US Sports Veteran
Publish Date: 01/19/2021
Fact checked by: Mike Goodpaster
The NFL features plenty of superstars and future Hall of Famers. However, most fans don’t realize how many of the league’s premier players are under 25 years old. The youthful, under-25 class consists of All-Pros, MVPs, and Pro Bowlers. Barring unforeseen injuries or off-the-field issues, the next wave of stars should carve out a glorified place for themselves in NFL history as the new decade begins.
The Grueling Truth began producing lists ranking the league’s best young players over two years ago. Check out the previous editions to see how the NFL’s ranks have evolved in recent seasons.
All players are under 25 years old as of this article’s publication on Jan. 19.
61. Damien Harris, RB New England Patriots
Harris took over for Sony Michel this year, supplanting the former first-round pick by mid-season. In his ten starts, Harris amassed 691 rushing yards on only 137 attempts (5.0 yards per carry). New England hasn’t produced a 1,000-yard rusher since 2016, but Harris could change that.
Tampa Bay’s defensive front gets most of the glory, but some decent defensive backs inhabit the team’s secondary. Davis is far from an All-Pro, but he’s not a bad top option at cornerback. In his 14 appearances this season, Davis intercepted four passes and defended 18 others. He allowed an 87.6 passer rating when targeted.
Los Angeles used a backfield by committee approach early in 2020, which hurt Akers’ production. However, the Florida State product got healthy in the year’s final months. In his five last regular season games, Akers produced 424 rushing yards and 520 yards from scrimmage. The 21-year-old’s potential is exciting.
Mack suffered a torn Achilles in Week 1, clearing the way for rookie Jonathan Taylor. However, fans shouldn’t overlook Mack’s production since entering the NFL in 2017. Between 2018 and 2019, Mack ran for 1,999 yards and 17 touchdowns, averaging 4.5 yards per attempt and 76.9 per game. The South Florida product is a free agent this offseason.
After a disappointing rookie campaign, Montgomery asserted himself down the stretch for Chicago. In the season’s final eight games, the Iowa State product ran for 717 yards and seven touchdowns. He also played a larger role in the passing game, generating 254 receiving yards in his last eight appearances. Montgomery finished 2020 with 1,508 yards from scrimmage and ten total touchdowns.
Queen’s rookie numbers look good on paper. He tallied an interception, two forced fumbles, two fumble recoveries, three sacks, 106 tackles, and a defensive touchdown in 2020. However, those numbers overlook his struggles in pass coverage and missed tackles. Quarterbacks completed 76.4% of their throws for an average 103.6 passer rating when targeting Queen. The LSU product also missed 16.5% of his potential tackles.
The Saints built one of the NFL’s best offensive lines by hitting on high draft picks. McCoy landed in Sean Payton’s lap in the second-round two years ago. The Texas A&M product hasn’t missed a start during his career and is on track for future Pro Bowl selections.
Gibson transformed Washington’s running game. In 14 games, he tallied 795 rushing yards and 1,042 yards from scrimmage. With Washington’s quarterback position entering a period of uncertainty, Gibson could see his importance and touches skyrocket in 2021.
An athletic safety-linebacker hybrid, Chinn was all over the field for Carolina. The second-round pick amassed an interception, five passes defensed, two forced fumbles, two fumble recoveries, one sack, 117 tackles, and two defensive touchdowns in 15 games. While he has a lot to learn, Chinn is off to a great start.
Claypool’s numbers tailed off as Ben Roethlisberger’s arm faded. However, the ultra-athletic Notre Dame product still generated 873 yards through the air and 11 total touchdowns. Claypool has the size and speed to become a Pro Bowl receiver if he has someone with enough arm strength to throw bombs.
Chark made the Pro Bowl in 2019, catching 73 passes for 1,008 yards and eight touchdowns in 15 games. Unfortunately, his numbers dove in 2020 because of injuries and incompetent quarterback play. Once Trevor Lawrence arrives, Chark’s production should return to normal.
50. Antoine Winfield Jr., S Tampa Bay Buccaneers
Somehow Winfield fell to the second-round, where Tampa Bay happily scooped him up. In 16 starts, the Minnesota product tallied an interception, six passes defensed, two forced fumbles, three sacks, and 94 tackles. Winfield is already Tampa Bay’s best defensive back.
Higgins’ NFL Career got off to a slow start, but he quickly became a crucial cog in Cincinnati’s offense. While playing with Joe Burrow, Higgins generated 62.9 yards per game. With Brandon Allen and Ryan Finley under center for Cincinnati’s final six games, Higgins only averaged 46.5 yards per game. He finished the season with 908 receiving yards and six touchdowns.
A high-ankle sprain ended Edwards-Helaire’s rookie season early, but the LSU product still had a good run. In 13 games, the National Champion produced 1,100 yards from scrimmage and five total touchdowns. In a pass-heavy offense, Edwards-Helaire has a bright future as a closer and pace-changer.
Minnesota drafted Jeff Gladney in the first-round, but Dantzler was the team’s best rookie cornerback. Starting across from his fellow rookie, the third-round pick intercepted two passes in his 11 games. The Vikings haven’t drafted well at cornerback in recent history, but Dantzler looks like a hit.
After a mid-season slump, Taylor averaged 123.5 yards per game and 6.23 yards per carry in his final six outings. The Wisconsin product led all rookies with 1,169 rushing yards and 11 rushing touchdowns. Losing Mack for the season stung, but the Colts should feel comfortable moving forward with Taylor as the lead back.
Dobbins caught fire around the middle of his rookie season. After tumbling to 55th overall in the draft, the Ohio State product averaged 72 rushing yards per game and nearly six yards per attempt in his final nine regular season appearances. With Dobbins asserting himself, the Ravens feel comfortable moving on from veteran Mark Ingram.
Losing Dak Prescott hurt Lamb’s production. In his five games with Prescott, Lamb averaged 86.6 yards per game. That dropped to 45.6 yards per game with Andy Dalton and Ben DiNucci leading the offense. Assuming Prescott returns to Dallas in 2021, Lamb should have a Pro Bowl season.
43. Jeffery Simmons, DT Tennessee Titans
Tennessee took a risk by drafting Simmons in the first-round two years ago. The Mississippi State product had recently suffered an injury, but that didn’t deter the Titans from selecting him 19th overall. Simmons recorded 49 tackles, three sacks, and 21 quarterback pressures in his first full season with the team.
Edmunds fits the mold of a lot of young linebackers. He’s incredibly athletic and finishes seasons with eye-popping numbers of tackles. However, Edmunds is a liability in pass coverage. When targeted in 2020, he gave up a 114.3 passer rating to opposing quarterbacks. The 22-year-old has all of the physical traits to become proficient in that area, but he has a long way to go.
The second-year defensive end missed half of the season because of injuries. Allen wasn’t playing at his full potential in his eight appearances, which limited him to 2.5 sacks and 16 pressures. As a rookie, the Kentucky product racked up 10.5 sacks and 39 pressures, earning him a spot in the Pro Bowl.
Hockenson battled through injuries as a rookie, but the Lions knew they’d landed a future star. In his second season, Hockenson caught 67 passes for 723 yards and six touchdowns on his way to the Pro Bowl. With Kenny Golladay missing time, Hockenson became the offense’s primary receiving threat alongside Marvin Jones.
After signing a four-year, $48 million extension this past offseason, Mixon’s injury-shortened year came across as a significant disappointment. Even behind the team’s atrocious offensive line, Mixon still averaged 71.3 yards per game. He and Joe Burrow could turn things around for Cincinnati if they both come back healthy in 2021.
Lattimore’s true potential remains a toss-up. In last year’s version of this article, Lattimore finished 19th, ahead of Fred Warner and Marcus Williams. Despite making his third Pro Bowl, Lattimore didn’t impress in 2020. His best games came against Tampa Bay’s receivers, but the fourth-year corner struggled against many other teams.
Ward’s NFL career started with a bang. As a rookie, he intercepted three passes, swatted away 11 more, and made the Pro Bowl. The Ohio State product fell into a slump during his second season but rebounded with a respectable performance in 2020. Ward intercepted two passes while defending 18 others. However, injuries remain a concern for the 23-year-old. He’s missed 11 games since entering the league.
Jacobs saw his averages from 2019 slashed this season but still made his first Pro Bowl. Battling injuries and inconsistent coaching, Jacobs averaged 3.9 yards per carry and 71.0 rushing yards per game. As a rookie, he averaged 4.8 yards per carry and 88.5 yards per game. Jacobs finished tied for fourth in the NFL with 12 rushing touchdowns.
Sanders only played in 12 games this year, limiting his production. However, the Penn State product still averaged 72.3 rushing yards per game and produced 1,064 yards from scrimmage. If the Eagles fix their offensive line and revamp their offense, Sanders could see closer to 250 touches per year instead of only 200.
Savage made waves as a rookie, but the Maryland product saw his stock rise even higher after a tremendous second season alongside Jaire Alexander and Adrian Amos. Savage wrapped up the year with four interceptions, 12 passes defensed, a sack, and 75 tackles. The NFL features plenty of promising young safeties.
At 6-7, 364 lbs., Becton has a build that makes offensive line coaches drool. The Louisville product towers over his competition, but questions about his agility and raw playing style raised concerns entering 2020. Despite the criticism, Becton embraced the left tackle role in New York and put together an above-average season. With offensive line play across the league slipping, players of Becton’s caliber are hard to find.
Moore hasn’t made a Pro Bowl yet, but the 23-year-old’s career is off to a hot start. Moore set a new single-season career-high with 1,193 yards, marking his second consecutive 1,000-yard season. The Panthers hope the trio of Robby Anderson, Christian McCaffrey, and Moore can provide them with one of the league’s best offenses.
To the naked eye, White is a monster. At 22 years old, he’s already received Second-Team All-Pro honors from the Associated Press (AP) for producing nine sacks and 140 tackles this season. However, an in-depth examination reveals the Buccaneers hiding White’s weak pass coverage by using him as a blitzer. Quarterbacks completed 82.6% of their passes when targeting White in 2020, and the linebacker gave up a 108.6 passer rating on those plays.
While Leonard Williams produces the sacks, Lawrence occupies a lot of space, smothering running backs. The 23-year-old Clemson product won’t produce flashy numbers, but his consistency and style make him an anchor on New York’s defense. Lawrence had 53 tackles, four sacks, and 16 pressures in 2020.
At 23 years old, Murray is part of a generation of quarterbacks set to define the NFL in the 2020s. The former Heisman Trophy winner built on a strong rookie campaign this season, throwing for 3,971 yards, 26 touchdowns, and 12 interceptions. Murray also ran for 819 yards and 11 touchdowns. However, he and the Cardinals are still slightly behind schedule.
Coming off a season cut short by injuries, Chubb produced his first Pro Bowl campaign. The North Carolina State product amassed 7.5 sacks, 42 tackles, and 32 quarterback pressures. Once Von Miller returns, Chubb should smash the career-highs he set as a rookie.
After producing 7.5 sacks as a rookie, Burns cemented himself as Carolina’s best pass rusher. The 22-year-old recorded nine sacks, three forced fumbles, and 36 quarterback pressures. As head coach Matt Rhule continues building his dream defense, Burns could emerge as the unit’s best player.
Smith hasn’t fought his way into any Pro Bowls or All-Pro discussions, but the right tackle is an exceptional player. While Quenton Nelson and Ryan Kelly draw most of the attention, Smith is a star in his own right. Maybe only three of four right tackles can outperform the former second-round pick.
Brown got out of his comfort zone in 2020, shifting to left tackle after All-Pro Ronnie Stanley suffered a season-ending injury. Brown emerged as a Pro Bowl player in 2019, and he earned another Pro Bowl bid this season. The tackle duo of Brown and Stanley could keep Baltimore’s offense rolling for the next decade.
Williams is an excellent safety, but he falls short of the elite classification every year. In his first four seasons, the Utah product has 13 interceptions and 30 passes defensed. He’s one of the game’s best center field safeties, but he doesn’t play the same dynamic roles as Minkah Fitzpatrick, Justin Simmons, Harrison Smith, etc.
Hebert raised a lot of questions in pre-draft conversations. He turned heads at Oregon but routinely made poor decisions and struggled with reading defenses. Some of those concerns remain, but the 22-year-old just wrapped up a record-setting rookie season. In 15 games, Herbert threw for 4,336 yards, 31 touchdowns, and ten interceptions. His 98.3 passer rating finished ahead of Baker Mayfield, Matthew Stafford, Matt Ryan, and other established quarterbacks.
22. Roquan Smith, LB Chicago Bears
Chicago had high expectations for Smith when head coach Matt Nagy and general manager Ryan Pace signed off on drafting the Georgia product eighth overall in 2018. Smith struggled during his first two seasons, especially in pass coverage. However, the 23-year-old earned a Second-Team All-Pro selection from the AP this year. He also set career-bests with 139 tackles, two interceptions, seven passes defensed, and only allowing a 58.9 passer rating when targeted.
A lot of the league’s most promising players can’t shake the injury bug. Vander Esch was a Second-Team All-Pro as a rookie, but he’s only played in 19 games over the past two years. His potential remains jaw-dropping, but potential is worthless without production. If Vander Esch gets healthy, he could emerge as one of the premier linebackers in the 2020s.
Young’s career opened with 2.5 sacks in his first two games before injuries hamstrung the Ohio State product. Young experienced a rookie slump in the middle of the season before sprinting to the finish with great performances against Carolina, Philadelphia, and San Francisco. The 21-year-old made the Pro Bowl and wrapped up his debut season with 7.5 sacks, four forced fumbles, and 23 quarterback pressures.
Burrow is already 24 years old and has a bright NFL future, assuming that the Bengals get him some help this offseason. Zac Taylor’s tenure as head coach in Cincinnati hasn’t produced many bright spots. Selecting Burrow first overall was probably the most exciting thing for Bengals fans that happened under Taylor’s reign. A generational prospect, Burrow had a decent rookie season before suffering a season-ending injury. He needs a full season of All-Pro production to rank any higher.
Ragnow battled pain and injuries throughout the 2020 season. The third-year Arkansas product still appeared in 14 games, playing roughly 89% of Detroit’s offensive snaps. Ragnow displayed noticeable growth. For his performance, the 24-year-old received Second-Team All-Pro bids from the AP and Pro Football Focus (PFF) and a Pro Bowl nod.
A physical cornerback with a habit of finding the football, Humphrey earned First-Team All-Pro honors last year and made his second Pro Bowl this season. While the Alabama product didn’t repeat as an All-Pro, he still amassed 11 passes defensed, a league-leading eight forced fumbles, 2.5 sacks, and 82 tackles.
Two of the four offensive linemen selected in the top 15 picks of the 2020 NFL Draft are already stars. Becton made a lot of noise in New York, which overshadowed Wirf’s borderline All-Pro season. While the AP passed over Wirfs, PFF selected the Iowa product as a Second-Team All-Pro.
Godwin flashed his potential in 2019, earning Second-Team All-Pro honors for his 1,333 yards in 14 games (95.2 per outing). However, the 24-year-old’s numbers came crashing back down to Earth under Tom Brady. Godwin finished this year with 70.0 yards per game (840 total). A lot of factors explain his dip in production, which Mike Evans also suffered. On the right team, Godwin could make the Pro Bowl annually.
Jackson is one of the NFL’s most electrifying playmakers, but it’s hard to win Super Bowls with one of the league’s worst passing offenses. This offseason, Baltimore needs to develop a better offensive scheme for getting Jackson rolling as a passer. Throwing for under 200 yards per game rarely leads to deep postseason runs. However, Jackson still deserves credit for racking up 3,762 total yards and 33 total touchdowns in 2020.
In his third season, Warner made a name for himself among the league’s elite linebackers. The former third-round pick earned First-Team All-Pro honors from the AP and PFF after tallying two interceptions, two fumble recoveries, and 125 tackles. With Nick Bosa and Richard Sherman missing most of the season, Warner emerged as the defense’s leader.
It’s hard to believe that Ole Miss didn’t win more games when Brown and D.K. Metcalf played alongside one another. This season, Brown made his first Pro Bowl as he built on a promising rookie campaign. The physical receiver averaged 76.8 yards per game and produced two 150-yard performances. Future All-Pro selections aren’t out of the picture for Brown.
While Fitzpatrick didn’t dominate in 2020 the same way he did last season, the Alabama product still received a First-Team All-Pro selection. After a slow start to the season, Fitzpatrick kicked things up a notch. He finished the year with four interceptions, 11 passes defensed, 79 tackles, and a defensive touchdown. According to Pro Football Reference, quarterbacks only completed 50.0% of their throws when targeting the young safety.
Despite only receiving a Second-Team All-Pro selection from the AP, Bates was arguably the NFL’s best safety in 2020. PFF had the 23-year-old as their highest-rated safety with a 90.1 grade. Overlooked for his one-man heroism on a depleted Cincinnati defense, Bates amassed three interceptions, 15 passes defensed, and 109 tackles.
Metcalf is a freakish athlete, and he only recently turned 23 years old. Expectations for the Ole Miss product were high entering the year, but he outperformed even the loftiest of standards. Metcalf walked away from his second season in the NFL with 1,303 yards, a Second-Team All-Pro nomination, and an epic touchdown-saving tackle.
Barkley’s legend outweighs his production at this point. The 23-year-old Penn State product led the NFL in yards from scrimmage as a rookie, but the last two years haven’t shown much improvement. Barkley missed three games in 2019 before tearing his ACL in Week 2 of this season. The former second overall pick possesses All-Pro potential. However, he needs to stay on the field.
The LSU product set the record for receiving yards by a rookie, breaking Anquan Boldin’s nearly two-decade-old mark. Jefferson filled the shoes left by Stefon Diggs and created plenty of opportunities for veteran teammate Adam Thielen. For his miraculous debut season, Jefferson earned a Second-Team All-Pro selection.
The Packers owe a lot of their deep playoff run to Aaron Rodgers and his MVP season. However, Alexander and the defense deserve a lot of credit as well. The Louisville product finally had his long-awaited breakout season, receiving Second-Team All-Pro honors from the AP and a First-Team All-Pro nod from PFF.
5. Derwin James, S Los Angeles Chargers
James missed the entire 2020 season after only playing in five games in 2019. At 24 years old, the Florida State product has plenty of time to get his career back on track. As a rookie in 2018, James earned First-Team All-Pro honors with three interceptions, 13 passes defensed, 3.5 sacks, and 105 tackles. He’s a legitimate superstar.
Defensive ends paid a heavy price in 2020, dropping like flies. Nick and his brother Joey missed significant time. The younger Bosa suffered a torn ACL in Week 2, ending his second season before it even got going. As a rookie, Bosa amassed nine sacks and 45 quarterback pressures. He’s one of the most electrifying defenders in the entire NFL.
Injuries derailed McCaffrey’s season, limiting him to three games and 374 yards from scrimmage. The Panthers are currently rebuilding under head coach Matt Rhule, and the All-Pro running back is a big part of their plans. McCaffrey is only a year removed from producing 2,392 yards from scrimmage and 19 total touchdowns. Hopefully, he can stay healthy in 2021.
After 2019, some fans believed Allen wouldn’t make it as a starting quarterback. With criticism growing, the Wyoming product put together an MVP-caliber season. He rose from producing an 85.3 passer rating in 2019 to a 107.2 rating in 2020. That’s one of the largest jumps in NFL history. Assuming Allen maintains his production in future seasons, the 24-year-old could win an MVP in the 2020s.
In 2020, Nelson had the worst season of his historic, young career. However, the Notre Dame product still earned the third consecutive First-Team All-Pro selection to start his time in professional football. For reference, Hall of Fame guard Will Shields only earned First-Team All-Pro honors twice in his 14-year career. Nelson is on another level right now. Fans might only witness a guard of his caliber once every 20 years.