Few things are more rewarding to an NFL franchise than a superstar young talent that can help to put the team over the top but is also young enough to play at a high level for years to come. Many of the game’s best players haven’t even seen their 25th birthdays yet, and this list recognizes those that are the exceptional best of the best.
This is limited to players that have actually played in the National Football League, so while rookies like Andrew Luck, Robert Griffin III and Morris Claiborne certainly have the talent to make an immediate impact, you won’t see their names on this list.
The Miami Dolphins thought they had a potential top-five cornerback duo in the league entering this past season with Vontae Davis and Seth Smith. As it turned out, Davis was every bit as good as Dolphins fans hoped he would be, even if Smith had an awful year.
Davis picked off four passes, forcing a 54.5 completion percentage and 68.8 passer rating on throws his direction. And he did so without the benefit of a strong support cast in the rest of his secondary.
The Cincinnati Bengals got a steal when they picked Geno Atkins in the fourth round of the 2010 NFL draft, and he rewarded them with a Pro Bowl season in 2011. Atkins started all 16 games on the interior defensive line, racking up 7.5 sacks, two forced fumbles, a defensive touchdown, 29 tackles and 26 quarterback pressures.
Atkins finished second in combined sacks and pressures among DTs, trailing just Tommy Kelly of the Oakland Raiders and Ndamukong Suh of the Detroit Lions.
Eric Berry is on this list really only because of what he did as a rookie, considering Berry tore his ACL on September 11 of this past year and spent the season on Injured Reserve.
As a rookie though, Berry was phenomenal, starting all 16 games and becoming the first Kansas City rookie to make the Pro Bowl since Derrick Thomas. Berry helped the Chiefs go from the 29th ranked scoring defense to No.11, and he was the only member of the defense to play every single defensive snap.
Berry recorded 92 tackles (77 solo), four interceptions and scored a touchdown, and assuming he returns healthy in 2012, he should have a strong impact on the Chiefs defense again.
As a fifth round rookie safety in 2010, Kam Chancellor didn’t play much at all. He broke out in 2011 though, starting 15 of 16 games while recording four interceptions, 73 tackles, two forced fumbles, a fumble recovery, 12 passes defensed and a sack.
Chancellor was added to the Pro Bowl, and he should have a very bright future for the Seattle Seahawks.
The Houston Texans got a tremendous player with J.J. Watt, a player who had such a strong rookie season that they felt comfortable allowing Mario Williams to walk in free agency.
Watt picked up 5.5 sacks and two fumble recoveries, but then turned in his best performance in the playoffs. He intercepted a pass from Andy Dalton in the Wild Card Round and returned it for a touchdown versus Cincy, then sacked Joe Flacco 2.5 times the following week.
The fact that Tyron Smith was starting regularly at the age of 20 in 2011 is absolutely remarkable.
Smith played well enough in his 16 starts that he will be moving to left tackle for the start of ’12, and he was one of just three offensive tackles in the game to rate as least a plus-6.5 in both pass-blocking and run-blocking, per Pro Football Focus.
Aaron Hernandez’s role on the 2011 New England Patriots can’t be overstated; he lined up at pretty much every offensive position on the field, seeing time at halfback, H-back, wide receiver, slot receiver and tight end.
Along the way, Hernandez recorded 79 receptions for 910 yards and seven touchdowns, combining with teammate Rob Gronkowski for NFL records in yardage, receptions and touchdowns by tight ends on the same team.
Hernandez—who was selected to his first Pro Bowl following the ’11 season—caused defenders to miss 23 tackles during the season, a whopping 10 more than the next-best tight end.
Percy Harvin is an exceptional wide receiver who is on the verge of breaking out as the game’s premier slot receiver. He totaled over 700 yards and seven touchdowns in the seven games quarterbacked by Christian Ponder last season, and those project to All-Pro numbers.
Harvin is also a dynamic threat on the return game.
In two seasons in the National Football League, Maurkice Pouncey has already made two Pro Bowls and earned two First-Team All-Pro selections. He led the Pittsburgh Steelers to a Super Bowl appearance in his rookie campaign, and he’s a solid run-blocker for Rashard Mendenhall and the ground game.
And Pouncey is still just 22 years old. He will not even be 25 after he completes his fifth NFL season. That’s unheard of, and the Pittsburgh Steelers have a guy they can pencil in as their starting center for the next decade or more.
You heard it here first—Marcell Dareus will win next the Defensive Player of the Year award. He’s not going to put up flashy statistics on the sack or interception columns, but he’s downright unblockable. It doesn’t matter whether you double him, and if you want to keep him away from the quarterback or ball-carrier, you’re going to have to triple-block him.
Dareus can play nose tackle, defensive tackle and defensive end, and he had a stellar rookie season for the Buffalo Bills. Von Miller got all the hype after going second overall to the Denver Broncos—and rightfully so, because Miller was out of this world all season—but Dareus was sensational.
He racked up 5.5 sacks from all over the line and his first game as the nose tackle when Kyle Williams went down with an injury was just unbelievable.
Navorro Bowman saw his draft stock plummet dramatically in 2010 when he posted an awful 40-yard dash time, but the San Francisco 49ers took a chance on him and it paid off big time last year. Bowman earned AP First-Team All-Pro honors from the inside linebacker position, helping the ‘Niners win 12 games and the NFC West title.
Bowman recorded 113 tackles, recovered three fumbles and registered 11 quarterback hurries.
The Atlanta Falcons paid a high price for the rights to acquire standout wide receiver Julio Jones in the 2011 NFL draft, and they have to be pleased with it thus far. As a rookie last year, Jones totaled 54 receptions for 959 yards and eight touchdowns, even more than A.J. Green.
Jones is a big, physical receiver who runs a sub-4.4 40-yard dash, and he will make an impact for the Falcons for the next decade-plus.
Aldon Smith was one of the NFL’s brightest young stars in 2011, despite not starting a single game at outside linebacker. He was used exclusively as a pass-rushing specialist, seeing action in just over 500 snaps, but he was sensational when he did play.
Smith registered 14 sacks and helped the San Francisco 49ers emerge as surprising NFC West champions. When Smith collected more than one sack in a game, the ‘Niners were 5-0.
As a rookie in 2011, Ryan Kerrigan had an absolutely phenomenal season for the Washington Redskins. He started all 16 games, racking up 41 tackles, 7.5 sacks, four forced fumbles, an interception, four passes defensed and a touchdown.
Kerrigan should combine with teammate Brian Orakpo to give the Redskins one of the NFL’s strongest outside linebacking corps in 2012.
As a rookie, A.J. Green had one of the best seasons by a first-year wide receiver since Randy Moss in 1998 or Anquan Boldin in 2003. Green broke out with 65 receptions for 1,057 yards and seven touchdowns, making the Pro Bowl in year one.
Oh, and he did all that while playing with a rookie quarterback after a shortened offseason that didn’t include OTAs or a training camp.
It’s amazing that Carlos Dunlap has managed to stay under the radar during his two NFL seasons, because he’s been scary good. As a rookie in 2010, Dunlap picked up 9.5 sacks in a limited role for the Cincinnati Bengals. He followed that up with just five in 2011, but picked up 29 quarterback pressures and 13 quarterback hits.
Few 4-3 defensive ends in the NFL were a better blend at rushing the quarterback, stopping the run and even playing in pass coverage against screen passes than Dunlap.
As a rookie in 2010, Joe Haden intercepted six passes for 101 return yards, registering a pick in four straight games. He didn’t pick off a single pass as a second-year player in 2011, but that’s more because he was shut-down good at corner.
Haden allowed completions on just 49.4 percent of the passes thrown his way, leading the NFL with 17 passes defensed. He was a standout cornerback at the University of Florida, and Haden will be a stud in the National Football League for the foreseeable future.
Before the 2010 NFL draft, there were some who compared Earl Thomas to Baltimore Ravens superstar Ed Reed. Thomas broke out in 2011, registering 78 tackles, two interceptions and helping the Seattle Seahawks yield the second-fewest amount of 20-plus yard plays in the entire league.
Thomas was also a great all-around safety who excelled against the run.
In the regular season, Hakeem Nicks caught 76 passes for 1,192 yards and seven touchdowns, before breaking out in a big way in the playoffs—Nicks totaled 28 catches for 444 yards and four scores in the four playoff games, helping the New York Giants secure a Super Bowl title over the New England Patriots.
In the Super Bowl, Nicks caught 10 passes for 109 yards from quarterback Eli Manning.
LeSean McCoy has rushed for over 3,000 yards and 28 touchdowns—topping 1,000 yards twice. He’s averaged nearly 5.0 yards per carry as the feature back for the Philadelphia Eagles, he’s a talented receiver out of the backfield, and he’s superb at protecting the football.
Oh, and he’s just 23 years old. The Eagles got a steal when they picked McCoy in the '09 draft, and for two main reasons: They got him in the second round and they got him when he was just 21 years old.
The common argument many football fans seem to make about Matthew Stafford’s miraculous 5,000-yard season is that he has Calvin Johnson, so he really can’t be that good.
Stafford may have the 6’5” Megatron, but Johnson didn’t account for all of Stafford’s superb numbers in 2011. Stafford threw for just over 5,000 passing yards, 41 touchdowns and 16 interceptions, posting a 97.2 passer rating. He also led three fourth-quarter comebacks and four game-winning drives last year—his first full season as a starter.
Cam Newton’s rookie season is one of the most improbable and stupendous years in NFL history. He didn’t have the usual OTAs or training camp, and his top receiver was the aging Steve Smith.
Nevertheless, Newton exploded for 4,051 passing yards and 21 touchdowns while running for 706 yards and 14 touchdowns on the ground. It was the single-season record for rushing scores by a quarterback in a year, and Newton will only get better, seeing as how quickly he mastered the Carolina Panthers offense.
Jason Pierre-Paul broke out in a big way in 2011, accumulating 16.5 sacks, two forced fumbles and a safety to earn a Pro Bowl selection and AP First-Team All-Pro nomination. He led the New York Giants to the Super Bowl championship, capping off an extraordinary season for the young JPP.
His role will likely increase next year if the Giants trade Osi Umenyiora, but that shouldn’t be a problem for JPP. He’s already a top-five defensive end in the league and he will only get better.
As a rookie, Von Miller was scarily good. He rated as the top defensive player in the league, according to Pro Football Focus, rating substantially better than the next-best linebacker.
Miller registered 11.5 sacks, 19 quarterback hits and 29 quarterback pressures as a pass-rusher, while accumulating three forced fumbles, 51 tackles, four passes defensed and 41 stops on defense. He was a Pro Bowler, an All-Pro and was named AP Defensive Rookie of the Year for 2011.
Rob Gronkowski was so good as a 22-year-old in 2011 that he earned a six-year, $54 million contract extension from the New England Patriots this past offseason, making him the highest-paid tight end in the history of the league.
Gronkowski set single-season records for tight ends in receiving yards (1,327) and receiving touchdowns (17), as well as total touchdowns (18). He’s the first tight end in league history to lead the NFL in touchdown receptions in a season, and then he caught 10 passes for 145 yards and three touchdowns in the AFC wild card playoff win over the Denver Broncos.
Gronkowski is probably the most unstoppable player in the league, as he’s a ferocious combination of size, strength and speed. He makes Aaron Hernandez better, he makes Tom Brady better, and he’s a major reason the New England Patriots reached the Super Bowl last season.