Top 25 NFL players under age of 25: Goff only QB to make it, two Saints rank in top five

If you're ever feeling depressed about the state of the NFL, do yourself a favor by wiping your mind of anything tangibly related to the catch rule, the quality of offensive line play, the Chargers' kicking situation, and Christian Hackenberg by pulling up all 32 rosters and sorting each of them by age. After getting over the initial wave of depression that usually hits when you realize how much younger than you the vast majority of players are -- what are we even doing with our lives, man? -- you'll feel better knowing about all of the players we'll have the pleasure of watching for the next decade-plus.      

As the offseason slogs along -- it's somehow only been like three weeks since the draft -- it's time to look ahead to the future of the NFL by answering a simple question that's difficult to answer: Who are the best young players in the NFL? To answer that question, we decided to rank the top 25 players under the age of 25. 

So, here's where I need to say that there are a crap ton of incredible players under the age of 25, which makes compiling the list rather difficult. To begin, I visited every team's roster, sorted by age, and jotted down the names of players who I thought could have a chance of sticking on the list. By the time I was finished with that portion of the process, I had written down 59 names. I narrowed down that list to 32 players pretty easily, but that's when the trouble began. 

Keanu Neal or Deion Jones? Reuben Foster or Jordan Howard? Myles Jack or Kendall Fuller? Jared Goff or Deshaun Watson

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Giphy / The Wolf of Wall Street

They weren't many easy choices, but after a couple hours, I had my list of 25 names. Or so I thought. It turns out, Cody Whitehair is already 25 years old. Who knew? It took me another 15 or so minutes to figure out how to replace Whitehair and how to reorder the list. Finally, I had it. A list of 25 names, which you can find below.

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But before we get started, a couple of notes:

That's why they're not on this list. 

Also of note:

  • Deshaun Watson has played in seven career games.
  • Josh McCown threw for 1,809 yards, 13 touchdowns, one interception, and a 109.8 passer rating over a seven-game stretch in 2013.

That's why he -- Watson, not the 38-year-old McCown -- barely missed the cut. As for quarterbacks like Jameis Winston and Marcus Mariota, who are also not present on the list, it's not even clear if they're top-25 (in hindsight, I probably should've written top-15) NFL quarterbacks at this point. That's why they're not on the list.

One more note:

  • Players entering the league this coming season did not qualify.

Nobody has any idea which rookies will flop and which rookies will shine. So, it's impossible to rank them among their peers. That's why they're not included in the group below.

OK, onto the list, which will almost definitely infuriate nobody (age in parentheses).

25. Bears RB Jordan Howard (23)

Up until the last minute, I had 49ers linebacker Reuben Foster slotted in at this spot. But at the final moment, I decided to bump Foster off the list for Howard. It's not that Foster isn't a good player. According to PFF, he graded out as the fourth-best linebacker in football last season, placing behind Bobby WagnerLavonte David and Luke Kuechly. It's just that, he needs to prove he can stay on the field and produce over the course of a larger sample size before he makes his way onto a list like this. To this point, injuries and troubling off-the-field incidents have overshadowed his production on the field. He played in only 10 games last season.

As for Howard, he's been a productive player for two straight seasons. Drafted in the fifth round in 2016, he's rushed for the third-most rushing yards since entering the league. Only Ezekiel Elliott and Le'Veon Bell have more rushing yards in that span. Howard is also averaging 4.6 yards per carry in his career. For the sake of comparison, LeSean McCoy has averaged 4.6 yards per carry over the past two seasons. Also consider that Howard has managed to piece together two good seasons even though he's operated within John Fox's "basic" offense. Howard should thrive in Matt Nagy's system that's designed for the modern era.

Really, the only knock against Howard is his inability to serve as a capable pass catcher, which is why he ranks so low on this list. It's almost why I left him off entirely. But in the end, Howard's contributions as a bruising runner were too much for me to ignore. He's a damn good player, if not a perfect one.

24. Steelers DE Stephon Tuitt (24)

Tuitt has flown under the radar in Pittsburgh due to the presence of some bigger personalities and flashier players on the Steelers' roster, but he's developed into one of the league's most underrated defensive linemen since entering as a second-round pick in 2014. Over the past four seasons, during which he's played in 56 games, he's registered 14.5 sacks, 99 solo tackles, an interception, six defended passes and four forced fumbles. According to PFF, Tuitt is coming off a season in which he graded out as the 18th-best interior lineman, ranked one spot behind Aaron Donald in run-stop percentage among 3-4 defensive ends, and was the fourth-most efficient pass-rusher at his position group, registering 40 total pressures. 

23. Chiefs CB Kendall Fuller (23)

What made the Redskins' decision to trade for Alex Smith puzzling had nothing to do with their preference for Smith over Kirk Cousins. It had everything to do with their willingness to part ways with Fuller, who went to Kansas City in the deal. Just ask former Redskins GM Scot McCloughan:

Fuller, a third-round pick in 2016, has blossomed into arguably the league's top slot cornerback. Last season, he picked off four passes and defended 10 passes. According to PFF, he graded out as the fifth-best cornerback in football and allowed a 56.7 passer rating in coverage -- only six cornerbacks finished with a lower passer rating.

22. Bengals LB Carl Lawson (23)

Lawson's biggest problem during his rookie season was that the Bengals didn't give him a full-time role. Otherwise, Lawson, a fourth-round pick last year, was damn near perfect. In a rotational pass-rusher role, he grabbed 8.5 sacks. He finished with 59 total pressures even though he rushed the passer only 361 times, according to PFF. For context, consider that among all 3-4 outside linebackers, only Von Miller and Ryan Kerrigan were more efficient pass rushers than Lawson, per PFF.  

Give this man a full-time job, Cincinnati. 

21. Titans OT Jack Conklin (23)

Conklin, drafted No. 8 overall in 2016, has been nothing but reliable in his two full NFL seasons. That's what makes his torn ACL, which he suffered during the Titans' playoff loss to the Patriots, so devastating. Don't let that injury detract from what he's accomplished over the past two seasons. As a rookie, he was named First Team All-Pro. According to PFF, he allowed only two sacks in 552 pass-blocking snaps this past season.

20. Rams QB Jared Goff (23)

A year ago, the idea of Goff appearing on a list like this would've seemed like nothing more than a fantasy. But after Sean McVay and some actually talented football players arrived in Los Angeles last offseason, Goff turned into the quarterback worthy of the No. 1 overall pick. In 16 games last season, Goff completed 62.1 percent of his passes, averaged 8.0 yards per attempt, threw 28 touchdowns and only seven picks, and posted a 100.5 passer rating. That'll do. 

19. Jaguars DE Yannick Ngakoue (23)

Earlier this month, the Jaguars decided to pass on Dante Fowler's fifth-year option because they want him to "earn a new long-term contract," even though he already saw his sack total double in 2017 before he brought down Tom Brady twice in the AFC Championship Game. The Jaguars should've just told the truth. They didn't pick up Fowler's fifth-year option because they don't really need him anymore, not with Calais Campbell locking down one of their starting defensive end spots and Ngakoue occupying the other spot. Ngakoue, a third-round pick in 2016, has registered 20 sacks in two seasons -- including 12 this past season -- and 10(!) forced fumbles (tied for the most over the past two seasons).

18. Browns DE Myles Garrett (22)

The No. 1 overall pick last year saw his rookie season get overshadowed by the Browns' relentless pursuit of history. But make no mistake about it: The Browns hit a home run by taking Garrett. In 11 games, he collected seven sacks. According to PFF, he was just as productive at rushing the passer as Michael Bennett with 37 total pressures in 290 pass-rushing snaps. There's reason to believe his sack total will climb significantly in 2018. For one, Garrett missed five games this past season. Two, he's got a season under his belt. Three, the Browns just revamped their secondary, which means Garrett should have more time to get after quarterbacks this offseason.

"I've got a video of 28 snaps of Myles Garrett pass-rushes last year where he gets within two steps or less of the quarterback when the ball comes out," Browns defensive coordinator Gregg Williams told The MMQB after the 2018 draft. "Basically, we aren't covering long enough to let him get to the quarterback. Myles and others -- especially [defensive end] Emmanuel Ogbah -- will get more chances because of Denzel (Ward)."

17. Chargers TE Hunter Henry (23)

Finally, the Chargers are Henry's team and he is the Chargers' top tight end. Henry's been forced to share time with future Hall of Famer Antonio Gates during his first two years with the Chargers. Even still, he's managed to put up solid numbers, hauling in 81 passes for 1,057 yards and 12 touchdowns (the sixth-most among tight ends in that span). But what makes Henry such a good player at his age are his all-around contributions. He's much more than just a pass catcher. In 2017, he finished as PFF's second-highest graded tight end, behind only Rob Gronkowski and ahead of players like Travis Kelce, Delanie Walker, and Zach Ertz. He graded that highly because of his run-blocking abilities. 

Expect Henry to thrive in Year 3 without Gates around.

16. 49ers DT DeForest Buckner (24)

Buckner has flown under the radar. First, he was stuck on an awful 49ers team. Then, when the 49ers got good at the end of this past season, new quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo got all the acclaim. Now, as the 49ers enter the 2018 season full of hype and expectations, all the attention is focused on Garoppolo and new cornerback Richard Sherman. Don't forget about Buckner who, as a defensive tackle, has already acquired nine sacks in two seasons. Per PFF, he tied with Damon "Snacks" Harrison as the sixth-best interior defensive lineman last season. Only Aaron Donald, Geno Atkins, Fletcher Cox, Kawann Short, and Ndamukong Suh placed higher.

15. Saints OT Ryan Ramczyk (24)

Ramcyzk is the best young offensive tackle in the league. The last pick in the first round a year ago, he started all 16 games of his rookie season. He graded out as PFF's eighth-best tackle, allowing three sacks on 559 pass-blocking plays.

14. Falcons LB Deion Jones (23)

A second-round pick in 2016, Jones has made 166 solo tackles and defended 21 passes in his career while picking off three passes in each of the two seasons. He checked in as PFF's sixth-best linebacker in 2017.

13. Vikings WR Stefon Diggs (24)

In three seasons, Diggs has never played with a top-flight quarterback. Despite less-than-ideal circumstances, Diggs has caught 200 passes for 2,472 yards and 15 touchdowns in his career. He averages 12.4 yards per catch.

12. Titans S Kevin Byard (24)

Deion Sanders might not have heard of him, but we have. After two seasons, Byard has established himself as one of the NFL's best safeties. He picked off eight passes this past season and graded out as PFF's fourth-best safety.

11. Rams WR Brandin Cooks (24)

Entering his fifth season, Cooks is somehow onto the third team of his career. Over the past four seasons, he's averaged roughly 986 yards and almost seven touchdowns per season. He averages 14.1 yards per catch. He's going to explode in the Rams' offense with McVay calling the shots and Goff throwing him deep bombs.

10. Chiefs WR Tyreek Hill (24)

Hill is more than just a receiver. He's a dangerous returner (four return touchdowns). He's a lethal ball carrier (41 rushing attempts for 326 yards and three touchdowns). And he's a dang good receiver (136 catches, 1,776 yards, and 13 touchdowns). He's done all of that despite having been an NFL player for only two seasons. Really, Hill's position should read: playmaker. He's a perfect fit for Andy Reid's creative offense, and I can't wait to see him play with flamethrower Patrick Mahomes.

9. Giants S Landon Collins (24)

Despite the demise of the Giants, Collins remains a game changer. He's missed only one game in three seasons. He's snagged eight interceptions. He's successfully defended away 28 passes. He's collected four sacks. And he's made 254 solo tackles. In 2016, he was PFF's second-highest graded safety. This past season, as the Giants bumbled around mindlessly in the dark, he tied for sixth. 

8. Buccaneers WR Mike Evans (24)

Evans catches some flak for his volatile touchdown production, but he shouldn't be blamed for #TouchdownRegression. Since Evans' career began in 2014, he's averaged roughly 77 receptions, 1,145 yards, and eight touchdowns per season even though he's been catching passes from the erratic Jameis Winston. Does he drop too many passes? Sure. But that's only because his massive frame and leaping ability allows him to get his hands on passes most receivers would simply watch fall incomplete.

7. Chiefs RB Kareem Hunt (22)

Hunt cooled off at the end of his rookie season after a historic start, but when the season was over, Hunt's stat line remained incredible. He rushed for 1,327 yards and eight touchdowns, averaging 4.9 yards per carry. And he caught 53 passes for 455 yards and three touchdowns. Put together, he totaled 1,782 yards and 11 touchdowns. Only Todd Gurley and Le'Veon Bell accumulated more yards from scrimmage.

6. Cowboys RB Ezekiel Elliott (22)

If this had been made after the 2016 season, Elliott almost assuredly would've placed in the top five. But Elliott's production slipped a bit in 2017 while other young players outshined him. Still, Elliott's status as one of the game's best running back remains secure. In two seasons (25 games), he's rushed for 2,614 yards and 22 touchdowns while averaging 4.6 yards per carry. He's added 58 catches, 632 receiving yards and three touchdown catches to his already impressive resume. Over the past two seasons, nobody has scored more touchdowns than Zeke (Todd Gurley is tied with him). 

5. Jaguars CB Jalen Ramsey (23)

Ramsey is the prince that was promised to take over Richard Sherman's mantle as the game's best and loudest cornerback. In two seasons, Ramsey has picked off six passes and defended 31 passes. According to PFF, he allowed the 10th-lowest passer rating in coverage (63.9) while allowing three touchdowns this past season.

4. Saints CB Marshon Lattimore (21)

The 2017 Defensive Rookie of the Year played a significant role in the Saints' defensive turnaround. In his first season (13 games), Lattimore intercepted five passes and defended 18 passes. According to PFF, he allowed a 45.3 passer rating in coverage. Only two cornerbacks finished with a lower passer rating in coverage. He didn't allow a single touchdown.

3. Saints RB Alvin Kamara (22)

The running back position might not hold as much value as the cornerback position, but Kamara is a better running back relative to his peers than Lattimore and Ramsey are to their fellow cornerbacks. What the 2017 Offensive Rookie of the Year did last season was historic. Even though he split touches with backfield mate Mark Ingram, he totaled 1,554 yards and 13 touchdowns from scrimmage while averaging 7.7 yards per touch. He also scored a touchdown on a kick return. With Ingram facing a four-game suspension to begin the upcoming season, Kamara's value might expand even more in 2018.

2. Chargers DE Joey Bosa (22)

So far, the only negative aspect of Bosa's two-year career has been his training-camp holdout during his rookie summer. Since then, it's been nothing but sacks. Bosa, taken third overall in 2016, has already grabbed 23 sacks in two seasons. This past season, he was the sixth-most efficient pass rusher at his position group, according to PFF. Only two 4-3 defensive ends registered more total pressures than Bosa.

1. Rams RB Todd Gurley (23)

Gurley is the best player under the age of 25. After finally being freed from the constraints of a Jeff Fisher "middle-school offense," Gurley ran wild in Sean McVay's system. In a 15-game season, he rushed for 1,305 yards and 13 touchdowns, averaging 4.7 yards per carry, and caught 64 passes for 788 yards and six touchdowns. His 2,093 yards and 19 touchdowns from scrimmage led the league. He was, quite simply, the best playmaker in football last season. 

Just missed the cut: 49ers linebacker Reuben Foster, Bears receiver Allen Robinson, Saints safety Marcus Williams, Steelers outside linebacker T.J. Watt, Steelers receiver JuJu Smith-Schuster, Chiefs defensive lineman Chris Jones, Vikings defensive end Danielle Hunter, Jaguars linebacker Myles Jack, Raiders receiver Amari Cooper, Texans quarterback Deshaun Watson, Jets defensive lineman Leonard Williams, Panthers guard Trai Turner, Panthers cornerback James Bradberry, and Falcons safety Keanu Neal. 

CBS Sports Writer

Sean Wagner-McGough joined CBS Sports in 2015 after graduating from UC Berkeley. A native of Seattle, Sean now resides in the Bay Area. He spends his spare time defending Jay Cutler on Twitter. Full Bio

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