10 Young NFL Players on the Verge of Becoming Superstars in 2019

Kristopher Knox@@kris_knoxFeatured ColumnistMay 22, 2019

10 Young NFL Players on the Verge of Becoming Superstars in 2019

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    Carolyn Kaster/Associated Press

    As we inch closer to NFL training camps in July, much of the offseason buzz is still surrounding the incoming crop of rookies—and rightfully so. If prospects like Kyler Murray and Marquise Brown perform as advertised, they'll help push their respective teams toward playoff contention.

    While everyone in the NFL world loves the shiny and new, rookies aren't the only young players who should be generating excitement heading into 2019. There are some veterans who are already good and who are on the verge of becoming legitimate superstars.

    We're talking about Odell Beckham Jr., Patrick Mahomes, merch-driving, ticket-selling superstars. These are players who have the talent, the roster support and the opportunity to become known to even non-NFL fans. We'll be looking specifically at players 25 years old or younger who have at least one NFL season under their belts.

          

Honorable Mention: Patrick Mahomes, QB, Kansas City Chiefs

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    Mark LoMoglio/Associated Press

    Patrick Mahomes doesn't make the official list because he has already reached superstar status. However, it would be an injustice not to mention his meteoric rise—both in an attempt at due credit and to establish a bar for the players who will follow.

    Mahomes was seemingly launched out of a cannon in his first go as the Kansas City Chiefs' full-time starter. He tossed 10 touchdowns over his first two games of 2018, went on to throw a total of 50 scores and capped his campaign with NFL MVP honors.

    The 23-year-old quarterback was more than just an efficient player on the field; he was a treat to watch. He produced viral moments, including a certain no-look pass, and his love for the game shone through week in and week out. He turned Chiefs games into must-watch events, even for casual fans.

Saquon Barkley, RB, New York Giants

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    Phelan M. Ebenhack/Associated Press

    One could argue that New York Giants running back Saquon Barkley has already reached superstar status as well. He did win Offensive Rookie of the Year and produced some impressive plays of his own.

    However, casual fans probably didn't see as much of Barkley as they did Mahomes—which is hard to believe since the running back topped 2,000 yards from scrimmage. The Giants slogged through a five-win campaign, and while the team occupies a massive media market, plenty of fans in other parts of the country weren't interested in watching New York play mediocre football.

    As an individual player, though, Barkley is far from mediocre.

    "He can be one of the greatest ever," former Giants running back Tiki Barber said, per Matt Lombardo of NJ Advance Media.

    Expect Barkley's national profile to make a major jump over the next year. With Odell Beckham Jr. out of New York, Barkley becomes the most exciting player on the roster. He also has some strong marketing appeal, as evidenced by this Dunkin' Donuts ad.

    Another strong season should launch the 22-year-old into the superstar stratosphere, both on and off the field.

Darius Leonard, LB, Indianapolis Colts

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    Darron Cummings/Associated Press

    Linebacker Darius Leonard, who turns 24 in July, is another player who amassed accolades but flew relatively under the radar for much of 2018. He won Defensive Rookie of the Year, racked up an impressive 163 combined tackles and was a first-team All-Pro in Year 1.

    However, Leonard played on an Indianapolis Colts team that made a somewhat quiet push into the postseason. Though he did have seven sacks, he's more of a sideline-to-sideline defender than a true edge-rusher. While this type of linebacker is valuable in today's NFL, sack artists tend to get more time in the spotlight and are more recognizable by causal fans.

    Don't expect Leonard to keep flying under the radar, though. The Colts are good—really good—and they're slated for three prime-time games in 2019. If Indianapolis makes another playoff push and Leonard avoids a sophomore slump, he'll almost surely be one of the brightest young defenders in the league by the end of Year 2.

Leighton Vander Esch, LB, Dallas Cowboys

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    Phelan M. Ebenhack/Associated Press

    Though not quite as immediately dominant as Leonard, linebacker Leighton Vander Esch had a strong rookie campaign of his own. He amassed 140 tackles to go with seven passes defended and two interceptions. He also made the Pro Bowl.

    Of course, the big reason why Vander Esch is poised for superstardom is the fact that he plays for the Dallas Cowboys, one of the most polarizing franchises in professional sports. Whether fans love them or hate them, the Cowboys are always a top draw—and Vander Esch is one of their top defenders.

    If it wasn't already clear that Vander Esch is ready to be a star both on and off the field, consider this: He already has his own clothing line, and he won't even turn 24 until next February.

    Don't be surprised if Vander Esch becomes the face of the Dallas defense in 2019.

JuJu Smith-Schuster, WR, Pittsburgh Steelers

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    Don Wright/Associated Press

    Replacing an established superstar is never easy, but it can have its own rewards. If a player can overcome often unrealistic expectations, the end result can be that he becomes a superstar himself. Aaron Rodgers, who sat behind Brett Favre in Green Bay, is one prime example. Pittsburgh Steelers wide receiver JuJu Smith-Schuster may eventually be another.

    Seven-time Pro Bowler Antonio Brown forced his way out of Pittsburgh in the offseason, leaving third-year wideout Smith-Schuster to take over as the No. 1 target. While Brown leaves some big shoes to fill, there are plenty of reasons to believe that Smith-Schuster is up to the challenge.

    The 22-year-old is coming off an impressive 1,426-yard campaign and his first Pro Bowl nod. He's also working to embed himself into the Pittsburgh community—he recently held the 1st Annual JuJu Smith-Schuster Water Balloon Fight.

    "I think it's just another example of how he's trying to become more a part of Pittsburgh, and we're happy to have him," local resident Beth Mastrangelo said, per John Shumway of CBS Pittsburgh.

    Smith-Schuster should be one of the most high-profile Steelers in 2019.

George Kittle, TE, San Francisco 49ers

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    Mark J. Terrill/Associated Press

    San Francisco 49ers tight end George Kittle just barely makes the list—he'll turn 26 in early October—but he's entering his prime. That's a pretty scary thought for opposing defenses, as Kittle exploded to the tune of 1,377 receiving yards (a single-season record for a tight end) and five touchdowns in his second pro season last year.

    What's most impressive is that Kittle played with starting quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo a mere three games in 2018.

    Fantasy football fans know Kittle well because of the absurd numbers he produced, but to casual fans, he isn't yet a superstar. Yes, he was a Pro Bowler last year, but San Francisco wasn't a contender or regularly in the national spotlight.

    Regardless of how the 49ers fare in 2019, Kittle should become a full-fledged star. With Rob Gronkowski retired, Kittle has a chance to become the most prolific receiving tight end in the game.

Baker Mayfield, QB, Cleveland Browns

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    Ron Schwane/Associated Press

    Cleveland Browns quarterback Baker Mayfield took the league by storm as a rookie in 2018. He was brash, he was energetic, and he was damn good on the field. Despite not making a start until Week 4, Mayfield managed to set a new rookie passing record with 27 touchdowns.

    He is already nearing legendary status in Cleveland because the city has been aching for a true franchise quarterback since the Browns returned to the NFL in 1999. Before he can become a legitimate superstar, though, Mayfield must prove that his rookie season wasn't a fluke. He caught plenty of opponents off guard last year, thanks to then-offensive coordinator Freddie Kitchens' creative schemes.

    Mayfield and the Browns won't be taking anyone by surprise in 2019.

    The offense has expectations now. That's especially true after Cleveland hired Kitchens as the head coach, traded for Odell Beckham Jr. and added Kareem Hunt. If Mayfield experiences a sophomore slump, he could be viewed as a flash in the pan. If he thrives, though, and (gasp) leads the Browns to the playoffs, he'll become a leaguewide superstar in every sense.

Deshaun Watson, QB, Houston Texans

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    Phelan Ebenhack/Associated Press

    The Houston Texans knew they had something special in quarterback Deshaun Watson early in his career. He had the look of a future franchise quarterback almost immediately, though a torn ACL cut his inaugural campaign short after just six starts.

    Watson returned to play all 16 games in 2018 and put together a Pro Bowl season. He amassed 4,165 passing yards, 551 rushing yards and 31 total touchdowns. He has an opportunity to be even more productive in 2019.

    Watson was sacked an alarming league-high 62 times last season. If Houston's pass protection improves following the team's offseason moves, the 23-year-old quarterback is going to be even more dangerous and entertaining. As long as Watson can stay upright and continue playing like he did last season, he'll join fellow 2017 draft pick Mahomes as an elite-level signal-caller and one of the faces of the modern NFL.

Myles Garrett, DE, Cleveland Browns

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    Phelan M. Ebenhack/Associated Press

    Browns defensive end Myles Garrett isn't a player who craves attention, but he sure is a lot of fun. The soft-spoken sack artist loves dinosaurs, writes poetry and dresses as popular television characters. Oh, and he can absolutely wreck an offensive game plan.

    Garrett's rookie season was hampered by injuries, but he bounced back in a big way in 2018. He played in all 16 games, produced 44 tackles and 13.5 sacks, defended three passes and had three forced fumbles. He also made an appearance in the Pro Bowl, likely the first of many.

    The Browns are going to be media darlings in 2019—they have four prime-time games scheduled—so plenty of fans are going to get a firsthand look at what Garrett can do on the field. The 23-year-old has the potential to be a Defensive Player of the Year candidate and a high-profile pass-rusher in the mold of J.J. Watt and Von Miller.

Tre'Davious White, CB, Buffalo Bills

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    Jeffrey T. Barnes/Associated Press

    The football world always seems to have a fascination with the top cornerbacks. From Darrelle Revis and Richard Sherman to Patrick Peterson and Josh Norman, players capable of providing legitimate shutdown pass coverage tend to become stars.

    Tre'Davious White of the Buffalo Bills is a corner in this mold. Playing in a small market has kept him away from the spotlight a bit, but the 24-year-old is on the verge of breaking out in a big way.

    Though he has yet to earn a Pro Bowl nod, his production is there. In his two pro seasons, White has racked up 123 combined tackles, 26 passes defended, six interceptions and a forced fumble. He's sticky in coverage, physical when chasing down ball-carriers and willing and able to shadow No. 1 receivers.

    White is the best player in a secondary that allowed an NFL-low 179.2 passing yards per game last season. If Buffalo takes another positive step in 2019 and returns to playoff contention, White is going to emerge as one of its biggest and brightest stars.

Derwin James, S, Los Angeles Chargers

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    Mark LoMoglio/Associated Press

    When the Los Angeles Chargers selected safety Derwin James in the first round of the 2018 draft, they believed they were getting a different kind of player.

    "You could just tell his passion for the game," defensive coordinator Gus Bradley said, per Robert Mays of The Ringer. "You thought, 'This guy has a chance to be special.'"

    The Chargers were immediately rewarded with a Pro Bowl talent. The Florida State product did a little bit of everything, racking up 105 combined tackles, 3.5 sacks and three interceptions. He is indeed a different kind of safety.

    What sets James apart is his ability to play virtually anywhere on the defense. The 22-year-old can drop into deep coverage or creep up to the defensive line with equal efficacy. He can play the ball like a corner, and he can hit the ball-carrier like a linebacker. He has the potential to be the NFL's next great safety and to be one of the most notable players on L.A.'s championship-caliber defense.