Ranking the 25 Best Players Under 25 in the NFL

James Dudko@@JamesDudkoFeatured ColumnistMay 15, 2013

Ranking the 25 Best Players Under 25 in the NFL

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    The two most dominant defensive players in football top the rankings of the NFL's best talents under 25. These two prolific pass-rushers are among 12 members of the 2011 draft class who made this list.

    Four quarterbacks are also featured, including three passers who dominated the league as rookies in 2012. There is also room for two players who have already played four seasons in the league, despite still being in their tender years.

    Read on to find out the top 25 players in the NFL under 25.

Players You Might Expect to See on This List, but Won't

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    Defensive studs like Cincinnati's Geno Atkins and Seattle's Richard Sherman would have made this list less than two months ago; however, both celebrated their 25th birthdays at the end of March.

    That means that they just missed the cut, despite emerging as stars at their respective positions last season. Sherman has become one of the NFL's premier press cornerbacks, while Atkins is the game's most dominant interior pass-rusher.

    Quarterback Colin Kaepernick was a sensation after being given a chance to start for the San Francisco 49ers in his second pro season, but the 25-year-old also misses out here.

Honorable Mentions

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    The list of players who just missed the cut, but still merit an honorable mention, begins with the Pouncey twins. Maurkice Pouncey and Mike Pouncey have both wasted no time in forging reputations as highly skilled offensive linemen.

    Maurkice currently has the better reputation as the anchor for the Pittsburgh Steelers offensive line. However, Mike is closing the gap and becoming a vital cog for the Miami Dolphins at the same position.

    Still, both miss out due to the intense competition for spots and the overall quality of offensive players under 25.

    One defender who didn't quite make the grade was Cleveland Browns cornerback Joe Haden. He is still as capable as any cover man in the league, but he went off the boil a little bit in 2012. It will be interesting to see how he fares in new defensive coordinator Ray Horton's zone schemes in 2013.

    There was also no room for dynamic tight end Aaron Hernandez. The New England Patriots star has simply had too many injuries in his short career. He was also beaten out for a spot on this list by his more renowned teammate, who also plays the same position.

    The most contentious omission will be Tampa Bay Buccaneers running back Doug Martin. Although he was outstanding in 2012, Martin's place was given to a runner with greater long-term potential.

    If Martin's omission irks some, so will the fact that Dallas Cowboys wide receiver Dez Bryant just missed the list. When he is on his game, the 24-year-old is as good as any receiver in football.

    Sadly, there are just too many times when Bryant is off his game. He is not yet the consistent playmaker Michael Irvin was when he wore No. 88 in Dallas.

    Seattle Seahawks safety Earl Thomas is another name many might be shocked not to see in the top 25. Thomas is a developing player, but he is also complemented by plenty of talent in the Seattle secondary.

    The 24-year-old was also part of the deep coverage that was responsible for the late-game collapse against the Atlanta Falcons in the NFC playoffs.

    Finally, active inside linebacker Luke Kuechly misses out, despite a fine rookie campaign for the Carolina Panthers. Kuechly was helped by a stout defensive front, led by the brilliant Charles Johnson.

    However, that doesn't diminish Kuechly's skills. His omission simply came down to an issue of numbers. There were five spots given to linebackers, and the quintet chosen were deemed more deserving of their places at this point.

25. Akeem Ayers, OLB, Tennessee Titans

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    It's a shame that the Tennessee Titans don't make more waves in the AFC South. Then, more people around the NFL would know just how good Akeem Ayers is.

    He has quickly developed into a complete playmaker in defensive coordinator Jerry Gray's schemes.

    Ayers lines up as the strong-side linebacker in base sets. He offers tremendous versatility as a dangerous blitzer and is a force against the run.

    Ayers logged six sacks in 2012, and if the Titans turn him loose more often in 2013, he can have a monster season.

24. Alfred Morris, RB, Washington Redskins

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    The strength of Mike Shanahan's vaunted zone-blocking schemes places Alfred Morris at No. 24 on this list. 

    The Redskins boasted the best ground game in the NFL in 2012, and Morris was its driving force. The rookie set a franchise single-season rushing record with 1,613 yards.

    Morris bulldozed his way through bewildered defenses that never expected the ex-Florida Atlantic product to be so dynamic.

    The 24-year-old showcased quick recognition skills and a decisive temperament in the backfield. Once the Redskins zone scheme creates the holes, Morris doesn't waste a second before exploiting them.

23. Corey Liuget, DT, San Diego Chargers

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    The San Diego Chargers are hiding somethingan ultra-talented defensive tackle who is ready to dominate sooner rather than later.

    Corey Liuget is quietly emerging as a real force along the Chargers' defensive front. His takeoff speed is exceptional for a player standing at 6'2" and weighing 300 pounds.

    The 23-year-old also utilizes his leverage to drive blockers into the backfield. Liuget is the primary threat for any quarterback or running back facing the Chargers.

    San Diego's staff must scheme more ways for the young linchpin of the defense to create damage.

22. Muhammad Wilkerson, DT, New York Jets

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    Even if Darrelle Revis had stayed with the New York Jets, the star cornerback wouldn't have been the best player on Gang Green's defense. That distinction now belongs to marauding defensive tackle Muhammad Wilkerson.

    Next to impossible to handle with single-blocking, Wilkerson commands double-teams. The 23-year-old engulfs running lanes and creates consistent push on the pocket.

    Wilkerson is also not short of talent as a pass-rusher. He collected five sacks in 2012 and showed a real instinct for the big play by forcing three fumbles.

    The various things head coach Rex Ryan likes to do on defense are all made possible by Wilkerson's ability to tear down the line of scrimmage.

21. Antonio Brown, WR, Pittsburgh Steelers

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    As good as Mike Wallace was as a vertical threat, he is not the wide receiver who deserved a big payday from the Pittsburgh Steelers. It is 24-year-old Antonio Brown who has deserved the money all along, and the Steelers were wise to re-sign him to a five-year, $42.5 million deal last offseason instead of Wallace.

    Despite a diminutive 5'10", 186-pound frame, Brown just has the knack for getting open and making the tough catches. However, his best attribute is what he can do once he receives a pass.

    Brilliant in space, Brown has made more than a few safeties and cornerbacks taste the ground after attempting to hit him. He is super quick and elusive with the ball in his hands.

    If the Steelers need a big play or a clutch contribution, they should look no further than Brown.

20. Ryan Kerrigan, OLB, Washington Redskins

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    Ryan Kerrigan has been highly productive in his first two seasons as a pro. The 24-year-old has become something of a big-play specialist for the Washington Redskins.

    Kerrigan has notched 16 sacks and forced eight turnovers since 2011. He has taken both of his two career interceptions to the end zone, and he has made a quick transition to Washington's 3-4 front.

    Kerrigan became the main force for the Redskins defense last season while fellow outside linebacker Brian Orakpo was injured. Despite greater attention being directed his way last season, Kerrigan still led the Redskins in sacks.

    He offers a great all-around game as a 3-4 rush linebacker and is fast becoming one of the best in the league at his position.

19. Randall Cobb, WR/KR, Green Bay Packers

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    Randall Cobb was noted for his exemplary return skills as a rookie in 2011. However, in 2012, he finished just 46 yards shy of posting a 1,000-yard season as a receiver.

    At just 22, Cobb has already established his worth as a triple-threat weapon for the Green Bay Packers. He has proved his talent as a receiver and also offers big-play potential on running plays.

    In addition to adding greater flexibility to an already dominant offense, Cobb is still a lethal returner. He accounted for 1,256 combined return yards last season and ran two punts back for scores.

    Expect Cobb to be an even greater threat in 2013, as the Packers devise new ways to set him free.

18. Justin Houston, OLB, Kansas City Chiefs

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    Not many 3-4 defenses boast bookend outside pass-rushers of the quality of Tamba Hali and Justin Houston. The latter is quickly emerging as a real terror on the edge.

    Houston registered 10 sacks during the Kansas City Chiefs' nightmare 2-14 campaign last season. He was also in on 66 stops and grabbed an interception.

    The former Georgia defensive end has applied himself well and has become close to a complete 3-4 outside linebacker. The scary thought is that the 24-year-old could be even more prolific in new coordinator Bob Sutton's more attack-minded defense.

17. Robert Quinn, DE, St. Louis Rams

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    As a pure pass-rusher, Robert Quinn is developing into a feared player on a burgeoning St. Louis Rams defense. There are few ends in the league who can match the speed off the edge of this 22-year-old.

    In his second pro season, Quinn recorded 10.5 sacks. There is no doubt that he has benefited from playing on the same line as fellow end Chris Long.

    However, it would be unfair to claim that Quinn's numbers aren't the direct product of his outstanding talents. As a truly versatile rush end, Quinn can pass rush from the outside with his hand down or from a standing position.

    He can also move inside and overwhelm guards with his stunning initial quickness. Quinn is not yet a force against the run, but in a league that favors pass-happy offenses, his skill in getting after the quarterback is invaluable.

16. Trent Richardson, RB, Cleveland Browns

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    Trent Richardson may have failed to top 1,000 yards as a rookie, but he showed enough to indicate that he will soon justify his status as the No. 3 overall pick in the 2012 NFL draft.

    Richardson was hampered by a series of persistent injury woes in his first season, as he struggled to fully shake off knee and rib complaints.

    It also didn't help that the Cleveland Browns lacked a sufficient passing game to take some pressure off their running back. Even with all that, Richardson still tallied 950 yards on the ground. He also powered his way to 11 rushing touchdowns.

    At just 21, Richardson's potential is awesome. With Norv Turner calling the plays in 2013, expect Richardson to wow the league in Year 2.

15. Cam Newton, QB, Carolina Panthers

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    He wasn't anywhere near his best in 2012, but Cam Newton's knack for playmaking can't be ignored. Even during an off year, Newton threw for 19 touchdowns and rushed for eight more.

    That level of points production makes the temperamental 24-year-old one of the league's best. Only volatile behavior on the sidelines and periods of sulking can keep Newton from dominating.

    That's why Newton is the lowest-ranked quarterback on this list.

14. Julio Jones, WR, Atlanta Falcons

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    The player who prompted a blockbuster trade in the 2011 NFL draft is rapidly becoming the NFL's premier deep threat. The Atlanta Falcons gave away a lot to the Cleveland Browns two years ago to land Jones, but so far, they are the outright winners of that deal.

    Jones works the outside and vertical routes in the league's best passing game. He averaged 15.2 yards per reception and caught 10 scoring passes in 2012.

    Jones is close to overtaking Roddy White as the focal point of Atlanta's downfield air attack. At 6'3" and 220 pounds, he poses a mismatch against most opposing cornerbacks.

    In the playoffs last season, Jones made people think again about the reputed strength of the San Francisco 49ers secondary, and he is a dominant difference-maker heading into his third season.

    Only the strength of the supporting cast around himsomething that certainly hasn't hurt Jonesprevents him from being placed higher on this list.

13. Robert Griffin III, QB, Washington Redskins

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    It took only one game for the Washington Redskins to feel vindicated about giving away two first-round picks to select Robert Griffin III with the No. 2 overall pick in the 2012 NFL draft.

    Griffin took the Redskins into New Orleans in Week 1 and promptly sparked a 40-point assault on the Saints. He threw for two touchdown passes and 320 yards, while also adding 42 additional yards on the ground. Redskins fans everywhere knew the team had finally found its quarterback.

    Griffin proceeded to get better and better throughout the rest of the season. He produced too many highlight reel-worthy plays to even list here.

    Griffin put up one phenomenal stat after another, and he broke Cam Newton's all-time rookie rushing record for a quarterback, finishing 2012 with 815 rushing yards and seven scores.

    The former Heisman Trophy winner also threw 20 touchdown passes. More than just delivering the spectacular, Griffin proved that he could be efficient with the ball.

    He tossed only five interceptions and stayed within a system carefully crafted for his success. His play-action skills are the best in the league, and Griffin refined his overall passing range as the season progressed.

    His relatively low ranking here is attributed solely to the severity of the knee injury he suffered in the playoffsGriffin tore both his ACL and MCL against the Seattle Seahawks.

    It's impossible to accurately gauge how much that might diminish his physical dominance in 2013.

    Here's hoping the answer is not at all.

12. Rob Gronkowski, TE, New England Patriots

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    Rob Gronkowski is another dominating physical specimen who was hit by serious injuries last season. The 24-year-old suffered elbow and forearm issues in 2012.

    However, in the 11 games he started last season, Gronkowski continued to give defensive coordinators headaches. The NFL's most dynamic, classically built tight end showcases a level of versatility that's unmatched at his position.

    A player standing at 6'6" and weighing 265 pounds should not be able to split out wide and run deep patterns. He should not even be able to work so effectively from the slot.

    No matter where the Patriots align Gronkowski, he is their most dangerous receiver. He is a mismatch for every level of a coverage scheme.

    He overpowers cornerbacks and safeties and simply outruns linebackers. Gronkowski caught 11 touchdowns in 2012, and he played a key role in the revival of the Patriots running game as a punishing blocker.

    Recent reports from ESPNBoston.com suggest that Gronkowski is looking healthy ahead of the new season. That sound you can hear is most of the league's defensive coordinators shedding tears.

11. LeSean McCoy, RB, Philadelphia Eagles

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    Were it not for his measly two touchdowns in 2012, LeSean McCoy would be ranked higher. Outside of maybe Jamaal Charles and C.J. Spiller, there is no more naturally exciting runner in the league.

    At 24, McCoy has already managed four full pro seasons, including two campaigns where he rushed for more than 1,000 yards. McCoy has averaged over four yards a carry in every year that he has been in the league.

    That's a testament to his great initial quickness and his vast array of moves and counter-moves that outwit would-be tacklers. McCoy is the ultimate shifty runner, and his mixture of dynamism and quick cuts should be lethal in new head coach Chip Kelly's zone-based, run-first attack.

10. Jason Pierre-Paul, DE, New York Giants

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    Jason Pierre-Paul is another supreme talent who had a down year in 2012. However, the New York Giants star is still a true playmaker at defensive end.

    Since Pierre-Paul's arrival in 2010, teams are now more willing to take a chance on a lineman who has raw technique but possesses exceptional athleticism.

    That's because the rest of the league has seen what Pierre-Paul's awesome speed and devilish range of movement can do to an offense. No matter where he lines up, Pierre-Paul is the player to watch on a Big Blue defensive front that is loaded with talent.

    The 24-year-old certainly received extra attention last season, and his numbers went down as a result. However, he remains a versatile force against both the run and the pass, and he is the modern prototype for a 4-3 defensive end.

9. NaVorro Bowman, ILB, San Francisco 49ers

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    Adding NaVorro Bowman to the starting unit in 2011 turned the San Francisco 49ers defense from a tough group into a feared one. The ex-Penn State standout has increased the intimidation factor for a front seven already containing Patrick Willis and Justin Smith.

    Willis is considered as the NFL's best inside linebacker, but Bowman has not been far behind his more illustrious colleague. The 24-year-old has topped 140 tackles in each of the past two seasons.

    Many of his hits have been punishing, bone-jarring collisions, but that is not to say that Bowman's game is defined entirely by big hits.

    He has also proved his worth in coverage. He has broken up 14 passes in two years, and he makes it tough for any receiver running an underneath pattern.

    Bowman has quickly become a complete linebacker. As long as he patrols the middle, the 49ers defense will stay among the league's most dominant units.

8. Russell Wilson, QB, Seattle Seahawks

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    Even when watching Russell Wilson in college, it was easy to see that he could make all the throws. He demonstrated nice touch on his passes and put the ball between the numbers the majority of the time.

    However, it was also easy to know that teams would be put off by his 5'11" frame, even after an excellent final collegiate season at Wisconsin. When the Seattle Seahawks snatched him in the third round, it was equally easy to know that he would beat Tarvaris Jackson and Matt Flynn to start the season.

    As soon as he took the field for his first competitive NFL game, Wilson showcased his ample talent, and he got better every week.

    While others grabbed the headlines, Wilson steadily put together a magnificent debut campaign. His first year included 26 touchdown passes and 3,118 yards through the air.

    Wilson's quality as a passer was obvious, but keeping up with modern trends, he also demonstrated genuine dual-threat skills. The 24-year-old scampered for 489 yards and four scores on the ground last season as well.

    He was the catalyst that sparked an already solid Seahawks team to a whisker short of the NFC title game. Only an uncharacteristic defensive lapse against the Falcons prevented Wilson and Seattle from advancing to the NFC Championship Game.

    With this pint-sized marvel under center, expect the Seahawks to stay competitive for a long while.

7. A.J. Green, WR, Cincinnati Bengals

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    It's difficult to fathom just how A.J. Green does it, as he is the only wide receiver for the Cincinnati Bengals worth covering.

    The Cincinnati offense doesn't feature a dominant ground attack to take the pressure off him, either. Doubling up on Green should be the main focus for every defense facing the Bengals.

    Even with all that attention, Green continues to toy with defensive backs and consistently get open deep. He followed a brilliant 2011 rookie season by making 97 catches in 2012.

    Green tallied 1,350 yards and 11 touchdowns as well. However, his average of 13.9 yards per catch last season was down from his 16.3 average in 2011, so he has room for improvement in 2013.

    Green became a more complete receiver last season, and that is terrible news for every one of Cincinnati's opponents in 2013.

6. Aldon Smith, OLB, San Francisco 49ers

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    Arguably the NFL's best pure pass-rusher comes in only at No. 6 on the list, thanks to a mild late-season slump in 2012. For most of last season, though, Aldon Smith destroyed every blocking scheme he encountered.

    The 23-year-old recorded 19.5 sacks in his first 13 games. However, he didn't register another quarterback sack for the rest of the season.

    An injury sustained by defensive lineman Justin Smith had a negative impact on the 49ers' Aldon, who was possibly playing through a labrum injury of his own (via San Francisco Chronicle).

    He didn't receive as many single blocks as he had previously, and he wasn't the same force. The younger Smith is clearly a dominant pass-rusher, but his drop in production was so sharp after Week 14 that it leaves him with a lot to prove in 2013.

5. Percy Harvin, WR, Seattle Seahawks

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    Without the injury that kept him out of seven games last season, Percy Harvin could find himself within the top three on this list. His all-around game is arguably the best in the league.

    As a wide receiver, Harvin can make plays anywhere across the field. He can take a crossing pattern and outrun safeties over the middle.

    He can also stretch a coverage scheme vertically and run up under a deep ball. When working in the slot, there are few, if any, more dangerous receivers than the turbo-charged 24-year-old.

    Harvin's lightning quick stutter steps, fluid change-of-direction skills and sudden acceleration make him the NFL's most exciting player with the ball in his hands.

    With the lean flanker on the field, the possibilities are endless for an offense. He can take a direct snap and gallop through bewildered defenders as a running back, and he can turn any screen pass into a score.

    There is still room to pay homage to his quality as a kick returner, too. If Harvin stays on the field in Seattlesomething he didn't always manage to do for the Minnesota Vikingshe could be in the running for NFL MVP.

4. Patrick Peterson, CB, Arizona Cardinals

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    Any cornerback who wears the same number as and models himself after Deion Sanders had better have the game to back his bravado.

    Thankfully, Patrick Peterson certainly does.

    At the rate he's going, the 22-year-old Arizona Cardinals star may have a career to rival that of Sanders. In 2012, Peterson blossomed into a premier cover man.

    He defended 16 passes and intercepted seven others. Quarterbacks are learning to not throw Peterson's way.

3. Andrew Luck, QB, Indianapolis Colts

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    Andrew Luck deserves his spot as the top-ranked quarterback on this list. The turnaround he inspired for the Indianapolis Colts in 2012 was remarkable.

    Luck wasted no time establishing himself as the leader for the downtrodden AFC South outfit, although critics may point to his meager 76.5 passer rating as an issue.

    However, Luck faced greater challenges than fellow rookies Wilson and Griffin III.

    Wilson entered a team that already boasted a fearsome defense and powerful running back Marshawn Lynch.

    Griffin, meanwhile, also had the luxury of a strong running scheme. More importantly, Griffin was carefully packaged into a system that was entirely tailored to his specific qualities. The Pistol offense that the Redskins ran was a massive boost to Griffin, and Luck didn't have these fail-safes in place.

    He arrived to a team fielding a suspect offensive line, an anemic rushing attack and a porous defense. He was also replacing a franchise legend in Peyton Manning.

    Yet none of that prevented Luck from throwing for more than 4,000 yards as a rookie. He threw for 4,374 yards in all along with 23 scores. He also averaged 4.1 yards per carry and scored five touchdowns as a runner, just for good measure.

    Because of the initial paucity of options around him, Luck had to put the ball in the air more often. Hurling 18 interceptions was the byproduct of being his offense's main weapon.

    What's most impressive about Luck is his tenacity as a passer. He is not afraid to make any throw against pro defenses. Luck is the most decisive young quarterback in football, and he will only get better.

2. J.J. Watt, DE, Houston Texans

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    J.J. Watt is one player that Luck will be attempting to outrun for most of his career. Of course, not many quarterbacks successfully avoid the game's most destructive defensive end.

    It's hard to imagine the 24-year-old ever surpassing what he produced in only his second pro season. Watt tallied 20.5 sacks in 2012 and was in on 81 tackles, both eye-popping stats for a defensive lineman.

    He also forced four fumbles and swatted away 16 passes. Watt has become the focal point of the Houston Texans defense.

    Everything coordinator Wade Phillips runs is based off the havoc that Watt causes, both on the edge and along the interior. Watt's game is based on incredible power in the trenches.

    He is also extremely quick out of his stance. Watt is often moving forward before blockers have a chance to react to his first rush moves.

    Those rush moves usually involve using his long arms that rip and swim over blockers and split double-teams. As the season wore on, three blockers were often assigned to block Watt on one play.

    With Watt anchoring both three- and four-man fronts for the Texans, their defense will stay near the top of the league rankings.

1. Von Miller, OLB, Denver Broncos

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    The NFL's best defensive player rightly commands the top spot on this list. Von Miller has brought a new level of playmaking excellence to the strong-side linebacker position.

    In doing so, he has helped keep the 4-3 scheme relevant, and he has also given the Denver Broncos true multiple-front flexibility. Miller is not your typical 4-3 outside linebacker.

    Having him on the field is like playing the 4-3 with Lawrence Taylor or DeMarcus Ware as one of your three linebackers. Miller essentially gives the Broncos a third defensive end in base sets.

    He stands up to the run on the edge like a defensive lineman, so that means that teams can't assign tight ends or fullbacks to try and neutralize him.

    Miller commands the attention of at least one offensive lineman on most running plays. As dynamic and versatile as he is as a standup linebacker, opponents would prefer to see Miller there rather than putting his hand on the ground.

    When he aligns at defensive end in nickel fronts, Miller is a stunning pass-rusher. His takeoff speed is incredible, but it is his deceptive power and excellent natural leverage that often defeats blockers.

    Miller notched 18.5 sacks in a 2012 season of pure dominance. He also added 68 tackles, 55 of them solo stops.

    Miller's knack for the big play sets him apart from most defenders in the game. He forced six fumbles and snatched an interception last season.

    The 24-year-old is the epitome of the modern hybrid defensive player. Miller is not a jack-of-all-trades; he is a master of them.

    He is also the NFL's best player under 25.