Established superstars and future Hall of Fame veterans are well known to fans. They receive the biggest contracts, the most screen time, and are given the vast majority of the attention. Only in rare cases do younger stars break the mold and catch everyone’s eye.
Some of these young players do indeed have the face time that multiple Pro Bowls usually command, but others fly under the radar. As football flies forward into the next set of changes and innovations, who should fans keep an eye out for?
1. Rob Gronkowski (23)
The best tight end in the league is only 23. Not only did Gronkowski break the single-season touchdown record for tight ends, he also broke a 31-year-old record for receiving yards in a single season by a tight end. But beyond his game-breaking ability to catch the ball, Gronkowski has been a fantastic lead blocker in the run game as well as a pass protector. In fact, behind Kleinsasser and Bennett, he may have been one of the best run blocking tight ends in the game.
His ability to break tackles, find space, and dominate defenders is unique and would alone put him on the list. With excellent form, instincts and physical ability, Gronkowski excels as a blocker and a catcher. It’s difficult to find players who are elite at either talent, much less both.
2. Geno Atkins (24)
Underrated in 2010, Atkins finally received Pro Bowl and All-Pro recognition in 2011. Expect him to continue this trend. He doesn’t have the flashy statistics that Ndamukong Suh has, but is still a better pure pass rusher. While Suh grabbed 10 sacks in 2010 and 4 sacks in 2011, Atkins generated more pressure, more consistently and more often. Atkins’ sack totals may be lower, but he has had a bigger impact on the quarterback overall by hitting him more often as he threw and always threatening to make the play.
He also managed to do this while only starting one game in 2010.
Atkins has also been great in the run game, grabbing 26 tackles, relatively high for 4-3 undertackles. He was also anked sixth amongst defensive tackle in stops—tackles in the run game that constituted offensive failures (as defined by success rate, established by Bob Carroll, Pete Palmer and John thorn in the Hidden Game of Football). A good all-around player, Atkins is well on his way to earning the accolades that could one day result in a place in the Hall.
3. Navarro Bowman (24)
Navarro Bowman is simply one of the best inside linebackers in the game. Grading website Pro Football Focus gave him the top grade among all inside linebackers, and his performance on the field definitely merits Top 5 consideration—professional scout Matt Miller graded him as the second best inside linebacker. He placed second in the league in tackles while also allowing the fourth fewest yards per catch of any linebacker. He led all interior ‘backers in stops (70—four more than second place) and tackles for loss (13).
He doesn’t have many weaknesses to his game, using his instinctive reads on the play to place himself exactly where he needs to be. He reacts well to new information and changes directions quickly. While he may need some work with tackling form (he tackles high and missed 15 tackles in 2011), nearly every other talent he possess more than makes up for it.
4. Von Miller (23)
Miller starter off the 2011 season not getting the recognition he deserved, but ended the year with a Pro Bowl invite. His strength is incredible, considering his relatively light 245 pound frame, and he matches it with a surprisingly cerebral game. Miller missed a few assignments early in the 2011 season, but still showed he can play in nearly every aspect of the game.
Many people consider him a pass rushing specialist, and his 12.5 sacks do speak to a proficiency one rarely sees in 4-3 linebackers, but he’s also an excellent run defender. Miller and Aldon Smith were the only outside linebackers with over 200 snaps not to miss a single tackle, and Miller did it defending on over 900 downs.
In fact, Pro Football Focus ranked him as the top run defending outside linebacker and pass rushing outside linebacker in the league, and his 41 stops speak well to his proficiency in both.
In limited coverage, he was fine as well, and was top ten among outside linebackers in average yards per completion at 7.8. This is his greatest weakness as a linebacker, and he’s still well above average in it. His agility and his improved ability to read plays serves him well in the pass coverage game, and he could turn out to be the model of a 4-3 outside linebacker for years to come.
5. Aldon Smith (22)
The youngest player on this list, Aldon Smith will supplant DeMarcus Ware as the nation’s best pass rushing outside linebacker in no time, and will stay on that list for potentially a decade barring injury.
In half as many sacks as most of his colleagues, Smith produced 14 sacks and two forced fumbles, something that’s unheard of in the NFL. He has elite talent as a bull rusher and speed rusher and has both the strength to take on nearly any lineman and the speed to burst off the line. Smith already knows a wide variety of pass rushing techniques and will only expand them over the course of the 2012 season.
Smith is actually above average both as a run defender and cover linebacker, but gets knocked for his poor reactions to run plays. This isn’t an entirely accurate criticism, as he did display significant improvement in placement and instinct as the season wore on, and also did not miss a tackle. It isn’t entirely fair to evaluate Smith as a pass defender, however, simply because he was thrown at only four times. Still, of those four times, he only allowed two catches and deflected one of them.
6. Jason Pierre-Paul (23)
A young phenom, he and Smith were the only players below the age of 28 last year to rack up more than 12 sacks. While he did have 16.5 sacks to Smith’s 14, Pierre-Paul was not as consistent in producing pressure, like hits and hurries. On a per play basis, Smith did much more.
Still, Pierre-Paul accumulated more combined tackles than any other defensive end (in 4-3 and 3-4 systems) and had more defensive stops than any other defensive end, save for Jared Allen and Calais Campbell.
He’s been a demon in the backfield, but was particularly so in the playoffs. When he’s on his game, his speed rush is virtually unblockable, and his first step is among the fastest in the game.
7. Matthew Stafford (24)
With great arm strength and a near-perfect throwing motion, Stafford is set to lead the next wave of quarterbacks as the new elite. Having improved at reading defenses, the young Lions quarterback has made gains in every (shortened) year. In fact, last year he was seventh in the league in net adjusted yards per attempt, which rewards touchdowns and penalizes interceptions and sacks.
Like all young quarterbacks, he needs to improve his decisionmaking in the pocket, but has reduced the amount of time it takes for him to release the ball; now, instead of being responsible for a number of sacks like he was earlier in his career, he can avoid much more pressure with a quicker decisionmaking.
He still needs to improve his deep accuracy, and has had quite a few of these deep throws saved by the game’s best receiver, Calvin Johnson. It is still to his credit that he holds a number of records; he threw the most passing touchdowns in a single game by a rookie, and was the youngest quarterback to ever throw at least five touchdowns. He is also the first player in the NFL to throw for 1500 yards and 14 touchdowns in a four game span.
8. Cam Newton (23)
With one of the most electric rookie seasons in history, Cam Newton effectively silenced most doubters with a phenomenal 2011 performance. No stranger to breaking records, he holds eight individual rookie records and nine NFL records.
He broke 19 tackles as a runner, which would have ranked him twenty-eighth among running backs—putting him above DeAnfelo Williams, Ray Rice and Peyton Hillis. In doing so, he racked up 706 yards and 14 rushing touchdowns to complement his 4051 yards through the air and 21 passing touchdowns.
He has great accuracy in deep passes and can throw well on the run, a fantastic ability for any elite scrambler. His mechanics are much better than advertised, and he’s poised to improve. While he needs to get rid of the ball faster, make better decisions and be more accurate on shorter throws, Newton has proven that he’s a force to be reckoned with in the NFL.
9. Earl Thomas (23)
Earl Thomas is perhaps one of the most underrated players in the NFL. One of the best run defenders in the league, Thomas is excellent in space and can move to anywhere on the field as well as anyone (not only has he been timed below a 4.40, he plays like it, too).
While the statistics would indicate that he’s not even the best safety on his team, he has shown a tremendous intuition for knowing where he needs to be on the field and rarely finds himself out of place. In fact, despite his relatively high missed tackle count (12), he had more defensive stops than any other free safety in the lead except Antoine Bethea.
Thomas uses his speed and timing to make up for his height (5’10″), does a better job in the air than many others with a taller vertical leap because of his excellent reads and timing. It’s hard to quantify Thomas’ impact, but he and Chancellor will do well to lead this secondary to being one of the best in the NFL before long.
10. LeSean McCoy (24)
Possibly the most nimble running back playing today, LeSean McCoy forced the third most missed tackles as a runner in 2011, and was one of four running backs to exceed 1300 yards on the ground, and he had another 300 in the air. He ran an impressive 4.8 yards and led the league in rushing touchdowns with 17 as well as total touchdowns, with 20.
What makes McCoy so dangerous is his ability to burst out of cuts and his acceleration. When running full speed (as one of the faster guys in the league) his stop-start is nearly unrivaled, moving in and out of his cuts at will. Beyond that, his instinctive reads and natural ability to find holes allows him to vreate plays when others may not have been able to.
‘Shady’ is also a good pass catcher, and runs routes well out of the backfield. As a pass blocker, he leaves something to be desired, but he is not consistently a liability. On passing plays, he brings much more to the table than he leaves off and will be a huge asset for the Eagles.
The bottom line is that he and Adrian Peterson can break out of the edge better than nearly anyone else in the NFL, and McCoy will be dangerous for years to come.
11. Percy Harvin (24)
Percy Harvin is the most dynamic player in the NFL today. A kick returner, slot receiver, running back, flanker and even occasionally a deep threat, Harvin can do it all. He’s run successfully between the tackles, off stretches to the edge and in reverses.
He ranked seventh in the league in all-purpose yardage, and ranked second out of starting receivers. In yards from scrimmage, he ranks 5th overall for receivers.
With excellent agility, especially in small spaces, Harvin can create space for himself. Coupled with his explosive and precise route-running, Harvin is one of the game’s best slot receivers. What’s most surprising, however, is his strength, which is atypical for his size.
While he needs to work just a bit on securing the ball, he is a demon with the ball in his hands and has the fifth most yards after the catch—second most out of receivers with 50 receptions. His athleticism, intelligence and instincts serve him well and will only improve with time.
12. Antonio Brown (24)
Another player who doesn’t receiver enough attention, Brown is the intermediate and short receiver that complements and enable’s Mike Wallace’s deep game. But playing a shorter game doesn’t mean he’s not productive. Brown provided more yards for every route he run than any other receiver save for four others.
Brown is elusive with the ball, although he could improve his vision to make him an elite YAC receiver. His body control is fantastic, however, and he will soon improve his rough route running to make him even more explosive and generate more separation and take full advantage of his quickness and speed.
There are serious questions from national observers about who the best receiver on the Steelers roster is. If Brown continues on the trajectory he’s on right now, he will outpace Mike Wallace as the most productive and useful weapon, despite not having nearly as many highlight reel catches.
13. Hakeem Nicks (24)
Receivers don’t have to be elite in one aspect of their game to be game-changing receivers, and Nicks represents exactly that. Good at a lot of things, but great at none of them, Nicks’ skillset gives him versatilityin his function and route tree.
He’s the most targeted receiver on deep routes (having been targeted 37 times on passes thrown over 20 yards), but also runs a number of digs, slants, curls and other routes designed to move the chains—which is why his yards per reception is an average 15.8. His utility places him all over the field, which is why he broke the 1,000 yard barrier twice already in his three-year career.
His biggest problem might be his 8 dropped passes: 13th most in the league. Other than that, he displays quite a number of skills. He can catch well in traffic, has good footwork in his routes, reacts to the ball in air better than most receivers, and has effective vision for the ball and extra yardage.
Nicks should consistently find himself as a top ten receiver well into the future even without game-breaking speed, height, or strength. He has a handle on the fundamentals in a way that other receivers don’t.
14. A.J. Green (24)
Some consider Green to be one of the best receivers in the league already, but his 10 penalties—the most of any receiver—hurt his ranking in a significant way. Dropping 5 passes didn’t help much, either.
Still, Green is a phenomenally talented receiver. He’s a natural route runner that knows how to break in and out of routes with speed and explosion, and showed remarkable precision for a rookie. While not the fastest receiver on the list, he has remarkable release against press and off coverage.
What is particularly remarkable is that he displays excellent adjustment to the ball in the air, the mark of a veteran receiver. He can leap well, bt also has the ability to make sideline catches while also retaining control of the ball. If Green gets his penalties down, he will easily be one of the top receivers in the league.
15. Kam Chancellor (24)
Another jack-of-all-trades player, Chancellor is good at many things, but not great at any of them. There are enough different talents that come with playing safety, that having a wide variety of skills can often be more useful than excelling at one of them. Chancellor fits that mold well.
The young strong safety is a better than average athlete that uses his intuition more than his physical skills. In coverage, he does a good job getting between the receiver and the ball. He’s not known for ball-hawking, but four interceptions is nothing to complain about, either. More impressive are his eight pass deflections, good for third most in the league.
More importantly, Chancellor hangs his hat as a run stopper. He placed fifth overall in defensive stops and does nearly as well as his teammate Thomas in placing himself to stop the run. He still needs technique work, and like Thomas will go for the hit instead of the tackle, which is why he doesn’t trail his teammate by too much in missed tackle totals with ten.
He’s not as fast or agile as a number of other safeties, but his instincts and size more than make up for it. With Chancellor and rising star Richard Sherman, the Seahawks will have one of the best secondaries in the country before too long.
Just missed the cut: Aaron Hernandez, Joe Haden, Andy Dalton, Marcell Dareus, Dez Bryant, Demarco Murray, J.J. Watt.
With all the under-25 talent in the league today, fans can expect the next wave of stars to change the lanscape of the NFL. Indeed, some already have.