Each NFL Team's Best Player Under 25 Years Old
You always hear how important it is for NFL teams to have great balance, and although most people are talking about on the field, this applies off it as well. Teams don't like to be too old because they can be injury prone and slow or too young because they lack the experience needed to win championships.
At the NFL level, you need the Just for Men's Touch of Gray solution: a little youth mixed in with some veteran leadership, and you have a pretty good combination to win.
Just because you have youth doesn't make you competitive, though. You need young guys who can play and just about every team in the league has just that. So let's look at each team's best player younger than the age of 25.
Arizona Cardinals: Patrick Peterson, CB
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In the 2011 draft, the Cardinals looked to add a playmaker on the defensive side of the ball. They did just that by taking cornerback Patrick Peterson out of LSU.
Peterson burst onto the NFL scene last season not so much for his cornerback ability, but for his magnificent punt return skills. The rookie brought four returns back to the house, helping the Cardinals finish out the season 6-2.
Arizona is a pretty young team but Peterson seemed to be the obvious choice. John Skelton (24) and Ryan Williams (22) could be considered, but Peterson was far and away the obvious choice.
Peterson is still developing his defensive back skills and by next year could be one of the league's elite. It'll be very fun to watch this player's development over the next few seasons.
Atlanta Falcons: Julio Jones, WR
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When you pay the hefty price the Falcons paid for Jones in the 2011 draft, you expect to get some major production. Well, those dividends seem to be paying off pretty well in Atlanta as the team now features one of the leagues best receiver duos.
Coming off a season where he was 41 yards shy of 1,000, Jones burst out of the gates against the Chiefs, catching six balls for 108 yards and two scores. He was held in check against Denver in Week 2 but still figures to be a major part of the Falcons attack.
Jones has all the physical tools to become one of the league's elite receivers, and aside from a few mental lapses and easy drops, there are not a lot of holes in his game. The duo of Roddy White and Jones should be kicking for some time in Atlanta, keeping this team competitive for years.
Baltimore Ravens: Ray Rice, HB
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This will be Ray Rice's last year on a list like this and it's hard to believe a back with so much production is only 25 years of age.
Rice, a former third round pick, has had at least 1,700 total yards of offense in each of the last three seasons and is on pace to top 2,000 total yards for the third time in his career. The former Rutgers standout is one of the league's most versatile backs and he led the Ravens in receptions a year ago.
Since Rice will be too old for this list soon enough, it'll be interesting to see who can fill his shoes. Wide receiver Torrey Smith (23) would probably be the next guy in line as he's making a run at the number one receiver role.
Buffalo: C.J. Spiller, HB
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It's taken some time, but Buffalo's C.J. Spiller is finally showing Bills fans what made him the teams number one pick back in 2010.
Until this year, Spiller has been a major disappointment in Buffalo, reaching only 844 rushing yards and four touchdowns in his first two NFL seasons combined.
But 2012 has been a different story. Spiller has taken advantage of a Fred Jackson injury and run for daylight...literally. Spiller is currently leading the NFL in rushing yards and is already over halfway to his final total from a year ago only two games in.
Marcell Dareus (22) garnered a lot of attention from me for the list. He's a big-bodied player who's developing nicely around talent, but Spiller was too good to pass up. Maybe next year, Marcell.
Carolina Panthers: Cam Newton, QB
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This might have been the easiest pick of all. Newton exploded on the scene last year, and after being taken No. 1 overall by the Panthers in the draft, he shattered every rookie passing record he could get his hands on.
Cam's reach doesn't stop on the field, however. He is one of the most recognizable athletes today and he's only 23 years old.
The Panthers future rests on Newton's broad shoulders. That team will only go as far as their young, tenacious leader can carry them.
Chicago Bears: Major Wright, S
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As easy as it was to pick Cam Newton for the Panthers, that's how hard it was to find the Bears' best player under 25.
Earl Bennett, Henry Melton and D.J. Moore all came under consideration, but I just felt Wright had the more upside than any of those players.
Wright has started 25 career games for the Bears and already has 13 tackles and a safety in the team's two games this season. Wright could be a key piece on a defense that has really gotten old and slow over the last few seasons.
Cincinnati Bengals: A.J. Green, WR
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As good as Julio Jones can be for the Atlanta Falcons, I think A.J. Green has even more upside for the Cincinnati Bengals.
Green was taken in the same draft, slightly ahead of Jones and the two will be forever linked by that fact,. But Green has the upper hand early. He's already the established number one target on his football team and has the size to go up and get any ball in the air.
Cincinnati is packed with young, talented players. You might even be able to make a list of the 32 best Bengals under the age of 25 and I bet it'd be most of their starters.
Green, along with quarterback Andy Dalton, helped push the Bengals into the playoffs last season and they'll look to do more together this year.
Cleveland Browns: Joe Haden, CB
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It's been pretty well established that Darrelle Revis is the league's most elite shutdown cornerback. But after Revis, there's a discussion as to who comes next.
Joe Haden might be a guy who's ready to fill that void.
Haden has as much talent as any defensive back out there; he just happens to play on a really bad team. But against the Philadelphia Eagles in Week 1, Haden was lights out, shutting down receivers and even intercepting a pass.
Haden will serve a 4-game suspension, but when that's over, teams better watch out, because the Browns will be getting their best defender and maybe best player back.
Dallas Cowboys: DeMarco Murray, HB
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I already know I'm going to get blasted by the "what about Dez Bryant?" people, but you know what, I really don't care. Bryant has been too much of a problem for the Cowboys to even be considered to be their best at anything.
DeMarco Murray, on the other hand, has been nothing but a bonus in the Big D.
Murray would have been well on his way to 1,000 yards in 2011 if it hadn't been for an injury that cost him the season. This year, he's back on almost the exact same track and looks to help Dallas finally get back to the playoffs.
Tony Romo has never had a true running back that he could rely on until now. Murray makes the Cowboys offense better and helps them win games while Dez Bryant pulls his disappearing act in the fourth quarter of games.
Denver Broncos: Von Miller, OLB
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Most people like to give all the credit for the Broncos 2011 playoff season to quarterback Tim Tebow, but really a lot of it had to do with how well their defense played at the end of the season.
And the defense got much better because outside linebacker Von Miller became a stud.
Miller laid the wood as a rookie, recording 11.5 sacks and two forced fumbles in 15 games. This season, Miller has picked up right where he left off, piling up three sacks in two games so far.
Miller has helped to create one of the league's best pass rushing duos as Elvis Dumervil and himself put the fear in quarterbacks.
Detroit Lions: Matthew Stafford, QB
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Talk about starting off your career with a bang.
After losing two seasons to injury, Matt Stafford finally made all 16 regular season games and passed for over 5,000 yards and led the Lions to the playoffs.
Let me just say that again...HE LED THE LIONS TO THE PLAYOFFS!!!!!
That's no easy task to do, but clearly Stafford has been the lynchpin of an offense that's been waiting to explode for some time now.
If Stafford can stay healthy, he should one day become one of the best quarterbacks in the league, hopefully transitioning into many playoff appearances by the Detroit Lions.
Green Bay Packers: Morgan Burnett, S
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This was a pretty easy decision because, like their rival Bears, the Packers are actually pretty middle-aged to old on the defensive side of the ball.
But one guy who's injected youth into this unit has been safety Morgan Burnett.
Burnett finished last season with a whopping 107 tackles and figures to play an equally important role in the Packers defense this year. The team may have finally found their replacement for Nick Collins.
Burnett should only get better as he has one of the league's all-time greats to coach him up in Charles Woodson.
Houston Texans: Brian Cushing, LB
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After losing out on his Defensive Rookie of the Year honors for failing a drug test, people thought Brian Cushing would fade away into oblivion, never to be heard from again.
But that couldn't be further from the truth.
Cushing has actually gotten better since then and has been the key player to Wade Philips's defense in Houston. He's got 100-plus tackles in two of his first three full seasons and looks to add another to that total this year.
I'll admit, I fought back and forth giving this spot to defensive end J.J. Watt, who is as deserving as anyone, but at the end of the day, I just thought Cushing might be more important to the Texans defense.
Indianapolis Colts: Andrew Luck, QB
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This was as obvious of a choice as the Cam Newton pick, and like Newton, Luck's success will directly be tied to the success of his team.
He's played very well in his team's first two games, hitting on 56 percent of his passes and leading his team to a win in his second game. But it was really the way he won the game that caught my eye. Luck's drive at the end of the game was masterful and exactly what Colts fans wanted to see.
This should come as no surprise, but Colts fans should be watching this guy for a long time on Sundays and thinking "man, we really lucked out."
Jacksonville Jaguars: Justin Blackmon, WR
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Blackmon came into the league as one of the highest-rated receivers on the draft board. Jacksonville thought he was good enough to move up a few spots and grabbed the receiver to add to their offense.
It's been a slow start for the rookie, but in all fairness, he did miss most of training camp and is still behind the curve.
I think by mid-season, we'll all be able to see Blackmon's real talent on display...that is, if Blaine Gabbert can manage to get him the ball.
Kansas City Chiefs: Eric Berry, S
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Talk about a defensive playmaker, when Eric Berry's name comes up, all I can think is Ed Reed and Troy Polamalu combined.
Berry can hit like a linebacker and ball-hawk like a corner. He's great in the box, deep or playing man. Simply said, he's one of the best safeties in the league.
Let's just hope he can stay healthy.
Miami Dolphins: Mike Pouncey, OL
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Following his identical brother, Mike Pouncey has emerged as one of the toughest centers in the NFL. On a team that's lacking young or old talent, Pouncey was an easy choice for this list.
For the Dolphins, Pouncey is the anchor of an offensive line that has a chance to be very good very soon. With Jake Long on the outside, this team needs some help on guard and we could be talking about one of the best units in the league.
Minnesota Vikings: Percy Harvin, WR
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There's no doubting Percy Harvin's talent on the field. He's dynamic and can play multiple positions and different aspects of the game.
But his biggest problem so far has been staying on the field to create an impact.
Concussions have gotten the best of Harvin so far in his career and hopefully we're seeing the end of this trend and the beginning of a great football player's career.
New England Patriots: Rob Gronkowski / TE
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Who doesn't love the Gronk?
From partying after a Super Bowl loss topless and swinging your shirt around to catching 15 touchdowns in a season, Gronk is one of the most entertaining players in the league on and off the field.
And for an aging team like the Patriots, he brings much needed youth to an offense that can put up points with the best of them.
For the last two years, Gronk has been the best there is at tight end and there's no reason that should change.
New Orleans Saints: Jimmy Graham, TE
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Just like Gronk a slide before him, Jimmy Graham has developed into one of the best tight ends in the game at catching the football.
In fact, Graham might be the best receiving tight end in the NFL today.
He has the benefit of a wide open offense but he is an absolute matchup nightmare for an defensive coordinator to stop.
Even after Drew Brees is gone from this league, look for Graham to be another QB's favorite target.
New York Giants: Hakeem Nicks, WR
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I'm aware that I passed on Victor Cruz for his running mate Hakeem Nicks, but hear me out.
Physically, Nicks is the much better talent. He can go up and make some ridiculous plays down the field for the Giants that Cruz couldn't do in Madden. But his biggest enemy has been himself.
Dropping easy passes and not being healthy enough to stay on the field have really hurt Nicks so far in his career.
If Nicks can stay healthy, there's no doubt he's the better talent than Cruz. But at this point, that's a big if.
New York Jets: Muhammad Wilkerson, DE
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I've been as critical as anybody on the Jets defense, but one thing I think they've done really well is build a great front three. And the anchor of that front three is defensive end Muhammad Wilkerson.
Wilkerson is a big man with great strength. He's not just a run-stopper—he had three sacks last season and he provides the Jets with a unique skill set in their defense.
The combination of Wilkerson and Quinton Coples is a really nice one and should be in place for a long time. These two guys could help the Jets win just as Aaron Smith and Brett Keisel did for the Steelers.
Oakland Raiders: Darren McFadden, HB
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Running back Darren McFadden is another guy who injuries have just held him back from reaching his true potential. When this guy is healthy, he looks like the best back in the NFL.
But the problem is the rarity that he is truly healthy.
McFadden also has the misfortune of playing on a really poor team and opponents will be keying on him all year long.
Hopefully things get better for the Raiders and McFadden, because if they don't, we may all be wondering what could have been.
Philadelphia Eagles: LeSean McCoy, HB
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Every time I watch the Philadelphia Eagles play I find myself continuing to question why Andy Reid doesn't hand the ball to LeSean McCoy more than 15 times a game.
After all, he is the team's best weapon.
McCoy has a skill set similar to that of Ray Rice, in that he is a very good receiver out of the backfield, but McCoy is one of the shiftiest runners in the game today and brings back memories of the way Barry Sanders used to run.
One day, Philadelphia will realize what they have at running back. Let's just hope it's not too late.
Pittsburgh Steelers: Antonio Brown, WR
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Receiver Antonio Brown was one of the biggest surprises for the Pittsburgh Steelers last season. Brown became such a major influence on the team that he was given the Steelers MVP award by the players and coaches.
Brown, a former fifth rounder, topped 1,000 yards last season and showed that this isn't the Steelers we've become used to.
Brown just signed a new 5-year extension with the team so he won't be going anywhere for a while.
The question becomes: Can the team keep the Brown/Mike Wallace tandem together for more than this year?
St. Louis Rams: James Laurinaitis, LB
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It's a little odd that I'm not going with quarterback Sam Bradford here, but I'm not sure Bradford can ever recover from what offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels did to him in his short time in St. Louis.
James Laurinaitis is the middle man on an up-and-coming defense that could be one of the league's best in a few years. The fourth year man has never missed a game for the Rams and has never had less than 110 tackles in a single season.
In 2011, he recorded a career-high 142 tackles and three sacks. He'll look to improve on those numbers this season and beyond.
San Diego Chargers: Ryan Mathews, HB
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Like a lot of other contending teams, the Chargers' young talent is pretty undeveloped and mostly rotational players or backups.
That one exception would be Ryan Mathews.
Mathews hasn't been the player the Chargers traded up for two years ago, but he did manage to squeek over the 1,000 yard mark last season.
Mathews has yet to play in 2012 due to a broken collarbone, but we'll see what the future holds for this talented player.
San Francisco 49ers: NaVorro Bowman, LB
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When you think about the 49ers linebackers, obviously Patrick Willis comes right to mind. But San Francisco has another young stud plugging up the middle of their defense.
NaVorro Bowman has really developed over the last three seasons into one of the league's best middle linebackers. He had 143 tackles last season, forced three fumbles and recorded his first career interception this year against Aaron Rodgers.
The sky's the limit right now for Bowman and the 49ers as they boast the best defense in football. Bowman will only continue to get better around as talented a group as there is in the NFL.
Seattle Seahawks: Earl Thomas, S
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Since coming into the league, Earl Thomas has had a knack for making plays in the secondary for the Seattle Seahawks.
Although undersized, Thomas always seems to be around the football, gathering 7 interceptions and recovering 3 fumbles in 2-plus seasons of work. He recorded 98 tackles from his free safety position last season.
Along with Eric Berry, Thomas is one of the best young safeties in the NFL and could fill the void left by Ed Reed and Troy Polamalu when those two decide to call it quits.
Tampa Bay Buccaneers: Doug Martin, HB
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It's been pretty obvious through the first two weeks of his NFL career that Doug Martin has the chance to be a really great player in this league.
After churning out Ray Rice at Rutgers, Bucs head coach Greg Schiano will attempt to do the same thing in Tampa with Martin, who plays a similar game. Averaging 80 yards on the ground per game, Martin should help the Bucs win some games in 2012.
There's no guarantee that Martin is going to be a stud in the league but he's got as good a chance as any rookie running back, including Trent Richardson.
Tennessee Titans: Jake Locker, QB
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Although it's been a rough start of the season for Locker and the Titans, there's no question this guy is the team's quarterback of the future.
Locker showed his stuff last year throwing four touchdowns compared to zero interceptions for a QB rating of 99.4. This year he hasn't been so fortunate, but he's missed top targets Kenny Britt and Nate Washington for most of the early year.
Locker should be able to turn it around, especially if Chris Johnson can run for more than a dozen yards in a game this season. You just hope the Titans didn't throw him to the wolves too soon.
Washington Redskins: Robert Griffin III, QB
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Maybe nobody has started their NFL career better than Robert Griffin III of the Washington Redskins. Dismantling a Super Bowl-contending team in the Super Dome is no easy task, but RGIII made it look just that.
The Redskins had a little hiccup in Week 2, but before Josh Morgan cost the Skins the game, RGIII had a nice drive going to put Washington in position to tie the game.
He's completed 70 percent of his passes so far this year and has thrown just one interception to three touchdowns.
With RGIII, it sure looks like the Redskins finally have the quarterback they've been missing for a few decades now. Time will tell the full story, but it's a great start.