The Biggest Emerging NFL Star at Every Position in 2018
Let's align the emerging stars—not shiny astronomical objects in the sky but the rising standout playmakers on the NFL gridiron.
To define emerging stars, we'll take a look at players who satisfy the following criteria: fewer than four active regular seasons, no more than one Pro Bowl year and no first-team All-Pro honors.
Fourth-year players would qualify since the 2018 regular season hasn't started yet. There's also a higher level of prestige for All-Pros, with only 28 earning first-team selections compared to 86 Pro Bowlers every year.
Which players are primed to ascend the league hierarchy as some of the top names at their respective positions, and what sets them apart from the rest?
Quarterback: Carson Wentz, Philadelphia Eagles
Philadelphia Eagles quarterback Carson Wentz made a significant sophomore leap, cutting his interceptions in half and more than doubling his passing touchdown total from his rookie campaign.
If not for a torn ACL and LCL in Week 14 last season, Wentz probably would've added to his 33 scores through the air. He earned his first Pro Bowl invite and became a Super Bowl champion thanks to backup signal-caller Nick Foles.
Wentz also generated buzz as an MVP candidate before going down with his injuries and did it without a 1,000-yard rusher or receiver. The Eagles only recorded nine rushing touchdowns and 38 passing scores, which speaks to the importance of their starting quarterback.
Assuming the North Dakota State product returns to the field with a clean bill of health, he should finish the 2018 season as one of the top players at the position.
Runner-Up: Jared Goff, Los Angeles Rams
Unlike Wentz, Los Angeles Rams quarterback Jared Goff played within an offense that featured a premier running back and a top-eight rushing offense in both yards and scores. Nonetheless, a balanced attack doesn't take away anything from the 23-year-old's strides between his rookie and sophomore years. He led the league in yards gained per pass completion with 12.9.
The front office added wideout Brandin Cooks, who's logged three consecutive 1,000-yard receiving seasons, and that bodes well for Goff's production in the upcoming term. He'll likely crack 30 touchdowns and 4,000 yards for the first time in his career.
Running Back: Melvin Gordon, Los Angeles Chargers
It's hard to believe Melvin Gordon doesn't have more than one Pro Bowl season on his resume. He's been a dual threat out of the backfield since his draft year, ranking sixth among running backs in total yards from scrimmage with 3,830 between the 2015-17 campaigns.
There's an encouraging trend in Gordon's workload that suggests there's room for another spike in production. In each year, the fourth-year ball-carrier saw an increase in rushing attempts and receptions. In 2017, he eclipsed 1,000 rushing yards for the first time in his career.
The Chargers don't have a strong No. 2 option behind Gordon on the depth chart. Austin Ekeler recorded 47 rushing attempts in a backup role last season. Gordon should continue to handle more than 300 touches. As long as quarterback Philip Rivers remains under center, the 25-year-old back will maintain a prominent role in the passing game.
Runner-Up: Kareem Hunt, Kansas City Chiefs
Alvin Kamara earned Offensive Rookie of the Year honors and quickly became a fantasy football darling. Don't overlook Kansas City Chiefs running back Kareem Hunt, who led the league in rushing yards with 1,327 and logged more yards from scrimmage than the New Orleans Saints running back (1,782 to 1,554).
Hunt is also going into the 2018 campaign with a bigger burden. He'll line up behind a first-year starter in quarterback Patrick Mahomes, which could put more pressure on the ground attack. Secondly, the University of Toledo product doesn't share the backfield with a two-time 1,000-yard rusher. We could see him retain his rushing title this season.
Wide Receiver: Michael Thomas, New Orleans Saints
Michael Thomas, former NFL receiver Keyshawn Johnson's nephew, isn't as outspoken as his uncle. However, the third-year wideout's production speaks for itself. He's put together consecutive 1,000-yard seasons to start his professional career and earned Pro Bowl honors in 2017.
It helps to catch passes from quarterback Drew Brees, who completed 70 percent of his throws in each of the last two seasons, but it takes a special talent to lead a team in touchdown receptions (third in the NFL) two years into his career. The Saints felt comfortable dealing Cooks to the New England Patriots last offseason, which allowed Thomas to emerge as the clear-cut No. 1 option at wide receiver.
New Orleans added wideouts Cameron Meredith and rookie third-rounder Tre'Quan Smith, but the newcomers shouldn't have an effect on the chemistry between Thomas and Brees. The third-year pass-catcher's targets may slightly drop, but he's still in position to lead this team in major receiving categories.
Runner-Up: JuJu Smith-Schuster, Pittsburgh Steelers
Pittsburgh Steelers wide receiver JuJu Smith-Schuster led all rookie pass-catchers with 917 receiving yards last season. He missed two games and only started seven but managed to usurp Martavis Bryant on the depth chart.
The front office shipped Bryant to the Oakland Raiders and selected wide receiver James Washington in the second round of April's draft. As the rookie adjusts to the pros, expect Smith-Schuster to produce on a high scale. The second-year wideout's willingness to block downfield and his kick-return ability will help propel his ascension to star status.
Tight End: Evan Engram, New York Giants
In 2017, the New York Giants went through a dreadful 3-13 season filled with injuries. Nonetheless, tight end Evan Engram emerged as a silver lining in the passing game.
Quarterback Eli Manning didn't have his No. 1 option in Odell Beckham Jr. for three-quarters of the term. Wide receiver Sterling Shepard also missed five games.
Engram earned Manning's trust and saw double-digit targets in four contests. He scored in four consecutive games between Weeks 6 and 10 (Week 9 bye) en route to finishing with a team-leading six touchdowns.
The last regime saw potential in Engram, selecting him in the first round. After a strong rookie campaign, the Mississippi product could emerge as a go-to red-zone threat and the second receiving option to Beckham in between the 20-yard lines.
Runner-Up: Hunter Henry, Los Angeles Chargers
Despite tearing his ACL during organized team activities, Hunter Henry deserves an honorable mention as an emerging tight end. As a rookie, he led the Chargers in receiving touchdowns with eight and then increased his total yards as a sophomore last season.
Rivers has plenty of options in the passing game, but he's quickly developed a rapport with Henry, who took over the starting spot following Antonio Gates' 12-year run in a prominent role. Once he's back in action, the talented pass-catcher should continue to ascend as an unquestioned starter in the Chargers offense.
Offensive Lineman: Ali Marpet, Tampa Bay Buccaneers
In today's NFL, versatility separates above-average from good. Tampa Bay Buccaneers offensive lineman Ali Marpet excelled at right guard for two seasons and then served as a quality asset in the pivot last year.
Marpet came out of Hobart College, a Division III school in Upstate New York, as a tackle, but the move inside hasn't fazed him. The Buccaneers signed center Ryan Jensen during free agency, which prompts the fourth-year lineman's move to left guard.
Despite taking on starting roles at three different positions in four years, Marpet's consistency as a steady run-blocker should pay dividends for a backfield that features Peyton Barber and rookie Ronald Jones. Assuming he's solid at left guard, the 25-year-old deserves the spotlight as a standout asset among offensive linemen.
Runner-Up: David Andrews, New England Patriots
In 2015, center David Andrews took over for Bryan Stork, who landed on injured reserve because of lingering effects from a concussion. The latter returned to action for the 2016 preseason, but head injuries eventually led him to step away from the game.
Andrews, a 2015 undrafted free agent, put a stronghold on the starting role and signed a three-year extension during the 2017 offseason. Beyond keeping interior pressure away from quarterback Tom Brady, the Georgia product quietly established himself as a solid run-blocker at the pivot. This player who rose from roster hopeful to a three-year starter for a championship-caliber squad has big-time potential.
Interior Defensive Lineman: Leonard Williams, New York Jets
Leonard Williams could lead Gang Green in sacks for the second time in three seasons. The first time, he tallied seven during the 2016 term.
The Jets exercised Williams' fifth-year option, which doesn't come as a surprise. They'll likely count on him to help in the pass rush with Jordan Jenkins and Lorenzo Mauldin on the edge. Neither has provided consistent pocket pressure over the past three seasons.
After leading the team's defensive linemen in total tackles during the 2017 season, Williams seems like he's up to the challenge of racking up more sacks. NJ.com's Darryl Slater pointed out his career 65-to-12 quarterback hits-to-sacks ratio. "I think it shows that I'm still a good pass-rusher," Williams said. "I'm getting to the quarterback. I just want to make sure that he still has the ball in his hand when I hit him this time."
With an added focus, the 2015 No. 6 overall pick should put together another strong campaign en route to a big contract extension next offseason. The result would solidify his star status.
Runner-Up: Chris Jones, Kansas City Chiefs
Interior defensive lineman Chris Jones has developed into a viable dual-threat defender up front. He's made strides as a run-stopper while maintaining his ability to pressure the pocket. Hurries don't show up in the box score, but the 2016 second-rounder managed to increase his sack count between his rookie and sophomore seasons. He finished with 6.5 in 2017.
After finishing 26th and 25th against the ground attack in the last two seasons, Kansas City will need Jones to continue improving as a defender capable of sealing the edge and shrinking running lanes. The ability to do so should help him earn his first Pro Bowl invite.
4-3 Defensive End/Edge-Rusher: Joey Bosa, Los Angeles Chargers
Despite an extended holdout and a hamstring injury that cost him four games, Chargers defensive end Joey Bosa managed to log 10.5 sacks en route to Rookie of the Year honors in 2016.
Bosa exploded on the scene with two sacks against the Raiders in his NFL debut and tallied at least one in each of the last five contests during his rookie term. For an encore, he ramped up his stops against the run and recorded 12.5 sacks last year.
It's not a coincidence the Chargers defense vastly improved with Bosa coming off the edge to pressure the pocket and corral ball-carriers on the edge. Opposing quarterbacks have less time to dissect the pass defense with Melvin Ingram on one end and the former Ohio State star on the other.
Bosa suffered a foot injury during training camp practice, but it's not considered serious, per ESPN's Adam Schefter. If he increases his sack count for a third consecutive year, the 23-year-old should enter the All-Pro discussion among defensive ends.
Runner-Up: Danielle Hunter, Minnesota Vikings
The Vikings already recognized defensive end Danielle Hunter as an emerging star when they decided to sign him to a five-year, $72 million extension. He deserves the new deal after tallying 25.5 sacks over the last three seasons, which ranks first among players drafted since 2015.
At his best, Hunter logged 12.5 sacks during the 2016 term. Even though he lines up opposite three-time Pro Bowl defensive end Everson Griffen, there's room for his growing stardom in Minnesota.
Inside Linebacker: Deion Jones, Atlanta Falcons
Deion Jones emerged as one of the new-age middle linebackers equipped to cover the field with agility, instinctive field awareness and coverage skills. He's not the old-school thumper patrolling the second level at nearly 250 pounds.
Speaking of his strong suit, Jones has six career interceptions, two returned for touchdowns. He also leads all players who primarily play the position in pass breakups with 21 between the 2016-17 seasons.
Jones lists at 6'1", 227 pounds, but his size isn't a flaw in the Atlanta Falcons defense. He's led the team in tackles during each of the last two seasons. When you hear the overused term sideline-to-sideline linebacker, Jones should come to mind as the prototype. The second-year pro provides reliable support against the run.
In today's league, with passing offenses looking to spread defenses thin, coordinators need a Deion Jones-type who possesses the quickness to cover receivers but brings enough physicality in the box.
Runner-Up: Kwon Alexander, Tampa Bay Buccaneers
Buccaneers linebacker Kwon Alexander fits into the same linebacker mold as Jones. He also spent his collegiate years at LSU and lists 6'1", 227 pounds. The 24-year-old led the team in tackles with 145 during the 2016 campaign and then followed up with a Pro Bowl season, despite missing four games because of a hamstring injury.
Alexander should earn more praise if he's able to add on to six career interceptions and 20 pass breakups in 2018.
Cornerback: Marshon Lattimore, New Orleans Saints
Several NFL-ready cornerbacks were taken in the 2017 draft, including Defensive Rookie of the Year Marshon Lattimore. The Saints have struggled to defend on the back end in recent seasons, but the front office made the right decisions to shore up the secondary last offseason.
Among 2017 rookie cornerbacks, Lattimore led the class in interceptions with five and tied for first in pass breakups with 18. With buzz around a first-year player, there's a possibility for a letdown with the pressure of following up immediate success, especially for a top-15 pick.
Nonetheless, Lattimore snagged four picks in his only starting season at Ohio State. When on the field, the 22-year-old proved he's a ball hawk. The Saints have a long-term cornerstone at cornerback. The former Buckeye can set his aim at All-Pro honors going into the 2018 campaign.
Runner-Up: Tre'Davious White, Buffalo Bills
Buffalo Bills cover man Tre'Davious White tied Lattimore in pass breakups last year. He also logged four interceptions as the team's No. 1 cornerback.
The Bills may struggle to put up points in the upcoming season with an inexperienced starter at quarterback in one of AJ McCarron, Nathan Peterman or rookie Josh Allen. As a result, the defense could see a lot of action, but opposing signal-callers could opt to avoid White in coverage after his strong 2017 campaign. Nonetheless, the LSU product has shown signs of a Pro Bowl-caliber talent in the secondary.
Safety: Keanu Neal, Atlanta Falcons
It's a good sign when a four-time Pro Bowler sees aspects of his game in a younger player. Seattle Seahawks safety Kam Chancellor pinpointed parts of Keanu Neal's game that overlap with his skill set.
Neal doesn't rack up interceptions at a high rate, but he's an instinctive asset in the secondary who sets the tone. He can deliver big hits, but the 2016 first-rounder's primary intent is to simply stop the offensive play.
In two seasons, Neal only notched one interception and 15 pass breakups but listed second on the team in total tackles in both terms. More importantly, the 23-year-old doesn't just take his opponents down. He's developed a propensity to rip the ball from their possession, forcing eight fumbles.
The Falcons safety comes off a Pro Bowl season. If Neal grabs a few interceptions or reaches double digits in pass breakups, he'll earn another invite as one of the most respected at his position.
Runner-Up: Marcus Williams, New Orleans Saints
As mentioned above, the Saints made the right decisions in rebuilding the secondary during the last offseason. Lattimore got the credit he deserved by being named Defensive Rookie of the Year, but we remember safety Marcus Williams for his missed tackle in the NFC Divisional Round against the Vikings.
Looking at Williams' rookie campaign through a broader scope, he put together a solid year, picking off four passes and tying second for most pass breakups among rookies at the position with seven.
Williams came out on the wrong side of the Minnesota Miracle, but the agony of defeat could become his springboard to stardom if he builds on his first year.