So many factors go into having a successful NFL franchise. As much as the game is a team sport—predicated largely on personnel moves and strength of coaching—there are individual players who stand out among the crowd and really move the needle.
There are a number of established stars who help make the league as exciting as ever. However, there are a number of rising studs on the precipice of greatness who are worthy of special attention—not to be confused with premature coronation.
Read on for a look into the best of the next wave: a collection of 20 players who are ready or are already taking the NFL and its fandom by storm in 2018 and beyond.
Carson Wentz, quarterback, Philadelphia Eagles
A monster second season in Philadelphia from Wentz was a big reason why the Eagles won Super Bowl LII. However, Wentz didn’t really get his due since he tore his ACL late in the year and couldn’t finish off Philly’s championship run.
Provided Wentz is healthy by Week 1, he should have little trouble picking up where he left off in 2017, when he threw for 33 touchdowns in 13 games. The Eagles are loaded on offense and could function fine with a game manager, never mind with a mobile, strong-armed, downfield passing playmaker like Wentz pulling the trigger.
Despite an aw-shucks, humble personality, Wentz has almost one million Twitter followers, had the No. 1-selling jersey last year and will only see his profile grow when he bounces back strong this season.
Alvin Kamara, running back, New Orleans Saints
Although he is all-business on the gridiron, Kamara comes across as unique a person as he is a player. He became just the second rookie ever to amass 700 yards rushing and receiving in a season, but the dynamic ball-carrier is also a fun social media follow. Kamara somehow makes talking about vanilla milkshakes entertaining, has posted pictures of huge, full-leg tattoo sleeves this offseason and tosses in some humorous commentary on sports, family and trivial life events, such as waiting to board a flight.
If Kamara opens up even more in the media, he’s bound to see exponential growth in his popularity and following.
Jalen Ramsey, cornerback, Jacksonville Jaguars
Unafraid to stir the pot, Ramsey has all kinds of talent and will trash talk with anyone. He got into a scuffle with Cincinnati Bengals receiver A.J. Green this past season, gave New England Patriots quarterback Tom Brady some grief before squaring off with in the AFC title game and was a big reason the Jaguars took a big leap forward in 2017.
Ramsey is already in the conversation as the greatest player at his position despite only two years in the league. He’s a fiery guy who can back it up. On Tuesday he even had the gall to call out Jimmy Garoppolo, attributing the San Francisco 49ers’ 44-point eruption against the Jags last season as more “scheme stuff” than Garoppolo “dicing them up.”
More of Jalen Ramsey, please. Yes, he’s going to be an NFL headliner for a long time.
Aaron Donald, defensive lineman, Los Angeles Rams
Few interior defensive linemen become household names like J.J. Watt and Ndamukong Suh to a lesser, more notorious degree. Donald is the reigning AP Defensive Player of the Year and is soon to earn that status.
Although he’s holding out for the second straight offseason, there were no ill effects from that situation last year for Donald. Judging by his recent bench-pressing beastliness, there’s no doubt Donald is keeping himself in peak physical form for the 2018 season.
Speaking of Suh, he went ahead and joined the Rams this offseason, which will take pressure off of Donald and allow him to be even more dominant. With Marcus Peters and Aqib Talib locking down receivers on the back end to afford Donald even more time to destroy opposing blockers, there’s no telling how good he’ll be as the Rams make a legitimate championship push.
JuJu Smith-Schuster, wide receiver, Pittsburgh Steelers
Still so young, with the benefit of having Antonio Brown opposite him, Smith-Schuster has a ton of upside as a player, but is a social-media savant.
Routinely going viral on Twitter, the 21-year-old released a video of himself in February wearing his Steelers uniform to classes and around campus back at his alma mater, USC. He’s a tremendous comedian, let’s be honest, and his media brand is unique in that he has over 505,000 YouTube subscribers along with 667,000-plus Twitter followers as of this writing.
NFL players often make a big jump between their first and second seasons. If that’s the case for Smith-Schuster, expect an easy 1,000-yard season after logging 917 yards receiving as a rookie.
Deshaun Watson, quarterback, Houston Texans
Already considered to be among the 50 NFL greatest players, the former Clemson national champion burst onto the scene as a rookie before blowing out his knee in practice in the middle of a potential rise to near-instant superstardom.
Watson has one of the best wideouts in the game, DeAndre Hopkins, as his go-to guy, and a coach in Bill O’Brien who proved in 2017 he’s willing to cater to the young signal-caller’s strengths.
More known of late for J.J. Watt and their defensive identity, the Texans are about to experience what elite quarterback play feels like. Watson has bounced back from ACL surgery before; he can do it again and boost Houston to the playoffs—all the while exciting even non-Texans fans similar to how Russell Wilson has throughout his career in Seattle.
Saquon Barkley, running back, New York Giants
Bright lights. Big city. Big Apple. Barkley. It all fits. The Giants are doing all they can to take pressure off aging quarterback Eli Manning, and bolstered the offensive line this offseason through free-agent left tackle Nate Solder and second-round guard Will Hernandez.
That’s good news for Barkley too, whose running lanes figure to open up thanks to New York’s new-look lineup in the trenches in front of him. But Barkley is the type of rare playmaker who can catch the ball in addition to running it with authority, with a knack for generating yards after contact thanks to a rare blend of size, speed and quickness.
Giants receiver Odell Beckham Jr. has already taken the league by storm in many ways. Barkley is the G-Men’s freshly minted, rookie No. 2 overall pick and will be New York’s next electric playmaker, with far fewer OBJ-esque antics involved.
Myles Garrett, defensive end, Cleveland Browns
The dinosaur-loving, quarterback-sacking, 2017 No. 1 overall draft pick is a franchise cornerstone the likes of which the Browns haven’t seen since returning to the NFL in 1999.
Garrett dealt with some injuries as a rookie but still posted seven sacks in 11 games for a winless team featuring a bad secondary. He also says in the video above he feels he’s improved a lot.
If Cleveland can cover a little better—the hope is rookie fourth overall pick Denzel Ward will be a shutdown corner—Garrett will wreak even more havoc in the pocket this coming season.
Given his natural charisma, articulate nature, activity on Twitter and generational talent and athletic ability, Garrett has all the makings of a Hard Knocks star, which will help him emerge as one of the game’s most buzzed-about players.
Jimmy Garoppolo, quarterback, San Francisco 49ers
I mean, he’s called Jimmy GQ for a reason. But beyond hitting the genetic lottery, Garoppolo is a legitimate rising star has earned his shot to be San Francisco’s franchise quarterback.
Despite joining the team mid-season in 2017, he shined when given the chance, going 5-0 as a starter with a 96.2 passer rating. Head coach and play-caller Kyle Shanahan is among the most innovative minds in the game, and evidently has a dynamic player in Garoppolo on his hands.
Taking over the offensive reins for an organization that’s employed the likes of legends in Joe Montana and Steve Young at his position, Garoppolo has a real chance to carve out his own epic legacy.
Shaquem Griffin, linebacker, Seattle Seahawks
It goes without saying how inspirational Griffin has already been in his young football career. His performance at the NFL Scouting Combine alone went viral, when he put up 20 reps on the bench press and ran the fastest time ever by a linebacker in the 40-yard dash at 4.38 seconds. He was reunited with his brother, cornerback Shaquill, when the Seahawks chose him in the fifth round of this year’s draft.
Griffin was born with amniotic band syndrome and is without his left hand, but that hasn’t stopped him from pursuing his NFL dream. Considering Griffin was the American Athletic Conference’s defensive player of the year in 2016 and was a second-team All-American last year, it’s unwise to bet against him.
This isn’t just a feel-good story of someone merely making it to the NFL. It won’t be a total surprise to see Griffin thrive, given his incredible quickness, agility, functional strength and pass-rushing ability.
Kirk Cousins, quarterback, Minnesota Vikings
Three words: “YOU LIKE THAT?” What else needs to be said about Cousins and his competitive fire?
Despite throwing for over 4,000 yards in three straight seasons, Washington refused to commit to Cousins as its long-term passer. I mean, what a return on a former fourth-round draft pick. The Redskins believe Alex Smith is an upgrade at the position, which may well be the case, yet Cousins is an upgrade over Minnesota’s prior signal-caller, Case Keenum. The Vikings just made the conference title game without Cousins; it stands to reason they can push further with him under center within the next two years—inevitably leading to Cousins’ popularity skyrocketing.
Stefon Diggs and Adam Thielen have quietly risen as one of football’s best receiver tandems. Cousins didn’t have any receivers like them in Washington. Look for Cousins to light it up in the Twin Cities—and maybe upgrade that old van he still drives.
Joey Bosa, defensive end, Los Angeles Chargers
The AFC West is for the taking, and the Chargers have one of the most underrated and flat-out best rosters in all of football. One cornerstone of LA’s current nucleus is Bosa, the No. 3 overall pick in the 2016 draft, who has 23 sacks and 111 combined tackles through two seasons.
Bosa is a beast who can pass rush among the game’s best and is also a nightmare to block versus the run. With great size, a knack for edge-setting and finesse to his technique, there’s nothing Bosa can’t do.
Look for the Chargers to return to the playoffs in 2018 and for Bosa to play at a first-team, All-Pro-caliber level. He’ll only gain more notice in the coming years as the cross-town rivalry with the Rams heats up.
Patrick Mahomes, quarterback, Kansas City Chiefs
Mahomes has big shoes to fill. The Chiefs traded up to draft him in the first place, and traded Alex Smith, who led the NFL in passer rating last season. They evidently have a lot of confidence Mahomes is the “man” of the future.
Well, that confidence is well-placed. The young gunslinger might have the strongest arm in the league. He generated buzz last preseason with his performance and played well in his Week 17 start against Denver, making some dazzling throws and racking up 284 yards passing in a 27-24 win.
Armed with reigning NFL rushing champion Kareem Hunt, newly acquired receiver Sammy Watkins, speed demon Tyreek Hill and top-flight tight end Travis Kelce as weapons, Mahomes has all the tools at his disposal to have a monster 2018 campaign.
Josh Rosen, quarterback, Arizona Cardinals
A conductor for criticism during his college career, Rosen tests the philosophy that no press is bad press. He was the fourth quarterback selected in this year’s draft, but the former UCLA standout could be the best player from the class.
The Cardinals did bring aboard Sam Bradford as veteran insurance, yet he’s often injured, which likely paves the way for Rosen to earn early playing time even in his first year. Given his articulateness, pinpoint passing accuracy and high football IQ, Rosen has all the physical and mental makeup of a franchise quarterback.
Although Rosen will create controversy, Arizona can live with it. He’ll bring relevance back to the franchise, help the Cardinals compete in a stacked NFC West and win over some haters in the process.
Khalil Mack, defensive end, Oakland Raiders
Currently holding out for a new contract, Mack deserves every penny. Despite a dearth of supporting talent on the Oakland defensive line and in the secondary, he’s already logged 40.5 sacks in his first four seasons.
The Raiders’ profile is only going to increase with the return of head coach Jon Gruden, whose hard-nosed, no-nonsense style ought to mesh well with Mack’s quietly dominant, workmanlike attitude.
Oakland hasn’t really made much noise on the big stage since his arrival, but if QB Derek Carr can stay healthy and Gruden can provide a spark, Mack will have the chance to shine and build his legacy in the playoffs.
Jarvis Landry, wide receiver, Cleveland Brownsja
No one has more catches in their first four seasons in NFL history than Landry, who has already amassed 400 receptions.
No. 1 overall pick Baker Mayfield is the Browns’ hopeful QB of the future, but he’s slated to sit behind veteran Tyrod Taylor as a rookie. With HBO’s Hard Knocks ready to cover Cleveland, Landry figures to be a lightning rod for attention if his outgoing personality and candid Instagram are any indication.
If he can be as productive as he was in Miami—no reason he can’t be—and help turn the Browns into a winner, Landry’s star is going to explode. Since being traded to Cleveland, the 25-year-old has declared himself the NFL’s best receiver, and he has at least some stats to back that up.
Marcus Peters, cornerback, Los Angeles Rams
Similar to Ramsey but more proven, Peters began his career in Kansas City but was traded to the Rams this offseason. Although K.C. had a tough salary-cap situation, shipping away a legitimate lockdown corner was a somewhat mind-boggling decision.
However, character concerns have followed Peters since he entered the league. KansasCity.com’s Pete Grathoff counted five blowups through the first 12 games of last season that resulted in Peters getting fined.
But the Chiefs’ concern over red flags was LA’s gain. Now Peters will line up opposite Aqib Talib as part of a loaded Rams defense that could well boost the team to a Super Bowl appearance. Peters’ passion for the game and flair should play well in a bigger market, and his value will be evident when Los Angeles ranks at least among the top five pass defenses in 2018.
Allen Robinson, wide receiver, Chicago Bears
Although second-year quarterback Mitch Trubisky is unproven, Robinson flashed All-Pro potential with the Jacksonville Jaguars and Blake Bortles as his primary passer. The 24-year-old tied the NFL lead with 14 receiving touchdowns in 2015 but did miss all but one game last year with a torn ACL.
The Bears are starved for playmaking ability and some excitement, evident in their choosing of Trubisky, aggressive free agency headlined by Robinson and hire of a young, offensive-minded coach in Matt Nagy.
Having served as the Chiefs’ prior offensive coordinator, Nagy will bring some spread concepts to the Windy City that should cater to Trubisky’s strengths—and more importantly, allow an elite talent like Robinson to shine. With Chicago returning to its winning ways, Robinson will be the clear standout star.
Lamar Jackson, quarterback, Baltimore Ravens
The eventual successor to Joe Flacco under center is a funny Twitter follow, which will help his mass appeal and relatability. That’s really the least of Jackson’s potential to build a gigantic brand, though.
Jackson is so gifted that the Ravens are trying to find ways to put him on the field at the same time as Flacco this season. Given how lackluster Flacco has been in recent years, Baltimore will be tempted to deploy the rookie as the outright starter. He’s a dual-threat quarterback the caliber of which we’ve never quite seen before. Somehow he fell to No. 32 in the draft.
Jackson has Michael Vick-esque speed and running ability, but is bigger and is a much better passer than Vick was coming out of college. “Generational talent” is thrown around too liberally these days, yet Jackson fits that description. The former Heisman Trophy winner will set the NFL world aflame whenever he gets his opportunities, especially on a full-time, quarterbacking basis.
Marcus Mariota, quarterback, Tennessee Titans
By all accounts a soft-spoken, lead-by-example field general, Mariota began to show some serious swagger last season. Check out that play against Jacksonville above for proof.
Despite a lackluster statistical campaign that featured 13 touchdown passes to 15 interceptions, the 24-year-old showed moxie and subtle intangibles in steering the Titans to their first playoff berth since 2008.
Mariota won’t make waves on social media or be a captivating quote, but he has a big game that will speak for itself. He’s extremely athletic, has among the quickest releases of any quarterback and welcomes a do-it-all running back in Dion Lewis to the team in 2018 who should take some pressure off him—and bolster his numbers.