Most years, Football Outsiders‘ rankings of teams with the most talent under 25 years old are settled by the value of their young quarterbacks. But 2022 is different.
Joe Burrow just led the Bengals on an unexpected Super Bowl run in his second season. But after entering the league at 24 years old, Burrow already graduated from consideration in this exercise.
Meanwhile, the crowded 2021 quarterback draft class underwhelmed in its freshman season, and the 2022 draft saw just one quarterback taken in the first round and none in the first 19 picks. All told, the lack of standout young quarterbacks allowed a team with a veteran signal-caller to snag the No. 1 spot here.
These rankings are more than a snapshot of young talent. They consider the value and length of player contracts, and so they view less experienced players as more valuable than more experienced players with similar expected future contributions since the former probably will make more of those contributions on inexpensive rookie contracts.
As is our standard, we have created these rankings based on a combination of factors:
Number of starts made by players under 25 years old
Number of snaps played by players under 25 years old
Quality of play of players under 25 years old, age-adjusted to capture the fact that a 21-year-old player of X ability will likely improve more than a 23-year-old player of X ability and with extra consideration given to Pro Bowl and All-Pro selections
Relative importance of positions, in particular with quarterbacks being more important and running backs, off-ball linebackers and specialists being less important than other positions
Draft value added in the 2022 draft with extra emphasis placed on the premium picks in the first two rounds
Expected key starters and reserves under 25 years old for teams in 2022
Team track records of talent evaluation and development
Significant injuries or suspensions that will affect the 2022 availability of players under 25 years old
The rankings will frequently reference Football Outsiders statistics that may be unfamiliar to you. You can learn more about Football Outsiders statistics here, in the Football Outsiders glossary, or in the newly released Football Outsiders Almanac 2022.
In addition to stacking teams, we mention “blue-chip players,” who are cornerstone performers from whom teams will likely derive their biggest future value.
Here are our 2022 under-25 talent rankings:
2021 ranking: 20 | 2020 ranking: 24
After handing out massive extensions to veteran running back Ezekiel Elliott and quarterback Dak Prescott before the 2019 and 2021 seasons, the Cowboys were backed into a corner. They were short on cap space and couldn’t afford to keep all of their offensive linemen and wide receivers, the position groups that spurred the team’s pair of playoff berths to that point in Prescott’s career. And worst of all, Prescott’s Cowboys never made a deep playoff run, not even in the quarterback’s rookie season in 2016 when the team finished second in football with a 24% DVOA. Teams in similar positions have often tried and failed to patch a leaking boat and lost a few more games each season until they accepted reality, blew up their rosters and started over. The Cowboys were on that path. But then 2021 happened.
The Cowboys have just one losing season in Prescott’s tenure. They rarely pick at the top of the draft. Still, it’s difficult to imagine a team having a better run of early draft success than the Cowboys did in 2020 and 2021. Lamb was the surest bet and is a feather in the cap of an approach to draft talent over team need. After near-exclusive usage in the slot as a rookie, Lamb saw 47% of his targets out wide in 2021 and still broke an absurd 22 tackles and produced 5.6 average yards after the catch. With Amari Cooper now in Cleveland, Lamb should push for the receiving yardage crown this season.
But the Cowboys owe their biggest transformation to 2020 second-rounder Diggs and 2021 first-rounder Parsons. Diggs can sometimes be burned when he tries for a big play and misreads a route and had just modest 2021 rates of 11.1 yards per target and a 51.8% coverage success rate because of it. But the tradeoff makes up for those misreads and then some.
Diggs led all defenders with 11 interceptions last season, three more than J.C. Jackson in second place. Parsons, meanwhile, looked like a generational defender in his rookie season. His 13.0 sacks and 38 hurries were sixth and 12th most among all defenders, never mind just rookies. And at just 23 years old and with four years left on his rookie contract, Parsons may have the most value over his contract of any player in football.
With that pair of breakout stars, the Cowboys jumped from 23rd in defensive DVOA in 2020 to second in 2021. And while defensive efficiency is more volatile than offensive efficiency from year to year, the Cowboys have made smart bets to fill their free agent holes with more Day 1 and 2 draft picks such as left guard Tyler Smith, pass-rusher Sam Williams and receiver Jalen Tolbert. If they continue their recent success with those selections, then the Cowboys will counterbalance their expensive veterans and keep their Super Bowl window open for the next three years or more.
2021 ranking: 3 | 2020 ranking: 23
The Chargers may not have the Cowboys’ depth of young talent, but they have the best under-25 players at two of the most important positions in football.
Herbert has yet to enjoy the playoff success of his counterpart Burrow, but his production and efficiency are unimpeachable. As just a 23-year-old NFL sophomore, Herbert finished sixth with a 17.4% passing DVOA, fifth with 1,341 passing DYAR and third with a 65.6 QBR. That latter rate beat out the more heralded and more experienced young stars Patrick Mahomes (62.2) and Josh Allen (60.7) as well as Super Bowl champion Matthew Stafford (63.8). It’s safe to say that playoff success is imminent.
Like Herbert, Slater was not the first pick at his position in his draft class. But Slater shut down any concerns scouts had for his fit at left tackle with a 1.9% blown block rate in 2021 that was third-best among players at his position with 500 or more snaps. He and the team’s 2022 first-round guard Zion Johnson should protect Herbert from the No. 1 saboteur of promising young quarterbacks, taking too many hits.
For the Chargers to catch the Cowboys, they’ll need one or two of their other prospects to break out in 2022. Cornerback Asante Samuel Jr. had pedestrian rates of 7.3 yards per target and a 50% coverage success rate in his rookie season. But his position has a steep learning curve, and Samuel could make major strides in 2022. Linebacker and former first-round pick Kenneth Murray Jr. underwhelmed with a 20% broken tackle rate in his second season, but he also missed time with a left ankle injury. Perhaps better health will turn his career around.
And Football Outsiders just identified wide receiver Joshua Palmer as our favorite sleeper prospect in our Top 25 list of later-round prospects. He caught three touchdowns in the Chargers’ final five games in 2021, and he has been working with the first team this offseason ahead of veteran speedster Guyton. Palmer could enjoy a dramatic uptick in his production if he routinely sees targets from Herbert this season.
2021 ranking: 11 | 2020 ranking: 14
Blue-chip players: Zach Wilson, QB; Sauce Gardner, CB; Alijah Vera-Tucker, G; Garrett Wilson, WR; Quinnen Williams, DT; Breece Hall, RB
Notable graduated players: John Franklin-Myers, DT; D.J. Reed, CB; Ashtyn Davis, S
The Jets won the 2022 draft with their first- and second-round selections of cornerback Gardner, wide receiver Wilson, pass-rusher Jermaine Johnson and running back Hall. Gardner and Johnson should immediately plug the biggest holes of a unit that finished 32nd in pass defense and overall defensive DVOA last season.
Defensive tackle Williams led the team with 7.0 and 6.0 sacks the past two seasons, achievements that both made him a worthy Pro Bowl alternate and reflect poorly on the team’s edge rushers. Wilson and Hall should lead a pair of playmakers at their skill positions that offer their second-year quarterback all the weapons he needs to be successful. The receiver Wilson and his teammate Elijah Moore are undersized at 192 and 178 pounds, but they run remarkably sophisticated routes for a pair of 22-year-olds.
And the running backs may be even more exciting. Hall earned the fourth-highest BackCAST projection in Football Outsiders history behind exclusively blue-chip hits in Jonathan Taylor, Ricky Williams and Saquon Barkley. And Michael Carter led backs with 150 or more touches last season with a 24% broken tackle rate on his carries and catches.
For that skill position group to hit its high ceiling, quarterback Wilson needs a dramatic improvement in Year 2. His minus-32.3% passing DVOA rate was the worst of the 34 quarterbacks that threw 200 or more passes in 2021. And it landed him in a range of rookie inefficiency where Stafford (minus-36.3% in 2009) and Allen (minus-33.2% in 2018) are the only modern examples of quarterbacks who recovered to become stars. Pass pressure could be the key. Wilson faced the third-highest pressure rate (30.5%) and produced the worst DVOA when pressured (minus-120.6%) of regular starters in 2021. But Wilson seemed also to deserve a lot of the blame for that pressure since the Jets finished middle of the pack with a 61% pass block win rate.
Whatever the case, Wilson would have a better chance of a breakout if the Jets and left tackle Mekhi Becton resolved their differences. Becton lived up to his No. 11 draft pick with an excellent 2.1% blown block rate in 2020. But then he injured his knee in Week 1 last season and has since drawn criticism for what some see as a lack of work ethic and dedication to his rehab. At their best, Becton and 2021 first-rounder Vera-Tucker could be Wilson’s version of Herbert’s enviable tackle and guard combination of Slater and Johnson.
2021 ranking: 21 | 2020 ranking: 32
Like the Chargers, the Falcons boast the best young players at a pair of positions. Pitts erased any concerns over a top-four tight end selection with a 1,000-yard rookie season. At 6-foot-6 and 246 pounds, he may already be the most difficult coverage assignment in football at 21 years old. And Terrell can make a compelling case that he is the NFL’s best cover corner after his sophomore season. He led cornerbacks with 50 or more targets with a miniscule 3.2 yards per target and a stellar 70.5% coverage success rate. Even rookie receiver London deserves blue-chip consideration. He came off the board eighth overall — nine picks before the Chargers’ first-rounder Johnson — and was the first of an amazing six wide receivers selected in the first 18 picks.
Still, the Falcons land two spots behind the Chargers in the under-25 rankings because of positional value. Quarterbacks carry an outsized importance in the modern NFL, and the Chargers have the best one at 24 or younger in Herbert. The Falcons were well-positioned to bet on their quarterback of the future with the No. 4 and No. 8 picks in the past two drafts. But because of some combination of their former quarterback Matt Ryan‘s extended cap commitment and their pessimism for the prospects in those two classes, the team lacks an expected difference-maker at that most important position. Rookie Desmond Ridder could change that calculus if he hits. He may have been a third-round draft pick, but he was the second quarterback taken in 2022. And previous midround success stories such as Russell Wilson and Prescott became the best bargains in football as they authored repeated top-10 DVOA seasons on base salaries of less than $1 million.
2021 ranking: 1 | 2020 ranking: 12
Blue-chip players: Tua Tagovailoa, QB; Jaylen Waddle, WR; Jaelan Phillips, OLB; Jevon Holland, S
Notable graduated players: Raekwon Davis, DT; Jerome Baker, LB; Solomon Kindley, G; Nik Needham, CB; Michael Deiter, OL; Myles Gaskin, RB
The “fish tank” netted the Dolphins ridiculous totals of five first-round and four second-round draft picks in 2020 and 2021. And while the team made a few high-profile swings and apparent misses on top prospects such as Austin Jackson and Noah Igbinoghene with those selections, the sheer volume spurred the team to its current top-five ranking in young talent. Waddle is the most obvious blue-chipper. He reached the major benchmarks of 100 catches and 1,000 yards in his rookie season. And the wheels that landed him a top 10 ball carrier speed of 21.8 mph on a 57-yard catch-and-run, per NFL’s Next Gen Stats, are sure to complement new head coach Mike McDaniel’s Shanahan-inspired offensive scheme that creates opportunities for yards after the catch.
But don’t sleep on defenders Phillips and Holland. Phillips finished second among rookies with 8.5 sacks and would have earned more attention in a class that didn’t include a generational pass-rusher in Micah Parsons. And safety Holland added a position-leading 11 hurries and also finished top five with 10 passes defensed.
The ceiling of this young, exciting Dolphins team will likely hinge on the development of Tagovailoa. Tagovailoa will likely always suffer from comparisons to the Pro Bowl quarterback taken one pick later in the 2020 draft, Herbert. But Tagovailoa has also been much more efficient in his first two seasons than his reputation would suggest. His minus-8.5% and minus-0.7% passing DVOA rates have him on a similar early-career trajectory as recent star quarterbacks Burrow (minus-7.3% and 5.1%), Kyler Murray (minus-3.1% and 4.6%) and Andrew Luck (minus-5.1% and 4.6%). And Tagovailoa’s conservative, RPO-heavy approach from 2021 may owe more to his circumstances than his arm talent. The Dolphins finished dead last with a 47% pass block win rate, and Tagovailoa needed a quick trigger to remain upright. We should know for sure after 2022. The Dolphins made major upgrades on their offensive line in veterans Terron Armstead and Williams and in receiver Tyreek Hill. And McDaniel’s scheme seems perfect for a decisive and accurate quarterback. In fact, Tagovailoa effectively matched Jimmy Garoppolo in 2021 with a 7.1 vs. a 7.7-yard average depth of target and a 67.8% vs. a 68.3% completion rate. But Tagovailoa trailed the two-time final-four quarterback by more than two yards in average yards after the catch (4.8 vs. 6.9).
2021 ranking: 5 | 2020 ranking: 7
It’s difficult to make a statistical case that Lawrence deserves his reputation as a generational quarterback prospect. His minus-19.5% passing DVOA rate and 33.5 QBR ranked 29th and 31st of the 34 passers with 200 or more attempts in 2021 and behind the rates of the fifth and seventh quarterbacks taken in his class, Mac Jones (6.1% and 50.9) and Davis Mills (minus-8.7% and 35.5). But until proved false, I choose to attribute the lion’s share of the blame for the team’s 30th-ranked passing DVOA on Urban Meyer’s comedy of head-coaching errors.
With Super Bowl champion Doug Pederson on the sideline, Lawrence will have a second chance to take the league by storm. And he isn’t the only young Jaguars player eager for a do-over. Fellow first-round draft pick and former Lawrence teammate at Clemson Travis Etienne Jr. missed his entire rookie season with a Lisfranc injury. He expects to be healthy for the start of 2022. And when teammate James Robinson returns from his Achilles tear, the Jaguars should have an under-25 backfield to rival Breece Hall and Michael Carter of the Jets for the best in football.
With a background in offense, Pederson might make less of a dent in his team’s 31st-ranked defense by DVOA. But the No. 1 draft pick from 2022, Travon Walker, just might. With just 9.5 sacks in three seasons at Georgia, Walker was a late riser to No. 1 draft pick consideration. But his exceptional combine performance with a 90th percentile 6.89-second three-cone time even at 272 pounds pushed him to No. 1 in Football Outsiders’ SackSEER projections, just ahead of Aidan Hutchinson and Kayvon Thibodeaux.
And while the team might not have another defender with Walker’s potential, the Jaguars have other young talent on defense. Cornerback Tyson Campbell improved dramatically after the team traded C.J. Henderson. Campbell ended the second half of his rookie season with an encouraging 5.7 yards per target. Safety Andre Cisco saw improvement and an increase in playing time after Meyer was fired and has reportedly already made it to new defensive coordinator Mike Caldwell’s good side by quickly picking up the latter’s defensive installations. And while Devin Lloyd might not have justified the team’s trade back into the first round as an off-ball linebacker, he should start from Day 1 and address a major weakness in tackling. The Jaguars suffered an 11.9% broken tackle rate on defense last season, second worst in football.
2021 ranking: 23 | 2020 ranking: 26
Blue-chip players: Penei Sewell, OT; Aidan Hutchinson, DE; Jameson Williams, WR; Amon-Ra St. Brown, WR
Notable graduated players: T.J. Hockenson, TE; Jonah Jackson, G; DJ Chark, WR; Mike Hughes, CB; DeShon Elliott, S; Evan Brown, C
Lions coach Dan Campbell was an easy punching bag in 2021 for his news conference quotes, coffee addiction and improbable losses. But unlike some previous hapless Detroit teams, Campbell’s Lions offer a reason for optimism in their leap from the bottom 10 in under-25 talent in 2020 and 2021 to seventh this year.
Offensive tackle Sewell and pass-rusher Hutchinson are the obvious blue-chippers as top-seven draft picks. And Sewell is well on track to live up to his draft status after blowing just 2.6% of his blocks in his rookie season despite moving from left to right tackle around teammate Taylor Decker‘s injury. But the Lions can also credit their compelling depth of young talent for their placement in the top 10.
Fourth-round wide receiver St. Brown had an uneven rookie season. But after Campbell took over offensive playcalling duties following the team’s Week 9 bye, St. Brown more than doubled his first-half productivity from 3.4 catches and 31 yards per game to 7.0 catches and 74 yards per game. St. Brown and his new outside counterpart, Williams, both are poised to outplay their draft positions, the latter even as a top-12 pick because tearing the ACL in his left knee in Alabama’s most recent national title game cost him his presumed placement as the top receiver in the 2022 class. Probably still a year away from being competitive, the Lions do not need Williams to be ready to play in Week 1. They can lean on St. Brown, their veterans and 23-year-old receiving back D’Andre Swift.
Of course, this wouldn’t be a Campbell roster if it didn’t have prospects in the front seven. Situational edge rusher Julian Okwara and defensive tackle Alim McNeill flashed their pass-rushing potential in 2021 with 12 and eight hurries in just 362 and 422 respective snaps. They should build on those totals with more playing time and more blocking attention on Hutchinson this season. And linebacker Derrick Barnes looked like another fourth-round steal in his rookie season. He impressed with a 12.7% broken tackle rate and could be exactly what the Lions’ defense needs after it finished last in broken tackle rate as a unit in 2021.
2021 ranking: 25 | 2020 ranking: 29
The Eagles are a victim of the specifics of this exercise. They traded for blue-chip receiver A.J. Brown and saw their former seventh-round draft pick Mailata blossom into a blue-chip left tackle just in time for them to turn 25 and disqualify from the rankings. Still, I expect the Eagles are satisfied with their rise from 29th and 25th in the rankings the past two years to eighth this year. Especially since the catalyst for that improvement is potential franchise quarterback Hurts. He has limitations as a passer. At 6-foot-1 with below-average arm strength, he tends to avoid the middle of the field. But Hurts still showed impressive development, going from a 52.0% completion rate and minus-17.6% passing DVOA as a rookie to 61.3% and minus-0.3% last season. That latter rate identifies Hurts as average in passing efficiency, and that is all the Eagles need from him if Hurts continues to contribute as much with his legs as he did in 2021. Hurts easily led his position with 189 rushing DYAR and 10 rushing touchdowns in his sophomore season.
Despite a deep Eagle’s offense, Field Yates predicts that DeVonta Smith may be this season’s breakout player.
Beyond Hurts, the Eagles have done an excellent job of rebuilding a roster that ballooned to the second oldest in football — with a 27.2 snap-weighted age in 2019 — on the heels of their 2017 Super Bowl win. DeVonta Smith played 17 games in his rookie season and eased concerns for his small frame of 170 pounds. He just missed the top 30 with a 7.7% receiving DVOA and is on a star trajectory. Landon Dickerson had his own injury concerns after a pair of ACL tears in college. But he made it through his rookie season unscathed and even bested his blindside companion, Mailata, with a 2.7% vs. 3.1% blown block rate — albeit at the easier left guard position. Next up, the Eagles have their eyes on some defensive improvements. They drafted a pair of Georgia teammates in defensive tackle Davis and linebacker Nakobe Dean in the first and third rounds this year. And Davis is a physical marvel. He ran a 4.78-second 40-yard time even at 341 pounds.
2021 ranking: 9 | 2020 ranking: 13
Burrow entered the NFL at 23 years old, which meant that he had already been disqualified from the under-25 rankings when he led the Bengals on their unexpected run to the Super Bowl last January and February. Perhaps the team wasn’t ahead of schedule, after all. Still, the Bengals deserve massive credit for treading water with their No. 9 ranking this year. And in light of their recent playoff success, the team seems prescient for collecting young talent that could complement Burrow and benefit from his development.
Wide receivers Chase and Higgins are the best examples. They finished sixth and fifth in receiving DYAR in 2021. They were the only wide receiver teammates to make the top 10. And Chase and Higgins complement each other, as well. Chase has the speed to finish fourth at the position with both 13 catches on deep passes of 20 or more air yards and with 8.0 average yards after the catch. And Higgins has the 6-foot-4 frame and leaping ability to catch contested passes.
The Bengals have had less luck with their recent draft selections on the offensive line, hence their three priciest free agent additions of veterans Alex Cappa, La’el Collins and Ted Karras. But former first-rounder Jonah Williams cut his blown run block rate in half from 5.1% as a rookie to 2.3% last season. He would need another major step forward in 2022 to reclaim blue-chip status. But as is, he is a solid left tackle whom the Bengals can confidently deploy as they fret over whether Jackson Carman or Hakeem Adeniji can be the final piece of their line after rocky starts to their careers, or whether fourth-round rookie Cordell Volson can be a Day 1 starter out of North Dakota State.
Bates’ graduation would have cost the Bengals their one blue-chip defender under 25 even if he weren’t threatening to hold out rather than play on a franchise tag. But however that situation plays out, the team does have some secondary prospects for under-25 consideration. In fact, the Bengals’ top two 2022 draft picks, Dax Hill and Cam Taylor-Britt, have the versatility to play both cornerback and safety. That should offer the team the flexibility they need if their financial means require some sacrifices.
2021 ranking: 8 | 2020 ranking: 20
Blue-chip players: Tristan Wirfs, OT; Devin White, LB; Antoine Winfield Jr., FS
Notable graduated players: Carlton Davis III, CB; Sean Murphy-Bunting, CB; Jamel Dean, CB; Jordan Whitehead, S; Ronald Jones, RB
With Tom Brady unretiring, the Bucs remain in the win-now mode that carried them to a 2020 Super Bowl victory. That said, the team has had an incredible knack for filling its few holes with blue-chip prospects. For the Bucs’ title team, that player was Wirfs, who was an immediate positional leader with a 1.6% blown block rate in his rookie season. Wirfs played even better in 2021 and earned first-team All-Pro honors with a 1.2% blown block rate.
Last year, it was Winfield. As his secondary teammates Davis, Murphy-Buntin and Richard Sherman took turns on injured reserve, free safety Winfield dramatically improved his coverage skills. He finished fourth at his position with a 69% coverage success rate and made his first Pro Bowl. This year, possible breakouts include tight end Cade Otton or edge rushers Joe Tryon-Shoyinka or Logan Hall, the 32nd and 33rd picks in the past two drafts. Otton should have an unusual opportunity for rookie playing time after Rob Gronkowski retired this offseason. And while Tryon-Shoyinka found the field for less than half of the Bucs’ defensive plays in his rookie season, he did produce 23 hurries, which had him on pace for a top-10 total with a full season of snaps.
By virtue of beating Brady to the Bucs, White has earned his veteran status. But since the linebacker entered the NFL at just 21 years old, he qualifies for the under-25 rankings for one final year in 2022. White misses on his fair share of tackles and regularly fails in coverage. But he also led interior linebackers with 54 hurries last season. He is a unicorn defensive player and a perfect fit for his former defensive coordinator and current head coach Todd Bowles’ love of blitzes.
2021 ranking: 7 | 2020 ranking: 2
The Giants couldn’t quite match their crosstown rival Jets for first-round fireworks in 2022. But it’s difficult to imagine a more exciting start to a draft than pass-rusher Thibodeaux and offensive tackle Neal, at least for fans who appreciate the trenches. Thibodeaux and Neal were both legitimate candidates for the No. 1 overall pick but slipped a bit for nebulous concerns over their consistency and work ethic. Neal makes sense as a day one left tackle starter, but the Giants will have a choice there after former fourth-round pick Thomas bounced back from an underwhelming rookie season with a 4.8% blown block rate and blew just 2.5% of blocks in his sophomore season. Just in time to graduate from under-25 rankings consideration, quarterback Jones could finally have some real pass protection.
Jones should also have his best collection of young receivers in his Giants tenure. Toney managed just 301 offensive snaps in an injury-altered rookie season. But when he did play, he was difficult to bring down with an 11th-best 5.8 average yards after the catch. Toney can play both in the slot and out wide, and that versatility should help second-round rookie Wan’Dale Robinson make early contributions. Robinson totaled an incredible 1,334 receiving yards in a run-happy Kentucky offense that threw just 338 passes last season and was the favorite sleeper of Football Outsiders’ receiver prospect projection system, Playmaker Score.
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Defensively, the Giants have a handful of prospects a half step away from blue-chip consideration. Dexter Lawrence started his career with that high of promise, but his run stop rate has declined from 81% in 2019 to 77% in 2020 and 70% in 2021. And last year, the Giants finished with the worst run defense DVOA in football. Azeez Ojulari contributed an impressive eight sacks in his rookie season in 2021. But that number looked a bit fortunate next to his more modest totals of 21 hurries and five quarterback hits. And while safety Xavier McKinney racked up impressive totals of 93 tackles, 10 passes defensed and five interceptions, he provided more modest coverage efficiencies with 6.4 yards per target and a 47% coverage success rate, both outside the top 25 of players at his position.
2021 ranking: 29 | 2020 ranking: 10
Blue-chip players: Creed Humphrey, C; Trey Smith, G; Nick Bolton, LB
Notable graduated players: L’Jarius Sneed, CB; JuJu Smith-Schuster, WR; Ronald Jones, RB; Mike Hughes, CB; Rashad Fenton, CB; Justin Reid, S; Tommy Townsend, P
The Chiefs have made two notable efforts to inject some youth into their perennial final four roster the past two offseasons. First, they drafted Humphrey and Smith with their second- and sixth-round 2021 draft picks. And it’s difficult to imagine that going any better. As rookie starters, Humphrey and Smith finished second and 18th among full-season centers and right guards, respectively, with their 0.5% and 3.1% blown pass block rates. With Humphrey and Smith next to veterans Orlando Brown Jr. and Joe Thuney, the Chiefs are unlikely to see their star quarterback taking the volume of hits he did in the team’s 2020 Super Bowl loss to the Bucs. Too bad their first-round running back Clyde Edwards-Helaire failed to benefit. He averaged the same pedestrian 2.2 yards after contact in 2021 that he did in 2020, barely half of the 3.7 yards after contact Edwards-Helaire averaged in his junior season for the national champion LSU Tigers.
Second, the Chiefs picked up extra first- and second-round picks in 2022 with their trade of star receiver Tyreek Hill. And they coupled their Hill replacement Skyy Moore with a trio of defensive selections that will aim to balance a team that has finished in the bottom third in defensive DVOA in four of Mahomes’ five career seasons. It’s unfair to expect Moore to give the Chiefs what Hill did in his six Pro Bowl years with the team. But Moore does offer exceptional 4.41 speed to pair with another speedy under-25 receiver in Mecole Hardman and veteran free agent addition Marquez Valdes-Scantling. If there exists a receiver room that Mahomes can’t overthrow, it’s this one.
On defense, first-round cornerback Trent McDuffie and pass-rusher George Karlaftis are cut from the same competitive cloth and should complete the Chiefs’ youth movement on all three levels of their defense. The team already had a pair of promising under-25 linebackers in Nick Bolton and Willie Gay. Bolton led the league with 13 run tackles for loss in 2021 and could have earned Defensive Rookie of the Year consideration in a universe without Micah Parsons.
2021 ranking: 6 | 2020 ranking: 5
The 49ers’ slip from fifth and sixth in the under-25 rankings in 2020 and 2021 to 13th this year is no surprise after a series of trades cost them several Day 1 and 2 draft picks the past few years. In 2020, the 49ers swapped their second-, third- and fourth-round picks for veterans Dee Ford and Emmanuel Sanders. And the team consolidated a handful of early picks from 2021, 2022 and 2023 into last year’s No. 3 pick, which they used on Lance. Lance maintains his blue-chip status because of that pedigree. But after just two starts in his rookie season, he will provide a referendum on the trade in 2022 and beyond.
The 49ers have seen mixed success with their remaining recent first-round picks. Bosa was the Defensive Rookie of the Year and has 24.5 sacks and 104 hurries in his two healthy seasons in 2019 and 2021. No other pass-rusher reached the century mark of hurries in those seasons. Deebo Samuel became an All-Pro receiver in his third season in 2021, but was already 25 years old and so is disqualified from this list. His receiver teammate Brandon Aiyuk flashed similar potential in the second half of his rookie season. And Kinlaw finished ninth at his position with an 85% run stop rate and earned PFWA All-Rookie team honors in 2020 but missed most of the past season with a torn ACL in his right knee.
Frankly, the 49ers could have fallen much further in the under-25 rankings, but they have uncovered a few gems with their later-round draft picks. Sixth-round rookie running back Elijah Mitchell earned a starting job over his more highly drafted teammate, Trey Sermon, and finished in the top 20 among regular running backs with a 5.7% rushing DVOA. And while injuries forced third-round rookie cornerback Ambry Thomas into the lineup before he was ready, Thomas found his footing from Week 16 through the playoffs. In that final stretch of five games, Thomas allowed just 5.5 yards per target, a rate that would have landed him in the top 15 among regular cornerbacks if he had averaged it across the full regular season.
2021 ranking: 12 | 2020 ranking: 30
In a pre-draft news conference, new Vikings GM Kwesi Adofo-Mensah told reporters he wanted the team in a “competitive rebuild,” which explains its apparently contradictory decisions to extend veteran quarterback Kirk Cousins and trade back four times in the 2022 draft and net 10 total draft picks. Adofo-Mensah will have to hope that quantity trumps quality since his first pick after the dust of his trades cleared was the last pick in the first round, and his selection, Lewis Cine, is relatively small for such an aggressive safety at just 199 pounds. It is difficult to expect he will be an immediate blue-chip defender, even if that potential is there.
Fortunately for the competitive half of Adofo-Mensah’s plan, the Vikings already hit on some recent premium draft picks, none more decisively than Jefferson. The receiver has rare versatility to play in the slot and out wide and excel in routes at every level of the field. He ranked in the top five at his position in DVOA on out routes, dig routes and go routes in his sophomore season. And he has finished third in receiving DYAR in each of his first two seasons.
Darrisaw and left guard Ezra Cleveland fortified Cousins’ blind side with 3.5% and 2.1% blown pass block rates once the former player returned from a groin injury to make his NFL debut in early October. And cornerback Cameron Dantzler ranked sixth among regular corners allowing just 5.0 yards per target. After bulking up to 191 pounds this offseason, Dantzler should have a chance to start all season, a luxury he did not enjoy in 2021 under previous head coach Mike Zimmer. Dantzler, second-round rookie corner Andrew Booth Jr. and safety Cine offer the team some fresh legs in the secondary to protect and eventually replace the unit’s veteran leaders, Harrison Smith and Patrick Peterson.
2021 ranking: 30 | 2020 ranking: 31
Bill Belichick’s modest draft hauls from 2017 to 2020 had many fans worrying that the 70-year-old future Hall of Famer had lost his fastball. But Belichick debunked that narrative with an excellent 2021 draft class that spurred the Patriots’ rise from 31st and 30th in under-25 talent in 2020 and 2021 to 15th this year. The prize of that draft class was Jones, who was the fifth quarterback drafted last year but paced the rookie quarterbacks with a 6.1% passing DVOA. Jones will need to improve his deep passing to enter the top echelon of NFL passers. But he already made the top 10 at his position with a 2.4% completion percentage over expectation in his rookie season.
The hits continued in the second and fourth rounds with defensive tackle Barmore and running back Rhamondre Stevenson. Barmore is explosive with three-down versatility. He finished tied for sixth among defensive backs with 30 hurries in his rookie season. And while Stevenson played second fiddle to capable lead back Harris, the 229-pound Stevenson bested his teammate with 3.1 versus 2.5 yards after contact per attempt, a rate that ranked him eighth among backs with 100 or more carries. In addition, sixth-round sophomore lineman Onwenu improved on an unexpectedly excellent rookie season, cutting his 1.5% blown block rate to 1%. And he won’t have to compete for a starting job in 2022 after the team shipped veteran Shaq Mason to the Bucs for a fifth-round draft pick.
The biggest questions among the team’s young prospects are first- and second-round rookies Cole Strange and Tyquan Thornton. Strange was a surprising first-round pick out of an FCS school in Chattanooga. And while Thornton just missed a combine record with a 4.28-second 40 time, his skinny frame at 6-foot-3 and 182 pounds might limit his NFL role compared to subsequent receiver picks George Pickens, Alec Pierce and Skyy Moore. Of course, the Patriots can afford to miss on an early-round gamble if they continue to hit on sleepers in the later rounds. And early reports suggest that Day 3 cornerback Jack Jones could win a starting job on the outside, replacing Pro Bowl free agent loss J.C. Jackson.
2021 ranking: 10 | 2020 ranking: 18
Blue-chip players: Brian Burns, DE; Jeremy Chinn, S; Ikem Ekwonu, OT; Jaycee Horn, CB
Notable graduated players: DJ Moore, WR; Sam Darnold, QB; Frankie Luvu, OLB; Brady Christensen, OT; Myles Hartsfield, S
The Panthers opted not to draft a new potential franchise quarterback to replace Cam Newton and instead have cycled through myriad midtier veteran quarterbacks the past few seasons. And if either Sam Darnold or the latest addition, Baker Mayfield, cannot turn the corner in 2022, that hamster wheel could cost head coach Matt Rhule his job.
It’s also a big reason a Panthers team, whose results suggest it should be rebuilding, has slipped from 10th in last year’s under-25 rankings to 16th this year. With blue-chip selections from the previous front office like Moore aging out, the current front office has traded several Day 1 and 2 draft picks who could have helped replace them and enjoyed less consistent success with the early picks it has made.
Unlike Moore, Burns has one last year of eligibility at 24 years old. And while his single-digit totals of nine sacks each of the past two seasons keep him from increased national attention, Burns is one of just six defenders with 30 or more quarterback hits in 2020 and 2021. He is a star. Defensive tackle Derrick Brown still has that potential as a top-seven draft pick, but his 69% run stop rate ranked him outside the top 50 defensive tackles in his sophomore season.
Chinn has come closer to that standard and even finished second in 2020 in the AP’s Defensive Rookie of the Year voting thanks to his safety/linebacker versatility and a pair of fumble-return touchdowns. But his seven tackles for loss in 2021 tied him for 10th best at the position and fell well short of positional leaders Derwin James Jr. and Jayron Kearse with 15 apiece. And while top 2021 draft pick Horn excelled with 2.0 yards per target and a 75.0% coverage success rate when he played, he broke his foot in Week 3 and missed the rest of his rookie season.
Perhaps Darnold could have revived his career with similar young talent on offense that the Panthers have on defense. But last year’s second- and third-round draft picks, wide receiver Terrace Marshall Jr. and tight end Tommy Tremble, contributed just 17 and 20 catches in their freshman seasons. The team did select a left tackle in Ekwonu with its 2022 first-round pick, and he should fill the biggest hole outside of quarterback. The 2021 Panthers had the fourth-worst pass block win rate at just 50%.
2021 ranking: 18 | 2020 ranking: 6
Blue-chip players: Najee Harris, RB; Kenny Pickett, QB
Notable graduated players: Minkah Fitzpatrick, S; JuJu Smith-Schuster, WR; Alex Highsmith, OLB; Terrell Edmunds, S; Chukwuma Okorafor, OT; Kevin Dotson, G; Zach Gentry, TE
The Steelers have had some notable blue-chip hits on prospects in recent seasons. Fitzpatrick earned first-team All-Pro honors in his first two Steelers seasons after his trade from the Dolphins. And Harris broke 87 tackles in his rookie season, 21 more than even Jonathan Taylor in second place at the position. But Fitzpatrick and Harris play non-premium positions, and the former aged out of the under-25 rankings last November. That leaves the Steelers in the bottom half of teams in this year’s rankings.
To make a major move, the Steelers need only to hit on their first-round rookie quarterback. As the 20th overall draft selection, Pickett does not feel like the same transformative prospect that other recent Day 1 quarterbacks did. But neither did Mac Jones as last year’s 15th pick, and he led all rookie passers with a 6.1% DVOA and made the Pro Bowl. Quarterbacks are too difficult to scout to put a ceiling on Pickett’s potential.
Before he retired in May, longtime Steelers GM Kevin Colbert surrounded Pickett with plenty of young talent to help him succeed. Wide receiver Chase Claypool dealt with ankle, hamstring and foot injuries in his sophomore season but still came within three catches and 13 yards of his exciting rookie campaign. Second- and fourth-round rookie receivers George Pickens and Calvin Austin offer two chances for Colbert’s impeccable receiver draft track record to continue and provide insurance in case the team lets Diontae Johnson leave in free agency. And at 6-foot-5 and 258 pounds, tight end Pat Freiermuth evokes Steelers legend Heath Miller. Freiermuth scored a touchdown on six of his 11 targets inside the 5-yard line, good for a 54.5% rate that was third best among tight ends with 10 or more such targets.
Daniel Dopp and Mike Clay discuss how they view the Steelers QBs’ struggles in camp.
Pickett’s bigger questions will be on the offensive line, which finished with a second-worst 49% pass block win rate in 2021. But hopefully second-year left tackle Dan Moore and left guard Kendrick Green can help. They had encouraging 3.6% and 2.5% blown block rates in their rookie seasons. Meanwhile, the Steelers also added former Bears lineman James Daniels, who just beats the under-25 cutoff with a birthday two days after his new team’s Week 1 game against the Bengals. Daniels has blown less than 3.0% of his blocks in all four of his professional seasons, although his $26.5 million second contract limits the value the team can get from similar future production.
2021 ranking: 15 | 2020 ranking: 4
The Bills made their intentions known this offseason when they signed 33-year-old Von Miller to a six-year contract. They aim to win the Super Bowl, not the No. 1 spot in the under-25 rankings. But just because the Bills are down to one blue-chip prospect doesn’t mean they fell short in their efforts to fill in the cracks of their roster with draft picks in recent seasons.
First-round edge rusher Greg Rousseau had a modest total of 18 hurries in his rookie season but produced them in just 246 defensive snaps. By rate, Rousseau’s 7.3% hurry rate was tied for 24th at the position. And both he and his second-round classmate Boogie Basham should feature heavily in the team’s 2022 rotation next to Miller. Oliver duplicated his total of 20 hurries from 2020 in 2021 and this time balanced them with an 83% run stop rate that was seventh best at his position. Linebacker Tremaine Edmunds finished 13th among regular linebackers with a 12.3% broken tackle rate. And first-round rookie cornerback Kaiir Elam is poised to step in for departed free agent Levi Wallace and start opposite veteran All-Pro corner Tre’Davious White.
On offense, wide receiver Gabriel Davis will look to build on his record-setting 201-yard, four-touchdown playoff outburst against the Chiefs in his first chance to start a full regular season. Fans might read the Bills’ drafting of receiving back James Cook as a vote of nonconfidence in 24-year-old incumbent Devin Singletary. But Singletary led running backs with 200 or more total touches with a 23.5% broken tackle rate the past two seasons. He might be too small to survive a lead-back workload, but Singletary is an incredibly efficient player. And right tackle Spencer Brown acquitted himself well with a 3.6% blown block rate as an unexpected rookie starter coming out of smaller Northern Iowa. He is poised for a major step forward in his second year thanks to standout physical traits for his position.
2021 ranking: 28 | 2020 ranking: 16
GM Chris Ballard hurt the Colts’ short-term under-25 ranking with his ill-fated trade for Carson Wentz that cost the team its third-round pick in 2021 and first-round pick last April. But Ballard recouped some of those losses with a coup of a Wentz trade this offseason that added a Day 2 draft pick in each of 2022 and 2023. Ballard paid a more palatable price of a third-round pick for veteran quarterback Matt Ryan. And Ballard drafted and developed a pair of blue-chip players in the interim in Taylor and Pittman. Taylor produced the fourth-most rushing DYAR (511) in the history of Football Outsiders stats, which go back to 1981. And while he owes some of that success to an offensive line that finished seventh in football with a 72% run block win rate, Taylor also finished second at his position with 66 broken tackles.
Pittman rose to the occasion presented by veteran T.Y. Hilton‘s neck injury and more than doubled his rookie totals of 40 catches and 503 yards with 88 and 1,082 last season. And while Pittman saw his league-leading 7.3 average yards after the catch slip to 4.0 yards in 2021, he offset those losses with a plus-6.7 receiving plus/minus that was 14th best at his position. Ryan can rely on Pittman to convert on difficult third downs. And Ryan will have a pair of new, massive receiving targets in 6-foot-3 second-round receiver Alec Pierce and 6-foot-7 third-round tight end Jelani Woods. Good luck to the defenses that face this Colts team in the red zone.
The Colts doubled down on veterans by adding Yannick Ngakoue and former Defensive Player of the Year Stephon Gilmore to a defense led by Shaquille Leonard and DeForest Buckner. But edge rusher Kwity Paye lived up to his first-round draft status with 27 hurries, if not with his 4.0 sacks. And Julian Blackmon should reclaim his starting free safety role after a Week 6 Achilles tear ended his sophomore season prematurely.
2021 ranking: 16 | 2020 ranking: 27
The Bears cleaned house over the offseason and hired a new GM in Ryan Poles and a new head coach in Matt Eberflus. And that new brain trust’s lack of attachment to potential franchise quarterback Fields looked obvious in its additions of Byron Pringle, Equanimeous St. Brown, N’Keal Harry and third-round rookie Jones, receivers who wouldn’t have moved the needle of the team’s No. 20 ranking even if they weren’t all too old to qualify. And yes, the rookie Jones is already 25 years old.
But Fields showed some encouraging signs as a rookie despite a minus-28.4% passing DVOA that ranked third worst of the 34 quarterbacks with 200 or more pass attempts. In particular, he ranked just shy of league average with a 38.3% passing DVOA without pressure. He clearly has the tools to succeed in the NFL. He just needs to develop his understanding of defenses and processing to avoid so many big negative plays.
Thanks to various quarterback trades, Fields is the only first-round pick the Bears have made in the past four drafts. But the team has found a few gems in the later rounds, even if none of those measures up to the value of the graduating Smith. Fifth-rounder Darnell Mooney might be miscast as a No. 1 receiver, but he ran a 4.38-second 40 at the combine and has excelled on downfield routes such as deep crossers, on which he finished fifth in the league in DYAR last season. Jones ran a 4.41-second 40, so perhaps the Bears have a plan for the big-armed Fields after all.
Sixth-round running back Khalil Herbert bested his underrated veteran teammate David Montgomery with a 16.2% versus a 14.6% broken tackle rate on his carries and catches. Jaylon Johnson is a capable press corner as long as he doesn’t have to chase speedy receivers on quick-breaking routes. His 5.5 average allowed yards after the catch was bottom four among regular cornerbacks. And 320-pound offensive tackle Teven Jenkins could push an offensive line that finished top 12 in both pass block and run block win rates to elite status, but he’ll have to stay healthy. A back injury landed Jenkins on injured reserve last season and delayed his career debut to Week 13.
2021 ranking: 2 | 2020 ranking: 11
The Commanders suffered the steepest decline, from second in last year’s under-25 rankings to 21st this year. And while some of that fall was inevitable with defensive linemen Sweat and Payne turning 25, the Commanders saw several of their best young players take steps back last season. Running back Antonio Gibson broke one fewer tackle on 94 more touches than he had in his rookie season, and he dropped five more fumbles. Young had a compelling case as the most valuable non-quarterback after a rookie season with 6.5 sacks and 26 hurries. But he saw those totals slip to 1.5 and 20 in 2021 and missed the second half of the season with a torn ACL in his right knee. And linebacker Jamin Davis underwhelmed for his first-round draft status with a 19.8% broken tackle rate that was bottom third among regular linebackers. All told, the Commanders’ defense flipped from third best in DVOA in 2020 to sixth worst in 2021.
Young seems poised for a rebound with better health in 2022. And Gibson could be, as well. He dealt with shoulder, hip and foot injuries in his sophomore season. But the Commanders also made a Plan B at running back in third-round draft pick Brian Robinson. And at 225 pounds, Robinson should be an asset in the red zone at the very least. The team also added depth at wide receiver. First-round rookie Jahan Dotson is small but slippery. He will likely be wide open a handful of times per game, which should complement veteran Terry McLaurin perfectly after he transformed himself into the best contested catch receiver in football last year.
Meanwhile, the Commanders have a few other intriguing prospects at less sexy positions. Rookie right tackle Sam Cosmi successfully replaced released veteran Morgan Moses with a 2.9% blown block rate, although he fared better as a run-blocker (2.2%) than pass-blocker (3.4%). Safety Curl traded his three rookie interceptions for six more pass breakups and a dramatically improved 11.9% broken tackle rate in his sophomore season. And the team reinforced its defensive line with its second-round selection of defensive tackle Phidarian Mathis. Mathis is an excellent run defender and could inherit Payne’s starting job in 2023 if the team cannot afford to keep the veteran as he hits the open market.
2021 ranking: 4 | 2020 ranking: 1
The Ravens are famous for their development of midround prospects. But as you can infer from their solitary blue-chip prospect versus their eight notable graduates, the team missed on more draft picks from 2019 to ’21 than it typically does. And that precipitated a fall from first in the under-25 rankings in 2020 and fourth last year to 22nd this year.
The Ravens’ moves this offseason suggest they believe in their incumbent young talent despite some limited track records. After trading away Marquise Brown, the Ravens are poised to start some combination of Rashod Bateman, Devin Duvernay, Tylan Wallace and James Proche II at wide receiver, the first three of whom are younger than 25. Bateman was a natural breakout candidate before the trade. He was a first-round draft pick with a solid 5.6% rookie receiving DVOA. But with just 46 rookie catches, he nearly matched his three teammates’ combined total of 72 catches in their careers. And at running back, the Ravens didn’t hedge their bet on former second-round pick J.K. Dobbins. He missed all of last season with a torn ACL in his left knee, but the team made just minor additions behind him and the also-injured Gus Edwards in veteran journeyman Mike Davis and sixth-round draft pick Tyler Badie.
Veteran quarterback Lamar Jackson will likely make even an inexperienced set of skill talent work on offense, especially if the team sees better health on its offensive line and gets immediate contributions from first-round rookie center Tyler Linderbaum. Defensively, there is less certainty but maybe even a higher ceiling. Patrick Queen‘s 29.1% broken tackle rate was the second highest of regular linebackers in 2021. But he can improve that rate as he develops. Odafe Oweh and second-round rookie David Ojabo were high school teammates and share similar physical gifts that offer them top-tier pass-rushing potential with more experience. Ojabo is still recovering from his torn Achilles. Neither Oweh nor Ojabo played football until his junior year of high school. And the team’s top 2022 draft pick, Hamilton, more than makes up for his 4.59 speed with exceptional instincts. He and 25-year-old free agent addition Marcus Williams can transform an undertalented and often-injured secondary that spurred the team’s fall to 30th in pass defense DVOA in 2021.
2021 ranking: 17 | 2020 ranking: 19
The Broncos’ trade for quarterback Russell Wilson cost them first- and second-round draft picks in 2022 and 2023 plus a solid 24-year-old contributor in tight end Noah Fant. That the team fell from 17th in last year’s under-25 rankings to just 23rd this year says more about some other teams’ pushes for Super Bowls than the Broncos’ depth of young prospects. But it also says something about the excellence of their 2021 draft class.
Surtain won the early argument of which rookie corner and NFL family legacy was better between him and Jaycee Horn, who broke his foot and missed the bulk of his freshman season. Surtain allowed just 6.0 yards per target and just missed the top 20 among qualified corners. At a position with one of the most challenging NFL learning curves, Surtain was an above-average starter from day one and would have competed for Defensive Rookie of the Year honors but for Micah Parsons’ historic rookie season. Meanwhile, running back Javonte Williams plays a less coveted position, especially with his team’s continued commitment to veteran Melvin Gordon. But Williams made as compelling an argument for his placement among the best players at his position as Surtain did. Williams even led running backs with 150 or more carries with a 22.0% rushing broken tackle rate.
Field Yates considers Courtland Sutton as a better match for Russell Wilson who is one of the best vertical throwers in the league.
Still, the Broncos’ lack of draft picks shows up in their lesser prospect depth. Jerry Jeudy was a first-round pick in 2020. And while he dramatically cut his total drops from 13 his rookie season to three last year, he missed six games in 2021 with an ankle injury and was arrested for misdemeanor domestic tampering this offseason, although the charges were eventually dropped. He will need to turn things around to have the breakout many expected. Lloyd Cushenberry III and Quinn Meinerz anchored the interior of the team’s offensive line with excellent 1.4% and 2.2% blown pass block rates. And incumbent and third-round rookie tight ends Albert Okwuegbunam and Greg Dulcich will have a chance to produce after Fant vacated his No. 1 job in his trade to the Seahawks.
2021 ranking: 26 | 2020 ranking: 21
Speaking of all-in, the Saints did not take the retirements of longtime quarterback Drew Brees or coach Sean Payton as signs they should be rebuilding. Instead, they tried to replace the value of the marquee free-agent departures Terron Armstead and Marcus Williams with free-agent veterans on less expensive contracts and big bets on top draft picks Olave and Trevor Penning. Olave has the versatility to contribute at all three levels, so he can either complement veteran Michael Thomas with his ability to stretch the field or replace Thomas with a slot-heavy target share if the veteran cannot return to his pre-injury efficiency from 2017 to 2019. And if Penning can step in and play a solid left tackle from the get-go, he will deserve the blue-chip status I’ve denied him as a debatable reach of a draft pick at 19th overall. Left tackle is the only major question mark on the Saints’ offensive line. Right guard Cesar Ruiz, 23, has drawn some public criticism relative to his first-round draft status, but his 2.0% career blown block rate is solid, especially for a player who spent his entire college career at center.
The Saints have always been comfortable drafting players with higher draft picks than their public expectations. They had mixed success with that approach in 2021. First-round pass-rusher Payton Turner contributed just six hurries as a part-time player before a shoulder injury ended his rookie season prematurely. And fourth-round quarterback Ian Book set the low watermark for a quarterback starter in 2021 with a minus-122.8% passing DVOA in a disastrous spot start against the Dolphins in Week 16. But second-round linebacker Pete Werner had an excellent 9.2% broken tackle rate. And third-round cornerback Paulson Adebo was an every-week starter and owes some of his poor 9.1 yards per target to a 13.8-yard average depth of target, 11th highest among qualified cornerbacks.
The Saints could certainly do worse than have Adebo be the worst player in a secondary that features star free agent safeties Tyrann Mathieu and Marcus Maye, a top corner in Marshon Lattimore with four Pro Bowls, and a 24-year-old hybrid safety and slot corner in C.J. Gardner-Johnson. Football Outsiders projects the Saints to have the best defense in football in 2022.
2021 ranking: 22 | 2020 ranking: 8
The Browns were the NFL predecessor to the “fish tank” Dolphins. They peaked at No. 1 in the under-25 rankings in 2019, a year after a bevy of forward-looking trades left them with a roster that won just one game in two seasons. And as those trades netted more stars and starters, the Browns aged into a contender one could argue was a quarterback away from being a Super Bowl favorite.
As players such as Myles Garrett, Nick Chubb and now Ward have graduated from under-25 consideration, the Browns haven’t quite matched their early-rebuild draft success. But that might have been poor luck. Second-round secondary picks Greedy Williams and Grant Delpit each missed the 2020 season with shoulder and Achilles injuries, respectively, and needed time to ramp up to full workloads in 2021 because of it.
But the Browns found a blue-chip left tackle with the No. 10 draft pick in 2020, Wills. Wills missed a bit of time in 2021 and has blown a few more pass blocks than expected. But his 1.6% and 1.3% blown run block rates the past two years are exceptional. Last year’s rate was tied for sixth best among left tackles with 300 or more run snaps. And last draft, the team hit on its first two selections, Newsome and Owusu-Koramoah. Newsome allowed a promising 6.9 yards per target in his rookie season. And Owusu-Koramoah demonstrated his linebacker/safety versatility with 3.5 yards per target, second best among nominal linebackers with 20 or more targets.
Perhaps the Browns could have continued a sustainable rebuild if they had nailed the Mayfield pick or seen quicker development from their Day 2 and Day 3 skill-player picks such as Donovan Peoples-Jones, Anthony Schwartz and Harrison Bryant. But their trade for Deshaun Watson sends a clear message of their priorities and made their swap of a fifth-round pick for veteran receiver Amari Cooper an easy choice to make.
2021 ranking: 32 | 2020 ranking: 9
The Texans might trail the Browns in this edition of the under-25 rankings, but after the former traded Deshaun Watson for the latter’s bounty of three first-round draft picks plus a third- and a fourth-round pick, expect the teams to move in opposite directions in future years.
For now, the Texans have more intriguing lottery picks than obvious blue-chip assets. Third overall pick Stingley qualifies for the latter camp. He has an unusual combination of speed, explosiveness and ball skills for his position of cornerback, although he did his best college work as a freshman in 2019 before injuries limited him to 10 games the past two seasons. But in the former group, third-round quarterback Mills outplayed his draft position with a minus-8.7% passing DVOA that was second best among rookie passers behind Mac Jones’ 6.1% rate. Fellow third-rounder Nico Collins has standout athletic tools for an NFL receiver and will hopefully make a future one-two punch with 2022 second-rounder John Metchie III, who unfortunately will miss his rookie season after a recent leukemia diagnosis.
Undersized fifth-round tight end Brevin Jordan is a favorite Football Outsiders sleeper prospect thanks to the explosiveness he showed in an 85th percentile 10-yard 40 split. And 15th overall pick Kenyon Green is a borderline blue-chip prospect whose perceived reach at his draft position is more a reflection of the relative value of his guard position than his chances of immediate productivity.
2021 ranking: 24 | 2020 ranking: 22
The Packers are one of the best developmental organizations in football, and so their typical under-25 talent ranking in the 20s often misses on a player like Runyan, who went from a sparingly used sixth-round rookie in 2020 to a successful every-week starter in 2021, just in time to turn 25 years old and disqualify himself from ranking consideration. This year’s candidate for a similar breakout is center Josh Myers, who started from day one as a second-round rookie but managed just six games before a knee injury ended his freshman season.
That said, this Packers team has an unusual abundance of premium draft talent, in particular after the Davante Adams trade netted Green Bay an extra first- and second-round draft pick. First-rounders from 2019 and 2021, Gary and Stokes are the standouts. With 9.5 sacks in his third season, Gary missed on the acclaim that comes from a double-digit total. But his 46 hurries were the most among linebackers and point him to an attention-grabbing 2022 season. Meanwhile, Stokes stepped up in 2021 with top corner Alexander out for the bulk of the season. The rookie finished 11th among regular corners with 5.3 yards per target and could follow in his teammate’s Pro Bowl footsteps.
The team’s top picks from 2020, Jordan Love and AJ Dillon, remain limited by the veterans Aaron Rodgers and Aaron Jones in front of them — although the 247-pound Dillon demonstrated an unexpected versatility with a 36.5% receiving DVOA that ranked sixth best at his position in 2021. But first- and second-round rookies Quay Walker, Devonte Wyatt and Christian Watson all have chances to make immediate contributions. Walker will likely start as an interior linebacker next to breakout veteran star De’Vondre Campbell. Wyatt will compete with Chiefs import Jarran Reed to start next to Kenny Clark at defensive tackle. And Watson is as good a guess to emerge as the team’s No. 1 wide receiver as anyone. Frankly, it’s still difficult to imagine how that unit will shake out without Adams soaking up his historically incredible target share.
2021 ranking: 27 | 2020 ranking: 25
The Seahawks are trying to thread an extremely thin needle. They traded away franchise quarterback Russell Wilson but took back veterans including Drew Lock and Shelby Harris, implying the team wants to do more than rebuild in 2022. As such, the Seahawks slipped from 25th and 27th in the under-25 rankings in 2020 and 2021 to 28th this year. They’ll have to wait for their new 2022 and 2023 first- and second-round draft picks to contribute before they make a major move up the board.
The Seahawks did net a top-10 pick in 2022 and drafted a standout left tackle prospect in Cross. He joins an offensive line that beat its perception with a 61% blown pass block rate, 15th best in football last season. If Lock relies less on his legs to extend plays and makes quick decisions, he will have a chance to resurrect his career. He even has a handful of exciting young targets. Noah Fant is a former first-round draft pick and joins Lock from Denver. Metcalf is an established star receiver and was on pace to match his 19.5% receiving DVOA that ranked him 12th at his position in 2020 before Wilson returned too soon from his hand injury in 2021. And both receivers are still just 24. Meanwhile, second-round rookie running back Kenneth Walker led his class with a 29.9% broken tackle rate.
It’s strange to hear of a team that won a Super Bowl with the Legion of Boom, but the Seahawks have their biggest prospect questions on defense. Former first-round linebacker Jordyn Brooks shed the bust label with 184 combined tackles last season, second most of any defender. But his 11.2% broken tackle rate fell short of the positional leaders. The Seahawks faced an absurd 1,201 defensive plays because their offense ranked last with 5.29 plays per drive and because their defense ranked 26th in pass defense DVOA. Their defense was always on the field. The team will hope second-round rookie Boye Mafe can change that with some pass pressure, although it could take some time. Mafe slipped to the second round because of unrefined fundamentals. But he is an incredible athlete who also lettered in basketball and track and field in high school.
2021 ranking: 14 | 2020 ranking: 17
Jon Gruden and Mike Mayock followed their own draft board during their tenure. And while that led to two of the biggest sleeper hits in recent years in fourth-round pass-rusher Crosby and fifth-round receiver Hunter Renfrow, those players are now 25 and 26. And without them, new head coach Josh McDaniels and GM Dave Ziegler are left to reckon with some of the head-scratching draft decisions the previous administration made in the early rounds.
Third-round picks from 2020 Lynn Bowden Jr., Bryan Edwards and Tanner Muse have been traded away or released since their selections. First-round picks from the same class, Henry Ruggs III and Damon Arnette, were released as well, but for off-field issues. Last year’s first-round pick Alex Leatherwood struggled with a 4.1% blown pass block rate. And he looked headed for a training camp battle for either the starting right guard or right tackle position before veteran Denzelle Good decided to retire in late July. And while top 2019 pick Josh Jacobs finished fourth among running backs with 150 or more carries with a 19.4% rushing broken tackle rate last season, the new Raiders front office still declined to pick up Jacobs’ fifth-year option, a decision that challenges the wisdom of drafting any running back in the first round.
Safety Tre’von Moehrig might be the closest thing the Raiders have to a blue-chip prospect. His coverage rates were mediocre in his rookie season, but he allowed just 1.9 average yards after the catch, eighth best among safeties with 15 or more targets. Beyond Moehrig, the team will have to hope some of its Round 3 and 4 rookies like expected left guard starter Dylan Parham and potential Jacobs replacement Zamir White hit. The team traded away its first- and second-round draft picks for veteran receiver Davante Adams.
2021 ranking: 13 | 2020 ranking: 3
The Cardinals secured the biggest part of their future when they extended Murray in late July. But Murray is also set to turn 25 a week before the 2022 season kicks off, and that disqualifies him from consideration from these rankings and drops the Cardinals from third in 2020 and 13th last year all the way to 30th this year.
It isn’t fair to say that the team’s most recent two first-round draft picks, Isaiah Simmons and Zaven Collins, are busts. Simmons demonstrates his versatility as a full-time starter with plays in the box, at outside linebacker and at safety. And while Collins was a rotational player as a rookie, he had an encouraging 14.3% broken tackle rate. But both Simmons and Collins play non-premium defensive positions, and the team could suffer from a misallocation of those resources if its pass rush slips without star veteran Chandler Jones, now in Seattle.
The Cardinals have made a few other strange choices of late. Second-round receiver Rondale Moore looked like an obvious candidate to inherit departed free agent Kirk’s role in the slot. But the team traded for Brown this offseason, and despite his speed, Brown saw 61% of his targets in 2021 from the slot and was more efficient with a minus-9.3% receiving DVOA there vs. a minus-21.1% DVOA out wide. And second-round rookie tight end Trey McBride is a capable pass-catcher but will have to compete for targets with veteran Zach Ertz after the team signed the latter player to a three-year extension. Moore and McBride might become blue-chip players, in any case. They just won’t have as much runway to prove it as many of their contemporaries.
Louis Riddick names Lawrence Taylor as the greatest defensive player of all time.
After shedding veterans including Patrick Peterson, Dre Kirkpatrick and Robert Alford in recent offseasons, the Cardinals will rely on some prospects at corner. But none stands out as a potential blue-chip player. After former first-round pick Jeff Gladney died in a car accident in May, the Cardinals will likely start Byron Murphy Jr. and Marco Wilson as their top two cornerbacks. But neither player ranked in the top 50 among regular corners with 7.6 and 7.9 yards allowed per target last season. At least the team has a proven young safety in Thompson. Thompson has an excellent 10.6% broken tackle rate the past two seasons and is part of one of the best safety duos in football with All-Pro veteran Budda Baker.
2021 ranking: 19 | 2020 ranking: 15
The Titans’ decision to trade star receiver Brown to the Eagles and replace him with a rookie is a big risk. But for the purposes of the under-25 rankings, it was the main reason the Titans avoided last place. Brown turned 25 at the end of June and does not qualify for this year’s list. And while Burks was just the sixth receiver selected at 18th overall, he was the No. 1 receiver in Football Outsiders’ receiver prospect projection system, Playmaker Score, which was impressed by his 1,123 yards and 11 touchdowns in an Arkansas offense that threw the ball just 294 times last season. Burks was also second in his draft class with 9.6 average yards after the catch and so should at least replace one elite aspect of Brown’s game.
Beyond Burks, the Titans are a predominantly veteran team aiming for an encore of their top seed in the AFC while Derrick Henry and Ryan Tannehill are still in their primes. Rookie quarterback Malik Willis has incredible physical tools and the high ceiling those provide. But his slip to the third round shows teams do not view him as a likely long-term starter. Former first-round lineman Isaiah Wilson played just one game for the team before off-field issues derailed his career.
And while the Titans do have a bevy of exciting secondary prospects, most of that excitement comes from projection. Second-round cornerback Kristian Fulton has missed 14 games in two seasons for myriad knee, hamstring and shoulder injuries. Top 2021 draft pick Caleb Farley tore his left ACL in Week 3 last year and missed the rest of the season. Safety Amani Hooker became a starter for the first time in his third season in 2021. And Roger McCreary is a second-round rookie and might need time to adjust to the NFL with his smaller 5-foot-11, 190-pound frame.
2021 ranking: 31 | 2020 ranking: 28
A last-place ranking in under-25 talent means a lot less when you just won the Super Bowl. Of course, the Rams aren’t your run-of-the-mill veteran team. GM Les Snead has willfully traded away the bulk of his earliest picks for star veterans such as Jalen Ramsey and Matthew Stafford. The Rams haven’t made a first-round draft selection since they took Jared Goff first overall in 2016. They also didn’t make a second-round pick in 2016, 2018 and this year, either.
The Rams have found a handful of contributors in the later rounds in recent seasons. Sixth- and second-round safeties Jordan Fuller and Taylor Rapp started the bulk of the team’s 2020 and 2021 games. Fuller finished 15th among safeties with 75 or more tackles with a 13.6% broken tackle rate in 2021. Third-round linebacker Ernest Jones became a starter in the second half of his rookie season and is a favorite Football Outsiders prospect thanks to his versatility in coverage and as a run defender.
But the team has also suffered some bad luck with some of its most promising later draft picks. Cam Akers was poised to take over the starting running back role in 2021 before a preseason Achilles injury to his right leg cost him the bulk of the season and left him a step slow in his return in Week 18 and the playoffs. And fourth-round rookie tight end Jacob Harris tore his ACL in Week 9, just when he was starting to see some playing time on offense.
Without first- and second-round draft picks in 2022 and without first-, fourth- and fifth-round picks in 2023, the Rams might spend a few seasons in the under-25 basement. But as long as Aaron Donald doesn’t retire, expect to see a veteran Rams roster in several more January games.