NFL Nation: 2014-2016 biggest stars NFC

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

NFC West teams have drafted eight players among the Top 10 overall selections since 2008. No other division has landed as many.

The Arizona Cardinals, Seattle Seahawks, St. Louis Rams and San Francisco 49ers should, therefore, have a few future stars on their rosters. And they do. I've singled out four of them, one per team, for consideration as part of our Dream Team project this week.

[+] EnlargeRussell Okung
Joe Nicholson/US PresswireSeahawks left tackle Russell Okung has shown the on-field demeanor needed to be special.
Russell Okung, Seahawks tackle: By now regular visitors to the NFC West blog have read plenty about the talent that makes Okung such a bright prospect at left tackle. Some Rams fans have heard enough about Okung and think their team's young left tackle, Rodger Saffold, should get stronger consideration after exceeding expectations as the 33rd player chosen in the 2010 draft. I won't bore them with more generalities. Instead, let's consider a few specific examples suggesting Okung has the temperament, not just the talent, to excel for years to come. Three examples of Okung's aggressiveness stand out as I look back on his rookie season: the way Okung drove back and ultimately ticked off Chicago's Brian Urlacher during Justin Forsett's touchdown run in Week 6; the way Okung clobbered Kansas City's Mike Vrabel in Week 12 when it wasn't really necessary; and the way Okung blasted Carolina's Captain Muderlyn during an interception return in Week 13.

Sam Bradford, Rams quarterback: The NFL's offensive rookie of the year will be only 26 years old when the 2014 season begins. The Rams went from 1-15 without him in 2009 to 7-9 with him in 2010. Bradford played a bigger role than anyone in turning around the Rams. Defenses caught up with Bradford and his diminished receiving corps late last season, but the arrow is pointing up overall. Bradford is only getting started. He had 11 touchdown passes with only one interception from Weeks 6-12. Bradford finished 2010 with rookie records for completions (354) and pass attempts (590). Only Peyton Manning has passed for more yards as a rookie in NFL history. Bradford also answered questions about his durability, playing every offensive snap.

Colin Kaepernick, 49ers quarterback: This is a more tenuous projection and even a stretch. The young players I've singled out from other teams are safer bets. Guard Mike Iupati was a candidate, but even the best guards aren't really stars so much as they're valued contributors. Linebacker Patrick Willis would have been an obvious choice -- too obvious. He'll still be only 29 in 2014. Tight end Vernon Davis should remain in his prime from 2014 to 2016. He'll also be in his 30s by then, something I hadn't noticed when considering Davis for a video we shot this week. Receiver Michael Crabtree was a consideration. I went with Kaepernick because he has uncommon physical skills and a promising mental makeup, and he'll presumably get good coaching from Jim Harbaugh. He'll push veteran Alex Smith for the starting job this season. If all goes to plan, Kaepernick will be entering his third full season as the starter when the 2014 season rolls around.

Patrick Peterson, Cardinals cornerback: Peterson appeared twice on our Dream Team ballot, once as a cornerback and also as a return specialist. There's no such thing as a sure bet coming out of college. Peterson looks like one. The physical talent he possesses is obvious. His confidence and strong presence persuaded me to list him as a future star even though Peterson hasn't even lined up for a minicamp practice, let alone for a regular-season snap. Peterson's decision to drop 10 pounds to disprove speculation that he might evolve into a safety seemed to show Peterson has the right makeup. His talents in the return game will give him an opportunity to make an immediate impact, diminishing the pressure upon him to excel immediately as a cornerback.

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.

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

As it pertains to our Dream Team of Tomorrow project, it's an oddly stacked little division we have here in the NFC East. The star quarterbacks of today will all be in their mid-30s by the time 2014 dawns, which means the prime years of Eli Manning, Tony Romo and Michael Vick probably will be behind them. The guys we're looking for, when we speculate on who will dominate from 2014-16, are the young guys -- mainly players who are in the first three or four years of their careers right now.

In the NFC East, that seems to mean receivers. Dez Bryant in Dallas, Hakeem Nicks in New York, DeSean Jackson and Jeremy Maclin in Philadelphia -- the division's emerging young wideouts, could represent a bumper crop of future stars at the position. We have some offensive linemen -- guys such as Trent Williams and Tyron Smith -- who are loaded with talent but still too young to really project. We have some running-back talent, especially in Philly and New York. And players like Brian Orakpo, Nate Allen and Prince Amukamara appear ready to lay the groundwork for future success.

[+] EnlargeDez Bryant
AP Photo/James D SmithDez Bryant has the talent to become one of the NFL's best receivers.
With that in mind, here's a look at one player from each team I'm picking for the Dream Team of Tomorrow.

Dez Bryant, Dallas Cowboys wide receiver: Yeah, yeah, insert shopping mall joke here. Fact is, this guy's got as much pure talent as any young wideout in the division. And if you read that list two paragraphs back, you know I'm not saying that lightly. If he can stay healthy, stay out of trouble and refine his skills as an NFL route-runner, Bryant can be the kind of star that makes other stars stop what they're doing to watch him play. He's got a fine quarterback in Tony Romo and only Miles Austin and tight end Jason Witten in front of him in line for catches in Dallas as of now. And he's already a game-changer on special teams. So the opportunity is there, and all the pieces are in place. It's up to Bryant to make it happen.

Hakeem Nicks, New York Giants wide receiver: Nicks is already one of the best and most reliable wideouts in the NFL, and he's got just two years in. He's 23 years old right now, which means he'll play the 2014 season at age 26. In the meantime, he'll have been Eli Manning's No. 1 receiver in the Giants' pass-heavy offense and had enough skill-position talent around him (Ahmad Bradshaw, Steve Smith, Mario Manningham, etc.) to have put up big-time numbers. His physical gifts are clearly substantial, and they aren't going anywhere between now and 2014.

LeSean McCoy, Philadelphia Eagles running back: Why McCoy and not the Giants' Ahmad Bradshaw? Well, because I picked Nicks for the Giants, and because I think McCoy has a better chance to hold up over the next three-to-six years. Not only is he already a reliable focal point of the Eagles' offense, he gets to be that in a way that doesn't wear him down. They don't run him between the tackles excessively. They don't ask as much of him in pass protection as the Giants do of Bradshaw. And they have enough other offensive weapons that he doesn't get overworked. McCoy has the talent, and the chance to make it to 2014 as a relatively unscathed 26-year-old back.

Brian Orakpo, Washington Redskins linebacker: The switch to the 3-4 defense in Washington is likely to make Orakpo a star, especially now that he's got a year of it under his belt and will start to be surrounded with more complementary pieces. He'll be 28 at the start of the 2014 season, which is a little bit older than the rest of the guys on this list. But he's already got 19.5 sacks in his first two years, so his learning curve is fairly advanced. By 2014, he'll be one of the better-recognized sack artists in the entire league.

NFC South'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 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.

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