NFC North: 2014-2016 biggest stars

NFC North's biggest future stars

July, 14, 2011
7/14/11
12:00
PM ET
AFC Future Stars: East | West | North | South NFC: East | West | North | South

A look at the players I expect to be the most dominant in the NFC North from 2014 to 2016:

As you know by now, ESPN.com invited readers this week to collaborate on a future Dream Team of NFL players. Projected target: The 2014-16 seasons. I wasn't among the experts who winnowed the list of nominations, and I'm fully aware that some deserving young NFC North players didn't make the cut.

My assignment for this post isn't to rectify those omissions. Rather, I need to list the division players I project as the most dominant three years from now. We obviously can't account for injuries, future draft picks or free agency movement, so we will cull from our burgeoning list of young stars.

Sorry, fans of the Chicago Bears and Minnesota Vikings. I refused to pick a player from each team just to be polite. The players all came from one NFC North pool. In alphabetical order:

Greg Jennings and Calvin Johnson, Green Bay Packers and Detroit Lions receivers (tie): Call it a cop-out if you want. I've consistently maintained I would take the present-day Johnson over the present-day Jennings because of his freaky and unique skills for the position. But in three years? While I think both players will still be highly productive, Johnson has a greater capacity for physical deterioration over time. But in 2014, he'll only be 28. Jennings will be 30. It's a draw.

[+] EnlargeGreen Bay's Clay Matthews
Al Bello/Getty ImagesClay Matthews has notched 23.5 sacks in his first two seasons in the league.
Clay Matthews, Packers linebacker: We know this: Matthews is off to one of the best career starts of any pass-rushing linebacker. He had 17 sacks in his first 20 NFL games and overall has 23.5 in his first two seasons. You might wonder what will happen if Matthews loses a bit of speed or wears down physically, but I'll take my chances that he will still be in pretty good shape in his sixth NFL season. He'll be 28 in 2014.

Aaron Rodgers, Packers quarterback: Put simply, Rodgers' first three seasons as a starter have been as productive as any quarterback currently enshrined in the Pro Football Hall of Fame. At the start of the 2014 season, he'll be 30 and presumably in the wheelhouse of his career. At that point, Rodgers might have outlasted Tom Brady, Peyton Manning and Drew Brees, presumably ascending to the figurative mantle of the game's top quarterback.

Ndamukong Suh, Lions defensive tackle: It's hard to bet against a player who was one of two rookies -- ever -- to record 10 sacks as a rookie defensive tackle. Suh is a physical specimen who works hard at his conditioning and figures to be surrounded by talented players for several years. He'll be 27 in 2014 and should still be one of the NFL's most disruptive interior playmakers.

Honorable mention: Bears offensive tackle Gabe Carimi; Lions safety Louis Delmas; Vikings receiver Percy Harvin; Packers tight end Jermichael Finley, whom I passed over because of his contract uncertainty; Lions tight end Brandon Pettigrew; Packers nose tackle B.J. Raji; Packers guard Josh Sitton; Lions quarterback Matthew Stafford; Packers cornerback Tramon Williams, who will be 31 in 2014. As for the NFC North's top two runners of today, Adrian Peterson and Matt Forte, I questioned the impact of three more seasons on the traditionally short-lived career of a running back.

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