Ten young NFL players who are destined for the Hall of Fame

Panthers quarterback Cam Newton
Vincent Frank
Written by Vincent Frank

Predicting a player to enter the Hall of Fame at a relatively early point in his career can be considered an exercise in futility. It can also place a ton of pressure on a young player attempting to make his name known around the NFL.

With that said, just a few short years of sample size can give us an idea of where a player stands and whether he’s destined for the Hall of Fame.

Take offensive tackle Tyron Smith of the Dallas Cowboys as an example. He’s only 26 years old and likely has another decade ahead of him in the NFL. Does this mean that Smith shouldn’t already be looked at as a potential Hall of Famer? No. Based on his level of dominance, Canton already seems to be calling.

That’s the point of this article. We give you 10 relatively young players around the NFL who are already destined for the Hall of Fame once their careers come to an end.

Tyron Smith, offensive tackle, Dallas Cowboys

The best tackle of his generation, if Smith continues at this pace he will become one of the best tackles in the history of the NFL. We’re talking Jackie Slater and Anthony Munoz level stuff. That’s not hyperbole. What Smith has done since he entered the league as a 20-year-old rookie is nothing short of amazing.

Not only has Smith anchored an offensive line that’s ranked in the top 10 in rushing each of the past three seasons, his pass-protecting ability is completely off the charts.

Here’s a guy that’s earned four consecutive trips to the Pro Bowl and has found himself recognized as a first-team All-Pro two times. He’s just 26 years old with what could be considered nearly another decade of elite-level play ahead of him.

Dallas didn’t know what they were getting when they selected Smith No. 9 overall back in 2011, but he’s acted like nothing less than this generation’s version of Larry Allen for the team. That’s Hall of Fame-caliber stuff right there.

Khalil Mack, linebacker, Oakland Raiders

Khalil Mack already has the look of a Hall of Famer

There was some question as to whether Mack would be able to make the transition from playing at a small school (Buffalo) to performing at the highest level football has to offer. Despite this, Oakland nabbed him with the fifth pick in the 2014 NFL Draft. Three years later, an argument could be made that he should have been the top overall pick of that class.

Mack is coming off a 2016 campaign that saw him rack up 73 tackles, 11 sacks and five forced fumbles en route to earning NFL Defensive Player of the Year honors. That came on the heels of a 2015 season in which the edge rusher put up 15 sacks. Did we mention he will still be 26 when the 2017 season comes calling?

What separates Mack from other young pass-rushing talent is his ability to play multiple positions and make an impact in three-down situations.

Oakland’s coaching staff used this as a way to play Mack out of position early on last season. It led to him putting up just one sack in the team’s first five games. While Mack was still playing at a high level, he wasn’t being utilized as a pin-your-ears back pass rusher.

When the Raiders and defensive coordinator Ken Norton Jr. finally decided to let it loose with Mack, he was among the most dominant players we’ve ever seen. He went on to record 10 sacks, four forced fumbles and a touchdown over the next 10 games. It’s not a coincidence Oakland boasted an 8-2 record during that span. Rarely do we see defenders make that type of an impact. And for Mack, it appears to be nothing more than the tip of the iceberg here. He’s truly a generational talent.

Antonio Brown, wide receiver, Pittsburgh Steelers

NFL celebration penalties, Antonio Brown

Statically speaking, Brown is already a borderline Hall of Famer. He’s averaging 90 receptions, 1,200 yards and seven touchdowns per season. Give him 12 or 13 years of that type of production, and we’re talking about an all-time great here.

There is, however, more than just stats that need to be taken into account here. First off, Brown is playing in an NFL where the rules for defensive backs would have allowed the likes of Jerry Rice to put up an average of over 2,000 yards per season. Now add in the fact that today’s NFL is the most pass happy in the history of the league, and the opportunity to put up huge numbers increases ten-fold.

After all, Brown has seen 150-plus targets in each of the past four seasons. For comparison’s sake, Rice saw 150-plus targets six times in a 20-year career. No wonder Brown is on pace to shatter his yardage record.

With all that said, the numbers are too mind-boggling for us not to consider Brown a Hall of Famer in waiting. When your numbers are even on the same stratosphere as Rice, you need to start fitting yourself for a jacket in Canton.

We’re not too sure how the remainder of Brown’s career will play out. Ben Roethlisberger has only committed to playing for one more season. The Steelers don’t have a legitimate franchise quarterback behind him on the roster. And it sure looks like this offense will be run through Le’Veon Bell (literally) from here on out.

That could all impact Brown’s ability to keep up at this current pace. Even then, from what we’ve seen thus far, he already seems to be a sure-fire Hall of Famer.

Von Miller, linebacker, Denver Broncos

Even at just 28 years old, an argument can already be made for Miller’s Hall of Fame candidacy. He’s a five-time Pro Bowler, three-time All Pro and has already earned a Super Bowl MVP award. These are individual accolades that don’t point to his statistical prowess since the former Texas A&M standout was selected No. 2 overall back in 2011.

As a sophomore in 2012, Miller challenged for the single-season sack mark and ultimately racked up 18.5 sacks. After being suspended for violating the league’s substance abuse policy the following season, Miller would go on to record 14 sacks. Since then, he’s tallied a combined 24.5 sacks over the past two seasons. Talk about consistent elite-level pass-rushing production.

There will definitely be concerns over Miller’s previous bout with off-field issues. At this point, that seems like the only thing that will hold him back. With an average of over 12 sacks season, he’s already on pace to rank within the top-five in career sacks by the time he hangs up his cleats.

It’s also not a shock that Miller’s elite play has coincided with the Broncos’ defense putting up top-five rankings in each of the past four seasons. That’s the type of difference-maker you need to be in order to receive a bust in Canton.

Cam Newton, quarterback, Carolina Panthers

It was just five short years ago that a new breed of quarterback took the NFL by storm. Teaming up with Robert Griffin III and Colin Kaepernick, Newton headed a trio that seemed prepared to bring the league into the future. A dual-threat quarterback that could defeat opposing defenses multiple ways. At around that same time, Russell Wilson was surprising onlookers in the Pacific Northwest with his combination of passing and running dominating defenses despite the quarterback’s 5-foot-11 frame.

Fast forward a half decade, and only two of these players remain signed by an NFL team. Some will decide Wilson is more deserving of a spot in this article due to his championship, but Newton’s upside takes the cake.

The former No. 1 pick is coming off a down 2016 campaign that saw him put up only 19 touchdowns compared to 14 interceptions. Even then, we can cut Newton some slack. He was dealing with obvious injuries throughout the year — a reality that led to off-season shoulder surgery. More than that, Carolina’s front office failed Newton at every turn by providing him with an absolute dumpster fire of an offensive line.

We can’t project into the future and assume Newton will be healthy or injury plagued. He’s only missed three games to injury in six seasons. That bodes well for the former NFL MVP and his ability to remain on the field. Though, it’s what Newton has done over these past six seasons that should tell us he’s destined for Canton.

Just imagine if Newton lasts as long as a Tom Brady or Philip Rivers. The career-ending numbers we would then see from this generational talent would make him an all-time great statistical quarterback. Add in the potential of team-wide success in Carolina, and there’s no reason to believe Newton isn’t already Hall of Fame bound.

Patrick Peterson, cornerback, Arizona Cardinals

Six years in the NFL. Six Pro Bowl appearances. Three first-team All-Pro honors. That’s Hall of Fame level stuff right there. In fact, the likes of Darrelle Revis and Deion Sanders — two of the greatest corners in league history — didn’t even make the Pro Bowl in each of their first six seasons.

What Peterson has done for the Cards during this span is nothing short of amazing. He’s the primary reason this team’s defense has gone from one of the worst in the NFL to a consistent top-five performer. The still young 26-year-old defensive back has recorded 64 passes defended, 20 interceptions and an absurd 10 fumbles recoveries. In the truest sense of the word, he’s a playmaker. This doesn’t even take into account elite-level coverage ability on the outside.

Still yet to hit his prime, Peterson has many more years of elite-level play ahead of him. And once his ability to contend on the outside is diminished, Peterson’s physicality makes him a prime candidate to move to safety, much like what we saw from Charles Woodson in the not-so-distant past. Elite production and longevity. Peterson possesses both of these traits, which should make him Canton-bound when it’s all said and done.

Derek Carr, quarterback, Oakland Raiders

Carr’s first three seasons in the NFL rivals any other quarterback in league history. Again, that’s not hyperbole. Here’s a guy that’s coming off a Pro Bowl performance and has recorded nearly 11,200 passing yards with 81 touchdowns compared to 31 interceptions.

Before we freak out over Carr’s inclusion in this list, let’s compare him to some of today’s greats in terms of what he’s done in his first three seasons as a starter.

That’s some mighty fine company to keep. And not a single person would question the Hall of Fame candidacy of those four quarterbacks. Surely Carr will have to perform at this level for the next decade. Doing this for three years is one thing. Performing at an elite clip for 10-plus seasons is a completely different thing.

But let’s look at what Carr has done in the context of where the Raiders were when he took over as the team’s starter. That gives us a bit more reference. In 2014, the former second-round pick took over a team that had won an average of 4.8 games over the past 11 seasons.

After initial team-wide struggles during his rookie season, Carr has led the Raiders to progression over the past two years. It culminated in a 12-win 2016 campaign — one that saw the Raiders as legit Super Bowl contenders before Carr himself went down to injury in Week 16.

With one of the best offensive lines in the game and a dynamic receiving duo of Amari Cooper and Michael Crabtree, there’s no reason to believe Carr can’t continue to progress under center. Should that happen, the Raiders will win a Super Bowl here in short order. At that point, talk of Canton wouldn’t seem too absurd.

J.J. Watt, defensive end, Houston Texans

If Watt can find a way to stay healthy, he will go down as one of the most dominant defensive players in the history of the game. Of course, that’s also dependent on him not pulling a Patrick Willis and calling it quits early. By any stretch of the imagination, this former collegiate walk-on is destined for Canton.

Prior to missing all but three games last season with a back injury, Watt put up the best four-year stretch for a defensive player in the modern history of the game. From 2012-15, he recorded 69 sacks, 15 forced fumbles, 10 fumble recoveries and an absurd 41 passes defended.

Any one of those numbers would be elite. Add all of them together, and we’re talking about a talent the NFL has not seen since Lawrence Taylor was in his prime.

Surely, we have to be concerned about Watt returning from back surgery. That could impact his get-off moving forward. But it’s important to note that Watt did play all 16 games in each of his first five seasons in the NFL. If he continues at this clip and remains healthy, Watt is sure-fire first ballot Hall of Famer. Amazing for someone that college teams wouldn’t offer a scholarship to.

Le’Veon Bell, running back, Pittsburgh Steelers

If Bell can stay healthy on the field and stay out of trouble off the field, there’s little reason to believe he won’t be this generation’s most dynamic running back. Yes, that includes Ezekiel Elliott of the Dallas Cowboys and Arizona Cardinals lead ball-carrier David Johnson.

In 12 games last season, this former second-round pick put up 1,884 total yards and averaged an absurd 5.6 yards per touch. He also caught 75 passes in those 12 games. Talk about a tremendous all-around performance. This came on the heels of three-year span to start his career that saw Bell average nearly 120 total yards per game. Again, this just ridiculous.

Did we mention that Bell is just 25 years old? Given that he plays a position that has a relatively short shelf life, Bell’s future Hall of Fame credentials are aided by his early-career success. Put it this way, Adrian Peterson tallied an average of 1,738 total yards in his first four seasons. Bell is currently averaging 1,512 total yards per season in 15 less total games.

That’s the crux of the issue for Bell. Is he going to be a short-term wonder due to a combination of off-field issues and injury? Considering he’s coming off a suspension and groin surgery, those are two major concerns. But we’re willing to give him the benefit of the doubt here.

Odell Beckham Jr., wide receiver, New York Giants

Odell Beckham Jr. Giants

Speaking of giving the benefit of the doubt, Odell Beckham Jr. is going to need that. When we combine his off-field immaturity with his on-field antics, there’s a lot working against OBJ here.

But there’s one thing we can’t ignore. This former first-round pick has been absolutely dominant when actually on the field and remaining level-headed.

Consider this: Beckham has put up 288 receptions for 4,122 yards and 35 touchdowns in his first three NFL seasons. Comparatively, those are all-time great numbers. Heck, Jerry Rice tallied 200 receptions for 3,575 yards and 40 touchdowns in his first three seasons.

For OBJ, it’s all about maturing from a mental standpoint and remaining healthy on the field. The sky is pretty much the limit here, as long as he takes care of business. That much can’t be ignored.

About the author

Vincent Frank

Vincent Frank

Editor-at-large, Sportsnaut.

“You were born with wings, why prefer to crawl through life?” Rumi