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Ranking the under-25 talent of all 32 NFL teams 2017

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  • Ranking the under-25 talent of all 32 NFL teams 2017

    Ranking the under-25 talent of all 32 NFL teams

    Scott Kacsmar/Special to ESPN.com
    As much as NFL teams would like to have a roster loaded with veterans in their primes, the salary cap dictates that most rosters have a distribution of rookies, developing players, prime veterans, and guys on their last legs.

    While it is always preferable to be good than to be merely young or old, young talent tells us more about where a team is going in the future. So it's time again for our annual ranking of all 32 teams by their talent under the age of 25. Last year's under-25 rankings had the Jaguars at No. 1 and the Patriots at 32. You'll find those teams much closer together in this year's rankings -- but it's the other elements of the team, not to mention coaching, that really provide the difference in on-field results for those franchises.

    The under-25 talent list is a focus on the building blocks teams are putting in place that should help define the next four to eight seasons -- maybe longer if the teams are fortunate. For more on the methodology behind this list, check out the bottom of the article.

    Here are our rankings for this season. All ages are as of Sept. 7, 2017.

    1. Dallas Cowboys


    2016 ranking: 24

    While skeptics point to the great Dallas offensive line that helped these rookies, that line was intact when the offense finished 31st in 2015 and the Cowboys were 4-12. Elliott won the rushing title by 318 yards without even playing in Week 17. Prescott had arguably the best rookie season ever by a quarterback. In ESPN's advanced quarterback metric for expected points added (EPA), Prescott's 102.5 EPA ranked No. 13 among all seasons since 2006. The only seasons ahead of him were all engineered by the group of Peyton Manning, Tom Brady, Drew Brees, Aaron Rodgers and Matt Ryan. Prescott is in incredible company after one season.

    Dallas' under-25 talent extends beyond Dak and Zeke. La'el Collins is moving to right tackle and just signed a contract extension through 2019. Safety Byron Jones, a 2015 first-round pick, has quietly charted well in his two seasons in spite of just one career interception. He ranked ninth among safeties in adjusted success rate last year. Anthony Brown was promising for a sixth-round rookie cornerback. Rookie defensive tackle Maliek Collins had 11 hurries as a starter.

    David Irving will be suspended for the first four games this season, but he finished 2016 with a perfect run-stop rate and had a team-high 26 hurries. First-round pick Taco Charlton will be expected to contribute, and the Cowboys may finally get something out of very talented linebacker Jaylon Smith. He missed all of last year after a serious knee injury in the Fiesta Bowl.


    2. New York Giants


    2016 ranking: 12

    Like the rival Cowboys, the Giants have two top-tier, under-25 talents in wide receiver Odell Beckham Jr. (three Pro Bowls) and safety Landon Collins (2016 first-team All-Pro). Positional value (i.e. quarterback) gives Dallas a slight edge there. The Giants also have a good slot receiver in Sterling Shepard, and a promising rookie tight end in Evan Engram, though Brandon Marshall will likely be the most targeted non-Beckham receiver this year. Paul Perkins is the lead running back, although Football Outsiders is projecting him to rush for 788 yards this season rather than enjoy a big sophomore surge.

    The Giants likely would have ranked No. 1 if we had more confidence in two of their recent top-10 draft picks. Ereck Flowers has had a shaky start to his career as Eli Manning's blindside protector. In 2015, Flowers ranked 32nd among left tackles in snaps per blown block, and only moved up to 26th in 2016. Meanwhile, rookie corner Eli Apple was the weak link to an otherwise strong secondary last year. Apple finished 81st in adjusted success rate and 86th in adjusted yards per pass. Fortunately, cornerback is a position where talented players routinely take two or three years to develop in the NFL, but Apple is the No. 3 corner at best in New York right now.

    New York could also have right tackle Bobby Hart, middle linebacker B.J. Goodson, and free safety Darian Thompson as three more under-25 starters this season, but that trio has very little starting experience in the NFL.

    3. Tampa Bay Buccaneers


    2016 ranking: 4

    Last season, Tampa Bay's offense thrived on Jameis Winston throwing to Mike Evans, often putting the ball in difficult spots where only Evans could get it. Winston actually had the highest QBR (80.7) for a quarterback under pressure of any season on record since 2009, according to ESPN Stats & Information. He is 23 years old and has already passed for 8,132 yards and 50 touchdowns.

    The "under pressure" part may not sound like a good advertisement for left tackle Donovan Smith and right guard Ali Marpet, but they were not the weakest links in the offensive line last season. To combat the issue in 2017, the Buccaneers have added a wealth of receiving talent for Winston, including O.J. Howard, the consensus-best tight end in this year's draft. He could be a nightmare for defenses in the red zone, and the Buccaneers also added Chris Godwin in the third round while still having 24-year-old slot receiver Adam Humphries.

    On defense, first-round corner Vernon Hargreaves was picked on often and had a not-so-nice No. 69 ranking in adjusted success rate. But rookie cornerbacks are often highly targeted, so those stats don't necessarily preclude Hargreaves from fulfilling his potential in the next couple seasons. Ryan Smith and second-round rookie Justin Evans will compete for the free safety job this season. Linebacker Kwon Alexander had 28 defeats last season, or only one fewer than star teammate Lavonte David. (Defeats combine turnovers, tackles for loss, and plays that prevent conversion on third or fourth down.)

    Once third-round rookie Kendell Beckwith fully recovers from ACL surgery, he is a likely starter next to David and Alexander. Noah Spence chipped in 24 hurries and should be a significant contributor again to the pass rush.

    In case you were wondering, we actually downgraded Tampa Bay for kicker Roberto Aguayo, the most misguided second-round pick in recent history. Aguayo was the NFL's worst kicker at converting field goals and extra points in 2016.

    4. Miami Dolphins


    2016 ranking: 3

    The Dolphins and Buccaneers have swapped rankings from 2016. The edge went to Tampa Bay this time because of our skill preference for its pass receivers to Miami's, as well as the positional value that quarterback Jameis Winston provides.

    Still, the Dolphins boast an impressive selection of under-25 talent, particularly on offense. Jarvis Landry and DeVante Parker are the team's top two receivers, and both could hit 1,000 receiving yards this season. Jay Ajayi is poised for big things after a breakout year in 2016 where he had three 200-yard rushing games. Laremy Tunsil was strong last year (No. 1 in snaps per blown block among left guards, by Sports Info Solutions charting), but should provide even more value in his rightful spot at left tackle.

    Defensively, second-round cornerback Xavien Howard will look for a stronger sophomore season while nickel corner Bobby McCain wants to remain solid at not giving up big plays. In his second season next to Ndamukong Suh, defensive tackle Jordan Phillips was good against the run and racked up 15 hurries. First-round edge rusher Charles Harris may not shine this year, but he could be a future replacement for Cameron Wake. Second-round strongside linebacker Raekwon McMillan is the Miami rookie most likely to start in Week 1 this year.

    5. Atlanta Falcons


    2016 ranking: 13

    Atlanta's top-ranked offense won't feature a ton of under-25 talent around MVP quarterback Matt Ryan this season. Tevin Coleman is a quality backup to Devonta Freeman, and Austin Hooper is one of the league's most promising young tight ends. The only other projected under-25 starter is right guard Wes Schweitzer, who is taking over for the retired Chris Chester.

    Defense is where the Falcons are brimming with young talent. Atlanta would have been the lowest-ranked defense (27th in DVOA) to ever win a Super Bowl, but could not get that final stop against the Patriots. However, young, low-ranked defenses often become much higher-ranked defenses when players hit their prime. This year, the defense will start at least six under-25 players, many of whom are still developing.

    Vic Beasley led the NFL with 15.5 sacks in a first-team All-Pro year. First-round rookie Takkarist McKinley could give the Falcons a great pair of bookend pass-rushers, but probably more so in 2018. Defensive tackle Grady Jarrett had a good Super Bowl, and 20 hurries in the regular season. Linebacker Deion Jonesled the team with 54 stops, and defended the pass well with three interceptions. De'Vondre Campbell was stronger against the run. Third-round rookie Duke Riley (LSU) could also start this season.

    In the secondary, safety Keanu Neal had a very active rookie season, and ranked No. 7 in adjusted yards per pass allowed. Brian Poole and Jalen Collins also provide good depth at cornerback.

    Chargers defensive end Joey Bosa's electrifying rookie season was a bit of a surprise, after a holdout delayed the start of his tenure with the club. Scott Cunningham/Getty Images 6. Los Angeles Chargers


    2016 ranking: 22

    Joey Bosa quickly showed why he was the first defensive player taken in the 2016 draft. He finished with 10.5 sacks and 26 hurries in just 12 games. Melvin Gordon didn't score a touchdown in his rookie season, but broke the plane 12 times last season in 13 games. He should be even better in an offense with a head coach (Anthony Lynn) who preaches the ground-and-pound philosophy. Hunter Henry may have already taken the mantle from Antonio Gates as the team's best tight end. He scored eight touchdowns last year. Denzel Perrymanand Jatavis Brown are talented starting linebackers on defense.

    Second-round pick Forrest Lampwas a highly touted prospect in this year's draft, and should provide an upgrade at right guard for an offensive line that has struggled over the years, provided his training camp injury isn't serious. Spencer Pulley or 2016 third-round pick Max Tuerkshould get a shot at starting center, a position the Chargers have failed to fill since Nick Hardwick retired.

    It wouldn't be the Chargers if there wasn't a dark cloud hanging over everything. No. 7 overall pick Mike Williams could miss the entire season with a back injury. He was expected to be a key contributor for Philip Rivers in the passing game, but fortunately wide receiver is one of the team's deepest positions.

    7. Buffalo Bills


    2016 ranking: 10

    The Bills have a few under-25 starters in significant roles this season. Sammy Watkins is the team's leading receiver and a quality playmaker when he's healthy, though his presence here matters less for his team than most of these young players because the Bills did not pick up his fifth-year option. Cornerback Ronald Darby charted much better in 2015 than he did last year, but he's starter material. Kevon Seymour charted well in limited opportunities as a sixth-round pick last year and should compete for the nickel corner job, vacated by Nickell Robey-Coleman. Right guard John Miller is important to Buffalo's run-heavy offense, and he finished second at his position in snaps per blown block. Linebacker Preston Brown struggles to stop the run, but has a surprising knack for big plays and led the NFL with 31 defeats in 2016.

    Buffalo also gets a reset on its 2016 draft. Injuries robbed Reggie Ragland of his whole rookie year and slowed Shaq Lawson's development since he missed the first six games of the season. Ragland could start at middle linebacker, or share time with Brown. Lawson had 10 hurries in 237 snaps last year and is ready to start this season.

    This year's draft also helped boost the Bills to No. 7. First-round corner Tre'Davious White should slip right into a starting role to replace Stephon Gilmore. Zay Jones set an NCAA record with 399 career receptions, and should find some production in Buffalo for the departed Robert Woods. Second-round pick Dion Dawkins looks like a Week 1 starter at right tackle.

    8. Cleveland Browns


    2016 ranking: 29

    The Browns climbed 21 spots in our rankings, largely because of their draft haul this year. Cleveland wheeled and dealed to get three first-round picks. Myles Garrett was the consensus best player in the draft class, and should finally provide the Browns with a pass rusher that other teams fear. Jabrill Peppers is a versatile weapon for the defense. David Njoku is a highly athletic receiving threat at tight end that should provide instant impact for an offense in need of pass-catchers. All three are only 21 years old.

    At quarterback, DeShone Kizer is an interesting prospect, and Cody Kesslerwasn't horrible when he played last year as a rookie, so the Browns have a shot at developing a decent under-25 quarterback under Hue Jackson as well.

    Isaiah Crowell shined with his best season yet at running back, averaging 4.8 yards per carry. Duke Johnson was effective as a receiving back. Wide receiver Corey Coleman flashed some big-play potential, but needs to stay healthy. The Browns also have Danny Shelton (19th in run stop rate) and Emmanuel Ogbah(22 hurries in 2016) to form a young defensive line trio of high draft picks with Garrett.

    9. New Orleans Saints


    2016 ranking: 15

    A trade like the Saints' sending Brandin Cooks to New England might rattle some offenses, but not when Drew Brees and Sean Payton are running the show. And not when Michael Thomas had the most valuable rookie season (431 DYAR) by a wide receiver since 1986, breaking Randy Moss' record (428 DYAR in 1998). Willie Snead is also an effective slot receiver, and Alvin Kamar was drafted in the third round to be a receiving back. Andrus Peat was above average at left guard, ranked 13th in snaps per blown block.

    Defense is where the Saints need to get better in a hurry while Brees is still having 5,000-yard passing seasons. Sheldon Rankins wasn't a starter last year, but the first-round pick should take on a bigger role in 2017. He had six hurries and 3.5 sacks in limited playing time. Third-round rookie Alex Anzalone has a good shot to start at weakside linebacker in Week 1.

    The secondary is loaded with high draft picks, but not much NFL production to this point. P.J. Williams was drafted in the third round in 2015 but has only appeared in two games because of injuries. Vonn Ball struggled at safety as a rookie last year. The Saints added Marcus Williams out of Utah in the second round this year. First-round rookie Marshon Lattimore has the potential to be a No. 1 corner, and has drawn comparisons to Aqib Talib and Vontae Davis so far.

    10. Kansas City Chiefs


    2016 ranking: 16

    The Chiefs are the only team in the league to feature two first-team All-Pro players that are under 25. Marcus Peters is a standout, ball-hawking cornerback, and Tyreek Hill was a dynamic return specialist as a rookie. Hill also flashed on offense, but is more of a Percy Harvin than a traditional No. 1 receiver. He may get forced into that role with the release of Jeremy Maclin, although the Chiefs also have Chris Conley going into his third season.

    Parker Ehinger should open as the team's starting left guard, while defensive end Chris Jones is a player to watch in his second season. Jones was second on the team with 21 hurries last season.

    Despite two All-Pros, the Chiefs did not rank higher because we do not expect much immediate impact from their rookie class. Patrick Mahomes should be the quarterback of the future, but for now, this is still Alex Smith's offense. Defensive end Tanoh Kpassagnon is destined for backup reps, and running back Kareem Hunt will have to battle with Spencer Ware and Charcandrick West for touches this season.

    11. Jacksonville Jaguars


    2016 ranking: 1

    The high-end talent added on defense finally started to pay off for Jacksonville last season. Rookie cornerback Jalen Ramsey ranked 10th in adjusted success rate even though quarterbacks challenged him often. Myles Jack only played 239 snaps, but should be ready to contribute more this season. Dante Fowler finally got on the field and added 31 hurries, but was overshadowed a bit by Yannick Ngakoue's 8.0 sacks. Remember, sacks aren't everything, and Fowler had 10 more hurries than Ngakoue, but productive players fighting for playing time is a good problem for Jacksonville to have.

    The offense is what gives us pause in dropping the Jaguars down from No. 1 last year to 11th this season. Blake Bortles' problems had a lot to do with it, but Allen Robinson was just not that sharp last season after a Pro Bowl year in 2015. T.J. Yeldon fell out of favor in the running game, and now the team will rely on LSU rookie Leonard Fournette.

    The offensive line is still a big question mark, especially with the retirement of Branden Albert. This means that second-round rookie Cam Robinson will likely be the Week 1 starter at left tackle now. The Jaguars never got what they needed out of Luke Joeckel at that position, but maybe things will be different under the tutelage of head coach Doug Marrone, who has shed the interim label in replacing Gus Bradley.

    12. Tennessee Titans


    2016 ranking: 11

    Tennessee's ranking may actually be too low for those who are very high on quarterback Marcus Mariota. He certainly looked the part of a franchise quarterback last season after a slow start, before a broken leg ended his season. The Titans will be the favorites in the AFC South this year thanks in part to Mariota's efficiency, but he must stay healthy. He already has had three injuries that led to missed starts in two seasons. That's more injuries than most of the top quarterbacks in this era have sustained in their whole careers.

    Right tackle Jack Conklin was a first-team All-Pro in his rookie season. The charting backed this up as he ranked No. 1 at his position in snaps per blown block. Other than Mariota and Conklin, Tennessee's under-25 talent is loaded with potential and depth rather than production. Tajae Sharpe was not as good of a receiver as we thought he could have been last season, but first-round pick Corey Davis might become a legitimate No. 1 wideout in Tennessee. Derrick Henry is a productive backup running back, but DeMarco Murray is still the leading rusher. Austin Johnson may compete for a starting nose tackle job, but the team did bring in Sylvester Williams, a former first-round pick from Denver.

    The secondary is really where the Titans need a boost from young talent, especially since Jason McCourty was released in March. First-round rookie Adoree' Jackson could win a starting job this year, or it could go to last year's third-round pick LeShaun Sims. A player who often stood out last year was safety Kevin Byard, who ranked second among safeties in adjusted yards per pass allowed.

    13. Pittsburgh Steelers


    2016 ranking: 7

    Pittsburgh used to field the oldest defense in the league every year, but a youth movement has finally started to pay off. Almost half of the starting defense is under-25 talent, and that's not including Ryan Shazier, who turns 25 one day before our cutoff date. Otherwise the Steelers would have been in the top 10.

    Defensive end Stephon Tuitt led the team with 21 hurries, while Javon Hargravesettled in at the nose tackle position as a rookie. Bud Dupree looked more comfortable in his second season, and had 4.5 sacks in seven games. Cornerback Artie Burns had his struggles as a rookie, but took on all comers on the outside. Safety Sean Davis improved the defense after he took over the starting job, and he finished fourth in adjusted yards per pass allowed. First-round rookie T.J. Watt should earn some snaps at edge rusher this season.

    Offensively, tight end Jesse James is the only under-25 starter, but he's also the weakest link in an otherwise loaded offense. Pittsburgh's backup receivers (Eli Rogers, Sammie Coates and rookie JuJu Smith-Schuster) could be a productive starting trio in another city, but have to play second fiddle to Antonio Brownand Martavis Bryant. University of Pittsburgh product James Conner is also an intriguing backup to Le'Veon Bell.

    14. Oakland Raiders


    2016 ranking: 27

    Amari Cooper is the ninth receiver in NFL history to start his career with back-to-back 1,000-yard receiving seasons. He hasn't been as dominant as Mike Evans or Odell Beckham Jr., but Cooper has been a strong choice to grow with quarterback Derek Carr. The Raiders also have two under-25 backs who made big plays last year in Jalen Richard and DeAndre Washington, but obviously Marshawn Lynch will get a lot of touches this season.

    The defense has needed a youth overhaul, especially in the secondary. Last year's first-round pick Karl Joseph was an instant answer at safety, though injury robbed him of a quarter of his season. The Raiders also grabbed Obi Melifonwu in the second round as a future replacement for safety Reggie Nelson. Ohio State corner Gareon Conley was drafted in the first round but has started camp on PUP. He has the potential to be Oakland's No. 1 corner very soon.

    Otherwise, the Raiders are looking for more out of Mario Edwards Jr, who was limited to two games last season, and middle linebackers Cory James and Ben Heeney. Defensive lineman Jihad Ward was third on the Raiders with 18 hurries last season. Darius Latham has a shot to start at defensive tackle this year after two starts as a rookie.

    15. Houston Texans


    2016 ranking: 2

    A big part of Houston's slip from No. 2 last year is that DeAndre Hopkins turned 25 in June. Will Fuller V started fast last year as a complement to Hopkins, but he had some big drops, including one in the playoffs in New England; furthermore, he's out indefinitely after breaking his collarbone in training camp. We have yet to see much from Braxton Miller and Jaelen Strong, but the Texans certainly have a lot of potential at receiver.

    Perhaps that potential is realized with rookie quarterback Deshaun Watson, assuming the Clemson product starts instead of Tom Savage. Watson's performance likely will be the driving factor behind Houston's ranking on this list in the next couple of seasons.

    Houston's other big recent draft pick, Jadeveon Clowney, finally stayed healthy and gave us a taste of the potential that made him the No. 1 overall pick in 2014. Clowney's 6.0 sacks in 2016 won't make anyone forget about J.J. Watt, but without Watt available to draw the attention of the offense, Clowney still racked up 33 hurries. Now imagine how he might do in a season where he and Watt are both healthy.

    16. Carolina Panthers


    2016 ranking: 9

    Right guard Trai Turner made his second straight Pro Bowl, though he charted much better in 2015 (third in snaps per blown block) than he did in 2016 (24th). Still, he's the closest to a "sure thing" that the Panthers have on offense as far as under-25 talent goes. Devin Funchess has been a disappointment as a second-round wide receiver so far, and the team added Curtis Samuel in the second round this year.

    Christian McCaffrey is an interesting back for the Panthers to take in the first round. He should provide a boost in the receiving game, should Cam Newtonexplore that option. But with Jonathan Stewart still there, McCaffrey is unlikely to have a huge rushing season in 2017. Football Outsiders projects McCaffrey to rush for more than 600 yards and gain more than 500 receiving yards, a versatile feat that usually only a couple of the game's best backs achieve.

    On defense, Shaq Thompson plays third fiddle to Luke Kuechly and Thomas Davis in the linebacker corps, but he's been solid through two seasons. James Bradberry had huge shoes to fill with the departure of Josh Norman, but the rookie corner actually ranked ninth in adjusted yards per pass. We'd be a little higher on Carolina if 2016 first-round pick Victor Butler was a lock to start, but he only had three hurries in limited playing time last season.

    17. New England Patriots


    2016 ranking: 32

    The Patriots drafted only four players in April, all in the third round or later, and focused on depth in the trenches. However, they traded picks in the first and third rounds to New Orleans for wide receiver Brandin Cooks, one of the best under-25 receivers in the NFL. Cooks joins the deepest offensive cast in the league, but there is no reason he couldn't have another 1,000-yard season and stretch the field for the Patriots.

    New England's other under-25 starters aren't nearly as impressive. In fact, guards Joe Thuney and Shaquille Mason are the weakest link on the offense, ranking 29th and 30th at their positions in snaps per blown block last season. Malcolm Brown and Trey Flowers are starters on the defensive line, and both had at least 13 quarterback hurries last season. Flowers could really take a step forward this year with previous starter Rob Ninkovich having retired.

    The Patriots have potentially good depth at cornerback with high draft picks in Eric Rowe and Cyrus Jones. Rowe's 2016 charting metrics were good, but Jones played only 147 defensive snaps in his rookie season.

    18. Chicago Bears


    2016 ranking: 17

    The 2016 Bears had the highest adjusted games lost to injury in Football Outsiders' database since 2000. Plenty of youngsters played significant snaps last season for that reason, but let's separate the real contributors from the healthy and able.

    Wide receiver Cameron Meredith took advantage of his opportunity, leading the Bears in targets, receptions and yards last season. Jordan Howard was a surprising fifth-round success, making the Pro Bowl as a rookie and finishing second in rushing yards (1,313).

    On defense, the middle of the field is covered with under-25 starters in nose tackle Eddie Goldman, inside linebacker Nick Kwiatkoski, and safety Adrian Amos. The most important under-25 defensive starter is Leonard Floyd, who happens to turn 25 one day after the cutoff date used for this study. Last year's first-round pick struggled against the run as a rookie, but still notched 7.0 sacks in 12 games while also scoring on a fumble return and a safety.

    We didn't give Chicago many points for its 2017 draft class as far as immediate impact goes. The selection of Mitchell Trubisky could give the Bears a quarterback of the future, but the quarterback of the present is Mike Glennon. Second-round tight end Adam Shaheen will have a chance to unseat Zach Millerat the top of the depth chart, but expectations for rookie tight ends are usually low.

    19. San Francisco 49ers


    2016 ranking: 14

    After drafting Arik Armstead and DeForest Buckner in the first round of the previous two drafts, the 49ers went for the three-peat with the selection of Solomon Thomas. If these players ever live up to their potential, then the 49ers will have one of the top defensive lines in the league. Buckner delivered with 23 hurries last season for a defense that was constantly playing from behind. The 49ers also got a potential steal late in the first round with linebacker Reuben Foster, considered a top-10 talent in this draft by many scouts.

    There is plenty of young pass-rushing talent here, including Aaron Lynch and Eli Harold. The secondary continues to be a problem, though second-year corner Rashard Robinson should have a starting job this season. He had solid success in limited playing time last year.

    Offensively, there's not much to gloat about here. Josh Garnett and Trent Brown are the only under-25 starters, manning the right side of the offensive line. Garnett, a first-round pick in 2016, ranked 35th at right guard in snaps per blown block last year. Brown was 22nd among right tackles. This is where new head coach Kyle Shanahan will have to scheme around talent deficiencies to get better results than Chip Kelly managed a year ago.

    20. Washington Redskins


    2016 ranking: 28

    Offensively, wide receivers Jamison Crowder and Josh Doctson have big shoes to fill with the departures of Pierre Garcon and DeSean Jackson. Terrelle Pryor will fill a lot of that void, and Crowder is good in the slot, but Doctson has a lot to prove as a first-round pick with two catches in his rookie season. Rob Kelley emerged as the team's leading rusher last season, but will still face good competition from Matt Jones and fourth-round rookie Samaje Perine.

    In his second season, Su'a Cravens could be the answer at safety for a defense that has had numerous injuries at that positon in Jay Gruden's tenure. At edge rusher, Preston Smith had 26 hurries last season, but hasn't fully distanced himself from Trent Murphy, another recent second-round pick for the Redskins. If that's not enough second-round edge rushers to pair with Ryan Kerrigan, then the team also added Alabama's Ryan Anderson this year.

    The Alabama rookie most likely to contribute to the defense this year is first-round pick Jonathan Allen. He was voted the nation's top defender on the top defense in 2016. Allen can play inside or on the edge and should immediately help a defense that struggled last season.

    21. Detroit Lions


    2016 ranking: 31

    Tight end Eric Ebron may never live up to that 10th overall pick status, but he has increased his catches and yards each season. He just doesn't get many red zone targets in Detroit, despite having the team's highest DVOA in the red zone the past two years. Third-round wideout Kenny Golladay also has a good shot to stand out this year in an offense that has to replace Anquan Boldin's production.

    Running back Ameer Abdullah was having a strong start to 2016 before an injury shelved him. He should be the lead back this year for an offense that was hit the hardest by running back injuries in 2016.

    The Lions received some bad news when left tackle Taylor Decker underwent surgery for a torn labrum this summer. He could miss a significant portion of the season, so the Lions traded for Greg Robinson from the Rams, who has been a bust to this point.

    On defense, A'Shawn Robinson should take on a bigger role as a starting defensive tackle next to veteran Haloti Ngata. First-round rookie Jarrad Davis is a safe bet to step into a Week 1 starting job. Davis could give the Lions the leadership at linebacker that has been missing since DeAndre Levy's health went haywire.

    22. Green Bay Packers


    2016 ranking: 18

    Davante Adams is still a bit rough around the edges -- he had an NFL-high three dropped passes in the end zone -- but 2016 was his best season yet, with 12 touchdown catches. Ty Montgomery averaged 5.9 yards per carry after converting from wide receiver to running back. Even if the Packers aren't content to run him 15 times a week, the other options are also under 25, as Green Bay drafted three backs in the later rounds, most notably fourth-round pick Jamaal Williams out of BYU.

    Kenny Clark, a 2016 first-round pick, is still looking for his first sack, but did have 8.0 hurries last season. Blake Martinez is pegged to start at middle linebacker again in his second season after out-producing Joe Thomas last year.

    The secondary is where general manager Ted Thompson has been investing many of his draft resources in recent years. Safety Ha Ha Clinton-Dix made his first Pro Bowl last season with a career-high five interceptions. Quinten Rollinsand Damarious Randall will have both turned 25 before Week 1, and both really struggled in 2016. Cornerback Kevin King was Green Bay's first draft selection in the second round this year, and safety Josh Jones went later in the same round. Neither is likely a Week 1 starter, but a lack of secondary depth hurt the Packers last season. This should help with that, as well as give the team a few potential future starters.

    23. Seattle Seahawks


    2016 ranking: 21

    Tyler Lockett was a dynamic, All-Pro return specialist as a rookie, and an improving deep threat as a wide receiver. He should be healthy this year after he broke his leg in Week 16. Seattle also has two very talented under-25 backs, but health has been an issue. Thomas Rawls was spectacular in 2015 as a rookie, but struggled last season in an injury-plagued campaign. C.J. Prosise presents an interesting matchup as a receiving back, but both players could be limited by the addition of Eddie Lacy from Green Bay.

    Seattle's offensive line has struggled to protect Russell Wilson. Germain Ifediranked 33rd among right guards in snaps per blown block last season. He is moving to right tackle for 2017.

    The defensive line has been much more successful for this team. Jarran Reedhad a quiet rookie season at defensive tackle, but could always improve. Frank Clark racked up 22 hurries as a backup defensive end, more than doubling his rookie production (10.5). The Seahawks also grabbed Malik McDowell in the second round this year, though he just recently suffered a concussion in an ATV accident.

    24. Indianapolis Colts


    2016 ranking: 25

    Donte Moncrief did not have the 2016 season he wanted, due to injury, but he still had a career-high seven touchdown catches in nine games. He is a solid No. 2 option to T.Y. Hilton and this will be his contract year. As a former first-round pick, vertical threat Phillip Dorsett needs to show more in his third season.

    Andrew Luck had the third-highest pressure rate among quarterbacks last season. The Colts' offensive line could feature three under-25 starters, but are any of them good? Center Ryan Kelly was solid as a rookie, ranking 12th at his position in snaps per blown block. Joe Haeg played multiple positions and charted well, too. He could settle into a starting guard job. Le'Raven Clark only started three games as a rookie, but should be an improvement over Joe Reitz.

    Defensively, the Colts are still stuck with starting a lot of veterans from other teams, but a few draft picks should contribute heavily this year. Recent high picks on safeties T.J. Green and 2017 first-round pick Malik Hooker should lead to a lot of snaps. Green did not chart well as a rookie (55th in adjusted success rate), but Hooker is better suited to play center field against the pass. Second-round pick Quincy Wilson is a big press corner who could also start as a rookie.

    25. Philadelphia Eagles


    2016 ranking: 30

    In his rookie season, Carson Wentz ranked 27th in passing DVOA and 26th in QBR. The Eagles are hoping that veteran additions (Alshon Jeffery, Torrey Smith and LeGarrette Blount) will help Wentz, the offense's only under-25 starter besides left guard Isaac Seumalo, improve in Year Two. This means Nelson Agholor, a 2015 first-round pick, is the fourth receiver on the depth chart at best. He has been a big disappointment. Even if Wentz does improve, he won't qualify for next year's rankings, since he turns 25 in late December.

    Rarely does a team add an under-25 talent via trade, but the Eagles landed defensive tackle Timmy Jernigan from the Ravens in April. Jernigan was strong against the run (92 percent stop rate) and had 15 quarterback hurries last season. He should be an instant contributor to the defense this year. Seventh-round corner Jalen Mills was a pleasant surprise last season. He ranked 11th in adjusted success rate in coverage.

    As for the rookies, expectations are low this season. First-round defensive end Derek Barnett was very productive at Tennessee, but may have to learn more behind veterans Chris Long and Brandon Graham this season. Second-round cornerback Sidney Jones tore his Achilles tendon at his pro day. He'll prepare to play this season, but there is a good chance he won't debut in the NFL until 2018.

    26. Cincinnati Bengals


    2016 ranking: 20

    The hope with the Bengals' youth is that Tyler Boyd and first-round rookie John Ross form one of the league's best receiving corps. However, expect A.J. Greenand tight end Tyler Eifert to still get the most targets provided they are healthy again.

    At running back, Jeremy Hill doesn't turn 25 until October, but he has not been able to recapture the magic from the second half of his rookie season in 2014. Giovani Bernard is a better receiving back, and the Bengals used a second-round pick on Joe Mixon this year, so expect a committee approach again. The offensive line is also in flux, and Jake Fisher will have to prove he can handle the right tackle job this year. He averaged 32.8 snaps per blown block in 2016, a poor number.

    Injuries prematurely ended the rookie seasons of cornerback William Jackson III and defensive tackle Andrew Billings last year. Neither is ready to crack the starting lineup of a defense without any projected under-25 starters.

    27. Los Angeles Rams


    2016 ranking: 5

    The Rams were our No. 1 team in the 2014 under-25 rankings. They were third and fifth the next two years, but as so much of that talent has aged or turned out to be fool's gold that we have soured on this team's ability to develop talent.

    The good news is that Jeff Fisher was fired as head coach, the team traded disappointing tackle Greg Robinson to Detroit, and the Rams are going in a different direction with new head coach Sean McVay and defensive coordinator Wade Phillips. The bad news is McVay has his hands full with an offense that could not get Todd Gurley, a very talented back, going on the ground last year. Gurley's 1.59 yards before first contact per run ranked next to last in 2016.

    Worse, No. 1 overall pick Jared Goff had a frighteningly bad rookie season. Goff's DVOA even without pressure was minus-45.2 percent, the worst in our database by a wide margin since 2010. It was only seven starts for Goff, but he has a long way to go to earn trust that he can be even an average starter.

    All of the Rams' under-25 talent is focused on the offense right now, so McVay has some pieces to work with to get better results. Rookies Cooper Kupp (wide receiver) and Gerald Everett (tight end) should boost a receiving corps that can't all be screens to nowhere with Tavon Austin. Still, Goff and Gurley are the keys to turning this offense around in Los Angeles.

    28. Minnesota Vikings


    2016 ranking: 6

    The gruesome knee injury suffered by Teddy Bridgewater last summer is the biggest reason for the Vikings having one of the largest drops in our rankings. We couldn't give Minnesota proper credit for the young quarterback when his playing career is in so much jeopardy. Hopefully he'll get a shot to play again.

    The Vikings struck some gold in the middle rounds of the 2015 draft with wide receiver Stefon Diggs (fifth round) and defensive end Danielle Hunter (third round). Diggs led the team in receptions for the second year in a row, and Hunter had 12.5 sacks in 2016 alone.

    Rookie running back Dalvin Cook has the fifth-best projection since 1998 in our BackCAST system. However, the addition of Latavius Murray and shortcomings of Minnesota's offensive line could limit his 2017 potential. The Vikings also have to get way more out of Laquon Treadwell, a 2016 first-round wide receiver who had just one catch last season in an offense that needed more playmaking ability.

    29. New York Jets


    2016 ranking: 19

    With the Jets we seem to run into that annual problem of "the roster is so bad, of course there are many openings for players who may not actually be good." For instance, wide receivers Robby Anderson, Charone Peake and rookie ArDarius Stewart could have plenty of chances to pile up some numbers behind Quincy Enunwa. Anderson is a decent deep threat, but these players wouldn't start for most teams in the league. The same can be said of fifth-round rookie tight end Jordan Leggett, who has a shot to lock down a starting job this year.

    New York's under-25 strength is high draft picks on defense, including defensive end Leonard Williams and rookie safety Jamal Adams. The latter should be a Week 1 starter, while Williams made his first Pro Bowl last year. Darron Lee and Jordan Jenkins will start in the linebacker corps in their second season, but neither made many splash plays last season.

    If Christian Hackenberg, a 2016 second-round pick, was winning the starting quarterback job instead of Josh McCown, then we might be willing to give the Jets a bigger boost. However, Hackenberg would have to beat out Bryce Pettyjust to be the backup after he didn't get in any regular-season games last year. Look for us to write about USC quarterback Sam Darnold in this space next year.

    30. Baltimore Ravens


    2016 ranking: 23

    Baltimore's recent drafts have been a mixed bag under general manager Ozzie Newsome. So far, the best thing wide receiver Breshad Perriman has done was get drafted in the first round. The production hasn't been there yet. Likewise, Maxx Williams has done very little as a second-round tight end taken in 2015.

    Ronnie Stanley's rookie season was promising enough at left tackle -- he ranked 14th at his position in snaps per blown block. The highlight of Baltimore's 2016 draft may have been getting cornerback Tavon Young in the fourth round. He ranked 35th in adjusted success rate last season, but will miss 2017 due to an ACL tear suffered this offseason.

    The Ravens could start some other young defenders in defensive tackle Willie Henry and inside linebacker Kamalei Correa, a second-round pick in 2016. Cornerback Marlon Humphrey was added in the first round and has drawn positive comparisons to teammate Jimmy Smith.

    Baltimore did get some bad news in July. Second-year running back Kenneth Dixon will miss the entire 2017 season with a torn meniscus in his left knee.

    31. Arizona Cardinals


    2016 ranking: 8

    Arizona's low ranking has a lot to do with "dollar linebacker" Deone Bucannonturning 25 a week before the season starts. Otherwise, the Cardinals are banking on young first-round potential, but not much production. 2015 pick D.J. Humphries started his career in the doghouse as a healthy scratch, but he ranked 10th among left tackles in snaps per blown block last year. Robert Nkemdiche will hope for a similar boost in his sophomore season. The rookie had just one tackle in 2016, failing to silence critics after some off-field issues led to him sliding in the draft.

    This year the defense added linebacker Haason Reddick and versatile safety Budda Baker in the first two rounds, but neither is a shoe-in to start in Week 1. Baker could see the field a lot early given Tyrann Mathieu's injury history.

    Cornerback Brandon Williams should do a better job as a starter opposite of Patrick Peterson than Marcus Cooper did last year. Beyond that, right guard Evan Boehm is the only other projected under-25 starter for Arizona. Tight end has been a weakness in Arizona for quite some time. Troy Niklas was a second-round pick in 2014, but has just eight catches for 71 yards in 26 games. He'll turn 25 in September and has one more shot to prove himself.

    32. Denver Broncos


    2016 ranking: 26

    The Broncos have slipped in our rankings every year, but find themselves last this year, with linebacker Shane Ray as the only projected under-25 starter in 2017. He is a solid complement to Von Miller, but will miss nearly two months with a torn ligament in his wrist. Denver's other young pass-rusher, backup Shaquil Barrett, has been out of action since May with a hip injury. Second-round rookie defensive end DeMarcus Walker projects to be a backup to Derek Wolfe this season.

    Denver's "No Fly Zone" secondary is now all 25-and-up after Bradley Roby's 25th birthday in May. Even the two recent high draft picks Denver has used at left tackle, Ty Sambrailo and 2017 rookie Garrett Bolles, both turned 25 this year, so there's nothing of note from those units. The Broncos have also struggled to find a third receiver, and it doesn't look like rookie tight end Jake Butt will be of much help in 2017. He tore his ACL in last year's Orange Bowl and is on the non-football injury list. He could be a key contributor in 2018, though.

    The easiest way for Denver to make a big leap in these rankings next year is for Paxton Lynch to show he's the quarterback of the future. However, his rookie starts were not very encouraging, and the 23-year-old quarterback is currently lagging behind Trevor Siemian in the competition for the starting job.

    Methodology


    We wanted to create a ranking that balanced opportunity with performance and potential, so we used the following criteria:
    • The number of games in 2016 started by players under the age of 25
    • The number of snaps played in 2016 by players under the age of 25
    • Whether a team's young starters last season were simply injury replacements
    • The number of under 25 first-team All-Pros and Pro Bowl players a team has on its roster (All-Pros were given more weight than Pro Bowls)
    • Positional value (young quarterbacks and positions impacting the passing game carry more weight; backup running backs and kickers are devalued)
    • The amount of value a team added in the 2017 draft, with a focus on the first two rounds (premium picks)
    • The expected number of key starters and reserves under the age of 25 in 2017
    • A team's recent track record of developing and retaining young talent
    • Players with significant injury or suspension issues in 2017 are downgraded
    You'll see a number of references to Football Outsiders stats on our list, in particular DVOA (defense-adjusted value over average), which takes every play and compares its success to the NFL average based on situation and opponent. You can read more about that and other FO stats on this page. Statistics that reference game charting come from the collective efforts of ESPN Stats & Information and Sports Info Solutions, and you can find a lot more of those stats in the newly released Football Outsiders Almanac 2017.
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