Ryan Flynn – Sports Editor –
For a moment, let’s forget about the refs. Let’s forget that a few of the marquee franchises (the Patriots, the Packers, the Saints) are at or below .500, especially Drew Brees and his crew.
Instead, let’s focus on the positives. Young talent in the NFL. The following five guys are barely old enough to drink, but they are already making plays in the pro game. Nearly all of them had big rookie years. Expect even more from them with a year under their belts.
Patrick Peterson—CB, Arizona Cardinals: Peterson is already a beast in the return game, returning four kicks for touchdowns in his rookie season.
The LSU product looks to become more than just the next Devin Hester, however. He’s been quoted several times this offseason stating that he looks to join the best cover corners in the league. He certainly has the talent to become part of that elite group.
Cam Newton—QB, Carolina Panthers: An obvious choice but for different reasons than you might think. Newton, like Peterson, is an athletic freak and has begun to show once and for all that the option is a viable play in the NFL.
Using the read option and basically employing Newton as their primary goal line back (he had 14 rushing touchdowns in his rookie campaign) Carolina offers up an offense unique to anything else in the NFL. Definitely a must-watch.
Julio Jones—WR, Atlanta Falcons: Jones has captured the attention of fans everywhere with his freakish ball skills and great size. He’s the prototypical big-play receiver in the Calvin Johnson mold: big, powerful and with incredible downfield speed. Thus far, we’ve seen plenty of Jones in what is quickly becoming a high-flying Atlanta offense.
Nate Solder—OT, New England Patriots: That’s right, a tackle! Solder has all the skills to be one of the NFL’s premier tackles. First, he’s got the size. At 6’8, 319lbs, Solder is a behemoth of a human being. He also got a quarterback who will consistently make him look good, given Tom Brady’s quick release and pocket presence.
Aldon Smith—LB, San Francisco 49ers: Smith, a Missouri product, had fourteen sacks as a rookie–and he didn’t even start. 49ers coach Jim Harbaugh used Smith as a situational pass rusher, only bringing him in on situations where he could pin his ears back and attack the quarterback.
In his second year, Smith should get plenty more playing time and more opportunities to grow into a Clay Matthews type of game-breaker on D.