Ranking the NFL's Top 10 Young Cores to Build Around Entering 2021
The last few seasons have shown a gradual shift toward a new guard of contenders led by rising superstars who head talented young cores that were built by NFL front offices.
Quarterback is always priority No. 1. Patrick Mahomes of the Kansas City Chiefs says it all, as does Lamar Jackson of the Baltimore Ravens. That's just two examples. The former has superb skill position talent around him, and the latter benefits from an elite defense.
The top young cores feature prominent 26-or-younger talent (the sweet spot for second contracts) at premium positions. Things aren't perfect in every case, but the glimpses have been apparent.
This talent, combined with team direction and surrounding roster, formulated these rankings.
10. Minnesota Vikings
The Minnesota Vikings are one of the few teams to make the cut without a young quarterback.
Kirk Cousins is 32 and a polarizing franchise passer with interesting numbers (66.9 completion percentage, 20 touchdowns, 11 interceptions) but a 4-6 record.
It's the talent around Cousins that is worth a raise of the eyebrow.
Dalvin Cook, 25, might just be the NFL's best running back with 1,069 yards and 13 scores on 5.3 yards per carry. Wide receiver Justin Jefferson, 21, this year's 22nd pick, is the best rookie wideout with 848 yards, four scores and 18.8 yards per catch. And 2019 second-rounder Irv Smith Jr., 22, is just getting started with two touchdowns on 15 catches.
Minnesota keeps investing big resources in smart areas, too. Garrett Bradbury, 25, was a first-round pick a year ago and has a 69.1 grade at Pro Football Focus. Cornerback Jeff Gladney, 23, was a first-rounder this year, and right guard Ezra Cleveland, 22 was a second-rounder this year. Both have shown flashes.
Along with mainstays Adam Thielen, Anthony Harris and Harrison Smith, it's hard to dislike the long-term outlook in Minnesota.
9. Cincinnati Bengals
Things don't look great for the Cincinnati Bengals since Joe Burrow suffered a torn ACL in Week 11.
But that didn't dramatically alter the long-term outlook for the promising squad.
Burrow, 23, put together an electric rookie season with a 65.3 completion percentage and 13 touchdowns against five interceptions. Star running back Joe Mixon, 24, just signed an extension; elite slot receiver Tyler Boyd, 26, has drummed up 710 yards and three scores to lead the team in receiving; and second-rounder Tee Higgins, 21, is right behind him with 629 yards and a team-high four scores.
Don't forget 2019 first-rounder Jonah Williams, 23, either. After missing his rookie season, Williams has responded by looking like the long-term solution at left tackle.
Defensively, the Bengals paid up big in free agency for nose tackle D.J. Reader, 26, and though he is on injured reserve with a quadriceps injury, he is still one of the best at what he does. And a premium spot is held down by Jessie Bates III, 23, arguably the best safety in the NFL and owner of a 91.0 Pro Football Focus grade.
The foundational blocks at important spots puts the Bengals in better position for the long term than most.
8. Philadelphia Eagles
The Philadelphia Eagles have an embarrassment of riches when it comes to weapons under the supervision of offensive-minded head coach Doug Pederson.
Miles Sanders, 23, a 2019 second-rounder, is a capable three-down back with 585 yards, three scores and 5.7 yards per carry in seven games. Not only has Travis Fulgham, 25, emerged as the team's leading receiver, the unit has No. 21 pick Jalen Reagor, 21, and 6'5" tight end Dallas Goedert, 25, to deploy.
There are also intriguing younger defense pieces in safety Jalen Mills, 26, plus edge-rusher Josh Sweat, 23, owner of four sacks.
And then there's Carson Wentz, who is only 27. While he has struggled this season (58.4 completion percentage, 14 touchdowns, 14 interceptions), the offense has suffered countless injuries, which has led to a lack of consistency up front and among his weapons.
The coaching scheme and talent around Wentz is encouraging enough to suggest he'll bounce back.
7. Denver Broncos
The Denver Broncos seemingly have it all on offense.
Drew Lock, 24, has struggled under center this year and missed two-plus games with a shoulder injury. But his play in 2019 hinted at massive upside, and the surrounding pieces make the team's outlook great.
The superb backfield duo of Melvin Gordon III, 27, and Phillip Lindsay, 26, has combined for 917 yards, seven rushing scores and 4.7 yards per carry.
At wideout, 15th pick Jerry Jeudy, 21, hasn't needed long to emerge as the team's leading receiver. Tight end Noah Fant, 23, a 2019 first-rounder, continues to develop, and so does rookie KJ Hamler, 21. DaeSean Hamilton, 25, provides quality depth, and Courtland Sutton, 25—though he's on injured reserve with a torn ACL and MCL—had 1,112 yards last season and 10 touchdowns in his first two years.
That doesn't even include breakout wideout Tim Patrick, 27, who leads the team with three receiving scores.
Things aren't that weighted toward the offense either, not with star edge-rusher Bradley Chubb, 24, sitting on 19.5 sacks over 30 games.
While it all still needs to come together, Denver has built a strong roster.
6. Buffalo Bills
It starts at the top for the Buffalo Bills.
Quarterback Josh Allen, 24, has erupted in his third season. The 2018 No. 6 pick has led the team to a 7-3 record via a 68.4 completion percentage with 21 touchdowns against seven interceptions—plus five rushing scores.
He's backed by team rushing leader Devin Singletary, 23, and third-rounder Zack Moss, 22, in the backfield. Star wideout Stefon Diggs is still just 26 years old and is up to 906 yards and four scores on 73 receptions.
On defense, 2018 first-rounder Tremaine Edmunds, 22, has plenty of upside, and Tre'Davious White, 25, is one of the best corners in the league.
The Bills aren't perfect, but they have a still-developing modern franchise passer in an AFC East without Tom Brady or the dynastic New England Patriots. Premium players at wideout and corner, plus the surrounding pieces, have equated to contention.
5. Miami Dolphins
Early returns show Brian Flores has turned around the Miami Dolphins and might be the Bill Belichick coaching tree success story, unlike many other others.
Flores and the Dolphins are 6-4 and in the thick of the playoff race. He turned things over to No. 5 pick Tua Tagovailoa, 22, and the rookie has responded with six touchdowns and zero interceptions while flashing major upside.
Myles Gaskin, 23, has also shown upside as a receiver out of the backfield. Top wideout DeVante Parker is 27; Preston Williams, 23, is tied for a team-high four receiving scores even though he's missed the last two games while on injured reserve with a foot injury; and 6'6" tight end Mike Gesicki, 25, continues to display his major upside.
Jerome Baker, 23, leads the defense with 71 tackles, and Xavien Howard, 27, one of the top young corners in the game, has picked off six passes. Core pieces such as 2019 13th pick Christian Wilkins continue to develop, too.
The Dolphins might be a way out from seriously contending in the AFC, but the early signs are there.
4. Baltimore Ravens
The Ravens keep getting better.
Baltimore used a first-round pick on Patrick Queen, 21, and the linebacker leads the team with 70 tackles. Second-round running back J.K. Dobbins, 21, leads all non-Lamar Jackson rushers with 380 yards and has three scores on 5.3 yards per carry.
And then there's Jackson, last year's unanimous MVP. He's just 23 years old and back at it again. This time, he has completed 63.4 percent of his passes with 15 touchdowns against six interceptions—and has 575 yards and three scores as a runner. Elite tackles Orlando Brown Jr., 24, and Ronnie Stanley, 26, anchor the line in front of him.
Don't forget tight end Mark Andrews, 25, who has a team-high six receiving scores. Wideout Marquise Brown, 23, a 2019 first-rounder, scored seven touchdowns as a rookie and has two more this year. Accompanying Queen on defense—besides franchise player like Matthew Judon, 28—is top-tier corner Marlon Humphrey, 24.
The core of the roster is impressive. Jackson is most important, but the surrounding pieces sure don't hurt.
3. Arizona Cardinals
Similar to other top teams on this list, the Arizona Cardinals have a potential top-of-league passer in Kyler Murray.
Murray, 23, the No. 1 pick in 2019, has blossomed, completing 68.3 percent of his passes with 19 touchdowns against eight interceptions to go with 619 yards and 10 scores as a rusher. That's good enough for a 6-4 record and MVP talk.
He plays behind a line boosted by elite left tackle D.J. Humphries, 26, owner of an 82.2 Pro Football Focus grade.
Lead back Kenyan Drake, 26, is performing as expected with 641 yards and five touchdowns on 4.4 yards per carry. One can't not mention leading wideout DeAndre Hopkins even though he's 28. Behind him, Christian Kirk, 24, is on pace for his best season yet, and 2019 second-rounder Andy Isabella, 24, has flashed serious upside with 15.5 yards per catch on 24 career receptions.
Safety Budda Baker, 24, is arguably the biggest name to know on defense as he flirts with league-best status (79.0 PFF grade). Isaiah Simmons, 22, this year's eighth pick, is starting to approach breakout status as he's played many more snaps over the last three games.
The Cardinals' contention hopes hinge on Murray, but he's in an incredible situation.
2. Dallas Cowboys
The Dallas Cowboys are highly ranked on this list, but that could change based on what the front office does with Dak Prescott.
Prescott, who turned 27 in July, was on a historic pace before a season-ending ankle injury. There is little reason for Jerry Jones and Co. to avoid bringing back the fourth-round success story, as he is one of the league's top passers. But never say never.
Either way, the core around the quarterback will keep Dallas. Star back Ezekiel Elliott, 25, is up to 675 yards and five scores, though he has five fumbles. Leading receiver Amari Cooper, 26, has 736 yards and two scores; first-round rookie CeeDee Lamb, 21, has a team-high four receiving scores; and Michael Gallup, 24, has 497 yards and seven plays of 20 or more yards plus 16.0 yards per catch.
While the defense has been miserable, core pieces in linebacker Jaylon Smith, 25, injured corner Trevon Diggs, 22, and linebacker Leighton Vander Esch, 24, still seem to boast plenty of upside.
Prescott is the big deal in Dallas, and understandably so, but the core is quietly strong.
1. Kansas City Chiefs
Patrick Mahomes sets the Kansas City Chiefs apart from the rest by a significant margin.
Mahomes, just 25 years old, has already won an MVP, hoisted a Lombardi Trophy and claimed a Super Bowl MVP award. This year, he's right back at it, completing 67.9 percent of his passes with 27 touchdowns against two interceptions for the 9-1 Chiefs.
That's not to suggest Mahomes does it by himself. First-round running back Clyde Edwards-Helaire, 21, is a star with 655 yards and four scores on 4.7 yards per carry. Tyreek Hill, 26, is his usual self with 752 yards and 10 touchdowns. Mecole Hardman, 22, a 2019 second-rounder, has 411 yards and three scores.
While Tyrann Mathieu, 28, heads up the secondary, Chris Jones, 26, earned a four-year extension worth $80 million for his game-altering play on the line. Keep in mind star edge-rusher Frank Clark is only 27.
The Chiefs feature the ideal marriage of a strong young core, superb coaching with an Andy Reid-led staff and a generational quarterback prospect, which is another way of saying they don't figure to leave this top spot for a long time.