This week, we are thinking ahead when it comes to the 101 best players in the NFL, and instead of focusing on who made this year’s list and who missed out, we’re going to start by thinking about the young players in the league that are ready to make the list in a year’s time.
There are a few young guys we've already mentioned elsewhere as narrowly missing out, but let’s focus on the players under 25 years old that have a real shot to crack the ranking in the next 12 months.
1. Henry Anderson, DE, Colts
I think if he had played the full season, Henry Anderson would have made the list after just his rookie year. Throughout their final seasons in college, I believed Anderson was a better player than Jets DE Leonard Williams, despite the disparity in their draft stock. Both players had excellent rookie years and were neck-and-neck in grading terms at the time Anderson went down injured, robbing us of a fascinating grading battle down the stretch. Anderson is a disruptive interior player for the Colts who was performing very well against the run, but should be able to bring pressure as a pass-rusher, too, in year two. If he can do that, I’d expect to see him make this list.
2. Marcus Peters, CB, Chiefs
Most people were wondering where on earth Marcus Peters was on the list this time around, never mind in a year’s time, given that he led the league with eight interceptions. The truth isn’t that PFF hates Peters, or the Chiefs, or cornerbacks, but that we’re also taking into account the eight touchdowns he surrendered, the 939 receiving yards, and the nine penalties. Peters was very boom-or-bust in his rookie season, but he is much further ahead in his development than I thought he would be after year one in the NFL. If he can iron out some of the bumps in the road and maintain the playmaking highs, Peters could vault up the list quickly in the next 12 months.
3. Jameis Winston, QB, Buccaneers
Jameis Winston is another player whose game has been all about highs and lows. Good Winston put in some outstanding games as a rookie, but his opening-day performance was the single-worst grade we gave any quarterback during the regular season, and he ended the year with a poor performance against an excellent Carolina defense in the Bucs' final game. Overall, I think the balance was far more positive than negative, but the bad games were enough to keep him off the list as a rookie. If he takes a step forward in year two, or just avoids any disastrous games, then he should make the list.
4. Jadeveon Clowney, OLB, Texans
Oh, but for injuries. If he could be healthy all of the time, Jadeveon Clowney would already be a top-101 player, but over his first two years in the league, he has played just 719 total snaps, or less than a decent year’s work for most edge-rushers. Last year saw the bulk of those snaps, and when he was on the field, he was very good. Clowney’s pass-rush was decent, totaling 30 pressures and five batted passes, but his run defense was excellent. His grade profile looks a lot like Khalil Mack’s rookie season, and Mack went on to become one of the game’s best players in year two. Clowney has been put behind the curve by injuries, but he has elite potential if he can remain healthy. That is looking like a bigger and bigger “if” in his case as time goes on.
5. Weston Richburg, C, Giants
Weston Richburg was very close to making the list this season after the Giants switched him back to his natural position of center. His rookie season at guard did not go well, but back in the middle, Richburg was excellent in 2015. He didn’t allow a sack all season and was arguably the best pass-blocking center in the league. In total, he surrendered just 12 pressures, and only allowed his quarterback to hit the ground once all season in over 1,000 snaps. His run-blocking was good, and his work on the move in screens was exceptional. If he can repeat that performance in 2016 or improve slightly, he will likely make the list in a year’s time.
6. David Amerson, CB, Raiders
Cornerback is a strange landscape right now, and as much as anything, proven staying power is what puts a guy on the list. David Amerson is one of a couple of player with excellent performances in 2015 that didn’t quite make it either because they came out of the blue entirely, or because they reversed a previous stretch of terrible play. Amerson in 2014 was one of the worst cornerbacks in football, but once he found his way to Oakland, he was one of the better players at the position in the league. What guy will we see in 2016? If it’s the one from last season, he would deserve a spot on the list with another year of that quality.
7. Jack Mewhort, G, Colts
The Colts have had a poor O-line for some time now, but Jack Mewhort was a bright spot for that unit last season. Starting 14 games at left guard and two at right tackle, Mewhort didn’t allow a sack all season, and actually played reasonably at tackle as well as inside at guard. He ended the year with 1,129 total snaps and was very good as a run-blocker. That season was a definite improvement over his rookie year, but we have now seen back-to-back positively-graded seasons from Mewhort and his trajectory is trending in the right direction. He doesn’t need much of a step forward over the next season to force his way onto the list.
8. Thomas Rawls, RB, Seahawks
Thomas Rawls remains something of an unknown entering the 2016 season. Even if injury wasn’t a factor—and it is—he was an undrafted free agent who came in and outperformed Marshawn Lynch behind one of the worst offensive lines in football over 297 snaps and 147 carries. That was, at the very least, unexpected. Heading into the 2016 season, I have no idea if he can repeat that level of play or even get close to it, but having at least shown us what he is capable of, he is well-deserving of a spot on this list, because if he can come close to that over a full season, he will be in the ranking next year for sure.
9. DeVante Parker, WR, Dolphins
Another player getting into major sample-size issues, it seems more logical to look at a Seattle's Tyler Lockett or Minnesota's Stefon Diggs than Parker, given the rookie seasons the three players produced. I think, however, that Lockett and Diggs are closer to their NFL ceilings than Parker, who saw his rookie year derailed due to injury, but began to flash the kind of talent he possesses late in the season. I was a big fan of Parker coming out of college, and believed he could be the second-best receiver from this class, behind only Amari Cooper—who made the list at his first time of asking. If Parker can be injury-free in 2016, I think he could join Cooper on the list.
10. Ezekiel Elliott, RB, Cowboys
Ezekiel Elliott is the only rookie that I’m going to put on this list, and I wouldn’t put any if it wasn’t for the ridiculous situation he landed in by hitching up in Dallas. The Cowboys have the best run-blocking line in the game, and only injury can prevent Elliott from locking up Rookie of the Year honors, in my eyes. He is a complete back and maybe the best overall prospect in a decade, because he can do the things that tend to keep young backs off the field on third downs. I expect Elliott to dominate as a rookie, thanks in large part to the line paving his way, and it should be enough to see him wind up on the list the way Todd Gurley did this year.