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NFL: Top 7 Young Players on the Rise

The Titans' Derrick Henry is a player to watch heading into the 2017 season. (Photo Credit: Associated Press)

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 It’s during the dog days of summer, right before training camps open up, that football enjoys a brief break from the 24-hour news cycle. With so much free time, what better for football fans to do than wishfully think upon your team's brightest young star and the potential heights he could lift his team to. So, without further ado, here are my top seven young guns to be excited about:

 

7. Tyreek Hill, WR; Kansas City Chiefs

Listed at 5-10, 185 - Hill’s game runs more like 5-7, 170. The exceptional runner’s raw cutting abilities put him in an elite class of NFL playmakers who have the ability to stop and go with such fluidity so as to stand out to the non-football fan watching on TV. In other words, Hill’s explosive abilities jump off the screen so aggressively that he regularly makes some of the planet’s best athletes (NFL defensive backs) look like they’re stuck in the mud. We’re talking about a class above Odell Beckham Jr.’s in terms of shiftiness (think more Darren Sproles). Hill is the type of generational freak (like Dante Hall of the Chiefs) whose lateral movement is so impressive that he can make full speed cuts without losing any momentum. Look how he does it to the last tackler in this clip of Hill going 68 yards against the Titans.

 

6. Jack Conklin, OT; Tennessee Titans

It's not bad when a team’s first selection in the draft ends up becoming a First Team All-Pro  in his first year. Well, that's exactly what the Titans got in Jack Conklin when they selected him with the 8th overall pick in the 2016 draft. (Ereck Flowers, taken by the Giants at #9 the year before, has yet to develop like Conklin). Conklin is a mauler at 6-6 and over 300 pounds; the Titans are lucky to pair Conklin with another up and coming tackle, Taylor Lewan. Running Backs Demarco Murray and Derrick Henry are in good hands.

5. Derrick Henry, RB; Tennessee Titans

While we’re on the subject of the Titans, I may as well go ahead and talk about another player in Tennessee who I’m really excited about. Before we go on, I encourage you to watch this video of Henry’s rookie highlights. Seriously. In the NFL, Henry plays like the freak he was at Alabama - a remarkable mix of size and speed, blunt force and shiftiness. Henry seems to make the first tackler miss every time by combining the patience of Le’veon Bell with the raw ability of David Johnson to truly bring a unique style of running to the game. Henry could be one of the select few runners in the league whose brand is uniquely their own.

4. Jordan Howard, RB; Chicago Bears

Jordan Howard reminds me a lot of his fellow rookie rusher Ezekiel Elliott. By that, I mean the two blend all the key traits a tailback needs into one running style. I will focus on Howard here because I think we’ve all heard the things Zeke accomplished this year. Howard, taken in the fifth round, gets a lot less attention than Zeke. Being a jack-of-all-trades, Howard isn’t as patient as Le’Veon Bell, doesn’t have the power of Marshawn Lynch, or the shiftiness of LeSean McCoy.  But Howard combines them all to become a powerful ball of dense twitchy muscle. Other players who combine all these ideal traits for running backs are, to me, guys like Frank Gore, Doug Martin, and Ezekiel Elliott. Howard is compact and strong, hard to bring down. He has a nice burst and good vision for hitting holes and show tremendous balance in staying upright after initial tackle. Showing extreme lower body power, howard seemingly makes the first guy bounce off of him on every run. Here he is doing it against the Giants this year. The only thing halting Howard from being in the conversation with guys like Bell and Johnson is his lack of breakaway speed. But other than getting caught on a couple of would-be “home runs,” Howard checks all the proverbial boxes and was the heart of the Bears offense in 2016.

3. Deforest Buckner, DL; San Francisco

Buckner seems to be the forgotten man of the 2016 NFL draft, going 7th overall to the floundering 49ers. But Buckner’s rare presence on the defensive line, at 6-7 and 300 lbs, provides an instant difference maker to a defensive line that is gaining lots of momentum. 49er’s fans should be ecstatic about combining Buckner (2016 7th overall pick) with this year’s 3rd overall pick DE Solomon Thomas and 2015’s 17th overall pick Arik Armstead. That’s three years of straight SAVAGES being stacked across the line. Buckner, however, leads those three first round giants in ability and potential. His build puts him in an elite class of defensive lineman around the league (think Jacksonville’s Calias Campbell). Buckner showcases an incredible combination of speed, size and strength in stopping the run in the middle and rushing the quarterback from the edge. Put it this way: any time a 300 pound defensive lineman can thrive off the edge, he’s going to be the biggest beast on the field.

2. Joey Bosa, DE, LA Chargers.

A lot of people were wrong going into the 2016 NFL draft. For some reason, OSU’s Joey Bosa wasn’t a consensus top three pick when he blatantly should have been...and those people were shocked when the Chargers took him as the first non QB selected last year. All Bosa did was rack up 10.5 sacks in 12 games on his way to picking up the Defensive Rookie of the Year Award. Bosa provides rare size and speed off the edge and sets himself apart by violently closing in on the quarterback - often saving his most impressive burst for the sack itself instead of the rush. For that reason, it is his persistence and knack for finding the QB at the last second which sets Bosa apart. #99 also became an elite run stopper, consistently meeting rushers in the backfield seemingly out of nowhere.

1. Jadeveon Clowney, DL, Houston Texans

Clowney's a game wrecker.. This is a guy who can change the course of a game in one play. You know Clowney is a superstar because he passes the “eye test” (as I call it). The “eye test” is something I mentioned with Tyreek Hill, but Clowney really epitomizes the kind of player that passes the eye test. You basically have to stand out without doing anything particularly special. In other words, passing the “eye test” is when a player showcases unique movements related to his position that a non-football fan should be able to spot from a television broadcast. Think of Von Miller’s legendary first step, Odell Beckham’s snagging ability, or Aaron Rodgers’s patented flick of the wrist. Clowney jumps off the screen with his size and speed. For one, Clowney is the most built dude on the field at any moment. Without seeing the number on the back of the jersey, it is always obvious where #90 is lining up on the line, because his head stands a couple inches above everyone else's. What's more, Clowney seemingly teleports to the backfield on multiple occasions, getting to either the QB or RB before either one realizes it. This isn’t even the famous hit against Michigan back in 2013 but he nearly replicates it here against the Falcons. I think this guy is going to be big trouble for O-Lines in 2017.