Football: Who is NEXT?

Editor's Note: Cam Newton was named NEXT for the Jan. 9, 2012 issue of ESPN The Magazine. You can read more about him, and go behind the scenes of his cover shoot, here.

Jadeveon Clowney

Lawrence Taylor's name isn't thrown around lightly. But with every play Jadeveon Clowney makes, the LT shadow looms larger. Clowney starts as a true freshman at South Carolina, a 6'6", 254-pound curiosity with a 36-inch vertical and a 4.46 40 time. In the nation's toughest conference, against opponents four years older, Clowney racked up five sacks in his first eight games, about all of them as breathtaking as this. His coaches won an epic recruiting war to secure his services and know they have a can't-miss game changer on their hands. Ellis Johnson, who recruited Clowney, said this last February: "Physically, he's ready. I'm sure in upper-body strength there are a lot of things high school players are behind SEC players. But [with] his speed, athleticism, size and potential, he's already almost NFL caliber in physical abilities." He'll be there soon, which is when he'll live up to the LT comparison.

Jimmy Graham

Three years ago, Jimmy Graham was an undersized power forward on the University of Miami basketball team, earning what few minutes he got through sweat and grit. He switched to football for his last year of play and did well enough to get drafted by the Saints in the third round. Graham showed potential as a rookie and absolutely blew up this season. Just as other former basketball players have done over the past 15 years -- from Tony Gonzalez to Antonio Gates -- this ex-hoopster has combined height, hands and horsepower to become a matchup nightmare. In Graham's case, the 6'6", 260-pounder is the top target for Drew Brees on a unit averaging more than 30 points per game. Graham's on pace for more than 90 catches, 1,400 yards and 10 touchdowns -- and this in just his third year of high-level football. "He's a freak of nature," says Brees.

Dre Kirkpatrick

Pro receivers get bigger and faster every year. How can defenses combat that? Draft Dre Kirkpatrick. The Alabama junior is a shut-down corner with a twist: He looks like a wide receiver. At 6'3", 192 pounds, Kirkpatrick can bump receivers off their routes at the line and bat down everything thrown their way: jump balls, quick outs, goal-line fades. Kirkpatrick owns the swagger that's defined top corners since the days of Deion Sanders, even getting coach Nick Saban to declare himself "crunked up" before a game this season. "He's a lot more mature as a player," Saban told ESPN.com's Chris Low. "He used to be real emotional, real up and down. If something bad happened in the game, he would make two or three more bad plays. Then when he made a good play, he was over the top. Now he's more focused and stays with things the way he needs to and tries to do things the right way. The other stuff doesn't show up as much." Neither does the receiver he's covering.

Andrew Luck

Mel Kiper has rated him as the highest QB prospect since John Elway -- including Peyton Manning. Jon Gruden goes one step further, saying, "He's the best prospect I've studied, period." Last year, then-Stanford coach Jim Harbaugh offered this testimonial: "I was thinking just the other night that two people in my life, my wife and our quarterback, Andrew Luck, have a lot in common in that they're just both perfect." This is the world Andrew Luck inhabits. His domination over the past three seasons -- 15 Stanford and Pac-12 records, and counting -- has turned the Cardinal into a BCS title contender and Luck into a Heisman favorite. With his intellect and command of the Stanford offense, comparisons with Manning are inevitable, and it helps that Luck has the arm to match. But lest you think Luck is merely a pocket savant, just dial up this YouTube gem as a reminder of what he can do on the run. Luck's combination of physical attributes and intangible qualities are why he'll be the No. 1 pick in next April's NFL draft, even if Manning's Colts end up with the worst record.

Cam Newton

Where are the doubters now? The ones who questioned Newton's arm and accuracy. The ones who said his scrambling ways at Auburn couldn't translate to the next level. The ones who questioned his mental capacity to run an NFL team. Cam Newton has silenced them with as dynamic a rookie season as we've seen from an NFL QB. Now he's inspiring a new wave of reviews. "The kid is a pretty Ferrari," Redskins CB DeAngelo Hall said after facing the Panthers rookie. "He can run. He can throw. He's got the total package." Added Packers nose tackle B.J. Raji, who faced Newton in Week 2: "I knew he would be good, but if I told you I knew he'd be this good this early, I'd be lying to you. He doesn't get frustrated. We threw a lot of stuff at him today and he was able to sit back there and make some of the plays they needed." Though Newton can do this pretty much any time he wants, he also averaged 300 yards passing through his first seven games. That sort of production makes him the face of the Panthers franchise -- and any fantasy team in a keeper league. Plus, he's still learning to throw a more accurate ball and make more nuanced reads. How much better can he get in the next five seasons?

Jordan Brenner is a writer for ESPN The Magazine. Follow The Mag on Twitter, and like us on Facebook.