Up and Coming Players to Watch: The Future of the NFL

Eaton Ford, Columnist

Preseason games are over, training camp has ended, and fans are already pouring into thirty-one different stadiums.  Football is back!  More than ever this year, fans will be eagerly watching as one of the most talented draft classes in NFL history shows off its amazing abilities in the spotlight of the NFL.

The hype surrounding the Number 1 overall (Jameis Winston) and Number 2 overall (Marcus Mariota) draft picks has been bigger than ever.  Both will be taking over franchises that have scraped the bottom of the league for the last few years, in the Tampa Bay Buccaneers and the Tennessee Titans.

They will both have the duty of lifting these struggling franchises out of the basement of the league.  However, both QBs are very different in a variety of ways. Winston one of the most controversial college athletes since Johnny Manziel, is the most pro-ready passer, and has valuable experience in a pro system under Jimbo Fisher at Florida State.  Winston’s transition will be easier than most rookies because of the talent the Bucs have at wide receiver in Mike Evans and Vincent Jackson.

However, time will tell whether his character issues will raise some conflicts with his coaches and teammates and if he will be able to avoid any off-the-field issues as he struggled to do in college.  While Winston is mainly a pocket passer who can scramble out of the pocket on occasion, Mariota is a dual threat quarterback.

It is yet to be seen if a mobile quarterback such as Johnny Manziel and Tim Tebow can succeed at a high level in the NFL. This is why many believe Winston is more NFL ready than Mariota.  A major positive to Mariota’s game is the model citizenship he has displayed.  He has shown that he doesn’t get fazed by failure, or caught up in the moment.

The Winston-Mariota debate will continue throughout the rest of their careers just as we saw Andrew Luck vs. Robert Griffin III and Peyton Manning vs. Ryan Leaf comparisons develop, with the former being the most successful. Winston and Mariota showed tremendous poise in the preseason however at times they looked a bit lost. Both quarterbacks will have a tremendous amount of pressure on their shoulders for the entire season.

Another team many will have their eyes on this year are the San Diego Chargers. The Chargers, who missed the playoffs by one game last season, will have a new look offense headed by veteran quarterback Philip Rivers who recently signed a four- year, 84 million dollar extension.

Their first round pick, Wisconsin running back Melvin Gordon, will fill a huge gap in their 30th ranked rushing offense last season. In his last year at Wisconsin, Gordon recorded 29 touchdowns and 2,587 rushing yards, while averaging a whopping 7.5 yards a carry. How’s that for a résumé?

In order to balance out their offense, the Chargers will need to rely heavily on Gordon and take some of the pressure off Rivers. Also, the Chargers will have a new look to their offensive line this upcoming season as Glenbard West graduate, and Glen Ellyn native, Chris Watt will be the starting center for San Diego in only his second season. Watt will take the place of retired center Nick Hardwick who had been with the Chargers for 11 seasons.

Watt, a Notre Dame alum, was drafted in the third round of the 2014 Draft, and had never played center until he came into the NFL. This summer, back home in Illinois, Watt trained with former Bears offensive lineman Olin Kreutz and Roberto Garza to prepare for the season, adding bulk as well as upper body strength. Watt will play a huge role this season for the Chargers in trying to turn around a rush offense that used to be one of the best in the game.

The Chargers are comfortable with having Watt as their center of the future and his head coach and teammates have expressed their confidence in the young  twenty -five year old center. Chargers head coach Mike McCoy simply described Watt, “He’s a pro….. He wants to be a great player in this league.” Quarterback Philip Rivers added, “Seeing a guy, even from his rookie year to his second year offseason like this stage we’re in right now, he’s just got a different presence about him.”

Now on to our beloved Chicago Bears. The Bears had a promising off-season and added some great young talent from the draft. Three of their biggest pick ups were wide receiver Kevin White (West Virginia), defensive tackle Eddie Goldman (Florida State) and running back Jeremy Langford (Michigan State).  White, the Bears first round pick, (number 7 overall) is a dynamic receiver with exceptional speed and has the ability to complement Alshon Jeffery.

At West Virginia, Kevin White caught 109 passes for 1447 yards and 10 touchdowns. He will be replacing the role of Brandon Marshall, who was traded to the New York Jets this offseason.  Despite all the potential White has, he may be lost for the season due to a surgery that repaired a stress fracture in his left shin.  When White becomes healthy, he will have the quickness and ability to make big plays down the field, and stretch out defenses.

The less talked about pick of the draft for the Bears was defensive tackle Eddie Goldman.  Goldman is exactly the player the Bears wanted and needed in order to make their transition to a 3-4 defense. At 6’4 and 320 pounds, Goldman will provide a huge presence on defense.  He will most likely be the starter for the first three games of the season until former Pro Bowl defensive lineman Jeremiah Ratliff’s three game suspension is over.

Bears defensive coordinator Vic Fangio showed his confidence in Goldman saying , “We feel like he’s strong and is able to get off blocks and make some plays in there, and hopefully we can get some pass rush out of him, too.” The biggest sleeper in the Bears draft class was, however, Jeremy Langford, out of Michigan State. Langford was quietly productive in his final year at Michigan State rushing for 1522 yards and totaling 22 touchdowns.

He has plenty of speed to pick up big gains and has the ability to make defenders miss with his quickness. Langford played to impress in the preseason leading the team in rushing with 153 rushing yards on only 28 attempts.  If Forte does not re-signed when his contract expires next March, look to see Langford step in as his replacement and become the Bears running back of the future.

The prospects in this year’s heavily talented draft class will look to make some serious noise this year in the NFL.