NFL: Top 25 Players Under 25 Years Old
A strong case could be made that the talent level currently in the National Football League is at an all-time high. Quarterbacks Peyton Manning and Tom Brady are re-writing the record books one season at a time, making their case as the greatest to ever play the position.
Defensive lineman J.J. Watt is as fearsome of a defensive player as this league has seen in years. And skill position superstars like Calvin Johnson and Jimmy Graham could hold their own against any defensive back ever.
The next tier of great players in this league is ready to take over, with recent draft picks like Andrew Luck, Von Miller and Robert Quinn making their mark on the competition. But this list will look only at players that have not yet celebrated their 25th birthday.
Current rookies are not eligible for this list, so you won’t see names like Jadeveon Clowney or Sammy Watkins. Young players like Russell Wilson (25 years old) or Cam Newton (25) aren’t eligible as a player must be under 25 years old. Watt just turned 25 as well, so he can’t be on here.
For the most part, these players are guys who debuted in the NFL since 2011 or 2012. It’s what you would call the next class of great players in this league.
Rankings are based on production so far in the NFL.
25. Michael Floyd, WR, Arizona Cardinals
In just his second season in the National Football League, Michael Floyd (1,041 yards) actually outgained teammate Larry Fitzgerald, (954).
Floyd could stand to be more consistent—he had over 100 yards in just two contests, and one of those was a 193-yard output against the Jacksonville Jaguars. Still, the third-year product from Notre Dame is on track to be the go-to receiver for the Arizona Cardinals.
The 6’3”, 220-pound wideout is a good red-zone threat. Floyd has a lot of upside and should soon be a top-10 receiver.
24. Kevin Zeitler, G, Cincinnati Bengals
Kevin Zeitler is emerging as one of the game’s finest offensive linemen, although he’s vastly underrated. Zeitler was a first-round pick of the 2012 Cincinnati Bengals, and he started all 16 games as a rookie.
Zeitler missed some time this past season with a foot injury, but he still helped the Bengals reach the postseason for the second straight year. Pro Football Focus graded Zeitler as the AFC Offensive Rookie of the Month for October 2012, and he showed steady improvement in ’13 as both a run-blocker and pass-protector.
23. Larry Warford, G, Detroit Lions
Overshadowed by the selection of first-round guards Chance Warmack and Jonathan Cooper, Detroit’s Larry Warford emerged as the finest of the bunch last season. As just a rookie, Warford played at a level that rated him with the best of the best in the NFL.
Per Pro Football Focus, Warford ranked as the fourth-best guard, earning a plus-22.8 rating. He played all 1,158 snaps without allowing a single sack. That made him one of just two National Football League guards to see action in at least 900 snaps without allowing a sack; the other was Louis Vasquez, who had the luxury of blocking for Peyton Manning.
It’s not as if Warford took his time adjusting to the league either—he didn’t give up so much as a quarterback hurry until Week 4. He was proficient in run-blocking as well, and he’s athletic enough to get downfield on screen passes, which is a must with Reggie Bush and Joique Bell on the team.
22. Casey Hayward, CB, Green Bay Packers
Casey Hayward’s 2012 rookie campaign was one of the more underrated great showings of the modern era, and it bodes extremely well for the Green Bay Packers.
Playing mostly as a nickel cornerback, Hayward intercepted six passes and held opposing quarterbacks to just a 44.8 completion percentage and ridiculously stingy 31.1 passer rating. Those numbers—per Pro Football Focus—rated him as the fourth-best overall corner in the game.
Hayward didn’t allow a single touchdown pass, either. He dropped off slightly in ’13 and battled hamstring issues that eventually landed him on season-ending injured reserve. His future is extremely bright, though, and he spells trouble for opposing NFC North slot receivers.
21. Kiko Alonso, OLB, Buffalo Bills
Upon entering the NFL last year, Kiko Alonso didn’t waste any time establishing himself as one of the league's biggest defensive playmakers. Alonso picked off a pass in his second-ever game, then got another the next week, and two more the following week.
When the dust settled, Alonso had himself a monster campaign. He recorded four interceptions, two sacks, and two fumble recoveries, becoming just the second rookie in league history to pull off that accomplishment.
Alonso will be moving to the outside linebacker position in Buffalo’s 4-3 defense next season, which will maximize his opportunities in pass coverage.
20. Eddie Lacy, RB, Green Bay Packers
Eddie Lacy stepped right in as a rookie and was a workhorse running back for the Green Bay Packers. He carried the ball 284 times for 1,178 yards and 11 touchdowns, finishing fourth in the NFL in missed tackles (56), per Pro Football Focus.
The Packers were 7-2-1 when Lacy carried the ball 20 or more times. He also caught his fair share of passes out of the backfield, finishing with 35 receptions. All that earned Lacy a Pro Bowl nod in his first year in the NFL.
19. Tyrann Mathieu, CB, Arizona Cardinals
The Arizona Cardinals got arguably the steal of the 2013 draft when they took Tyrann Mathieu in the third round. Mathieu pretty much did it all as a rookie, playing cornerback, safety, and nickel cornerback.
Pro Football Focus rated Mathieu as the fourth-best cornerback in the NFL. He was extremely effective in blitzing the opposing quarterback, finishing with nine hurries. He stopped the run well and was tremendous against the pass.
Mathieu did tear his ACL late last season, so he may not be as effective in 2014. But he should. With Mathieu, Patrick Peterson and Antonio Cromartie, the Cardinals boast one of the finer trio of corners in the league.
18. Chandler Jones, DE, New England Patriots
Chandler Jones doesn’t get the publicity of some of the other sack specialists in the league, but he’s a key piece of an underrated New England Patriots’ defense. Jones picked up six sacks as a rookie before breaking out to the tune of 11.5 in 2013.
Jones added 42 tackles, a fumble recovery, a forced fumble and a defensive touchdown. He and Rob Ninkovich are young and talented enough to be a formidable pair for years to come.
17. Cordy Glenn, OT, Buffalo Bills
Left tackle Cordy Glenn will be a vital factor in the development of quarterback EJ Manuel. Glenn put together a breakout 2013 campaign, rating by Pro Football Focus as a top-12 offensive tackle in the game.
Glenn was at his best as a pass-blocker. He didn’t allow a single hurry against Chandler Jones in Week 1. He held Carolina’s fearsome offensive line without a hurry the following week. In fact, he gave up just one hurry in his first four games.
For the season, Glenn allowed just two sacks. Not only did he suit up for every game, but he didn’t miss a single snap.
16. Sheldon Richardson, DE, New York Jets
Sheldon Richardson was an absolute stud as a rookie, and he teams with Muhammad Wilkerson to give the New York Jets a near-unstoppable duo of 3-4 defensive ends.
Richardson was probably the best player from the 2013 draft class, and would likely go in the top five in a redraft. He was the NFL Defensive Rookie of the Year, finishing with 3.5 sacks, 42 tackles and a forced fumble from the 5-technique spot.
Richardson even carried the ball four times as a fullback, scoring a pair of touchdowns.
15. Mike Pouncey, C, Miami Dolphins
A case could be made that Mike Pouncey is a top-three center in the NFL, although the 2014 campaign won’t be one of his finest.
Dolphins Pro-Bowl C Mike Pouncey underwent hip surgery today and is expected to miss at least three months, per ESPN sources.— Adam Schefter (@AdamSchefter) June 23, 2014
Don’t expect Pouncey to suit up for much of anything this season, which will completely alter the Miami Dolphins’ offensive line. When healthy, Pouncey is a stud. He rated by Pro Football Focus as the best overall pass-blocking center in the NFL in 2013, allowing just nine hurries for the year.
14. Jurrell Casey, DT/DE, Tennessee Titans
After blossoming into one of the finer 4-3 defensive tackles in the league, Jurrell Casey will now transition to defensive end in the new three-man front.
Casey has played 47 of a possible 48 games since the Tennessee Titans took him in the third round of the 2011 NFL draft. Casey averaged just under three sacks in each of his first two campaigns, but broke out with double-digit sacks in year three.
Casey was the fourth-best overall 4-3 tackle in the league, per PFF (subscription required). He has the frame, at close to 300 pounds, to play the 5-technique in coordinator Ray Horton’s new scheme.
13. Aldon Smith, OLB, San Francisco 49ers
Legal troubles aside, Aldon Smith is a force to be reckoned with as a pass-rushing specialist. He racked up 14 sacks without starting a game as a rookie, then put up a ridiculous 19.5 in his second year.
In three NFL seasons, Smith has 42 sacks and six forced fumbles in 43 career games. He doesn’t crack the top 10 on this list though for two key reasons: His off-the-field issues make it so the San Francisco 49ers can’t count on him as they should, and he benefits greatly from playing next to Justin Smith, one of the premier 3-4 defensive ends in the league.
12. Alshon Jeffery, WR, Chicago Bears
There were concerns about Alshon Jeffery when he got drafted—notably, the fact that he played his senior season of college at over 230 pounds. He has since lowered his body fat to just seven percent, and he’s a trim 215 pounds.
Jeffery made a minimal impact as a rookie, averaging just over 25 yards per game. He broke out as a sophomore though, putting up 89 receptions, 1,421 yards and seven scores. That made Jeffery just the third receiver in NFL history to put up that line at the age of 23 or younger.
11. Marcell Dareus, DT, Buffalo Bills
Marcell Dareus has been one of the more consistently productive defensive linemen since the Buffalo Bills drafted him third overall in 2011.
Dareus has suited up for all 48 games (although now he's in trouble with the law). He’s averaged over six sacks per season from either a 3-technique or 5-technique position. The 320-pounder has the size to play anywhere on the line, although he’s at his best plugging the middle of the line because he requires constant double-teams.
Dareus has made life remarkably easier for Kyle Williams, Mario Williams and Kiko Alonso.
10. Cameron Jordan, DE, New Orleans Saints
Cameron Jordan doesn’t quite get the publicity of J.J. Watt or Sheldon Richardson, but he’s a top-tier 3-4 defensive end in the league.
Jordan picked up more sacks in 2013 than Watt (12.5 to 10.5). He led all players at his position in quarterback pressures (50). He missed just two tackles in the running game. And he was a key player for a New Orleans Saints defense that went from 31st in scoring in ’12 to fourth a year ago.
9. Patrick Peterson, CB, Arizona Cardinals
Consider me among those who find Patrick Peterson to be overhyped at this stage in his career. There’s no denying he’s a remarkable talent and he is still a top-five corner in the league. But he’s not even close to Richard Sherman or Darrelle Revis.
Per Pro Football Focus, Peterson was torched in the passing game last year. Only three cornerbacks allowed more touchdowns (7) than Peterson did in 2013. Only one other player has allowed at least six touchdown passes in consecutive years. And Peterson’s interceptions dropped from seven in ’12 to just three a year ago.
He’s still a talented cover corner who can run with most of the top receivers in the league. But he will need more consistency to elevate his ranking higher on this list.
8. Tyron Smith, OT, Dallas Cowboys
Here’s a complete list of left tackles who played over 1,000 snaps in 2013 and allowed one sack or fewer: Tyron Smith.
The remarkable aspect of Smith’s game is that he’s still just 23 years old, even after three NFL seasons. Smith seemed to play better every week down the stretch in 2013. He shut down Lamarr Houston in Week 13. Then he did it to Julius Peppers in Week 14 and the tandem of B.J. Raji/Clay Matthews in Week 15.
Joe Thomas is still the unquestioned best offensive tackle in the game, and a case could be made for either Trent Williams or Jason Peters as the next best. But Smith is right behind them, and he’s likely to be the game’s best by the end of ’14.
7. Lavonte David, OLB, Tampa Bay Buccaneers
Outside of Von Miller, Lavonte David is the finest 4-3 outside linebacker in this game. He was one of the game’s best all-around defensive players in 2013.
David has started all 32 games since being drafted in ’12. He picked up 106 tackles, six sacks, five interceptions and two forced fumbles in a Pro Bowl season a year ago. He’s the only linebacker in league history to put up six sacks and five picks in the same season.
And it’s not as if David was allowing touchdown passes in coverage, either. He was beaten just once all season. Among 4-3 ‘backers, he was tied for third in passes defensed (four) and fourth in hurries (17). And he’s only going to get better with age.
6. Muhammad Wilkerson, DE, New York Jets
If Muhammad Wilkerson continues playing as he’s been playing, he’s going to get one of the largest contracts ever handed out to a defensive player in league history.
Wilkerson is still just 24 years old. He’s played three NFL seasons, suiting up for 48 of a possible 48 games. He picked up a ridiculous 10.5 sacks last year, doing so mostly from a 5-technique defensive end spot.
Wilkerson, Sheldon Richardson, and Damon Harrison are the best three-man front in the league, and they will spell trouble for Tom Brady as long as he remains with the New England Patriots.
5. Dontari Poe, NT, Kansas City Chiefs
Football players that weigh 350 pounds aren’t supposed to move the way Dontari Poe does. He had a disappointing rookie season, finishing with no sacks, interceptions, forced fumbles or fumble recoveries.
Poe broke out in year two. Whether it was Andy Reid or just the natural progression of an up-and-coming player, Poe became a superstar. He finished with 4.5 sacks, 28 quarterback hurries, five batted passes and just two missed tackles.
Poe was instrumental in opening up lanes for his teammates, whether it be Justin Houston or Tamba Hali off the edge or Derrick Johnson as a star inside linebacker. The Kansas City Chiefs went from two wins in Poe’s rookie season to 11 by year two.
4. Josh Gordon, WR, Cleveland Browns
In terms of production, Josh Gordon may have been the best player in the National Football League in 2013. Despite missing the first two games of the season, he still led all players with 1,646 receiving yards—a full 148 more than the next-best receiver.
Gordon set a two-game record with 498 yards, a three-game record with 649 yards, and a four-game record with 774 yards. His four-game span was just four yards fewer than Wes Welker had all season.
Perhaps the most impressive part of Gordon’s season was that he accomplished this with Brandon Weeden, Jason Campbell and Brian Hoyer as his quarterbacks. If Gordon can stay out of trouble and establish some chemistry with Johnny Manziel, there’s no telling what records Gordon will set.
3. Luke Kuechly, MLB, Carolina Panthers
In just two NFL seasons, Luke Kuechly has already established himself as arguably the finest linebacker in the game. He won the Defensive Rookie of the Year in 2012, then followed it up by winning the Defensive Player of the Year award in 2013.
Kuechly’s life is made easier with Charles Johnson, Greg Hardy and now Star Lotulelei in front of him on the line. But still, Kuechly is a tackling machine. A ridiculous 24-tackle performance (plus an interception) in a Week 16 win over the New Orleans Saints helped the Carolina Panthers capture a first-round bye in the playoffs.
Kuechly finished the season with 156 tackles, four interceptions, seven passes defensed and two sacks.
2. Robert Quinn, DE, St. Louis Rams
Now that J.J. Watt is 25 years old, Robert Quinn takes home the honor of being not only the best defensive lineman under 25, but the best defensive player in football (under 25).
Quinn was just the second player in NFL history to record at least 19 sacks and seven forced fumbles in one season. Ironically, the other was another player named Robert who happened to do it for the Indianapolis Colts last year. Quinn should have won the Defensive Player of the Year award over Luke Kuechly, as he added two fumble recoveries, 50 tackles and a touchdown to his incredible numbers.
Pro Football Focus’ advanced metrics rated Quinn as a plus-77.2, which was nearly three times better than any other 4-3 defensive end. It really didn’t seem to matter who Quinn played; he abused any and all offensive tackles in his way. His finest performance came in a Week 12 matchup against the Chicago Bears, when the North Carolina product registered eight hurries and a ridiculous plus-14.4 rating, which stands as one of the highest in the six years that PFF has been measuring NFL player performance.
He will again be key for the Rams this season; the defensive line of Quinn, Chris Long, Michael Brockers and Aaron Donald has a chance to send St. Louis to the playoffs—even with a subpar offense.
1. Andrew Luck, QB, Indianapolis Colts
Andrew Luck is just two years into his NFL career, but he’s already a special quarterback with a chance to be an all-time great. Luck has taken the Indianapolis Colts to consecutive playoff berths, doing so despite a defense that ranked 26th and 20th in total yards allowed.
He’s started 32 of 32 games. He showed major improvement in his interceptions from year one (18) to year two (9). His completion percentage rose six points. And he’s almost unsustainably productive in one-score games, having won an absurd 16 of 18 during his career (playoffs included).
Luck is just entering his third season, and he’s already a legitimate MVP candidate. He has taken a below-average Colts team to two straight years of January football, and if he can get a little help in the running game and defense, Indianapolis could compete for a Super Bowl championship in 2014.