New England Patriots: Ranking the 5 Best Players Under Age 25

Oliver Thomas@OliverBThomasContributor IJune 21, 2012

New England Patriots: Ranking the 5 Best Players Under Age 25

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    The New England Patriots are one of the teams to beat in 2012.

    Although that wouldn't be the case if it weren't for a resounding youth movement. Based on the success of recent drafts, head coach Bill Belichick and Co. have designed a roster built for the long haul.

    With all the young talent still accruing in Foxboro, here are the top five Patriots under age 25.

No. 5: Nate Solder, Offensive Tackle, Age 24

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    Following Matt Light's retirement, Nate Solder should be stepping into the starting left tackle spot in 2012.

    As a 2011 first-round draft pick, Solder played in all 16 games as a rookie and made 13 starts.

    The Colorado product proved to be a plug-anywhere type of lineman for New England last season. He lined up at left tackle, right tackle and tight end. Regardless of the position Solder plays, he makes impact blocks in both run and pass situations.

    Patriots guard Brian Waters praised Solder's abilities in a conversation with the Boston Herald's Jeff Howe, formerly of NESN:

    "He's as good as any young player I've ever played with," Waters said. "He has an immense amount of talent. He does a great job of working hard and getting on the details. He never is comfortable. He's always trying week by week to get better, and he's always asking questions. He's a good, young football player who has plenty of room to grow and can turn into a really great one eventually."

    At 6'8" and 319 pounds, Solder is blessed with great size, athleticism, versatility and talent. He's only 24 years old and has a long career ahead of him.

No. 4: Patrick Chung, Safety, Age 24

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    Patrick Chung has battled the injury bug over the course of his three NFL seasons. Yet when healthy, he's a difference maker.

    The Oregon Duck was New England's first selection of the 2009 draft and has started 22-of-38 career games.

    In 2010, Chung enjoyed his best season to date: 96 total tackles, three interceptions and a touchdown. He's notched five total picks and three sacks during his career, even though he missed eight games last season.

    When Chung is medically cleared, he brings physicality and mental awareness to the table. At just 24 years old, he's the veteran leader of New England's young secondary.

No. 3: Devin McCourty, Cornerback, Age 24

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    Devin McCourty's performance is as unpredictable as a Vince Wilfork interception. 

    During his Pro Bowl rookie year, the Rutgers cornerback produced seven interceptions, two forced fumbles, one quarterback sack and 82 combined tackles.

    In 2011, however, McCourty was hampered by a separated shoulder which downgraded his abilities. He picked off just two passes and got burned by wide receivers throughout the season. McCourty's misfortune resulted in Coach Belichick testing him out at free safety late in the season.

    With two years under his belt, the former first-round draft pick has experienced it all—the good, the bad and the ugly. Yet, at just 24 years of age, he remains New England's No. 1 cornerback.

No. 2: Aaron Hernandez, Tight End, Age 22

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    Aaron Hernandez has exceeded expectations as far as fourth-round draft picks are concerned.

    Since the Florida Gator joined the Patriots in 2010, he's accumulated 124 catches for 1,473 yards and 13 touchdowns. Not to mention, Hernandez has rushed the ball eight times for 92 yards.

    Pro Football Focus projects Hernandez to be the fifth-most statistically productive tight end in 2012. In addition, ranks the Bristol, Connecticut, native as the 98th-best player in the NFL.

    Aside from playing tight end, the 6'1", 245-pound target can set up in the slot, at H-back, fullback and even halfback—making him one of the most unique players at his position.

    Coach Belichick spoke fondly of Hernandez's versatility, per Vito Stellino of the Florida Times-Union:

    “He can do a lot of different things from a skill standpoint,” Coach Bill Belichick said. “He has the mental flexibility to have a lot of different assignments. When you put that all together, you have good versatility.’’

    Hernandez is only 22 years old and has already become a matchup nightmare for opposing defenses.

No. 1: Rob Gronkowski, Tight End, Age 23

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    It seems like a decade has passed since Rob Gronkowski was chosen by New England with the 42nd pick of the 2010 draft.

    In his rookie campaign, the Arizona Wildcat snagged 42 passes for 546 yards and 10 touchdowns. A year later, his numbers doubled—90 catches, 1,327 yards, 17 receiving touchdowns and one rushing.

    With touchdown reception No. 14 of 2011, Gronkowski broke an NFL single-season touchdown record for a tight end, cites ESPN.

    He's not only a red-zone target, however.

    According to the Washington Post's Barry Svrluga, Gronkowski is one of six NFL tight ends to catch 90 balls in a season. His 1,327 receiving yards in 2011 is another record for tight ends.

    Gronkowski has become one of quarterback Tom Brady's go-to guys and one of the NFL's best. The 6'6", 265-pound All-Pro is only 23 years old.