In today’s NFL, younger is considered better. Rookies from kickers to quarterbacks come in and start right away. Many of these players are under 25 years old and have at least one year under their belt – they could be primed for a breakout season. Others, such as Julio Jones (age 24), have already had their breakout years.
In this younger, faster NFL, which players under 25 stand out? I’ve compiled a list of the top 15 players that have proved to be worthy of making this list. In order to qualify for consideration, a player must be under 25 by the season opener on Sept. 5.
Without further ado:
1. J.J. Watt, DE, Houston: Watt was arguably the most dominant player in the NFL in 2012. His 20.5 sacks led the league last season, along with a mind-blowing 16 passes defended – 5 of them led to interceptions. This was all while Watt was wearing a brace on his left arm, still recovering from a dislocated elbow. The thought that Watt was not 100 percent last year should scare quarterbacks around the league. The best defensive player in the league earns the number one spot.
2. Von Miller, OLB, Denver: Pass rush is all about speed in today’s NFL. Von Miller’s combination of a relentless motor and speed to get to the quarterback should give opposing offensive lines and coordinators nightmares. Miller has cemented himself as premier pass rusher along with J.J. Watt.
3. Andrew Luck, QB, Indianapolis: What did Luck not do on the field last season? He led his team on seven(!) game winning drives, led his team to a nine-game improvement from the previous year, and took the Colts to the playoffs, playing a majority of games under an interim head coach. This was with the 26th ranked defense and the 22nd ranked rushing game in the NFL. Luck is the best and most clutch quarterback under 25 in the game.
4. Julio Jones, WR, Atlanta: Normally, scouts don’t grade drafts until three years after that draft has taken place. But if there was to be a winner of the 2011 draft, that team would have to be the Atlanta Falcons, making a blockbuster trade to select Julio Jones. His combination of speed, ball skills, and route-running ability make him one of the best receivers in the NFL. He and A.J. Green (who will be 25 before the season starts) are the next wave of top-tier receivers in the league.
5. Robert Griffin III, QB, Washington: Just like Andrew Luck, what did RGIII not do last season? He resurrected a moribund franchise and, like Luck did, took his team to the playoffs. Although durability may be a concern, he has the willingness to learn and protect himself in the future. Griffin possesses a perfect skillset, one that effectively combines his world-class speed, accuracy, pocket presence, football intelligence, and intangibles. Griffin and Luck, as well as Russell Wilson, are the next wave of great quarterbacks.
6. Aldon Smith, DE, San Francisco: Smith would’ve placed directly after J.J. Watt and Von Miller on this list had his production not slipped when Justin Smith was injured. However, he is a solid, young player who should only improve under arguably the best defense in the league on the Pacific coast.
7. Joe Haden, CB, Cleveland: Just like Aldon Smith, Haden could’ve been higher on the list. He was suspended four games in 2012 for use of Adderall and missed time due to injury. Haden is only 24, though, and during the time that he has been able to stay on the field, he has quietly established himself as a shutdown corner.
8. Russell Wilson, QB, Seattle: “He’s too short. He’s too dang short.” In 2012, Wilson proved every scout wrong. Wilson has all of the aspects of a great quarterback except the height, but he compensates for that with his mobility and football intelligence. Aided by a great running game and one of the best defenses in the league, Seattle is a legitimate contender in 2013 with Wilson at the helm.
9. Cam Newton, QB, Carolina: He is ranked behind Luck, Griffin, and Wilson solely because he hasn’t been able to elevate his team like the three second-year quarterbacks have. 2013 could be the year that he does – he possesses all the physical tools a quarterback could wish to have. Newton needs to make the right decisions on the field and stay cool, calm, and collected. If he does, the Panthers are in for a big year.
10. Patrick Peterson, CB/PR, Arizona: He’s fast, versatile, and durable. Peterson is a dangerous returner and skilled cornerback who can stay with any receiver. He is towards the bottom of this list because of his slight drop in production last season, but this is partly due to the fact that Arizona’s offense couldn’t stay on the field. Peterson is poised for a breakout year in 2013.
11. Luke Kuechly, ILB, Carolina: Kuechly is a tacking machine inside for the Panthers. As a rookie, he led the league – yes, the league – in tackles, with 164. He led a much-improved Panthers defense in 2012. In 2013, Kuechly has the chance to establish himself as one of the best linebackers in the league alongside Patrick Willis with Ray Lewis and Brian Urlacher leaving the game.
12. Eric Berry, S, Kansas City: Berry bounced back nicely in 2012 after his 2011 campaign was ended when he tore his anterior cruciate ligament. He is a hard-hitting player who drew comparisons to late Redskins safety Sean Taylor. Berry is one of the best at his positions and should continue to grow and improve on a team that can only improve after having the first pick in the draft in 2012.
13. Randall Cobb, WR/KR/PR, Green Bay: Cobb is a versatile player who has the ability to make good things happen when the ball is in his hands, whether that is throwing a smoke screen to him or simply handing the ball off. Cobb’s agility and lateral quickness impress, and he should only improve and receive more touches with Greg Jennings out of the picture in Green Bay.
14. Rob Gronkowski, TE, New England: Gronkowski falls to number 14 because of his durability concern. When healthy, he is as good as any pass-catcher in the game, but he needs to find a way to stay on the field. Gronkowski should be back for the start of the 2013 season and could evolve into Tom Brady’s primary target after losing Wes Welker to free agency.
15. Alfred Morris, RB, Washington: Many experts degrade Morris because they think he can only excel under a Mike Shanahan-run system or because they think his numbers are skewed as a result of the zone-read option the Redskins run. However, Morris is a powerful running back with great vision and excellent cutback ability, one that can thrive under any system. Morris completes this list of the top 15 players under 25 years old.
Honorable Mentions: Jason Pierre-Paul, DE, New York; Doug Martin, RB, Tampa Bay; Trent Richardson, RB, Cleveland; Earl Thomas, S, Seattle; Aaron Hernandez, TE, New England; Bobby Wagner, ILB, Seattle; Dez Bryant, WR, Dallas.