Ten players set to lead the NFL into the future

At only 25 years old, Andrew Luck is poised to lead the NFL into the next decade or longer.
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As fans and observers of professional sports, rarely do we take a step back and realize the greatness that we are witnessing. We take this greatness for granted. And when players fail to live up to our expectations, we turn on them in a big way. It’s part of being a fan. It’s part of being a member of the media.

While we sit back and talk about the now, front offices build for the future. In the NFL, the primary goal of franchises is to replace aging veterans and find upgrades for those who are not performing up to level. For these front offices, it’s not as much about the “now” as it is about the “later.” Maybe a happy medium between the two.

So let’s talk about the future by looking at 10 NFL players set to lead the league into the next 10 years. Using a combination of what each player has done thus far in his career and how he projects into the future, we dwindled a list of 50-plus players down to 10. When needed, we looked at the character of individual players — how they are wired off the field. After all, in today’s NFL, character is starting to become a paramount concern for teams.

You will see a few quarterbacks grace this list. You will also see a few seemingly under-the-radar players make the list. While it’s subjective in the truest sense of the word, it also gives us an understanding of whom the league will rely on to take it into the future — a future that is more unclear today than at any point in the recent history of the NFL.

1. Andrew Luck, Quarterback, Indianapolis Colts

Three seasons, 48 career starts, 33 wins, three playoff appearances and 98 total touchdowns. Those are Luck’s stats since he entered the league as the No. 1 overall pick in the 2012 NFL Draft. They also represent some of the best stats for a quarterback in his first three years in the history of the league.

Coming off a 40-touchdown 2014 season that saw him lead Indianapolis to the AFC Championship Game, Luck is primed to hoist the Lombardi at some point in the not-so-distant future. Once that happens, he will take over for the Peyton Mannings and Tom Bradys of the world as the face of the NFL.

“He’s so smart. Andrew understands the game of football so well,” former Stanford coach Jim Harbaugh said about Luck in February of 2014, via Colts.com. “He understands the team that plays the best has the best chance to win, so it’s a team game. He’s smart enough to understand all those things at such a young age.”

That’s what separates Luck from other young quarterbacks around the NFL. His seemingly unlimited knowledge of the game is something we saw from his first preseason appearance as a member of the Colts in 2012. It’s something that can’t be taught — command of the offense, understanding of specific schemes and putting his receivers in the best possible situation to make a play.

These sentiments were echoed by new Colts wide receiver Andre Johnson when he indicated that Luck was the best quarterback he has ever played with … after just three practices with his new team.

Luck’s command of the game is only outdone by his understanding of what it takes to lead by example off the field. You will not read any negative stories about him away from the game. He’s a pillar in the community that welcomes him today, and communities that embraced him in the past. In today’s NFL, that’s the most the league can ask for in a player who’s set to lead by example during the next decade-plus.

2. Odell Beckham Jr., Wide Receiver, New York Giants

If we thought Calvin Johnson was that new breed receiver when he entered in the NFL in 2007, we must have been overlooking a then-14-year-old Odell Beckham Jr. This second-year wideout has an opportunity to redefine the wide receiver position as we know it.

In addition to making circus catch after circus catch last year, Beckham Jr. absolutely obliterated any rookie season from a receiver in today’s NFL.

The interesting thing here is that the 2014 rookie class of receivers was among the best in the history of the NFL. However, Beckham Jr. stood out among an extremely talented crop. As ridiculous as those overall numbers were, OBJ’s individual game averages were even more eye opening. He averaged 7.6 receptions, 108.8 yards and 1.0 touchdowns per game. He did so after missing the team’s preseason slate and the first four games of the year with a hamstring injury. Adjusted to a full 16-game season, OBJ’s rookie numbers would have looked like this: 122 receptions, 1,741 yards and 12 touchdowns.

“For me, you would have to go back to 1981 (the year they drafted Hall of Fame linebacker Lawrence Taylor) before we were that excited about a rookie coming in and what he could possibly mean to this franchise,” Giants owner John Mara said about Beckham Jr. during the 2014 season, via NJ.com. “I hesitate to say that because I do not want to put that much pressure on him, but he certainly has brought a lot to this organization.”

Tell us how you really feel, Mr. Mara.

In any event, Beckham Jr’s rookie performance has to go down as one of the greatest for a wide receiver in the history of the league. If he continues to progress as a player, he has a chance to go down as one of the all-time greats. Until then, let’s just stop and watch him perform tricks that most of us could scarcely imagine.

3. J.J. Watt, Defensive End, Houston Texans

The man. The myth. The monster. There is little doubt that Watt is the best player in the entire NFL. He may not be as important from a team standpoint as say Aaron Rodgers or Tom Brady, but he’s a better football player than those two. When attempting to compare Watt to great defensive ends of the past, there is no real comparison. What this former first-round pick has done in his first four NFL seasons is beyond description.

Coming off a NFL Defensive Player of the Year performance, Watt has now tallied 57 sacks, 12 forced fumbles, 11 fumble recoveries, 37 passes defended and six touchdowns in four years. To put his early-career performance into perspective, Pro Football Reference has an advanced stat called AV (Approximate Value) where it uses an algorithm to gauge a player’s value to his team. Through four seasons, Watt’s career AV stands at 67. For comparison’s sake, Pro Football Hall of Famer Charles Haley had a career AV of 100 in 14 seasons.

Because it’s hard to gauge a defensive end’s impact on a team based on pure sacks and generic stats, let’s delve a bit further into what Watt has done through the lens of advanced metrics. According to Pro Football Focus (subscription required), Watt put up a positive grade of 107.5 for the 2014 season. The second-best player according to the respected site’s metrics was Oakland Raiders linebacker Khalil Mack at +55.3 (more on him later).

When drawing the conclusion about players set to lead the NFL into the next decade, we have to look past who gets the most recognition. Is said player a generational talent? Will he redefine the position as we know it? Is he among the best players in the NFL? In this case, Watt fills all three requirements.

4. Russell Wilson, Quarterback, Seattle Seahawks

Wilson has been told he can’t do it for his entire life now. “He is too small,” they said. “He can’t physically do what it takes to succeed,” they said. These skeptics, who have since been quieted, entailed every single team in the NFL, including the Seattle Seahawks, when he fell to the third round in the 2012 NFL Draft.

“Wilson’s height will be his biggest inhibitor at the next level and the largest reason for his late-round value,” NFL Media wrote about Wilson prior to the 2012 NFL Draft. “It remains to be seen if he can throw effectively from the pocket at the next level.”

The questions didn’t stop there. Wilson failed to impress at the over-hyped annual dog-and-pony show that is known as the NFL Scouting Combine.

 

Even after watching Wilson through his rookie campaign, the respected NFL scribe Mike Tanner had this to say about the Super Bowl-winning quarterback:

“Wilson is still 5-foot-11. His height is not irrelevant, and like Griffin and Luck, he still has to develop and round out his game. Wilson is no sure thing, no guaranteed franchise quarterback for the next decade, though no one really is, not even the heartthrobs.”

None of us was immune to these critiques. There is still an even larger question regarding Wilson’s overall impact on Seattle’s recent success. The skeptics and naysayers will conclude that the Legion of Boom is the primary reason Wilson and the Seahawks are coming off two consecutive NFC titles.

That’s fine and dandy, but it’s hard to deny just how much success Wilson has had in his three-year NFL career. The most wins for a quarterback in his first three seasons in the league. Two NFC championships. One Super Bowl title. Those are all-team accolades, but they also come with the knowledge that Seattle’s mentality as a team changed once he beat out Matt Flynn for the team’s starting job in the summer of 2012. That toughness and true leadership ability is hard to come by in today’s NFL.

Statistically, it’s almost as stunning. A total of 84 touchdowns compared to 26 interceptions. A career 98.6 quarterback rating, which bests any of the all-time great quarterbacks in their first three NFL seasons. More than this, Wilson has led 13 fourth-quarter comebacks and 18 game-winning drives in his young career. For comparison’s sake, Joe Montana’s numbers stood at 36 and 38, respectively, throughout his 16-year career.

Off the field, Wilson’s public persona may very well have been created as a PR ploy, but it’s working. He’s dialed into his plan. He understands the role a face of a franchise has within his city’s community. And above all else, he’s what the NFL wants in a role model moving forward, especially with the black eye the league has received in the mind of the public over the past couple years.

5. Dez Bryant, Wide Receiver, Dallas Cowboys

Bryant might be an odd choice to be in the top five here. However, we have to appreciate game-changing talent when we see it. Dating back to his days at Oklahoma State, this enigmatic receiver proved he was a step above everyone else on the football field. We seem to forget that Bryant put up nearly 1,500 receiving yards and 19 touchdowns as a 19-year-old sophomore in 2008. Nineteen years old!

After an initial struggle to get acclimated to the NFL, especially after sitting out most of his final season in Stillwater, Bryant has jumped on to the scene over the past three years. Since the start of the 2012 season, the talented receiver has tallied 273 receptions for nearly 4,000 yards and 41 touchdowns.

The biggest problem some might have with Bryant’s inclusion on this list is a domestic violence issue from 2012, when he was accused of attacking his mother. While charges were eventually dropped, that incident almost forced us to keep him off the list altogether. However, he’s maintained a pretty clean off-field record and seems to be maturing into his role as one of the top players in the NFL today.

On the field, it doesn’t appear Bryant lacks confidence at all:

“Truth be told, I don’t compare myself to nobody,” Bryant said back in 2013, via ESPN.com. “I think Calvin’s the best at what he [does]. I think I’m the best at what I do.”

There is no diva involved in that. Bryant simply believes he can do whatever the team asks of him on the football field. While Bryant’s mouth has in the past got him in trouble, this is the mentality you want from a receiver against today’s version of larger defensive backs. In all reality, Bryant’s physicality also plays a role here.

Through five seasons, Bryant is averaging 76 receptions for 1,085 yards and 11 touchdowns. If he keeps up this pace until his 35th birthday, Bryant will go down as one of the greatest statistical receivers in the history of the NFL. How’s that for a game-changer?

6. Rob Gronkowski, Tight End, New England Patriots

Call him a “dumb jock.” Say that he parties too much off the field. That doesn’t amount to a hill of beans in the grand scheme of things.

 

He lives his life for every day, and that’s something most of us simply fail to do. The partying, the Jello shots, the party cruises, the life of Gronk. He couldn’t care less.

On the field, Gronkowski has an opportunity to do some amazing things if he can stay healthy. We are talking about a tight end that is averaging about five receptions, 67 yards and a little less than one touchdown per game. To put that into perspective, the greatest receiving tight end of all-time, Tony Gonzalezdoesn’t even come close to comparing to those averages. Despite missing 15 games due to injury over the past three years, Gronkowski is still averaging 62 receptions and 876 yards per season. At just 26, he has an opportunity to shatter every single major statistical record for a tight end in league history.

More than just stats, Gronkowski has redefined the tight end position as we know it. He proves that teams can have success with a tight end being the central focus of an offense. Outside of possibly Gonzalez, who never had much postseason success, that simply hasn’t been the case in the past. A generational talent if there ever was one, this Patriots tight end could dominate NFL headlines for the next decade.

7. Earl Thomas, Safety, Seattle Seahawks

Some say that Richard Sherman is the leader of the Legion of Boom in Seattle, but that’s a surface-based opinion stemming from group-think more than anything else. Thomas, as the center fielder of one of the best defenses in modern NFL history, is what makes Seattle tick. Even at just 5-foot-10 and 208 pounds, Thomas’ range is among the best we have ever seen from the free safety position.

Look at it this way: Sherman is tasked with covering one side of the field while Thomas has to cover between the hashes and shade his coverage to the weak spots of Seattle’s secondary. He also sticks his head in there against the run.

This is the new breed of safety that teams are attempting to find in the draft. They are few and far between, but Seattle has itself a dandy here.

8. Khalil Mack, Linebacker, Oakland Raiders

How in the world can we have Mack on here after just one season? Well, this piece is all about transcendent players and those who change their specific position for generations to come. As a rookie playing an EDGE pass-rush position, Mack recorded just four sacks. This statistic pretty much tells us just how much sacks are overrated. Mack recorded the third-most quarterback hurries (40) of any linebacker in the NFL. He also finished with the best overall grade among linebackers against the run last year (via Pro Football Focus, subscription required).

As much as Thomas is a generational talent at safety, Mack proves he’s the same type of player at linebacker. A player with the ability to line up as a 3-4 defensive end or a 4-3 outside linebacker, this former top-five pick is the type of talent teams will target from here on out. Just think about this for a second: Mack was dominating from both a pass-rush standpoint and against the run as a wide-eyed 23-year-old rookie.

“I think I’m at my best as a wild card on defense, being used at multiple spots on the field, as strange as that might sound. That’s what the team has laid out for me, and I think that will be a good thing,” Mack wrote in a column for Monday Morning Quarterback prior to his rookie season. “I like the idea of being the guy other teams have to look out for.”

Mack knew exactly what type of role would fit him best even before he set foot on a NFL field during the regular season. It’s this type of maturity that enabled him to be one of the best all-around defenders a year removed from playing for a the University of Buffalo.

Since his rookie season, Mack has received a tremendous amount of praise from those around the football world.

This really makes you think just how good Mack will be when he gains more experience on the field. The ceiling is limitless here. Years from now, he might very well be the player upon which other youngsters are judged.

9. Antonio Brown, Wide Receiver, Pittsburgh Steelers

As long as Ben Roethlisberger is stepping back and throwing the rock to Brown, he is going to continue putting up some ridiculous stats. Coming off a 129-reception 2014 campaign, this former sixth-round pick has tallied 239 catches over the past two seasons. To put that into perspective, Jerry Rice’s best two-year total was 234. Now I understand we are in a completely different era of football, but that’s pretty insane.

What makes Brown even more special is the fact that he’s dropped 13 of the 337 passes thrown in his direction over the past two seasons. That’s a 3.9 percent drop rate. Considering the high volume of targets we have seen Brown receive, that’s utterly ridiculous.

“We were joking, we call him Captain Improvise,” Roethlisberger said last December, via SB Nation. “His unbelievable awareness of football knowledge. He’s a guy that he’s going to be the first pick taken when you’re playing backyard football because he understands the game. You have to understand the game of football, and that’s what he does as well as anybody I’ve ever played with.”

Considering Big Ben has won two Super Bowls with multiple future Hall of Famers, that’s some pretty high praise. When you combine talent with on-field awareness and smarts, you get an all-time great. While we are years removed from being able to judge Brown from that standpoint, his overall mentality about the game is among the most refreshing in the NFL today:

“This (Pittsburgh) is a community that I love,” Brown said back in May about any potential contract issue. “My kids go to school here. I want to keep a good reputation. Obviously money’s not important to me. I’ve got enough. The organization has extremely blessed me. I’m ready to play football.”

Can we just give the Central Michigan product a high-five right here and now? In an era of the NFL when players are holding out for more money and not concentrating on honoring their contracts, Brown steps up and says something like that. You are definitely in good hands, Pittsburgh (pun intended).

10. Aaron Rodgers, Quarterback, Green Bay Packers

You thought we were going to forget about Mr. Rodgers, eh? Not going to happen. The only reason he’s not No. 1 on this list is because the Super Bowl-winning quarterback will be 32 before the 2015 season comes to an end. Though, he has made it clear he’d love to play into his 40’s.

We’ve never seen a quarterback of any generation put up the type of numbers we have seen from this former first-round pick over the past several seasons. Since taking over for Brett Favre as the Packers’ starter in 2008, Rodgers has tallied 226 total touchdowns compared to 57 interceptions. If that wasn’t enough, he boasts 5.6-to-1.0 touchdown/interception ratio over the past four seasons. Considering Rodgers grew up idolizing Joe Montana, we figured it made sense to draw a comparison here. In 16 NFL seasons, Montana threw 273 touchdowns compared to 139 interceptions. At his current pace, when Rodgers hits his 273rd career touchdown, his interception total will stand at less than 65. Just remarkable.

Even as remarkable, Joe Cool actually believes that Rodgers’ 2011 season was better than any he ever put up as a member of the San Francisco 49ers:

“The one he’s having right now is pretty phenomenal,” Montana said back in 2011, via Pro Football Talk. “I’m not sure I had one like that.”

Anyone that knows anything about Montana’s ego knows full well that he was throwing some mighty high praise Rodgers’ way there.

Blessed with one of the most accurate arms in the history of the league, Rodgers’ on-field smarts and intelligence are two factors that have led him to become a record-breaking quarterback. It’s a combination of work ethic and pure talent that allows this former Cal star to stand out above the rest.

Despite these stats, Rodgers needs to win a couple more Super Bowls before he’s considered the greatest of all-time. If he’s able to do just that, there is little doubt that Rodgers will pass his childhood hero as the best quarterback to ever suit up in the NFL. Just think about that for a second.

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