Top 25 Under 25: Ranking NFL's Best Young Stars Ahead of the 2020 Draft

Brad Gagnon@Brad_Gagnon NFL National ColumnistApril 10, 2020

Top 25 Under 25: Ranking NFL's Best Young Stars Ahead of the 2020 Draft

0 of 25

    Jamie Squire/Getty Images

    Later this month, the NFL will add hundreds of fresh young players, some of whom will immediately or eventually become stars.

    The lucky ones might even find themselves on a list like this one.

    We've come up with a countdown of the 25 best NFL players who have yet to turn 25 as of April 10—one that includes six running backs, four quarterbacks, four wide receivers, three edge defenders, three defensive backs, two offensive linemen, a tight end, a defensive tackle and an off-ball linebacker.

    Altogether, 19 teams are represented on the list, including the Baltimore Ravens in a league-high three spots (the Pittsburgh Steelers, Cleveland Browns, Indianapolis Colts and Los Angeles Chargers also have multiple players listed).

    Based primarily on approximate value, early-career accomplishments, career trajectory, advanced statistics and durability, meet the top 25 football players who can still say they're in their early 20s.

          

25. Baltimore Ravens TE Mark Andrews (23)

1 of 25

    Nick Wass/Associated Press

    As a 23-year-old sophomore in 2019, Baltimore Ravens tight end Mark Andrews proved to be one of the game's brightest young stars at the position.

    The 2018 third-round pick was the only qualified tight end in the AFC to catch more than 65 percent of the passes thrown his way while averaging more than 13.0 yards per reception, and he was the only player in the league at that position to score 10 touchdowns.

    That's remarkable considering he played just 41 percent of the Ravens' offensive snaps. It likely wasn't a fluke considering he was even more productive on a rate basis as a rookie in 2018.

    Although he's been hit by troubling rashes of dropped passes and could improve his blocking, the big, fast, athletic Oklahoma product made the first of likely many Pro Bowls in 2019.

24. Seattle Seahawks WR DK Metcalf (22)

2 of 25

    Steven Ryan/Getty Images

    In December and January, just a fortnight after celebrating his 22nd birthday, Seattle Seahawks wide receiver DK Metcalf went on a tear.

    The 2019 second-round pick out of Mississippi was clutch in Seattle's critical regular-season finale as well as its two playoff games, catching 17 passes for 300 yards and a pair of touchdowns. In the team's playoff win over the Philadelphia Eagles, he scored a game-breaking 53-yard touchdown and made two clutch catches on 3rd-and-long (one on a scoring drive, the other to essentially clinch the victory).

    He, too, will have to work on lowering his drop rate, and he entered the league raw in terms of his route-running history. There's room to grow, but he still ranked in the top three among rookies in terms of catches, yards and touchdowns in 2019.

    If he can pick up where he left off, he should become a star in 2020.

23. Pittsburgh Steelers WR JuJu Smith-Schuster (23)

3 of 25

    Joe Sargent/Getty Images

    Pittsburgh Steelers wide receiver JuJu Smith-Schuster would have ranked higher on this list as a 22-year-old than he is as a 23-year-old, but his disappointing third NFL campaign wasn't entirely on the USC product.

    Without Antonio Brown by his side, he lost quarterback Ben Roethlisberger early in the year and then suffered a season-derailing knee injury in November. His production wasn't up to snuff before that either, but the Steelers had the worst team passer rating in the AFC.

    The fact remains that when he had more support and was healthier in 2017 and 2018, Smith-Schuster was one of the most impressive offensive players in football. He scored seven touchdowns in each of his first two campaigns, and in 2018 he made the Pro Bowl as one of just four NFL wideouts to catch more than 100 passes for more than 1,400 yards.

    Look for the big, physical 2017 second-round pick to get back to that level in a walk year in 2020.

22. Tennessee Titans WR A.J. Brown (22)

4 of 25

    Tim Warner/Getty Images

    A.J. Brown doesn't get as much attention as fellow young receivers like Metcalf and Smith-Schuster, but the Tennessee Titans second-round pick was the only rookie in the NFL to accumulate over 1,000 receiving yards in 2019, and he also tied for the rookie lead with eight touchdown catches.

    The 22-year-old was overshadowed to an extent by star running back Derrick Henry in Tennessee, where he quietly put together a tied-for-AFC-best five 100-yard games while averaging an NFL-high 12.5 yards per target.

    That was enough to earn the Offensive Rookie of the Year award from Pro Football Focus, which found that he led all qualified players with 8.9 yards after the catch per reception.

    Most encouragingly, Brown was that outlet's third-highest-graded receiver dating back to Week 7, which, not coincidentally, is when Ryan Tannehill took over at quarterback in Tennessee. The future is wildly bright.

21. Arizona Cardinals QB Kyler Murray (22)

5 of 25

    Sean M. Haffey/Getty Images

    By no means was Arizona Cardinals quarterback Kyler Murray's rookie season flawless or spectacular, but the No. 1 overall pick still did enough to win Offensive Rookie of the Year honors in 2019.

    As a 16-game starter who appeared to make steady progress down the stretch, Murray was the only quarterback in the league to pass for 3,500 yards and rush for 500.

    "Murray showed off the velocity and touch to create plays down the field, and, when combined with his dynamic running ability, he has game-changing big-play ability moving forward," wrote PFF's Steve Palazzolo.

    The Oklahoma product will have to become more consistent as a passer and more poised under pressure in the pocket (he was the league's most sacked quarterback in 2019), but there's little reason to doubt his ability to turn into a superstar.

20. Cleveland Browns RB Nick Chubb (24)

6 of 25

    Christian Petersen/Getty Images

    Among 25 running backs who have carried the ball 300-plus times since Nick Chubb came into the NFL in 2018, Chubb ranks first with 5.1 yards per attempt.

    So while the Cleveland Browns back broke out as one of just two players with 1,400 or more rushing yards in a Pro Bowl 2019 season, that might not have been an aberration.

    In fact, his yards per carry and his touchdown total were higher in his rookie season, and only 11 players have scored more touchdowns in the last two years.

    The 24-year-old 2018 second-round pick doesn't get as much publicity as several star running backs yet to be named on this list, and his numbers related to fumbles and receiving could be better. But from a statistical standpoint, he's right there with the top offensive weapons in the league.

19. Baltimore Ravens OT Orlando Brown Jr. (23)

7 of 25

    Timothy T Ludwig/Getty Images

    Based on Pro Football Reference's approximate value metric (which is "an attempt to put a single number on the seasonal value of a player at any position from any year"), only five NFL players who are currently younger than 25 made a larger impact in 2019 than Ravens offensive tackle Orlando Brown Jr.

    The 23-year-old Pro Bowler is about the size of a small Manhattan apartment, and in two years he has quickly learned to utilize that huge frame in order to dominate as part of one of the league's best offenses.

    Brown played every offensive snap for Baltimore in 2020 but was penalized just twice while surrendering only three sacks, according to PFF.

    The Oklahoma product still could become a better run-blocker, but he's already a tremendous asset for Baltimore and clearly the best young right tackle in the game.

18. Minnesota Vikings RB Dalvin Cook (24)

8 of 25

    Jonathan Bachman/Getty Images

    Minnesota Vikings running back Dalvin Cook posted the same AV total as Brown while also earning his first Pro Bowl nod as a 24-year-old in 2019. He also experienced his healthiest season yet, but he still missed a pair of games because of a shoulder injury, and his injury history is the main reason he's not ranked higher on this list.

    The numbers, though, are compelling. He's averaged at least 4.5 yards per carry in each of his first three pro campaigns, and he was one of just three players to gain 1,000 or more rushing yards along with 500-plus receiving yards in 2019.

    His value as a receiver can't be overstated. During his breakout season, the Florida State product averaged a league-best 11.3 yards after the catch per reception, according to PFF.

    You never know how long a running back will remain productive for, but Cook looks like a good bet to crush it as a 25-year-old in 2020.

17. Green Bay Packers DT Kenny Clark (24)

9 of 25

    Rey Del Rio/Getty Images

    In a Pro Bowl 2019 season, Green Bay Packers defensive tackle Kenny Clark recorded new career highs with 62 tackles and nine tackles for loss while tying a carer best with six sacks, 4.5 of which came in the final quarter of his first 16-game campaign.

    And there's no indication that was an anomaly.

    "In 2018, Clark joined Aaron Donald as the only two interior defenders to record grades of 88.0 or higher in run defense (89.4) and as pass rushers (88.8)," wrote PFF's Ben Linsey this week.

    The 24-year-old has yet to reach superstar status, but he's been consistently reliable and versatile for Green Bay in each of his three full seasons as a starter. And he should only get better.

16. Los Angeles Chargers S Derwin James (23)

10 of 25

    Kelvin Kuo/Associated Press

    You hate to hold one injury-derailed season against Derwin James. But because the Los Angeles Chargers safety was essentially a nonfactor in 2019, we can only go on his phenomenal rookie campaign while docking him some points for his lack of impact as a sophomore.

    Still, the 2018 No. 17 overall pick was one of the best defensive backs in football during a maiden season in which he earned 20 Defensive Rookie of the Year votes. James was a first-team All-Pro with three picks, 3.5 sacks, 105 tackles and 13 passes defensed.

    "His 19 total quarterback pressures and 40 defensive stops both ranked first among first-year players at the position," wrote PFF's Mark Chichester last offseason, "and he allowed a passer rating of just 71.8 on throws into his primary coverage."

    That same outlet ranked him as the 32nd-best player in the league and the third-best safety headed into 2019. Here's hoping he can get back to that level after a foot injury cost him all but five games last season.

15. Indianapolis Colts LB Darius Leonard (24)

11 of 25

    Jeff Haynes/Associated Press

    Two seasons into his career, Indianapolis Colts linebacker Darius Leonard has already become one of the league's top defensive playmakers.

    In fact, he's the only player in the last quarter-century to record five-plus sacks, five-plus interceptions and five-plus forced fumbles in his first two NFL campaigns.

    The 24-year-old second-round pick was an All-Pro and the Defensive Rookie of the Year in 2018. Although an early-season concussion had a significant impact on his sophomore season, he still earned a Pro Bowl nod with five picks, five sacks, two forced fumbles and 121 tackles in 13 games.

    Leonard wasn't as effective in coverage in 2019, but by no means was it a sophomore slump. He's already a star. If he can remain healthy in 2020, he should make a massive impact for the Colts.

14. Dallas Cowboys RB Ezekiel Elliott (24)

12 of 25

    Ron Jenkins/Associated Press

    There's no denying Ezekiel Elliott is an elite running back. The 24-year-old Dallas Cowboys star led all qualified backs in rushing yards per game in each of his first three NFL seasons and then made a third career Pro Bowl with 1,777 scrimmage yards and 14 total touchdowns in 2019.

    He's the only player in NFL history to accumulate 7,000 yards in fewer than 60 games in his first four pro campaigns, and he still led the league in rushing first downs last year.

    Still, Elliott averaged 5.1 yards per carry as a rookie, and that number has sunk to a good-not-great 4.5. He also averaged a career-low 84.8 yards per game in 2019, and he was held to fewer than 50 yards in a quarter of his outings.

    The Ohio State product is one of the top offensive weapons in the league, but it's fair to wonder if he's already beginning to slow down as he approaches 25. His 2020 season will be telling.

13. New York Giants RB Saquon Barkley (23)

13 of 25

    Seth Wenig/Associated Press

    New York Giants running back Saquon Barkley undoubtedly suffered a sophomore slump in 2019. The 2018 Offensive Rookie of the Year wasn't himself after injuring his ankle early in the season, and he compiled nearly 600 fewer scrimmage yards and barely half as many touchdowns in three fewer games.

    But Barkley still managed to go over 1,000 yards on the ground again, and his 4.6 yards-per-attempt average wasn't shabby considering his health and a lack of offensive support. And we can't forget that he led the league with 2,028 yards from scrimmage as a 21-year-old rookie.

    The Penn State product can dominate, and we can't ignore his unreal potential as a super-athlete with elite size, speed and vision.

    Barkley just turned 23, so there's little reason to doubt he'll bounce back with a Pro Bowl-caliber third NFL campaign in 2020.

12. New Orleans Saints RB Alvin Kamara (24)

14 of 25

    Butch Dill/Associated Press

    Like Barkley, an injury significantly impacted Alvin Kamara's 2019 season. But also like Barkley, he fought through and put together a solid enough campaign to maintain a spot in the middle of this list.

    The 24-year-old New Orleans Saints running back said his injured leg—which cost him two games—was at 75 percent even after he returned. But he still went over 1,300 scrimmage yards and made the Pro Bowl for the third time in as many NFL seasons.

    Kamara also broke a tackle every 5.9 carries, which led all qualified backs by a huge margin. And his 4.7 yards-per-attempt average was actually a tenth higher than his 2018 mark.

    Linsey wrote:

    "Kamara joins McCaffrey and Todd Gurley as the only three running backs with 1,500 receiving yards and 1,000 rushing yards between the tackles over the last three years. The kind of routes that he can run out of the backfield, his versatility to line up in the slot or out wide and his elusiveness with the ball in his hands all make him one of the most valuable running backs in the NFL."

11. Carolina Panthers RB Christian McCaffrey (23)

15 of 25

    Michael Conroy/Associated Press

    Among offensive non-quarterbacks currently younger than 25, Carolina Panthers running back Christian McCaffrey posted the highest AV total in the NFL in 2019.

    The 23-year-old became just the third player ever to compile 1,000 yards as both a rusher and a receiver in an All-Pro campaign in which he led the league in scrimmage yards and touchdowns. Incredibly, he fumbled just once despite a league-high 403 touches.

    McCaffrey does lose some credit because the vast majority of his production came in the first half of his breakout campaign. It's a bit of a concern that the 2017 top-10 pick averaged just 3.7 yards per carry in the final six games of the year. After all, elite running backs can disappear in an instant in this league.

    Still, Run CMC deserves the benefit of the doubt for the time being.

10. Cleveland Browns Edge Myles Garrett (24)

16 of 25

    Dustin Bradford/Getty Images

    Sadly, Myles Garrett's suspension-worthy antics from 2019 might always trump his on-field accomplishments as his claim to fame. Because that infamous incident with Mason Rudolph cost him a massive chunk of what looked like his best season yet, we're holding it against him here.

    But before the Cleveland Browns edge defender swung that helmet at Rudolph, he was one of just five players with double-digit sacks on the season. He was on pace for 16, which would have given him 29.5 over a two-season span. And to that point, he had an NFL-high 25 percent pass-rush win percentage at Pro Football Focus.

    The 24-year-old undoubtedly would have been a Pro Bowler for the second year in a row.

    If he can get past the deplorable act that marred a superb season, Garrett could still become a superstar in 2020.

9. Tampa Bay Buccaneers WR Chris Godwin (24)

17 of 25

    Otto Greule Jr/Getty Images

    In 2019, Tampa Bay Buccaneers wide receiver Chris Godwin became just the second player in at least the last quarter-century to catch more than 70 percent of the passes thrown his way and average more than 15.0 yards per reception on 100-plus targets.

    Only first-team All-Pro Michael Thomas averaged more receiving yards per game than Godwin, who wasn't even the top target in his own offense but still exploded with 1,333 yards and nine touchdowns as a 23-year-old Pro Bowler.

    Maybe most critically, he dropped just one pass on 121 targets.

    And it wasn't likely a fluke. The 2017 third-round pick also scored seven touchdowns as a sophomore, and his yards-per-catch and reception rate numbers were in a similar territory within a smaller sample in 2017 and 2018. The trajectory is scary.

8. Pittsburgh Steelers S Minkah Fitzpatrick (23)

18 of 25

    Joe Sargent/Getty Images

    A September change of scenery was apparently all that was required to turn Minkah Fitzpatrick from a disappointing sophomore top-12 pick into an elite playmaker.

    The 23-year-old Pittsburgh Steelers safety recorded two interceptions and an AV of nine in 18 games with the Miami Dolphins. Then he jumped to Pittsburgh and picked off five passes and scored two touchdowns in 14 high-impact starts.

    By the time all was said and done, the highly instinctive Alabama product had the highest AV in football among sub-25-year-old defensive players.

    Those takeaway numbers might not be sustainable, but Fitzpatrick is still really young, and his coverage skills and versatility will make him a tremendous asset regardless of his splash-play totals going forward.

7. New York Jets S Jamal Adams (24)

19 of 25

    Jim McIsaac/Getty Images

    He was a solid rookie with an AV of seven, a breakout sophomore with his first Pro Bowl nod and then a superstar worthy of first-team All-Pro honors in Year 3. Now, 24-year-old New York Jets safety Jamal Adams has to be viewed as one of the best all-around defensive players in the league entering his fourth season.

    The 2017 No. 6 overall pick recorded 6.5 sacks and 13 quarterback hits in a remarkably disruptive season, but he's also put up 19 passes defensed, two interceptions and five forced fumbles the last two years.

    Per PFF, he leads all safeties in sacks, hits and hurries since coming into the league, and his impact extends beyond the stat sheet. Pass-rushing has become his area of expertise, but he can play free safety, in the box or in the slot and even cover outside receivers.

    Adams is a jack of all trades, and he's only going to get better at all of 'em.

6. San Francisco 49ers Edge Nick Bosa (22)

20 of 25

    Gregory Payan/Associated Press

    The numbers are astonishing. Nine sacks, 25 quarterback hits, 16 tackles for loss, two fumble recoveries, a pick, a forced fumble and just three missed tackles.

    But the regular-season stats from Nick Bosa's 2019 Defensive Rookie of the Year campaign don't do justice to his impact.

    The San Francisco 49ers edge defender added four sacks, five quarterback hits, 15 tackles and a forced fumble in three playoff games. Had the 49ers held on to beat the Chiefs, he might have been the MVP of Super Bowl LIV.

    His 80 total quarterback pressures were 14 more than any other edge defender has ever accumulated as a rookie, per Pro Football Focus. That same outlet awarded him 20 run stops, which also led all rookie edges. He's the complete package, and he's positioned to become a perennial All-Pro going forward.

5. Los Angeles Chargers Edge Joey Bosa (24)

21 of 25

    Peter G. Aiken/Getty Images

    But 22-year-old Nick isn't the best sub-25-year-old NFL player in his family. That distinction belongs to 24-year-old Los Angeles Chargers edge defender Joey Bosa, who was also the Defensive Rookie of the Year in 2016 and has since put together a pair of Pro Bowl campaigns with double-digit sacks.

    Joey was one of just five NFL players to record more than 30 quarterback hits to go along with his 11.5 sacks in 2019, and he was the only one to do so while registering 60-plus tackles.

    The foot injury that cost him the majority of his 2018 season might be holding him back, along with his good-not-great raw sack numbers, but the Ohio State product is one of the league's most consistently disruptive players and a superb run defender as well.

    "Since Bosa entered the league in 2016, Khalil Mack leads all qualifying edge-rushers in pass-rushing grade at 91.9," wrote Linsey. "Bosa is the next name on the list at 91.5, and his 21.7 percent pass-rush win rate leads the position, joining Cameron Wake and Von Miller as the only two players at 20 percent or higher."

4. Indianapolis Colts G Quenton Nelson (24)

22 of 25

    Darron Cummings/Associated Press

    You couldn't have imagined a better start to a career than Quenton Nelson's. The Indianapolis Colts guard has started all 32 Colts games in his first two seasons and has missed just 32 snaps thus far. And he's been a Pro Bowler and a first-team All-Pro in each of those campaigns.

    Nelson reduced his penalty count from nine as a rookie to three as a sophomore, and the 24-year-old didn't give up a single sack in 2019 while also registering the second-best run-blocking grade among qualified guards at PFF (where he also earned the second-highest grade overall).

    He's so good that it appears he's a big reason veteran left tackle Anthony Castonzo isn't retiring yet.

    "I'd be remiss to say that the opportunity to play next to Quenton Nelson isn't part of the reason why I'd love to continue playing," Castonzo told reporters last month, "because it really is a lot of fun."

3. Houston Texans QB Deshaun Watson (24)

23 of 25

    Charlie Riedel/Associated Press

    At a lot of other points in NFL history, a player with Deshaun Watson's accomplishments would easily top a list like this.

    The 24-year-old two-time Pro Bowler has produced 85 passing and rushing touchdowns in just 38 career games (37 of which he's started). Only Dan Marino has accounted for more total touchdowns at the 37-start mark.

    Watson continually puts on a show, and his clutch nature almost always keeps the Houston Texans in games. In 2019, he posted a 113.4 passer rating when trailing by one score and a 120.5 rating in the fourth quarter of games with margins of seven points or lower. And among 30 quarterbacks who have thrown 100-plus passes in the fourth quarter of one-score games since Watson came into the league in 2017, the No. 12 overall pick ranks first with a rating of 116.1.

    He's a bona fide franchise quarterback with an MVP-level ceiling. While it's still real early, he's on a Hall of Fame track.

2. Baltimore Ravens QB Lamar Jackson (23)

24 of 25

    Will Newton/Getty Images

    Watson's problem is he's running against two other quarterbacks who have already been MVPs. Lamar Jackson accomplished that feat in 2019 when he led the Baltimore Ravens to 14 regular-season victories and became the first player in NFL history to throw 30 touchdown passes and rush for 1,000 yards in the same season.

    At the tender age of 22, the 2018 No. 32 overall pick was simultaneously the league's third-highest-rated passer and its sixth-leading rusher, which was enough for him to become just the second unanimous MVP in a first-team All-Pro campaign.

    He was often unstoppable while generating a total of 43 passing and rushing touchdowns.

    And it probably wasn't an anomaly. Jackson should continue to improve as a passer after entering the league in need of grooming, and he was just about as effective as a rusher in his rookie campaign. Altogether, the Ravens are 19-3 in his 22 career starts.

1. Kansas City Chiefs QB Patrick Mahomes (24)

25 of 25

    Gregory Payan/Associated Press

    Incredibly, at the age of 24, Patrick Mahomes is already an NFL legend, and few would dispute the notion that he's the best player in the game regardless of age.

    The 2018 regular-season MVP and 2019 Super Bowl MVP is the highest-rated passer of all time, by a landslide, among quarterbacks with at least 1,000 pass attempts. In terms of touchdown-to-interception ratio, only Aaron Rodgers is in the same league. Nobody has thrown more touchdown passes in his first 32 career starts, and nobody comes close to him in terms of touchdown-to-pick ratio or passer rating at the same mark.

    Mahomes is also the highest-rated playoff passer in modern NFL history, and he's already led one of the five largest comebacks in playoff history.

    Those are Canton-worthy accomplishments, and they don't even account for his Michael Jordan-like ability to take over games in a unique and jaw-dropping fashion. This isn't even close.