NFL 25 Under 25: Ranking the League's Best Young Players

Brent Sobleski@@brentsobleskiNFL AnalystApril 5, 2017

NFL 25 Under 25: Ranking the League's Best Young Players

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    Age is just a number—unless a professional athlete's career is being discussed. Younger is always better.

    Youth is a valuable asset in the NFL, especially with the rookie wage scale in place. If a young man is producing at a high level during his initial contract, his organization will benefit from the below-market deal and can then invest in other areas of the roster before working on a second contract.

    As a result, the NFL's middle class has been downsized, with organizations banking on their high-profile veterans while trying to add talented yet inexpensive pieces via the draft.

    The league continues to thrive with the spotlight on its breakout stars. A surging throng can be found among the young men who seamlessly transitioned from the collegiate to professional ranks. Some of football's best players have yet to reach their fourth campaign.

    Twenty-five in particular stand out as the NFL's best and brightest. To identify the league's top young players, one caveat was applied: All of the individuals must be younger than 25 years old at the onset of the 2017 campaign.

    Dominant players such as the Los Angeles Rams' Aaron Donald, Pittsburgh Steelers' Le'Veon Bell and Atlanta Falcons' Devonta Freeman aged out of this category. Others such as DeAndre Hopkins, Tyrann Mathieu and Vic Beasley just missed the cut, because they turn 25 years old at some point in the next few months.

    Still, football's future is bright with the following top performers, who are ready to take over the NFL.

25. RB Todd Gurley, Los Angeles Rams

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    A year ago, Los Angeles Rams running back Todd Gurley, 22, would have topped a list of the league's best young players after rushing for 1,106 yards and earning Offensive Rookie of the Year honors.

    His production decreased in 2016, though. In three more games than he played in 2015, the Georgia product ran for 221 fewer yards and his average yards per carry decreased from 4.8 to 3.2. The decline wasn't just the running back's fault. An outdated offensive scheme and porous offensive line often stymied Gurley.

    His talent falls somewhere between those two points.

    "A lot of times you have a tendency to just look at the stats instead of the actual tape," new Rams coach Sean McVay said, per ESPN.com's Alden Gonzalez. "I think you still see a natural runner who's got a great body lean; he has a natural feel for how to work edges on people."

24. CB Jalen Ramsey, Jacksonville Jaguars

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    Jacksonville Jaguars cornerback Jalen Ramsey, 22, took the league by storm, and he made sure to let everyone know just how good he is. Last year's fifth overall draft pick wasn't shy about speaking his mind and trying to get into the heads of his opponents.

    The Florida State product also fits prototypical standards with the size (6'2" and 208 pounds), length (33⅜-inch arms) and speed (4.41-second 40-yard dash) necessary to become a dominant cover corner.

    Ramsey played more coverage snaps than any other rookie cornerback last season, per Pro Football Focus. In doing so, he finished tops among first-year corners in defended passes (10) and second in catch percentage while in coverage (52.9 percent). The latter statistic ranked 12th among all NFL cornerbacks.

23. DE Chris Jones, Kansas City Chiefs

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    Even the Kansas City Chiefs couldn't have expected defensive lineman Chris Jones, 22, to develop as quickly as he did.

    Jones displayed the physical tools every NFL team wants in its defensive linemen. He's 6'6" and 308 pounds with 34½-inch arms. But his career at Mississippi State was plagued by inconsistency. Jones flashed dominant potential, yet he still dropped to the second round of the NFL draft, where the Chiefs chose him with the 37th overall selection.

    As a rookie, Jones graded as the NFL's seventh-best 3-4 defensive end, per Pro Football Focus. Only the Los Angeles Chargers' Joey Bosa, who earned NFL Defensive Rookie of the Year honors, graded higher among rookie defenders. Jones' 32 quarterback pressures tied for third at the position alongside Calais Campbell, Stephon Tuitt (who barely missed making this list) and Akiem Hicks.

22. LB Kwon Alexander, Tampa Bay Buccaneers

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    Tampa Bay Buccaneers linebacker Kwon Alexander, 22, made a mistake during his rookie campaign. He paid for the mistake by being suspended the final four games of the 2015 campaign for violating the league's policy on performance-enhancing substances.

    Prior to that point, Alexander played exceptionally well, and he did so upon his return to the lineup in 2016. The second-year linebacker led the Buccaneers with 145 total tackles. In fact, the LSU product led the NFL with 108 solo tackles.

    But Alexander's game extends beyond being a tackling machine. In his first 28 games, the 2015 fourth-round selection has added six sacks, three interceptions and 16 defended passes.

    The Buccaneers linebacker is a constant presence around the ball, whether he's defending the run or dropping into coverage.

21. DE Danielle Hunter, Minnesota Vikings

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    Minnesota Vikings defensive end Danielle Hunter, 22, is a perfect example of a talented collegian who had the raw tools to become a much better player at the professional level.

    Hunter managed only 4.5 sacks as a two-year starter for LSU, but he has destroyed every expectation since the Vikings used a third-round pick to select him in the 2015 NFL draft.

    The Jamaica native has already developed into a premier pass-rusher, amassing 18.5 sacks during his first two campaigns. His 12.5 sacks in 2016 tied for third in the league alongside the Buffalo Bills' Lorenzo Alexander and Arizona Cardinals' Markus Golden. The Viking added 34 more quarterback hurries, according to Pro Football Focus.

    The next step for Hunter is to develop from a part-time pass-rusher into a full-time defensive end.

20. WR Brandin Cooks, New England Patriots

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    The rich got richer.

    The New England Patriots are coming off yet another Super Bowl victory and still found a way to make their roster better by acquiring wide receiver Brandin Cooks, 23, from the New Orleans Saints in exchange for a first-round draft pick.

    During the last two seasons, Cooks piled up 162 receptions for 2,311 yards and 17 touchdowns. His abilities to take the top off the defense and create after the catch make him a dynamic target and difficult for defenses to contain.

    "Since I've owned the team, the only player that could make an impact like that at wide receiver was Randy Moss," Patriots owner Robert Kraft said, per ESPN.com's Mike Reiss.

19. OG Trai Turner, Carolina Panthers

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    The fact Carolina Panthers guard Trai Turner, 23, is the only offensive lineman among the top players under 25 years old is a testament to his ability and a reflection of the league's offensive line conundrum.

    Due to the preponderance of spread schemes at the collegiate level, young blockers are less prepared for the NFL game because they lack the refinement needed to survive at the professional level. This is why teams, including the Panthers, give experienced blockers such lucrative contracts in free agency.

    Turner played in a run-first scheme at LSU before entering the NFL draft as an underclassman. He has started 38 straight contests and earned Pro Bowl nods in 2015 and '16.

    Turner is also at least 20 months younger than the Dallas Cowboys' Zack Martin, Cleveland Browns' Joel Bitonio and Oakland Raiders' Gabe Jackson, who all entered the league in the same season.

18. RB Jay Ajayi, Miami Dolphins

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    Miami Dolphins running Jay Ajayi, 23, started to roll in 2016, and defenses struggled to slow down the runaway freight train.

    After gaining only 304 rushing yards in his first 13 NFL contests, Ajayi exploded for 204 yards on the ground against the Pittsburgh Steelers on Oct. 16. The following week, he ran for 214 more yards against the Buffalo Bills. When he ran for another 206 yards against the Bills on Christmas Eve, he become only the fourth running back in league history (O.J. Simpson in 1973, Earl Campbell in 1980 and Tiki Barber in 2005) to post a trio of 200-yard games in the same season.

    In total, Ajayi finished his breakout campaign with 1,272 rushing yards, which ranked fourth overall. He averaged 4.9 yards per carry and added eight touchdowns.

    More importantly, Ajayi's physical running style provided the Dolphins with an identity. The team now has a workhorse it can depend on each week.

17. WR Michael Thomas, New Orleans Saints

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    Five wide receivers were chosen in the 2016 NFL draft before the New Orleans Saints used the 47th overall pick to select Michael Thomas. Thomas, 24, responded with a tremendous rookie campaign.

    The Ohio State product caught 92 passes for 1,137 yards to lead all first-year receivers by a huge margin. Those numbers also ranked ninth overall.

    The 6'3", 212-pound target became what quarterback Drew Brees needed after Marques Colston was released. Thomas' presence also allowed the Saints to move two-time 1,000-yard wide receiver Brandin Cooks to the New England Patriots for a first-round pick.

    Thomas fumbled away a couple of balls in a loss to the Denver Broncos, yet his combination of size and talent in New Orleans' wide-open offense points toward massive production in the coming years.

16. S Keanu Neal, Atlanta Falcons

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    Each year, analysts provide their reactions after picks are made during the NFL draft. It's a fruitless exercise that often makes them look silly after the fact.

    The Atlanta Falcons' first-round selection of Florida safety Keanu Neal is a perfect example. Neal's selection was panned and considered a massive reach at No. 17 overall.

    Yet Neal, 21, completely changed the face of the Falcons defense. He became the reliable tone-setter the unit needed to develop into one capable of competing for the Lombardi Trophy. Granted, the team's statistics didn't improve, but the Falcons defense developed into a young and exciting group that flew to the football with Neal leading the way.

    According to Pro Football Focus, Neal graded as the league's second-best safety in coverage. He also finished second on the Falcons with 105 total tackles and tied for third in the NFL with five forced fumbles.

15. WR Amari Cooper, Oakland Raiders

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    When a prospect becomes as heralded as Amari Cooper was when he entered the league, it's hard to live up to those expectations. Cooper, 22, provided two 1,000-yard seasons and two Pro Bowl berths in his first two campaigns, though.

    Defenses took notice.

    "[I'm seeing] a little bit more safety [help] over the top," Cooper said in December, per ESPN.com's Paul Gutierrez. "A little bit more double coverage. Guys following me around."

    Cooper has been good, but he can be even better. The Alabama product finished with fewer than 60 yards in nine games last year. Quarterback Derek Carr often looked toward veteran Michael Crabtree when the team needs to make a playing the passing game, too.

    Cooper, the fourth overall pick in 2014, is a smooth operator, and he'll climb even higher on this list once he becomes more consistent.

14. S Ha Ha Clinton-Dix, Green Bay Packers

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    The secondary is a major concern for the Green Bay Packers. Safety Ha Ha Clinton-Dix, 24, is a good starting point, though.

    The 2014 first-round pick finished third on the team last season with 79 total tackles, and his five interceptions tied the New York Giants' Landon Collins and Oakland Raiders' Reggie Nelson for second among all safeties. As a result, Clinton-Dix earned his first Pro Bowl berth.

    "When you have premier players on your defense and they line up and play 1,000 plays, to me that says it all," Packers coach Mike McCarthy said, per ESPN.com's Rob Demovsky.

    The Alabama product is a perfect foil for today's pass-happy offenses. As a center fielder with sideline-to-sideline range, Clinton-Dix finished among the top 15 safeties last season in coverage snaps per target, yards per coverage snap and coverage snaps per reception, according to Pro Football Focus.

13. DE Leonard Williams, New York Jets

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    In a draft that featured Jameis Winston and Marcus Mariota, defensive lineman Leonard Williams drew support as the class' top overall prospect. Yet he slid to the sixth overall selection in 2015, and the New York Jets happily scooped up the talented defender.

    Williams, 22, has validated the hype.

    As a rookie, the USC product cracked the starting lineup and excelled as a run defender, grading among the league's best against opposing ground games, per Pro Football Focus. Williams improved during his second campaign as his game became more well-rounded.

    After registering three sacks as a first-year player, he picked up seven sacks on his way to his first Pro Bowl berth in 2016.

12. WR Jarvis Landry, Miami Dolphins

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    The Miami Dolphins' Jarvis Landry was supposed to be too slow to get open at the NFL level. Yet all he's done is make reception after reception since entering the league.

    Landry, 24, ran an abysmal 4.77-second 40-yard dash at the NFL combine. To put that number into context, Texas A&M defensive end Myles Garrettwho is projected to be this year's No. 1 overall pick and weighs 67 more pounds than Landry didran the 40 in 4.64 seconds.

    Landry caught 204 passes for 2,293 yards and eight touchdowns over the last two campaigns. The Pittsburgh Steelers' Antonio Brown, Atlanta Falcons' Julio Jones and Arizona Cardinals' Larry Fitzgerald are the only players with more receptions during that same span.

    A two-time Pro Bowl selection and LSU product, Landry may not have blazing speed, but he's developed into an exceptional target out of the slot and a reliable option for quarterback Ryan Tannehill.

11. S Landon Collins, New York Giants

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    Questions lingered about Landon Collins' ability to play in space during his time with Alabama and into his first season with the New York Giants. Collins, 23, was considered a box safety who would be a liability in coverage. That's no longer an issue.

    The 2015 second-round pick developed into one of the game's premier all-around safeties during his second campaign. Not only did Collins lead the Giants with 125 total tackles, but he also tied for the league lead among safeties with 13 defended passes. His five interceptions tied for fifth-most among all players as well.

    Pro Football Focus graded the physical Collins as the best overall safety during the 2016 campaign.

    "He's still learning, he's still growing, he's still a young player," New York coach Ben McAdoo said in November, per ESPN.com's Jordan Raanan. "He's preparing well, and he's very productive."

10. RB Jordan Howard, Chicago Bears

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    As special as the Dallas Cowboys' Ezekiel Elliott was as a rookie, the Chicago Bears' Jordan Howard's season was nearly as good. Actually, Howard's performance was more impressive.

    Yes, Elliott led the NFL in rushing yards, but he was running behind the NFL's best offensive line. Also, Dak Prescott provided a legit presence at quarterback. The Bears were lacking in both areas last season. The offense featured three different starting quarterbacks, and the line disappointed, particularly at tackle.

    Yet Howard, 22, still finished second in the league with 1,313 rushing yards. His 5.2 yards per carry ranked fourth in the NFL and edged Elliott's figure, which was 5.1.

    If new Chicago quarterback Mike Glennon provides a steadying presence behind center and the Bears' offensive tackles play better in 2017, Howard could realize his full potential in an offense geared around his talents.

9. LB Jadeveon Clowney, Houston Texans

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    Houston Texans linebacker Jadeveon Clowney was well on his way to being labeled a bust before the 2016 season. Once considered a transcendent draft prospect, the 2014 No. 1 overall pick was plagued by injuries during his first two seasons. In his third year, however, he showed exactly why he was so well-regarded in the first place.

    Clowney, 24, is 6'5" and 270 pounds with 4.53-second 40-yard dash speed.

    "He's an athletic specimen," veteran Vince Wilfork told ESPN.com's Sarah Barshop in January. "To be that big and be able to do the things that he does, we don't see that often."

    Last season, the South Carolina product registered 52 total tackles and six sacks. But stats don't tell the whole story. The outside linebacker graded among the best players at his position, per Pro Football Focus. In fact, he ranked third against the run, just behind the Denver Broncos' Von Miller and Oakland Raiders' Khalil Mack.

8. QB Jameis Winston, Tampa Bay Buccaneers

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    When the Tampa Bay Buccaneers used the No. 1 overall pick in the 2015 draft on Florida State's Jameis Winston, he wasn't a perfect prospect. An Andrew Luck-type only comes around once every 20 years or so. But Winston, 23, has everything a team wants at the game's most important position.

    With any young quarterback, an organization would like to see incremental growth with each passing season. Winston improved from his rookie campaign to his sophomore season with a 60.8 completion percentage, 4,090 passing yards and 28 touchdowns.

    The 2013 Heisman Trophy winner is still turning the ball over far too often. Winston threw 18 interceptions during the 2016 campaign. Even with those turnovers, he is a promising talent in a league constantly in search of those who can play the position.

    "If you're looking to put up a model of what a young player should be, I'd be pointing all young players to him," Buccaneers co-chairman Joel Glazer said, per the Tampa Bay Times' Rick Stroud. "His work ethic, his involvement in the community. His leadership. Every aspect that you could ask for, he has brought to the table."

7. WR Mike Evans, Tampa Bay Buccaneers

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    It's difficult to separate Tampa Bay Buccaneers wide receiver Mike Evans from quarterback Jameis Winston. While Winston is well on his way to becoming one of the league's better signal-callers, Evans, 23, is already one of the NFL's elite targets.

    During his first three seasons, Evans caught 238 passes for 3,578 yards and 27 touchdowns. More importantly, his overall production increased with each subsequent campaign. The 2014 seventh overall pick ranked sixth in the league with 96 receptions, fourth with 1,321 receiving yards and tied for second with 12 touchdowns last season.

    With a 6'5", 231-pound frame, the Buccaneers wide receiver is almost impossible to cover. He can jump over almost any defender or use his body to shield cornerbacks from the ball. As big as Evans is, he also has 4.53-second 40-yard dash speed and can take the top off any defense.

    When he entered the draft, many asked if Evans had made Johnny Manziel. The answer is obvious now. But he's also helping to make Winston much better, too.

6. CB Marcus Peters, Kansas City Chiefs

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    In just two seasons, Kansas City Chiefs cornerback Marcus Peters has established himself as the game's premier ball hawk.

    Peters, 24, tied for the league lead with eight interceptions as a rookie. He fell just short of repeating the feat in Year 2 with six interceptions, which tied for second. The 2015 first-round pick has also defended 46 passes.

    The Chiefs took a chance on Peters after he had been dismissed from the Washington program. The organization saw a talented defensive back and used the 18th overall selection on him.

    Peters takes chances. He can be beat by savvy wide receivers. But each and every quarterback who throws in his direction is taking a chance, too. Peters can take any pass and turn it into a pick-six in a heartbeat.

5. QB Marcus Mariota, Tennessee Titans

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    Tennessee Titans quarterback Marcus Mariota obliterated the narrative that spread quarterbacks can't succeed in the NFL. His transition from Oregon's high-octane offense showed scouting traits is far more valuable than worrying about scheme and accompanying production.

    In his first game, Mariota, 23, threw four touchdown passes against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. He hasn't looked back. Over his first two campaigns, the 2014 Heisman Trophy winner delivered 45 touchdown passes compared to 19 interceptions.

    While the young quarterback's completion percentage has yet to eclipse 63 percent, he's absolutely deadly in the red zone. In fact, he's the the NFL's most efficient quarterback inside opponents' 20-yard lines. According to Pro Football Focus' Scott Barrett, Mariota has completed 64 percent of his passes in the red zone and has a staggering 33-to-0 touchdown-to-interception ratio.

    It's now an afterthought that Mariota is an athletic signal-caller who ran a spread offense in college. Instead, he's considered a franchise quarterback with the ability to lead an ascending roster that finished 9-7 last season.

4. DE Joey Bosa, Los Angeles Chargers

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    A Joey Bosa-level prospect is exactly what every team should expect when spending a top-five draft selection on a pass-rusher.

    After a prolonged salary squabble, Bosa, 21, entered the San Diego Chargers lineup in Week 5 against the Oakland Raiders and provided a pair of sacks. The 6'5", 280-pound edge defender is physical at the point of attack and absolutely relentless when rushing the passer.

    The Ohio State product finished his rookie campaign with 10.5 sacks. He was one of 16 defenders to record double-digit sacks, and he did so despite missing four games. As a result, new defensive coordinator Gus Bradley plans to feature Bosa.

    "Would you say a 6'5", 280-pound guy would be a typical Leo [rush end]? No, not on the sheet of paper, but this guy's differenthe breaks the mold," Bradley said, per ESPN.com's Eric D. Williams.

3. QB Dak Prescott, Dallas Cowboys

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    Every team that doesn't have a franchise quarterback at the moment will be searching for the next Dak Prescott. It's a fool's errand.

    Even the Dallas Cowboys didn't know what they had in the young quarterback. If not for an injury to veteran Tony Romo during the preseason, Prescott, 23, wouldn't have entered the lineup. But he did, and he played exceptionally well as a rookie.

    "His No. 1 quality was his leadership, was his aura, the 'it' factor that came with him," owner Jerry Jones said in December, per ESPN.com's Todd Archer.

    In his first season, the 2016 fourth-round pick completed 67.8 percent of his passes for 3,667 yards and 23 touchdowns against only four interceptions. He added 282 rushing yards and six more scores with his feet. The young quarterback also helped lead the Cowboys to a 13-3 record, the NFC East title and a playoff appearance. He set rookie records in completion percentage, touchdown-to-interception ratio and quarterback rating, per NFL Research.

    When compared to other young quarterbacks who experienced early success in recent years, Prescott's rookie campaign was superior in almost every way.

2. RB Ezekiel Elliott, Dallas Cowboys

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    It's often said the running back position is devalued in the NFL. Once a special talent arrives, however, everyone remembers how valuable a true workhorse back can be.

    Enter Ezekiel Elliott. The Dallas Cowboys, who spent the fourth overall pick in the 2016 draft on the Ohio State running back, couldn't have made a better investment.

    Behind the NFL's best offensive line, Elliott, 21, decimated opposing defenses. The talented runner became the first rookie to lead the league is rushing since 1999, when the Indianapolis Colts' Edgerrin James accomplished the same feat. Elliott finished his first campaign with 1,631 yardsthe third-most in NFL history for a rookieon his way to being named Offensive Rookie of the Year.

    So long as Elliott avoids off-field issues moving forward, his potential is nothing short of the NFL's best running back for a prolonged period. After all, he already achieved said status after only one year.

1. WR Odell Beckham Jr., New York Giants

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    New York Giants wide receiver Odell Beckham Jr. is the NFL's brightest young star, but his raw ability is tempered by a combustible personality.

    Since entering the league in 2014, Beckham, 24, has accumulated 288 receptions for 4,122 yards. The mercurial target tied Hall of Fame wide receiver Lance Alworth's record of 42 games to reach the 4,000-yard plateau.

    Only two wide receivers—Julio Jones of the Atlanta Falcons and Antonio Brown of the Pittsburgh Steelers—provided more yards for their teams over the same span. Jones and Brown also prevented the LSU product from being named first-team All-Pro in each of the last two seasons.

    Beckham is a shooting star. He's talented yet temperamental. Where his career goes depends on whether he continues down the same path or crashes to earth.