Every NFL Team's Most Promising Youngster

Kristopher Knox@@kris_knoxFeatured ColumnistOctober 17, 2019

Every NFL Team's Most Promising Youngster

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    The first six weeks of the 2019 NFL season have not been kind to every team. For many fanbases, they have been downright miserable. Though the Cincinnati Bengals and Miami Dolphins are the only winless teams remaining, 15 franchises have two wins or fewer.

    Every team, however, has provided fans with a reason to stay tuned into games—primarily to get a glimpse of the future. Even the worst squads have promising young players who could emerge as legitimate stars in the coming seasons.

    Here, we'll examine the most promising youngster on each NFL roster. We'll be looking specifically at players under the age of 25 who could be future centerpieces for their respective franchises. Players who have already been named to the Pro Bowl or as All-Pros are excluded. They've already arrived.

           

Arizona Cardinals: QB Kyler Murray

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    This one shouldn't come as a surprise.

    Rookie quarterback Kyler Murray has already emerged as the face of the Arizona Cardinals. The reigning Heisman winner is much more than a frontman, however. He's playing like an above-average quarterback, even in Year 1.

    Through six games, Murray has passed for 1,664 yards with seven touchdowns and four interceptions. He has also rushed for 238 yards and two more scores. That puts him on pace for more than 5,000 total yards and 24 touchdowns.

    More importantly, Murray is playing the position well enough to have the Cardinals at 2-3-1. While that isn't the most impressive record in a vacuum, it's huge when you consider Arizona won just three games all of last year.

    Murray is one of the top candidates for Offensive Rookie of the Year, and if he continues to grow and develop, he should be a Pro Bowler in the near future.

Atlanta Falcons: WR Calvin Ridley

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    Tight end Austin Hooper has been the Atlanta Falcons' breakout pass-catcher this season—he's just 180 yards shy of his receiving total for all of 2018—but he doesn't qualify since he made the Pro Bowl last year.

    Second-year wideout Calvin Ridley, on the other hand, hasn't yet reached Pro Bowl status, but he's headed in that direction.

    Ridley burst onto the scene as a rookie, catching six touchdown passes in his first four games. He cooled off a bit after that but still produced 821 yards and 10 touchdowns.

    Through Week 6 as a sophomore, Ridley has racked up 343 yards and four touchdowns, putting him on pace for 915 yards and another 11 scores.

    With Julio Jones signing a contract extension through 2023, the Falcons should have their top two receiver spots locked up for the foreseeable future.

Baltimore Ravens: QB Lamar Jackson

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    We've seen speedy dual-threat quarterbacks in the NFL before, but Lamar Jackson is playing the role on a different level. He's perfectly capable of carving up a defense with his legs—he has 460 rushing yards and two touchdowns on the ground this season—but he's laying the foundation to become a consistent and reliable passer, as well.

    Jackson's speed and elusiveness will remind many folks of prime Michael Vick, but he's already more accurate as a passer than Vick ever was. Jackson has completed 65.1 percent of his passes this season, while Vick completed 62.6 percent in his best year as a pro.

    So far this season, Jackson has thrown for 1,507 yards and 11 touchdowns with just five interceptions. He's looking like a steal as the 32nd overall pick in last year's draft, and he's playing like a perennial Pro Bowler.

Buffalo Bills: QB Josh Allen

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    Buffalo Bills quarterback Josh Allen is another dual-threat quarterback to emerge from the 2018 draft, during which the organization selected him with the No. 7 overall pick. Though he hasn't been as reliable a passer as Lamar Jackson, Allen oozes potential, and he has the Bills sitting at 4-1 through five games.

    Allen's biggest assets are his arm strength and physical running style. They've allowed him to amass 1,122 passing yards, 158 rushing yards and eight total touchdowns. If he can improve his touch and decision-making—he already has nine turnovers this season—he could have All-Pro potential.

    Plus, Allen already fits the team's offensive identity. The Bills are to able grind with the running game while hitting occasional chunk plays thanks to his downfield-passing ability. He isn't a complete quarterback yet, but he could push the Bills back into the postseason in 2019.

Carolina Panthers: QB Kyle Allen

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    The Carolina Panthers may not be ready to permanently pull the starting job away from quarterback Cam Newton, but second-year signal-caller Kyle Allen has created the possibility with his strong play.

    Dating back to last year, the 23-year-old quarterback is 5-0 as a starter. He's thrown for 1,167 yards with nine touchdowns and zero interceptions in that span, though he has lost four fumbles. Most important, though, is the fact that Allen has provided consistency at quarterback—something the Panthers haven't always gotten from Newton.

    Carolina has a tough decision ahead, especially if it doesn't have faith in Newton's ability to return to his MVP form from 2015.

    "There are other teams, however, that think Newton has little left," Bleacher Report's Mike Freeman reported. "Front-office personnel for these teams also believe that the Panthers privately think this as well."

    Whether in Carolina or elsewhere, Allen deserves to be starting somewhere beyond the 2019 season.

Chicago Bears: LB Roquan Smith

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    This season, second-year linebacker Roquan Smith hasn't made as many high-impact plays as he did as a rookie—in part because he missed one game for an undisclosed personal issue—but he's still one of the most promising young linebackers in the league.

    Smith is also one of the most unheralded members of the Chicago Bears defense. Pass-rushers such as Khalil Mack and Leonard Floyd have gotten a lot of the spotlight, but Smith has been in the middle of it all, cleaning up almost any play that comes his way.

    In four games this season, Smith has amassed 33 tackles. He had 121 tackles, five sacks, five passes defended and an interception as a rookie. He was also named to the Pro Football Writers of America All-Rookie Team.

    Smith has the potential to develop into a perennial Pro Bowler and one of the best inside linebackers in the NFL.

Cincinnati Bengals: WR Tyler Boyd

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    The Cincinnati Bengals offense has yet to find its rhythm under new head coach Zac Taylor. However, 24-year-old wide receiver Tyler Boyd has managed to remain productive.

    The fourth-year wideout leads all Bengals players with 40 receptions—more than double the number of second-leading-receiver Auden Tate—and has 416 yards and a touchdown on the season. A year ago, Boyd amassed 1,028 yards and seven touchdowns, earning himself a new four-year, $43 million contract in the process.

    While Boyd may not have the skill set to replace A.J. Green as an elite receiver—and Green is in the final year of his contract—he should be a prominent piece of the passing attack for the foreseeable future. So far this season, he's been the most productive member of the entire offense.

Cleveland Browns: RB Nick Chubb

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    While Cleveland Browns quarterback Baker Mayfield has taken a step back in 2019, second-year running back Nick Chubb has taken a big step toward elite running back status.

    At 5'11" and 227 pounds, Chubb has the build of a power back. But while he is a physical runner, he's also much more. He has legitimate breakaway speed (runs of 92 and 88 yards already in his career), exceptional vision and more elusiveness than one might expect.

    Chubb is currently second in the NFL in rushing yards (607), and he's averaging an impressive 5.3 yards per carry. He also has 20 receptions for 128 yards and has found the end zone six times. Dating back to last season, he has 1,880 yards from scrimmage and 16 total touchdowns despite making just 15 starts.

    Barring injury, Chubb should be running his way into a 2019 Pro Bowl nod.

Dallas Cowboys: LB Jaylon Smith

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    Back in 2016, the Dallas Cowboys gambled on former Notre Dame linebacker Jaylon Smith. They took him in the second round of the draft even though he had suffered a torn ACL and MCL in the Fiesta Bowl only months earlier.

    Smith didn't see the field as a rookie, but he's developed into a star in the two-plus years since.

    Last season, he finished with 121 tackles, four sacks, four passes defended and two forced fumbles. He's on pace to exceed those numbers this year. Through six weeks, Smith has 48 tackles, two sacks, one pass defended and one forced fumble.

    While Smith may not be the same player he was before the injury, he's still a talented, instinctual and physical linebacker, and he could be playing his way into a Pro Bowl appearance as early as this season.

Denver Broncos: LB Bradley Chubb

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    The Denver Broncos were forced to place second-year linebacker Bradley Chubb on injured reserve with a torn ACL after just four games. 

    Still, Chubb is one of the best young pass-rushers in the entire NFL. He racked up 12 sacks as a rookie in 2018 and added another before landing on IR. Playing opposite Von Miller has certainly helped the NC State product, but that shouldn't diminish his talent.

    Chubb is physical at the point of attack, possesses a variety of pass-rush moves and doesn't give up in his pursuit of the quarterback. Assuming he returns at 100 percent next season, he should be destined for stardom and Pro Bowl accolades.

Detroit Lions: S Tracy Walker

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    When you think of notable Detroit Lions defenders, you probably think of Darius Slay, Quandre Diggs or offseason acquisition Trey Flowers. Second-year safety Tracy Walker probably isn't at the top of your list, though he's arguably the team's most productive member on that side of the ball.

    Walker leads the Lions with 43 tackles. He also has four passes defended and an interception. Even more impressive is the fact that Walker ranks sixth in the NFL in solo stops (37) despite having played in only five games due to the Week 5 bye.

    Though he only played sparingly as a rookie, the 24-year-old earned the starting free safety job before the beginning of the season and has proved himself a reliable member of the secondary. Capable of playing on the back end or matching up one-on-one, Walker is also one of Detroit's most versatile building blocks.

Green Bay Packers: CBs Kevin King and Jaire Alexander

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    We're cheating a bit here and giving the nod to the Green Bay Packers' duo of young corners, Kevin King and Jaire Alexander.

    Fast, physical and feisty, King (24) is a perfect fit for Mike Pettine's aggressive defense. Alexander (22) is a shutdown corner in the making. So far this season, they've combined for 37 tackles, 17 passes defended, three interceptions and two forced fumbles.

    These two just might emerge as the league's top cornerback tandem in the near future. They certainly have the confidence to do so.

    "The thing that all great corners have is confidence," quarterback Aaron Rodgers said, via Wes Hodkiewicz of the team's official website. "We've had some guys over the years when that big stud receiver was coming to town they might not be up for that challenge. Not Jaire, and definitely not Kevin."

Houston Texans: G Max Scharping, T Tytus Howard

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    The Houston Texans should be happy with the play of both rookie guard Max Scharping and rookie tackle Tytus Howard. They've stabilized the offensive line in recent weeks—Deshaun Watson wasn't sacked in Weeks 5 or 6—and have helped the Texans get to 4-2 and sit atop the AFC South.

    "Those two guys are very smart. Tytus and Max are very smart players," head coach Bill O'Brien said, per Aaron Wilson of the Houston Chronicle. "I think they all rely on each other. I think that's just an area that we played well in."

    It's hard to pick one player over the other, as each has played a role in the offensive line's turnaround. It is worth noting, however, that Howard is expected to miss time with a partially torn MCL.

    The Texans should feel great about both youngsters and the state of the offensive line beyond the 2019 season.

Indianapolis Colts: CB Rock Ya-Sin

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    In April's draft, the Indianapolis Colts used a second-round pick on former Temple cornerback Rock-Ya Sin. It didn't take long for him to become a factor for the defense. He started in Week 1 against the Los Angeles Chargers.

    "Rock has done very well," head coach Frank Reich said before facing the Atlanta Falcons in Week 3, per D. Orlando Ledbetter of the Atlanta Journal-Constitution. "He's physical and aggressive. He's a really smart player. We're really excited about the progress that he's made."

    So far this season, Ya-Sin has started three of five contests and has appeared in each.

    Though he's made his fair share of rookie mistakes in coverage, he has flashed his awareness, quickness and physicality. He has 17 tackles and one pass defended so far, and you should expect him to develop into a mainstay of Indianapolis' secondary.

Jacksonville Jaguars: LB Myles Jack

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    One could make an argument for rookie quarterback Gardner Minshew II here, but since Nick Foles may regain his starting job when healthy, fourth-year linebacker Myles Jack gets the nod instead.

    Jack has been a mainstay on Jacksonville's defense since his rookie season in 2016. The second-round pick started 10 games that season and has started every contest at middle linebacker since. He finished the 2018 campaign with 107 tackles, 2.5 sacks, an interception and a forced fumble.

    He's set to have similar production in 2019. So far, Jack has amassed 34 tackles, 0.5 sacks and two passes defended.

    He hasn't earned Pro Bowl honors yet, but that doesn't mean the 24-year-old isn't one of the best young linebackers in the game.

Kansas City Chiefs: CB Charvarius Ward

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    The Kansas City Chiefs haven't been known for their defense over the last couple of seasons, but they do have at least one emerging talent on that side of the ball.

    Second-year cornerback Charvarius Ward has taken hold of the starting job and is at least holding his own. He's made some mistakes, as has the rest of Kansas City's defense in 2019, but he's also shown a penchant for making big plays.

    This nifty one-handed interception against the Houston Texans is a prime example.

    So far, Ward has two picks to go with four passes defended, 36 tackles and a forced fumble. The 2018 undrafted free agent is looking like a potential building block for the Chiefs defense.

Los Angeles Chargers: RB Austin Ekeler

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    Los Angeles Chargers running back Melvin Gordon III is in the final year of his contract, and there's a real possibility he doesn't return in 2020. The reason isn't because of his play, however, as he's a two-time Pro Bowler and one of the more versatile backs in the league.

    Instead, it's that Los Angeles has 24-year-old running back Austin Ekeler on its roster. The 2017 undrafted free agent held the starting role early this season during Gordon's holdout and was one of the brightest spots on the Chargers offense.

    So far, Ekeler has amassed 241 rushing yards, 370 receiving yards and six total touchdowns.

    Even if the Chargers don't view Ekeler as a long-term starting option, he's proved himself a valuable complementary piece. Despite starting just three games in 2018 and appearing in 14 overall, he finished the season with 958 yards from scrimmage and six scores.

Los Angeles Rams: S John Johnson

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    The Los Angeles Rams recently placed strong safety John Johnson on injured reserve with a shoulder injury. The move will clearly hurt in the short term, but it shouldn't prevent the 23-year-old from being in the team's long-term plans.

    Johnson emerged as a starter as a rookie in 2017. He started 11 games that season and has started all but one contest since then. In six appearances this season—five starts—he amassed 51 tackles, two interceptions and two passes defended.

    Last year, Johnson racked up 119 tackles, four interceptions and 11 passes defended. Those are Pro Bowl-worthy numbers, though he wasn't named to the All-Star festivities. He did, however, start in the Super Bowl, producing seven tackles in the biggest game of his career.

Miami Dolphins: LB Jerome Baker

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    The Dolphins are obviously tanking in 2019, and a large percentage of their roster likely won't be around throughout the full rebuilding process. However, second-year linebacker Jerome Baker is playing his way into a permanent position on the defense.

    As a rookie, Baker produced 79 tackles, three sacks and an interception. He hasn't made as many high-impact plays this year, but he's already on pace for 106 tackles. Miami is seeing a potential building block grow on the playing field.

    "If you trust my vision as a coach and seeing that, he's improving," defensive coordinator Patrick Graham said of Baker, via Alain Poupart of the team's official website.

    Expect to see Baker in a Dolphins uniform for many years to come.

Minnesota Vikings: RB Dalvin Cook

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    Third-year running back Dalvin Cook hasn't emerged as a Pro Bowler yet, though that appears to be due solely to injuries. He was limited to just 15 games over the first two years of his career, largely because of the torn ACL he suffered as a rookie.

    In Year 3, Cook is healthy and has been a revelation. He's already amassed 583 rushing yards, 213 receiving yards and six touchdowns. He's the centerpiece of the Minnesota Vikings offense and one of the top all-around running backs in the league.

    At just 24 years old, Cook may have his best days ahead of him, too.

    Though there are other talented running backs in the NFC, including Christian McCaffrey and Ezekiel Elliott, it would be a shock if Cook doesn't earn his first Pro Bowl nod in 2019.

New England Patriots: DE Chase Winovich

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    The New England Patriots just seem to have a knack for replacing standout players. They lost defensive end Trey Flowers in free agency when he signed a five-year, $90 million contract with the Detroit Lions. It seems they've found his replacement in rookie third-round pick Chase Winovich.

    Winovich isn't on Flowers' level as an all-around player yet, as the veteran is one of the most versatile ends in the league. But he's jumped right into his role as a pass-rusher. Playing in a limited role, Winovich has already racked up four sacks this season, just half a sack less than rookie sack leader Brian Burns.

    More than just a situational pass-rusher, Winovich has also been a valuable piece of New England's special teams unit. He returned a blocked punt for his first career touchdown in Week 6, proving he's likely to be a Patriots playmaker for as long as he remains on the team.

    Don't be shocked if Winovich is the one getting a massive free-agent deal in a few years.

New Orleans Saints: C Erik McCoy

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    Replacing a Pro Bowl player is never easy, but that's the challenge rookie center Erik McCoy faced coming into 2019.

    The New Orleans Saints lost three-time Pro Bowler Max Unger to retirement in the offseason and used a second-round pick on the Texas A&M product expected to be his successor. McCoy won the starting job in camp and has started every game at center since. He's also played well in the process.

    According to Pro Football Focus, McCoy has been flagged four times in six games, but he has yet to allow a sack.

    Interior offensive linemen rarely get the credit they deserve, but McCoy should be recognized as one of the best young blockers in the game.

New York Giants: QB Daniel Jones

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    Running back Saquon Barkley is firmly established as the best young player on the New York Giants roster. But the 2018 Pro Bowler appears to have a talented young running mate in rookie quarterback Daniel Jones, and the Duke product is likely to end up an even bigger piece of the franchise's future—primarily because of the position he plays.

    The NFL game has never appeared to overwhelm Jones. He's made some rookie mistakes, sure. But he's rarely seemed in over his head. He's also played well enough that there's no chance the Giants go back to Eli Manning as long as Jones is healthy.

    In four starts and five appearances, the 2019 draft's No. 6 overall pick has passed for 921 yards with five touchdowns and six interceptions. He's flashed all the physical tools the Giants could want in their next signal-caller (accuracy, touch, mobility and vision), and he should give fans plenty of hope that this latest rebuild is going to be a short one.

New York Jets: QB Sam Darnold

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    From a physical standpoint, New York Jets quarterback Sam Darnold is the archetypal quarterback. He's big (6'3", 225 lbs), athletic, accurate and strong-armed. If not for two factors, he would likely already have arrived as a star.

    Injuries and illness have kept Darnold out of the lineup in six games dating back to last season. That isn't exactly the sophomore signal-caller's fault, but it has hurt his overall numbers.

    The one area in which he should be held accountable is his decision-making. Darnold showed a tendency to force throws and be careless with the ball in the pocket as a rookie, which led to five fumbles and 15 interceptions. He hasn't been as turnover-prone so far this season—he has just one interception and one fumble in two games—so that's definitely a positive.

    While Darnold's three-game absence due to mononucleosis may hurt his chances of being a Pro Bowler in 2019, he appears to be well on his way to reaching that level, especially if his turnover issues are indeed behind him.

Oakland Raiders: RB Josh Jacobs

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    Last year, the New York Giants made Saquon Barkley the first running back taken in the NFL draft. This year, the Oakland Raiders awarded that honor to former Alabama running back Josh Jacobs.

    Though Jacobs hasn't been quite as special as Barkley was a year ago, he's become the centerpiece of Oakland's offense through the first six weeks. He has rushed for 430 yards, averaged 4.9 yards per carry and found the end zone four times. He's also caught six passes for an additional 77 yards.

    Both physical and elusive, Jacobs has the skills needed to be one of the NFL's top overall young running backs, and he might already be there as a runner. With him leading the charge, Oakland has been able to field a consistent offense—and a winning one.

    The Raiders sit at 3-2, in large part because of Jacobs.

Philadelphia Eagles: RB Miles Sanders

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    Jordan Howard may be the Philadelphia Eagles' best pure running option, but it's hard not to love what 22-year-old rookie Miles Sanders brings to the offense.

    In six games (four starts), Sanders has amassed 199 rushing yards, 13 receptions and 219 receiving yards with a touchdown. The Penn State product has 418 scrimmage yards, ranking second among all rookies behind only Josh Jacobs of the Oakland Raiders.

    While the Eagles would like to see better rushing numbers from Sanders, they're getting a lot from him as a pass-catcher. That's extremely valuable in today's NFL, and he should remain a high-end complementary piece over the next couple of seasons, no matter who else is in the Eagles backfield.

Pittsburgh Steelers: LB Devin Bush

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    It's early, but Pittsburgh Steelers linebacker Devin Bush appears to be racing toward Defensive Rookie of the Year honors. The former Michigan star has already racked up 52 tackles, two interceptions, a sack, three passes defended, a league-leading four fumble recoveries and a defensive touchdown.

    If the Steelers drafted Bush to be the linebacker heir to Ryan Shazier, they're getting exactly what they wanted.

    "He's starting to become a playmaker," Shazier said, per Ray Fittipaldo of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. "... We knew it would come. It takes time."

    The fact it's only taken Bush six games to become a bona fide playmaker is remarkable. There's a real possibility it will only take him a year to be an All-Pro.

San Francisco 49ers: DE Nick Bosa

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    The San Francisco 49ers didn't hesitate to scoop up former Ohio State pass-rusher Nick Bosa with the No. 2 overall pick in April's draft. Given the way the rookie has played thus far, it looks like general manager John Lynch made the right decision.

    Bosa has terrorized opposing quarterbacks early in 2019. Though he only has three sacks, he's been far more impactful than that number would indicate. Pro Football Focus ranked Bosa first in pass-rushing productivity for the first six weeks of the season.

    The 49ers remain undefeated largely because of their defense. Though he's young and relatively inexperienced, Bosa is already one of the biggest pieces on that unit.

Seattle Seahawks: WR DK Metcalf

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    The Seattle Seahawks lost No. 1 wideout Doug Baldwin to retirement in the offseason, leaving a major hole in the receiving corps. Fifth-year receiver Tyler Lockett appears to have claimed the role for now, but rookie second-round pick DK Metcalf could take it within the next year or two.

    Metcalf is already Seattle's most dangerous downfield target. He's caught 16 passes for 336 yards and two touchdowns with a ridiculous 21.0 yards-per-catch average.

    However, Metcalf is more than just a straight-line route-runner. He's shown the ability to attack various areas on the field and rarely goes down after first contact.

    "He even caught that hitch the other day, and it took about four or five guys to tackle him," quarterback Russell Wilson said, per Andy Patton of Seahawks Wire. "That's not normal."

    Metcalf is shaping up to be a truly special pro.

Tampa Bay Buccaneers: WR Chris Godwin

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    The Tampa Bay Buccaneers have seen a lot of up-and-down performances from quarterback Jameis Winston this season. For third-year wide receiver Chris Godwin, it's been all up.

    The 23-year-old Penn State product currently leads the NFL with 662 receiving yards. He has 43 receptions and six touchdowns, and he's averaging 15.4 yards per reception.

    Capable of attacking all areas of the field, Goodwin is one of the most versatile young receivers in the NFL, and he might just be the best player on Tampa's roster.

    According to Scott Barrett of Pro Football Focus, Winston has a passer rating of 148.6 when targeting Godwin. Winston's overall passer rating is just 84.9.

Tennessee Titans: WR A.J. Brown

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    The Tennessee Titans appear to be giving up on quarterback Marcus Mariota, at least for the time being. Ryan Tannehill will start in Week 7, though the change may not be permanent, according to ESPN's Turron Davenport.

    The good news for Tannehill is that he'll have some talented weapons at his disposal. With Adam Humphries, Corey Davis, A.J. Brown and Delanie Walker on the roster, Tennessee's receiving corps is far from barren.

    Brown, a second-round rookie out of Mississippi, is the most dangerous of the group. Though he has fewer catches than the other three, he's done more with his receptions. Despite catching just 14 passes, Brown leads all Titans players with 273 yards and two touchdowns.

    If Tannehill can provide more consistent quarterback play, Brown could emerge as one of the best young downfield threats in the NFL.

Washington Redskins: WR Terry McLaurin

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    It's been a memorable first six weeks for the Washington Redskins, but not in a good way. They fired head coach Jay Gruden, they're still not ready to start rookie quarterback Dwayne Haskins, and they only recently picked up their first win of the season, which came over the hapless Miami Dolphins.

    Rookie wideout Terry McLaurin, however, has had one of the most memorable starts to a receiving career in recent memory. He's already emerged as Washington's No. 1 option, and he's on pace for an impressive 1,224-yard, 15-touchdown season.

    "We're fortunate to have him and just hope it continues for him," interim coach Bill Callahan said, per Ben Standig and Rhiannon Walker of The Athletic. "He's having a heck of a year so far."

    With stellar speed, smooth route-running and tremendous work ethic, McLaurin has all the tools needed to become one of the league's elite receivers within the next couple of years. For now, the 24-year-old should be considered a top candidate for Offensive Rookie of the Year.