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Who are the game's best young players that could wind up in Canton?
On Saturday, Derrick Brooks, Ray Guy, Claude Humphrey, Walter Jones, Andre Reed, Michael Strahan and Aeneas Williams will officially be inducted as the latest members of the Pro Football Hall of Fame. Their legacies as some of the greatest to ever play in the NFL will be cemented with their addition to the ranks of those forever enshrined in Canton, Ohio.
As far as the present goes, projecting which current superstars will eventually wind up in the Hall of Fame is virtually impossible. But that doesn’t mean it’s not any less entertaining (or potentially controversial) to conduct such an exercise.
With that in mind, limiting the scope to those who were drafted from 2010-12 (this year’s class obviously doesn’t count and one year is too small a sample size for the 2013 group, even for this), here is one football fan’s take on the most likely future Hall of Famers.
Class of 2010:
Jimmy Graham, TE, New Orleans
Unquestionably a tight end, Graham has the opportunity to not only shatter records for his position, but also finish with numbers that compare to some of the most productive wide receivers of all time. A beneficiary of playing in a more pass-oriented league and having a future Hall of Fame quarterback (Drew Brees) throwing to him, Graham is at the forefront of the evolution of the tight end position. A matchup nightmare with his combination of size (6-7, 260), athleticism and explosiveness, Graham is averaging 90 catches, 1,169 yards and 12 touchdowns over his past three seasons. His future in New Orleans secure after signing a four-year contract, the numbers should only continue to pile up for one of the NFL’s most dangerous pass-catchers.
NaVorro Bowman, LB, San Francisco
A first-team All-Pro each of the last three seasons, Bowman teams with fellow potential Hall of Famer Patrick Willis to form the best linebacker tandem in the NFL. A third-round pick from the 2010 draft that also netted the 49ers All-Pro offensive lineman Mike Iupati (see below), Bowman has been a terror since becoming a starter in 2011. He has averaged nearly 122 solo tackles alone over the last three seasons, along with a total of 22 pass breakups, nine sacks, five forced fumbles and three interceptions. One of the most feared defenders in the game, Bowman will take on a new challenge this season as he works hard to return from the serious left knee injury (torn ACL and MCL) he suffered in the NFC Championship Game loss in Seattle. Given his track record, toughness and work ethic, it should only be a matter of time before Bowman returns to his All-Pro form.
Mike Iupati, OL, San Francisco
Offensive linemen can be hard to judge when it comes to Hall of Fame credentials, since their contributions are not easily measured. That said, it’s tough to argue with the resume that Iupati has already put together, headlined by his two Pro Bowls and 2012 All-Pro season. A mainstay at right guard, Iupati has started every game he has played (60 total) thus far and has helped establish the 49ers’ running game as one of the league’s best. Over the past three seasons, San Francisco’s rushing offense has ranked no lower than eighth in the NFL. Everyone knows that head coach Jim Harbaugh loves to run the football and Iupati is a big reason why.
Other names from this class to keep an eye on:
Geno Atkins, DT, Cincinnati
A fourth-round steal, Atkins is a highly productive defensive tackle who has posted 29 sacks in just 57 games.
Dez Bryant, WR, Dallas
Back-to-back 90-catch seasons with totals of 2,615 yards and 25 touchdowns could become the norm for talented wideout that plays for America’s team.
Rob Gronkowski, TE, New England
When healthy, Gronkowski on equal footing with Jimmy Graham as an explosive, dynamic tight end that gives opposing defenses headaches.
Ndamukong Suh, DT, Detroit
Two-time All-Pro really has yet to scratch the surface on his immense talent and potential.
Class of 2011:
Cam Newton, QB, Carolina
After taking the league by storm with his dual-threat abilities upon entering as the No. 1 pick of the 2011 draft, Newton finally put it all together on the field last season. Posting career bests in completion percentage (61.7), touchdown passes (24) and passer rating (88.8), Newton and one of the league’s stingiest defenses powered the Panthers to a 12-4 record and the NFC South division title. The more Newton develops as a passer the more dangerous he will become since he’s already a tremendous threat (5.6 career ypc, 28 TDs) as a rusher. There’s still much more work to do, but Newton has a chance to establish himself as one of the top dual-threat quarterbacks in the history of the game.
J.J. Watt, DE, Houston
Somewhat unknown as the Texans’ first-round pick (No. 11) in 2011, Watt has become one of the NFL”s most feared players in a short amount of time. The 2012 Defensive Player of the Year, Watt has earned back-to-back Pro Bowl invites and first-team All-Pro honors. A terror off of the edge, Watt has collected 31 sacks over the last two seasons, along with 23 pass breakups and eight forced fumbles. He makes plays consistently despite being the No. 1 target of offensive lines and protection schemes and has a motor that just won’t stop. He’s just 25, but any player that draws comparisons to legends like Reggie White and Bruce Smith is certainly worthy of inclusion in this list.
A.J. Green, WR, Cincinnati
A three-time Pro Bowler in as many seasons, Green has become one of the most trusted and productive targets in the NFL. He has put together back-to-back seasons of nearly 100 catches, averaging 1,388 yards and 11 touchdowns during this span. With great hands, elite ball skills, impressive athleticism and more than enough speed, Green is the total package when it comes to wide receiver. Whether it’s moving the chains, catching a pass in traffic, breaking off a long play or coming up big in the red zone, Green does everything required of a No. 1 wide receiver, and then some.
Julio Jones, WR, Atlanta
A broken foot limited Jones to just five games last season, but there’s no mistaking what he means to the Falcons’ offense. Atlanta traded a total of five picks, including two first-rounders, to Cleveland to move up and grab Jones with the sixth pick of the 2011 draft, and even just three seasons in, no one is second-guessing the team. One of the toughest covers in the NFL, Jones is averaging nearly 16 yards per reception and has caught 20 touchdown passes in a little more than two full seasons’ (34 games) worth of action. The broken foot has caused some to worry a little about how soon Jones will be back to Pro Bowl form, but keep in mind that he’s only 25 years old, is a physical specimen at 6-4, 220 and prior to the injury he was averaging a ridiculous 116 yards receiving over the five games he played in last season. Jones has the tools as well as the opportunity as Matt Ryan’s No. 1 target to post Canton-worthy numbers. And as NFL fans, we are the fortunate ones who get to sit back and watch him work towards that lofty goal.
Other names from this class to keep an eye on:
Von Miller, LB, Denver
One of the NFL’s most feared pass-rushers and defensive playmakers, Miller has 35 sacks and 13 forced turnovers in 40 career games. Just needs to stay healthy (coming back from torn ACL) and focused (suspended first six games last season) to fully capitalize on his immense talent and maximize potential.
Richard Sherman, CB, Seattle
Not afraid to speak his mind, Sherman backs it up with his play on the field and reputation of being the NFL’s top cornerback. A first-team All-Pro each of the past two seasons, Sherman has 20 interceptions in 48 career games, despite opponents making a point of not throwing to whomever he’s covering.
Aldon Smith, LB, San Francisco
Pass-rushing specialist has a mind-boggling 42 sacks in 43 games, but the off-the-field stuff is starting to pile up too. If Smith can get (and then keep) his act together, he could finish among the game’s greatest sack masters.
Class of 2012:
Andrew Luck, QB, Indianapolis
Peyton Manning’s successor in Indianapolis, Luck has been everything advertised since being the first pick of the 2012 draft. All Luck has done in his first two seasons is win 22 games, break the single-season rookie record for passing yards (4,374), earn back-to-back postseason berths, capture a division title and win a playoff game (in his second appearance). Compare that early success to Manning, who didn't win a playoff game until his sixth season (in his fourth attempt). Luck cut his interceptions in half from his rookie (18) to sophomore (9) campaigns while also increasing his completion percentage (from 54.1 to 60.2). Luck has all the tools needed (and then some) to not only be a worthy successor to Manning’s winning legacy in Indy, but also to eventually join No. 18 in Canton.
Russell Wilson, QB, Seattle
Though not as heralded as first-round peers Andrew Luck and Robert Griffin III (see below), Wilson is the most accomplished quarterback of the 2012 class to this point. A third-round afterthought due largely to his size (5-11), Wilson seized the starting job in Seattle as a rookie and enters his third season as a Super Bowl champion. Besides the hardware, Wilson also has more wins (24 regular season, 4-1 in playoffs), more TD passes (52) and a better passer rating (100.6) than either Luck or RG3. The doubters silenced, there’s no question Wilson deserves to be mentioned alongside Luck and Griffin when it comes to the 2012 class. There’s also a chance all three could wind up in Canton together too.
Luke Kuechly, LB, Carolina
A tackling machine in college, Kuechly has continued in that vein in his first two pro seasons. The Defensive Rookie of the Year when he led the NFL in total tackles (164), he followed that up by winning Defensive Player of the Year honors in 2013. A Pro Bowler and first-team All-Pro last season, Kuechly piled up a ridiculous 24 tackles in the playoff-clinching win against New Orleans in Week 16. That was just one shy of Brian Urlacher’s 26-tackle performance in 2006, which is the current record for the most stops in a single game (NFL didn’t start counting tackles as an official statistic until 2000). Whether Kuechly can maintain this pace or not remains to be seen, but he’s certainly off to a good start to putting together a Hall of Fame career.
Other names from this class to keep an eye on:
Lavonte David, LB, Tampa Bay
A first-team All-Pro last season, David has posted back-to-back 100-tackle seasons while displaying a nose for the ball (5 INTs in 2013).
Robert Griffin III, QB, Washington
The 2012 Offensive Rookie of the Year, a serious knee injury stumped both RG3’s production and development last season. He still possesses all of the tools, both athletically and personally, to join 2012 draft classmates Andrew Luck and Russell Wilson as candidates for eventual enshrinement in Canton.
Matt Kalil, OL, Minnesota
One of the NFL’s top tackles, Kalil has the added benefit of paving the way for Adrian Peterson, the league’s top running back. Excelling in both run blocking and pass protection, Kalil has the opportunity to assist Peterson in his run to Canton, and vice versa.
Doug Martin, RB, Tampa Bay
One of the league’s most productive players as a rookie, a torn labrum shortened his 2013 campaign to just six games. A threat as both a rusher and receiver, Martin’s presence in the Buccaneers’ offense should allow him the opportunities to return to 2012’s level of production, provided he stays healthy.