Gone are the days where NFL rookies were almost assured of a year or more long wait before they would be able to contribute to their team. Young players are now relied upon more than ever, and with suprising success. Some of the league's best players are also some of its newest faces.
As we near training camp, myself and Eric Galko will be running down the the best young talent (ages 25 and under) in the each division. First up is the AFC North. It's was once a division that required a strong running game to win; but now with the likes of Ben Rothlisberger, Mike Wallace, A.J. Green, and Torrey Smith, it's quickly becoming a divison driven by the passing game. It's also one of the league's most competive divisions. Which team has a leg up on the others in terms of young talent?
1. Joe Haden, Cornerback, Cleveland Browns
Some of the league’s best young receivers, such as A.J. Green, Mike Wallace, and Torrey Smith reside in the AFC North. And while the Browns have plenty of holes on their roster, they do have a formidable answer to those talented young pass catchers – third year corner back Joe Haden. From the start of his career, he’s been saddled with shadowing the opposition’s best receiver, and he’s performed at an elite level.
After recording six interceptions his rookie season, he wasn’t able to snag any in 2011. But don’t mistake that stat for a sign that Haden’s play has regressed. Quarterbacks have quickly learned to avoid throwing in Haden’s direction, severely limiting the opportunities he has to make a play.
Not only is Haden an elite cover corner, but he’s also strong against the run and a good tackler. He has no real weaknesses in his game, and achieving that level of play at only 23 years old makes him the best young player in the AFC North.
2. Mike Wallace, Wide Receiver, Pittsburgh Steelers
As has become the norm for many Pittsburgh draft picks, Mike Wallace wasted little time making an impact during his rookie year. During that 2009 season he accumulated nearly 800 receiving yards and six touchdowns in four starts. As the rest of the AFC North knows all too well, that was only the beginning of Wallace’s dominance. Over the next two seasons Wallace racked up 2450 receiving yards and 18 touchdowns.
He’s proven himself to be one of the best deep threats in the game, and his production over the last three seasons puts him among the game’s top receivers. The only real downside to Wallace’s game is off the field – his contract dispute with the Steelers has gone on for months, and it doesn’t look like it will be ending anytime soon. Pittsburgh will be making a big mistake if they can’t get the AFC North’s best wide receiver back on the field before too much longer.
3. A.J. Green, Wide Receiver, Cincinnati Bengals
2011 was supposed to be the first of several rebuilding years in Cincinnati. Thanks in no small part to the contributions of A.J. Green in his rookie year, many around the league think that rebuilding process is already nearly complete, far ahead of schedule.
Green’s 15 starts in his rookie season were highly productive. He caught 65 passes for 1057 yards and seven touchdowns, displaying talent that proved he was worthy of being selected 4th overall in the 2011 draft. His elite combination of size, speed, and body control made fellow rookie Andy Dalton’s adjustment to the NFL much smoother than he could have ever hoped for.
Green’s next step should be to become one of the games truly elite receiving threats in 2012. The additions of Mohamed Sanu and Marvin Jones should help to pull coverage away from Green, and if he can get into single coverage consistently he should have an even more successful 2012 season.
4. Andy Dalton, Quarterback, Cincinnati Bengals
It used to be common knowledge that the only place for a rookie quarterback was on the sidelines, holding a clipboard. Guys like Andy Dalton are quickly proving that that way of thinking is no longer reality.
Dalton’s rookie season was truly an outstanding one. His 20 touchdowns, 3398 yards and 58% completion percentage was good for a 80.3 quarterback rating. He helped the Bengals end 2011 with a 9-7 record, which was a dramatic improvement from the 4-12 season that Cincinnati endured in 2010.
Dalton even capped off his rookie season with a spot in the Pro Bowl, far exceeding what most rational fans would have expected out of their first quarterback. His accomplishments are even more noteworthy when considering that he did all of this with a lockout shortened off season. Now that he’ll have a full offseason to work with his offense, the Bengals should be looking forward to another outstanding season from their new franchise quarterback.
5. Geno Atkins, Defensive Tackle, Cincinnati Bengals
The Bengals’ roster is clearly littered with young talent, and it’d be easy to overlook a young player that excelled at one of the game’s least glamorous positions. But even though Geno Atkins spends his time battling in the trenches, his disruptive play makes him hard to ignore.
Defensive tackles rarely get the chance to make much of an impact on the stat sheet, but Atkins has done just that in his first two years in the league. His 10.5 sacks over the last two seasons are outstanding for a player at his position. The Bengals gave him the chance to start in 2011, and he took full advantage of that opportunity. His 47 tackles and 7.5 sacks made it clear he is a force to be reckoned with on the inside.
In just one season as a starter Atkins became one of the most disruptive interior players in the league. As he improves his technique this summer, Atkins may grow into the best defensive tackle in the league, bar none.
Best of the Rest:
Pittsburgh wide receiver Antonio Brown could very well find himself on this list next year. His 69 catches and 1108 yards came with only three starts, and he’ll get much more playing time in 2012.
The Browns are starting to put together a solid young defense, and anchoring the interior of that defense is a solid duo of defensive tackles in Phil Taylor and Ahtyba Rubin. Unfortunately, Taylor’s torn pectoral may keep him from contributing in 2012.
Cincinnati has assembled one of the best young rosters in the league. Defensive end Carlos Dunlap may be the best pass rusher on the team (9.5 sacks in 2010), but a hamstring injury held him back in 2011.
Torrey Smith proved he was a deep threat in 2011, but Baltimore needs to him show that he’s more than just a one trick pony in 2012. He’ll need to improve his route running and overall technique this summer.