The NFL's Best Young Projects

Nick KostosContributor IJuly 11, 2014

The NFL's Best Young Projects

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    Charles Krupa/Associated Press

    Every NFL team has players on its roster that won't necessarily be counted on for the upcoming season but instead profile as prospects who could potentially develop into contributors or stars. With training camps just a few weeks away, it's time to identify the league's best young projects. 

    What constitutes a project? No prospect on this list is likely to earn much (if any) playing time this upcoming campaign, but all possess significant upside. These are players who will apprentice and hone their craft in 2014 (and potentially beyond), and then be expected to contribute once fully seasoned and ready.

    Four quarterbacks made this list, and if any of them see the field this season it will mean disaster for their teams, as the starter (and in three cases, a backup signal-caller or two) will have gotten injured.

    Also featured are a sixth-round running back, a seventh-round receiver, a fourth-round defensive end with only two years of football experience to his name, and a fourth-round linebacker who will surely be buried on his club's depth chart.

    But despite the fact that all of these men won't be heard from this fall, they could one day blossom into NFL stars, which makes their progress worth following.

    Here are the NFL's best young projects.

Arizona Cardinals QB Logan Thomas

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    Matt York/Associated Press

    Perhaps no player on the list fits the "project" label more than Arizona Cardinals rookie quarterback Logan Thomas.

    The Cardinals selected the former Virginia Tech product in the fourth round of May's draft and might have ended up with a steal. After the 2011 college football season, Thomas was thought of as a surefire eventual first-round draft pick, but substandard campaigns in both 2012 and 2013 sent him plummeting down draft boards until Arizona tabbed him with the 120th overall selection.

    Despite his poor game tape, Thomas possesses outstanding size (6'6", 248 lbs) and has a howitzer attached to his right shoulder. He has the physical characteristics to succeed in the NFL, and coach Bruce Arians is most certainly a fan of big, strong passers.

    To Thomas' credit, he is aware of the "project" label and has already rejected it, telling the Associated Press (via USA Today), "I think I'm a lot more ready than people think. I think people labeled me as a project simply off stats, which I can understand what they see, what they think."

    In all likelihood, the 23-year-old Thomas won't play this season as he's currently behind Carson Palmer and Drew Stanton on the depth chart, and he might end up on the practice squad in favor of third-string option Ryan Lindley. But Thomas' physical attributes make him a player to watch, especially in Arians' vertical-passing offense.

    One person who believes Thomas could be Arizona's quarterback of the future is Bleacher Report's Michael Schottey, as he noted here.

Denver Broncos QB Brock Osweiler

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    Since being selected in the second round of the 2012 draft, Denver Broncos quarterback Brock Osweiler, 23, has doubled as the Invisible Man.

    Of course, that's what historically happens to Peyton Manning's backups, especially when Manning throws for a preposterous 92 touchdowns over two seasons.

    But despite his current anonymity, the 6'7", 240-pound Osweiler profiles nicely as Manning's long-term successor in the Mile High City. And if Manning is felled with an injury this season, Osweiler knows that it'll be up to him to navigate the Broncos into the postseason.

    He believes he'd be up for the task, as he told Andrew Mason of DenverBroncos.com:

    I really could not be more comfortable with this offense. I could not be more comfortable with playing quarterback in the National Football League. Whenever my time comes, and my chance is given to be the guy in a regular-season game, I will be ready.

    Aside from his lost 2011 season, Manning has proven to be ultra durable, so it's unlikely (knock on wood, Broncos fans) that Osweiler will see any extended action in 2014. In fact, it'll be a disaster if he does, as Manning will have gotten hurt.

    But Broncos fans should feel good about Osweiler's development behind Manning over the past two seasons. Osweiler will surely receive the first crack at replacing Manning once the future Hall of Famer retires.

Chicago Bears QB David Fales

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    Nam Y. Huh/Associated Press

    Once last year's backup passer, Josh McCown, joined the Buccaneers in the free-agent period, the Chicago Bears needed to select a quarterback during May's NFL draft.

    And in the sixth round, general manager Phil Emery and coach Marc Trestman did just that when they tabbed former San Jose State signal-caller David Fales.

    Fales, 23, was ultra-productive at the collegiate level, tossing for over 4,000 yards in both 2012 and 2013, and is an accurate thrower with excellent footwork. 49ers coach Jim Harbaugh was so impressed with Fales that he told Matt Barrows of The Sacramento Bee that he graded Fales as a "top five" quarterback in this year's draft class.

    Plus, Fales now has the benefit and luxury of both working with Trestman, a known quarterback guru, and learning behind starter Jay Cutler. It's a fantastic situation for him.

    With that said, there's a chance that Fales won't make the active roster and will instead join the team's practice squad. The Bears also have Jimmy Clausen and Jordan Palmer behind Cutler. The team might opt to carry both men on the 53-man roster, which wouldn't leave room for Fales.

    But if Fales can perform well in training camp and the preseason, it's not outside the realm of possibility that he survives the final cut. Either way, he looms as an intriguing prospect in both 2014 and beyond.

    For more on Fales, check out this predraft scouting report from Bleacher Report's Brandon Holstein.

New England Patriots QB Jimmy Garoppolo

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    Charles Krupa/Associated Press

    The New England Patriots sent reverberations throughout the NFL world when they selected former Eastern Illinois quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo in the second round of May's draft.

    And while you can criticize Patriots coach Bill Belichick for spending a second-round selection on a "project" at quarterback when there were more pressing needs on the rosterI have—there's no doubting Garoppolo's upside and his long-term potential to start in New England.

    After a stellar career on the collegiate level, the 6'2", 225-pound Garoppolo rose up boards during the predraft process thanks to his lightning-quick release, athleticism and NFL-caliber arm. 

    The 22-year-old currently profiles as the long-term successor to Tom Brady as starting quarterback of the Patriots, but that likely won't come for at least a few seasons. Garoppolo is currently entrenched as the team's third quarterback, behind Brady and backup Ryan Mallett. But Mallett will be a free agent after this campaign, and it's unlikely he'll remain in Foxborough.

    Garoppolo could be Brady's main backup as soon as next season.

    Once Brady decides to hang up his cleats, Garoppolo will be waiting to step into his shoes and usher in a new era of Patriots football.

San Diego Chargers RB Marion Grice

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    This season, the San Diego Chargers will look to employ a three-headed monster at running back, with Ryan Mathews, Danny Woodhead and free-agent signing Donald Brown taking turns wearing down opposing defenses.

    But the Chargers have a rusher waiting in the wings who is chomping at the bit to join their ranks, and while it might not happen this season, sixth-round draft pick Marion Grice, 23, has turned heads thus far this offseason.

    Grice, who averaged 176.5 all-purpose yards per game last season at Arizona State, brings a pass-catching element out of the backfield. Tom Krasovic of The San Diego Union-Tribune noted after a recent OTA practice that Grice "caught passes like it's easy."

    Because he's buried on the depth chart behind Mathews, Woodhead and Brown, it's unlikely that Grice will see much playing time this season, if any at all. But Grice's skill set appears to be a nice fit in coach Mike McCoy's offense, and he could end up carving out a nice role for himself in 2015 and beyond.

Green Bay Packers WR Jeff Janis

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    Uncredited/Associated Press

    The Green Bay Packers possess a star-studded receiving corps that includes the likes of Jordy Nelson, Randall Cobb, Jarrett Boykin and second-round draft pick Davante Adams.

    But an under-the-radar player to watch on the depth chart is Jeff Janis, who was the team's seventh-round selection in May's draft.

    The 6'3", 215-pound Janis, who played on the collegiate level at Saginaw Valley State, is a physical freak with outstanding strength and speed, and has earned praise for his work this offseason.

    Count Packers coach Mike McCarthy among those impressed with Janis at Packers OTAs, as he told Mike Spofford of Packers.com that the 23-year-old Janis had been "everything we thought coming out of the draft.”

    Janis obviously faces an uphill battle for playing time, but with both Nelson and Cobb entering the final years of their contracts, and Adams an unproven option, it's not outside the realm of possibility that Janis could one day be hauling in passes from quarterback Aaron Rodgers on Sundays during the fall.

Detroit Lions DE Larry Webster

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    Uncredited/Associated Press

    The Detroit Lions selected a significant project in the fourth round of May's draft in defensive end Larry Webster.

    And that's not just because Webster, 24, played his collegiate ball at Division II Bloomsburg, but rather the fact that he's only played football for two seasons. 

    Webster starred on the basketball court before making the transition to the gridiron, so he's obviously extremely raw, but he did amass 26 sacks in his two seasons at Bloomsburg. He flashed enough on tape to be a fourth-round pick, and the Lions are hoping they struck gold.

    Coach Jim Caldwell was enthused with Webster's progress at OTAs, telling the media (via PrideOfDetroit.com):

    (Webster has) got a huge upside. Obviously, he’s a guy that certainly has explosion. He has speed, he has quickness, he’s intelligent. ... And working with him out here, I think our guys on our defensive line have been pleased with where he is right now.

    It's difficult to envision Webster accruing any kind of significant playing time as a greenhorn, but if he can continue to develop, he could end up being a steal for the Lions and a major contributor to the pass rush.

Seattle Seahawks LB Kevin Pierre-Louis

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    Ted S. Warren/Associated Press

    The defending Super Bowl champion Seattle Seahawks possess arguably the finest and deepest 53-man roster in the NFL, which isn't great news if you're an incoming rookie looking to crack the regular rotation.

    But highly athletic fourth-round linebacker Kevin Pierre-Louis is doing his best to impress coaches and earn playing time.

    Pierre-Louis, 22, had a fabulous senior season at Boston College, tallying 108 tackles to go along with six sacks and an interception. At February's scouting combine, he ran the fastest 40-yard dash time among all linebackers (4.51 seconds), per NFL.com.

    His play throughout OTAs was such that Greg Gabriel of NationalFootballPost.com recently wrote that Pierre-Louis "just may be the best athlete of the whole (linebacker) group." That's high praise indeed when you consider the Seahawks already trot out specimens at the position like Bruce Irvin, Bobby Wagner, K.J. Wright and reigning Super Bowl MVP Malcolm Smith.

    Given Seahawks coach Pete Carroll's mantra of competition, Pierre-Louis has an opportunity to earn playing time this year, but the smart money is on him learning behind the veterans in 2014 before being ready to explode onto the scene in 2015.