10 young stars to build around[ESPN]
10 young stars to build around
Cam Newton among top cornerstone players under 25
Originally Published: July 6, 2012
By KC Joyner | ESPN Insider
They say a chain is only as strong as its weakest link, but in the case of sports teams, their future is only as strong as their young cornerstone players.
Building around young talent is essential to long-term success in the NFL, but whom do you want to build around? Which current players are best suited to be pillars both now and down the road? Dan Graziano asked coaches and executives that very question. The results varied quite a bit.
I'm going to take a slightly different perspective, evaluating my top 10 cornerstone players under the age of 25 by weaving some statistical analysis into the mix. A question such as this one never yields a clear-cut answer, so I've included the pros and cons for each player.
(Note: Age is as of the start of the 2012 season)
1. LeSean McCoy, RB, Philadelphia Eagles, 24 years old
Pros: McCoy won his first All-Pro honor last season and became one of the highest-paid running backs in the league because he is the type of ball carrier a team can build an offense around. His 342 combined rushes/targets were the fourth most among running backs last season, and he has ranked in the top 10 in the good blocking yards per attempt category in each of the past two seasons (GBYPA being a measurement of a ball carrier's productivity when given favorable blocking).
Cons: Recent history, most notably the 2011 New York Giants, has reinforced the idea that says teams don't need dominant rushing attacks to win in the NFL. Combine that with the fact that teams can normally build productive rushing attacks with good blocking and above average (but not elite) running back talent and it decreases the cornerstone value of the running back position. McCoy's drop-off in receptions last season (48, down from 78 in 2010) could indicate the Eagles are putting a workload ceiling on him.
2. Matthew Stafford, QB, Detroit Lions, 24
Pros: Stafford racked up more than 5,000 passing yards last season despite throwing more than 75 percent of his targets to guys like Brandon Pettigrew, Nate Burleson, Titus Young and Tony Scheffler. Having Calvin Johnson as a primary target is a big help, but those numbers illustrate Stafford has an ability to post voluminous numbers even when throwing to less-than-elite pass-catchers.
Cons: He has had only one healthy NFL season, something that shows Stafford still has a ways to go to prove his long-term durability.
3. Cam Newton, QB, Carolina Panthers, 23
Pros: Newton earned a Pro Bowl nomination in 2011 by becoming the first player in league history to pass for 4,000 yards and rush for 500 yards in a single season. His 14 rushing touchdowns were the second most in the NFL behind McCoy. Despite these achievements, Newton is fired up to move his game to the next level and prove his remaining doubters wrong.
Cons: How much of Newton's success last season can be attributed to the effects of the lockout? His passing numbers were great early in the year when defenses were hamstrung play calling-wise -- he posted at least 374 passing yards in three of his first four games -- but fell off dramatically as the season progressed, tallying 208 or fewer passing yards in five of his final six games. Newton also had major issues in the bad decision rate department, as his 4.2 percent mark in that category was the fifth highest in the league. (BDR measures a quarterback's propensity for making mental errors that lead to turnover chances for the opponent.)
4. Robert Griffin III, QB, Washington Redskins, 22
Pros: Griffin got a ton of attention for his 2011 Heisman Trophy-winning campaign, but his collegiate career totals were actually as good or better than those posted by Andrew Luck. RG3 has shown an ability to get top-level performance out of everyone on his offense and has All-American caliber speed.
Cons: The offense Griffin operated at Baylor is a lot different than the system he will be operating in the NFL, so he will have to show that he can transition to a pro-style offense. There are concerns about Griffin's durability. He was given a 4 durability rating in his Scouts Inc. draft profile and will have to prove he has NFL-caliber physical endurance.
5. Andrew Luck, QB, Indianapolis Colts, 22
Pros: Just about everything in Luck's résumé says franchise QB. His accuracy is superb, he is highly intelligent, and he has prototypical NFL quarterback size. Luck has been groomed for an NFL career for many years and is as well prepared for being a franchise quarterback as one can be.
Cons: Luck had a ton of talent around him at Stanford, as eight of his offensive teammates last season were named either All-Pac-12 or honorable mention All-Pac-12. He might not react so well when he is not surrounded by a similar caliber of offensive talent. He also did not consistently raise the level of play of some of those around him last season, especially on vertical passes. Luck has been a quarterback in a run-first offense only, so there is the question of whether he can step up when his team needs him to operate a pass-first offense.
6. Hakeem Nicks, WR, New York Giants, 24
Pros: Nicks has played three NFL seasons, but he is only a few months older than A.J. Green and is younger than Victor Cruz. He is a master at beating coverage. According to my fantasy football draft guide, a cornerback and/or safety covered Nicks on 84.5 percent of his targets last season, sixth highest among wideouts, and he still managed to post an impressive 9.9 yards per attempt, which ranked 19th in the league.
Cons: His injury issues are a bit overblown at times, missing only six games in his three NFL campaigns, but these physical woes are too constant to allow Nicks to claim a higher ranking.
7. Julio Jones, WR, Atlanta Falcons, 23
Pros: To get an idea of the kind of impact Jones is capable of, consider that he was one of only 31 wide receivers to post at least 50 vertical targets last season -- and he did this despite being a rookie in a lockout-truncated offseason and battling hamstring injuries that cost him three games.
Cons: Jones' 5.4 YPA last season against cornerbacks rated solid or better ranked 40th out of 47 wideouts with at least 30 targets against that caliber of competition. Scouts Inc. gave him a 4 ranking in durability going into the 2011 NFL draft. When that is combined with his injury woes, it could indicate Jones will have difficulty racking up 16 starts in a season on a consistent basis.
8. Trent Richardson, RB, Cleveland Browns, 21
Pros: Richardson posted a 9.7 GBYPA against the toughest run defenses the Alabama Crimson Tide faced in 2011. Posting that type of GBYPA bodes well for his ability to churn out ground gains against tough competition and shows why he was the best player on the best team in college football last season. He also is solid in pass protection.
Cons: Richardson has a pretty good track record on the durability front, but there are enough concerns to make ESPN.com injury expert Stephania Bell a bit worried about his ability to hold up over the long haul. As noted, the running back position tends to be one that doesn't make for the best cornerstone candidates.
9. Matt Kalil, T, Minnesota Vikings, 23
Pros: Kalil served as an offensive line cornerstone at USC. He has the type of talent that caused Todd McShay to say, "Kalil is the best offensive tackle I've evaluated since Joe Thomas." Kalil also played on the Trojans special teams line and was athletic enough to block four kicks last season.
Cons: Contrary to popular opinion, left tackle isn't quite the cornerstone position some would make it out to be. Many teams have won Super Bowls with less-than-stellar play at that position, and picking a left tackle over a quarterback can oftentimes be a mistake (e.g., when Miami picked Jake Long over Matt Ryan in the 2008 draft).
10. Von Miller, LB, Denver Broncos, 23
Pros: Miller could be the best young pass-rusher in the NFL. According to pro-football-reference.com, Miller has the fifth-highest sack total among linebackers drafted since 2008 despite being in the league for only one season.
Cons: Not to knock 11.5 sacks in 15 games, but the most effective sack artists normally have higher sack totals. Miller has the skills necessary to increase his total in this category, but he needs to take that next step before he can rate higher on this list.