Projecting Every NFL Team's Next Big Thing
Peterson is out of football, Griffin hasn't played an NFL game since 2016, and Manning is retired.
Point is, things move quickly in this league. Shelf lives are short. Players emerge swiftly and often vanish with just as much speed.
But as teams watch their current stars fade, there's always another wave to keep an eye on.
Looking only at players in their first two seasons who have yet to earn Pro Bowl honors, here are the potential "next big things" on every NFL roster.
Arizona Cardinals: QB Josh Rosen
When you draft a quarterback in the top 10, he damn well better be your next big thing. That, of course, is what the Arizona Cardinals did with quarterback Josh Rosen in April, and he's already made waves this offseason.
There's little reason to believe the polished three-year starter at UCLA doesn't have what it takes to become a franchise leader. And that applies off the field, too, because Rosen is a charming, outspoken dude who could in little time become one of the faces of this league.
With the jury still way out on Haason Reddick and with Budda Baker already a Pro Bowler, this is a no-brainer.
Atlanta Falcons: WR Calvin Ridley
Calvin Ridley just might be in the right place at the right time. The rookie Atlanta Falcons wide receiver was drafted in the first round this offseason by a high-powered offensive team that actually has space to utilize the highly touted Alabama product ASAP.
He's NFL-ready coming off three years in the SEC, and he's a good fit in the slot with the Falcons. Look for him to show off his speed right away and eventually become a superstar in an offense that should support him for years to come.
“It's not going to be hard,” quarterback Matt Ryan recently said of Ridley's integration into the offense, according to Kelsey Conway of the team's official website. “He's a talented player. He can do a lot of different things. Certainly through the offseason and the first couple of days at camp, he's showcased his talent level. I see him having a really good year for us and fitting in really well with the receiving corps we have.”
Baltimore Ravens: CB Marlon Humphrey
We'll wait to crown rookie Baltimore Ravens quarterback Lamar Jackson, who has by many accounts made a strong impression early but logically has a long way to go in his quest to become a franchise passer. Instead, 2017 first-round cornerback Marlon Humphrey is a surer-thing for the Baltimore.
The No. 16 overall pick out of Alabama came on late in his rookie year, ranking in the top 10 among qualified corners with an opposing passer rating of 46.7 and catch rate of 45.3 during the final seven weeks of the regular season, according to Pro Football Focus.
He also picked off a pair of passes during that stretch, and what's scary is he has a lot of room to improve. The man just turned 22 this summer.
Buffalo Bills: CB Tre'Davious White
Buffalo Bills rookie quarterback Josh Allen is a potential next big thing for the same reason Rosen was. In fact, Allen was drafted even higher than Rosen. But he's also less of a sure thing after completing just 56.2 percent of his passes at Wy-freakin'-oming.
So instead let's go with cornerback Tre'Davious White, who had an exceptional rookie season after being drafted 27th overall last April. The LSU product intercepted four passes and recorded 18 passes defensed while earning the third-highest qualified PFF grade at his position.
Per that outlet, he's one of the seven best players in the league under the age of 25. Hard to disagree with that.
Carolina Panthers: RB Christian McCaffrey
Christian McCaffrey averaged a mediocre 3.7 yards per carry as a rookie in 2017, which isn't ideal when you're a top-10 pick at the running back position. But that average was just 2.4 at the midseason mark, and it's a good sign that the young Carolina Panthers weapon averaged 4.7 yards per rush while making a large impact in the passing game during the second half of the year.
The former Stanford star finished the season with 80 catches for 651 yards and five receiving touchdowns, and then he went over 100 yards in a playoff loss to the New Orleans Saints.
Now McCaffrey has put on some weight, and the coaching staff is talking about his workload increasing in his sophomore season, which is another indication the 22-year-old is ready to take off.
Chicago Bears: RB Tarik Cohen
It's not as though young Chicago Bears quarterback Mitchell Trubisky doesn't have a good chance at being the team's next big thing. But Trubisky didn't do much while being babied as a rookie last season, while fourth-round rookie running back Tarik Cohen put on a show.
The little-known 23-year-old out of something called "North Carolina A&T" averaged a stellar 4.3 yards per carry and caught 53 passes for 353 yards while usually serving as a No. 2 back during a highlight-filled rookie campaign. Oh, and he also scored on a punt return while ranking in the top 10 with a 9.4 average on returns.
He's quite simply a playmaker, and new Bears head coach Matt Nagy sees it. In fact, ESPN.com's Jeff Dickerson notes that the former Kansas City Chiefs offensive coordinator has already drawn parallels between Cohen and Chiefs versatile superstar Tyreek Hill.
Cincinnati Bengals: CB William Jackson*
This one comes with an asterisk because Cincinnati Bengals cornerback William Jackson is technically entering his third season on an NFL roster. But because he missed his entire first season due to a torn pectoral muscle, we're making an exception for a player who was rather quietly fantastic in 2017.
The 2016 No. 24 overall pick out of Houston surrendered an opposing passer rating of just 36.1 and completion percentage of just 34.9, according to PFF.
"He could be the game's best corner with a repeat performance as an every-down starter in 2018," PFF's Sam Monson wrote this offseason. And he's been receiving positive reviews at practice, so he's probably a better bet than John Ross or Joe Mixon right now.
Cleveland Browns: QB Baker Mayfield
This could be Myles Garrett, or Denzel Ward, or Nick Chubb, or even David Njoku or Jabrill Peppers. But the Cleveland Browns haven't had a consistently successful quarterback since the Napoleonic Era, and rookie No. 1 overall pick Baker Mayfield has a realistic shot at becoming a franchise signal-caller.
Quarterbacks selected first overall pan out about half the time, but Mayfield is off to a fine start. Browns head coach Hue Jackson remarked last week that Mayfield was "exceeding" expectations in camp, according to ESPN.com's Pat McManamon.
And while that's not enough to conclude that he'll become a star, his position alone gives him a leg up here over recent high draft picks like Garrett, Ward, Chubb, Njoku and Peppers.
Dallas Cowboys: CB Chidobe Awuzie
There are high expectations for recent high draft picks Taco Charlton, Leighton Vander Esch and Michael Gallup in Dallas, but the Cowboys look as though they already have something special in second-year cornerback Chidobe Awuzie.
The second-round pick out of Colorado started just six games and missed six entirely while dealing with a hamstring injury as a rookie, but he surrendered just 7.0 yards per reception and just 0.69 yards per cover snap, both of which were the lowest rates ever recorded by a rookie corner at PFF.
Look for the 23-year-old to stay healthy and become a shutdown corner in 2018.
Denver Broncos: OLB Bradley Chubb
Widely considered the best defensive player in this year's draft class, Denver Broncos pass-rusher Bradley Chubb is—according to OddsShark—the clear-cut favorite the win Defensive Rookie of the Year in 2018. Von Miller is still the kingpin on defense for the Broncos, but Denver drafted Chubb in the top five for a reason.
He's the future.
The polished, powerful and instinctive rusher had 20 sacks and 44 tackles for loss the last two years at NC State, and he should be ready to immediately make a tremendous impact opposite Miller. The 23-year-old gets the nod over second-year first-round pick Garett Bolles, who experienced an up-and-down rookie season and might have a lower ceiling.
Detroit Lions: WR Kenny Golladay
After he tore it up as a rookie last spring and summer, Detroit Lions wide receiver Kenny Golladay failed to deliver during an injury-derailed 2017 campaign. But as Erik Schlitt of the Lions Wire points out, "it didn’t take long for Golladay’s hype train to get going again in 2018 as he dominated offseason workouts."
And while he'll still likely take a back seat to Golden Tate and Marvin Jones in 2018, the speedy 6'4" Northern Illinois product has the big-play ability to turn into a superstar. Just ask Tate.
"This guy can be dominant," the veteran wideout said in June, per MLive.com's Kyle Meinke. "He's a WR1 kind of guy."
Green Bay Packers: RB Aaron Jones
You could make an argument here in favor of any of the four defensive backs the Green Bay Packers have selected in the top two rounds of the last two drafts, but Jaire Alexander, Josh Jackson, Kevin King and Josh Jones all still have a lot to prove.
At least running back Aaron Jones has already made a strong impression.
Among backs with at least 50 rushing attempts in 2017, the fifth-round pick out of Texas El-Paso ranked second to only Offensive Rookie of the Year Alvin Kamara with a 5.5 yards-per-attempt average. And only one of his 81 rushes went for 25-plus yards, which is actually a good thing because it means his average wasn't inflated by a breakaway run or two.
Jones is battling for reps while facing a two-game substance-abuse suspension to start the year, but it might not be long before he's the top option in the Green Bay backfield.
Houston Texans: QB Deshaun Watson
OK, this one's a little too easy. But Deshaun Watson qualifies as a second-year player without a Pro Bowl on his resume. That's only the case, of course, because the No. 12 overall pick started just six games before a torn ACL ended his rookie campaign in November.
But those six starts were glorious.
When he went down, the 22-year-old led the league with 21 combined passing and rushing touchdowns, despite the fact that 25 other quarterbacks had attempted more passes than him. At that point, the Texans offense had scored 33-plus points in five consecutive games.
So long as that knee injury doesn't send him down a Robert Griffin III-like path, Watson should become a superstar before this decade is through.
Indianapolis Colts: S Malik Hooker
With all due respect to heavily hyped rookie interior offensive lineman Quenton Nelson, guards rarely if ever become "big things." Figuratively, anyway. So we're giving this to safety Malik Hooker, who might have been a Pro Bowler last year had his rookie season not been cut short by a torn ACL and MCL in October.
The No. 15 overall pick out of Ohio State intercepted a pass in each of his first three NFL starts and drew strong grades at Pro Football Focus before getting hurt in a Week 7 loss to the Jacksonville Jaguars.
And while he might need some time as he continues to recover from that injury, the future is wildly bright for the playmaking 22-year-old.
Jacksonville Jaguars: WR Dede Westbrook
It's hard to get behind a lot of young, "emerging" Jacksonville Jaguars, mainly because so many of their youngsters have indeed emerged in recent seasons. With guys like Yannick Ngakoue, Telvin Smith and Jalen Ramsey already becoming stars on defense, there isn't much room for newbies.
On the other side of the ball, rookie second-round pick DJ Chark Jr. has plenty of work to do to prove he can be a WR1, sophomore second-round pick Cam Robinson was a train wreck in 2017, and Leonard Fournette's lack of production as a rookie is cause for concern.
The highly touted LSU product averaged a so-so 3.9 yards per carry last season, despite the fact that he inflated that rate with two runs of 75-plus yards. Take those away and his average (3.3) would have been the lowest qualified mark in the AFC.
So we're swinging the bat with sophomore wide receiver Dede Westbrook, who crushed it with 13 catches for 288 yards and two touchdowns last preseason before a core muscle injury derailed his rookie campaign. But the speedy fourth-round pick out of Oklahoma still flashed big-play ability in limited action down the stretch last year, and he should gain plenty of opportunities in a shallow receiving corps in 2018.
Kansas City Chiefs: QB Patrick Mahomes
The Kansas City Chiefs have made it clear how much they value young quarterback Patrick Mahomes. They traded two first-round picks to move up for the former Texas Tech gunslinger last year, and earlier this offseason they traded away the highest-rated passer of the 2017 season to pave the way for Mahomes to start.
And while he'll probably need more grooming and can be expected to experience growing pains, there's plenty of reason to believe the Chiefs are right about Mahomes. He's a big, strong, tough, mobile, smart dude with an incredibly high ceiling, and he exhibited that an the NFL level when he posted a 109.3 passer rating last preseason.
Don't be scared away by his early-camp mistakes. Mahomes will always be a risk-taker, but that won't likely prevent him from becoming Kansas City's next big thing.
Los Angeles Chargers: S Derwin James
Big, strong, tough, fast and smart. Many of the adjectives we just used to describe Mahomes apply perfectly to new Los Angeles Chargers safety Derwin James, who somehow slipped to the Bolts in the No. 17 spot in the draft despite the fact that he has "superstar safety" written all over him.
At 6'2" and 215 pounds with sub-4.5 speed, the versatile Florida State product has the ability to to become a defensive game-changer. There's still room for him to develop, but he's well-supported by a strong Los Angeles defense.
So long as he can get and remain healthy, the 22-year-old should become a "big thing" by the time 2018 is through.
Los Angeles Rams: S John Johnson III
By the time the Los Angeles Rams selected safety John Johnson III in the 2017 NFL draft, 90 players had gone off the board. But at the conclusion of the 2017 season, Pro Football Focus ranked the 22-year-old as the 10th-best rookie in the NFL.
PFF's William Moy noted that Johnson "ranked 17th among safeties this season in overall grade thanks to consistently strong play ever since he started seeing regular playing time back in Week 4," adding that the Boston College product's "24.3 percent forced incompletion percentage ranks sixth out of the 50 safeties who spent at least 400 snaps in coverage."
With support from a stacked secondary featuring Marcus Peters, Aqib Talib and Lamarcus Joyner, Johnson should break out in his first full season as a starter.
Miami Dolphins: DE Charles Harris
Miami Dolphins defensive end Charles Harris was eased in as a rookie in 2017, but the first-round pick out of Missouri excelled when his role increased in December.
According to PFF, Harris recorded a team-high eight quarterback pressures on 27 pass-rushing snaps in a Week 15 loss to the Bills, and he recorded a sack and the third-best defensive PFF grade on the team one week later against the Chiefs.
Importantly, it seems as though he carried that into 2018.
"I actually think Charles Harris has probably had the best offseason of anybody on our team," veteran defensive end Cameron Wake said last week, per Steven Wine of the Associated Press (h/t Daily Hampshire Gazette). "He came back in tremendous shape. He has obviously been working on his strength; he has been working on his football. I think that’s definitely going to pay off when it comes time to put in the live bullets and get after the quarterback."
The 23-year-old is still jockeying for playing time with several experienced edge-rushers, but he'll eventually take off and become a big thing in Miami.
Minnesota Vikings: RB Dalvin Cook
Before Minnesota Vikings running back Dalvin Cook went down with a torn ACL four weeks into his rookie season, the 2017 second-round pick ranked third in the NFL with 354 rushing yards and 444 yards from scrimmage. And among seven backs with 70-plus carries, his 4.4 yards-per-attempt average ranked first.
The former Florida State star has the vision, patience, speed and resume to become a perennial Pro Bowler at the NFL level. He's practicing without limitations at training camp and says he's fully healthy, according to Andrew Krammer of the Minneapolis Star-Tribune.
If that knee holds up, the soon-to-be 23-year-old will likely explode as part of a talented offense in 2018.
New England Patriots: RB Sony Michel
The options are limited with the long-in-the-tooth New England Patriots, but rookie running back Sony Michel looks like something special.
The first sign that's the case? The fact that Bill Belichick and the smartest franchise in the NFL decided to use a first-round pick on him. Michel is the first offensive skill-position player drafted by the Pats in Round 1 since the George W. Bush administration. He's an explosive playmaker coming off a senior season at Georgia in which he averaged 7.9 yards per carry in the toughest conference in college football.
You never know what to expect out of the New England backfield, but it's hard to imagine the Pats not making plenty of room for the pro-ready 23-year-old.
New Orleans Saints: QB Taysom Hill
Have to go out on some limbs here, guys. And besides, 2017 rookie sensations Alvin Kamara and Marshon Lattimore are already big things after winning Offensive and Defensive Rookie of the Year awards. Second-year offensive tackle Ryan Ramczyk and rookie first-round pass-rusher Marcus Davenport also appear to have bright futures, but Taysom Hill might just be the heir apparent to the 39-year-old Drew Brees under center.
That's been the buzz this offseason surrounding the uniquely athletic and talented BYU product, and you get the feeling Saints head coach Sean Payton is a big fan.
"He looks good," Payton said in May, according to the New Orleans Advocate's Nick Underhill. "We like where he is at. He is grinding and working hard. You guys saw [him make] a play today. When he does get outside the pocket, he can run, real fast. That presents a new challenge for the defense."
New York Giants: RB Saquon Barkley
Strong 2017 rookie performers Evan Engram and Dalvin Tomlinson are also stellar candidates to be the next big thing on the New York Giants roster, but you can't deny rookie running back Saquon Barkley.
You have to be extremely special to be drafted first or second overall as a running back these days, and the powerful, speedy and experienced Penn State product is the first back to be selected that high since Reggie Bush went to New Orleans second overall in 2006.
Barkley will be well-supported by an improved offensive line and a receiving corps that features elite offensive weapon Odell Beckham Jr., so look for him to stand out immediately in 2018.
New York Jets: QB Sam Darnold
Sam Darnold might need time to develop after turning the ball over 22 times last season, but there's plenty of reason to believe the poised USC product will become the team's first franchise quarterback since, I dunno, Ken O'Brien?
Still barely 21, Darnold is a natural leader who has shown he can make every throw. He put up big numbers and was often at his best in crunch time with the Trojans, and it appears he has what it takes between the ears to succeed at this level.
It won't happen overnight, but Darnold should eventually become a "big thing" in green.
Philadelphia Eagles: RB Corey Clement
The easy choice here is second-year defensive end Derek Barnett, but there's something about undrafted second-year running back Corey Clement. And that something is just strong enough for us to go off the beaten path with this one.
After barely factoring in during the first six weeks of the season, the catch-happy Wisconsin product averaged 5.1 yards per carry while doing good work as a receiver between Week 7 and Week 17. He then caught 10 passes in three playoff games, including four in a 100-yard Super Bowl performance against the Patriots. He also caught a 22-yard touchdown pass in the second half of that historic victory.
Clement still isn't the No. 1 guy in the Philly backfield, but LeGarrette Blount is gone, Jay Ajayi isn't much of a receiver, and Darren Sproles is only sticking around one more season. Look for his role to continue to increase in his second season, and watch for a potential explosion in by the time he's completed Year 3.
Pittsburgh Steelers: WR JuJu Smith-Schuster
With most of these, we undergo at least a cursory review of the team's depth chart. With the Pittsburgh Steelers, that wasn't necessary. That's because entering the 2018 season, Steelers wide receiver JuJu Smith-Schuster looks and feels like the NFL's "next big thing," not just Pittsburgh's.
As the youngest player in the league last season, the still-21-year-old Smith-Schuster led all rookies with 917 receiving yards and seven touchdowns. And he was the only player in football to average more than 15 yards per reception and catch more than 72 percent of the passes thrown his way (min. 20 targets).
That was enough to convince the Steelers to trade Martavis Bryant to the Raiders.
Smith-Schuster will continue to be overshadowed by four-time All-Pro Antonio Brown for now, but it might only be a matter of time before he becomes the top weapon in black and gold.
San Francisco 49ers: OT Mike McGlinchey
Quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo doesn't qualify, since he's entering his fifth season. And one could argue that Garoppolo is already a big thing considering his extremely big contract. Beyond that, there are off-field and injury concerns plaguing second-year first-round linebacker Reuben Foster, and 2017 No. 3 overall pick Solomon Thomas struggled a bit as a rookie.
So we're going with this year's top pick, offensive tackle Mike McGlinchey.
The mechanically refined Notre Dame product looks the part of a long-term pillar left tackle. He's 6'8" and 309 pounds, and after a three-year run as a starter with the Irish, he has the instincts and experience needed to dominate right away.
The intelligent, mature soon-to-be 24-year-old will also benefit from having time to develop just a little more, as he's likely to start on the right side while veteran Joe Staley holds things down on Garoppolo's blind side for now.
Oakland Raiders: DE Arden Key
We've reached a point at which it's fair to wonder if the Oakland Raiders have long-term plans for star pass-rusher Khalil Mack. ESPN's Adam Schefter reported late last month that new Raiders head coach Jon Gruden had yet to speak with Mack, who is holding out ahead of the option year in his rookie contract. And Oakland does appear to feel strongly about rookie defensive end Arden Key, who could eventually replace Mack as the team's "big thing."
"We had [Key] ranked very, very high as a pure pass-rusher in this draft," Gruden said in May, per Doug Williams of NBC Bay Area. "It's a commodity that's hard to find."
The third-round pick out of LSU took a leave of absence last spring (which was reportedly rehab-related) and followed that up with a down year in 2017, so there are red flags. But he possesses every physical trait you want to see in an elite edge-rusher. If he can remain healthy and focused, he'll have a huge career.
Seattle Seahawks: CB Shaquill Griffin
The Seattle Seahawks' Legion of Boom has been broken up. With Richard Sherman now in San Francisco and Kam Chancellor's career over, the Seahawks are turning to a new generation in the secondary.
And 2017 third-round pick Shaquill Griffin might be the face of that generation in Seattle.
The Central Florida product posted strong PFF grades during a solid rookie season, with an opposing passer rating lower than Sherman's. He recorded 15 passes defensed despite starting only 11 games, and he flashed his playmaking skills late in the year with a Week 16 sack and a Week 17 interception.
Look for the 23-year-old to become Seattle's top cover man in 2018. We see Pro Bowls in his future.
Tampa Bay Buccaneers: TE O.J. Howard
Just three tight ends in the last decade have been drafted in the top 20. And while neither 2009 20th overall pick Brandon Pettigrew nor 2014 No. 10 overall pick Eric Ebron delivered for the Lions, the Tampa Bay Buccaneers look as though they found a special young player in 2017 No. 19 overall pick O.J. Howard.
The big, fast matchup nightmare out of Alabama was referred to last year by NFL.com's Bucky Brooks as the "most complete TE prospect in 10 years." And while he started a tad slow last season, Howard flashed late.
The 23-year-old caught 12 passes for 205 yards and three touchdowns in his final five games before a mid-December ankle injury ended his rookie season early. He caught 70.6 percent of the passes thrown his way while averaging 17.1 yards per catch during that stretch.
As yours truly pointed out in a piece identifying him as a 2018 breakout candidate in June, that made Howard the only player in the NFL with at least 10 catches, a reception rate of 70 or higher and a yards-per-catch average of 17 or higher during that late-season run (a total of 139 other players had at least 10 receptions during that period).
Now that he's healthy again, Howard should start dominating consistently in 2018.
Tennessee Titans: CB Adoree' Jackson
Among young Tennessee Titans first-round picks, Corey Davis and Rashaan Evans get more attention than Adoree' Jackson because Davis was a top-five selection and Evans is a more recent addition. But Davis struggled as a rookie and Evans has a lot to prove, whereas Jackson became a reliable every-down starter almost immediately in 2017.
The No. 18 overall pick out of USC recorded 17 passes defensed and three forced fumbles while playing 93.8 percent of the team's defensive snaps in 16 starts. And he also played a major role as a return man.
Jackson also improved immensely over the course of his rookie season, with his PFF grade rising by nearly 11 points over the course of the final 10 games of the year. Ultimately, only four rookie corners posted higher overall grades in what was a special season for first-year players at that position.
Jackson should continue to take off in Year 2.
Washington Redskins: RB Derrius Guice
Mysterious character concerns might have caused Derrius Guice to slide into the second round of the 2017 draft, but the reality is the former LSU running back is a first-round talent. In fact, the Washington Redskins felt he could have even been the No. 1 overall selection.
“Quite frankly, we didn't have any questions on his character,” Redskins head coach Jay Gruden said last week, per Pro Football Talk's Mike Florio. “You know, in every interview that we had with him and talked to him, we never had a concern about him at all. I think when you'll watch his college tape the year he played with [Leonard] Fournette, he was a dynamic player. We thought he might be the first player picked in the draft."
The year Gruden is referring to is 2016, when the powerful back showed off his vision and strength while averaging a ridiculous 7.6 yards per attempt. And he still put together a stellar 2017 campaign despite playing through knee and ankle injuries, which should enable the 21-year-old to shine immediately in D.C.