NFL

Best young player on each NFL team

Courtesy of Derick E. Hingle, USA Today Sports
Vincent Frank
Written by Vincent Frank

The 2017 NFL season promises to bring us a bunch of surprises. Young players prepared to step up and play huge roles for their teams. Previously under-the-radar performers bringing something extra to the table. It happens every year around the league. This upcoming season will be no different.

From a dynamic running back in Arizona to two third-year quarterbacks set to take that next step, here are the best young players on each NFL team heading into the 2017 campaign.

Arizona Cardinals: David Johnson, running back

Arizona Cardinals running back David Johnson is one of the top NFL players at any position

An argument could be made that Johnson is the best player on the Cardinals’ roster. Sure Patrick Peterson and Tyrann Mathieu might take exception to that, but the numbers don’t lie here. As a sophomore last season, this former mid-round pick put up 2,118 total yards and 20 touchdowns, both NFL highs for running backs. He also caught an absurd 80 passes for nearly 900 yards through the air.

Natural progression heading into his third season could lead Johnson to elite status en route to his ultimate goal of helping the Cards to their first ever Super Bowl title. At this point, we wouldn’t put anything past this workout warrior.

Atlanta Falcons: Vic Beasley, defensive end

At just 25 years old, Beasley still has room to grow. That’s pretty amazing in and of itself considering he put up a league-high 15.5 sacks in what was not even a full-time role for the Falcons last season. We’re expecting Beasley to get more snaps. And with rookie first-round pick Takkarist McKinley running opposite him, that sack number should increase for a talented young Falcons defense.

Baltimore Ravens: Ronnie Stanley, offensive tackle

Stanley took the big leap and started 12 games at left tackle as a rookie last season. That’s something we simply don’t see from first-year offensive linemen in the NFL. Not only was Stanley the best pass-protecting rookie offensive tackle last season, he was elite level in this category. Now, with a full offseason under his belt, we’re expecting a Pro Bowl-caliber sophomore campaign. The talent is there. The previous production is there. Watch out, AFC North defenders.

Buffalo Bills: Reggie Ragland, linebacker

After suffering a torn ACL during camp last year, Ragland returns to the Bills and is slated to start at middle linebacker in what will be his first season in the NFL. The 2016 second-round pick proved at Alabama that he has what it takes to be that thumper in the middle of the defense. That’s evidenced by the 195 total tackles he combined for during his final two seasons with the Crimson Tide. Look for Ragland to make an impact immediately in 2017.

Carolina Panthers: Christian McCaffrey, running back

Christian McCaffrey Carolina Panthers training camp

All the talk from Panthers camp has been absolutely splendid surrounding this rookie top-10 pick. Cam Newton preferred him over Leonard Fournette leading up to the draft and made that known to the brass. Fellow running back Jonathan Stewart doesn’t think there’s a single guy in the NFL that can cover this Stanford product one-on-one.

Based on what he did with the Cardinal, that’s hard to disagree with. Here’s a guy that put up over 5,100 total yards in three seasons in Palo Alto. He’s going to be a dynamic running and receiving threat for Newton as a rookie in 2017. It most definitely wouldn’t be a surprise if McCaffrey challenged for Offensive Rookie of the Year honors in 2017.

Chicago Bears: Jordan Howard, running back

Despite putting up a blistering performance as a rookie in 2016, Howard was sorely disappointed by how his debut season turned out. We’re not too sure why. After all, the former fifth-round pick tallied 1,313 rushing yards while averaging 5.2 yards per rush en route to earning Pro Bowl honors. He did so with one of the worst quarterback situations in the NFL.

Whether we believe Mike Glennon is a top-level quarterback in the NFL remains to be seen. That’s not the point. Howard will surely have more help on offense as a sophomore. If so, we fully expect him to break out even more.

Cincinnati Bengals: Tyler Boyd, wide receiver

A lot of the focus in Cincinnati this season will be the three-headed running back group consisting of Jeremy Hill, Giovani Bernard and rookie Joe Mixon. That’s fine and dandy. The Bengals will need balance on offense in order to help Andy Dalton overcome a disastrous 2016 campaign.

With that said, Boyd more than proved himself to be a capable No. 2 receiver behind A.J. Green as a rookie in 2016. The Pittsburgh product tallied 54 receptions for 603 yards while catching 67 percent of the passes thrown in his direction. Now with a full offseason of work under his belt, look for Boyd to challenge for the 1,000-yard mark as a sophomore.

Cleveland Browns: Myles Garrett, defensive end

Myles Garrett Cleveland Browns practice

Cleveland won a grand total of one game last season. Needless to say, the talent this team added in the draft will help it overcome that disastrous season. In fact, it could be the most-vital draft class in franchise history.

It’s also led by a pass rusher in Garrett that was the consensus No. 1 player leading up to the 2017 NFL Draft. Sure Garrett was sidelined by injury during the offseason. He also hasn’t really stood out in camp thus far. But here’s a guy that dominated SEC competition to the tune of 31 sacks and 47 tackles for loss in three seasons at College Station. Look for similar production in a pedestrian AFC North this season.

Dallas Cowboys: La’el Collins, offensive tackle

Collins will take over as the Cowboys’ starting right tackle following the retirement of Doug Free. This comes on the heels of him signing a lucrative new contract extension with the team. Originally anticipated as a top-20 pick back in 2015, Collins fell out of the draft completely. Unfortunately, it was due to an off-field issue he didn’t have any control over.

On the field, Collins projects as a multiple-time All Pro performer moving forward. At 6-foot-5 and 308 pounds, he’s a physical specimen on the field. Add in elite-level strength at the point of contact, and there’s a chance Collins could become the game’s best starting right tackle in 2017. This isn’t hyperbole. That’s just how good he is.

Denver Broncos: Shane Ray, EDGE

Despite suffering a wrist injury that could keep him out until early in the regular season, we’re projecting huge things from this third-year pro. In a part-time role last season behind Von Miller and the recently retired DeMarcus Ware, Ray tallied eight sacks. Now that Ware has called it quits, look for Ray to take full-time snaps in 2017. If that’s the case, expect a huge season from him. Just ask Mr. Miller what he thinks of his young teammate. That’s pretty much all we need to know.

Detroit Lions: A’Shawn Robinson, defensive tackle

Inconsistency plagued Robinson throughout an up-and-down rookie season. He recorded 30 tackles, two sacks and seven passes defended as a rookie last season. And while Robinson did struggle defending the run, he proved his worth in terms of rushing the passer. In fact, no other defensive tackle in the NFL batted more balls at the line than this former Alabama standout. We’re expecting more consistency from him in 2017. And if that were to happen, Pro Bowl talk might not be out of the equation here.

Green Bay Packers: Kenny Clark, defensive end

To say that Green Bay has struggled finding top-end defenders in the draft would be an understatement. Former first-round bust (and current Viking Datone Jones) is a prime example. With that said, the team might have found a gem at the end of the first day of the 2016 NFL Draft. Clark’s numbers as a rookie last year were nothing to write home about. He started just two games, recording 21 tackles in the process.

The UCLA standout did come on strong towards the end of the season, ultimately putting up his best performance against the Dallas Cowboys in the NFC Divisional Playoffs. That game saw Clark tally three tackles for loss and another three quarterback pressures. He did this against the best offensive line the NFL has to offer. If he can continue this into the 2017 season, Clark will be a major force for Green Bay.

Houston Texans: Deshaun Watson, quarterback

Will Deshaun Watson start for the Texans as a rookie?

He’s the best rookie quarterback Texans head coach Bill O’Brien has ever been around. He’s performed at such a high level during camp that the Texans are running out of superlatives to describe him. To those who studied Watson’s tape at Clemson, this shouldn’t be considered a surprise. He’s as pro-ready of an NFL quarterback that’s come down the pike in some time.

It most definitely would not be a surprise to see Watson not only earn the starting gig over Tom Savage, but lead Houston to its third consecutive AFC South title in 2017. He has the talent around him. It’s now all about avoiding the dreaded mistakes rookie signal callers have dealt with in the past. Should that happen, Watson will be the star of Houston.

Indianapolis Colts: Malik Hooker, safety

Hooker entered the 2017 NFL Draft was one of the best pure single-high safeties to come into the league in a while. In desperate need of help there, this is why Indy exhausted the 15th pick on this former Ohio State standout.

Even after two off-season surgeries, Hooker is in camp and ready to go. Based on what he brings to the table, the ceiling is really the limit as a rookie. Just the player Indianapolis needed for its defense to take the next step, expect Hooker to have an absolutely huge debut season.

Jacksonville Jaguars: Jalen Ramsey, cornerback

We could easily go with Leonard Fournette here, but that would be a cop-out. Instead, we’re going to go with this highly confident and swagalicious former Florida State standout. How good was Ramsey as a rookie last season?

Teaming up with the recently signed A.J. Bouye, the two yielded a combined 64.4 rating to opposing AFC South quarterbacks last season. This, despite the fact that Ramsey was among the most-targeted corners in the game. If quarterbacks continue to do that, look for saw awe-inspiring interception numbers from this young stud.

Kansas City Chiefs: Tyreek Hill, wide receiver

Hill takes over as the Chiefs’ No. 1 receiver following the release of Jeremy Maclin. And while there is some concern over his smallish frame, this former mid-round pick was absolutely dynamic as a rookie.

He recorded 61 catches for 593 yards and six scores while catching 74 percent of the passes thrown in his direction. Hill also added 267 yards and three scores on the ground while absolutely dominating as a return man. With a larger role in 2017, we would not be surprised if Hill crossed the 1,500-yard total-yard plateau. That’s how good he is.

Los Angeles Chargers: Melvin Gordon, running back

What Gordon did as a sophomore before suffering a season-ending injury was nothing short of amazing. The former first-round pick put up over 1,400 total yards to go with 12 touchdowns. This came on the heels of a rookie campaign that saw him fail to score a touchdown while losing six fumbles. Talk about an amazing turnaround.

Now, fully recovered from the knee and hip injuries that plagued him late last year, there’s no reason to believe Gordon can’t be even better in 2017. It’s something the Chargers will surely expect from him. And we don’t anticipate him letting them down.

Los Angeles Rams: Jared Goff, quarterback

Goff was horrible last year. The Rams themselves were putrid. Jeff Fisher was way over his head. The team’s offensive line was disastrous. And led by an overrated Kenny Britt, Los Angeles had no real receivers to speak of. So the idea of placing the blame for Goff’s bad performance solely on his shoulder makes no sense. He simply wasn’t put in a position to succeed.

Now, with an offensive-minded head coach in Sean McVay and some help along the offensive line, there’s every reason to believe Goff will bounce back as a sophomore in 2017. He didn’t lose the talent that made him a first-round pick. That much is already known. With this season being a career-defining moment for Goff, we’re expecting a surprise performance.

Miami Dolphins: Laremy Tunsil, offensive tackle

After starting 14 games in between tackle and guard as a rookie, this former first-round pick now takes over as Ryan Tannehill’s full-time blindside protector. It’s a role most figured he would fill early in his career after standing out big time at Mississippi. Remember, Tunsil was projected to be a top-five pick leading up to the 2016 NFL Draft prior to this video of him smoking marijuana surfaced.

The talent is most definitely here for Tunsil to dominate in his first full season as the starting left tackle. And based on just how good he was as a rookie last season (zero sacks allowed), there’s really no reason to believe he won’t make the transition without an issue.

Minnesota Vikings: Danielle Hunter, defensive end

Whew. Here’s a dude that put up 12.5 sacks as a 21-year-old sophomore last season with the Vikings. He did so in a part-time role with Brian Robison taking on a full-time role. That’s no longer going to be the case in 2017. Minnesota has finally bitten the bullet and expects Hunter to play a whole lot more in his third season. If that’s the case, this absolutely freakish former Tennessee standout could end up becoming one of the most dominant defenders in the game this year.

New England Patriots: Malcom Brown, defensive tackle

Defensive tackle has traditionally been a vastly underrated position in New England. We’ve seen it with the likes of Vince Wilfork in the past. But Brown is seemingly taking this position and making it his own.

He started 25 of the 32 games in which he appeared over his first two seasons with the Pats. He also finished as the best run-stuffer of his defensive class last year. In reality, he was the primary reason New England finished with the third-best run defense in the NFL. Look for the league to finally take note of Brown’s dominance in 2017.

New Orleans Saints: Michael Thomas, wide receiver

Michael Thomas New Orleans Saints

An argument could be made that Thomas had the best rookie season for a wide receiver last season since Randy Moss nearly 20 years ago. The former second-round pick from Ohio State recorded 92 receptions for 1,137 yards and nine touchdowns, taking the No. 1 receiving duties from Brandin Cooks in the process. He also caught an absurd 76 percent of the passes thrown in his direction while averaging nearly 10 yards per target.

With Cooks now in New England, Thomas is unquestionably Drew Brees’ top target in what should still be a pass-happy offense in New Orleans. If that’s the case, there’s no reason to believe he can’t put up 120-plus receptions for 1,500-plus yards as a sophomore.

New York Giants: Landon Collins, safety

Some questioned whether Collins had the on-field speed to make the transition from college All-American to starter-caliber safety in the NFL. That’s why he fell to the second round of the 2015 NFL Draft. But after an up-and-down rookie season, Collins took that next step in 2016.

To say that he was dominating would be a major understatement. The Crimson Tide product earned All Pro honors, recording 125 tackles, 13 passes defended, five interceptions, four sacks and a touchdown (just watch this insane return). He was simply the best ball-hawking safety in the NFL. Don’t expect much to change in 2017.

New York Jets: Quincy Enunwa, wide receiver

Now that Brandon Marshall and Eric Decker have been released, Enunwa takes over as the No. 1 receiver on an otherwise talent-stricken Jets offense. That’s not much different than what we saw in a 2016, which led to this former sixth-round pick putting up 58 receptions for 857 yards and four touchdowns. While we do fully expect the Jets to struggle through the air, there’s no reason to believe Enunwa won’t impress again in 2017.

Oakland Raiders: Khalil Mack, EDGE

Raise your hand if you realized the reigning NFL Defensive Player of the Year just celebrated his 26th birthday back in February. We didn’t think so. This just goes to show us how much room for improvement Mack still has after putting up 30 sacks, eight forced fumbles and two touchdowns in his first three NFL seasons. Now that the Raiders finally decided to use the former top-10 pick as a natural EDGE pass rusher, a 20-plus sack outing in 2017 isn’t unrealistic. This just how good Mack can be.

Philadelphia Eagles: Carson Wentz, quarterback

Sure Wentz was up-and-down as a rookie last season. That’s to be expected from a first-year signal caller who played his college ball at North Dakota State. It also didn’t help that the likes of Nelson Agholor and Jordan Matthews were absolutely disastrous at wide receiver.

Now that the Eagles added LeGarrette Blount at running back to create balance on offense, things should be looking up for Wentz. Add in the fact that Philadelphia signed veteran receivers Alshon Jeffery and Torrey Smith, and that’s magnified even further. Look for big things from Wentz as a sophomore in 2017.

Pittsburgh Steelers: Artie Burns, cornerback

Burns was darn good as a rookie last season, recording 64 tackles, 13 passes defended and three interceptions in 16 games (three starts). It was a much-needed performance for a Steelers squad that needed help against the pass. Fully entrenched in as the team’s No. 1 corner in 2017, we’re looking for Burns to take the next step towards Pro Bowl status.

San Francisco 49ers: Reuben Foster, linebacker

Foster has not played a single regular season game in the NFL. He fell to the end of the first round of April’s draft due to concerns over character and injury. But over the course of San Francisco’s off-season program, this rookie has impressed pretty much everyone who has put an eye on him.

Foster has been downright dominant during the early part of training camp. He doesn’t appear to be limited at all. And in reality, he was a top-five talent heading into the 2017 NFL Draft. We’re looking for a Pro Bowl caliber performance opposite NaVorro Bowman this season. That’s how talented Foster has already proven himself to be.

Seattle Seahawks: Frank Clark, defensive end

Off-field issues aside, Clark has taken an increased role in Seattle and is running with it. As a sophomore last season, this former second-round pick recorded 10 sacks in a part-time role.

Now expected to be a primary starter in 2017, it would not be a surprise if he challenged for the NFL lead in sacks. After all, having Cliff Avril and Michael Bennett on the field with him is going to help Clark absolutely dominate against one-on-one blocking assignments.

Tampa Bay Buccaneers: Jameis Winston, quarterback

Tampa Bay Buccaneers Jameis Winston NFL quarterbacks

Now entering his third season in the NFL, Winston will have to become more consistent and avoid the turnovers that plagued him in the past in order to become a franchise-caliber quarterback. Look at his sophomore season as a case study. Winston put up eight touchdowns and eight interceptions in his first four starts. He followed that up with a 15-to-4 split in his next nine starts — leading Tampa to seven of their nine wins during that span. Then, Winston closed the season by throwing six picks in his final three games.

Tampa did everything possible to help Winston out during the offseason. It added DeSean Jackson in free agency and exhausted its first-round pick on tight end O.J. Howard. Now, with no excuse left on the table, we’re expecting a major jump from Winston in 2017.

Tennessee Titans: Marcus Mariota, quarterback

For Mariota, it’s all about staying healthy. His first two seasons in the NFL ended prematurely to injury. Though, when on the field, he’s proven to be a franchise-caliber quarterback.

In 27 career starts, this former Heisman winner is completing 62 percent of his passes with 49 total touchdowns and 19 interceptions. With an elite-level skill-position group around him, we’re looking for Mariota to take that next step in 2017. It could also very well lead to a playoff appearance for the talented Titans.

Washington Redskins: Rob Kelley, running back

The Redskins are pretty much done with Matt Jones. Youngster Chris Thompson was re-signed during free agency, but he’s nothing more than a change-of-pace back. This leaves Kelly and rookie fourth-round pick Samaje Perine as the top candidates to start for Washington in 2017.

We’re going with a second-year undrafted free agent that surprised the masses big time as a rookie. Kelley averaged 4.2 yards per rush and scored seven touchdowns in his debut season. He ultimately took over the starting job from Jones and never looked back. Look for a splendid sophomore campaign from this former Tulane standout.

About the author

Vincent Frank

Vincent Frank

Editor-at-large, Sportsnaut.

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