Larry Allen, Cris Carter, Bill Parcells, Jonathan Ogden, Warren Sapp, Dave Robinson and Curley Culp were elected to the Pro Football Hall of Fame back in February. They are some of the game's greatest players and their legacies and impact on the NFL will live forever in Canton, Ohio, as official members of the Hall of Fame.
Projecting the Hall of Fame is virtually impossible, especially for the youngest athletes in football, but as these seven men kick off the 2013 NFL season with Saturday's Enshrinement Ceremony, it is fun to look at the game's best young players. Rookies are expected to contribute quicker than ever on the NFL gridiron and a few have made a big splash in short order.
So, limiting the scope to players drafted in the last three rookie classes (not counting 2013), here are the most likely Pro Football Hall of Famers playing the game today:
Class of 2010:
Jason Pierre-Paul, DE, NY Giants
In his first three seasons, JPP has yet to miss a game, playing all 48 for the Giants. He helped lead the Giants to a Super Bowl win in 2011 when he posted 93 tackles and 16.5 sacks. Pierre-Paul has 27.5 sacks, 181 total tackles and two Pro Bowls in three career NFL seasons. In 2012, he intercepted his first career pass and took it 28 yards to score his first career touchdown. He may be the most physically gifted defensive end in the NFL.
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 '11 and finished fourth in the NFL a year ago at 155.6 yards per game en route to a Super Bowl berth. 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, added another 144 total tackles. He earned his second Pro Bowl appearance in three seasons while leading the Niners to the Super Bowl. 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 at a better time. 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) in 2011. While he took a slight step back in 2012, Graham's 85 catches, 982 yards and nine TDs were still among the league's best by a tight end. With Sean Payton back on the sidelines, Graham should be a part of another Saints postseason run in 2013.
Others names from this class to consider:
Rob Gronkowski, TE, New England
If he could ever stay healthy and out of trouble, he could shatter all NFL TE receiving records.
Ndamukong 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:
A.J. 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 in two pro seasons is catch 162 passes for 2,407 yards and 18 touchdowns while leading the Bengals to the postseason both seasons. 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 only got better in Year 2, posting 19.5 sacks, three forced fumbles and 65 total tackles for the NFC Champs. Smith is downright unblockable and has already set the 49ers' single-season sack record.
J.J. Watt, DE, Houston
From pizza boy tight end to Big Ten Rose Bowl star to NFL Rookie of the Year candidate to Defensive Player of the Year. 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 led the NFL in sacks in 2012 with 20.5 QB takedowns and has made an art form of deflecting passes (16 last year). He has 149 tackles, four forced fumbles and four fumble recoveries in two pro seasons.
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 improved his production in every major category from his rookie season to last year, going from 54 receptions to 79, from 959 yards to 1,198 and from eight scores to 10 TDs. He is already one of the league's most impossible players to cover.
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.
Von Miller, OLB/DE, Denver
Dynamic pass-rusher was a Pro Bowler as a rookie and has 30.0 sacks in two years. Needs to stay focused off the field.
Class of 2012:
Andrew Luck, QB, Indianapolis
The Colts were 2-14 in 2011 and it landed them Mr. Luck. All the rookie QB did in his first year was produce the best season by a rookie starting NFL quarterback in league history. He won 11 games, set an NFL rookie record with 4,374 yards passing and accounted for 28 total touchdowns. He was an elite, Top-100 prospect in high school and was considered by many the best pro prospect since John Elway. He has proven to be worthy of the top overall pick and literally has zero weaknesses to his game.
Matt Kalil, OL, Minnesota
The top tackle taken in the 2012 draft has played from Game 1 for the much-improved Vikings. According to Football Outsiders, Kalil allowed just two sacks in his first 721 snaps in the NFL. He paved the way for Adrian Peterson’s historic 2,000-yard season and helped lead the Vikings into the postseason. The bookend tackle was a coveted prospect in high school, had a great college career and is already a Pro Bowler in the NFL. 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 was 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 was fifth in the NFL in rushing (1,454), was fourth in attempts (319), fourth in all-purpose yards (1,926) and trailed only Arian Foster and Adrian Peterson in total offensive touches (368). His ability to catch passes makes him one of the most dynamic players in the league already.
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 his draft. All he did in his first NFL season was lead the league in tackles (164) by a wide margin. He picked off two passes, registered one sack and recovered three fumbles. 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 2012 draft.
Robert Griffin III, QB, Washington
He is a supremely gifted athlete and remarkable leader — who cannot stay healthy unless he changes his style of play.
Mark Barron, S, Tampa Bay
Has already shown he is a big hitter who has stabilized the back end of the Bucs' secondary.