Top 25 Under 25: Ranking NFL's Best Young Stars Ahead of the 2018 Draft

Gary Davenport@@IDPSharksNFL AnalystApril 11, 2018

Top 25 Under 25: Ranking NFL's Best Young Stars Ahead of the 2018 Draft

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    Rick Scuteri/Associated Press

    In the National Football League, youth is king. 

    Sure, there are plenty of veteran stars in the league on both sides of the ball. Tom Brady is on the wrong side of 40 and still chugging along. Chandler Jones of the Arizona Cardinals paced the league with 17 sacks in his sixth season in 2017. Pittsburgh Steelers wide receiver Antonio Brown (the gold standard at the position) turns 30 in July.

    In addition to experience, all those players share another thing in common—massive salaries.

    In today's era of the salary cap and team-friendly rookie deals, acquiring a young star is doubly advantageous. Not only does that player make an impact himself, but the money the team saves on his contract can be used to patch other holes.

    The Los Angeles Rams are a case study in that edge in 2018—the money they aren't paying Jared Goff and Todd Gurley helped pave the way for the addition of Ndamukong Suh.

    Both of those young studs make an appearance in this article. Included here you'll find the best of the young guns. Many will be the superstars of tomorrow. Some are already there.

    Ranking these youngsters is an admittedly subjective exercise. After all, some have only had one year to show what they can do. Others have been up and down. Others still more consistent but less meteoric.

    But that doesn't mean we shouldn't try. And try we have, with the top 25 players in the NFL who have yet to celebrate their 25th birthdays.

No. 25 to No. 21

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    Harry How/Getty Images

    25. Leonard Fournette, RB, Jacksonville Jaguars (23)

    Fournette was a big part of Jacksonville's run to the AFC Championship Game last year, grinding out 1,040 yards on the ground and rushing for nine scores. However, he also averaged just 3.9 yards a carry as a rookie. While he's unquestionably a talented tailback, Fournette would need to raise his per-carry average to vault up a list like this one next year.

    24. Myles Garrett, DE, Cleveland Browns (22)

    At first glance, Garrett's 31 tackles and seven sacks might not appear overly impressive from a player who was selected first overall in the 2017 draft. But Garrett also missed five games last season—when he was on the field, the burst and explosiveness that helped convince Cleveland to take him was on display. If he can stay healthy, watch out.

    23. Yannick Ngakoue, DE, Jacksonville Jaguars (23)

    Ngakoue isn't a finished product by any stretch, but  after piling up 12 sacks in 2017 the third-year pro has 20 sacks and 10 forced fumbles in just two seasons. Per Jay Johnson of Jags Wire, Pro Football Focus reported that no RDE in the NFL had more pressures a season ago than Ngakoue's 56. He's one of the better ends in football most people have never heard of.

    22. Dak Prescott, QB, Dallas Cowboys (24)

    A year ago at this time—after guiding Dallas to 13 wins and an NFC East title as a rookie—Prescott likely would have ranked inside the top 10 on this list. However, without Ezekiel Elliott to lean on for part of 2017 (Elliott missed six games), Prescott struggled—he threw nine more interceptions than the season before and saw his passer rating fall by 18.3 points. Prescott's third season could be a make-or-break one.

    21. Melvin Gordon, RB, Los Angeles Chargers (24)

    Gordon has steadily improved over his three seasons, topping 1,000 total yards back in 2016 and then upping that to 1,105 rushing yards and over 1,500 total yards last season. Gordon also played in all 16 games last year for the first time. If he can back last year's numbers up, the Bolts have the makings of a sneaky-good team in the AFC West in 2018.

No. 20 to No. 16

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    Charles Krupa/Associated Press

    20. Jameis Winston, QB, Tampa Bay Buccaneers (24)

    On one hand, Winston is a rocket-armed quarterback who hit on a career-high 63.8 percent of his passes in 2017. But his season, in some respects, may have been his worst—he missed three games, failed to throw for 4,000 yards for the first time in his career and has now turned the ball over 59 times in 45 career games.

    19. Kevin Byard, S, Tennessee Titans (24)

    Deion Sanders might not know who Byard is, but after a breakout season in which Byard tied for the NFL lead with eight interceptions, opposing quarterbacks most assuredly do. If Byard can come close to that sort of ball-hawking in his third NFL season, he'll be higher on this list a year from now—and on the verge of one whopper of a pay raise.

    18. Jordan Howard, RB, Chicago Bears (23)

    Fans of the Chicago Bears will no doubt take umbrage with the fact that Howard is ranked this low after a second straight 1,000-yard season in 2017. Howard isn't the most explosive tailback (which is a reason he's outside the top 15), but he's been consistently effective and durable in Chicago despite seeing eight-man fronts approximately 147 percent of the time.

    17. Keanu Neal, S, Atlanta Falcons (22)

    The Atlanta Falcons have quite the young core defensively with the presence of Neal, linebacker Deion Jones and edge-rusher Vic Beasley. As tough as he is athletic, Neal has the sort of versatility on the back end and coverage ability pro teams covet in safeties now, and he's been productive—eclipsing 100 total tackles in each of his first two seasons.

    16. Marcus Mariota, QB, Tennessee Titans (24)

    Like many of the quarterbacks from the class of 2015, Mariota backslid statistically last year—he threw two more interceptions than touchdowns and saw his passer rating fall 16.3 points. However, Mariota was also dinged up much of the season and was still able to guide the Titans to their first playoff win since 2003.

No. 15 to No. 11

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    Gerald Herbert/Associated Press

    15. Amari Cooper, WR, Oakland Raiders (23)

    After topping 1,000 receiving yards in each of his first two seasons, Cooper's numbers were down in 2017—he missed two games and caught just 48 passes for 680 yards. However, Cooper also reeled in a career-best seven touchdowns, and he'll enter his fourth season as the unquestioned No. 1 wideout in Oakland opposite Jordy Nelson.

    14. Deion Jones, ILB, Atlanta Falcons (23)

    In two NFL seasons, Jones has already grown into one of the game's better MIKE linebackers and a leader for the Falcons defensively. His 138 total tackles and 91 solo stops in 2017 were both career bests, and Jones has demonstrated the agility, quickness and coverage ability that's so essential for linebackers in today's game.

    13. Brandin Cooks, WR, Los Angeles Rams (24)

    Cooks is a rarity on this list—while most of the players here are still on the teams that drafted them, Cooks has been dealt for a first-round pick in the last two offseasons. But Cooks has been consistently productive no matter his address, topping 1,000 receiving yards in each of the last three campaigns.

    12. Marshon Lattimore, CB, New Orleans Saints (21)

    The first pick of the Saints' phenomenal 2017 draft class, Lattimore quickly established himself as not only the best cornerback in New Orleans but also one of the best youngsters at the position in the NFL. By year's end, Lattimore had made 52 stops, picked off five passes and won Defensive Rookie of the Year honors.

    11. Kareem Hunt, RB, Kansas City Chiefs (22)

    Hunt started off his pro career by gashing the New England Patriots for 246 total yards and three touchdowns—the most prolific debut by a tailback in NFL history. And after capping his first year by averaging 4.9 yards a carry and leading the NFL with 1,327 yards on the ground in 2017, even this lofty ranking feels a little low.

10. Tyreek Hill, WR, Kansas City Chiefs

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    Ed Zurga/Associated Press

    There isn't a more dangerous player in the NFL with a football in his hands than Tyreek Hill of the Kansas City Chiefs. Whether it's on a go route or a punt return, if Hill finds a seam and gets past the defense, it's all over.

    Hill is arguably the fastest player in the NFL. But as ESPN.com's Adam Teicher opined, Hill is much more than just a receiver who can run really fast in a straight line. Head coach Andy Reid believes the same:

    "It's more than just running fast. We have a lot of fast players in the National Football League, but it's more than that. It's his ability to track the ball, set things up when the ball is in the air, to maintain your speed. Other guys, when the ball is in the air, that inside arm drops. It cuts their speed down three-quarters, and defensive backs can catch back up and roll."

    This isn't to say that the 24-year-old is a finished product after catching 75 passes for 1,183 yards and seven scores in 2017 and adding his fourth career return touchdown. Far from it. 

    Hill's potential is almost limitless.

    He can do things with a football you just can't coach. As the old saying goes, you can't teach speed.

9. Landon Collins, S, New York Giants

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    Julio Cortez/Associated Press

    The New York Giants just suffered through an awful 2017 season. Safety Landon Collins wasn't spared. While Collins topped the 100-tackle mark for a third straight season, his 104 stops were a career low, and he battled injuries much of the season.

    There's a new staff in New York in 2018—including a new defensive coordinator in James Bettcher. As Tom Rock reported for Newsday, the 24-year-old Collins is enjoying Bettcher's defensive scheme.

    "It's perfect," Collins said. "While [Bettcher] was going over it, it was like I was in college again. It was back to what I knew like the back of my hand, and it's going to play fast because it's very stern."

    "It's very plain," Collins said. "It's this way or no other way. There is no second-guessing it, and you can play faster that way without having the thought in your mind about second-guessing yourself about playing on the field."

    In some respects, Collins is a throwback—he looks the part of an old-school "thumper" at strong safety. Except that this thumper hits like a linebacker and runs like a cornerback.

    And given Bettcher's history of playing to the strengths of his safeties in Arizona, Collins could be on the cusp of a massive fourth year.

8. Alvin Kamara, RB, New Orleans Saints

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    Jason Behnken/Associated Press

    Alvin Kamara didn't waste any time making an impression in the NFL. In his third game, Kamara scored his first rushing touchdown from 25 yards out. The following week, Kamara found the end zone on a reception for the first time.

    It was the beginning of a theme for the 22-year-old—finding any number of ways to make opposing defensive coordinators pull their hair out.

    By the time the dust settled on the 2017 season, Kamara had 728 rushing yards on 120 attempts.

    That's over six yards a carry, for the math-averse.

    Kamara added 826 more yards on 81 catches—an average of 10.2 yards a grab.

    All told, Kamara averaged 7.7 yards per touch as a rookie. Per James Parks of 247Sports, no player in the history of the NFL who had 200 touches in a season has ever averaged more.

    Oh, and Kamara also averaged 31.5 yards per kickoff return and took one 106 yards to the house.

    Other than that, though, the kid had a pretty quiet first year in the big leagues.

    In other words, this ranking may be low.

7. Deshaun Watson, QB, Houston Texans

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    Stephen Brashear/Associated Press

    This ranking may turn a few heads.

    After all, Deshaun Watson only played in seven games (and start six) for the Houston Texans as a rookie before an ACL tear in practice ended his year.

    But man, what a seven-game stretch it was.

    Watson was positively electric from the moment he stepped into the huddle, consistently using his athleticism and escapability to buy time before finding open receivers down the field. Over those first seven games as a pro, Watson tossed 19 touchdown passes—in that regard, it's the most prolific debut from a quarterback in league history.

    Texans head coach Bill O'Brien told John McClain of the Houston Chronicle he's confident Watson can stay healthy moving forward, in part because he knows when to say when.

    "That's one thing I think Deshaun's really good at," O'Brien said. "We practice that. We talked to him about that. But he has a really good instinct for maybe gaining the five or six yards and then going down before he takes the shot.

    "That's a big thing that young quarterbacks usually have a problem with. He seems to have an instinct for being able to stay out of harm's way."

    Provided O'Brien is right, the sky is the limit for the 22-year-old in his sophomore season.

6. Ezekiel Elliott, RB, Dallas Cowboys

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    Mitchell Leff/Getty Images

    The 2017 season is one Dallas Cowboys tailback Ezekiel Elliott would probably just as soon forget. One year after leading the National Football League with 1,631 yards on the ground, Elliott spent six games of his sophomore season on the shelf because of a suspension.

    As a result, Elliott failed to rush for 1,000 yards—and the Cowboys failed to make the playoffs.

    It was a disaster. In retrospect, Elliott and the Cowboys would have been better off just serving the suspension to open the season instead of having the never-ending legal struggle hanging over the team for almost the entire year.

    That's all in the past now.

    And the future brings with it a great chance for a rebound season.

    Even amid the constant distractions last year, Elliott's per-touch numbers remained solid. He'll be back to his status as the focal point of the Cowboys offense in 2018. And while there were character concerns last year, no one is questioning Elliott's ability to bang away between the tackles or wear a defense down.

    Provided he stays healthy (and there's no reason to think he won't—Elliott's been remarkably durable), the 22-year-old will top 1,200 yards on the ground this year and again be mentioned among the best tailbacks in the game.

5. Jalen Ramsey, CB, Jacksonville Jaguars

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    Adam Glanzman/Getty Images

    The Jacksonville Jaguars made it to the AFC Championship Game last year on the back of one of the league's premier defenses. And the heart of a pass defense that surrendered just 169.9 yards per game (over 20 fewer yards than the No. 2 pass defense) is a brash 23-year-old who is just as comfortable talking smack as he is shutting down wide receivers.

    Of course, when you play like Jalen Ramsey, you can talk all the junk you want.

    In just two seasons, Ramsey has become one of the best cornerbacks in football. Maybe the best. He was named a first-team All-Pro after registering 63 tackles and four interceptions for the Jaguars.

    Of course, those raw stats really don't tell the whole story of a player at Ramsey's position. Per Pro Football Focus, Ramsey's grade of 92.4 in coverage in 2017 was second-best in the league. Paired with free-agent acquisition AJ Bouye, Ramsey anchored a secondary that was the best in the game by a substantial margin.

    Sure, in a perfect world the Jaguars would probably prefer that Ramsey let his play talk more and his mouth talk less.

    But so long as he keeps backing it up on the field on Sundays, the Jags will gladly live with the occasional bulletin-board material.

4. Jared Goff, QB, Los Angeles Rams

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    Josh Lefkowitz/Getty Images

    What a difference a year makes.

    As a rookie two years ago, Los Angeles Rams quarterback Jared Goff looked lost. In seven starts, Goff managed just five touchdown passes. His passer rating was a miserable 63.6.

    The Rams' decision to make Goff the No. 1 overall pick in the 2016 NFL draft looked to be a disastrous mistake.

    Then Jeff Fisher was fired as the head coach in L.A.—replaced by the youngest head man in league history in Sean McVay.

    The lightbulb clicked on for Goff in Year 2 so loudly it could be heard in Buffalo.

    Goff was a completely different quarterback in 2017. The indecisive and inaccurate kid was gone, replaced by a young gunslinger who made defenses pay over and over again down the field. Goff's completion percentage increased by almost eight points. His yards per attempt went up almost 50 percent. His touchdown-to-interception ratio went from minus-two to plus-21.

    It was a transformation that was as complete as it was dramatic. Goff went from looking like a wasted pick to looking like a future NFL MVP.

    If the 23-year-old takes another similar leap forward in 2018, the Rams could be headed to the Super Bowl.

    And this ranking will prove to have been about three slots too low.

3. Mike Evans, WR, Tampa Bay Buccaneers

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    It's a good time to be Mike Evans.

    A month or so ago, Evans hit the mother lode—inking a five-year, $82.5 million extension with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers that included $55 million in guarantees.

    It's hard to dispute that the 24-year-old Evans earned that bonanza. Evans' 71 catches for 1,001 yards in 2017 marked the fourth time in as many seasons that he surpassed the 1,000-yard mark. His average stat line over that span is 77 receptions for 1,145 yards and eight scores.

    As Rick Stroud of the Tampa Bay Times reported, Tampa offensive coordinator Todd Monken insisted that Evans is about much more than those gaudy stats:

    "Mike in one game will get fired up because he's very competitive. Mike and Jameis' passion stem from the same thing. To me, in today's day and age, they are rare in the fact that they get individual stats and they get what that means in terms of their future and their money. But they equally want to win and winning is critical to them. Where coaches are tied to winning, players are tied to their name. They're one of the group of guys that you love where it means as much to them to win."

    Evans has been one of the best wideouts in the NFL from the moment he first set foot on the field.

    He's shown zero signs of slowing down since.

2. Joey Bosa, DE, Los Angeles Chargers

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    Michael Ainsworth/Associated Press

    Per Adam Rank of NFL.com, there are less than 10 players in the NFL who are essentially untradeable. Joey Bosa of the Los Angeles Chargers is one of them.

    "He gives the Chargers something they don't have a lot of: charm and charisma," Rank said. "He's got a quirky sense of humor that should land him some sort of walk-on roll in New Girl or whatnot. I know this seems weird, but I live out here in Los Angeles and the Chargers desperately need that kind presence to win the Battle for L.A. Bosa is it."

    Bosa's personality is great. What he does on Sundays for the Bolts is even better.

    In just two seasons, Bosa has already become one of the best edge-rushers in the NFL. He's equally adept at stuffing the run as he is giving quarterbacks nightmares, racking up 12.5 sacks and a jaw-dropping 70 total tackles for the Chargers in 2017.

    Bosa's a nigh-unblockable force off the edge. Combined with Melvin Ingram, he provides the Chargers with the NFL's top one-two punch at one of the league's premium positions.

    Bosa has amassed 23 sacks in only 28 career games.

    And he won't even turn 23 until July.

1. Todd Gurley, RB, Los Angeles Rams

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    Kelvin Kuo/Associated Press

    Los Angeles Rams tailback Todd Gurley entered the 2017 season trying to rebound from a disappointing second year in the NFL in which he managed just 3.2 yards per carry.

    The 23-year-old left Year 3 as an MVP candidate and the best player in the league under the age of 25.

    Gurley was fantastic for the Rams last year, gaining 1,305 yards on 279 carries—a robust average of 4.7 yards a carry and the second time in three years Gurley's hit that benchmark. He also caught 64 passes—the same number of receptions Gurley had in his first two seasons combined. The 6'1", 227-pounder piled up almost 2,100 total yards and found the end zone an eye-popping 19 times.

    Had Gurley not spent the final Sunday of the regular season as a spectator because the Rams' playoff spot was set, he may well have led the NFL in rushing yards, receiving yards by a tailback and total touchdowns.

    Even with the Week 17 siesta, he finished second, second and first among non-quarterbacks. For much of the month of December, Gurley was being talked up as an MVP candidate.

    Gurley came up short in that pursuit (finishing second to Tom Brady), but his third-year explosion was enough to land a trip to the Pro Bowl and Offensive Player of the Year honors from the Associated Press.

    It was also enough to land Gurley at the top of this list.

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