The first half of 2007 has brought surprises, disappointments, fantastic finishes, record-breaking performances and lots more. One thing that is a constant midway through any NFL season: A handful of young players will emerge as the stars of tomorrow.
Some of the players highlighted here are already somewhat established. Some of them may have been to a Pro Bowl already. But most of these players are not household names and most of them have never been to the Pro Bowl -- though they may be playing at a level deserving of such recognition. One thing they all have in common: All are age 26 or younger -- meaning they should be fixtures in the NFL for years to come.
Derek Anderson, Cleveland: After playing in just five games last season (starting three) and entering the 2007 season as the backup to Charlie Frye, Anderson has passed for 17 touchdowns (with nine interceptions) and a 91.7 passer rating in 2007. He may be the biggest surprise in the NFL this season. Anderson has a strong arm with good athletic ability, but needs to improve his decision-making and his will.
Ben Roethlisberger, Pittsburgh: It's hard to call a Super Bowl-winning quarterback an "up-and-comer," but Roethlisberger continues to improve his game. He has a very easy throwing motion with very good arm strength. He has good intermediate and deep passing accuracy when given time, and he has deceptive running ability for a big quarterback. Roethlisberger improvises to create plays and is very difficult to bring down.
Adrian Peterson, Minnesota: He can hit it up inside or bounce outside, a threat to go the distance every time he touches the ball -- as he showed in his record-breaking 296-yard performance against the Chargers. Peterson is a powerful back with strong hands -- he will only improve as a receiver and blocker. He's an every-down back who will produce more as the carries increase.
Joseph Addai, Indianapolis: This second-year player became the main man in the Colts' backfield once they let Dominic Rhodes leave via free agency. He is a power back who does three things well: running, catching passes and blocking in pass protection. Big plays like the 73-yard touchdown catch-and-run he made against New England are not the staple of his game -- Addai's strength is moving the chains. He is above average at everything.
Ronnie Brown, Miami: The former first-round pick from Auburn was having a breakout year when he suffered a season-ending injury. He was putting up great numbers on a poor team, and he deserves to be mentioned here. Brown is a good runner and receiver, a very competitive player who does everything well. He would be something else were he on a team with an established quarterback and wide receiver threat.
Marshawn Lynch, Buffalo: He reminds me of Kevin Faulk -- only taller and faster. In addition to running with both speed and power, he can pass protect and has soft hands as a receiver. Lynch runs angry, he is very athletic and a good runner. And he can pass the ball as well.
Santonio Holmes, Pittsburgh: Holmes possesses excellent speed and quickness with outstanding run-after-catch ability. He'll make plays across the middle, has solid hands, will block, and can return kicks.
Wes Welker, New England: He has a great feel for the game and makes big plays in both the kicking and passing game. Field position is very important in today's game and Welkers's ability to return kicks and catch passes is second to none. Through eight games, he had 36 first-down plays -- 4.5 per game -- including a few critical conversions in New England's win over the Colts.
Heath Miller, Pittsburgh: Miller is a classic two-way tight end -- a good blocker and a pass-catcher. He lines up on the line and in the backfield and has the ability to block defensive ends. As a pass-catcher, he has good ability to adjust to the ball. Miller is a serious threat in the seam, and has five touchdown receptions through eight games.
Jason Peters, Buffalo: Undrafted out of college, where he played tight end, Peters has started for the Bills at three positions -- tight end, right tackle and left tackle. He has lots of upside, as is still learning the position and getting stronger. In 2005, Peters caught a touchdown pass while lined up as a tight end. Now, when the Bills need a yard, they run behind him.
Andrew Whitworth, Cincinnati: This 6-foot-7, 339-pounder can play tackle or guard. He started the season at left tackle because of the injury to Levi Jones. He has very long arms (35-inch reach) and is left-handed. Whitworth has very good strength, will go hard on every play and is a high-character player off the field.
Logan Mankins, New England: The Patriots offense is putting up numbers for the ages, and Mankins is one of the unsung reasons for the success. He has started 41 consecutive games for New England. He is very athletic and strong, and has very large hands. Mankins, who wanted to be a professional steer roper growing up, has excellent athletic ability -- allowing him to be an effective blocker both on the line and at the second level (against linebackers).
Chris Snee, N.Y. Giants: Snee has started 50 games over the past four seasons. He is a very competitive player with strength and athletic ability for the position. He is a key reason the Giants have been moving the ball so well on offense.
Honorable mention: Two other good, young guards who have been playing well are Shane Andrews (Philadelphia) and Kris Dielman (San Diego).
Nick Mangold, N.Y. Jets: This second-year player has started 25 consecutive games for the Jets. He reminds me of Denver Pro Bowl center Tom Nalen -- smart and quick with good athletic ability for the position. Mangold gets into his blocks quickly and rarely is knocked off his feet.
Jared Allen, Kansas City: A relentless pass rusher who also does a good job against the run. He has a great first step and is strong and smooth with a very good work ethic. Allen has all the traits you want for the position, including a tenacious attitude and the uncanny ability to force fumbles.
Trent Cole, Philadelphia: An outstanding pass rusher who can go inside or outside on you. He never stops working to get to the passer, playing with great energy and passion. Cole led the Eagles in sacks and the defensive line in tackles last season. But more than just a pass-rusher, he plays on all downs, has amazing quickness and is strong enough to play the run.
Albert Haynesworth, Tennessee: While this is his sixth NFL season, Haynesowrth just turned 26 in June. He has great God-given ability -- speed, quickness, explosiveness and power. He has also shown greater maturity this season, which has helped him take his game to another level. Haynesworth can blow by people. He is the main reason the Titans defense has gone from near the bottom of the league last year to near the top. He has five sacks in eight games.
Vince Wilfork, New England: A very disruptive player who has outstanding strength and quickness for a 323-pounder. He is a very good run stuffer who moves around like someone who weighs 100 pounds less. Wilfork is a big reason why the Patriots rank in the top five in run defense.
Ernie Sims, Detroit: Sims is the play-maker of the Lions defense. He has outstanding speed and makes a majority of the team's stops. He leads the team in tackles -- making plays from sideline to sideline -- and is a very explosive tackler who will create turnovers. He also is a factor in pass defense. Detroit was a minus-9 in turnover margin last season and plus-8 in 2007. Sims is a big reason why the Lions have already won twice as many games (six) as they did all of last season.
Thomas Howard, Oakland: Howard plays weakside linebacker for the Raiders, and he has all the tools needed to succeed at the position. He can run and make plays in coverage. He's an every-down linebacker who has four interceptions. Howard has 4.45 speed in the 40-yard dash and would really thrive on a team that emphasizes speed on defense.
Barrett Ruud, Tampa Bay: Ruud is a third-year player who is starting full-time for the first time in his career, and thus he is a key reason for the Buccaneers' improved defense. The Bucs are allowing 6.0 points less per game than they did in 2006 and rank third in the NFC in total defense. Ruud is a tough competitor who doesn't always look good but always seems to get the job done. He is the kind of player who makes his teammates play better.
Bradie James, Dallas: At 238 pounds, James is playing at about 15 pounds lighter than what he weighed a year ago, and it's made a difference. He is the leading tackler on a team that has allowed less than 300 yards per game this season. James is a very strong tackler who has clearly benefited from the presence of Wade Phillips.
Leigh Bodden, Cleveland: A very physical player with a good feel for the game, Bodden missed the second half of the 2006 season but has come back to play well this year. He has a knack of being around the ball, as evidenced by his four interceptions.
NNamdi Asomugha, Oakland: Asomugha plays best in press coverage. He is a talented corner who is often used in man coverage. If he gets his hands on you at the line, watch out. He is a very good athlete with speed and toughness. Asomugha had eight interceptions in 2006; he has none this season but is playing well nonetheless.
Donte Whitner, Buffalo: He is a very good tackler who excels at stuffing the run but does a very good job in pass coverage as well. At 5-foot-10, Whitner can be out-muscled for the ball, however. He is the second-leading tackler for the Bills, and his value was evident just last week when Buffalo held Cincinnati to 28 rushing yards.
Ryan Clark, Pittsburgh: Clark has a physical presence about him and interchangeable skills -- he will come up and play the run, is a solid tackler and has the ability to maintain deep pass coverage over the top. He is also a very good special teams player.
Punt Return Specialist
Roscoe Parrish, Buffalo: Midway through his second season, Parrish already has returned two punts for touchdowns and his average per return in 2007 is 19.2.
Kickoff Return Specialist
Steve Gostkowski, New England: He was 20 of 26 in field goal attempts as a rookie in 2006 and has made 11 of 12 this season. He is also strong on kickoffs.
Daniel Sepulveda, Pittsburgh: A rookie who has averaged almost 45 yards per punt. Sepulveda is adept at placing a spin on the ball so that it will bounce back when it lands inside the 10, thus avoiding touchbacks and giving the Steelers' defense an edge in the field position battle.