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ESPN Insider: NFL 25 Under 25 Rankings

Paul Cumberland

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From ESPN Insider.  Article is here: http://insider.espn.go.com/nfl/story/_/id/11254273/andrew-luck-no-1-ranking-top-25-players-25-nfl



It's great to be young in the NFL, but if you're a general manager, possessing talented young players is even better. Young talent is relatively cheap. Great young talent is productive and has a future.


Ranking Methodology

1. All players must be under age 25 as of Week 1 of the 2013 season.
2. Rookies aren't included.
3. Players are ranked based on overall talent, total production and the likelihood of future production - meaning health concerns and off-field issues matter.
4. Positional value is a big factor.


The list below ranks our Top 25 NFL players under age 25, beginning with a familiar face. Andrew Lucktops the list for a second consecutive season, but the guys ranked second through fourth at this point last offseason are too old to qualify. That means there's fresh talent near the top, including a No. 2 prospect who failed to appear in the Top 25 last offseason.

Here are the top 25 players under the age of 25 in the NFL:




Top 25 Under 25



1. Andrew Luck, QB, Indianapolis Colts

Most teams need quite a bit of help from their defenses and/or running games to post double-digit victory totals consistently. That is especially true for teams starting young QBs. Luck is the primary reason the Colts have been an exception: They've posted 11-5 records in each of Luck's first two seasons without a productive running back. They've done it with a defense that has ranked 28th in expected points added (EPA) during that span, ahead of only Minnesota, Oakland, Dallas and Jacksonville.

Why Luck at No. 1? He plays the most important position. He has shown he can carry a team by dropping back 41.9 times per game, the fourth-highest total in the league. While Luck has room for improvement, it's tough to find anything fundamentally wrong with his game or his approach. He entered the league as a prototype for the position. Luck is a short-timer on these types of lists, however. He turns 25 on Sept. 12.


2. Robert Quinn, DE, St. Louis Rams

Mel went into last season expecting Quinn to double his rookie sack total from five to 10. Quinn needed only eight games to accomplish that feat on his way to 19 sacks. There wasn't a more dominant outside rusher in the game, but Quinn also became an outstanding player against the run. The only negative to this point was a 2012 arrest on suspicion of drunken driving.

Quinn was a leading reason the Rams defeated two playoff teams in the 2013 regular season. His early sack and forced fumble on Luck facilitated Chris Long's touchdown return when the Rams upset the Colts in Indy. Later in the season, Quinn dominated New Orleans so thoroughly that Saints coach Sean Payton benched left tackle Charles Brown. One of the plays Quinn made in that game -- forcing Drew Brees to fumble after tight end Jimmy Graham chipped Quinn and guard Ben Grubbs fell on him -- ranks among the best you'll ever see.


3. Luke Kuechly, MLB, Carolina Panthers

The Panthers have fielded a top-five defense by major statistical measures since moving Kuechly into the starting lineup early in the 2012 season. They ranked among the six worst teams by those same measures over their previous 20 games. Carolina has done it by building around Kuechly, a three-down player and defensive signal-caller for the defending NFC South champs.

The great speed to the football Kuechly showed at Boston College has translated to the pro game. Some of the pre-draft talk centered around whether Kuechly's college stats for tackles were inflated. They were not. Kuechly was never an overachiever. He was all over the field in college and has been all over the field in the NFL.


4. Muhammad Wilkerson, DE, New York Jets

Wilkerson had 11 sacks and an interception while playing nearly 95 percent of the Jets' defensive snaps last season. Mel loved Wilkerson coming out of college and likes him as much as he likes any defensive lineman in the league, including J.J. Watt, who was second on this list last season. That's a strong opinion and one sure to meet some resistance after Wilkerson ranked 15th in Pro Football Focus grading for 3-4 defensive ends. Mel called him a nightmare for offensive linemen and someone he would consider placing as high as second on this list, right behind Luck.


5. Patrick Peterson, CB, Arizona Cardinals

Peterson went to three Pro Bowls and was a two-time first-team Associated Press All-Pro selection before his 24th birthday. He has not been a dominant punt returner since setting records as a rookie, and his play at cornerback has yet to become consistent. You won't find a better all-around athlete, however. Peterson has all the tools to become a great defensive back, and he's already good. Peterson checks in at No. 5 because he has played well already and has the size, speed, athletic ability, recovery speed and versatility to be great over the long haul.


6. Tyron Smith, T, Dallas Cowboys

The Cowboys needed a left tackle when they drafted Smith ninth overall in 2011. They got a good one, and should be set at the position for most of the next decade. Smith has missed just one game in three seasons. He is conservatively one of the 10 best tackles in the game (PFF had him ranked tied for seventh last season, with the recently retired Jordan Gross among those ahead of him). Smith is young enough to qualify for inclusion on this list next year, too.


7. Dontari Poe, NT, Kansas City Chiefs

The largest defensive linemen tend to come off the field regularly. They usually lack the conditioning and pass-rush ability to factor as more than situational players.

Poe defies convention. He played more snaps than any other interior defensive lineman in the league last season, and was on the field nearly 90 percent of the time on defense. He played another 11 percent on special teams. That is phenomenal staying power for a 346-pound player. Poe was productive, too, ranking 11th in PFF charting for interior defensive linemen.


8. Lavonte David, LB, Tampa Bay Buccaneers

There will never be another Derrick Brooks in Tampa Bay, but David has a shot at becoming the next-best thing. There are certainly similarities. Both dropped in their draft classes because neither had prototypical size for the position. David has shown an ability to stay on his feet amid congestion. He flows to the ball easily, possesses great recognition skills and consistently puts himself in position to make big plays at opportune times. The one penalty against the Jets last season was a killer, but it shouldn't define him. David easily belongs near the top of this list.


9. Alshon Jeffery, WR, Chicago Bears

Jeffery took a giant step forward last season, answering some of the questions that followed him into the league. Namely, could he separate from defenders down the field? The situation around Jeffery has also improved, putting him in position for continued success. The Bears have upgraded their offensive line. With Marc Trestman running the offense, they have gotten good production with and withoutJay Cutler. Defenses always must account for Brandon Marshall, a plus for Jeffery.


10. Robert Griffin III, QB, Washington Redskins

Griffin drops from fifth one year ago, and it was difficult finding the right spot to place him on this list. He wasn't right physically for much of last season and he never really got it going. Organizational issues worked against him. Griffin could have done a better job in all aspects. League insiders polled for the recent "QB Tiers" analysis were particularly harsh on Griffin as a leader and as a passer. Many of them said they would have been much more positive a year earlier. The feeling here is that the truth lies somewhere in between and that Griffin has enough going for him to warrant inclusion here -- for his talent, for what he showed in 2012 (he played at a borderline MVP level) and because of the importance of his position. He does suddenly have a lot more to prove.


11. Aldon Smith, OLB, San Francisco 49ers

On the field, Smith has averaged a league-leading 0.98 sacks per game since entering the NFL in 2011. Off the field, the question marks keep getting bigger. Will the league suspend him entering the 2014 season? Will Smith remain a high risk for continuing personal and legal problems? Smith turns 25 on Sept. 25 and has the talent to produce a Hall of Fame-type career. That is why he ranks so high on this list, but the non-football stuff is ominous.


12. Sheldon Richardson, DE, New York Jets

Richardson was the Associated Press Defensive Rookie of the Year in 2013, after dominating against the run while playing 80 percent of the Jets' defensive snaps. While Richardson is hardly a one-dimensional player, it was good to see ROY voters reward a player known mostly for his prowess as a run-defender. Richardson ranked second to Watt in PFF's cumulative grading for run defense by 3-4 defensive ends. He also demonstrated his athletic versatility by serving as a fullback in short-yardage situations, scoring a rushing touchdown.


13. Star Lotulelei, DT, Carolina Panthers

Lotulelei and fellow 2013 draft choice Kawann Short instantly upgraded the Panthers at defensive tackle, an investment that paid off for Kuechly and the other linebackers. Lotulelei ranked fifth among interior defensive linemen against the run in PFF grading. He played about 60 percent of the defensive snaps, a percentage that placed him around the top 30 at the position.


14. Keenan Allen, WR, San Diego Chargers

Allen often looked like a first-round pick on his college tape and played like one as a rookie third-round selection. He walked into a favorable situation featuring Philip Rivers and an offensive staff led by Mike McCoy and Ken Whisenhunt. Whisenhunt is gone, but we should expect continued solid production from Allen, who finished his rookie year with 461 third-down receiving yards, the second-highest figure in the NFL behind Anquan Boldin's 529.


15. T.Y. Hilton, WR, Indianapolis Colts

Hilton seemed underrated heading into the 2012 draft, but not any longer. He was the only receiver to embarrass the Seattle Seahawks last season, going for 140 yards and two touchdowns. Hilton added 327 yards and two touchdowns in two playoff games. He's exceptionally quick and extremely difficult to handle one-on-one. Few players go from zero to 60 as quickly as Hilton. He's made big plays and has become the go-to receiver for Luck.


16. Kenny Vaccaro, SS, New Orleans Saints

Too many players under consideration for this list are dealing with serious injuries. Vaccaro is one of them, but unlike some of the others, he's already been a full participant in offseason practices. Vaccaro enters camp as a starting safety after undergoing ankle surgery late in the 2013 season. His arrival last season played a role in the Saints' defensive improvement. He and newcomer Jairus Byrd give New Orleans one of the more capable safety tandems in the league.


17. Eddie Lacy, RB, Green Bay Packers

Lacy emerges as the top running back in the listings based on what he offers as a pure runner. The reigning offensive rookie of the year finished last season eighth in rushing yards, but that ranking was a little misleading. Lacy didn't get many opportunities from Week 5, but trailed only LeSean McCoy in rushing yards from that point forward. He was tied with Jamaal Charles for most rushing touchdowns (10) over that same span. Let's see what kind of progress he makes in the passing game.


18. Giovani Bernard, RB, Cincinnati Bengals

Bernard was third and Lacy fifth in PFF grading for the position last season. Lacy was much higher as a rusher, but Bernard was much higher in the passing game. Both deserve prominent placement on this list. Bernard didn't get as many rushing attempts and his yards per rushing attempt crashed over the final three games. But the Bengals are talking about a renewed commitment to the ground game under new offensive coordinator Hue Jackson, and that should help.


19. Larry Warford, G, Detroit Lions

Warford has quickly become one of the five or six best guards in the league. He was very underrated, but that will change when he signs his next contract. The pool of young guards figures to improve this season, as Jonathan Cooper returns from injury in Arizona. Unlike Cooper, who missed his rookie season, Warford has played and produced at a high level.


20. Bobby Wagner, MLB, Seattle Seahawks

Alec Ogletree was another young NFC West linebacker under consideration here. He's probably more dynamic than Wagner, but Wagner has been an important player on a Super Bowl-winning team with a great defense. He has done it more consistently to this point.


21. Josh Gordon, WR, Cleveland Browns

Gordon belongs in the top five on talent and production, but he could be facing a year-long suspension. Will he be in the league three years from now? His situation appears tenuous.

There is no question where Gordon stands otherwise. He has averaged 17.9 yards per reception for his career while catching passes from Brandon WeedenJason CampbellBrian Hoyer and Thaddeus Lewis. None of the other receivers on this top 25 list comes within two yards of that average. He accounted for 30.5 percent of the Browns' receiving yardage last season. The other young wideouts listed here accounted for no more than 23.4 percent, which was the figure for Keenan Allen.


22. Jurrell Casey, DT, Tennessee Titans

Casey collected 11 sacks as a defensive tackle with the versatility to move around. The Titans have a new defensive playbook, but they think Casey's production will continue at a high level. There are certainly better defensive tackles against the run. Inside pass-rush ability has value, however, and Casey has been a consistent producer in that area. He rarely has a bad game.


23. Michael Floyd, WR, Arizona Cardinals

It's tempting to wonder how much longer Larry Fitzgerald will be the unquestioned best receiver in Arizona. Fitzgerald has worked so hard on all aspects of his game, and it shows in his consistency as an all-around player, including as a blocker. Floyd is just getting started, but he quickly earned quarterback Carson Palmer's trust on 50-50 balls. That trust helped Arizona win in Seattle last season as Palmer found Floyd for the winning 31-yard touchdown late in the game.


24. Eric Reid, FS, San Francisco 49ers

Reid ranked first in Mel's rookie rankings after picking off Aaron Rodgers and otherwise holding up reasonably well during a tough opening-week draw. He finished the season with four interceptions, returning one of them 53 yards. Reid hit a few rough spots later in the season, as rookies tend to do. The big question for Reid is whether the concussions he suffered will affect his future.


25. Marcell Dareus, DT, Buffalo Bills

Dareus is a little bit like Gordon and Aldon Smith in that he'd rank much higher without all the off-field concerns raising questions about his maturity and long-term prospects. PFF graded Dareus as the sixth-best interior defensive lineman last season, giving him high marks against run and pass alike. We can all see he's a tremendous talent, and he has produced. But failing the Bills' conditioning test this week after a couple of offseason legal scrapes doesn't inspire confidence.


Also considered:

Kenny Stills, WR, New Orleans Saints

Travis Frederick, C, Dallas Cowboys
Alec Ogletree, LB, St. Louis Rams
Jonathan Cooper, OG, Arizona Cardinals
Tyrann Mathieu, S, Arizona Cardinals
Kiko Alonso, LB, Buffalo Bills
Jordan Reed, TE, Washington Redskins
David Bakhtiari, OT, Green Bay Packers
Mark Barron, S, Tampa Bay Buccaneers
Cordarrelle Patterson, WR, Minnesota Vikings
Chance Warmack, OG, Tennessee Titans
DeAndre Hopkins, WR, Houston Texans
Kendall Wright, WR, Tennessee Titans
Stephon Gilmore, CB, Buffalo Bills
Cordy Glenn, OT, Buffalo Bills
Dwayne Allen, TE, Indianapolis Colts
Vontaze Burfict, LB, Cincinnati Bengals
Chandler Jones, DE, New England Patriots
Le'Veon Bell, RB, Pittsburgh Steelers
Jarvis Jones, LB, Pittsburgh Steelers
Desmond Trufant, CB, Atlanta Falcons
Kyle Long, OG, Chicago Bears
Olivier Vernon, DE, Miami Dolphins

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