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Ranking the 25 Best Under-25 Players Heading into the 2014 NFL Season

Nick KostosContributor ISeptember 1, 2014

Ranking the 25 Best Under-25 Players Heading into the 2014 NFL Season

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    AJ Mast/Associated Press

    The 2014 NFL season is mere days away, and fans should be pleased to know that the young crop of players is as strong as it's ever been. With that in mind, it's time to rank the 25 best players under the age of 25 heading into the campaign.

    In order to meet the criteria for this list, the player cannot be 25 years old as of Thursday, September 4, 2014. If the player turns 25 during the season, he remains eligible. 

    The rankings were arranged subjectively according to my own expertise, knowledge and thoughts. For example: Four wide receivers made the cut. Out of the four, I believe San Diego's Keenan Allen is the best, which is why I have him ranked ahead of the other three. But in fairness, I could see how another pundit (or fan) could install Chicago's Alshon Jeffery, Arizona's Michael Floyd or Green Bay's Randall Cobb over Allen.

    Some of these rankings were very much a matter of personal preference.

    With that said, I found the top 10 players fairly easy to choose. It became quite difficult beyond that, but I'm confident that I canvassed the available pool of athletes and picked the correct 25. And yes, I left 24-year-old Redskins quarterback Robert Griffin III off the list—his subpar 2013 campaign and lackluster preseason meant I couldn't justify including him over the players who qualified.

    I'm sure that many of you will be expecting to see players like Seahawks quarterback Russell Wilson and Texans defensive end JJ Watt (both age 25) on this list, but they (and many others) don't meet the age requirement. I also disqualified incoming rookies, as they have zero sample size and are thus impossible to rank.

    But enough talking. Here is my ranking of the 25 best players under the age of 25 heading into the 2014 NFL season.

No. 25: Bengals RB Giovani Bernard (22)

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    Tom Uhlman/Associated Press

    While he might register as only the 25th-best player on this list, Cincinnati Bengals running back Giovani Bernard is the apple of the eye of many a fantasy football player.

    And that's for good reason: He is an excellent running back.

    Bernard is electric in space and lighting-quick with the ball in his hands. His versatility is a major boon to the Bengals offense, as he both rushes and catches the football with aplomb. In his rookie season (2013), the 22-year-old rushed for 695 yards, added another 514 yards receiving and scored eight total touchdowns.

    The output was good enough to make him the third-ranked running back by Pro Football Focus (subscription required) for all of 2013.

    Even though this year's second-round pick, running back Jeremy Hill, could take carries away from him, Bernard is still poised for a sensational sophomore season. He'll surely add a few more highlight-reel plays to the collection—maybe even one that can best this gem from last year.

     

No. 24: Lions G Larry Warford (23)

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    Uncredited/Associated Press

    Only one guard was good enough to make this list: Larry Warford of the Detroit Lions.

    He qualified based on a fantastic rookie season that saw him finish as Pro Football Focus' fourth-best guard. He didn't allow a single sack for the entire campaign.

    Warford is equally adept in the run and passing game, protecting quarterback Matthew Stafford while opening up rushing lanes for backs Reggie Bush and Joique Bell. Last month, he drew praise from teammate Ndamukong Suh, who told Dave Birkett of the Detroit Free Press that he sees Warford as a Pro Bowler this year.

    If Warford continues to keep Stafford on his feet and continues to be a force in the run game, he'll almost certainly be Honolulu-bound. 

No. 23: Saints S Kenny Vaccaro (23)

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    Uncredited/Associated Press

    New Orleans Saints safety Kenny Vaccaro authored a terrific rookie season in 2013, and by all accounts, he'll be even better in year two.

    Vaccaro flashed this preseason, particularly in the club's second preseason game (against Tennessee). He contributed a sack and forced two fumbles in that contest, showing off the skill set that made him a coveted prospect on the collegiate level at the University of Texas.

    Vaccaro is a violent hitter with outstanding speed and will join with battery mates Jairus Byrd and Rafael Bush to give the Saints the best trio of safeties in the league. He's brash and confident, a wonderful combination for a defender in coordinator Rex Ryan's scheme.

    The expectation should be that Vaccaro blossoms into a perennial Pro Bowler. Anything less would be a disappointment.

No. 22: Chiefs DT Dontari Poe (24)

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    Uncredited/Associated Press

    Kansas City Chiefs defensive tackle Dontari Poe burst on to the scene in a major way last season.

    Poe managed 4.5 sacks and was dominant in the run game, seemingly reinvigorated by coordinator Bob Sutton's scheme. His play enabled pass-rushers Justin Houston and Tamba Hali to successfully get at the opposing quarterback, and he was rewarded with his first-ever Pro Bowl berth.

    Entering year three, Poe seems ready to start racking up trips to Hawaii. He's going to be a force in the middle of the Kansas City defense.

No. 21: Packers WR Randall Cobb (24)

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    Mike Roemer/Associated Press

    Green Bay Packers receiver Randall Cobb is an integral weapon in the team's high-octane passing attack.

    The 24-year-old has proved to be a Swiss army knife of sorts, contributing both on offense and special teams. He's one of the better return men in the league, and he's emerged as an outstanding receiver. His touchdown catch to beat the Chicago Bears and clinch the NFC North for the Packers in Week 17 of last year will go down in franchise lore.

    Now entering the final year of his contract, the onus is on Cobb to deliver an incredible season, and he certainly has the ability to do so. And with the Packers having extended the contract of fellow receiver Jordy Nelson, Cobb is aware of the extra pressure, telling Bob McGinn of the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel that he has "a lot to prove."

    If he can stay healthy (he missed 10 games last season with a fractured right fibula), there's no reason why Cobb won't achieve a monster payday next offseason. He's one of the better young receivers in football.

No. 20: Cardinals WR Michael Floyd (24)

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    Matt York/Associated Press

    If you were to ask the average football fan to name the best wide receiver on the Arizona Cardinals, chances are each and every one of them would answer with Larry Fitzgerald.

    But after the 2014 season, Fitzgerald will no longer be the most well-known (or best) pass-catcher in the desert. That mantle will belong to third-year receiver Michael Floyd.

    The 6'3" Floyd broke out in 2013, hauling in 65 catches for 1,041 yards and five touchdown receptions. He possesses excellent speed and hands, and he also works a physicality into his game that makes life difficult for opposing defenders.

    His talent is such that he looms like an ancient sea creature, ready to burst through the aquatic surface with seismic impact.

    Here's some free fantasy football advice: Find a way to draft Floyd. Thank me later.

No. 19: Cowboys C Travis Frederick (23)

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    Uncredited/Associated Press

    When the Dallas Cowboys selected center Travis Frederick with the 31st overall pick of the 2013 draft, the pick was universally panned and met with ridicule.

    But Frederick did his best to dispel the haters with a stupendous rookie season. While his pass-blocking is improving, he's already an extremely accomplished run-blocker, clearing out space for DeMarco Murray and Co.

    With the Cowboys needing to score a ton of points on offense this season, Frederick looms as a very important player. He must play well and anchor what could be a special offensive line if the Cowboys are to have any shot of breaking their four-year playoff drought.

No. 18: Bears WR Alshon Jeffery (24)

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    Nam Y. Huh/Associated Press

    Chicago Bears receiver Alshon Jeffery became a star in 2013 by doing his best Mr. Fantastic impersonation, improbably stretching his 6'3" frame to haul in passes from every direction.

    Jeffery caught 89 passes for 1,421 yards and seven touchdown receptions, creating matchup nightmares for defenses alongside battery mate Brandon Marshall. His season was good enough for Pro Football Focus to name him its ninth-best wide receiver.

    The Bears have an offensive-minded head coach (Marc Trestman) and an above-average quarterback (Jay Cutler), as well as a number of other weapons at the skill positions. All of this means Jeffery should be set up to have another fabulous season in the Windy City.

    Expect Jeffery to continue to ascend and make more catches worthy of the highlight reel. He's a touchdown waiting to happen.

No. 17: Bengals LB Vontaze Burfict (23)

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    Ross D. Franklin/Associated Press

    It's been quite the meteoric rise for Cincinnati Bengals linebacker Vontaze Burfict.

    After character concerns contributed to him going undrafted in 2012, Burfict has been nothing short of an on-field demon for the Bengals. He's accumulated 298 tackles in two seasons and is a veritable heat-seeking missile launched at opposing ball-carriers.

    Late last month, Burfict inked a three-year, $20 million contract to remain in the Queen City. Just a few short years ago, the prospect of such a pact would have seemed impossible, so he deserves a ton of credit for getting his life in order and dominating on the football field.

    With Cincinnati once again set to field an excellent defense, Burfict's star should only continue to rise. After this year, his name will consistently be mentioned alongside the best linebackers in the NFL.

No. 16: Packers RB Eddie Lacy (24)

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    Mike Roemer/Associated Press

    Green Bay Packers running back Eddie Lacy is a walking contradiction.

    The 24-year-old is 5'11" and 230 pounds of brute strength, bulldozing into opposing defenders with the force of a Mack truck. His hard-nosed style runs in direct contrast to the precision passing attack authored by quarterback Aaron Rodgers, and that's part of what makes the whole thing so damn beautiful.

    As a rookie, Lacy carried the ball 284 times for 1,178 yards and 11 rushing touchdowns. He also caught 35 passes, proving that he can be a factor in the team's devastating aerial assault.

    The Packers are certainly high on their second-year rusher, with running backs coach Sam Gash telling Bob McGinn and Ty Dunne of the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel:

    Without a doubt [Lacy can lead the league in rushing]. He has the capability of being the leading rusher and maybe even combined yards if he catches a lot of balls. I absolutely do think that. I think he’s a bell cow. He’s a big guy, and he’s physical.

    Both Packers fans and fantasy football owners surely swooned over that comment.

    Expect big things from Lacy in 2014. 

No. 15: Chargers WR Keenan Allen (22)

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    Lenny Ignelzi/Associated Press

    One of 2013's most surprising rookies was San Diego Chargers receiver Keenan Allen.

    Allen, the 76th overall pick of last May's draft (third round), performed like a top selection, catching 71 passes for 1,046 yards and eight touchdown receptions. As the season went on, he evolved into the top target for Chargers quarterback Philip Rivers and caught everything in sight.

    While Allen doesn't possess elite measureables or physical characteristics, he's absolutely one of the finest young receivers in football. And at age 22, he's only going to get better. With the Chargers moving to a more up-tempo attack under new coordinator Frank Reich, it's possible Allen could challenge for 100 receptions as a sophomore.

No. 14: Bills LB Kiko Alonso (24)

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    Uncredited/Associated Press

    Although he's lost for the 2014 season with a torn ACL, Buffalo Bills linebacker Kiko Alonso remains one of the league's best young players under the age of 25.

    Alonso nearly won Defensive Rookie of the Year honors, narrowly losing out to the New York Jets' Sheldon Richardson. Alonso was dynamite as a neophyte, accruing 159 combined tackles to go along with four interceptions. His tireless motor and energy helped to galvanize the Bills defense.

    Make no mistake about it, losing Alonso is an absolute crusher for the Bills. He was slated to move to weak-side linebacker, where he would have been better equipped to unleash the full fury of his skill set. (He played on the inside last year.) 

    But if Alonso's rehab goes well, there's no reason why he won't return to the conversation of the NFL's best young linebackers. 

No. 13: Titans DT Jurrell Casey (24)

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    Wade Payne/Associated Press

    While he remains one of the most underrated players in the NFL, Tennessee Titans defensive tackle Jurrell Casey is at least being paid like a high-level defender.

    Last week, Casey signed a four-year, $36 million extension that will keep him in the Music City through 2018. That financial windfall surely softened the blow of his outrageous Pro Bowl snub from a year ago.

    In 2013, Casey led the Titans with 10.5 sacks and was the fulcrum of an otherwise anonymous unit. At age 24, he still has room to improve, which is a frightening prospect for the rest of the AFC South.

    One noteworthy item is that the Titans are switching to a 3-4 defense under new coordinator Ray Horton, so it'll be interesting to see how Casey adjusts to the new scheme once live bullets start flying.

No. 12: Jets DE Muhammad Wilkerson (24)

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    Uncredited/Associated Press

    The first of two consecutive New York Jets defensive ends on this list, Muhammad Wilkerson is a terror for opposing offensive linemen.

    Wilkerson managed 10.5 sacks last year, which is a stunning number for a 3-4 defensive end. He also intercepted a pass and forced two fumbles for good measure.

    Earlier this offseason, Wilkerson told Dennis Waszak of The Associated Press (h/t the Daily Record):

    I feel like I’m an elite player. I feel like I’m one of the best defensive ends in this league, and I feel like I can be as great as I want to be. It’s up to me. I can go out here and pretty much go through the day and be lazy. Or I can get up in the morning and fight through everything, have that mental toughness to get through the day and want to work hard and get better.

    With the Jets loaded across the defensive line, Wilkerson is in line for another big season. His versatility should enable coach Rex Ryan to get creative with his fronts. Don't be surprised if Wilkerson again breaks the 10-sack plateau.

No. 11: Jets DE Sheldon Richardson (23)

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    Uncredited/Associated Press

    You know the Jets defensive line is loaded with outstanding young talent when it lands two consecutive players on this list.

    Sheldon Richardson follows teammate Muhammad Wilkerson here, and Richardson's standing as Defensive Rookie of the Year was enough to keep him one spot ahead of Wilkerson—for now. 

    Richardson is an absolute demon against the run, finishing second in that category only to Houston's JJ Watt among 3-4 defensive ends, according to Pro Football Focus. He devours opposing running backs with the voracious appetite of a famished Tyrannosaurus rex. And hey, his 3.5 sacks aren't too shabby either.

    While the debate will surely rage over who is better between Richardson and Wilkerson, one thing is clear: With 24-year-old Wilkerson and 23-year-old Richardson in the fold, the Jets defensive line appears set for years to come.

No. 10: Cardinals S Tyrann Mathieu (22)

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    Rick Scuteri/Associated Press

    Wikipedia's definition of a honey badger states that it has "thick skin and ferocious defensive abilities."

    There couldn't possibly be a better description of the man who owns that nickname: Cardinals safety Tyrann Mathieu.

    Mathieu, 22, made a monumental impact as a rookie after overcoming a rash of off-field issues that plagued him at the collegiate level. He played with the poise and cunning of a 10-year veteran and was versatile enough to be lined up at either safety or cornerback.

    In fact, his efforts at cornerback were so noteworthy that he finished the year ranked as Pro Football Focus' third overall player at the position, which is high praise indeed.

    Mathieu intercepted two passes, forced a fumble and was seemingly always around the football. His penchant for big plays in the critical moments became apparent very early on.

    At this point, it's unclear if he will suit up in Week 1, as he continues to recover from a torn ACL, but anyone counting the Honey Badger out needs to have his head examined. 

No. 9: Patriots DE Chandler Jones (24)

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    Charles Krupa/Associated Press

    New England Patriots defensive end Chandler Jones was an absolute beast in 2013, and his inclusion on this list was a no-brainer.

    While he's thought of primarily as a pass-rushing specialist (he did garner 11.5 sacks last year), the 24-year-old Jones is outstanding against the run. He's a viable three-down player and a vital cog in the defensive machine employed by coach Bill Belichick.

    Last month, Jones told Shalise Manza Young of The Boston Globe, "The biggest thing I’m trying to emphasize this year is going even harder in practice. Try to win more 1-on-1s, try to go harder in team reps, try to get to the quarterback more often, and I feel like if you do it in practice it will come a lot more in games, so that’s my biggest focus.”

    If Jones can improve his pass rushing skills, forget about it. He'll be a perennial Pro Bowler.

No. 8: Falcons CB Desmond Trufant (23)

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    Uncredited/Associated Press

    It's crazy to think that the best player on the Atlanta Falcons defense has barely received any camera time during this season of HBO's Hard Knocks.

    For anyone wondering who that player is, it's second-year cornerback Desmond Trufant, who is, quite simply, one of the best at his position in the entire league. And he's only 23.

    Trufant managed two interceptions as a neophyte and is clearly on the up-and-up. In fact, Bleacher Report's Matt Miller had him ranked as his fifth-best cornerback in the NFL 1000 series.

    As the Falcons undoubtedly improve this year, Trufant's national profile will continue to grow. And viewers will discover a cornerback who can both cover and tackle with gusto.

No. 7: Buccaneers LB Lavonte David (24)

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    Uncredited/Associated Press

    Last season, Tampa Bay Buccaneers linebacker Lavonte David didn't make the Pro Bowl, which would be like Iggy Azalea being snubbed from a party for the hottest women alive. 

    David (who was named first-team All Pro) has been celestial for Tampa Bay since being selected in the second round of the 2012 draft. He's garnered nine sacks and intercepted six passes to go along with 284 tackles, a preposterous number for a second-year player.

    With the arrival of new coach Lovie Smith, the Buccaneers are transitioning to the Tampa 2 defensive scheme, and David will be a key cog in the machine. His ability to both stop the run and drop back in coverage will be on full display.

    And the smart money is that the Pro Bowl voters will have no choice but to send David to Hawaii come next February.

No. 6: Cowboys OT Tyron Smith (23)

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    Gus Ruelas/Associated Press

    The best young left tackle in football is undoubtedly the Dallas Cowboys' Tyron Smith, who is only 23 years of age.

    The 6'5", 290-pounder is a mountain with the engine of a Ferrari. He's one of the finest pass-blockers in the league, and his 2013 performance was good enough to land him at seventh overall on Pro Football Focus' ranking of offensive tackles. 

    Smith signed a gargantuan contract extension this offseason: an eight-year pact worth a maximum of $110 million to go along with nearly $40 million guaranteed. And he is worth every penny.

    Smith will be only 31 at the conclusion of that deal, and if he stays healthy, he'll be in line for another big-time contract. Not a bad deal for a 23-year-old.

    The Cowboys need Smith to play well this season. If he can help keep quarterback Tony Romo healthy, Dallas has a puncher's chance at staying in the playoff race.

No. 5: Browns WR Josh Gordon (23)

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    Associated Press

    Yes, I am aware that Cleveland Browns wide receiver Josh Gordon has been suspended for the entire 2014 season. Yes, I do know that he won't catch a single pass as a result.

    But he is still under contract in Cleveland, and as such, he remains an NFL player as the 2014 season gets set to kick off. That means he's eligible for this list.

    And given his status as "the best receiver in football not named Calvin Johnson," it would be an absolute crime if Gordon didn't make it.

    In only 14 games last season, he caught 87 passes for a league-leading 1,646 yards to go along with nine receiving touchdowns. But perhaps his finest accomplishment was dominating regardless of who the Browns trotted out at quarterback, as his performance didn't dip through starts by the terrible trio of Brian Hoyer, Brandon Weeden and Jason Campbell.

    Before his suspension, Gordon was seemingly rocketing in a jet pack toward the rarefied air of superstardom. Unfortunately, he was the one who removed the gas from the pack, only to plummet back down among the likes of Miles Austin and Andrew Hawkins. 

    If he can curb his self-destructive ways and stay on the straight and narrow, there's no question he'll continue to emerge as one of the league's finest young pass-catchers. But that is a major "if," and it's fair to now question if Gordon will be able to elude trouble long enough to successfully continue his NFL career. 

No. 4: Cardinals CB Patrick Peterson (24)

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    Rick Scuteri/Associated Press

    The highest-ranking cornerback on this list is also the richest.

    Earlier this offseason, Patrick Peterson of the Arizona Cardinals signed a five-year, $70 million contract with a signing bonus of $15 million. And the 24-year-old earned every penny of that megabucks deal with stellar play throughout his first three NFL seasons.

    Peterson has intercepted 12 passes in his career and has displayed the type of versatility rarely seen in athletes at the highest level. He's excelled on defense and special teams and has even taken snaps at receiver. 

    In addition, he's a world-class trash-talker who possesses the kind of self confidence felt only by elite athletes and dudes with hot girlfriends. That sort of thing can't be overstated when it comes to the cornerback position.

    After this season, Peterson could very well eclipse his primary rival, the Seattle Seahwaks' Richard Sherman, as the most talked-about (and best) cornerback in the league. He's that good.

No. 3: Panthers LB Luke Kuechly (23)

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    Associated Press

    Here's a scary thought for the 31 NFL teams not located in North Carolina: 2013's NFL Defensive Player of the Year, Panthers linebacker Luke Kuechly, is only 23 years old.

    That noise you just heard was every fan of the Buccaneers, Saints and Falcons sighing loudly into their keyboard.

    In his two NFL seasons, Kuechly has been a revelation, a living, breathing black hole that swallows up the football and opposing players alike. In addition to his 156 tackles in 2013, he also contributed four interceptions and two sacks. Kuechly is the unquestioned leader of the Panthers defense and is the most valuable player on the team not named Cam Newton.

    He is already one of the best defensive players in the game. If he keeps up at this pace, he could go down as one of the greatest middle linebackers of all time.

No. 2: Rams DE Robert Quinn (24)

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    Jeff Roberson/Associated Press

    The most feared pass-rusher in the NFL is only 24 years old.

    St. Louis Rams defensive end Robert Quinn has exploded onto the NFL scene since being selected with the 14th overall pick of the 2011 draft. His 2013 campaign is the stuff of legend, as he accumulated 19 sacks and seven forced fumbles.

    In fact, he was so dominant last year that he finished as Pro Football Focus' top-ranked 4-3 defensive end by a staggering 49 points. 

    With very solid teammates along the defensive line (end Chris Long and tackles Aaron Donald and Michael Brockers), Quinn is set to flatten opposing quarterbacks once again in 2014. It's a real possibility that he eclipses the 20-sack plateau this autumn and challenges for the all-time single-season sack record (22.5).

No. 1: Colts QB Andrew Luck (24)

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    Al Behrman/Associated Press

    The first 24 players on this list are great, no doubt.

    But there's another who rises above the pack. One whose value is so colossal that he wouldn't be dealt in a trade for any of them, yet the other franchises would be falling all over themselves to acquire him.

    In two seasons, that person has thrown for 46 touchdown passes. He's led the Indianapolis Colts to back-to-back 11-win seasons. He's already engineered eight career fourth-quarter comebacks.

    His name is Andrew Luck, and he is a bad, bad man.

    Luck is an absolute destroyer, possessing an elite combination of athleticism and intelligence. While his natural abilities should evoke feelings of rampant jealousy, he manages to disarm potential haters with his boyish charm. He gives off the impression of a regular dude who just happens to have been perfectly equipped to dominate the game of football.

    At age 24 and entering year three, Luck is on the precipice of truly great things. He's the most coveted asset in the league over or under the age of 25, and it should surprise no one if he adds a Super Bowl ring to his resume in the next few seasons.

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