Athlon pinpoints the best young athletes in professional football.
Projecting the Hall of Fame is virtually impossible, especially for the youngest athletes in football. Yet, rookies are expected to contribute quicker than ever on the NFL gridiron and a few have made a big splash in short order.
The top story of the 2012 NFL season is the play of the rookie quarterbacks. These young players are already establishing themselves as irreplaceable pieces to the NFL puzzle. But Andrew Luck and Robert Griffin III aren’t the only once-in-a-lifetime players to make their debut in the NFL recently.
Limiting the scope to the last three rookie classes, here are the most likely future Pro Football Hall of Famers:
Class of 2010:
Jason Pierre-Paul, DE, NY Giants
In his first two seasons, he played in all 32 games and helped the Giants win a Super Bowl last fall. He posted 4.5 sacks as a rookie with 22 total tackles. He blossomed as a second-year player into one of the league’s top defensive ends with 93 tackles and 16.5 sacks. He recorded his first career interception in 2012 and has the Giants poised to win the NFC East with another great season. He may be the most physically gifted defensive end in the NFL.
Rob Gronkowski, TE, New England
The only thing that will keep The Gronk from Canton will be his injury history. He has missed a lot of time early in his career, but when he is on the field, he might be the best red zone target in the league. He has caught 37 touchdowns in 42 career games and has Tom Brady throwing him passes for at least a few more seasons. At 6-foot-6 and 265 pounds with more than a little crazy in his game, Gronkowski’s only speed bump to NFL immortality is staying healthy — which is tough considering his complete disregard for personal safety.
Mike Iupati, OL, San Francisco
The Niners have seen a remarkable turnaround under new head coach Jim Harbaugh. Much of that can be attributed to what might be the best offensive line in the league. Iupati, drafted in the first round, has started every single game of his NFL career and has watched the 49ers' rushing attack flourish. After averaging 103.6 yards per game in 2010, SanFran rushed for 127.8 yards per game in 2011 and is currently No. 2 in the NFL at 161.5 yards per game this fall. The 6-foot-5, 330-pound mauler should be a mainstay in the Bay Area for years to come.
NaVorro Bowman, LB, San Francisco
The 2010 draft was a great one for the Niners as not only was the offensive line rebuilt with Iupati and Anthony Davis, but so was the defense with this third-round steal. Bowman was an All-American at Penn State and proved in his first season as an NFL starter that he was going to be around for a while. He posted 150 tackles in 16 starts in 2011 and, after getting a long-term contract extension, is having another great season this fall. Along with Patrick Willis, Bowman is half of the best LB duo in the NFL.
Jimmy Graham, TE, New Orleans
Sometimes it can be all about timing and Graham couldn’t have landed in a better spot. The 6-foot-7, 260-pound basketball player from Miami fell into a perfect position to succeed for the Saints. He finished third in the NFL with 99 catches, seventh with 1,310 yards and was one of only five players with double-digit touchdowns (11) last season. His encore performance this fall hasn't been as quite as eye-popping, but the athletic Graham is on pace for nearly 80 catches, 900 yards and 10 touchdowns this season.
Others names from this class to consider:
Ndamakong Suh, DT, Detroit
Elite-level player with all the tools to be an all-time great, but needs to mature.
Geno Atkins, DT, Cincinnati
A fourth-round steal on draft day is already an All-Pro performer.
Maurkice Pouncey, C, Pittsburgh
Elite high school prospect, elite college prospect and now an All-Pro in the NFL.
Class of 2011:
AJ Green, WR, Cincinnati
Few players have ever started their career like Green. The superstar talent from Georgia was one of the most coveted pass-catchers in the nation as both a recruit and draft pick. All he has done is catch 144 passes for 2,208 yards and 17 touchdowns — including a league-leading 10 scores thus far in 2012 — and helped the Bengals reach the postseason last fall. He is an elite red zone target, can stretch the field and has tremendous open field ability as well. He is the complete package at wide receiver.
Aldon Smith, DE/OLB, San Francisco
The youngster out of Missouri was looked at as a project on the NFL level but his elite talents were obvious. Well, the project turned into a star quicker than expected as Smith posted 14.0 sacks as a rookie without technically starting a game. He has only gotten better in Year 2. Smith is downright unblockable and has already set the 49ers' single-season sack record (19.5). With three games left, he is eyeing Michael Strahan’s NFL single-season record (22.5).
JJ Watt, DE, Houston
From pizza boy tight end to Big Ten Rose Bowl star to NFL rookie of the year candidate. The former Wisconsin Badgers end has started every game of his short career and made history by returning an interception for a touchdown in his first postseason game (and Houston’s first postseason win). He trails only Smith in sacks (16.5) this season and is constantly wrecking havoc on the D-Line.
Julio Jones, WR, Atlanta
The weapons Matt Ryan has in Atlanta are unreal. Roddy White and Tony Gonzalez certainly make life easier for Jones in the passing game, but make no mistake; the former Alabama star is the real deal. He was the No. 1 wide receiver prospect in the nation coming out of high school and has only gotten better with age. He is an athletic freak at 6-4 and 220 pounds. He has already passed his rookie reception and yardage totals and is poised for a long career in the NFL.
Von Miller, OLB/DE, Denver
The dynamic pass-rusher from Texas A&M earned a trip to the Pro Bowl in his first season after posting 65 tackles, 11.5 sacks and three forced fumbles in 2011. He is poised to shatter all of those numbers this season with 57 tackles, 16.0 sacks and six forced fumbles with three games left to play in 2012. Denver cruised to the AFC West title this year and it wasn’t just because of Peyton Manning. Miller is the future of the Broncos franchise and could be an all-time great.
Other names from this class to consider:
Cam Newton, QB, Carolina
If he always played like he did against Atlanta, he will be special. Needs to learn how to win.
Ryan Kerrigan, DE/OLB, Washington
Playmaker who posted a huge rookie year and has proven it was no fluke this season.
Class of 2012:
Andrew Luck, QB, Indianapolis
The Colts were 2-14 in 2011 and it landed them Mr. Luck. All the rookie QB has done is lead his team to a 9-4 record and has been smashing rookie passing records along the way. He is poised to post the best passing season for a rookie in the history of the sport and he is already one of the league’s most clutch performers. He was an elite Top 100 prospect in high school and has proven to be worthy of the top overall pick.
Robert Griffin III, QB, Washington
The biggest issue with RG3 won’t be his accuracy, ability to protect the football, win games or produce big numbers. It will be his ability to stay healthy long enough to earn Hall of Fame status. He, like Luck, is a great leader who sets an example for all of those around him. Yet, his style of play has already proven to be a concern as he takes entirely too many hits. He has already missed time due to a concussion as well as a twisted knee. He has the Skins above .500 and has already broken Newton's rookie QB rushing record.
Matt Kalil, OL, Minnesota
The top tackle taken in the draft has played from Game 1 for the much-improved Vikings. According to Football Outsiders, Kalil has played 721 snaps and has allowed two sacks thus far in his first season. He is also paving the way for Adrian Peterson’s record-setting run at 2,000 yards. He was a coveted prospect in high school, had a great college career and appears to be a lockdown bookend tackle for Minnesota. Having an All-Pro older brother (Ryan) has helped as well.
Doug Martin, RB, Tampa Bay
He wasn’t the first running back taken in the draft, but he has been the most productive. The do-everything tailback was used all over the field as arguably the most successful Boise State runner in program history. His talents have translated instantly. He has tied the NFL record for TDs in a half (4), has a 250-yard rushing performance and is poised for 2,000 yards from scrimmage in his first season, as his ability to catch passes makes him one of the most dynamic players in this class.
Luke Kuechly, LB, Carolina
The Boston College linebacker led the nation in tackles each season in college and was the top player taken at his position in the draft. All he is doing right now is leading the NFL in total tackles with 130 stops in his first 13 career games. The tackling machine is rarely out of position, doesn’t miss tackles and is the center building block on defense for the future of Panthers football.
Other names from this class to consider:
Trent Richardson, RB, Cleveland
Elite player with rare skills, but will balky knees and playing for the Browns hurt his long-term stock?
LaVonte David, LB, Tampa Bay
Incredibly productive player on all levels is making quick impact for Bucs.
Morris Claiborne, CB, Dallas
Elite lock-down coverman has lived up to his status as the best corner in the draft.
Bobby Wagner, LB, Seattle
Burly, physical player who has produced at an high level right out of the gate.
Mark Barron, S, Tampa Bay
Has already shown he is a big hitter who has stabilized the back end of the Bucs' secondary.