Every NFL Team's Most Promising Youngster
Heading into Week 7, the NFL's leader in passing touchdowns is 23 years old. Three of the players tied for the league lead in interceptions are 23 or younger. The second- and third-ranked members on the yards-from-scrimmage list are 21 and 23, respectively.
An influx of tremendous talent has made its mark over the past few seasons, and nearly every team can point to a young player as a future franchise cornerstone.
Below, we've highlighted a player no older than 23 on each team with the most promising future. Some of the picks are clear—the obvious choice for the New York Giants is 21-year-old running back Saquon Barkley, for example—so we'll list runner-ups for every team as well.
The focus is on those most likely to have long-term sustainable success with his current franchise regardless of position. Production to date, future potential, age (i.e. the younger the player, the more room for growth) and draft pedigree all factored into these picks.
Arizona Cardinals: QB Josh Rosen
The Arizona Cardinals didn't wait long to throw No. 10 overall pick Josh Rosen under center.
With veteran Sam Bradford at the helm, the Cardinals scored only six points across Weeks 1 and 2 combined. Although they jumped out to an early 14-0 lead against the Chicago Bears in Week 3, Rosen got the nod late in the fourth quarter facing a 16-14 deficit.
In the three contests since Rosen took over, Arizona's offense has accounted for 48 points. The former UCLA star has completed only 55.6 percent of his passes, but he's established a strong rapport with rookie wideout Christian Kirk, who has 13 catches for 190 yards and a touchdown over the past three weeks.
As Rosen continues to develop, he could emerge as the top quarterback in the class of 2018, which numerous analysts (including Josh Norris of Rotoworld and Bucky Brooks of NFL.com) pegged him as heading into the draft.
Arizona also has some other exciting young talent, including 22-year-old defensive back Budda Baker, who has already earned one All-Pro appearance (as a special teamer) in 2017. Baker leads the team with 57 tackles, and he returned a fumble for a touchdown against the Minnesota Vikings on Sunday.
Runner-Up: S Budda Baker
Atlanta Falcons: DE Takkarist McKinley
After amassing six sacks as a rookie, Atlanta Falcons defensive end Takkarist McKinley already has four-and-a-half through five games in 2018. He's emerged as his team's top pass-rusher even though he missed one game with a groin injury.
Through four weeks, McKinley was also No. 1 in the league among edge defenders in sack rate, per Pro Football Focus.
The 2017 No. 26 overall pick has played only 52.39 percent of his team's snaps this season (including snaps lost in his missed game), making his 4.5-sack total even more impressive.
Although the Falcons defense has struggled this year largely due to injuries, its arrow may be pointing up due to some of its young talent beyond McKinley. Take rookie linebacker Foyesade Oluokun, who has 27 tackles in six games and had nine in Sunday's 34-29 win over the Tampa Bay Buccaneers.
Runner-Up: LB Foyesade Oluokun
Baltimore Ravens: QB Lamar Jackson
Baltimore Ravens quarterback Lamar Jackson isn't seeing the field much as he backs up veteran Joe Flacco, but the 21-year-old has showcased his exciting potential with a few designed runs behind center. Of note, he's rushed 17 times for 94 yards, including a 22-yarder that eventually set up a touchdown in Baltimore's 21-0 win over Tennessee on Sunday.
The former Louisville star won the 2016 Heisman Trophy and accounted for 119 touchdowns (69 passing, 50 rushing) in 38 collegiate games. Jackson's accuracy wasn't his calling card, but it notably improved during his three seasons with the Cardinals, going from 54.7 percent as a freshman to 59.1 percent as a junior.
The Ravens won't utilize Jackson's rushing ability as much as Louisville did—he ran for 4,132 yards in three seasons, which isn't sustainable in the NFL—but it'll be a weapon for them nevertheless.
On defense, 22-year-old cornerback Marlon Humphrey is third on the team in passes defended (five) after amassing 11 the year before. He's a big contributor on a defense that has allowed the NFL's fewest points through six games and ranks among the top five in both rush- and pass-defense efficiency, per Football Outsiders.
Runner-Up: CB Marlon Humphrey
Buffalo Bills: LB Tremaine Edmunds
The Buffalo Bills defense has allowed only 56 points in its last four-and-a-half games. The unit is a mix of solid veterans (such as defensive tackle Kyle Williams), emerging players (like linebacker Matt Milano) and a breakout rookie who is taking the league by storm.
That would be linebacker Tremaine Edmunds, who is the team's leader in tackles (47) and co-leader in passes defended (five). He also has two forced fumbles and a sack.
Edmunds has assumed a large burden after Buffalo took him 16th overall this year, as he's started every game and has played every defensive snap. That's a remarkable feat for a player who just turned 20 in May.
Edmunds isn't the only young defensive star on the team, however, as 23-year-old Tre'Davious White is now a shutdown cornerback. On Sunday, White shadowed Houston Texans superstar wideout DeAndre Hopkins on 69 percent of his routes and allowed only two catches (on three targets) for 27 yards and a touchdown, per Jeff Ratcliffe of Pro Football Focus.
White and Edmunds could be the backbone of a dominant Bills defense for years.
Runner-Up: CB Tre'Davious White
Carolina Panthers: RB Christian McCaffrey
Picked eighth overall out of Stanford in 2017, 22-year-old running back Christian McCaffrey shared carries with Jonathan Stewart during his rookie year before assuming the majority of the workload this season.
McCaffrey has answered the call, as he's amassed 587 yards from scrimmage in five games and has rushed for 4.9 yards per carry. Across 16 games as a rookie, he gained 1,087 yards from scrimmage and scored seven touchdowns.
McCaffrey is the obvious choice for the Carolina Panthers' most promising young player, but wideout DJ Moore is not far behind. Picked 24th overall in this year's draft, the 21-year-old Moore has received more snaps in recent weeks and delivered with eight catches for 108 yards in his past two games.
Moore did lose two fumbles against Washington on Sunday, but if he bounces back from that, he could be a breakout star for the second half of the year.
Runner-Up: WR DJ Moore
Chicago Bears: LB Roquan Smith
Picked eighth overall out of Georgia in April, rookie linebacker Roquan Smith is second on the Chicago Bears in tackles (31) through five games. That's an impressive feat considering Smith played only eight snaps in Week 1 against the Green Bay Packers.
Smith has started his last four contests and accumulated 13 tackles in Sunday's 31-28 overtime loss to the Miami Dolphins. More notably, he is only 21 years old and has helped the Bears allow the fourth-fewest points per game through six weeks.
As the season progresses, how will Smith fare with even more playing time? He was on the field for 92 percent of snaps (72 snaps overall) in the loss to Miami. If that workload keeps up, Smith could have a case for Defensive Rookie of the Year.
On the other side of the ball, running back Tarik Cohen has 295 yards from scrimmage and two touchdowns in his last two games. The 23-year-old is behind Jordan Howard on the depth chart, but he's getting a lot of opportunities in the pass game and clearly has an established rapport with 24-year-old quarterback Mitchell Trubisky. The two have connected 14 times for 211 yards and a score in the past two weeks.
Runner-Up: RB Tarik Cohen
Cincinnati Bengals: S Jessie Bates and RB Joe Mixon (Tie)
Cincinnati Bengals rookie safety Jessie Bates has made a significant impact in his first six games, as he leads the team in interceptions (two) and is second in tackles (41). Cincinnati took the 21-year-old out of Wake Forest late in the second round, and he's emerged as a dynamic force in the team's secondary.
He also seems to come up big in Bengals victories. Bates' interceptions came in two wins (versus the Miami Dolphins and Baltimore Ravens), and he had eight tackles each in Cincinnati's two other wins (against the Indianapolis Colts and Atlanta Falcons).
Between Bates and running back Joe Mixon, the Bengals have two of the NFL's top talents under the age of 23. Mixon has battled injuries this year, but he has registered 435 yards from scrimmage and three touchdowns in four games. He's been an efficient rusher with 4.7 yards per carry thus far and is also a threat in the pass game (13 catches for 99 yards and a touchdown).
Cleveland Browns: DE Myles Garrett and QB Baker Mayfield (Tie)
Defensive end Myles Garrett and quarterback Baker Mayfield should keep the Cleveland Browns relevant for the next decade-plus.
After notching seven sacks as a rookie, Garrett already has five in six games this season. Picked first overall out of Texas A&M in 2017, Garrett is fulfilling his lofty expectations and has already emerged as one of the game's top pass-rushers.
Mayfield was the draft's top overall selection this season, and he's done fairly well in three-plus games. His high point was when he went 17-of-23 for 201 yards in a come-from-behind 21-17 win over the New York Jets in Week 3. The former Oklahoma star has completed only 55.6 percent of his passes, but he is taking plenty of deep shots and his receivers have dropped 8.5 percent of his throws, according to ESPN.com's Mike Clay.
Mayfield has already led the Browns to two wins, which is one more than they had in 2016 and 2017 combined.
Dallas Cowboys: RB Ezekiel Elliott
To no one's surprise, running back Ezekiel Elliott is the Dallas Cowboys' most promising young player. In only 31 career games, the former Ohio State star has racked up 3,998 yards from scrimmage and has scored 29 touchdowns.
Remarkably, Elliott won't turn 24 years old until July. He figures to be the fulcrum of Dallas' offense for years to come.
The better debate is who the team's second-most promising young player may be. The guess here is rookie linebacker Leighton Vander Esch.
The 21-year-old out of Boise State leads the team in total tackles (51) and solo tackles (40) even though he's started only three of six games and has played just over 66 percent of snaps. Vander Esch also has the second-highest grade among the defensive rookies, per Pro Football Focus.
Runner-Up: LB Leighton Vander Esch
Denver Broncos: EDGE Bradley Chubb
Heading into Week 6, Denver Broncos edge-rusher Bradley Chubb had 1.5 sacks on the season. He doubled that total on Sunday alone, as he accrued three sacks against Los Angeles Rams quarterback Jared Goff.
Considering L.A. ranked second in adjusted sack rate allowed entering the game, per Football Outsiders, Chubb's performance is even more impressive.
As Kyle Fredrickson of the Denver Post noted, Chubb now leads all rookies in sacks. Picked fifth overall out of NC State in 2018, the 22-year-old forms a scary pass-rushing duo with Von Miller, who leads all Broncos with 5.5 sacks.
Chubb looks like the real deal, as does 22-year-old rookie running back Royce Freeman, who has rushed for 4.7 yards per carry and three touchdowns through six games. Freeman hasn't done much damage in the pass game (four catches for 21 yards), but his ground efforts have been excellent.
Runner-Up: RB Royce Freeman
Detroit Lions: RB Kerryon Johnson
Selected in the second round of the 2018 draft, 21-year-old running back Kerryon Johnson has been remarkably efficient through five games, averaging 5.7 yards per carry. He's still splitting time with LeGarrette Blount, but at some point, Johnson will likely be the No. 1 option there. He's also proved to be a threat in the pass game with 13 receptions thus far.
Per Football Outsiders, Johnson ranks first in DVOA (defense-adjusted value over average) among running backs with at least 40 rushes. DVOA "represents value, per play, over an average running back in the same game situations."
The fact that a rookie is No. 1 in that statistic is remarkable, and it also begs the question why Johnson isn't getting a least a few more opportunities. He's the real deal.
Elsewhere, 22-year-old defensive lineman Da'Shawn Hand is receiving some accolades. Per Pro Football Focus, he's graded as the third-best defensive rookie through six weeks, and he's the top-ranked rookie defensive lineman. On the season, he has 19 tackles and two sacks.
Runner-Up: DL Da'Shawn Hand
Green Bay Packers: CBs Jaire Alexander and Josh Jackson (Tie)
After the Packers pass defense struggled in 2017, the team drafted cornerbacks Jaire Alexander and Josh Jackson with its first two selections this season.
Both rookies have already come up with some big plays. Alexander picked off Buffalo Bills quarterback Josh Allen to help preserve a 22-0 shutout victory in Week 4, while Jackson recovered a blocked punt for a touchdown in a 29-all tie with the Minnesota Vikings in Week 2.
Alexander missed the Packers' 33-30 Monday Night Football win over the San Francisco 49ers due to a groin injury, and the team's lack of depth on that end showed. The Packers were beat deep on 67- and 30-yard touchdown passes to wideout Marquise Goodwin.
Overall, though, Green Bay's pass defense is faring well, allowing only 6.3 net passing yards per attempt. That mark is tied for eighth in the league, and Jackson and Alexander's efforts have played a part.
Houston Texans: QB Deshaun Watson
Second-year quarterback Deshaun Watson is unquestionably the Houston Texans' most promising young player. He had 21 total touchdowns (19 passing, two rushing) in six-and-a-half games last season before he suffered a torn ACL during a mid-week practice.
The 23-year-old hasn't had that same level of scoring success this season, but his completion rate has improved (61.8 percent to 64.5 percent), and his yards-per-attempt total has stayed the same (8.3). Watson hasn't received great blocking, as he's taken a league-high 25 sacks through this season compared to 19 in two more quarters of play in 2017.
Still, Watson is clearly the future of the franchise and will be fun to watch for years. Rookie wide receiver Keke Coutee, who Houston picked in the fourth round, may be alongside him throughout that span.
After missing the Texans' first three games due to an injury, the 21-year-old has emerged as a dependable playmaker, catching 20 passes for 193 yards and a touchdown. Houston was 0-3 before Coutee took the field and is now tied for first in the AFC South at 3-3.
More factors go into that shift than only Coutee's performance, but he's certainly helped.
Runner-Up: WR Keke Coutee
Indianapolis Colts: LB Darius Leonard
Indianapolis Colts linebacker Darius Leonard is clearly one of the game's best rookies on either side of the ball.
Despite missing one game with an injury, the 23-year-old Leonard has 63 tackles, four sacks, two forced fumbles and two passes defended. He was named the league's Defensive Rookie of the Month for September and is one of the clear front-runners to win the yearly award as well.
Leonard is also tied for sixth in the NFL with seven tackles for a loss. Only one player above him (teammate Margus Hunt) has played five games as well.
Elsewhere on defense, safety Malik Hooker offers intriguing upside. The 2017 first-round pick out of Ohio State played only seven games last year due to a torn ACL, but he picked off three passes before going down. Hooker has been a bit quieter this year (26 tackles, one pick), but he's only 22 years old and has 13 games on his resume. He still offers tremendous upside.
Runner-Up: S Malik Hooker
Jacksonville Jaguars: RB Leonard Fournette
Jacksonville Jaguars running back Leonard Fournette has been slowed down by a variety of injuries since joining the NFL last year. But when healthy, he's a force to be reckoned with, as the Pittsburgh Steelers know all too well.
Fournette had 290 rushing yards and five total touchdowns in two games against Pittsburgh last year, but he was also productive against other teams. He had 1,342 yards from scrimmage and 10 touchdowns in only 13 games last season.
A hamstring injury has sidelined the 2017 No. 4 overall pick for much of this season, although head coach Doug Marrone is reportedly hopeful he will return Sunday against the Houston Texans, according to ESPN.com's Michael DiRocco. If he's back to 100 percent, he'll once again be a handful to take down.
Outside of Fournette, Ronnie Harrison may tout the most upside out of any other young Jaguar. Picked in the third round this year out of Alabama, the 21-year-old safety has already made three starts and has 14 tackles. Harrison has played on only 29.26 percent of snaps, but he could fare better with more playing time.
Runner-Up: S Ronnie Harrison
Kansas City Chiefs: QB Patrick Mahomes
Kansas City Chiefs quarterback Patrick Mahomes' worst game this year came against the Jacksonville Jaguars, when he didn't throw a touchdown pass and tossed two interceptions. Regardless, the 23-year-old scored a rushing touchdown, threw for 313 yards and led the Chiefs to a resounding 30-14 win over the Jags to improve to 5-0 on the year.
Mahomes leads the NFL with 18 passing touchdowns and is third in yards per pass attempt. He appears poised to become the league's next great quarterback, one with multiple Super Bowl wins to his name.
Kansas City is currently 5-1 and leading the AFC thanks in part to his efforts and those of 23-year-old running back Kareem Hunt, who takes some pressure off Mahomes with his work on the ground and through the air. A third-round pick out of Toledo in 2017, Hunt has 2,409 yards from scrimmage and 17 touchdowns in 22 career games.
Hunt and Mahomes make up what might be the NFL's best quarterback-running back duo.
Runner-Up: RB Kareem Hunt
Los Angeles Chargers: S Derwin James and EDGE Joey Bosa (Tie)
Los Angeles Chargers safety Derwin James is Pro Football Focus' top-graded defensive rookie through six weeks. He leads his team in sacks (3.5) and passes defended (six), and he's second in tackles (36) and quarterback hits (six).
The 22-year-old Florida State product looked like a potential top-10 pick in April, although he somehow slipped to No. 17 before the Bolts stopped his slide. That behooved the Chargers, as James is clearly their best defensive player right now as edge-rusher Joey Bosa works his way back from a foot injury.
When healthy, Bosa is one of the best in the game at his craft. The Ohio State product had 10.5 sacks in only 12 games in 2016 and notched 12.5 sacks and 70 tackles over a full 16-game season last year. In turn, the Bolts allowed the third-fewest points in the league.
With Bosa and James on the field, the Chargers soon may have one of the NFL's top defenses.
Los Angeles Rams: S John Johnson
Los Angeles Rams quarterback Jared Goff and running back Todd Gurley barely miss the 23-year-old cutoff here, so the pick for the team's most promising younger player is starting safety John Johnson, a 22-year-old in his second year out of Boston College.
Johnson has been all over the field through six games, making 41 tackles, defending six passes, intercepting two more and forcing one fumble.
The Rams have allowed the seventh-fewest points per game through six weeks, and they're off to a 6-0 start. However, Johnson isn't the only young player making an impact on that end of the field.
Linebacker Samson Ebukam has started every game and has four tackles for a loss and a sack. While Ebukam started only two games as a rookie, he's just 23 years old. He has plenty of time to develop on a team that isn't overly reliant on him right now.
Runner-Up: LB Samson Ebukam
Miami Dolphins: DB Minkah Fitzpatrick
The Miami Dolphins have thrown 21-year-old rookie defensive back Minkah Fitzpatrick into the fire this season. He's played on 80.29 percent of the team's defensive snaps and 27.16 percent of its special teams snaps.
He's responded with some productive outings, including two 10-tackle performances in back-to-back weeks and four passes defended. Fitzpatrick is second overall on the team in tackles (37) and fourth in passes defended (four).
Fitzpatrick received strong praise from Chicago Bears head coach Matt Nagy and defensive coordinator Vic Fangio prior to Miami's 31-28 win Sunday. Fangio said he has "really good instincts and a natural feel for the game," while Nagy added that he has "a great mix of enough size to cover tight ends but enough speed to cover wide receivers."
Fitzpatrick and fellow linebacker Jerome Baker could help form a dominant Dolphins defense for years. A 22-year-old rookie out of Ohio State, Baker is third on the team with 35 tackles and had two sacks in a 27-17 loss to the Cincinnati Bengals. He's production is impressive considering that he's playing just over half of his team's defensive snaps (55.58 percent).
Runner-Up: LB Jerome Baker
Minnesota Vikings: RB Dalvin Cook
Minnesota Vikings running back Dalvin Cook suffered a torn ACL that sidelined him for most of the 2017 season, and a hamstring injury has hampered his 2018 campaign. It's unfortunate luck for the second-year pro out of Florida State, as Cook has proven to be an excellent runner when healthy.
In three-plus games last year, Cook had 444 yards from scrimmage and two touchdowns. He also showed an ability to be a three-down workhorse, as he amassed 32 touches in one game and 25 in another.
Cook has not been as effective this year (2.7 yards per carry), but that can largely be attributed to his hamstring injury. When he rounds back into form, expect him to put up numbers closer to his rookie figures.
The Vikings also endured a tough injury to a promising young defensive player Sunday, as cornerback Mike Hughes suffered a torn ACL and will miss the rest of the season. Hughes was the team's 2018 first-round pick and was getting plenty of reps on special teams and at nickel and outside cornerback, per Ben Goessling of the Star Tribune.
Hughes, who had an interception return for a touchdown in his first career game, is only 21 years old and should offer plenty of upside upon his return next season.
Runner-Up: CB Mike Hughes
New England Patriots: RB Sony Michel
Perhaps it's a coincidence, but the emergence of New England Patriots running back Sony Michel has coincided with the team's three-game winning streak following a sluggish 1-2 start.
The 23-year-old rookie out of Georgia has 328 yards from scrimmage and four touchdowns in his past three games, while the Pats have posted point totals of 38, 38 and 43, respectively. He's New England's go-to guy for carries, as fellow running back James White primarily handles pass-catching duties.
Michel's early success may be a sign of great things to come, especially on a dynamic and talented offense such as New England's.
The Pats' second-most promising young player, 22-year-old linebacker Ja'Whaun Bentley, went on injured reserve after suffering an injury in Week 3 against the Detroit Lions. Before going on IR, the fifth-round pick had 13 tackles, an interception and a tackle for loss.
Provided he's back healthy next year, Bentley offers significant promise moving forward.
Runner-Up: LB Ja'Whaun Bentley
New Orleans Saints: RB Alvin Kamara
No NFL player is more fun to watch than New Orleans Saints running back Alvin Kamara, who has the elusiveness to dodge the fastest defender and the strength to overpower a front seven as he runs over them into open space or the end zone.
Drafted in the third round in 2017, the 23-year-old has rushed for 5.6 yards per carry over his two-year career. He's totaled 2,204 yards from scrimmage and 19 touchdowns on only 301 touches, largely as a member of a backfield timeshare with veteran Mark Ingram.
Kamara is a big reason why the Saints have gone 15-6 in the 2017 and 2018 regular seasons combined after finishing just 7-9 in 2016. He helps make the New Orleans offense one of the league's best.
On the opposite side, 22-year-old Saints cornerback Marshon Lattimore was named the Associated Press' Defensive Rookie of the Year in 2017. He also made the Pro Bowl, as he snagged five interceptions and finished with 52 combined tackles in 13 games.
He's gotten off to a slower start this season (no interceptions in five games, and the team allowed 96 points in its first three contests). However, New Orleans' defense has bounced back of late, with only 18.5 points per game allowed in its last two.
Runner-Up: CB Marshon Lattimore
New York Giants: RB Saquon Barkley
Here are a handful of New York Giants running back Saquon Barkley's stats relative to the rest of the league through six games:
- 811 yards from scrimmage (second overall)
- Six total touchdowns (tied for fourth overall)
- 5.2 yards per rush attempt (sixth overall)
- 373 receiving yards (16th overall, including wideouts and tight ends)
- A 78.4 percent catch rate (17th overall)
The 21-year-old just torched the Philadelphia Eagles for 229 yards from scrimmage and a touchdown, although New York lost, 34-13. The 1-5 Giants have a lot of work to do, but Barkley has somehow exceeded his lofty expectations as the second overall pick of the 2018 NFL draft.
He's found some rushing lanes due to rookie left guard Will Hernandez. Matt Lombardo of NJ Advance Media said the 2018 second-round pick out of UTEP is "quietly developing into one of the better players at his position."
Hernandez should be a stalwart on the Giants offensive line for years.
Runner-Up: OG Will Hernandez
New York Jets: QB Sam Darnold
New York Jets quarterback Sam Darnold had more on his plate than any first-year pro in 2018. He was tasked with taking the reins of a team that hasn't made the playoffs in 2010 and helping turn it into a contender (in the United States' biggest media market, no less).
The early returns on Darnold are promising.
He's had some struggles here and there, but that's to be expected of a rookie. Overall, the 21-year-old out of USC had thrown nine touchdowns (to seven interceptions) and completed 59.8 percent of his passes. He's 17th in the league in passing yards per attempt at 7.52.
The third overall pick in the 2018 draft also just had his best career game, as he completed 80 percent of his passes for 280 yards and two scores (along with one interception) in a 42-34 win over the Indianapolis Colts.
The Jets can build their offense around Darnold and build their defense 22-year-old safety Jamal Adams. Picked sixth overall out of LSU in 2017, Adams is second on the team in tackles (41), tackles for loss (three) and passes defended (five).
Runner-Up: S Jamal Adams
Oakland Raiders: DT Maurice Hurst
The Oakland Raiders may be the NFL's worst team, but they grabbed one of the 2018 draft's biggest steals in 23-year-old interior lineman Maurice Hurst.
The fifth-round pick has three passes defended, two sacks and a forced fumble through six games, five of which were starts. According to Pro Football Focus, he's the fourth-highest-graded defensive rookie thus far. Marcus Mosher of Raiders Wire called him "fantastic," and PFF also noted that Hurst was tied for first among interior defensive linemen with seven pressures through five weeks.
Fellow rookie defensive lineman Arden Key also offers promise. Picked in the third round of this year's draft, the 22-year-old edge-rusher posted his best game thus far in a 27-3 loss to the Seattle Seahawks on Sunday, as he sacked quarterback Russell Wilson once and amassed four tackles.
Key has been close to more sacks on a number of occasions, as he has seven quarterback hits on the year. Eventually, those near-misses should turn into more sacks.
Runner-Up: DE Arden Key
Philadelphia Eagles: DE Derek Barnett
A 22-year-old defensive end drafted in the first round out of Tennessee, Derek Barnett had two-and-a-half sacks, eight tackles and four quarterback hits in Weeks 3 and 4 combined. He's also received numerous tweets of praise from former NFL lineman Brian Baldinger in his "Baldy's Breakdowns" series.
Barnett is an exciting young prospect who had five sacks, 16 quarterback hits and two fumble recoveries last year, and he also recovered Tom Brady's game-swinging fumble in Super Bowl 52. He looks better this season and should only continue to improve.
On offense, 23-year-old Eagles running back Corey Clement looks like the team's backfield leader of the future. He showcased his talents in last year's Super Bowl with four catches for 100 yards and a touchdown. The second-year pro has been limited by injuries this year and missed two games, but he's still gained 4.1 yards per carry and amassed 255 yards from scrimmage and two touchdowns.
During games in which he's had 10 or more touches this season, he's averaged 76.3 yards from scrimmage.
Runner-Up: RB Corey Clement
Pittsburgh Steelers: WR JuJu Smith-Schuster
In his past 13 regular-season games (dating back to last season), 21-year-old Pittsburgh Steelers wide receiver JuJu Smith-Schuster has 83 catches (on a 71.6 percent catch rate), 1,247 yards and six touchdowns. Over a full 16-game season, that'd extrapolate to 102 catches, 1,535 yards and seven scores.
To put those figures into context, Smith-Schuster would have ranked tied for fourth in receptions, first in receiving yards and top 20 in touchdowns in 2017.
Smith-Schuster is clearly the Steelers' top young player, and it looks like he and running back James Conner may form an excellent tandem for years to come.
A second-year pro out of Pittsburgh, Conner has answered the starting call with running back Le'Veon Bell holding out due to a contract dispute. The 23-year-old has 710 yards from scrimmage and seven touchdowns through six games, including 314 yards and four scores in his last two outings. He's proven to be durable, reliable and efficient thus far, which has been a giant boost to the Pittsburgh offense.
Runner-Up: RB James Conner
San Francisco 49ers: LB Fred Warner
Rookie linebacker Fred Warner was a tackling machine through four games, amassing 43 stops. On the season, he's registered 50 tackles in addition to two passes defended and a forced fumble.
The 22-year-old has played 100 percent of the team's snaps through six games. For context, no other defensive player on San Francisco has been on the field more than 82 percent of the time.
Warner has a lot of pressure on him as the 49ers' de facto defensive leader, but he has done well considering his relative professional inexperience.
On offense, 23-year-old running back Matt Breida is putting up eye-popping stats in his second year, as he leads the league with 6.8 yards per carry. That gaudy number figures to regress as the season moves along, but the second-year pro has already gained a remarkable 520 yards from scrimmage and scored three touchdowns on 74 touches.
Runner-Up: RB Matt Breida
Seattle Seahawks: S Tedric Thompson and CB Tre Flowers (Tie)
How can you narrow down the most promising young player on the Seattle Seahawks? This team is the hardest to choose from, as Seattle has three promising defensive backs (cornerbacks Tre Flowers and Shaquill Griffin and safety Tedric Thompson) as well as a running back (Rashaad Penny) who it selected in the first round of this year's draft.
The 22-year-old Penny is the youngest of the group and has the best draft pedigree—the three defensive backs were all taken in the third round or later—but his production to date hasn't been great (197 yards from scrimmage on 44 touches). Furthermore, one could argue Chris Carson and Mike Davis are better options in the Seattle backfield right now (they have 4.5- and 4.6-yard-per-carry averages, respectively).
That leaves the defensive backs. Field Gulls editor and writer Alistair Corp believes Flowers has a higher ceiling than Griffin, citing the former player's rawness as his primary concern right now.
The 6'3", 208-pound Flowers is third on the team in tackles despite sitting out one game with an injury. Given his size and length—he has nearly 34-inch arms—few wide receivers in the league will be able to beat him physically.
As for Thompson, he's earned a stellar Pro Football Focus grade of 85.6 out of 100. After six-time Pro Bowler Earl Thomas suffered a season-ending lower left leg fracture in Week 4, Thompson stepped in and has 11 tackles and an interception in two starts. He also helped hold the Oakland Raiders to only 142 passing yards in a 27-3 win Sunday.
Flowers and Thompson may have the slight edge over Griffin as far as their future potential. However, Griffin is promising in his own right and may help form a Legion of Boom 2.0 with Flowers, Thompson and 27-year-old safety Bradley McDougald.
Tampa Bay Buccaneers: WR Chris Godwin
The Tampa Bay Buccaneers have significant defensive issues—they've allowed a league-high 34.6 points per game through six weeks—but the offense has a bright future thanks to some tremendous talent.
Wideout Chris Godwin is one of the more underrated players in the league. The 22-year-old is one of the team's primary red-zone threats and has scored four touchdowns in five games. On the season, he's caught 21 passes on 31 targets for 249 yards.
After sitting on the bench for most of last season, Godwin came on strong in the team's last four games, as he caught 16 passes for 295 yards and a score. He's proven to be a reliable pass-catcher and should only get better moving forward.
Another player with a nose for the end zone, 23-year-old tight end O.J. Howard, has made waves in limited action. Howard has played just over half of the team's snaps since he entered the league in 2017, but he still has eight touchdowns in 18 career games. He also has a penchant for the big play, as he's caught four touchdown passes of 30 yards or more.
Runner-Up: TE O.J. Howard
Tennessee Titans: WR Corey Davis
Tennessee Titans wide receiver Corey Davis was the primary reason why his team upset the defending Super Bowl champion Philadelphia Eagles in a 26-23 overtime win in Week 4. He caught nine passes for 161 yards and the game-winning score in the waning seconds of overtime.
He hasn't gained more than 62 receiving yards in any other game this year, but that's partially a symptom of the Titans' offensive struggles. They've scored only 12 points (on four field goals) in their last two games.
Davis battled injuries last year and was limited to only 11 regular-season contests. However, he broke through in a divisional-round matchup with the New England Patriots with five receptions for 63 yards and two touchdowns. The 23-year-old is the team's best offensive weapon and its most promising young player.
On defense, 23-year-old cornerback Adoree' Jackson has made some waves, snatching two interceptions this year and amassing 25 tackles.
He also received some praise from ESPN.com's Mike Clay, who noted that Jackson shadowed Baltimore Ravens wide receiver John Brown in the Titans' 21-0 loss on Sunday. Brown, who had 19 catches for 396 yards and three touchdowns entering the contest, had two scoreless receptions for 28 yards.
Jackson is only improving as time goes on and is arguably the team's best cornerback.
Runner-Up: CB Adoree' Jackson
Washington Redskins: NT Da'Ron Payne and DT Jonathan Allen (Tie)
If the Washington Redskins can re-sign defensive linemen Da'Ron Payne and Jonathan Allen after their rookie contracts expire, they'll have one of the best defensive lines for the next decade provided both stay healthy.
Washington's defense has been its calling card in its 3-2 start. Although the Redskins suffered a rough patch in a 43-19 loss to the New Orleans Saints, they've allowed point totals of six, 21 and 17 (twice) otherwise.
The two 17-point games were the most impressive, as they came against the Green Bay Packers and Carolina Panthers, each of whom have quarterbacks (Aaron Rodgers and Cam Newton) capable of doing significant damage.
Payne and Allen have played a big part in Washington's defensive surge this season. The 23-year-old Allen leads the team with seven quarterback hits and is the co-leader in tackles for loss (two). He and Payne are second on Washington in sacks (two each).
As for Payne, the 21-year-old has played on nearly 75 percent of the team's snaps. The rookie has performed well in his role, as the team has allowed only 90.2 rushing yards per game (the sixth-fewest in the league).
Payne's efforts against the run have been tremendous. He's a big reason why Washington has allowed the eighth-fewest points per game in the league.