidelines were used to determine which players qualified. First, not one of the individuals mentioned has made a Pro Bowl. Second, each of them is 25 years old or younger.
The following are the league's brightest young talents who have a chance to develop into bona fide stars.
Quarterback Marcus Mariota
The NFL claims multiple young, promising quarterbacks. Derek Carr, Dak Prescott and Jameis Winston are usually the first mentioned, but the Tennessee Titans' Marcus Mariota has a chance to be as good or better than all of them.
Mariota is already the league's most efficient quarterback in the red zone. According to Pro Football Focus' Scott Barrett, the second overall pick in the 2015 NFL draft has a completion percentage of 64 inside the 20-yard line and a perfect 33-to-0 touchdown-to-interception ratio to start his career.
His overall completion percentage (61.6 percent) is higher than both Carr's (60.9) and Winston's (60.8). Mariota simply lacked the same caliber of surrounding cast, but that's starting to change. The organization used this year's fifth overall pick to acquire wide receiver Corey Davis. General manager Jon Robinson also selected wide receiver Taywan Taylor and tight end Jonnu Smith in the third round.
With more weapons at his disposal, Mariota can improve upon his statistics. During his first two seasons, the native Hawaiian averaged 3,122 passing yards and 22 passing touchdowns. But he has to get back on the field after suffering a fractured right fibula in Week 16 against the Jacksonville Jaguars.
The quarterback appears to be recovering well and should be ready for training camp.
"I feel great," Mariota told WGFX-FM in Nashville on Thursday. "... I'm probably another week or two from really full-ahead running, but I'm starting to do some jogging and more things on my end, which is a positive movement. Again, they think I'm ahead of schedule."
Mariota smashed previous misconceptions of spread quarterbacks not being able to transition to the professional ranks. He now has a chance to establish himself among the league's top signal-callers.
Running Back Spencer Ware
Jamaal Charles isn't walking through the door to reclaim his starting role in the Kansas City Chiefs offense. Instead, Spencer Ware will officially take over as the team's lead back after the franchise's all-time leading rusher signed with the rival Denver Broncos.
In 2016, Ware assumed the role of the Chiefs' top option out of the backfield. The LSU product responded to the new role with 921 rushing yards in 14 games and doubled as a reliable receiver with 33 catches for 447 yards.
The 229-pound back presents an interesting dichotomy that could push him beyond the 1,000-yard plateau or see his time in the backfield decrease.
According to Pro Football Focus, Ware ranked among the top eight running backs last season in elusive rating. The 14 tackles he caused defenders to miss on after receptions tied with Le'Veon Bell for third-best in the league. Yet he finished 20th in breakaway percentage. A year earlier he would have finished among the top four in the same category if he qualified.
Number Fire's JJ Zachariason noted Ware's percentages of 10-plus- and 20-plus-yard runs both decreased when asked to take on more responsibilities.
Ware will be pushed, too. The Chiefs traded up in the third round to select Toledo running back Kareem Hunt. This shouldn't be viewed as an attempt to replace the team's top runner, because Ware and Hunt can coexist in the backfield. But it does serve as an opportunity for Ware to rise to the occasion.
If the 25-year-old back shows more explosive traits like he did in 2015 with increased production over his '16 campaign, he'll become the focal point in Kansas City's offense and establish himself as one of the NFL's few workhorses.
Wide Receiver Brandin Cooks
Brandin Cooks is the NFL's luckiest wide receiver. In his first four seasons, he'll have caught passes from two future Hall of Fame quarterbacks in Drew Brees and Tom Brady.
The New Orleans Saints traded Cooks to the New England Patriots this offseason in exchange for a first-round draft pick to avoid any upcoming contract squabbles. The Patriots now have a legitimate deep threat to go with Rob Gronkowski, Julian Edelman, Chris Hogan, Malcolm Mitchell and Danny Amendola.
The 23-year-old receiver's contributions among the aforementioned connections shouldn't be overlooked. In 2016, Cooks finished seventh in the league with 1,173 receiving yards.
The Oregon State product believes he will be used as an outside target and a slot receiver.
"I definitely think I can do that at a high level," Cooks said of lining up in the slot, per the Boston Herald's Karen Guregian. "It'll be all about what coach [Bill] Belichick and the [offensive coordinator] think I can fit well at, and doing my job as best as I can."
Cooks has always produced, dating back to his days in Corvallis, Oregon. As a junior, the California native snagged 128 passes for 1,730 yards and 16 touchdowns on his way to being honored with the Fred Biletnikoff Award as the nation's top receiver. During his first three pro seasons, Cooks already posted a pair of 1,100-yard campaigns and 20 total touchdowns.
Brady has a new toy to play with in the Patriots offense. Cooks will be a consistent threat to take the top off any defense, while simultaneously serving as an underneath target with an excellent ability to create after the catch.
Wide Receiver Michael Thomas
Drew Brees spreads the ball around with more consistency than any quarterback the NFL has ever seen. Yet he still develops favorite targets, particularly in the red zone and on crucial downs.
For years, Marques Colston or Jimmy Graham served as Brees' preferred options. Both have been gone for at least a year, and Michael Thomas is about to take over the role.
The former second-round pick is imposing at 6'3" and 212 pounds. He may not be quite as big as the aforementioned targets, but he provides a physical presence the rest of the wide receiver corps lacks.
As a rookie, Thomas exploded onto the scene with 92 receptions for 1,137 yards and nine touchdowns. All three of those stats set Saints rookie records, while he finished second in league history to Anquan Boldin's 101 receptions during his first campaign.
After such an impressive initial season, the Ohio State product can now move into a featured role. Brandin Cooks led the team in receiving yards each of the last two seasons. With Cooks no longer part of the roster, the team's receivers must account for the 81 receptions and 1,156 yards he averaged during that period.
Instead of a sophomore slump, Thomas should expect a boost in production this fall.
"One thing I don't ever have to worry about is him working, so I know that's going to happen," the receiver's uncle, Keyshawn Johnson, told the Times-Picayune's Josh Katzenstein in February. "And when you work, things come naturally to you."
Tight End Hunter Henry
Move aside, Antonio Gates, and let the Los Angeles Chargers;' other tight end take over.
OK, a tinge of sarcasm exists within the previous statement. Gates can still play, but his time is almost over, and the Chargers already have a legitimate replacement in Hunter Henry.
After becoming a second-round pick in the 2016 NFL draft, the Arkansas product led the Chargers with eight touchdown receptions. He and the Tampa Bay Buccaneers' Cam Brate tied for the league lead among tight ends.
Even with Henry's limited reps, Pro Football Focus graded the first-year performer among the league's top 10 tight ends in the passing game.
Gates turns 37 years old this summer. His opportunities will decrease. Last season, the eight-time Pro Bowler still finished third on the team with 53 receptions and fourth with 548 receiving yards. Meanwhile, Henry snagged 36 receptions for 478 yards. It's not a stretch to believe those roles will reverse this fall.
The Chargers are loaded at wide receiver after the organization's acquisition of Clemson's Mike Williams with the seventh overall pick in this year's NFL draft. The team still features Keenan Allen, Tyrell Williams and Travis Benjamin, too.
All of the previously mentioned targets are exciting options for quarterback Philip Rivers. Yet he's always been most comfortable targeting Gates when a big play is needed, either on third down or in the red zone. With Henry's inevitable rise, the 6'5", 250-pound tight end can become Rivers' new security blanket.
Defensive End Joey Bosa
Joey Bosa might not have been a No. 1 overall pick like fellow defensive end Myles Garrett recently was, but the Ohio State product became everything a team wants from a premium pass-rusher.
In 12 games, Bosa registered a team-leading 10.5 sacks, 11 more quarterback hits and 37 hurries, per Pro Football Focus. Once his initial camp came to a close, the former third overall pick was named the NFL Defensive Rookie of the Year.
One would think such a stellar player should command more respect from those around the league. Instead, Bosa ranked 100th overall in NFL Network's Top 100 Players of 2017.
"To me, I think that's a little disrespectful," teammate Damion Square said, per Ricky Henne of the Chargers' official site. "I really do. I've been playing football my whole life, and when you see someone who is different, you know it. Joey is different."
At 6'5" and 280 pounds, Bosa is the total package. He can overwhelm blockers at the point of attack or run around them on his way to the quarterback. Plus, he displays a motor that never stops.
He expects to be even better this fall after reshaping his body during a tailored offseason workout program.
"I just found a guy who really knows what he's talking about, and my body changed in ways that I never could have imagined," Bosa said, per the San Diego Union-Tribune's Tom Krasovic. "Pain in certain parts of my body that I've had chronically for years and years and years is suddenly gone after going through this process and this program."
The biggest leap for a player usually comes between his first and second seasons. If that's the case for Bosa, no offensive lineman will be able to block him.
Defensive End Danielle Hunter
Quick: Name the top five sacks artists from the 2016 campaign.
The Atlanta Falcons' Vic Beasley should come to mind since he led the league with 15.5 sacks. Von Miller is an obvious choice with his 13.5 takedowns. But it gets a little blurry beyond that point.
Khalil Mack? No.
Ryan Kerrigan? Nope.
Michael Bennett? Uh-uh.
Each of those aforementioned names made Pro Bowl appearance after the season, but none finished among the top five in sacks.
The Minnesota Vikings' Danielle Hunter did when he tied for third with 12.5 sacks alongside Lorenzo Alexander and Markus Golden.
At 6'5" and 252 pounds with long arms and a chiseled physique, Hunter always looked the part. But he never developed into a complete player at LSU before the Vikings drafted him with the 88th pick in the 2015 NFL draft. As a rookie, Hunter managed six sacks even though he had yet to unlock his full potential.
"One of the big things that I've been talking to him all the time is being low and coming off the ball," Vikings head coach Mike Zimmer said prior to the 2016 campaign, per ESPN.com's Ben Goessling. "His first step, he's got a great first step and he's got to make sure he threatens the offensive line with that and being an athlete, really."
Hunter took what his coach told him and translated it to the field. Everything came together last season, and the 22-year-old defensive end became a terror off the edge. As the coaching staff becomes more comfortable with his play, he'll eventually see time as a starter, and the faith placed in his potential will have been rewarded.
Inside Linebacker Christian Kirksey
Nickel defense is now the NFL's base alignment. Defenses across the league are in nickel 68 percent of the time, per ESPN (via Bleacher Report's Doug Farrar). Thus, a team needs two quality linebackers who are equally as good against the run as they are dropping into coverage.
The Cleveland Browns defense features Jamie Collins, and the organization signed the versatile defender to a four-year, $50 million contract after the 2016 campaign. It's Collins' running mate, Christian Kirksey, who deserves more attention, though.
Last season, Kirksey finished third in the NFL with 148 tackles. Despite his production, the Iowa product works in relative anonymity because of Collins and the fact the Browns usually produce a poor defense. As such, the little things Kirksey does tend to be overlooked.
The third-round pick in the 2014 NFL draft has improved in each of his three seasons. During his first two, Kirksey primarily played in sub-packages and excelled covering tight ends and running backs. He started 13 games during those initial campaigns before becoming a full-time starter in 2016.
As the 235-pound linebacker continued to improve, he became far more adept at taking on and blowing up blockers. Thus, he was less of a hindrance against the run. However, his weakness turned into a strength. Last season, Pro Football Focus graded him as the NFL's second-best inside linebacker against opposing ground games.
Kirksey developed into a true three-down linebacker. New Browns defensive coordinator Gregg Williams will never have to take him or Collins off the field in his ultra-aggressive scheme, and that bodes well for the 24-year-old tackling machine.
Cornerback A.J. Bouye
The free-agent market deemed cornerback A.J. Bouye a big-ticket item before he earned that respect around the league. The Jacksonville Jaguars agreed to five-year, $67.5 million contract with the 25-year-old defensive back this offseason.
Bouye was considered a top acquisition due to a combination of his age and play last season. The former undrafted free agent developed into one of the league's top corners. His 16 deflected passes tied for ninth overall.
Even though Bouye left the NFL's top-ranked defense, his fit with the Jaguars can make him an even better defensive back. Prior to his signing, an anonymous NFL assistant coach was asked about the possibility of Bouye playing opposite Jalen Ramsey.
"That would be lethal," the coach told the Florida Times-Union's Ryan O'Halloran.
The coach was then pressed on why the duo would form a lethal combination.
"Neither one would require roll coverage," he said. "... This would allow the defense to send safety blitzes or different rush packages with the ends and linebackers. The man and zone blitzes could be endless."
Bouye's addition will allow the Jaguars to be more aggressive while leaving him on an island opposite Ramsey. Both of these young defensive backs are worthy of consideration as rising stars, but Bouye received the fourth-most guaranteed money among current cornerback contracts and needs to live up to his end of the bargain.
Safety Keanu Neal
Keanu Neal should be given as an example why NFL draft grades make no sense mere days after the event concludes.
A year ago, the Atlanta Falcons were ridiculed for their first-round selection of the Florida product. He was a reach, and the organization could have drafted him later in the process, many exclaimed.
These proclamations were made without taking full account of how Neal fit into the Falcons' defensive plans. The team couldn't have found a more perfect strong safety for its system.
In his first season with the Falcons, Neal finished second on the squad with 106 tackles and five forced fumbles. He graded as the NFL's best rookie safety, per Pro Football Focus. The 21-year-old isn't just a box safety flying up to defend the run or underneath routes. He received the second-highest pass-coverage grade among safeties from PFF, behind New England's Devin McCourty.
He's only going to improve in his second year, too.
"Going through the defense is like night and day," Neal said Tuesday, per the Falcons Twitter account. "Now, I'm going through the smaller details; I'm a lot more comfortable."
The 211-pound safety quickly developed into the tone-setter for the entire Falcons defense. Vic Beasley must be accounted for on a down-by-down basis and Desmond Trufant will return this season after a devastating shoulder injury, but Neal is the physical presence opposing offenses must avoid.