Ranking the Top 10 NFL Players Under 25 Years Old

Brad Gagnon@Brad_Gagnon NFL National ColumnistJune 27, 2019

Ranking the Top 10 NFL Players Under 25 Years Old

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    Charlie Riedel/Associated Press

    The last three NFL drafts have already produced 17 All-Pros, 40 Pro Bowlers, two rushing champions and an MVP. Picking just 10 dudes to essentially represent those classes as the best players in the NFL under the age of 25 was a painful task.

    Suffice it to say, we loaded up on honorable mentions.

    Based on early-career accomplishments, with extra weight given to those who have proved they aren't one-year wonders, here's our stab at ranking the best NFL players under the age of 25.

    Only those who will be 24 or under at the start of the 2019 regular season are included, and listed ages are as of then.

             

Honorable Mentions

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    Ron Schwane/Associated Press

    New York Jets S Jamal Adams (23)

    Pro Football Focus graded only three NFL safeties better than Adams last season. The 2017 No. 6 overall pick was good but not exceptional as a rookie, and he still has just one career interception. If he becomes more of a playmaker in 2019, he could join the big list before turning 25 next October.

            

    Los Angeles Chargers DE Joey Bosa (24)

    When healthy, the 2016 No. 3 overall selection is one of the best edge defenders in the NFL, and he does have a pair of seasons with double-digit sacks under his belt. Problem is he's already missed 13 of a possible 48 regular-season games.

           

    Los Angeles Rams QB Jared Goff (24)

    This was a tough omission because the 2016 No. 1 overall pick is coming off back-to-back Pro Bowl seasons. But Goff has one of the best supporting casts in football, and he's surely benefited from head coach Sean McVay's system in L.A. He struggled in Super Bowl LIII, and he might have to put up another big season before we're convinced he's a superstar.

            

    Cleveland Browns RB Kareem Hunt (24)

    It's complicated. The 2017 third-round pick won the rushing title as a rookie and put together strong rate-based numbers in 2018, but off-field issues ended his run with the Kansas City Chiefs, and now he's set to serve an eight-game suspension for violating the NFL's personal conduct policy after kicking and pushing a woman. In order to be an elite young player, you have to be on the field.

             

    Los Angeles Chargers S Derwin James (23)

    PFF's seventh-highest-graded safety from 2018 had three picks and 3.5 sacks. Another season like that should get him onto the list in 2020.

           

    New Orleans Saints CB Marshon Lattimore (23)

    The 2017 Defensive Rookie of the Year would have made this list a year ago, but he suffered somewhat of a sophomore slump in 2018.

             

    Indianapolis Colts LB Darius Leonard (24)

    The 2018 second-round pick was a first-team All-Pro and the Defensive Rookie of the Year with off-the-charts numbers (two interceptions, four forced fumbles, seven sacks and a league-high 163 tackles) last season. He'll just have to prove that wasn't a fluke in 2019.

             

    Cleveland Browns QB Baker Mayfield (24)

    If the 2018 No. 1 overall pick can pick up in 2019 where he left off as one of the hottest quarterbacks in the NFL, he'll likely be viewed as one of the top 10 players under the age of 26 (he'll be 25) entering 2020. We're not quite ready to crown him based on an eight-game sample.

              

    Indianapolis Colts G Quenton Nelson (23)

    The No. 6 overall pick in 2018 was often dominant as a rookie, allowing only 23 pressures on 730 pass-blocking snaps, according to PFF. There's little doubt he'll do it again in 2019, but let's wait and see.

            

    Dallas Cowboys LB Leighton Vander Esch (23)

    The 2018 No. 19 overall selection recorded a ridiculous 140 tackles despite starting just 11 games, but he'll have to make more splash plays to become a special NFL player.

10. Atlanta Falcons LB Deion Jones (24)

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    Danny Karnik/Associated Press

    Turns 25: Nov. 4, 2019

    Claim to young fame: One of two players in NFL history with more than 200 tackles, more than five interceptions and multiple pick-sixes in his first two pro seasons.

    Even in an injury-derailed 2018 season, Atlanta Falcons linebacker Deion Jones intercepted two passes and recorded 53 tackles in six games. That gives the 2016 second-round pick eight picks and 297 tackles in 37 career outings.

    He should have been a Pro Bowler when he scored two defensive touchdowns in a three-interception, 106-tackle rookie season, but he at least received that honor when he again picked off three passes as a sophomore in 2017.

    Jones doesn't make a big impact as a pass-rusher and has forced just two fumbles in three seasons, and that 2018 foot injury hurts him a touch, but he's accomplished enough over a three-season span to grab the last spot on this list.

9. Jacksonville Jaguars CB Jalen Ramsey (24)

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    Turns 25: Oct. 24, 2019

    Claim to young fame: A first-team All-Pro cornerback in his second NFL season.

    Jacksonville Jaguars cornerback Jalen Ramsey specializes in bluster, but let's set that aside for a moment in order to appreciate Ramsey as a straight-up assassin at the corner position.

    Even in a bit of a down year, the 2016 No. 5 overall pick was a top-25 cornerback at PFF with three interceptions and 13 passes defensed. His three-year coverage grade since coming into the NFL ranks fourth among qualified players at that position.

    He's already got nine interceptions, a first-team All-Pro nod in 2017, two Pro Bowl nods and 193 career tackles as one of the stronger run-defending cornerbacks in the league. He offers a terrifying challenge to opposing offensive coordinators, and that won't likely change anytime soon.

    Expect a big year from Ramsey as he plays for a new contract.

8. Carolina Panthers RB Christian McCaffrey (23)

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    Chuck Burton/Associated Press

    Turns 25: June 7, 2021

    Claim to young fame: His 107 receptions last season were the most by a running back in NFL history.

    With another season like he put up in 2018, Carolina Panthers running back Christian McCaffrey would be a candidate for the top five. The 2017 No. 8 overall pick has to prove it wasn't an anomaly when he ranked third in the NFL with 1,965 scrimmage yards and averaged a stellar 5.0 yards per rush attempt, but those outstanding numbers alone get him a spot in the top 10.

    McCaffrey faces that one-year-wonder question mainly because he averaged just 3.7 yards per rush as a rookie in 2017, but he was only 21 then, and it took him some time to get on track. There were clues he was coming around late that year, especially when he accumulated over 100 receiving yards in a playoff game against the Saints.

    The Stanford product has become one of the most versatile players in professional football, and he should only benefit from quarterback Cam Newton's anticipated return to health in 2019.

7. Cleveland Browns DE Myles Garrett (23)

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    Rob Leiter/Getty Images

    Turns 25: Dec. 29, 2020

    Claim to young fame: No NFL player had more games with at least half a sack in 2018.

    Like Christian McCaffrey, Cleveland Browns defensive end Myles Garrett didn't live up to high expectations as a top-10 (in this case, top-one!) draft pick in 2017. Injuries were likely a factor, though, and Garrett still managed seven sacks that year before breaking out with 13.5 as a sophomore in 2018.

    Only a dozen NFL edge defenders received a higher PFF grade last season than Garrett, who also performed well as a run defender.

    He'll want to try to cut down on penalties and reduce the number of games in which he disappears. Those are standard goals for young pass-rushers, and it's hard to imagine a world in which Garrett doesn't improve again in 2019.

6. Pittsburgh Steelers WR JuJu Smith-Schuster (22)

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    Keith Srakocic/Associated Press

    Turns 25: Nov. 22, 2021

    Claim to young fame: Has scored on two 97-yard touchdown receptions in two NFL seasons. No other player this century has done that.

    Pittsburgh Steelers wide receiver JuJu Smith-Schuster is the second-youngest player on this list, yet he already has two magnificent seasons under his belt.

    Despite not being the No. 1 weapon in the Pittsburgh offense, the physically enticing USC product has scored seven touchdowns in each of his first two campaigns. He caught 73.4 percent of the passes thrown his way and eclipsed the 900-yard mark even though he started just seven games as a rookie, and last year he ranked fifth in football with 1,426 receiving yards.

    Now, with both Le'Veon Bell and Antonio Brown gone, Smith-Schuster will be the centerpiece of an offense that continues to feature a future Hall of Fame quarterback.

5. Houston Texans QB Deshaun Watson (23)

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    Gregory Payan/Associated Press

    Turns 25: Sept. 14, 2020

    Claim to young fame: His 103.1 career passer rating ranks fourth all-time among qualified quarterbacks at the two-year pole, behind only Patrick Mahomes, Kurt Warner and Dan Marino.

    Houston Texans quarterback Deshaun Watson hasn't been as heralded as some of the players on this list. Of course, the 2017 No. 12 overall pick tore his ACL as a rookie and was victimized by terrible pass protection while taking a league-high 62 sacks as a sophomore.

    But that's precisely why Watson deserves a spot here. Since coming into the league, the man ranks third in passer rating, second in yards per attempt and fifth in completion percentage. He's led five fourth-quarter comebacks in 23 games and has a 14-8 record as a starter. He also ranks third among quarterbacks with 820 rushing yards despite missing nine games, and his seven rushing touchdowns during that span rank fourth at that position.

    "Not only that," wrote PFF's Mark Chichester in May, "but he's also managed to produce a successful play on 35.8 percent of his pressured dropbacks since 2017, which ranks behind only Peyton Manning (37.7%), Matt Ryan (36.6%) and Ben Roethlisberger (36.6%) as the fourth-best mark of the PFF era."

    He was coming off that knee injury in 2018, so Watson should be even more spry in what could be a massive third season in Houston.

4. New Orleans Saints RB Alvin Kamara (24)

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    Bill Feig/Associated Press

    Turns 25: July 25, 2020

    Claim to young fame: 2017 Offensive Rookie of the Year is the only player in NFL history to gain 1,500 yards as a rusher, compile 1,500 yards as a receiver and score 30-plus touchdowns in his first two seasons.

    The following three running backs could basically go in any order, but we'll start with Alvin Kamara of the New Orleans Saints because he's less of a bell cow than Ezekiel Elliott and Saquon Barkley, both of whom were and are much more highly-touted (for what that's worth).

    The 2017 Offensive Rookie of the Year proved that his debut campaign wasn't an accident when he went over 700 yards as both a runner and a receiver for the second season in a row. His yards-per-attempt average dropped off from an unsustainable 6.1 to a still-strong 4.6, but his touchdown total shot up from 13 to 18.

    In other words, his playmaking ability hasn't gone anywhere, and that's what makes Kamara such a special young player. And because his runs between the tackles are limited in quantity, the third-round pick out of Tennessee should have plenty of tread on his tires entering year three.

3. Dallas Cowboys RB Ezekiel Elliott (24)

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    Tony Gutierrez/Associated Press

    Turns 25: July 22, 2020

    Claim to young fame: He was a two-time rushing king before turning 24, and he and Jim Brown are the only qualified players in NFL history to average more than 100 rushing yards per game.

    Incredibly, Dallas Cowboys running back Ezekiel Elliott has led the league in rushing yards per game in all three of his NFL seasons thus far, making him one of just eight players in league history with 4,000-plus rushing yards in the first 40 games of his career.

    His yards-per-attempt average and other rate-based numbers dropped off a bit during a 2017 season in which he served a six-game suspension for violating the NFL's personal conduct policy. However, the 2016 No. 4 overall pick then put together a Pro Bowl 2018 campaign in which he again led the league in rushing yards.

    Elliott's role and steady production might make him a slightly more critical player than Kamara, but he does need to find the end zone more in order to remain in the top tier among the league's young stars.

2. New York Giants RB Saquon Barkley (22)

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    Bill Kostroun/Associated Press

    Turns 25: Feb. 9, 2022

    Claim to young fame: Named Offensive Rookie of the Year after leading the league with 2,028 yards from scrimmage in 2018.

    Touchdowns might be the key difference between Elliott and New York Giants running back Saquon Barkley, who found the end zone nearly as often as a rookie (15 scrimmage touchdowns) as Elliott did the last two years combined (18).

    Pretty remarkable considering the Giants passing offense struggled in another poor overall season.

    While extra weight was generally given here to those who have proved themselves over the course of multiple seasons, Barkley might benefit in this comparison because he looks like such a sure thing and has far more tread on his tires than his Cowboys counterpart.

    The 2018 No. 2 overall pick played in his first Pro Bowl before turning 22, and there's no reason to believe he won't join Offensive Player of the Year conversations going forward.

1. Kansas City Chiefs QB Patrick Mahomes (23)

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    Charlie Riedel/Associated Press

    Turns 25: Sept. 17, 2020

    Claim to young fame: The youngest MVP in modern NFL history.

    There's plenty of room for debate on this list, but nobody can dispute with a straight face that Patrick Mahomes is the best sub-25-year-old in professional football. He was the runaway MVP and Offensive Player of the Year in his first season as an NFL starter.

    Like Barkley, he'll have to prove that wasn't just one magical season. But Mahomes' 2018 campaign was so special that it's impossible not to give him the benefit of the doubt. He finished with 50 touchdown passes, more than 5,000 passing yards and the eighth-highest single-season passer rating in NFL history.

    And none of that fully accounts for the magic he created as a playmaker and an improviser.

    Mahomes is the odds-on favorite to win MVP again in 2019, and thus there's little doubt he's the top young player—if not the top player altogether—in the NFL.