Who are the most promising rising stars in the NFL? Nick Shook compiled a roster of the top players under 25 years old heading into the 2021 season.
NOTE: To be eligible, players must be younger than 25 years old on Sept. 9, the day the season kicks off.
It became clear during this exercise that a good portion of the NFL's top young talent is made up of 25-year-olds. So, we don't have Patrick Mahomes, who turned 25 in September, available to us. Of those who did qualify, Jackson was the clear choice. He's the only player in NFL history to post 7,000-plus passing yards and 2,500-plus rushing yards in his first three seasons. It's tough to argue with the candidacy of this former MVP.
Taylor's explosive second half of last season earned him a spot here. He beat out the likes of Saquon Barkley because, well, Taylor was available to play last year while Barkley missed all but two games due to injury. Taylor led rookies in rushing yards with 1,169 and finished third in the entire league in the category, doing so while seeing the second-most touches among all rookies (268). He also became one of just 25 rookies in NFL history to rush for 1,100-plus rushing yards and score 10 or more rushing touchdowns. Do you know who else is in that group? Barry Sanders, Earl Campbell and Adrian Peterson. It was a heck of a start for the next star running back in Indianapolis.
Jacobs' per-carry average wasn't great in 2020 (3.9), but we can't overlook the fact that he ranks fifth in rushing yards since the start of the 2019 season (2,215). He's also forced the third-most missed tackles in the NFL since 2019 with 120, according to Pro Football Focus. As we mentioned in the Jonathan Taylor section, Saquon Barkley might have held this spot on the All-Under-25 team had he not missed all but two games in 2020.
Brown is a beast. He led the Titans in receptions, receiving yards and receiving touchdowns in 2020, routinely bullying opposing defenders and racking up YAC (yards after the catch) with 434, per Next Gen Stats. Only one player -- Tyreek Hill -- has been on the same level as Brown when it comes to scoring on the big play over the past couple seasons. The two each have nine touchdowns of 40-plus yards since 2019, the most in the NFL in that span. Oh, and Brown is getting a new running mate in future Hall of Famer Julio Jones in 2021. Prepare for rampant thievery of lunch money.
It appeared to be a daunting challenge entering the season, but Jefferson couldn't have done a better job of replacing Stefon Diggs in 2020. The wideout's 1,400 receiving yards were the most by a rookie in the Super Bowl era. He'll need to replicate his production from the 2020 campaign in 2021 to surpass Odell Beckham Jr. for the most receiving yards in a player's first two seasons in the Super Bowl era. It's quite a task, but if Jefferson taught us one thing last season (other than how to hit the Griddy), it's that he won't shy away from great expectations.
The 2020 season very quickly became a breakout year for the big-bodied receiver who once broke into tears while asking Pete Carroll why the Seahawks took so long to draft him. Defenders tasked with covering Metcalf were the ones doing the crying in 2020. He racked up 1,303 receiving yards and 10 touchdowns last season, finishing as one of four players with 1,200-plus receiving yards and 10-plus receiving touchdowns. Metcalf's yardage total topped Pro Football Hall of Famer Steve Largent's single-season mark of 1,287, breaking Seattle's franchise record. He's also one of only three players in the Super Bowl era to post 2,500-plus receiving yards and 20-plus receiving touchdowns through their first two seasons (including playoffs). The other two players in that group: Hall of Famer Randy Moss and superstar Odell Beckham Jr.
Our options at tight end were fairly thin, so why not go with a 2020 Pro Bowler? Hockenson enjoyed a relative breakout in 2020, finishing third in receiving yards among tight ends behind established stars Travis Kelce and Darren Waller. Lions tight ends coach Ben Johnson thinks it's just the beginning for the 2019 draft's eighth overall pick, recently telling reporters "there's plenty of meat still on the bone" with Hockenson, and adding that "the sky's the limit for this kid." What is, in fact, the limit for Hockenson? We'll leave that to the future, but for now, he's the best tight end under 25, and it might not be long before he's considered one of the premier players at the position, regardless of age.
The offensive line is a little more difficult to fill out for this exercise because typically linemen who are successful early in their NFL careers spend four years in college, shortening their professional window before they reach 25 years old. In many cases, linemen need that fourth year to complete their development both physically and in their technique. Becton, who entered the draft after three seasons at Louisville, is a bit of an outlier, at least when it comes to size (6-foot-7, 363 pounds). He dazzled with his massive frame and strength early in his first season with the Jets, but was hampered by injuries. He wasn't the dominant tackle you might expect to see take a spot on a list such as this, ranking 31st in overall grade, per Pro Football Focus, but he has plenty of remaining potential. He's still just 22 years old, meaning he'll likely land here again a year from now as long as he can stay on the field.
Wirfs was the fourth tackle taken in a draft rich at the position (two spots after Becton), but he almost immediately proved to be capable of locking down the right side of the line in Tampa as a rookie. Wirfs allowed only one sack on 851 pass-blocking snaps as a rookie, per PFF, and he morphed into a bit of a bully as the season progressed. Wirfs can improve in the run blocking department, but he sure lived up to first-round expectations in 2020.
A sixth-round pick in 2020, Onwenu blossomed into a dependable blocker as a rookie. He was primarily a right tackle in 2020, but he's listed as a guard here because that's where he's likely to play in 2021 following a reunion between New England and tackle Trent Brown. Onwenu is a prime example of what effective scouting can do for a team. In this instance, the Patriots unearthed a late-round gem who projects to be a rock-solid blocker for years to come.
Like Onwenu, Lewis was a bit of a revelation in his first season. He started all 16 games, becoming one of two rookie O-linemen to play 500 or more pass-blocking snaps and allow three or fewer sacks in 2020 (joining fellow All-Under-25 Team member Tristan Wirfs). Lewis was excellent as a road grader, earning the fifth-best run-blocking grade (83.5) among guards in 2020, per PFF. Lewis' strong debut drew praise from the Pro Football Writers of America, who selected him as a member of their All-Rookie Team.
The 2019 second-round pick has started all 35 games in which he's appeared (including playoffs), and he was highly dependable in 2020, allowing just 15 total pressures and one sack on 677 pass-blocking snaps. When early picks hit like McCoy has, it makes sustaining success significantly easier for perennial contenders like New Orleans.
Like Saquon Barkley, Bosa missed all but two games of the 2020 season with an ACL tear, but his Defensive Rookie of the Year campaign and sky-high potential still stand as a stronger case than others considered (i.e., Brian Burns). Bosa was only the second rookie to post nine or more sacks, 15-plus tackles for loss and 25-plus QB hits since 2006. The other player in that elite club? Von Miller. We expect Bosa to resume his journey in 2021 as the same problem-causing edge rusher who recorded four sacks in the postseason in 2019.
Young finished with 7.5 sacks as a rookie and likely would've had more had he not been forced to fight through a groin injury suffered early in the season. He still won the Defensive Rookie of the Year award after becoming the first rookie with 10-plus QB hits, 10 or more tackles for loss and three or more fumble recoveries since Clay Matthews in 2009. Young was one of just six players with at least four forced fumbles and 10 or more tackles for loss in 2020, joining the likes of Aaron Donald and last year's selection for this spot, Myles Garrett. It seems as if Young is only just getting started in his promising career.
While some fans were likely checking in on the Jets solely to see where they stood in the Trevor Lawrence sweepstakes in 2020, Williams was quietly blossoming into a menace on the interior. The second-year defender stuffed rushing attempts at a rate of 7.1 percent, the highest in the league, per Next Gen Stats (min. 260 snaps). Williams recorded seven of his 9.5 career sacks in 2020, showing signs he could be developing into an interior pressure dynamo. His biggest hurdle at this point is staying on the field. Williams has missed three games in each of his two seasons, but if he can put together a full season, he'll be included on lists much more prestigious than this one soon enough.
Simmons took a big step in Year 2 after getting a late start as a rookie due to an injury he suffered while training for the draft. He recorded three of his five career sacks in 2020, finishing second on the Titans in QB hits with 14. This is a bit of an under-the-radar selection as Simmons has yet to become a household name, but he's trending toward lofty status.
Warner is the premier linebacker of this age group, and frankly, it's not all that close between him and the next player on this team. Warner was the only linebacker to make Next Gen Stats' ranking of the top 10 coverage defenders of 2020, posting numbers that were simply freakish for a second-level defender. He had the highest PFF coverage grade among all linebackers (91.1), and the second-highest mark among all players regardless of position. His first-team All-Pro selection was well-deserved, and it's about time the 49ers reward him with a new deal.
The Bucs' Devin White was also considered for this spot, but Smith wins out because he was more effective in coverage than the darling defender of the 2020 postseason. Smith set career-high marks in tackles and tackles for loss in 2020, joining White as the only two players with 125 or more tackles and four or more sacks last season. The difference between the two players is in Smith's larger body of work and his stellar coverage numbers, which landed among the league's best.
Alexander has steadily grown into a stud cover corner over the first three seasons of his career. He's seen his catch rate allowed over expectation jump from +7.2 percent in his first campaign to -7 percent in 2020. He closes as quickly as any corner in the league, and landed at No. 2 in our ranking of the top 10 coverage defenders of 2020 based on Next Gen Stats.
Ward posted the league's second-best tight-window rate at 40.5 percent (min. 40 targets), trailing only Jaire Alexander in the category. Known for having -- in the words of the inimitable Mike Mayock -- oily hips, Ward excels at staying in the hip pocket of pass catchers from snap to whistle. He's also reliable when it comes to making a play on the ball, leading all qualifying corners in ballhawk rate last season, per Next Gen Stats. If the Browns are smart, Ward will be in Cleveland for a long time.
Fitzpatrick makes an appearance on this list for the second year in a row. He's one of only two players with 10 or more interceptions and three or more returned for a touchdown since 2018, joining Marcus Peters in this rare company. Fitzpatrick allowed the lowest completion percentage (45.5%) in the NFL last season, per Next Gen Stats (min. 30 targets). His ballhawk rate (the percentage of targets where the nearest defender made a pass defensed or interception) of 33.3 percent ranked third in the league, painting a picture of a complete safety with even more room to grow. It's truly remarkable that Fitzpatrick has done all of this and won't turn 25 until November.
Bates is consistently among the leaders in Next Gen Stats' coverage metrics, and he's established himself as the heart of Cincinnati's secondary in just three seasons. Bengals fans would have right to be upset if he's not mentioned among the league's best at the position. No worries here, though, because he's not being bumped off the list for anyone -- not even Antoine Winfield Jr., who is just beginning his own promising career. Bates is the only player in the NFL with 300-plus tackles and 30 or more passes defensed since 2018. If that isn't the mark of a complete safety, I don't know what is.
Sneed was a weapon for the Chiefs in his first season, one capable of being deployed in a variety of situations and producing a positive outcome. Line him up on the line and watch him register a QB pressure. Move him into the slot and wait for him to make a play on a pass over the middle. Move him outside if you need to, and he might just haul in an interception. He did so three times as a rookie while recording seven passes defensed, 41 tackles, two sacks and three quarterback hits. The guy can do it all -- including shutting down the passing attack. He allowed the third-lowest completion percentage (46.5%) among all defenders (minimum 30 targets). And to think, 2020 was just his first season.
Blankenship ranked fifth in the league in field goals made with 32 in 2020. He was perfect from chip shot range (10 of 10 from 20-29 yards), nearly perfect from 30-39 yards (12 of 13) and posted a long of 53 yards. The group of young kickers isn't exactly a packed one, and Blankenship rose to the top as a rookie.
The Lions' Jack Fox was a close second to Bailey, who earned his first All-Pro and Pro Bowl honors in 2020. Bailey finished second in punts dropped inside the 20 with 31, trailing Seattle's Michael Dickson by one while also punting six fewer times. Perhaps most impressively, Bailey allowed just 71 return yards for the entire season (sixth fewest). The quick math tells us returners averaged less than a yard and a half gained per Bailey punt. That's elite production from the Patriots' punter.
Anyone who thought Harris would be a one-year wonder were proven wrong in 2020. Sure, he didn't return a punt for a touchdown like he did as a rookie and missed time with a neck injury, but he was even more effective on a per-return basis, elevating his average from 9.4 yards as a rookie to 12.2 in Year 2. He was on pace to finish among the top 10 in both punt return average and kickoff return average prior to his injury. Harris also became more of a factor in the passing game, catching 20 passes for 186 yards and a touchdown after making just 6 grabs for 24 yards in 2019. Harris was able to get his foot in the door in his rookie year, and now he's kicked it open.