We love to speculate on the next-generation of stars, players with a chance to take the next step in their careers, going from good to potentially great.

Heading into the 2016 season, I have a come up with a team that I call my Step-Up Team, players who have flashed early in their careers and now can take the next step on the path to being a star.

All the players are young, most in their second and third seasons in the league. That's why speculating can be tough, yet their limited resumes and game tapes help to give me the idea that they have the ability to turn it up a notch. Experience matters, and now they all have some. Maybe not enough yet for some, but they have games under their belts.

In a league where timetables are sped up now more than ever, the speed of the next step is crucial for the success of teams and the staying power of a coach. If the supposed candidates don't take that step, coaches will be fired and general mangers will likely be right behind.

So here's my team of the players I think take the next step in 2016.


He threw for 4,042 yards and 22 touchdowns as a rookie, but his completion percentage was only 58.3 percent and he threw 14 picks. Even so, he has the look of a future top-10 passer. His work ethic is outstanding and he loves the game. That matters.

He was really good as a rookie, rushing for 581 yards in part-time duty. I think he gets more of the rushing load this season, which means his numbers will go up. He's also a good receiver. He caught 36 passes last season. In his second season, he should be a 1,200-yard rusher with 50 catches.

I was going to put Dorial Green-Beckham here, but his trade to the Eagles changed that after the Titans gave up on him. So I went with Funchess. He came on strong late in 2015 and will be even better with a year under his belt. I thought he might be better suited as a tight end coming out of Michigan, but he's trimmed down some and developed into a big, strong receiver.

For a WR with his size and skill set, Funchess faces big expectations. USATSI

He had 51 catches with six touchdowns last season, and he really didn't get going until the second half. He is small, but he can fly. He's also a heck of a return man.

He caught a career-best 64 passes last season, but that was with Andrew Luck sitting much of the year. Now in his third season, he should push 80 catches this season. His yards-per catch should also go up from 11.5 last season.

Those who watch the tape know how good this kid is, but the majority of NFL fans don't. That's why he's on this list. He is a real talent and he's only 24 years old. He will be in the Pro Bowl this season.

When he played as a rookie last season, he was a mauler and a bruiser. This former college tackle has a chance to be special at guard. Teaming with Zack Martin, the Cowboys might have the best duo in the league.

La'el Collins should only continue to get better in Big D. USATSI

He is moving from right guard to center and the team is raving about his ability to pick up the mental game. He was a physical guard and should be a physical center. He might not be a Pro Bowl player this year, but he will be for a long time.

This player from small school Hobart College had a nice rookie season in 2015. He was good against the run and held up in pass protection. With a year of experience, he will be better in both.

On a Rams line that had issues last season, he was solid as a rookie at right tackle. He is a big, powerful player who is good in the run game. He surprised some with how well he handled himself in pass protection. He has missed the open of camp with a foot injury, but is expected to be ready for the opener.

Forget that he got paid a big deal. He's a player who hasn't lived up to the expectations yet. But I think in the Saints offense, with Drew Brees throwing to him, he will have a big-time season in terms of numbers. He's a perfect fit.


He isn't even a starter, but he might be by season's end. As a rookie last season, he had six sacks with just one start. At 6-foot-5, 252 pounds, he is a powerful rusher.

He impressed as a rookie last season, splitting time up front. But he has the talent to be a real force on their defense. He is big, strong and quick.

In 2015 as a rookie he was one of the best defenders on the Chicago defense. At 6-4, 320 pounds he is a power player but he can also push the pocket. He had 4.5 sacks last season.

When he played last season, he was an effective pass rusher. He didn't put up big sack numbers, but that's coming. As long as he's on the field, he will be a force off the edge for the Texans this year.

With J.J. Watt sidelined, the Texans need Clowney to be consistent. USATSI

He had four sacks as a rookie last season, but he had three of those in the final seven games. In the Cardinals defense, there's a need for an outside rusher to play a big role and this should be his time to do so.

He started nine games last season as a rookie and impressed as run defender. He's only 5-11, but he is a big-body player at 240 pounds and is more than willing to throw his body around. He needs to improve in coverage.

He had eight sacks in two starts last season, including five in the final three games. He had three in one game against the Eagles. At 6-5, 268 pounds he has speed of a player much smaller.

The Redskins are high on Smith. USATSI

The Packers have high hopes for this second-year player. He was a safety in college, but moved to corner last season as a rookie. He can play outside and in the slot.

Bashaud Breeland
CB •

He will be the "other" corner this season with Josh Norman on the roster. But he is a talented young player who loves matching up with top receivers.

He showed some real cover skills as a rookie last season. He is smooth, can lock down as a press-man player, and he is willing tackler. He will be in the Pro Bowl this season.

He struggled as a rookie in 2014 when asked to play more in coverage, but last year he fit better in the new scheme brought in with coach Todd Bowles. He is a big hitter who has improved in coverage.

Calvin Pryor can hit, but can he be more consistent in coverage? USATSI

He played corner and hybrid safety last year as a rookie, but he is a fill-time safety now. With his athletic ability, he would be a perfect player to have roaming in the middle of the field.