Top 25 under 25: The NFL's best young players
For many teams the 2016 season is over, and it’s time to turn their attention to the future. Nowhere is the promise of the future better embodied than in young talent already in the league, and so we’re going to take a look at some of that young, proven talent.
The draft may be just around the corner in an NFL calendar that never ends, but as talented a group as rookies are, they remain unknown quantities in the NFL, while the league is currently stuffed full of talent under 25 years of age that has proven itself at the higher level.
Here are the 25 best players in the league currently under 25:
1. Odell Beckham Jr., WR, New York Giants
Beckham is one of the game’s best wideouts, setting records in his first few seasons in the league and with the ability to make spectacular catches unrivaled in today’s NFL. Beckham was a second-team PFF All-Pro this season despite Eli Manning having the worst-graded season we have seen from him over the past decade and needing to do much of the hard work himself. Beckham gained 532 of his 1,367 yards after the catch, but forced a league-leading (among WRs) 29 missed tackles to do it.
2. Le’Veon Bell, RB, Pittsburgh Steelers
The only player that can realistically challenge Beckham for the top of this list is do-it-all Pittsburgh running back Bell. Bell is the game’s most complete back, and only really Arizona’s David Johnson can rival him in that regard. This season, he came 52 yards shy of 2,000 yards from scrimmage, breaking 61 tackles along the way.
3. Joey Bosa, ED, San Diego Chargers
Bosa was the most dominant player in the nation in college over the past two seasons, and while that doesn’t always translate to NFL production, it seems pretty clear that in Bosa’s case it has. After a lengthy holdout and then injury slowed his debut, he then set about destroying NFL opposition the way he did college, racking up 59 total pressures in only 12 games, the first of which he only played 27 snaps of.
4. Tyrann Mathieu, S, Arizona Cardinals
Injury robbed us of another display of the Honey Badger at his best this season, but before tearing his ACL a year ago, he was enjoying a Defensive Player of the Year-type of season. Mathieu is one of a new breed of hybrid matchup players that can line up all over a defense and combat what you want to do on offense. He is a playmaker at heart and one of the game’s best when healthy.
5. Landon Collins, S, New York Giants
After a rookie season in which he looked lost at free safety playing deep in coverage, Collins was moved to strong safety this season and has been a revelation. Playing closer to the line of scrimmage, Collins has been everywhere for the Giants this season and had a legitimate Defensive Player of the Year-caliber season. Collins had eight more defensive stops than any other safety this season, and picked off five passes.
6. Leonard Williams, DI, New York Jets
Williams has all of a sudden become the best player on a Jets defensive line that was stacked with talent, even if that owes much to the drop in performance from Muhammad Wilkerson and Sheldon Richardson. Only Damon Harrison had more defensive stops than the 48 posted by Williams among interior defenders this year, and Williams is five clear of the No.3 player in the league.
7. Amari Cooper, WR, Oakland Raiders
Drops plagued Cooper as a rookie, as he racked up a ridiculous 18 of them on 87 catchable passes. On the same number of catchable passes this season, Cooper dropped just four, and put up 1,154 receiving yards despite his QB going down late in the season and dealing with backups in the final game. Cooper has slick route running, devastating athleticism and far better hands this year.
8. Marcus Peters, CB, Kansas City Chiefs
Peters’ reputation as a rookie was built on gaudy interception totals, but he wasn’t nearly as good as the eight interceptions suggested — he also allowed eight touchdowns and almost 1,000 receiving yards (939). This year though, he has improved significantly, actually allowing a greater percentage of catches into his coverage to be caught (58.6 percent this year, up from 50.4), but cutting down on the number of bad beats, and allowing just three scores all year. He is a true ballhawk cornerback.
9. DeAndre Hopkins, WR, Houston Texans
This season was ugly for Hopkins, but he showed a year ago that he is capable of huge things, even with a revolving door of hopeless quarterbacks throwing him the ball. Apparently, that didn’t extend to being able to get it done with Brock Osweiler, which is pretty damning for the quarterback’s future chances, but Hopkins remains an elite weapon when he has even passable QB play. This season he still had a top-20 drop rate of 4.9 percent of catchable passes.
10. Mike Evans, WR, Tampa Bay Buccaneers
Evans had a monster year this season, making first team All-Pro with 1,321 yards and a dozen touchdowns on the back of being the league’s most-targeted receiver with 168 passes going his way. He caught some of the most spectacular passes of the season with some incredible body control and one-handed passes putting a highlight reel together that no other receiver can rival.
11. C.J. Mosley, LB, Baltimore Ravens
Mosley has been a run-stopping monster for the Ravens since they drafted him in the first round back in 2014, but this year he improved his coverage play and doubled the number of career interceptions he had heading into the season in one year. Mosley has become a complete linebacker and one of the standouts on a tough Ravens defense that is heading in the right direction again with some new faces.
12. Ezekiel Elliott, RB, Dallas Cowboys
In case you missed it, Elliott came in as a rookie and dominated. He led the league with 1,621 rushing yards at 5.0 yards per carry, with 2.9 of them coming after contact, and he put up 15 rushing touchdowns along the way. Elliott is a complete back, capable of being a factor out of the backfield (just one drop from 37 targets this season) and holding his own as a blocker, and figures to be a big part of the Cowboys Super Bowl push in the postseason.
13. Vic Beasley, ED, Atlanta Falcons
Beasley made huge strides this season and finished the season with the league lead in sacks by a clear two. Impressive as that is, it doesn’t quite accurately reflect his play, as he was converting an unsustainable ratio of his total pressure into sacks (28.6 percent while the average edge rusher is at 15.1). Beasley became a formidable pass-rusher in year two, but still has work to do to become a great one.
14. Cody Whitehair, C, Chicago Bears
Switching positions from college to the NFL is challenging enough, but switching from college tackle to NFL center is a huge ask, and one that Whitehair crushed. He ended the year with a PFF grade of 87.2, sixth among centers leaguewide, and had some dominant displays against top competition in there. If he improves even marginally in year two he will be one of the best centers in the game.
15. Dak Prescott, QB, Dallas Cowboys
Prescott’s rookie season is the shock of the year. As a fourth-round draft pick, a consolation prize for the Cowboys who had their eyes on other QBs closer to the top of the draft, Prescott was excellent in preseason before stepping in for an injured Tony Romo, and achieving the unthinkable – playing well enough that Dallas didn’t give Romo his job back when he got healthy. Prescott has had occasional ugly games, but his rookie season puts him on an excellent track to success.
16. Jay Ajayi, RB, Miami Dolphins
When Miami began to hand the ball off to Ajayi seriously this season their season transformed, and they don’t make it to the playoffs without him. He led the league in yards per carry after contact among players with 100-plus carries, with a ridiculous 3.5, or more yards after contact than Todd Gurley averaged in total rushing yards. Ajayi broke 58 tackles on the ground, 11 more than any other runner despite ranking just ninth in carries.
17. Jameis Winston, QB, Tampa Bay Buccaneers
Winston hasn’t been able to eradicate the inconsistency from his game, but when he is on there are few better QBs in the league. This season he threw 28 touchdowns and when kept clean in the pocket completed 67.1 percent of his passes. He needs to improve his play under pressure and remove the bad-Jameis from his tape to take that next step.
18. Trai Turner, Carolina Panthers
A year ago, Trai Turner was one of the league’s best guards, and while his performance fell off badly this season, he was also kicked out to right tackle amid injuries on the Carolina offensive line, and this season stands out as a reversal of his career arc heading into the year which had been progressing from good to great nicely. 2017 is a big year for him to determine if it was an aberration or a reversal in his development.
19. James Bradberry, Carolina Panthers
Replacing Josh Norman at cornerback for Carolina is no easy task, especially for a rookie making the step up from Samford College, but Bradberry has looked impressive. He wasn’t as good as Norman a season ago, but then neither was Norman himself, and Bradberry actually finished the season two spots ahead of Norman in the PFF grades with a rating of 82.6 compared to Norman’s 82.0. Rookies typically struggle at corner, so it will be interesting to see how much better he can get in year two.
20. Tyreek Hill, WR, Kansas City Chiefs
Hill’s off-the-field history is troubling, but on the field, he has been a devastating weapon for the Chiefs this season and gives them a very real X-factor heading into the playoffs that could prove the difference for them. Hill has three return touchdowns, three rushing and six receiving to his name this season, and plays of at least 49 yards in all facets of the game.
21. Ronnie Stanley, T, Baltimore Ravens
If you ignore one wretched game against Pittsburgh where injury was a factor, Stanley’s rookie year has been excellent, and he has been an elite pass-protecting tackle over the second half of it where often a rookie wall kicks in. He allowed one sack over his final eight games and in the last three allowed just two total pressures. Stanley is already well ahead of the career arc for tackles, so year two could produce a special player.
22. Jack Conklin, T, Tennessee Titans
Conklin always had power, but was expected to struggle badly as a pass protector at the next level, at least early in his career. Instead, he finished the year as PFF’s All-Pro right tackle. While it’s true that the Titans scheme gives the team’s tackles more help than others, it’s also true that Conklin dramatically outperformed expectations at a position where rookies typically struggle. That alone readjusts what his expected ceiling should be.
23. Jadeveon Clowney, ED, Houston Texans
The hype surrounding Clowney was so intense that becoming anything less than a second J.J. Watt will be seen as a letdown by some. Injuries have blighted his career so far, but when he has been on the field he has been an excellent player, if perhaps not showing the potential to become that next superstar. Clowney finished the season as PFF’s 13th-ranked edge defender, despite being asked to play inside plenty to replace Watt’s presence by Houston. He notched 41 total pressures and 27 defensive stops.
24. Danielle Hunter, ED, Minnesota Vikings
Hunter is still just 22 years old, and he only turned 22 in late October. He is younger than most of the rookie class that has just completed its first season in the league, and Hunter has just played his second, posting 13 sacks and 55 total pressures despite not being a full-time starter. If he were a rookie we would be tipping that performance as a sign of greatness, so year three could be something truly impressive.
25. Byron Jones, S, Dallas Cowboys
Teams are now chasing matchup weapons on defense to counter those that offenses have been stockpiling over the past decade, and the Cowboys’ Jones is one such player. Jones has played corner and safety for Dallas since being drafted and has been used to counter elite receiving TEs in the passing game. Jones has just one interception over two seasons, but has broken up six passes in each and made plenty of plays in coverage.
(Editor’s note: This article was initially published without Mike Evans included on the list. He has since been added and the order adjusted accordingly.)