NFL Players with the Most Untapped Potential
The NFL is all about the latest and greatest. While it's satisfying to see guys like Drew Brees and Larry Fitzgerald producing late in their careers, fans really get excited about watching the next big thing hit the national stage.
Young players like Patrick Mahomes, Michael Thomas, Saquon Barkley and George Kittle are quickly establishing themselves as the future of the NFL.
So what about the next wave of potential superstars? That's what we're going to examine here by looking at players who have the potential to join the elite but haven't had that potential fully realized either due to experience, surrounding talent or role.
Players who were previously stars and are now underachieving—like Kelvin Benjamin and Jarvis Landry—won't apply. Naturally, young players are going to dominate this list.
QB Baker Mayfield, Cleveland Browns
Cleveland Browns rookie Baker Mayfield may not be the next Patrick Mahomes—he doesn't have the same incredible physical attributes—but he may not be far off either.
Let's not forget that it was Mayfield who battled Mahomes in that fabled 66-59 Oklahoma win over Texas Tech.
Mayfield (1,984 yards, 13 TDs, 7 INTs) has been the best of the rookie quarterbacks so far, and he is just now getting out from under the shadow of Hue Jackson and Todd Haley. In his two games with Freddie Kitchens as offensive coordinator, Mayfield has passed for 513 yards with five touchdowns and just one pick.
The ceiling is extremely high for Mayfield, and Cleveland is just scratching the surface of his potential. With a couple more offensive weapons around him and a little bit of coaching stability, Mayfield could be a star.
TE David Njoku, Cleveland Browns
One of the weapons at Mayfield's disposal is 2017 first-round pick David Njoku. The second-year tight end is as athletically gifted as they come, and he could emerge as one of Mayfield's top targets for the foreseeable future.
The problem is that we've only seen flashes of Njoku's potential to this point. He racked up 32 catches for 386 yards and four touchdowns as a rookie, but his production often came in bunches. The same has been true this season, with Njoku having five games of at least 50 yards and four of 20 or fewer yards.
Tight end is a tough position to transition into as a pro, and Njoku has been further hampered by poor quarterback play from DeShone Kizer and Tyrod Taylor and questionable game-planning from Jackson.
Njoku has also largely spent his career with a rookie quarterback under center. As the Browns offense grows, so too should Cleveland's tight end.
WR Chris Conley, Kansas City Chiefs
While the potential of Mayfield and Njoku remains largely untapped because of inexperience, Kansas City Chiefs receiver Chris Conley has been held back by other talents on the roster. He's regularly been a third or fourth option behind guys like Tyreek Hill, Kareem Hunt, Travis Kelce and Sammy Watkins.
However, glimpses of Conley's potential have been there ever since he was drafted in 2015.
In just his third-ever NFL start back in October 2015, Conley used his combination of speed and physicality to log six catches for 63 yards and a touchdown against the Pittsburgh Steelers.
Due to the number of weapons in Kansas City, Conley isn't likely to have his potential fully realized until he lands with another team—think a pre-injury Albert Wilson this year. Since Conley is in the final year of his contract, that opportunity will likely present itself in the offseason.
Considering what we just saw from Conley against the Los Angeles Rams—a 74-yard, two-touchdown performance—he should have his fair share of suitors.
RB Malcolm Brown, Los Angeles Rams
As is the case with Conley, Rams running back Malcolm Brown hasn't reached his potential because of who else is on the depth chart. In his case, it's MVP candidate Todd Gurley, who is rightfully the centerpiece of L.A.'s offense.
Brown, a former undrafted free agent and Texas Longhorns star, has been quite effective for the Rams in limited duty. He's averaged 4.0 yards per carry over the course of his career, which includes a career-best 5.0 yards per rush this season. Over the last two seasons, he has amassed 450 yards rushing, 105 yards receiving and two touchdowns.
Also like Conley, Brown could find a new team in the offseason. He'll be a restricted free agent in 2019, and more than a couple teams should be interested in seeing his potential unleashed in a bigger role.
WR Corey Davis, Tennesse Titans
Tennessee Titans wide receiver Corey Davis has bucketloads of potential. All you need to do is look at his 125-yard game against the New England Patriots or his 161-yard game against the Philadelphia Eagles to see it.
The problem is consistency—both with Davis and the Titans' passing attack in general. Marcus Mariota hasn't been the most reliable downfield passer during his time in the NFL, and he's struggled to stay healthy this season.
In addition, Davis has had a habit of disappearing in games. Three times this season, he's been held to two catches or fewer, and he only has two touchdown receptions in his two-year career.
It may take Tennessee opening up its passing attack to fully unleash Davis' potential, but if that happens, the Titans will have a game-changing weapon on their hands.
DE Solomon Thomas, San Francisco 49ers
The San Francisco 49ers took former Stanford defensive lineman Solomon Thomas with the third overall pick in last year's draft, and while the massive defender has flashed potential, he hasn't put enough together to be a true defensive force.
He had a strong rookie season—with 41 tackles and 3.0 sacks—but he hasn't been as involved in 2018. Still, the 49ers believe they can get the most out of him eventually.
"I'm still a big believer in Solomon Thomas," general manager John Lynch said on the 49ers Insider Podcast. "A lot of people say, 'Why?' You go back and study the history of defensive linemen in this league. A lot of them don't figure it out in year one. They don't figure it out in year two."
Thomas is still a 6'3", 273-pounder with 4.69-second speed and enough strength to stonewall blockers at the point of attack. If and when he finally puts it all together, he can be one of the most dominant defenders in the league.
WR Sterling Shepard, New York Giants
The New York Giants don't lack for offensive weapons with Odell Beckham Jr., Evan Engram, Saquon Barkley and Sterling Shepard. Of that group, Shepard, a 2016 second-round pick, has the most untapped potential.
He has had games where he's shown his upside before—like his five-catch, 167-yard effort against the Atlanta Falcons earlier this year. However, he hasn't had the production of a high-end No. 2 receiver...you know, like the kind playing across Beckham.
Though he has 1,987 yards and 13 touchdowns in 37 career games, Shepard should have even better numbers. However, he has been forced to play with a declining Eli Manning, who often locks onto Beckham and doesn't let go.
We aren't likely to see Shepard reach his full potential until after Manning is out in New York or until Shepard lands with another team. That potential could include being a No. 1 receiver himself.
Shepard has another year remaining on his contract.
DE Takkarist McKinley, Atlanta Falcons
Some may view 2017 first-round pick Takkarist McKinley as a bit of a disappointment. He's been little more than a situational pass-rusher in his two seasons with the Atlanta Falcons, but here's the thing: He's performed well in that role.
No, McKinley hasn't been an every-down player. He has, however, racked up 11.5 sacks, and he has 5.5 sacks this season. He's only now transitioning into a starting role, and he's also been hampered by a groin injury.
McKinley needs to improve his consistency, as he had 4.5 of his sacks in his first three games of this season. He's also had two games without a single tackle.
He is a good situational player now, but if he can continue to grow, develop and become more reliable, he can emerge as a perennial Pro Bowler.