Top 25 Under 25: Ranking NFL's Best Young Stars Ahead of the 2021 Draft
Given how the NFL's salary structure is set up, it's more important than ever to hit on draft picks who go on to star while on affordable rookie deals.
Some teams have done better in that regard than others, but there's no question that the NFL is replete with young studs—whether it's MVP quarterbacks and record-setting receivers on offense or formidable edge-rushers and shutdown cornerbacks on defense.
But who are the best of the best? The NFL's biggest stars who have yet to enter their primes?
That's what this article aims to figure out.
The first criteria for inclusion is simple: These players haven't celebrated their 25th birthday yet. Production is of course important, too, although per-game productivity was weighted slightly more than overall numbers. Potential was a significant consideration. And finally, the positions these youngsters play matter. Stating that quarterbacks are more important than running backs isn't discriminatory…
With those criteria in mind, here's a look at the 25 best players in the NFL under age 25 ahead of the April 29-May 1 draft.
25. Saquon Barkley, RB, New York Giants
There isn't a harder player to slot on this list than New York Giants running back Saquon Barkley.
When he's healthy, Barkley is one of the NFL's most electrifying players. The second overall pick in 2018 exploded for over 2,000 total yards, beating Cleveland Browns quarterback Baker Mayfield for Offensive Rookie of the Year. Barkley averaged five yards per carry and caught 91 passes.
His yards per carry dipped in 2019, and the former Penn State star missed three games. But he still piled up over 1,400 yards.
The 2020 season was a disaster. Barkley was completely shut down, managing just 19 carries for 34 yards before a Week 2 ACL tear ended his season and cast doubt over his future.
That dropped Barkley to the bottom of these rankings, but he said on an episode of Hotboxin that he has every intention of roaring back into prominence in 2021 (h/t Dan Benton of Giants Wire):
"If I came back and things didn't go the way I envision them going—I can't see that, because that's the way I envision it—but I know I'm [going] to do everything necessary to put myself in the right position the smart way and right way to come back better. If it's not in the cards for me to do it, at least I know I can look myself in the mirror that I put the work ethic and did the little things to become one of the best to do it."
24. Frank Ragnow, C, Detroit Lions
The Detroit Lions are short on bright spots, as their last winning season came in 2017. Since then, the Lions are 14-33-1, in no small part because their last three drafts have been subpar.
However, there has been one glaring exception to all the Motor City misfires the past few years: Detroit's selection of center Frank Ragnow at No. 20 in 2018.
It's gone largely unnoticed because of the dismal team he plays for, but the former Arkansas standout has quickly become one of the game's best pivots. On his way to a Pro Bowl nod in 2020, Ragnow didn't allow a sack in 929 snaps and garnered an 80.3 grade from Pro Football Focus. He's also been durable, missing just three games over three professional seasons.
In a recent article highlighting each team's best draft pick of the past decade, Bleacher Report's Kristopher Knox selected Ragnow as the Lions' wisest selection in that period.
"He should be an anchor along the line for years to come," Knox wrote, "and while centers don't get a ton of attention, Ragnow was a tremendous pick."
23. Marshon Lattimore, CB, New Orleans Saints
Given the precarious salary-cap situation the New Orleans Saints were in and the fact that cornerback Marshon Lattimore is headed into the final season of his rookie contract, there was speculation early in the offseason that the 2017 NFL Defensive Rookie of the Year could be traded.
However, the Saints kept him. That's wise, because even if he hasn't quite recaptured the rookie form that saw him snare five interceptions, he's still one of the league's best young shutdown cornerbacks.
Yes, Lattimore's passer rating against of 94.5 in 2020 is good but not great. The 24-year-old also allowed seven touchdowns in coverage last year. But it's worth pointing out that he's routinely asked to shadow No. 1 receivers in a division choked with stars at the position. At 6'1", 192 pounds, he has the size to square off with Mike Evans of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers and the speed to hang with Calvin Ridley of the Atlanta Falcons.
Over the past two seasons, Lattimore has been targeted 173 times. Just 51.4 percent of those targets were completed.
22. Jessie Bates III, S, Cincinnati Bengals
As Geoff Hobson wrote for the Cincinnati Bengals' website, heading into his fourth season, free safety Jessie Bates III is looking to evolve.
"I'm trying my best to really step into the leadership role this year," Bates said. "You're trying to set the culture early. And just do it with a sense of urgency. I have to remind myself it's still the offseason. Enjoy it. But if you get time, take a look at it."
Based on his play, Bates is already a defensive leader. In fact, it's not a reach to say he's the best player the Bengals have on that side of the ball.
In each of his three seasons, the 2018 second-round pick has eclipsed the century mark in tackles, averaging just over 106 total stops per year. The 24-year-old has been solid in the big-play column as well, forcing a pair of fumbles and intercepting three passes in each of his three pro campaigns. He hasn't been a slouch in coverage either, allowing a passer rating against lower than 80 in two of three seasons.
If Bates played in a bigger market, he would have been named to at least one Pro Bowl.
21. Quinnen Williams, DT, New York Jets
As New York Jets tackle Sheldon Rankins told SNY, one of the big selling points that lured him to the Big Apple this offseason was the opportunity to play alongside Quinnen Williams (h/t Myles Simmons of ProFootballTalk):
"I've followed Quinnen since he was at Alabama. Obviously, the type of player he was down there, the whole country was watching him. So just seeing that and then obviously I'm a junkie of this game so I'm always watching the D-tackles and different things like that. So I've watched Quinnen's first couple years with the Jets."
The third pick in 2019, the 23-year-old Williams had a quiet rookie season. But he turned it on in a big way in his second year, racking up 55 total tackles and seven sacks while emerging as New York's best player up front.
Those numbers are that much more impressive when you consider the lack of talent around him last year. With help in New York in the form of players like Rankins and Carl Lawson, Williams could be on the verge of an even better season in 2021.
20. Brian Burns, Edge, Carolina Panthers
The Carolina Panthers were not a good defensive team in 2020. Carolina ranked in the bottom half of the league in total defense, and the team's 29 sacks ranked 24th.
However, those struggles can't be laid at the feet of edge-rusher Brian Burns, who in just two seasons has become arguably the Panthers' best defensive player.
The 16th pick in 2019 was solid as a rookie, amassing 7.5 sacks despite playing just 43 percent of Carolina's defensive snaps. In 2020, Burns' playing time increased, and so did his production—he piled up 58 total tackles, nine sacks, 21 QB hits, 16 hurries and three forced fumbles.
The 22-year-old was also one of the NFL's most effective pass-rushers on third down. Per Pro Football Focus, his third-down pressure rate (22.1 percent) was the second-best in the league.
That Burns wasn't named to the Pro Bowl says more about the selection process than it does about his level of play in his second year.
19. Joe Burrow, QB, Cincinnati Bengals
This ranking has as much to do with what could be as what was.
After being selected first overall by the Cincinnati Bengals in 2020, quarterback Joe Burrow couldn't duplicate the success he had the year before at LSU. However, that was hardly a reasonable expectation—Burrow's 2019 campaign in Baton Rouge was arguably the best season any college signal-caller has ever had.
He wasn't cat food as a rookie, either. The 6'4", 221-pound signal-caller completed 65.3 percent of his passes for 2,688 yards and 13 touchdowns with five interceptions before a torn ACL ended his season 10 games in.
Per Adam Haste of Cincy Jungle, Burrow's father told Cincinnati's Fox 19 that his son's rehab is progressing well.
"He is so locked in," Jimmy Burrow said. "We had a week down in Florida that we had hoped he would take a day or two off in his rehab, and he just wouldn't do it."
Provided that continues, an even bigger and better second season is likely forthcoming—at least in Knox's opinion, as he slotted the 24-year-old to Cincinnati first overall in his do-over of last year's draft.
18. Roquan Smith, ILB, Chicago Bears
Gaining notoriety as an inside linebacker for the Chicago Bears isn't easy. The bar in the Windy City has been set awfully high by players like Dick Butkus and Brian Urlacher.
It's going to be a while until Roquan Smith can be mentioned along those all-time greats. But the eighth overall pick in the 2018 draft is on the right track.
An impact player from the moment he took the field for the Bears, Smith has topped 100 total tackles in all three of his professional seasons. He has made a dent as a pass-rusher, logging 11 sacks. And Smith has steadily improved in coverage—his passer rating against has declined each year.
Smith's third season was his best to date—career-highs in total tackles (139) and solo stops (98), two interceptions, four sacks, seven passes defensed and a stellar passer rating against of 59.6.
The Bears have made the playoffs two of the past three seasons because of their defense. Smith has rapidly become a leader on that side of the ball.
And at just 24, he should only get better from here.
17. Tristan Wirfs, OT, Tampa Bay Buccaneers
According to Pro Football Focus, the Tampa Bay Buccaneers fielded the fifth-best offensive line last year. The best player on that line may well have been right tackle Tristan Wirfs.
That the 22-year-old was such an exceptional player in his first season is beyond impressive.
The 13th pick in last year's draft out of the University of Iowa, Wirfs looked like anything but a rookie. In 1,073 snaps, he allowed just a single sack and committed only three penalties. According to PFF's Ben Linsey, there wasn't a right tackle in the league who received a higher grade.
In February, Tampa head coach Bruce Arians told reporters: "I thought he should've been in the Pro Bowl. He's a guy that's given up one sack all season as a rookie—it's unbelievable. When we run behind him, there's a lot of movement, so you couldn't ask anything more of a rookie offensive lineman, for sure."
Arians wasn't alone in that regard.
16. Minkah Fitzpatrick, S, Pittsburgh Steelers
Minkah Fitzpatrick's career has been a tale of two cities.
After becoming the 11th pick of the 2018 draft by the Dolphins, his first year-plus in the NFL wasn't especially impressive—he bounced between cornerback and safety and clashed with the coaching staff in Miami.
Two weeks into his second season, the Dolphins shipped him to the Pittsburgh Steelers for a package of picks that included a 2020 first-rounder.
In Pittsburgh, Fitzpatrick took off like a rocket.
In his first game with his new team, he logged an interception, his first of five that season. He added 69 total tackles, two forced fumbles and a touchdown on the way to being named a first-team All-Pro and a Pro Bowler.
His second season in the Steel City was essentially a repeat of the first: 79 total tackles, four more interceptions, a forced fumble, a touchdown and first-team All-Pro and Pro Bowl honors.
Calling Fitzpatrick the preeminent ball-hawking safety in the NFL isn't a stretch.
15. Justin Jefferson, WR, Minnesota Vikings
If Minnesota Vikings wide receiver Justin Jefferson's rookie season was any indication, he'll be a fixture on lists like this for some time. He won't even turn 22 until June.
But Jefferson looked nothing like a 21-year-old in the Twin Cities last season.
Two years ago at LSU, he was ridiculously productive, hauling in 111 catches for 1,540 yards and 18 touchdowns. That massive season got him drafted 22nd.
The 6'1" 202-pounder barely missed a beat in the pros. By his third game, he topped 100 receiving yards for the first time—a feat he would duplicate six times that season.
By the time the dust settled on the 2020 campaign, Jefferson had reeled in 88 of 125 targets for a jaw-dropping 1,400 yards and seven scores—numbers that put him fourth in the league in receiving yards and set a rookie record for receiving yards in a season. He was named to the Pro Bowl and earned second-team All-Pro honors.
Jefferson did more than just soften the blow of Stefon Diggs' departure. By the end of the year, he had arguably surpassed Adam Thielen as the No. 1 wideout in the Twin Cities.
14. Devin White, ILB, Tampa Bay Buccaneers
In 2019, the Tampa Bay Buccaneers made a sizable investment in linebacker Devin White, drafting the former LSU star fifth overall as a complement for and eventual successor to the great Lavonte David.
White was good but not great as a rookie, amassing 91 tackles and four fumble recoveries, two of which were returned for touchdowns.
But in Tampa's march to a win in Super Bowl LV, White exploded with the best numbers of any off-ball linebacker in the NFL. The 23-year-old piled up the fifth-most total tackles in the league with 140, ranked third with 97 solos and posted nine sacks—a ridiculous total for an inside linebacker.
Whit isn't just a run-stuffer or a pass-rusher, either. He possesses the range necessary to hold his own in coverage, although his numbers in that category dipped a little in 2020 relative to his rookie year.
If he can come close to backing up his 2020 tackle numbers while improving in coverage in his third season, he'll be right at the top of the list of the league's best players at his position.
13. A.J. Brown, WR, Tennessee Titans
That wide receiver A.J. Brown of the Tennessee Titans has logged two 1,000-yard seasons in as many professional campaigns is impressive.
That he's done so before his 24th birthday is even more so.
As a rookie, Brown piled up 1,051 receiving yards and eight scores on just 52 catches—for a ridiculous average of 20.2 yards per grab that shattered any misconceptions about the 6'0", 226-pounder's long speed.
Brown's yards per catch came down in his second season, but that's just about the only area where he didn't improve. He parlayed 106 targets into 70 receptions for 1,075 yards and 11 scores, cementing his status as Ryan Tannehill's go-to wideout and one of the NFL's most lethal red-zone threats.
Just four teams attempted fewer than 500 passes in 2020, and the Titans were one of them—Tennessee threw the ball just 485 times.
If the team were closer to the league average and threw the ball 50-plus more times per season, Brown's numbers would be that much gaudier.
12. Fred Warner, LB, San Francisco 49ers
Over three seasons, Fred Warner of the San Francisco 49ers hasn't garnered the attention he deserves as one of the NFL's best off-ball linebackers. But as he heads into the final year of his rookie deal, he's looking at being paid like one.
The 24-year-old will have earned every cent.
Warner was thrown to the wolves right off the jump—the third-round pick out of BYU played a career-high 1,060 snaps as a rookie. But he has thrived, posting at least 118 tackles all three years, with three interceptions, four sacks and five forced fumbles.
There isn't a facet of the game where Warner doesn't perform at an elite level. After missing 30 tackles over his first two seasons, he whiffed on just seven in 2020. In an era when coverage ability is so important for linebackers, Warner shines. His passer rating against last year was just 69.7.
He's also been durable, starting all 48 games of his career.
11. Nick Bosa, Edge, San Francisco 49ers
As Matt Maiocco reported for NBC Sports Bay Area, San Francisco 49ers edge-rusher Nick Bosa recently posted the sort of workout video that has become commonplace among professional athletes in the social media age.
What makes this video noteworthy is that it showcases Bosa rehabbing the torn ACL that ended his 2020 season in Week 2.
Given that lost sophomore season, it might seem odd to see the second pick from the 2019 draft listed here.
But Bosa was a force for the 49ers in their push to Super Bowl LIV. He peeled off one of the better rookie seasons in recent memory from an edge-rusher: 47 total tackles, nine sacks, 25 quarterback hits and 24 hurries.
Those regular-season numbers landed Bosa Defensive Rookie of the Year honors, but he was just getting started. In three postseason contests that year, he registered four sacks, piling up 15 total tackles and a forced fumble.
Assuming he's healthy again, he could easily wind up in the Defensive Player of the Year conversation.
10. Christian McCaffrey, RB, Carolina Panthers
The 2020 season was a miserable one for Carolina Panthers running back Christian McCaffrey.
In Week 1, it appeared that the 24-year-old would pick up right where he left off in his All-Pro 2019 season, gashing the Las Vegas Raiders for 135 total yards and two touchdowns. That made the four-year, $64 million extension McCaffrey got from the Panthers in April 2020 look like a wise investment.
However, while piling up 88 scrimmage yards and two more scores the following week against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, McCaffrey suffered a high ankle sprain that landed him on injured reserve. He returned in Week 9 to scorch the Kansas City Chiefs for 151 total yards and two touchdowns, but McCaffrey suffered a shoulder injury in that game that ended his fourth season.
Still, those three big games were indicative of the talent that landed McCaffrey that extension. Two years ago, he joined Roger Craig and Marshall Faulk as the only running backs in league history to gain both 1,000 rushing yards and 1,000 receiving yards in the same season, catching an NFL running back record 116 passes and scoring 19 total touchdowns.
The 116 receptions broke McCaffrey's own record of 107 set the year before.
9. Orlando Brown Jr., OT, Baltimore Ravens
Yes, that's right: Three of the top 10 players in the NFL under age 25 are Baltimore Ravens.
At least for now.
After filling in for the injured Ronnie Stanley at left tackle last year (and making the Pro Bowl for the second straight season), Orlando Brown Jr. doesn't want to move back to right tackle. And as Todd Karpovich reported for Ravens Country, Baltimore GM Eric DeCosta hasn't ruled out trading the 24-year-old:
"We'll do what's best for Orlando, and we'll do what's best for the Ravens. These things take time sometimes. A lot of different scenarios in how this thing could play out, but we are blessed to have him on the team. He's an excellent player. We're a team that loves offensive linemen and young offensive linemen who are skilled. Orlando is a young offensive lineman who is skilled."
"Skilled" is an understatement. Brown has allowed just three sacks in each of the past two seasons, per PFF, and is a top-10 (if not top-five) tackle just entering his prime who has extensive experience playing both tackle spots.
8. Marlon Humphrey, CB, Baltimore Ravens
Marlon Humphrey, 24, is one of the league's more underrated young players. It's what happens when you play in a loaded secondary that includes a superstar cornerback in Marcus Peters.
Make no mistake though: Humphrey is very much a star in his own right.
Over his first four seasons, the Ravens standout has emerged as one of the most talented, versatile corners in the NFL. Capable of playing both the boundary and the slot, Humphrey racked up 65 total tackles and three picks in 2019 on the way to being named both a Pro Bowler and a first-team All-Pro.
He did even more in 2020, piling up 82 total stops, 2.5 sacks, one interception and a jaw-dropping eight forced fumbles while earning a second straight Pro Bowl nod.
In two of the last three seasons, Humphrey has allowed less than 60 percent of the passes in his direction to be completed while posting a passer rating against under 70.
There's a good reason the Ravens gave Humphrey a five-year, $97.5 million extension with $67.3 million in guarantees last October.
7. Chase Young, Edge, Washington Football Team
At first glance, Chase Young's rookie stats weren't jaw-dropping: 44 total tackles, 7.5 sacks and four forced fumbles. But there's a reason Young was named to the Pro Bowl last year. A reason he earned Defensive Rookie of the Year honors. And a reason he's listed here.
Despite battling a groin injury part of the season and falling into the rookie funk that often plagues first-year edge-rushers, Young was a key contributor for a Washington defense that propelled the team to an NFC East title. Whether it was stuffing the run or rushing the passer, Young was a fixture in opposing backfields.
The 22-year-old was also named a team captain as a rookie, an honor that head coach Ron Rivera said he did not bestow lightly.
Rivera told NBC Sports Washington's JP Finlay in December:
"When (teammates) make plays, he's genuinely happy for those guys, you know what I'm saying? Because of that, his teammates see how selfless he is. Then he goes out and plays the way he does, especially the last probably third of the season. He started like gangbusters, got slow for a while because he had to figure it out, now he's figuring it out and this last third of the season has been what we needed.
"You sit there and go 'wow.'"
6. Justin Herbert, QB, Los Angeles Chargers
Justin Herbert, 23, wasn't the first quarterback selected in the 2020 draft. Nor the second. But the former Oregon standout is the highest-ranked second-year player on this list.
Partly, that's because of the inherent value of quarterbacks. And partly it's because that first year in the league was quite impressive.
Wins weren't easy to come by—Herbert went 6-9 as the starter for the Los Angeles Chargers and lost his first four starts. But he topped 300 passing yards in his first two games, surpassed that benchmark in eight of 15 contests and had six outings with at least three touchdown passes.
Herbert's 4,336 passing yards as a rookie weren't enough to break Andrew Luck's record in that category, although had head coach Anthony Lynn not wasted Week 1's win over Cincinnati with Tyrod Taylor under center, he all but certainly would have.
Herbert did, however, shatter Baker Mayfield's record for touchdown passes by a first-year quarterback with 31.
All told, it was enough to earn him Offensive Rookie of the Year honors.
5. DK Metcalf, WR, Seattle Seahawks
In 2019, I wrote an article predicting that Seattle Seahawks wide receiver DK Metcalf would be a first-round bust. It's an article I'm reminded of with regularity on social media by Seahawks fans—because while Metcalf did fall into the second round of that year's draft, he's been anything but a bust.
There was never any question regarding Metcalf's physical tools. And the 23-year-old's used that combination of speed, size and tenacity at the catch point to become one of the league's most feared vertical receivers. In each of his two seasons, Metcalf has averaged over 15 yards per grab, and last year, the 6'4", 235-pound speedster posted an impressive 83-catch, 1,303-yard, 10-touchdown line.
But the improvement Metcalf showed from his first season to the second in most statistical categories is the product of the work he had done on improving his route tree and honing his craft. He's much more than just jump balls on go routes.
If Metcalf shows a similar jump in year three, he could easily finish the campaign as the league's best wide receiver.
I was wrong. It happens.
4. Jaire Alexander, CB, Green Bay Packers
If Jaire Alexander, 24, isn't the best cornerback in the league, he's certainly on the short list for that moniker.
Since being drafted 18th in 2018, Alexander has become a key contributor for a Green Bay defense that has helped the Packers post back-to-back 13-win seasons and trips to the NFC Championship Game. On the way to his first Pro Bowl nod last year, Alexander allowed just 51.3 percent of the passes thrown in his direction to be completed for 375 yards and two scores, with a passer rating against of just 67.4.
As Wes Hodkiewicz reported for the Packers' website, Green Bay defensive coordinator Mike Pettine said it's quite a luxury to have a player on the back end who can take half the field away:
"That's what's always nice about Jaire, where you know you always feel good about his area of the field. If I know one side of the field's locked down, you can take that safety and put him somewhere else and you maybe have a lurker in the middle of the field as opposed to a guy who has to sit on the deep half."
3. Kyler Murray, QB, Arizona Cardinals
That these rankings are quarterback-heavy at the top should surprise exactly zero people. Two types of teams exist: clubs that have a franchise player at the game's most important position and those who do not.
Following Kyler Murray's two years in the pros, it appears the Cardinals fit in Group A.
After being drafted first overall in 2019 by the Redbirds, the 2018 Heisman Trophy winner joined Cam Newton as the only two quarterbacks in league history to throw for 3,500 yards and run for 500 yards as a rookie. He was named Offensive Rookie of the Year.
The 23-year-old kept that momentum going in his second season, once again joining Newton in the record books after posting five or more rushing scores and five or more passing scores over the season's first five games. The 5'10" Murray cooled down over the second half, but he still threw for almost 4,000 yards and 26 touchdowns while pitching in another 819 yards and 11 touchdowns on the ground.
So much for his being too short to be successful in the NFL.
2. Josh Allen, QB, Buffalo Bills
As "light-bulb" seasons go, Josh Allen's 2020 was a whopper.
After a pair of up-and-down campaigns that included a 15-12 record as Buffalo's starter, Allen saw his completion percentage spike over 10 points to almost 70 percent. The 24-year-old threw for 4,544 yards (fifth-most in the NFL), tossed 37 touchdown passes (again, fifth-most) and posted a passer rating of 107.2—over 20 points higher than the prior season.
Allen also pitched in 421 yards and eight touchdowns on the ground on the way to finishing second in MVP voting behind Aaron Rodgers of the Packers. The Bills tied for the most regular-season wins in franchise history with 13 and advanced to the AFC Championship Game.
Given just how much Allen's numbers spiked in 2020, it's possible he will regress statistically in 2021. But there's also no question that he has established himself as one of the top young signal-callers in the game—and vindicated Buffalo for drafting the former Wyoming standout seventh overall in 2018.
1. Lamar Jackson, QB, Baltimore Ravens
It's a safe bet that if there was a do-over of the 2018 NFL draft, Baltimore Ravens quarterback Lamar Jackson would be taken earlier than 32nd.
As a rookie, Jackson took over for Joe Flacco in the season's second half and led the Ravens to six wins in seven starts and a playoff spot. His 2019 was transcendent, as he set an NFL record for rushing yards by a quarterback with 1,206, led Baltimore to a 14-2 record and was named the league's MVP.
Yes, Jackson's passing numbers have been relatively modest—just 154 yards per game. His 2020 wasn't as impressive as the year before. And he is just 1-3 in the postseason.
But the 24-year-old is the only quarterback in NFL history to top 1,000 rushing yards in multiple seasons. While his passing yardage hasn't been great, Jackson has just 18 career interceptions against 68 touchdowns (including a league-leading 36 passing scores in 2019). In 37 career regular-season starts, Jackson has lost just seven times.
If he can get his passing production anywhere near what he has accomplished on the ground, we'll be talking about him as an all-time great.
Stats via Pro Football Reference unless otherwise noted.