NFC South's biggest future stars

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

A team-by-team look at the players I expect to be the most dominant in the NFC South from 2014 to 2016.

The rules on our Dream Team of Tomorrow are simple. We’re not looking at the best players of today.

[+] EnlargeMatt Ryan
Derick E. Hingle/US PresswireThe next step toward becoming great for Atlanta QB Matt Ryan is to win in the postseason.
We’re looking down the road. Yes, Drew Brees still might be going strong in 2014. John Abraham might even be adding sacks at that time. But they’ll be on the downside of their careers.

We’re looking for the rising stars -- the guys who will be dominant from 2014 through 2016 and maybe beyond that. We’re looking for the next generation.

Matt Ryan, Falcons quarterback: You can make a case that Ryan already is considered a star. He came into the league in 2008 and has led the Falcons to a winning record in each of his three seasons and two playoff berths.

But Ryan’s not a superstar just yet. He’s right on the cusp and I’m willing to predict he’ll be fully in his prime by 2014. For Ryan truly to be considered an “elite’’ quarterback, he’s got to win a playoff game. He’ll be winning playoff games soon enough because the Falcons continue to do what they have since Ryan joined them.

They continue to look at every possible way to make him great and that process is nearing completion. They surrounded Ryan with a running game (Michael Turner) as a rookie and Roddy White blossomed as a receiver. The Falcons threw Tony Gonzalez into the mix as a safety valve at tight end.

But they took their biggest step yet this year when they made a daring move up in the draft to get Julio Jones. Line him up at wide receiver across from White and the Falcons should have two guys who can stretch the field.

White’s made some noise this offseason about how Atlanta’s offense can be somewhat like the St. Louis Rams when they were “The Greatest Show on Turf.’’ He just might be right. If he is, Ryan will be one of the greatest quarterbacks on earth.

Josh Freeman, Buccaneers quarterback: The ceiling is unlimited on this kid. Last year was his first full season as a starter and he almost single-handedly carried the Bucs to a 10-6 record, a season after they went 3-13.

Freeman threw 25 touchdowns and only six interceptions while surrounded with a cast of offensive players that was very young in some areas and not all that talented in some others. A lot of people say the Bucs had an easy schedule last season and that they overachieved.

That might be true, but I’m not buying into the theory that the Bucs are going to take a step back. They found the first true franchise quarterback they’ve ever had. As long as he’s around, the Bucs are going to be competitive.

Freeman’s much more than just a physical specimen. He’s grown into the role of the leader of this franchise faster than anyone ever expected.

Malcolm Jenkins, Saints free safety. With Brees and Jonathan Vilma, the Saints have the best natural leadership in the NFC South at the moment. Wherever Brees and Vilma are in 2014 through 2016, the Saints will be near the top of the heap.

That’s because they have a superstar in the making in Jenkins, who comes with the same kind of intangibles as Brees and Vilma. At its core, football comes down to making big plays and winning games. As a first-year starter last season, Jenkins showed he can do that.

Remember the Thanksgiving Day game in Dallas? The Saints were on the verge of losing when Jenkins came from behind and stripped the ball from receiver Roy Williams. The Saints ended up winning and coach Sean Payton said Jenkins made “one of those plays that inspires everybody on the team.’’ Two weeks later, he did it again, intercepting St. Louis’ Sam Bradford twice and returning one of them for a touchdown.

Jenkins came out of college with all the physical tools, but people around the Saints will tell you they’re even more impressed with his work on the practice field and in the film room. There should be a lot more inspiring plays from Jenkins in the future.

Ryan Kalil, Panthers center. He’s only 26 and he’s been to the Pro Bowl the past two seasons, despite playing on bad teams. Scouts, coaches and players around the league will tell you he’s one of the two or three best centers in the league and his reputation will grow rapidly if Carolina can make some improvements after last year’s 2-14 season.

The Panthers already placed the franchise tag on Kalil for this year in an effort to make sure he doesn’t get away. They view him as the emerging anchor of their offensive line as Jordan Gross gets older.

At some point, the Panthers will lock Kalil up to a big long-term deal. There’s a reason for that. They just drafted Cam Newton, whom they view as their franchise quarterback. They want to make sure he’s receiving snaps from and being protected by a franchise center.

Pat Yasinskas | email

ESPN Tampa Bay Buccaneers reporter

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