So far, the 2017 NFL season has been a turbulent ride from many different angles. In addition to all of the overarching storylines concerning the league as a whole, we’ve seen plenty of players establish themselves as the future of the game, and promptly take control as the certified elite players for a new generation. Some are rookies, some have a few years of experience already, but either way there’s no denying it; the NFL has a wealth of young talent right now that is going to carry them forward for the next decade.
Of course, not all of this talent is going to see the same level of success. The circumstances are different for each of them. Some are fortunate enough to have quality coaches and personnel around them, while staying away from injuries. For others, it’s the exact opposite. No matter the situation, they are all prolific young talents, and will be around the league for years to come. Let’s take a look at how the rest of their career is likely to shake out, and just how good their trajectory will be.
Ranked below are projections for the future of these 15 NFL stars in 2017.
15. Ezekiel Elliott
The saga involving Elliott and his charge of domestic violence has finally come to an end, at least for now. The star Cowboys running back will be serving his six-game suspension over the next month or so, and will be able to return to action in week 16 of this season. It’s a sour note on the year for the organization, but all discussion about the case aside, there’s little doubt that Elliott will return to be just as productive on the field as he was before the suspension.
Assuming he can stay out of trouble for the long-haul, Elliott is sure to be one of the game’s best running backs going forward. He’s proven himself already with a stellar rookie campaign in 2016, and will be looking to put up similar numbers in his next full season, which will likely be in 2018.
14. Jameis Winston
The Buccaneers had to figure that Winston would be further along as a franchise quarterback than he is right now, considering he was the 1st-overall pick in 2015. Out of all the young players at the position in the league right now, Winston is arguably the worst one to remain a consistent starter. Despite having plenty of skill players on offense that can make a difference, he’s been woefully inconsistent so far this season.
It’s difficult to see Winston living up to his full potential, at this point. The Bucs have already axed one head coach, and to do it again could potentially throw Winston for a loop that he may never recover from. They’re pretty much stuck with the offense they have now, they just have to hope that Winston hasn’t hit his ceiling yet, and can still improve.
13. Mitch Trubisky
In what was one of the most unanticipated moves of the offseason, the Bears actually traded up in the draft to get Trubisky, in effect making him their franchise quarterback of the future. After taking over for Mike Glennon early in the season, the returns have been mixed overall, but it’s clear that Chicago is all in on developing the North Carolina product into a t0p quarterback.
It’s tough to gauge Trubisky’s progress so far, because the Bears have been employing a distinctly run-heavy approach in the first half of the season. This essentially has put a cap on how much the young quarterback can do, which skews his ability to a degree. All in all, he’s shown enough athleticism and arm strength to not be a concern. The safe bet is for Trubisky to keep improving in the 2018 season, and develop into a full-time starter. How high his ceiling is though, is still up for debate.
12. Andrew Luck
Not long ago, Luck was one of, if not the single best young quarterback in the game. He was throwing over 30 touchdown passes a year, and making the playoffs (on a bad team no less) with regularity. Unfortunately, a combination of ill-timed injuries, and the Colts’ inability to surround him with legitimate talent, have left his future very much in question.
Indianapolis has already shut down Luck for the rest of this season, after not playing a snap in any of it. The main question for this offseason is whether or not Luck tries to force his way off the team, demanding a trade. He can’t be pleased with the direction the Colts are going, and not far away from the age of 30, this is the time to make the move if he wants out. If Luck gets healthy, you can expect a return to solid production at least, but he may never again reach the heights of the early part of his career.
11. Evan Engram
The Giants have been perhaps the biggest dumpster fire in the league, but the one silver lining they can take from this season has been the emergence of their 1st-round pick from this year. Engram has established himself as one of the top young playmakers in the league, with a skill set that is fearsome to say the least. He can line up at tight end, out wide, in-line; whatever needs to be done to get him the ball in space.
You can expect him to build on his rapport with Eli Manning (or whoever the Giants’ quarterback happens to be next year), even with the return of Odell Beckham. It may be a “burn the tape” season for New York, which has left their head coach’s future in question, but at least they were able to develop a future star along the way, giving them something to build off of. Engram will soon be one of the league’s best.
10. Dak Prescott
For a 4th-round pick, Prescott has been an absolute steal for Dallas. The transition between Tony Romo and the next franchise quarterback was almost instantaneous, and Prescott has proven that he’ll be able to shoulder the load for the long haul. The Cowboys are a run-first team with Ezekiel Elliott, but Prescott provides a good compliment, and the two should be working in tandem for many years.
It’s unlikely Prescott ever becomes a truly elite, top-5 quarterback for the long-term, but he should remain very good no matter what. In other words, he has an extremely high floor as a player, and his chances of dropping off completely are next to nothing. The Cowboys got a consistent quarterback that they can trust for years to come, and as a mid-round pick, that’s about as good of a value as you’re going to see.
9. Jimmy Garoppolo
The idea to acquire Garoppolo at the trade deadline may end up sinking Kyle Shanahan’s tenure in San Francisco as head coach, or it could be the catalyst that helps it succeed. The Patriots reportedly weren’t interested in trading the backup to Tom Brady, but with the realization that there was no sense paying top money for two quarterbacks on the same roster, they caved and sent him to the 49ers for a 2nd-round pick.
Garoppolo is presumably the starter in San Francisco moving forward, but there’s good reason to believe that he won’t live up to the promise that was cast upon him in New England. Without the Belichick system aiding him, Garoppolo will likely turn out to be slightly above average, and little more.
8. Amari Cooper
Cooper is suffering a down year in 2017, but there’s reason to believe that he’ll return to form in the near future. The Raiders receiver was one of the top young players for the past few years, but the entire Oakland offense has been in the pits so far this season. Whatever the problem has been, it’s too early to push the panic button on his career yet, as his natural ability says he’ll be back in good standing soon enough.
Derek Carr is too good of a quarterback to hold back Cooper’s production for much longer. While this is minor speed bump in his career, we should expect Cooper to continue being one of the game’s best young receivers over the next several years, and transform into one of the league’s elite soon enough.
7. Marcus Mariota
There hasn’t been a more “Jekyll & Hyde” quarterback over the last few years than Mariota, and it’s still tough to get a definitive read on him. Injury problems have hindered him to a degree, but not having a defined role in the odd offense of Mike Mularkey is another reason for his up-and-down play. There’s no question he has talent, but harnessing it in this offense is going to be a challenge.
At worst, we know that Mariota will be a solid quarterback when he’s on the field. Will he live up to being the 2nd-overall pick? That remains to be seen, because of the injuries, and the effectiveness of the offense he plays in.
6. Alvin Kamara
Probably the best value draft pick this year, Kamara has catapulted himself to be the most effective running back on the Saints’ offense this year. An early trade of Adrian Peterson has allowed him to pick up the extra snaps, and he’s already one of the most dangerous dual-threat players out of the backfield in the league.
Kamara’s ceiling is sky high, and he’s only going to improve from here on out. Sean Payton knows how to scheme for players like this, and it wouldn’t be surprising to see Kamara become a multi-year All-Pro player as he hits the prime of his career. New Orleans can count on him being an impact player for years, and a player that can take the pressure off the eventual replacement for Drew Brees.
5. Le’Veon Bell
Who knows where Bell is going to be playing next season, as his contract is finally up this offseason? Amidst a holdout from last offseason, including real questions as to how he fits into the Steelers future plans, there is no concrete outcome for Bell in terms of the team he plays for long-term.
One thing is certain; he’s one of the best running backs in the league. He’s going to cost a fortune wherever he ends up, but you could argue that a massive contract will be worth it, even for a running back. His running ability alone can bolster a team’s time of possession, which is a significant factor in winning games. Bell comes with his share of concerns off the field, but if he excels through a 16-game season this year, he’ll be making big money come the offseason.
4. Jared Goff
Cast off at the end of his rookie campaign as a 1st-overall bust as a quarterback, Goff has rebounded tremendously this year to prove his doubters wrong, and establish himself as the franchise quarterback for the Rams. The entire turnaround for Los Angeles was unforeseen, and Goff has essentially been the catalyst for it. He has a bright future with Sean McVay at the helm as head coach.
It’ll be interesting to see who ends up emerging the best off the 2016 quarterback class, but Goff is positioning himself to at least assure the Rams that taking him first in the entire draft wasn’t a mistake. At the very least, it’s safe to predict that he’ll at least be a good quarterback, with the distinct potential to be a great one. Time will tell.
3. Leonard Fournette
Fournette has been an absolute monster out of the Jaguars’ backfield as a rookie, and is essentially carrying their entire offense. It may be the one team in the league (other than the Cowboys, arguably) where the running back is exponentially more important than th quarterback. Fournette is the catalyst for offensive success in Jacksonville, not Blake Bortles under center.
Every bit of evidence so far says that we can expect Fournette to keep up the pace, and prove to be a truly great all-time running back in the NFL. He’ll be a true workhorse, and a throwback kind of runner who won’t have a problem carrying the ball 30 times a game if need be. He’s the kind of running back that could dominate for the next decade, a la Adrian Peterson.
2. DeShaun Watson
In a truly terrible twist of fate, Watson sustain an ACL injury that has sidelined for the rest of the 2017 season. In the few games that he played in his rookie year, he truly looked like an elite quarterback of the future. He managed to completely transform the Texans offense into a juggernaut, and there’s no reason to think that he won’t pick up right where he left off when he returns next season.
The signs were all there when he was a title-winning quarterback at Clemson, and now they’re manifesting themselves in the NFL. Watson had supposed question marks coming into the draft this year, but he shed most of those concerns, and will prove to be one of the league’s marquee elite players in the coming years.
1. Carson Wentz
Nobody predicted the improvement level that Wentz has shown in his second season. He’s arguably been the league’s MVP through the halfway mark of the season, and has confirmed himself as the franchise quarterback for the Eagles; something they haven’t had since Donovan McNabb. Boasting a generational skill set, Wentz has turned the league upside down and is performing at a level well beyond what anybody expected. There simply, haven’t been any significant flaws to his game in 2017.
There’s little reason to suspect he won’t be the one leading the charge for the next generation of great NFL quarterbacks. His work ethic, skill set, and ability to read defenses are already at a borderline elite level, and he’s not even in his statistical prime yet. Make no mistake, Wentz is for real, and it looks like the gamble of trading up to draft him will end up paying dividends for Philadelphia.
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