Meet the NFL's class of 2017: Players who graduated to stardom

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As William Shakespeare surely would have written, had he covered football: Some NFL players are born stars, some achieve stardom and some have stardom thrust upon them.

There are some NFL careers that seem ticketed for stardom from the outset. There are some for whom stardom is a surprise. Obviously, the vast majority never sniff stardom in the first place, which is one of the things that makes it so special.

With that in mind, we thought we'd take a look at the NFL stardom class of 2018 -- the players who graduated to stardom during the 2017 season. A year ago, these guys were either up-and-comers, pretty good players who didn't yet meet the criteria for stardom, draft prospects or relative unknowns. But after what they did this season, there's no doubting what they are now: full-blown NFL stars.

Ladies and gentlemen, this year's proud graduates:

Carson Wentz, QB, Philadelphia Eagles

Who he was in August: A promising young quarterback who had shown some flashes in his 2016 rookie season and had those around him convinced he was on track to be a franchise quarterback. The Eagles were excited about Wentz's potential heading into 2017, and the coaching staff was sure it could give him more to handle than it had the year before. But coach Doug Pederson cautioned this reporter during training camp that it usually takes three to four years for a quarterback to master the offense the Eagles wanted to run. Wentz was on the upswing, but few imagined he was this close to stardom.

The numbers: Wentz threw for 3,296 yards, 33 touchdowns and 7 interceptions before tearing his left ACL in a Week 14 victory in Los Angeles. He was a legitimate MVP front-runner whose ability to make dazzling plays with his arm and/or legs -- especially in critical third-down and fourth-down situations -- had Super Bowl-starved Philadelphians dreaming the biggest of football dreams. Despite the injury, Wentz finished the season second in touchdown passes, just one behind Seattle's Russell Wilson. He was fourth in passer rating and first, by a fairly significant margin, in Total QBR.

Who he is now: Well, he'll enter the 2018 offseason as a rehabbing player, hoping his injury allows him back in time to start the season. And the hope is that the injury doesn't cost him too much of the critical practice time he needs to continue his remarkable development in Year 3. If it does, Wentz's star track might have to take a little bit of a dip before ascending again in late 2018 or 2019. But once he's back to full strength, Wentz should resume his role as one of the top quarterbacks in the league.

DeMarcus Lawrence, DE, Dallas Cowboys

Who he was in August: A fourth-year pass-rusher with nine career sacks coming off a 2016 season in which he missed seven games because of injury and drug suspension. Lawrence had posted eight sacks in 2015, when he did play all 16 games, and because of that, was seen by the Cowboys' coaching staff as the hypothetical best hope for its perpetually maligned pass rush.

The numbers: Lawrence played all 16 games in 2017 and finished tied for second in the league with 14.5 sacks. He was a consistently disruptive force off the edge, tearing out of the gate with 10.5 sacks in his first seven games before teams realized they had to devote the same kind of attention to him that they do to the league's elite pass-rushers.

Who he is now: Almost certainly the Cowboys' franchise player, as Dallas isn't going to want him to hit the free-agent market and seems likely to keep him in place with a (roughly) $17.4 million franchise tag for 2018. If he can't get a long-term deal from the Cowboys this offseason and has to play on the tag this year, 2018 becomes a chance for him to build on his newfound stardom and parlay it into a top-of-the-market pass-rusher deal.

Adam Thielen, WR, Minnesota Vikings

Who he was in August: A fourth-year receiver who had gone undrafted out of Minnesota State-Mankato but finished the 2016 season strong. Thielen had 69 catches for 967 yards and 5 touchdowns in 2016, bursting into the public consciousness with 12 catches for 202 yards and 2 touchdowns in a Christmas Eve loss to the Packers, and he entered 2017 looking like a strong No. 2 wide receiver behind Stefon Diggs.

The numbers: Turns out, Thielen was not the Vikings' No. 2 wide receiver but rather the No. 1. He led the team with 91 catches, 1,276 yards and 20 catches of at least 20 yards. Those numbers ranked eighth, fifth and fifth in the league, respectively, and stamped Thielen as not just a surprise late bloomer but one of the best receivers in the NFL.

Who he is now: A draw -- plain and simple -- for any free-agent quarterback or offensive coordinator interested in signing up with the Vikings for 2018. There's a lot of uncertainty in Minnesota, with all three quarterbacks set for free agency and coordinator Pat Shurmur becoming the head coach of the New York Giants. But Thielen and Diggs as one of the top wide receiver duos in the league is a big selling point, and Thielen is signed through 2020 on a deal the Vikings wisely did before his stardom reached its current level.

Jalen Ramsey, CB, Jacksonville Jaguars

Who he was in August: A brash second-year corner who had been the No. 5 pick in the 2016 draft and played to that pedigree as a rookie. Ramsey reacted to the Jaguars' signing of veteran free-agent cornerback A.J. Bouye by asserting that he still expected to be the one covering the opponent's No. 1 receiver every week -- a show of confidence that demanded a strong follow-up season.

The numbers: Ramsey and Bouye meshed well in the secondary as Jacksonville limited opponents to under 170 passing yards per game. Ranked No. 2 among corners by Pro Football Focus for 2017, Ramsey added four interceptions to his regular-season career total and picked up another in the Jaguars' first-round playoff victory over Buffalo.

Who he is now: One of the young defensive stars in the league, Ramsey consistently backs up his famous trash talk and has emerged as the face of the Jaguars' brilliant young defense. It's tough to become a star in Jacksonville, but the Jags' postseason run has brought Ramsey front and center. He clearly enjoys the spotlight.

Alvin Kamara, RB, New Orleans Saints

Who he was in August: A third-round rookie out of Tennessee whose role in the Saints' offense looked a bit unclear with veterans Mark Ingram and Adrian Peterson in the same backfield. The Saints had a role in mind for Kamara but no idea how he'd take to it or how they would handle the distribution among three backs they liked a great deal.

The numbers: Kamara ranked sixth in the NFL with 1,554 yards from scrimmage, 14 ahead of teammate Ingram, to help form the league's most potent backfield duo. (The Saints ultimately traded Peterson to Arizona midseason.) Kamara averaged just 7.5 carries per game but parlayed them into 728 yards and eight touchdowns. His 81 receptions ranked 13th in the league overall and second among running backs behind only Pittsburgh's Le'Veon Bell (85), and his 826 receiving yards led all running backs.

Who he is now: One of the league's exciting young superstars -- a threat to score from anywhere on the field and a nearly impossible tackle, as his league-leading 244 receiving yards after first contact show. The Saints' season ended in heartbreak in Minnesota, but the backfield tandem of Ingram and Kamara is one of several reasons to pencil in New Orleans as a strong contender heading into 2018.

Jimmy Garoppolo, QB, San Francisco 49ers

Who he was in August: The New England Patriots' backup quarterback -- a Tom Brady insurance policy so valuable and so promising that the Patriots had just spent the offseason rebuffing any and all trade inquiries. Garoppolo's brief cameo as the Pats' starter during Brady's 2016 suspension was encouraging enough to underline the positive things scouts already thought about him, and he was in demand.

The numbers: The Patriots caved at the trade deadline, shipping Garoppolo off to the 49ers for a second-round pick. In five games as the Niners' starter, Garoppolo completed 67 percent of his passes for 1,542 yards (third most in the league over the final five weeks) with 6 touchdowns and 5 interceptions. The Niners were 1-10 before they handed the keys to Jimmy G, but they went 5-0 with him taking the snaps from center.

Who he is now: A potential unrestricted free agent, if we want to get technical. But surely, the 49ers' furious finish and Garoppolo's role in (A) winning five games and (B) infusing the franchise and its fan base with long-term hope will result in the team either signing him long term or using the franchise tag on him. He projects to be the 49ers' starter entering 2018, barring something strange and unforeseen, and he'll be one of the league's hottest storylines when next season starts.

Marshon Lattimore, CB, New Orleans Saints

Who he was in August: The No. 11 overall pick in the 2017 draft and the embodiment of hope that the New Orleans defense might be able to get it together on the back end at some point in the next couple of years.

The numbers: The former Ohio State star collected five interceptions in 13 games in his stellar rookie season, bringing a swagger back to a New Orleans defense that had been a laughingstock for nearly a half-decade. Lattimore established himself quickly as a cornerback to be avoided by opposing quarterbacks, and after a rocky two-game start, the Saints' defense emerged as a strength. Players and coaches say the speed with which everyone learned to communicate with each other on the back end was a reason it came together so quickly, and Lattimore and fellow rookie Marcus Williams were a big part of that.

Who he is now: Everything we said about Kamara on the offensive side applies to Lattimore on the defensive side. The Saints' stunningly productive 2017 draft transformed them overnight from a perennial 7-9 team to one of the bright young rosters in the league and a desirable destination for free agents -- for as long as 39-year-old Drew Brees can keep playing quarterback.

Todd Gurley, RB, Los Angeles Rams

Who he was in August: A third-year enigma. Gurley had a promising 2015 rookie year, amassing 1,106 rushing yards and 10 touchdowns in just 13 games. But he slumped badly in the Rams' moribund 2016 season, averaging just 3.2 yards per carry and leading many to wonder which Gurley would show up in 2017 with a new coaching staff in town.

The numbers: It was the right Gurley who showed up for Sean McVay, Matt LaFleur & Co. Gurley rushed for 1,305 yards and 13 touchdowns in 15 games. He added 788 yards and 6 touchdowns on his 64 receptions. The engine for the league's highest-scoring offense, Gurley led the NFL with 2,093 total yards from scrimmage and 19 total touchdowns.

Who he is now: A fairly strong candidate to go No. 1 in your fantasy draft next year. The offense that McVay and LaFleur brought to L.A. is sustainable, and as long as the offensive line stays solid, Gurley's talent and opportunity should continue to make him one of the most productive backs in the league. His position as one of the faces of one of the Los Angeles teams offers even greater opportunity for him (and the NFL) to enlarge his stardom.

Deshaun Watson, QB, Houston Texans

Who he was in August: The Texans' backup quarterback, for some reason, behind Week 1 starter Tom Savage. Houston traded up in the first round to take Watson, which stamped him as their future QB. But regardless of whatever potential the Texans saw in Watson, they were content to start the season with him on the bench.

The numbers: Watson didn't stay on the bench long, subbing in for an ineffective Savage in the opener and quickly making the job his. He had a low-key game on a short week (Thursday night) against the Bengals in his first career start, but from Weeks 3 to 8 he laid waste to the league, passing for a league-leading 18 touchdowns (and rushing for one) and 9.38 yards per attempt while posting a 113.3 passer rating and an 81.0 Total QBR in five games (both ranked second in the NFL over that time period). Watson tore his ACL in an early November practice, cutting short one of the league's most promising rookie seasons.

Who he is now: One of the players whom the league and its fans should be most excited about in 2018. Watson's injury was serious, but the hope is that it happened early enough in the season to allow him to be back on the field for Week 1 of next season. Once Watson is back at full health, you can bet there'll be no dispute as to who should start at quarterback for the Texans.

Michael Thomas, WR, New Orleans Saints

Who he was in August: A 2016 second-round pick coming off an impressive rookie season in which he caught 92 passes for 1,137 yards and 9 touchdowns. He entered 2017 as a trusted target for Drew Brees and ready to build on his rookie success.

The numbers: Thomas ranked third in the league with 104 receptions, behind only Miami's Jarvis Landry and Arizona's Larry Fitzgerald. He ranked sixth in the league with 1,245 receiving yards and fourth with 22 catches of at least 20 yards. The Saints' running game got a lot of attention, but New Orleans was fifth in the league in passing offense as well, and Thomas is clearly Brees' top target.

Who he is now: One of the elite wide receivers in the league -- up there with fellow young stars such as Landry, Odell Beckham Jr. and DeAndre Hopkins. Thomas will go into 2018 with the highest of expectations and completes the impressive list of Saints on this year's star graduates list.


These are the players on the verge of graduating to stardom:

  • Case Keenum, QB, Minnesota Vikings: Minnesota's playoff run likely means a big payday for free-agent-to-be Keenum, either with the Vikings or elsewhere.

  • Kareem Hunt, RB, Kansas City Chiefs: He led the league in rushing as a rookie and showed star potential in the passing game as well. Avoid a Gurley-style sophomore slump, and he's on his way.

  • Tyreek Hill, WR, Kansas City Chiefs: The Chiefs planned to work the dynamic Hill into the offense more, and they did. He ended up with 1,183 yards and 7 touchdowns on 75 catches.

  • Deion Jones, LB, Atlanta Falcons: The Falcons' defense is teeming with fun, young stars, and Jones emerged in 2017 as its dynamo.

  • Xavier Rhodes, CB, Minnesota Vikings: A true shutdown corner on the back end of Minnesota's elite defense. Teams just don't throw his way.

  • Keenan Allen, WR, Los Angeles Chargers: The issue with Allen has always been health, but he came back from his 2016 ACL injury with his first 16-game season. It included 102 catches, 1,393 yards and 6 touchdowns. He doesn't turn 26 until April.