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Top 25 under 25 according to ESPN - tyecopeland - 11-29-2018

The NFL is increasingly a young man's game. Average ages for starters have plummeted since the 2011 labor agreement implemented a rookie wage scale (among other possible factors). With so many young players in prominent roles, there was no shortage of worthy candidates for my annual Top 25 Players Under Age 25 list. When one of the longtime personnel evaluators I consulted for the piece tried to find a corresponding list of players 32 and older, we struggled to find even 20 who were healthy, playing at a high level and not quarterbacks or specialists.
There was another discovery in putting together this list. The top offensive players were all very talented, of course, but in many cases, they also had highly acclaimed play designers putting them in position to maximize their abilities. Andy Reid and Sean McVay are the offensive designers for four of the top five offensive players. Sean Payton and Norv Turner call plays for the next two, and Matt Nagy coaches one of the others.
Here are the 25, supported in some cases with comments from NFL coaches and evaluators collected during the season and this week. Note that injuries are keeping Joey Bosa and O.J. Howard off the list for now. Stefon Diggs missed the cut because his 25th birthday arrives this week. Baker Mayfield was a consideration too, but could be a year away.

1. Patrick Mahomes, QB, Kansas City Chiefs

Turns 25: Sept. 17, 2020

With 37 touchdown passes, Mahomes is on pace to throw nearly 54 of them this season, which would break the record of 50 set by Tom Brady in 2007. Offense is up across the league, but Mahomes is still outpacing the other leading MVP candidates. Andrew Luck (32), Drew Brees (29), Philip Rivers (26) and Jared Goff (26) are his nearest challengers for scoring passes.

"He makes the same throws as Aaron Rodgers and is a great kid," an evaluator said. "He can do it from any platform. It's just fun to watch."



[Image: kc.png?w=110&h=110&transparent=true]2. Tyreek Hill, WR, Kansas City Chiefs

Turns 25: March 1, 2019

If a scientist in an NFL laboratory could combine Devin Hester with DeSean Jackson, would the new creation be as good as Hill?

"Tyreek Hill is a really elite return man and a really effective every-down wide receiver who is an elite deep threat and can also run all the special plays -- the jet sweeps, reverses, those things," a veteran coach said. "Can you name another guy like that? They also have a unique situation with the synergy between the back, the tight end, the wide receiver and the elite playcaller. You run out of skill defenders to take care of all the matchup problems."

[Image: lar.png?w=110&h=110&transparent=true]

3. Todd Gurley, RB, Los Angeles Rams

Turns 25: Aug. 3, 2019

Gurley leads the NFL in yards from scrimmage since entering the NFL in 2015. Like so many others high on this list, he's in an ideal situation.

"The value of coaching is just so obvious," an evaluator said. "Gurley had a good rushing year as a rookie, a bad rushing year after that, then he got McVay and is suddenly super-elite."



[Image: dal.png?w=110&h=110&transparent=true]4. Ezekiel Elliott, RB, Dallas Cowboys

Turns 25: July 22, 2020

Elliott ranks first in rushing yards and second to Gurley in scrimmage yards since his 2016 NFL debut. His 4.72 yards per carry rank second to Mark Ingram (4.97) among the 14 players with at least 500 carries the past three seasons.

Last summer, when I asked a defensive coordinator why he did not place Cowboys quarterback Dak Prescott in the top two tiers for my 2018 QB Tiers survey, he pointed to Elliott.

"When you have that run game, you are going to see simple single-high defenses, so there will not be combination coverages, no stuff where the coverage is going to change on the motion, because people are geared to stop your run game," the coordinator said. "Unless you have two man-child corners, there are going to be some open throws."

To some, that explains some of the value a top back can provide beyond what rushing statistics convey.

[Image: kc.png?w=110&h=110&transparent=true]5. Kareem Hunt, RB, Kansas City Chiefs

Turns 25: Aug. 6, 2020

Remember way back in the 2017 preseason, when the Chiefs lost running back Spencer Ware to a serious knee injury? I was in the Seattle press box for the Chiefs-Seahawks game that night and remember thinking Kansas City could be in some trouble at the position. A week earlier, while attending the Chiefs-Bengals preseason game mainly to see Mahomes, I had ridden in a stadium elevator packed with Chiefs fans wearing No. 27 jerseys. Could Hunt's own family have foreseen what the 2017 third-round pick would become?
"He has breakaway speed and unique receiving skills, and then is the beneficiary of a playcaller who knows how to use all the weapons," an exec said. "I'm just a huge Hunt fan. Like Christian McCaffrey, he runs and catches."


RE: Top 25 under 25 according to ESPN - tyecopeland - 11-29-2018

6. Alvin Kamara, RB, New Orleans Saints
Turns 25: Aug. 25, 2020

Should we stop talking about the running back spot being devalued? Backs adept at rushing, receiving and aligning all over the formation certainly have value.

"Back in the day, Mark Ingram would have been the lead guy as a better runner between the tackles, a traditional-type back," a personnel director said. "Kamara can line up anywhere on the field and do a lot of different things for you. He has to be high on the list for all the explosive game-changing plays he makes. He is a mismatch just about every week he plays."

7. Christian McCaffrey, RB, Carolina Panthers
Turns 25: June 7, 2021

The run on versatile backs continues. Did you see McCaffrey against Seattle last week? He accounted for 28 of the Panthers' 52 offensive touches and 237 of their 476 yards from scrimmage.

"He does everything really well," an evaluator said. "Do you overlook him because you say, 'Of course he can run and catch and pick up the blitz and make a guy miss in space'? Are you underrating him because you have seen it from him for so long, back to college, and that is just who he is? It makes him very good."


8. Danielle Hunter, DE, Minnesota Vikings
Turns 25: Oct. 29, 2019

This makes Hunter the best young defensive player in the league -- or at least among the best. His 37 career sacks are 11 more than any other current player younger than 25 can claim.

"He's a complete player who plays the run and is a difference-maker," a personnel director said. "He has already developed a great deal and has a long way he can still go."


9. Jared Goff, QB, Los Angeles Rams
Turns 25: Oct. 14, 2019

Goff is the rare quarterback who has been in only terrible or fantastic situations in terms of the support around him. That overnight change in environment makes Goff a little tougher to evaluate, but all agree that he is an accurate quarterback on the rise.

Goff leads the NFL in yards per pass attempt (9.3) among the 25 players with at least 300 attempts so far this season. He is also first in percentage of passes gaining more than 15 yards (23.4).


10. Myles Garrett, DE, Cleveland Browns
Turns 25: Dec. 29, 2020

Garrett is rising quickly after an injury-shortened 2017 rookie season. He has 10 sacks in 11 games, with three forced fumbles.

"He has become a difference-maker," an evaluator said. "Can you imagine if they had drafted Bradley Chubb to put with him?"


RE: Top 25 under 25 according to ESPN - tyecopeland - 11-29-2018

11. Deshaun Watson QB, Houston Texans
Turns 25: Sept. 14, 2020

Watson has thrown touchdown passes on 7.4 percent of his attempts, easily the highest rate through 17 starts by any player drafted over the past decade. Russell Wilson is second on that list. Mahomes has a higher percentage (8.7) but only 12 starts.

"We are talking about a quarterback with exceptional, rare escapability," a defensive coach said. "He can run full-speed and then backpedal when you get him, like Michael Vick, where you have guys wrapping their arms around nothing. Then he can accurately throw from everywhere. That is his game, and they are doing a good job with him."

12. Jamal Adams, S, New York Jets
Turns 25: Oct. 17, 2020

The sixth player chosen in the 2017 draft is holding up well against the players taken immediately ahead of him. (Mitchell Trubisky, Solomon Thomas, Leonard Fournette and Corey Davis were the four players selected between Garrett and Adams.)

"No. 33 [Adams] is the best player on their defense, and he has been in the league less than two years," an evaluator said. "He is someone you game plan for, who has an excellent feel for the game. We are talking about a stout, feisty player against the run who is incredible in pass defense. They blitz him and should because he can get ball carriers and quarterbacks down on the ground."


13. Ryan Ramczyk, T, New Orleans Saints
Turns 25: April 22, 2019

Finding pro-ready offensive linemen in the draft is not easy. The Saints had Ramczyk fall to them in the 32nd slot in the 2017 draft. More than one evaluator polled for this column lamented that his team did not find a way to land Ramczyk. This included one evaluator who wrongly thought Ramczyk was overrated heading into the draft, and another who said he knew he was making a mistake by selecting someone else.


14. Saquon Barkley, RB, New York Giants
Turns 25: Feb. 7, 2022

Barkley ranks third in yards from scrimmage behind Gurley and Elliott. He is making the first of what could be four appearances on this list. Yes, he is young.

"I would not put him near the very top of this list yet," an evaluator said, "but he is getting there. You can see why they are excited about him, no matter what you think about them not taking a QB."


15. Derwin James, S, Los Angeles Chargers
Turns 25: Aug. 3, 2021

James was hailed after the 2018 draft as a potential steal as the 17th overall choice. With two interceptions and 3.5 sacks, he has not disappointed.

"He does everything really well," an evaluator said. "He shoots up this list [in the future] when you see fumbles picked up for touchdowns, interceptions for touchdowns, those types of plays."


16. Laremy Tunsil, T, Miami Dolphins
Turns 25: Aug. 2, 2019

The Dolphins felt Tunsil's value when he left their game against Cincinnati and the offense suddenly imploded.

"Tunsil has a unique combination of height, weight and flexibility," an evaluator said. "He has the foundation to be good there for years to come. Very athletic."


17. JuJu Smith-Schuster, WR, Pittsburgh Steelers
Turns 25: Nov. 22, 2021

Smith-Schuster's career 1,972 yards receiving are 537 more than that of any other player selected in the 2017 draft. Among draft classmates, he trails only McCaffrey and Kamara in receptions and is tied with Cooper Kupp and O.J. Howard for the most receiving touchdowns, with 11.

Smith-Schuster has five career plays from scrimmage that gained at least 50 yards, matching the total for teammate Antonio Brown since the start of the 2017 season. Only the Chiefs' Hunt has more among players selected in the 2017 draft.

18. Tarik Cohen, RB, Chicago Bears
Turns 25: July 26, 2020

A fourth-round steal in 2017, Cohen leads the Bears in yards from scrimmage. He's tied for the Bears' team lead in touchdowns from scrimmage, with six. He also averages 12.4 yards per punt return on 26 chances.

"He does not have the speed of a Tyreek Hill, but he does bring a lot of quickness, he does not let the cold weather bother him, and he is a big reason for their 8-3 record," an exec said. "Now, you have to find ways to get him the ball, but he is a good runner, and they can throw him the screen on third-and-8, and he might break it. They need that explosiveness, and he gives it to them."


19. Joe Mixon, RB, Cincinnati Bengals
Turns 25: July 24, 2021

Mixon is a good, young player on a team that is heading south for the winter. He's averaging 101.8 yards rushing per game in nine games this season. Since 2001, only Cedric Benson (2009) has averaged more yards per game in a season among Bengals backs with at least 100 rushes.

"He is a dynamic back who is probably under the radar as one of the top five backs in the league," a personnel director said last month. "He is a good player who can do all things."


20. Kenny Clark, DT, Green Bay Packers
Turns 25: Oct. 4, 2020

Clark ranks second on the Packers in sacks, third in tackles and first in forced fumbles the past two seasons.

"Kenny Clark has taken his game to the next level," an evaluator said earlier this month. "He is a premier tackle. He is commanding double-teams, imposing his will on the offense. Teams really have to know where he's at."


21. Marshon Lattimore, CB, New Orleans Saints
Turns 25: May 20, 2021

Lattimore's six interceptions are tied for first with Damontae Kazee, Eddie Jackson and teammate Marcus Williams among players drafted in 2017 (Kazee and Jackson have aged out of this list). While Saints defensive coordinator Dennis Allen recently praised Lattimore for taking a more earnest approach to practice, evaluators thought he belonged this low on the list because of inconsistency.


22. T.J. Watt, OLB, Pittsburgh Steelers
Turns 25: Oct. 11, 2019

Watt's 10 sacks this season might rank second in his family, but the figure is tied for first with Garrett among players selected in the 2016, 2017 or 2018 drafts.


23. Bradley Chubb, OLB, Denver Broncos
Turns 25: June 24, 2021

Chubb leads all rookies with nine sacks this season and is on schedule to climb higher on this list in future seasons.

24. James Conner, RB, Pittsburgh Steelers
Turns 25: May 5, 2020

Including Conner gives the Steelers three players on this list. He ranks third behind Elliott and Gurley in rushing and is one of the most pleasant revelations in the league this season.


25. Yannick Ngakoue, DE, Jacksonville Jaguars
Turns 25: March 31, 2020

When the season began, cornerback Jalen Ramsey would have been the overwhelming favorite from the Jaguars to appear on this list. He has suffered through a down season, however, and so the honors go to his pass-rushing teammate.

Ngakoue has 26 sacks since entering the NFL as a third-round choice in 2016. That is more than any other player from the 2016 class. Bosa has 25 in 13 fewer games.


RE: Top 25 under 25 according to ESPN - asskickingboots - 11-29-2018

Mostly agree with this list, at least the names I know. Personally, I think Hunt is better than Zeke, but that may be my bias. Also Jamal Adams is good but I think he's getting some friendly NY media bias to be as high as he is.