NFL 25 Under 25: Best young players entering the 2021 season

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NFL 25 Under 25: Lamar Jackson, Chase Young headline 2021 young stars originally appeared on NBC Sports Washington

Even though Tom Brady continues to dominate the NFL at age 44, a bright crop of young talent is beginning to emerge across the league.

Patrick Mahomes, Josh Allen, Deshaun Watson, Christian McCaffrey, Jamal Adams, Myles Garrett and Quenton Nelson are all 25 years old, making them ineligible for this list. Still, from former MVPs and Pro Bowlers to 2021 draftees, the group of players under 25 remains stacked.

Here are the top 25 NFL players under 25 years old entering the 2021 season, organized by position:

Baltimore Ravens QB Lamar Jackson, age 24

The Ravens quarterback has more individual accomplishments than anyone on this list. He won the Heisman Trophy in 2016 at Louisville, then claimed the NFL MVP in 2019 -- his first full season as a starter. In his brief NFL career, postseason success has eluded Jackson. The Ravens are just 1-3 in his four postseason starts, a far cry from his 30-7 regular season record. As Jackson enters his third full season as a starter, the focus is on his passing ability and playoff results.

Arizona Cardinals QB Kyler Murray, age 24

Murray didn’t even plan to play professional football before he blew up at Oklahoma in 2018. The Oakland A’s held his MLB rights, and he was expected to join their minor league system. Instead, he won the Heisman Trophy and was drafted first overall in 2019 by the Arizona Cardinals. Murray has continued to impress since entering the NFL, emerging as one of the league’s premier dual-threat quarterbacks. The Cardinals have yet to make the playoffs with Murray under center, though they did improve to 8-8 last season.

Cincinnati Bengals QB Joe Burrow, age 24

A torn ACL derailed Burrow’s promising 2020 rookie season, but he’s expected to return for Week 1 in 2021. In 10 games last year, Burrow had 16 total touchdowns and 2,688 passing yards. The Bengals still struggled, going just 2-7-1 in Burrow’s starts. Cincy made some key additions this offseason -- Ja’Marr Chase, Trey Hendrickson and Mike Hilton, among others. Combine those players with a healthy Burrow and the Bengals could be in line for a big improvement before the quarterback turns 25 in December.

Los Angeles Chargers QB Justin Herbert, age 23

If it weren’t for a mistake by a team doctor while tending to Tyrod Taylor, Herbert maybe never would’ve seen the field for the Chargers during his rookie season. Instead, Herbert started 15 games and set numerous rookie records en route to winning the 2020 Offensive Rookie of the Year. The former Oregon Duck was drafted sixth overall last year, and he still outplayed all expectations. Herbert was sixth in the NFL in passing yards, fourth in passing yards per game and 10th in passing touchdowns -- and he doesn’t even turn 24 until next March.

Jacksonville Jaguars QB Trevor Lawrence, age 21

Lawrence has earned a spot on this list despite not playing an NFL regular-season game yet. The No. 1 overall pick in 2021 is poised for a long, successful career with the Jaguars after an incredible run at Clemson. In three seasons, Lawrence had 10,098 passing yards, 108 total touchdowns and 17 interceptions while going 34-2 as a starter. The Tigers made the College Football Playoffs all three years, winning the national title in 2018. Lawrence, who turns 22 in October, has since been hyped as one of the best quarterback prospects in recent NFL history.

New York Giants RB Saquon Barkley, age 24

Since missing 14 games last season due to a torn ACL, Barkley has become a somewhat forgotten young star. Well, it’s time to start remembering the Giants running back as he returns for his fourth season. The former second overall pick had over 1,400 scrimmage yards in each of his first two seasons, totaling 23 touchdowns in his first 31 career games. Barkley averaged just 1.8 yards per carry on 19 attempts last season before getting injured, so 2021 could be make or break as he graduates from the 25 under 25 club.

Las Vegas Raiders RB Josh Jacobs, age 23

Jacobs has been a workhorse for Jon Gruden’s Raiders over his first two NFL seasons. The Alabama alum has topped 265 touches (rushing attempts and receptions) and 1,300 scrimmage yards in both 2019 and 2020. Jacobs’ yards per attempt dropped from 4.8 to 3.9 from Year 1 to Year 2, but he’s still been one of the most consistent running backs in football since entering the league.

Indianapolis Colts RB Jonathan Taylor, age 22

There was some concern about Taylor’s high usage in college as he entered the NFL last season. The Colts running back quelled those worries with a strong stretch over the second half of his rookie campaign. He finished the season with 1,468 scrimmage yards and 12 total touchdowns before rushing for 78 yards and a score in the Colts’ playoff loss. Even with Marlon Mack and Nyheim Hines sharing time in the backfield, Taylor is the undisputed RB1 in Indy this season.

Tennessee Titans WR AJ Brown, age 24

The 51st overall pick in 2019, Brown has produced since first stepping on the field for the Titans. Brown made gradual improvements from Year 1 (52 catches, 1,051 receiving yards, eight touchdowns) to Year 2 (70 catches, 1,075 receiving yards, 11 touchdowns) as he blossomed into Tennessee’s No. 1 receiver. With Julio Jones now in town, Brown could be even better as defenders shift more focus to the star veteran.

Seattle Seahawks WR DK Metcalf, age 23

Metcalf is another 2019 second-round wide receiver from Ole Miss who has quickly become a top-tier weapon. In his rookie season, Metcalf broke the NFL rookie record for receiving yards in a playoff game (160) in the Seahawks’ win over the Eagles. Then, he followed that up by breaking the franchise single-season receiving yards record (1,303) -- once held by Pro Football Hall of Famer Steve Largent (1,287) -- in his second season.

Minnesota Vikings WR Justin Jefferson, age 22

The fifth wide receiver selected in 2020 undoubtedly had the best rookie season of the bunch. Jefferson set the record for most receiving yards by a rookie in NFL history (1,400), adding 88 receptions and seven touchdowns for the Vikings. The LSU alum seamlessly stepped in and replaced longtime Vikings receiver Stefon Diggs, who Minnesota traded for the pick used to select Jefferson. He’s going to be on the list for a couple more years after just turning 22 in June.

Dallas Cowboys WR CeeDee Lamb, age 22

If it weren’t for Dak Prescott’s season-ending injury in Week 5, Lamb might’ve produced similarly to Jefferson. Lamb, the 17th overall pick in 2020, had two 100-yard games in five starts with Prescott and zero in 11 games with Andy Dalton. The Oklahoma product still finished with 935 receiving yards, 74 receptions and five touchdowns on the year, but it’s fair to wonder if his ceiling is much higher in years to come with Prescott under center.

Atlanta Falcons TE Kyle Pitts, age 20

The second and final 2021 rookie to make the list, Pitts was the highest-drafted tight end in NFL history when the Falcons picked him fourth overall. Pitts shot up draft boards last year at Florida, with 770 receiving yards and 12 touchdowns in eight games. First-year Falcons coach Arthur Smith could transform Atlanta’s offense with Pitts and Calvin Ridley leading the way.

Tampa Bay Buccaneers OT Triston Wirfs, age 22

Three tackles were taken before Wirfs in the 2020 draft, and while all three had flashes of brilliance, none did it on the biggest stage like Wirfs. Wirfs started every game at right tackle, protecting Tom Brady on the way to a Super Bowl victory during his age-21 season. He didn’t miss a snap in any of the Bucs’ 20 regular-season and playoff games and allowed just one sack, per PFF.

New England Patriots OG Michael Onwenu, age 23

Another 2020 rookie, Onwenu had no acclaim entering his first season with the Patriots as a sixth-round pick. The Michigan alum quickly fit into Bill Belichick’s plans, starting all 16 games -- some at guard, some at tackle. He projects to play guard full-time in Year 2 after the Patriots re-acquired Trent Brown, but he’s capable at either position depending on injuries and availability. The 23-year-old will be a bargain for the Patriots over the next three years.

San Francisco 49ers DE Nick Bosa, age 23

Bosa -- like Barkley -- played just two games in 2020 before tearing his ACL. But the injury doesn’t mean we can overlook his remarkable rookie season for the 49ers. The 2019 second overall pick totaled 47 tackles, nine sacks, 16 tackles for loss and 25 quarterback hits as he won Defensive Rookie of the Year. The 49ers made it all the way to Super Bowl LIV before losing to the Chiefs -- they went just 5-9 in the 14 games without Bosa in 2021.

Carolina Panthers DE Brian Burns, age 23

Burns improved exactly how a young player should over his first two seasons, with higher totals in tackles (25 to 58), sacks (7.5 to 9.0), tackles for loss (five to eight), quarterback hits (16 to 21) and forced fumbles (one to three). He turned 23 in April and should be patrolling the Panthers’ defensive line for years as they rebuild the roster around him. The accolades haven’t come yet for Burns, but that will all change in due time.

Washington DE Chase Young, age 22

One of the best defensive prospects in recent memory lived up to the hype as a rookie. Young, picked No. 2 overall in 2020 by Washington, had 7.5 sacks, four forced fumbles and three fumbles recovered despite playing through a groin strain early in the year. He won NFC Defensive Player of the Month in December and was named Defensive Rookie of the Year after the season. Washington’s defense carried the franchise back to the playoffs for the first time since 2015, and Young was one of the catalysts.

San Francisco 49ers LB Fred Warner, age 24

The 70th overall pick in 2018 continues to outplay expectations, and he was rewarded with a record-breaking five-year extension this offseason. Warner won’t turn 25 until November, but he already has three seasons of 118 or more total tackles. He’s yet to miss a game in three years for the 49ers and was a crucial part of their NFC championship team in 2019. Warner was named to the First-Team All-Pro and Pro Bowl in 2020.

Chicago Bears LB Roquan Smith, age 24

After a slight regression from Year 1 to Year 2, Smith reset his value with a monster third season in 2020. He totaled career-highs in tackles (139), tackles for loss (18), quarterback hits (6) and interceptions (2). The Bears could be in the spotlight more when the Justin Fields era begins, and Smith’s talent will be on full display. Smith will be one of the next in line for a huge extension as his rookie deal winds down.

Tampa Bay Buccaneers LB Devin White, age 23

As the stakes heightened for the Bucs last season, White’s game only elevated. The second-year pro had 38 tackles, two interceptions and two fumbles recovered in three playoff games, including 12 tackles and an interception in Super Bowl LV. White did all that at just 22 years old, meaning he could actually be even better as the Bucs look to repeat as champions in 2021.

Cleveland Browns CB Denzel Ward, age 24

Ward’s rookie season was probably his best so far, but he’s remained a reliable player throughout his three-year career. The Browns finally broke their 18-year playoff drought in 2020 with help from Ward, who totaled 46 tackles, two interceptions and a career-high 18 passes defended. He’ll finally graduate from this list when he turns 25 next April following his fourth NFL season.

Green Bay Packers CB Jaire Alexander, age 24

Alexander was selected 14 picks below Ward in the 2018 draft and he’s arguably been the better player through three years. He was targeted 80 times, allowing just 41 catches, during his breakout 2020 season. Alexander was named to the Second-Team All-Pro and Pro Bowl as the Packers secured the top seed in the NFC playoffs. Few corners in the game can cover their man like Alexander, and, like Ward, he won’t turn 25 until after the 2021 season.

Pittsburgh Steelers FS Minkah Fitzpatrick, age 24

Since being traded from the Dolphins to the Steelers in 2019, Fitzpatrick has established himself as one of the game’s best safeties. He has made consecutive Pro Bowls and First-Team All-Pros, snagging nine interceptions (two returned for a TD) in 30 games as a Steeler. Fitzpatrick is a playmaker who seems to always be in the right spot at the right time. Some things just aren’t teachable.

Cincinnati Bengals FS Jessie Bates, age 24

If you don’t know who Jessie Bates is yet, it’s time to learn. The Bengals safety is among the most underrated players in the league. Bates, a 2018 second-rounder, has topped 100 total tackles in each of his three seasons, with three interceptions each year. He’s a more complete safety than anyone in football, and it’s hard to argue against him resetting the safety market on his second contract.