NFL Players Who Will Define the 2020s

Chris Roling@@Chris_RolingFeatured ColumnistJanuary 1, 2020

NFL Players Who Will Define the 2020s

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    Reed Hoffmann/Associated Press

    With jaw-dropping play from young quarterbacks, standout wideouts and superstar defenders tasked with countering those passers, the defining NFL talents of the 2020s should follow Hall of Fame career arcs while making all of their games must-see material.

    Those who blazed a trail over the last 10 years certainly did. Tom Brady, Aaron Rodgers, J.J. Watt—fans know the names.

    Who's next? Let's look at the current NFL players sure to lead the way in the next decade, based on production so far and projections based on both longevity and ability to sway team and playoff fortunes.

         

Patrick Mahomes, QB Kansas City Chiefs

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    Charles Rex Arbogast/Associated Press

    It's unfair to start anywhere other than here.

    Patrick Mahomes took the world by storm in his first year as a starter a season ago, rattling off 50 touchdown passes and plenty of individual honors while throwing no-look passes, to name just a few of the feats.

    There was an idea that defenses around the league would adapt since that's the historical precedent. But there hasn't been anyone like Mahomes, who threw for 4,000-plus yards with 26 touchdowns against just five interceptions over 14 games in 2019.

    It has become apparent the league won't simply counter Mahomes and force him into regression. He's one of the next faces of the NFL because of his league-altering play, as well as his great personality.

Lamar Jackson, QB, Baltimore Ravens

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    Ron Schwane/Associated Press

    Lamar Jackson's strong end to his rookie campaign didn't hint at what was to come.

    The Baltimore Ravens quarterback wasn't just a great rusher this year, though shattering records held by Michael Vick on his way to 1,200-plus yards and seven touchdowns on the ground is incredible.

    No, Jackson's biggest leap came as a passer. Over the course of 15 games, he completed 66.1 percent of his passes with 36 touchdowns against six interceptions. A touchdown percentage of 9.0 is, in a word, absurd.

    Jackson could be a bigger regression candidate than Mahomes because rushing 140 or more times per year might not be sustainable for a passer. But not only is he already a threat to win a Super Bowl like Mahomes, his leaps as a passer also suggest he'll level out at a pace sure to keep him among the very best for the next decade.

Russell Wilson, QB, Seattle Seahawks

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    Ted S. Warren/Associated Press

    Think Russell Wilson is anywhere close to done?

    Doubtful. It is easy to forget Wilson is only 31 years old. The career 64.5 percent passer just threw for 4,110 yards, his second-best yardage mark. He had 31 touchdowns and five interceptions—four off his career high in touchdown passes and his fewest interceptions in a season.

    He did this while leading the Seattle Seahawks to 11 wins while suffering 48 sacks. His magician-like ways inside and outside the pocket, combined with the ascent of rising stars like Tyler Lockett and DK Metcalf, only further guarantee he'll experience success for as long as he wants to keep playing.

    Wilson was ahead of his time and retains the skill set that will keep him comfortably in lockstep with game-altering players such as Mahomes and Jackson.

Michael Thomas, WR, New Orleans Saints

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    Brian Blanco/Associated Press

    Michael Thomas will fully inherit the torch from Julio Jones sooner than later.

    Thomas finished his 2019 campaign with a silly 149 catches for 1,725 yards and nine touchdowns. That's the third time over his four years in the league he's scored nine times in a season. He's missed only one game while hitting a minimum of 1,100 yards each season with 100-plus receptions three times.

    Taking it a step further, he tallied more than 90 first downs this season with a drop percentage of just 3.8. That's seven drops on 185 targets.

    Thomas won't have the luxury of playing with Drew Brees for the duration of his career. But his efficiency and impact mean a change under center won't do much to negate his status as the league's top receiving weapon.

Christian McCaffrey, RB, Carolina Panthers

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    Brian Blanco/Associated Press

    Christian McCaffrey is further redefining the running back position in the NFL.

    McCaffrey put up two solid years to start his career as a top-10 pick of the Carolina Panthers. This season, though, he joined the 1,000-1,000 club: He rushed for 1,387 yards and 15 scores on 4.8 yards per carry and caught 116 passes for 1,005 yards and four more scores.

    As well, 519 of his rushing yards came after contact, and he averaged 8.8 yards after a catch and 7.1 yards per target. Some of his numbers wouldn't be as high if quarterback Cam Newton had been on the field consistently, but few can match McCaffrey's versatile skill set.

    Regardless of how Carolina's coaching search pans out and who steps in under center, McCaffrey is just 23 years old. It's reasonable to expect he'll be near the top 10 in most of these categories for the foreseeable future given his upward swing.

Nick Bosa, EDGE, San Francisco 49ers

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    Rick Scuteri/Associated Press

    Nick Bosa stormed onto the scene this year and made it clear he'd be at the forefront of defensive superstars for a long time.

    The 2019 second overall pick played in all 16 games for the San Francisco 49ers, registering 26 hurries, 12 quarterback knockdowns, 47 pressures and nine sacks.

    Keep in mind Bosa arrived with plenty of hype and played a big role in the 49ers' turnaround while often combating double-teams, if not triple-teams. He's held up in all facets too, not just the pass rush, hence a great 86.7 grade at Pro Football Focus.

    Considering he's a rookie, the NFC West and the conference as a whole have a problem on their hands. It is reasonable to suspect he still has an upward developmental trajectory to achieve. Even if he doesn't, this sort of consistency wouldn't put him below many players.

T.J. Watt, EDGE, Pittsburgh Steelers

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    Gail Burton/Associated Press

    Of the many fast-rising pass-rushers in the NFL, Pittsburgh Steelers star T.J. Watt doesn't seem to get the respect he deserves.

    Maybe it's the last name. Or perhaps it's the fact that he's been around three seasons, and the first two were good, but not great.

    Year 3 was different. Watt went off for 24 hurries, 19 quarterback knockdowns, 14.5 sacks and 60 pressures, tallying 55 total tackles while missing just eight, an improvement of nearly 50 percent.

    Other evidence of a third-year leap into nearly unmatched territory abounds. In PFF grading, his 91.3 mark is up from 75.8 the season prior. If Watt levels out from here after his development paired well with usage, he's going to dominate the AFC for a long time.

Derwin James, S, Los Angeles Chargers

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    Kelvin Kuo/Associated Press

    An unfortunate injury softened the hype train for Los Angeles Chargers safety Derwin James.

    But given his talent, it shouldn't take long for the nationwide hype to reengage.

    James, the 17th pick in 2018, took the NFL by storm at a premium spot that lately feels like it's hit-or-miss for NFL front offices. He drummed up 105 total tackles as a rookie, allowing a 67.1 completion percentage on 73 targets with three picks and 13 passes defensed. He even produced five hurries, 11 pressures and 3.5 sacks.

    That's a lot to digest, but it wasn't just stat-padding. James is a game-changing presence. He only got in five games late this season after sitting on injured reserve, yet he looked like his usual self.

    The safety position is improving leaguewide with other notables such as Eddie Jackson, Jamal Adams and Kevin Byard, but James' combination of coverage, run defense and attacking via pressure stands alone.

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