NFL1000: Every Team's Most Promising Young Player
When we talk about the promise of NFL players, we can mean several things. Some veterans start to show promise when they come to a new team and the right scheme, and hidden talents finally come to the surface.
But mostly, we’re talking about young players just becoming their best after outstanding college careers. When examining the NFL’s most promising players at any given time, the NFL1000 staff looks at younger players—a good age limit is 25—who bring their best to teams that have given them the optimal opportunity to succeed.
Each NFL team has several players 25 years of age or younger who show the potential to be stars; here’s our take on the most promising young player in every franchise. There are some rookies and some second- and third-year players, some known and some underrated, but these players all have one thing in common—they're rising stars with the arrow pointing up.
Arizona Cardinals: LB Haason Reddick
Cardinals head coach Bruce Arians and general manager Steve Keim have long valued defensive players who can move from one role to another seamlessly, which sets up defensive coordinator James Bettcher’s varied schemes. Linebacker Haason Reddick, the team’s first-round pick from Temple, has exactly the versatility his team desires, and he’s already showing it. In college, Reddick amassed 17.5 sacks and 47 tackles for loss over four seasons as an outside linebacker and end, both in a two-point and three-point stance, and he could kick inside to a middle linebacker spot when pressed.
Reddick started his professional career as an inside linebacker in Arizona’s hybrid defense, cleaning up run fits and dropping into coverage. But when edge-rusher Markus Golden was lost for the season with a torn ACL in early October, Reddick was asked to move into that role and pressure quarterbacks from the outside. In just 46 pass-rushing snaps as an outside linebacker, Reddick already has three quarterback hits and a quarterback hurry.
Reddick’s talents will continue to develop over time, but it’s already rare for a rookie to be asked to perform multiple roles at a high level and actually accomplish it.
Atlanta Falcons: S Keanu Neal
If there’s one thing Keanu Neal is above all else, he’s a durable guy. In his rookie season of 2016, Neal led a Falcons defense with a bevy of young stars to an NFC title and Super Bowl appearance. Selected in the first round in 2016 by the Falcons, the hope was Neal would be the deep safety every defense needs if it’s going to deal with today’s four- and five-receiver packages.
Neal did that from the start with aplomb, positioning himself up top in Dan Quinn’s Cover 1 and Cover 3 concepts and showing his range, coverage techniques and intensity. In his rookie year and including the postseason, Neal was in on the action for 756 pass-coverage snaps—only Atlanta teammate Ricardo Allen and New England’s Devin McCourty had more coverage snaps among safeties. No safety faced more targets than Neal’s 104, and he allowed just 68 catches for 715 yards. He did give up three touchdowns, but given the sheer volume of snaps and targets, there’s not too much wrong with that.
This season, he’s been on the field for 204 snaps already, and the results are even better—15 catches on 24 targets for 148 yards and no touchdowns. From the start of his NFL career, Neal has met—and probably exceeded—every expectation put upon him.
Baltimore Ravens: DT Michael Pierce
A transfer from Tulane, Michael Pierce starred for Samford but was very much under the radar as a draft prospect—he was NFLDraftScout.com’s 71st-ranked defensive tackle in 2016, and he signed with the Ravens as an undrafted free agent. Pierce really cemented his role on the roster when he strip-sacked Saints backup quarterback Luke McCown and recovered the ball for a touchdown. Once he was sure of his place, Pierce went to work right away.
Though he played just 184 snaps against the run in his rookie year, Pierce tallied 23 run stops, tying him for 10th best in the NFL. And though he doesn’t look like your prototypical pass-rusher at 6'0" and 340 pounds, Pierce has incredible quickness to get past blockers to go with his formidable strength—that’s how he amassed 14 total pressures in just 164 pass-rushing snaps in 2016.
Proving that he’s no one-year wonder, Pierce is on pace to far exceed his 2016 production, tallying 10 total pressures in 129 pass-rushing snaps and adding 17 run stops in 158 run snaps—only Minnesota’s Linval Joseph has more run stops this season among defensive tackles.
It took a while for people to catch on to Pierce’s talent, but he’s proved the wisdom of the Ravens’ choice to take a chance on him.
Buffalo Bills: CB Tre’Davious White
In a world that loves the taller cornerback, LSU’s Tre’Davious White fell a bit in the draft despite a stellar college career because he was measured at 5'11" and 192 pounds at the 2017 scouting combine. The Bills were able to get him with the 27th overall pick, and with his aggression, leaping ability and both short-area and long speed, White was more than ready to prove to all the teams that passed him by that in his case, size didn’t matter.
White played both outside and in the slot at LSU, but the Bills have played him almost exclusively on the outside. There, he’s allowed just 16 catches on 33 targets for 294 yards, one touchdown, one interception and an opponent passer rating of 77.0.
Perhaps the most impressive thing about White so far is the trust the Bills have in him. Not only does White play tight coverage on the opposing team’s best receiver—and we’re talking about guys like A.J. Green and Julio Jones—but he can also move to mirror in coverage. In other words, he doesn’t stay on one side, and he can align with a receiver in motion, giving defensive coordinator Leslie Frazier more coverage options.
The 3-2 Bills lead the league with just 74 points allowed, and this rookie is a big reason why.
Carolina Panthers: CB James Bradberry
When the Panthers cut ties with cornerback Josh Norman after the 2015 season, it was thought that their defense would regress considerably—after all, Norman had become one of the most effective pass-defenders in the NFL. Then-general manager Dave Gettleman replaced Norman on the roster with a three-cornerback draft, taking Samford’s James Bradberry, West Virginia’s Daryl Worley and Oklahoma’s Zack Sanchez.
To date, it’s been the second-round pick of Bradberry, thought to be a reach in some circles, that has paid the most dividends. Bradberry had little time to acclimate himself to Carolina’s zone defenses, and he would be posting up against some of the league’s best receivers as Norman’s replacement. He responded well given the high volume of targets he faced, allowing 51 catches on 84 attempts for 542 yards, four touchdowns and an opponent passer rating of 85.5 while intercepting two passes.
But it’s how he’s developed in his second NFL season that really impresses. Bradberry has allowed just one touchdown and 20 catches on 39 targets. Bradberry has the size and speed to trail opposing receivers down the boundary, he’s showing better short-area quickness and he’s improving as a blitzer. With very little ramp-up, Bradberry has become one of the league’s best young cornerbacks.
Chicago Bears: RB Jordan Howard
It’s not easy to come into the NFL as a running back and succeed with an iffy quarterback situation and an offensive line racked by injuries. But that’s exactly what Jordan Howard, a fifth-round draft pick from Indiana, did for the Bears in his rookie season of 2016. Despite the presence of four different quarterbacks and a line diminished by injuries to guards Kyle Long and Josh Sitton, Howard blew up for 1,313 yards and six rushing touchdowns on just 252 carries for 5.2 yards per carry. He also caused 40 missed tackles on those runs and had 19 runs of 15 yards or more. Add in his 29 catches for 298 yards and a touchdown, and it became clear that Howard was an asset to his offense from the start.
That trend has continued in 2017 despite a quarterback situation featuring free-agent bust Mike Glennon and rookie Mitchell Trubisky, and a near-total absence of receivers who can win one-on-one matchups. With opponents stacking the box because they can, Howard uses his patience and aggression to wait for holes to open up and then blasts through them. This season, he’s already got 495 yards and four touchdowns on 118 carries, with 11 catches for 59 yards.
Howard was a bargain for the Bears in the fifth round, and he’s become the epicenter of an offense that is a work in progress.
Cincinnati Bengals: DE Carl Lawson
Carl Lawson missed time in the 2014 and 2015 seasons with knee and hip injuries for Auburn, which is why he slipped to the fourth round in the 2017 draft despite a healthy 2016 season in which he put up 9.5 sacks and 14 tackles for loss.
So far for the Bengals, Lawson has been a pass-rushing star. He’s amassed 25 total pressures (four sacks, four quarterback hits and 17 quarterback hurries), tied with teammate Carlos Dunlap for 10th among all edge-rushers. That included three sacks of Aaron Rodgers against the Packers in Week 3. Lawson’s primary move is an inside counter after he bends the edge around the pocket, but he also shows the strength to put up a bull rush, and he’s tough against the run when he’s not pinning his ears back to get to the quarterback.
If he stays healthy and on pace with his pressures, Lawson should keep himself in the mix for Defensive Rookie of the Year honors.
Cleveland Browns: RB Isaiah Crowell
The Browns have won just one game in the last two seasons. One of the few bright spots over that time has been the ascent of running back Isaiah Crowell, an undrafted free agent in 2014 who found his way to Alabama State after being kicked out of the Georgia program.
At 5'11" and 225 pounds, Crowell has an excellent combination of power, speed and ability to get through gaps quickly. In 2016, he gained 952 yards and scored seven rushing touchdowns on just 198 carries, adding 40 catches for 319 yards. He had 16 carries of 15 yards or more and led the league with an 85-yard run.
Cleveland’s rough quarterback situation has limited the run game overall, but Crowell has 252 yards on 74 carries, and with his potential for explosive plays, he’s always due for a big run. Crowell is more a mover in space than a pounding back, and if the Browns take full advantage of his versatility, Crowell will continue to impact an offense that doesn’t have very many options.
Dallas Cowboys: DE Demarcus Lawrence
Dak Prescott and Ezekiel Elliott are the Cowboys’ obvious impact players under the age of 25, but when we can, we like to go off the grid when naming players with potential, and so far this season, defensive end Demarcus Lawrence has done as much as anyone to keep the Cowboys going.
Selected in the second round of the 2014 draft out of Boise State, Lawrence really flashed his potential in his second NFL season with eight sacks in 13 starts. 2016 was a relative disappointment as Lawrence missed four games due to a league suspension for violating the NFL’s substance abuse policy and missed more time with a back injury. He had just one sack and 20 total pressures in 233 pass-rushing snaps.
Lawrence’s bounce-back in 2017 has been remarkable—he already has a league-leading 8.5 sacks and 31 total pressures in just 152 pass-rushing snaps. Lawrence’s violent hands are his best asset; he uses his hands better than most young defensive linemen to disengage from blockers, and his active feet keep him in every play. Now, Lawrence is living up to his tremendous athletic potential.
Denver Broncos: LB Shaquil Barrett
Undrafted in 2014 out of Colorado State, Shaquil Barrett slid among the linebacker prospects in his draft class because he was undersized (6'1", 251 lbs), and it wasn’t clear where he would best be utilized. He’s played an increasing role as the edge-rusher alongside Von Miller in Denver’s defense over the last few seasons with great results.
Not bad for a guy who didn’t really break out of the practice squad until he impressed in the 2015 preseason. That was a banner season for him with 5.5 sacks, but he’s really showing up in the 2017 season—in 139 pass-rushing snaps this year, he’s got two sacks, four quarterback hits and 13 quarterback hurries.
Barrett is an excellent edge-rusher, but what makes him a truly special component of the Broncos defense is his ability to detach from his pass-rush responsibilities and go after running backs when the play dictates it. He has tremendous open-field skills, which allow his coaching staff to use him in multiple gaps when necessary.
Detroit Lions: RB Ameer Abdullah
The Lions selected Ameer Abdullah in the second round of the 2015 draft out of Nebraska, where he was a high-volume back who gained more than 1,600 yards in each of his final two collegiate seasons. Moving to one of the pass-happiest teams in the NFL hasn’t helped his stats—Abdullah gained 597 yards and scored two rushing touchdowns on 143 carries in his rookie year, adding 25 catches for 183 yards and another touchdown. He missed all but two games in 2016 with foot injuries but has made an impressive comeback so far in the 2017 season.
Abdullah is more of a shifty runner than a power back, but when the Lions use his talents, he’s a big addition to their offense. He’s already gained 342 yards and scored a rushing touchdown on 90 carries as offensive coordinator Jim Bob Cooter tries to make his offense more of a balanced proposition.
Does Abdullah have 1,000-yard potential? In the right offense, yes. He’s held back by Detroit’s offensive line issues to a point, but his big-play ability shouldn’t be ignored.
Green Bay Packers: WR Davante Adams
There’s never been any question about Davante Adams’ talent—the Packers took him in the second round of the 2014 draft out of Fresno State after he led the nation with 131 catches in 2013, and it was thought that he’d be a high-volume receiver out of the gate. That didn’t happen in his first two seasons, as Adams struggled to deal with the higher level of defensive competition in the NFL—he was very inconsistent as he tried to maintain a 50 percent catch rate.
In 2016, the light went on, as Adams caught 75 passes on 121 targets for 997 yards and 12 touchdowns, adding a major component to Green Bay’s passing offense. While Jordy Nelson is Green Bay’s speed receiver, Adams has become the reliable underneath guy with the potential to break a deep reception from time to time. He’s dropped just two passes on 44 targets in 2017, and he’s already caught 28 passes for 339 yards and five touchdowns.
Perhaps most important for the Packers in the wake of Aaron Rodgers’ broken collarbone is the way Adams helped backup quarterback Brett Hundley to Hundley’s only touchdown pass against the Vikings last Sunday by extending his route as Hundley broke free from pressure. It took a while, but Adams has become an important security blanket for whoever’s playing quarterback in Green Bay.
Houston Texans: QB Deshaun Watson
The Texans have a few interesting players age 25 or younger, but is there any question that Deshaun Watson is the main man here? His ability to adapt to NFL schemes and defenses from the offense he ran at Clemson has been remarkable, buttressed as it’s been by head coach Bill O’Brien’s willingness to implement option looks and run/pass plays to make that transition easier.
Still, Watson wouldn’t be putting up his insane numbers if he was merely a spread-offense convert who needed training wheels. He can fire deep passes into tight windows under pressure, he’s surprisingly poised when asked to go through multiple reads, and his mobility adds dimensions to Houston’s offense because when he runs, Watson runs to throw.
Watson’s numbers this season—107 completions on 174 attempts for 1,297 yards, 15 touchdowns and five interceptions—do not reflect a rookie quarterback who is asked to do nothing but manage the game, which makes his transition all the more remarkable. He’s completed 11 of 30 passes of 20 or more air yards for 337 yards, five touchdowns and three interceptions. Watson stresses every defense he faces as both a runner and a thrower, and that’s what makes him the most intriguing member of the 2017 draft class.
Indianapolis Colts: S Malik Hooker
When building a modern secondary, perhaps the most important player—and the hardest player to find—is the deep safety who can run from sideline to sideline and erase intermediate-to-deep receivers with pure coverage ability in space. The margin for error is nonexistent; as the literal last line of defense, the deep safety must minimize the damage on every play. The truly special deep safeties are the ones who can make big plays with all that responsibility.
Malik Hooker is no stranger to the big play. He came up with seven interceptions in his final season at Ohio State, and the Colts took him with the 15th overall pick in the 2017 draft in hopes that he would become that rare player. It’s safe to say that, so far, Hooker has exceeded his team’s expectations.
He already has three interceptions, and his coverage stats are deceptive because so many of his picks and deflections are on players who aren’t his target—that’s the factor of his field range. He has given up three touchdowns as well, but the tape shows the value of Hooker’s presence in Indianapolis’ secondary. When the Colts want to move from their two-deep base defense, they can leave the rookie up top, confident that he can handle whatever comes his way. It’s a rare thing for a first-year player to live up to.
Jacksonville Jaguars: CB Jalen Ramsey
In April 2016, I ranked Florida State defensive back Jalen Ramsey as the top player in his draft class because of his ability to play every secondary position at a ridiculously high level—outside cornerback, slot cornerback, safety and sub-package linebacker. When the Jaguars took him fifth overall in the 2016 draft, they clearly appreciated his versatility but saw him as that most valuable kind of player—the outside cornerback who could face up against every team's best receiver and shut that receiver down.
In his second season, Ramsey has proved able to do just that. He was a bit vulnerable to certain angular routes in his rookie season, but when you watch him in 2017, the development is remarkable. At 6'1" and 209 pounds with legitimate 4.3 speed, Ramsey can easily take any receiver up the boundary and erase him, but he's now able to adjust to whatever route concept you'd like.
In an elite secondary with cornerback A.J. Bouye and safeties Barry Church and Tashaun Gipson, Ramsey is the rock star. This season, he's allowed just 15 catches on 35 targets for 178 yards, no touchdowns, two interceptions and an opponent passer rating of 35.2—again, while he's asked to deal with the best receiver on every team his defense faces.
If you want to know the name of the NFL's next great cornerback, start right here.
Kansas City Chiefs: RB Kareem Hunt
The Chiefs have come out of the gate in 2017 with the most effective and multifaceted offense in the NFL. Everything from triple-option runs to play-action jet sweeps to three-vertical passing concepts is featured. While quarterback Alex Smith is having a career year and the Chiefs' offensive coaching staff should win all kinds of play-calling awards, the real X-factor is rookie running back Kareem Hunt.
Somehow Hunt lasted until the third round of the 2017 draft, and the Chiefs got a major bargain because they know exactly how to utilize his talents. He's scored a rookie record with more than 100 yards from scrimmage in his first six games, and he leads the league in rushing yards (630) and total yards from scrimmage (885).
Hunt isn't just a good running back; he's also a fine receiver who can run an expanded route tree, which makes him a perfect fit for Andy Reid's offense. Adding him to a set of schemes that was already primed for a combination of a West Coast passing game and advanced option concepts has taken the Chiefs to an entirely new level.
Los Angeles Chargers: DE Joey Bosa
It's not often a player can rack up 16 sacks in an NFL career before he turns 23, but that's what Joey Bosa has done. With 10.5 quarterback takedowns in his rookie campaign and 5.5 so far in 2017, Bosa has proved to be one of the best young pass-rushers in the league.
Bosa's value isn't just in his sacks, though—he's been a pressure monster since he came into the league. He had 59 total pressures in his rookie season, ranking ninth among players designated as 3-4 outside linebackers, and the switch to a 4-3 base defense in 2017 hasn't affected that at all. Bosa has 23 pressures this season, which ranks 11th at his position.
But what makes Bosa really great is that he doesn't have to be aligned at one position—he's a multigap penetrator who is just as comfortable generating pressure from inside the tackles. He's also a fantastic run-stopper, leading all 4-3 ends with 12 run stops this season.
Given what he's done already at such a young age, if there's one player you could legitimately classify as having J.J. Watt potential, Bosa might be that guy.
Los Angeles Rams: RB Todd Gurley
It takes a lot of bad coaching to derive a bad season from a generational talent, but what Jeff Fisher and his staff did to Todd Gurley in 2016 was interesting in a very bad way. Fisher and offensive coordinator Rob Boras stuck Gurley behind an abysmal offensive line and parted him out as a rotational player, and Gurley gained just 885 yards on 278 carries.
The switch to Sean McVay as head coach has been a rebirth for everyone associated with the Rams offense, and nobody has benefited more than Gurley. McVay's schemes get Gurley to run north and south, using his speed to and through the hole, as well as his second-level burst, to create big plays in the ground game. Gurley has gained 521 yards on 123 carries this season, upping his per-carry average an entire yard from 2016, and added 23 catches for 245 yards and three touchdowns in the passing game.
Perhaps the most remarkable advantage given to Gurley under McVay is that his ability to run more advanced routes has a home in this offense. He finally looks like the guy the Rams selected with the 10th overall pick in 2015. Amazing what good coaching can do.
Miami Dolphins: WR DeVante Parker
It's been lost in the Dolphins' disastrous quarterback situation this season, but DeVante Parker has become one of the better young receivers in the NFL. The 6'3", 209-pound Parker excelled at Louisville with and without Teddy Bridgewater as his quarterback, and he became far more productive and consistent in his second NFL season when his catch rate went from 52.0 percent to 64.4 percent. That increase in production coincided with a more efficient season from quarterback Ryan Tannehill, but with Tannehill out for the season and Jay Cutler still getting used to his new targets, the offense has floundered.
Parker has performed above the fray, though—he's caught 19 passes for 236 yards and a touchdown on limited targets, and he's shown the same attributes despite Miami's recent offensive schisms. Parker is a tremendous route-runner who knows how to get quick separation from press coverage, and he understands how to help his quarterback by extending routes across the field when plays break down.
It may not show up much this season, but Parker is better than the stat line shows.
Minnesota Vikings: WR Stefon Diggs
Stefon Diggs struggled with inconsistent production at the University of Maryland, the primary reason the Vikings were able to snap him up in the fifth round of the 2015 draft. A leaner receiver at 6'0" and 195 pounds, Diggs was thought to be a less-than-interested blocker with underdeveloped route-running skills, but he was productive in Minnesota's offense right away, catching 52 passes for 720 yards and four touchdowns as a rookie and following that up with 84 catches for 903 yards and three touchdowns in 2016.
Though the Vikings have been through the quarterback carousel this season, Diggs has shown even more potential as a receiver in 2017.
What makes Diggs special is what showed up in the Vikings' opening-week win over the Saints when he caught seven passes on eight targets for 93 yards and two touchdowns. Not only does he have the speed to beat cornerbacks on straight vertical routes, but he also has the leaping ability to make tight coverage just about impossible on a play-by-play basis.
Even after Sam Bradford was ruled out with a knee injury, Diggs was highly productive with Case Keenum as his quarterback, as his eight-catch, 173-yard, two-touchdown performance against the Buccaneers in Week 3 showed. Diggs has been bothered by a groin injury of late, but when he's on the field, he presents the Vikings with a legitimate No. 1 receiver who can drive any cornerback nuts.
New England Patriots: DE Trey Flowers
Super Bowl stars don't always have the ability to transfer that one-game production to in-season consistency. That said, you may not have heard of Trey Flowers before his 2.5-sack performance in Super Bowl LI, but he was playing well for a defense in desperate need of pass-rush production.
The 2015 fourth-round pick out of Arkansas had a knack for getting pressure from multiple gaps in college, and he's expanded on that concept with the Patriots, amassing seven regular-season sacks in his second NFL season of 2016 after limited playing time in 2015. That he was just about unblockable against the Falcons' front five in the biggest game of his life shouldn't have come as a complete surprise.
Classified as a 4-3 end in New England's base defense, Flowers adds to the Patriots' front by getting pressure up the middle as well. Though he does have good pass-rush moves, his primary way of getting pressure is to get his hands on a blocker and use his upper-body strength to move people. He can also bring a quick rip move to get past a blocker.
Flowers has 27 total pressures so far in the 2017 season, ranking him fourth among all players classified as 4-3 defensive ends. But Flowers will terrorize quarterbacks no matter where you line him up.
New Orleans Saints: WR Michael Thomas
When the Saints traded receiver Brandin Cooks and a 2017 fourth-round pick to the Patriots for New England's first- and third-round picks, one of the main reasons they felt comfortable with the move was Michael Thomas' stellar rookie season. The Ohio State alum caught 92 passes on 121 targets for 1,137 yards and nine touchdowns in his inaugural NFL campaign. He established himself as a dangerous deep threat with seven catches on 11 targets of 20 air yards or more for 195 yards and a touchdown.
Losing Cooks and his route-running acuity was going to be a hit to New Orleans' offense as dependent as it is on route understanding, but Thomas has helped fill the void with 28 catches for 321 yards and two touchdowns so far this season. Thomas has expanded his route-running, especially in the red zone, and has the athleticism and agility to beat the league's best cornerbacks.
Thomas hasn't been as responsible for the big play as he was last season—now, he's just as much a possession receiver who's responsible for sustaining drives through the air. It's part of what has made Thomas one of the league's most versatile young receivers.
New York Giants: S Landon Collins
The 6'0", 228-pound Landon Collins was known more as a box safety and hybrid linebacker at Alabama, though Nick Saban's coverage concepts don't always transfer well to the NFL. While Collins has shown he can stack the box and deal with running backs as well as any safety in the league, it's his pass coverage where he's expanded his game since the Giants made him their second-round pick in 2015.
Collins had five interceptions in his second season. On each of them he was playing past linebacker depth, frequently in two-deep shells where he had to backpedal in zone defenses and use disciplined coverage concepts to read patterns and jump routes. Collins is not an Earl Thomas-style center fielder, but Thomas doesn't have Collins' bulk in the box when he needs to defend the run. Collins had 26 run stops in 2016—only Johnathan Cyprien of the Jaguars had more among safeties, and Cyprien was much more of a pure box safety.
Collins has taken that complete skill set into the 2017 season with seven run stops and not a single touchdown allowed in coverage. Whatever other issues may bedevil the Giants this season, Collins is one player who has his position on lock.
New York Jets: S Jamal Adams
Jamal Adams was one of the standouts of the LSU defense in recent years—a program known as "DBU" because of the parade of pass defenders the school has sent to the NFL.
The most talented safety the school has had since Tyrann Mathieu, Adams showed the same kind of versatility the Honey Badger did, starring at deep safety, box safety and slot defender. The Jets took him with the sixth overall pick in the 2017 draft, and Adams immediately went to work proving that he would have no issue transitioning to the NFL.
Adams' stats have been decent if not overwhelming so far—10 catches allowed in 15 targets for 132 yards, three touchdowns and no interceptions—but when you watch the tape, you see how many different ways the Jets are using the rookie. Adams will close in on run fits on one play and cover a slot receiver or tight end 25 yards downfield the next. This has led to the occasional coverage breakdown, but when you see Adams' ability to trail and pattern-match with receivers downfield, stop the run and bring pressure with the occasional safety blitz, his potential is clear.
Oakland Raiders: S Karl Joseph
Outside of edge-rusher Khalil Mack, the Raiders don’t have any superstars on defense; it’s been the team’s Achilles heel as general manager Reggie McKenzie has embarked over the last few years on rebuilding what was once a depleted roster. But safety Karl Joseph, the team’s first-round pick in 2016, might be on his way to giving Mr. Mack some company. In his rookie season, Joseph allowed 17 completions on 22 targets for 192 yards and no touchdowns while picking off one pass. This season, he’s allowed 10 completions on 14 targets for 131 yards and no touchdowns.
Joseph’s passing yards allowed and lack of interceptions may lead you to believe he hasn’t gotten the hang of the NFL yet, but watching the tape tells a different story. Joseph is tasked with providing help to Oakland’s average cornerbacks by bracketing upfield out of deep coverage shells, and he shows a good, flexible backpedal and excellent speed when doing so, as well as a knack for disrupting the potential catch as the receiver is trying to bring the ball in. He doesn’t get help from great pass-coverage linebackers, so a lot of the responsibility for deep balls is placed on him. This requires Joseph to play cleanup on busted coverages more than a lot of deep safeties.
It may be hard to tell in a defense without a lot of stars, but when you watch Joseph play, you see why he has the potential to be an outstanding deep defender for a long time to come.
Philadelphia Eagles: QB Carson Wentz
When the Eagles selected Wentz with the second overall pick in the 2016 draft, the idea was to pair his arm and athleticism with a high-performing running game. However, it didn't work out that way, as the North Dakota State alum attempted 607 passes in his rookie season, the second-highest total for any rookie quarterback behind only Andrew Luck. Wentz held up well under the pressure, completing 62.4 percent of his passes for 3,782 yards, 16 touchdowns and 14 interceptions.
The addition of running back LeGarrette Blount in the 2017 offseason has paid great dividends for the Eagles offense and for Wentz's efficiency. As the running game became more of a feature than a bug, Wentz began encountering more favorable second- and third-down situations, and he found tight end Zach Ertz as a primary target.
Wentz's ability to stay calm in the pocket and read the field has greatly improved in his second season, and his protection has been far better, too. Now, the second-year man leads what may be the most dynamic overall offense in the NFC (if not the NFL), with 60.9 percent of his passes completed for 1,584 yards, 13 touchdowns and just three interceptions. It's become clear that Wentz has the attributes required for success at his position, and the arrow is pointing straight up.
Pittsburgh Steelers: RB Le'Veon Bell
It's tough to call Le'Veon Bell a "promising young player" when he's already gained 6,756 yards from scrimmage and stands as perhaps the NFL's best running back. But did you know that for all his accomplishments, Bell will turn only 26 next February?
A rookie at age 21, Bell has never had a healthy season in which he wasn't a primary component of Pittsburgh's offense.
Bell's patience as a runner is his most-discussed asset, and it is remarkable how he'll stop at the line of scrimmage and wait for a gap to open without getting tackled for a loss. Perhaps his most overlooked talent is his ability to run a full complement of routes from anywhere in the formation, which is what separates him from every other back in the league. From the expected swing and screen routes to deeper slants and posts to combination routes with the Steelers' receivers and tight ends, there isn't anything Bell can't do as a pure pass-catcher, and he might be able to make the Pro Bowl as a receiver alone. He's caught 257 passes for 2,161 yards and five touchdowns in his career.
As Ben Roethlisberger devolves at this late stage of his career into a quarterback with an equal proclivity for big plays and big mistakes, Bell has become the epicenter of the Steelers offense, as he proved during Pittsburgh's huge win over the Chiefs on Sunday. Bell lit up Kansas City's defense for 179 rushing yards and a touchdown on 32 carries, and the Chiefs' stellar defense didn't seem to know what to do with him. It's a common problem for enemy defenses, and it's why Bell is the team's most valuable player.
San Francisco 49ers: DL DeForest Buckner
That the 49ers are in a near-total rebuild with new general manager John Lynch and head coach Kyle Shanahan is no secret. After years of sub-standard drafts led by former GM Trent Baalke, Lynch and Shanahan have to redo the roster position group by position group.
One thing Baalke did right, however, was the selection of Oregon defensive lineman DeForest Buckner with the seventh overall pick in the 2016 draft. The 6'7", 300-pound Buckner proved to be just about unblockable in college with his combination of size, speed through gaps and strength to deal with blockers, and he hasn't missed a step in the NFL.
In his rookie season as a multigap lineman, Buckner amassed six sacks, 14 quarterback hits, 28 quarterback hurries and 27 run stops. In his second season, Buckner has taken another step forward with 29 total pressures—only Aaron Donald of the Rams has more among interior defenders—and 16 run stops.
Buckner is able to transcend what would be a problem for lesser defensive linemen—his height—because he comes off the ball low, with aggressive hand moves and the upper-body strength to propel himself through double-teams. Every team playing against the 49ers knows Bucker is going to be a handful, and no team seems to know how to stop him on a consistent basis.
Seattle Seahawks: DL Frank Clark
The Seahawks' selection of Clark in the second round of the 2015 draft was embroiled in controversy due to his alleged involvement in a domestic violence case. Clark may never live that down, but he has proved his value to a team that places a premium on pass rushing.
Even in college, Clark had an elevated concept of hand usage to get through blocks and past defenders. A multigap defender who can bring pressure from both the end and tackle positions, Clark uses his 6'3", 260-pound frame to bull-rush guards and spin around tackles, and he's become a good run-stopper as well. With veteran Cliff Avril and rookie Malik McDowell injured, it's been up to Clark to pair with Michael Bennett to give Seattle a consistent pass rush.
He's done so with aplomb, racking up 14 total pressures in 136 pass-rushing snaps this season and 54 in 404 snaps last season. Clark is likely the point man of Seattle's pass rush in the future.
Tampa Bay Buccaneers: QB Jameis Winston
When talking about Winston's occasional lapses of judgment on the field, it's worth remembering he came into the NFL at age 21 and won't turn 24 until next January. Lapses in judgment become easier to understand when the player in question is having them against NFL defenses while most quarterbacks his age are hoping to play in bowl games. Through three seasons, Winston has always had a high interception rate—36 to his 57 touchdowns—because he believes he can stick the ball into any window, no matter the coverage.
He is able to do so at times, and the results are spectacular. At other times, he'll make strange throws and have stretches of incompletions that boggle the mind. Still, he's become the Buccaneers' franchise cornerstone, and with the addition of receiver DeSean Jackson via free agency, Tampa Bay should have a bigger-play offense than in years past.
That's been true to a point—Winston has completed nine passes of 20 air yards or more in 25 attempts for 276 yards, three touchdowns and two interceptions—but the hope is that in time, Winston will cut down on the hero throws and become a more efficient passer. If he does so, Winston has every tool required for success.
Tennessee Titans: QB Marcus Mariota
The Titans have a few players age 25 or younger who have distinguished themselves during their young NFL careers—right tackle Jack Conklin, linebacker Avery Williamson and free safety Kevin Byard come to mind—but there's no doubt about their most important one. Not only has Mariota developed into one of the most efficient young passers in the game, but he did so despite coming from a spread-based offense at Oregon that many thought would derail his path to NFL success.
Mariota has transcended any schematic issues because he reads the field well and doesn't always take the first open target he sees. In addition, his spread background is a plus in head coach Mike Mularkey's offense, which features a multifaceted running game and as many as three tight ends performing different roles. Mariota is used to the elements of power zone running and misdirection, key concepts in Mularkey's offense.
At the same time, Mariota has clearly developed as a passer throughout his three NFL seasons despite the lack of a clear No. 1 receiver. General manager Jon Robinson added to Tennessee's receiving corps by adding Corey Davis and Taywan Taylor in the 2017 NFL draft, but Davis has been sidelined by a hamstring injury since Week 3 and Taylor will need time to develop. If those two develop into legit weapons for the Titans, Mariota could become one of the NFL's best quarterbacks regardless of age.
Washington Redskins: LB Preston Smith
Washington's defense under defensive coordinator Greg Manusky and defensive line coach Jim Tomsula has been one of the more pleasant surprises of the 2017 season. While veteran linebacker Ryan Kerrigan and rookie defensive tackle Jonathan Allen are a big part of a front seven that's excelling, linebacker Preston Smith might be the best player on that defense who too few people talk about.
This season, Smith has 16 total pressures in just 138 pass-rushing snaps and five run stops. The third-year man from Mississippi State gets to the quarterback with a lethal combination of speed around the edge and hand engagement to get free from blockers. The 6'5", 265-pound Smith has the size of a nickel defensive tackle, and that comes through in the upper-body strength he shows when he brings a bull-rush from the wide-nine edge position.
Smith has been a star since his rookie season when he put up eight sacks, but he's playing even better in 2017. That's bad news for opposing left tackles.
All advanced statistics via Pro Football Focus unless otherwise noted.