Top 25 NFL players under 25: Lamar Jackson headlines 2021 list, which features three Buccaneers, two Steelers


The 2021 NFL offseason saw plenty of old-timers steal headlines: Tom Brady, 43, guaranteeing at least one defense of the BuccaneersSuper Bowl title; Aaron Rodgers, 37, privately airing grievances about the Green Bay Packers; Matthew Stafford, 33, getting a fresh start with the Los Angeles Rams. But that doesn’t mean football isn’t a young man’s game these days.

Some of the NFL‘s brightest stars are also some of the NFL’s youngest. Just ask Jaguars, Jets, Bears, 49ers and Patriots fans, who this April welcomed fresh faces at the quarterback position — all of whom could start this year at 22 or younger.

With that in mind, we decided to rank 25 of the NFL’s best players under the age of 25. This is an annual exercise here at CBS Sports, one previously handled by Sean Wagner-McGough (who’d be so proud to at least look forward to the possibility of a Bears QB finally cracking this list). Before we get into the rundown, a couple of ground rules and FAQs:

  • Why is age 25 the cutoff? Generally speaking, most top players enter the NFL at ages 20-21. That means their first contracts tend to run right up until about 25. It certainly doesn’t mean 26-year-old superstars aren’t young, but this gives us an easy dividing line. You can then, in most cases, view this list as the top players still on their rookie deals.
  • What is the cutoff for a player turning 25? We’re counting a player as under 25 as long as they are 24 or younger when the 2021 season officially begins on Sept. 9. It doesn’t matter if you turn 25 in Week 2; anyone who begins the year under 25 is in play.
  • Is anyone else excluded from the list? Yes: This year’s rookies. While we could take guesses and throw top picks like Trevor Lawrence or Trey Lance or Ja’Marr Chase into the list, we prefer to rank players who have already established themselves in the NFL, even if for just one season. That also aligns with this …
  • What goes into the ranking? Both past performance and projection, as well as, to a lesser degree, positional value. So it helps if a player has already been really good for three years, but it also helps if his future outlook is really bright. It also probably helps if the player starts at, say, quarterback rather than running back, for obvious reasons. Try not to get too caught up in whether this ranking indicates where they currently rank or where we think they will rank after 2021; it’s a hodgepodge of where they stand right now and where we think they’re headed this year.

Without further ado, you’ll find below our top 25 players under 25 for 2021. Oh, and one last thing: Like the list? Love it? Despise it? Feel free to shoot your comments our way. *Immediately regrets asking for feedback.*

25. Steelers WR Chase Claypool (23)

Chase Claypool
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There are so many young wideouts to choose from, but Claypool brings so much to the table long term. He’s got size you can’t teach. He was an instant big-play weapon in Pittsburgh. And he’s got Steelers WR history on his side; no one drafts pass catchers like Steel City, and he’s already showcased the tools to be a future No. 1.

24. Bills MLB Tremaine Edmunds (23)

Some would argue he’s yet to consistently live up to his ceiling as a young, imposingly built talent, but he’s still an impressive guy to have roaming the middle. His three-year production (355 tackles, 14 QB hits, 5.5 sacks) earned him more time in Buffalo.

23. Eagles RB Miles Sanders (24)

You can find running back production almost anywhere, yes. And Sanders must stay healthy to warrant a longer-term role in Philly this year. But he’s often been a home-run hitter when active. Look out for him working alongside Jalen Hurts in a new offense.

22. Buccaneers S Antoine Winfield Jr. (22)

He’s got room to improve, and his size (5-9, 203) will always be something to keep an eye on. But he sure didn’t play like a rookie in 2020, bringing both confidence and toughness to Tampa Bay’s secondary. He’s an early fan favorite for a reason.

21. Jets DT Quinnen Williams (23)

Quinnen Williams
Getty Images

We tend to overlook the Jets after the Adam Gase experience, but Williams is basically the prototype for the interior of your D-line. He’s got to stay on the field, but he made a sizable jump, even as a pass rusher, in 2020. Now imagine what heights he can reach as the penetrating center of Robert Saleh’s front four.

20. Buccaneers ILB Devin White (23)

No one ever doubted his athleticism, but under Todd Bowles’ watch in 2020, White emerged as more of a legitimate chess piece for a championship defense. Nine sacks and 140 tackles as an inside linebacker? It helps he plays alongside such a solid core, but the pieces are there for him to become a decade-long staple.

19. Panthers DE Brian Burns (23)

If you’re looking for one guy who might surge up the list by 2022, it’s probably Burns. Two years into his career, he’s moved around from OLB to end, racking up 37 QB hits and 16.5 sacks, including nine in 2020, along the way. He’s quietly one of the top pieces on a very young defense that also features former first-rounder Derrick Brown.

18. Panthers WR D.J. Moore (24)

If he played for a contender like the Buccaneers or Chiefs or Ravens, we might be talking about him as a top-10-caliber wideout. In Carolina, catching passes from Kyle Allen and Teddy Bridgewater, he’s done nothing but produce. The touchdown totals haven’t been wild, but he’s both a good volume and big-play option with room to grow.

17. Saints CB Marshon Lattimore (24)

Marshon Lattimore
USATSI

Top-end corners are hard to come by, and Lattimore can be one. He’s deflected at least 10 passes in each of his four seasons and picked off at least two passes in three of them. He also never lacks for confidence. Still, his name is sometimes bigger than his resume; he’s played a full year just once and has endured some slumps.

16. Bengals S Jessie Bates III (24)

The best safety you’ve never heard of. Often overshadowed by the lapses of inferior running mates in Cincinnati, Bates has quietly been an ascendant and steady hand at the back end of the secondary, logging at least 100 tackles and three picks in each of his first three seasons. The 2020 All-Pro honors confirmed his rise.

15. Bears ILB Roquan Smith (24)

Maybe it’s because Chicago has drawn headlines for the wrong reasons at QB, or because Khalil Mack also plays on his side of the ball, or because he missed four games in 2019, but Smith doesn’t seem to get the elite props he deserves. When healthy, he’s a bowling ball at the heart of the Bears’ “D” — one of the game’s most steady tackling machines.

14. Giants RB Saquon Barkley (24)

Why isn’t he higher? Well, it’s not easy championing a guy who averaged 1.8 yards per carry in two games before blowing out his knee in 2020, not to mention at a position more dependent on other factors. Why isn’t he lower? Regardless of the position, Barkley remains a truly freakish athlete. Fully healthy, he’s a dual threat who can change an entire game with his speed and power.

13. Steelers S Minkah Fitzpatrick (24)

Minkah Fitzpatrick
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A handful of experts scoffed when the Steelers traded a first-rounder to land Fitzpatrick during the 2020 season, but since then, he’s done nothing but establish himself as maybe the game’s top ball hawk on the back end. Nine picks and 20 pass deflections in 30 games with Pittsburgh? When isn’t this guy around the ball? He’s an ideal center-field-style leader.

12. Buccaneers OT Tristan Wirfs (22)

Rookie tackles don’t always fare well out of the gate, but Wirfs was an absolute anchor on a line that helped keep Tom Brady upright for yet another Super Bowl run. The Iowa product used his mammoth size to his advantage, never once missing a snap on the right side, and has the upside to be one of the NFL’s best at his position for the next decade or so.

11. 49ers OLB Fred Warner (24)

In a day and age where linebackers are increasingly shuffled to the sidelines in favor of cover men, Warner has consistently popped at the heart of San Francisco’s defense. The guy’s been both durable (zero missed games in three years) and attracted to the ball (367 career tackles), giving the 49ers a rangy and reliable centerpiece on his side of the ball.

10. Titans WR A.J. Brown (24)

He doesn’t get nearly enough credit for the way he’s started his career. Maybe it’s because he plays second fiddle, at least in terms of public perception, to Derrick Henry on Tennessee’s offense. But the big-bodied Brown has been both a short-area and downfield threat: A true No. 1. He and the two receivers in front of him here are fairly interchangeable in terms of talent level.

9. Seahawks WR DK Metcalf (23)

DK Metcalf
USATSI

From a physical standpoint, you can’t do much better than this. We’re talking about literal track speed coupled with linebacker physicality. Two years in, and he’s got 2,203 yards and 17 touchdowns. So he’s no slouch as an actual pass catcher, either. Is he a dynamic route runner? Maybe not, but who cares when you can toss it up and bank on him overpowering the other guy?

8. Bengals QB Joe Burrow (24)

This requires a fair amount of projection. We’ve got just 10 games to work off, thanks to Burrow’s late-rookie-season knee injury, and he was more solid than elite throughout 2020. But the smarts and the moxie are there. If he stays healthy, he’s destined to be a winner. Is he a better player than, say, Metcalf or A.J. Brown right now? No. But the upside’s too great to ignore, especially at his position. If he stays healthy and plays up to par, he’d easily justify a top-five spot here.

7. Vikings WR Justin Jefferson (22)

It’s hard to believe now, but countless draft pundits viewed him as more of a safe than special prospect in 2020. Turns out Jefferson was both. A safety valve and elite play-maker for Kirk Cousins and Co. as a rookie, instantly replacing Stefon Diggs‘ swag and production, he already has the looks of a top-five starter at his position — a matchup nightmare with a knack for splash plays.

6. Washington DE Chase Young (22)

If you prefer him a spot or two higher, we won’t be upset. While his 7.5 sacks as a rookie weren’t eye-popping, he also did pretty much everything he was asked, and then some, as the headliner of Ron Rivera’s vaunted front four. Bigger than his first-year production: A freakish size-speed build that should allow him to keep getting better with each season.

5. Packers CB Jaire Alexander (24)

Jaire Alexander
USATSI

Guys like Jalen Ramsey, Xavien Howard and Tre’Davious White get lots of buzz as top young corners, but Alexander is right up there in terms of lock-down No. 1s. His interception marks aren’t flashy, but add in his postseason picks and fumble totals, and he’s had a hand in 11 takeaways over three years. He also rarely gets beat and always brings physicality to Green Bay’s “D.”

4. 49ers DE Nick Bosa (23)

Chase Young may be the talk of the young pass rushers, but Bosa was an absolute man during his own Defensive Rookie of the Year campaign. As a first-year starter, he had 9.0 sacks to Young’s 7.5, 16 tackles for loss to Young’s 10, and 25 QB hits to Young’s 12. Both are elite, but Bosa, even coming off a lost year, will scare opponents. Look out for a T.J. Watt-esque ascension. 

3. Cardinals QB Kyler Murray (24)

He needs to take better care of the ball (and himself), but don’t be too swayed by Arizona’s mediocre standings since his arrival. If the NFL hosted a re-draft of all players, he’d still be highly coveted. He’s yet to miss a game, he plays bigger than he is, and he’s yet to hit his ceiling. He’s also an elite dual threat in the mold and attitude of a young Cam Newton. In other words: A game-changer.

2. Chargers QB Justin Herbert (23)

Imagine telling people this just before the 2020 draft. Herbert has room to grow, but he showed all the traits of a true franchise QB as a rookie: Poise, smarts, big-time arm talent. Not only that, but he did it while working under an iffy staff on a team that couldn’t stop beating itself after an abbreviated offseason. He can be an MVP challenger (and legit Patrick Mahomes rival) soon.

1. Ravens QB Lamar Jackson (24)

Lamar Jackson
USATSI

Question his big-game passing all you want, but you just can’t replicate this kind of athleticism. Every time Jackson steps on the field, he gives the Ravens arguably the NFL’s most electric play-maker. What he lacks in Allen’s physicality and passing resume, he makes up for with unmatched elusiveness. If Baltimore helps him up front and from the sidelines, he can win a championship.

***

Just missed: Raiders RB Josh Jacobs (23), Washington RB Antonio Gibson (23), Ravens RB J.K. Dobbins (22), Jaguars RB James Robinson (22), Buccaneers RB Ronald Jones II (24), Bengals WR Tee Higgins (22), Jaguars WR D.J. Chark (24), Giants WR Darius Slayton (24), Steelers WR JuJu Smith-Schuster (24), Browns OT Jedrick Wills (22), Panthers DT Derrick Brown (23), Chiefs CB L’Jarius Sneed (24), Panthers S Jeremy Chinn (23)

Maybe next year: Dolphins QB Tua Tagovailoa (23), Eagles QB Jalen Hurts (23), Lions RB D’Andre Swift (22), Rams RB Cam Akers (22), Colts RB Jonathan Taylor (22), Chiefs RB Clyde Edwards-Helaire (22), Broncos WR Jerry Jeudy (22), Bills WR Gabriel Davis (22), Cowboys WR CeeDee Lamb (22), Chiefs WR Mecole Hardman (23), 49ers WR Brandon Aiyuk (23), Broncos TE Noah Fant (23), Jets OT Mekhi Becton (22)

Just too old: Chiefs QB Patrick Mahomes (25), Bills QB Josh Allen (25), Texans QB Deshaun Watson (25), Browns RB Nick Chubb (25), Panthers RB Christian McCaffrey (25), Buccaneers WR Chris Godwin (25), Washington WR Terry McLaurin (25), Cowboys WR Michael Gallup (25), Broncos WR Courtland Sutton (25), Colts OG Quenton Nelson (25), Chiefs OT Orlando Brown Jr. (25), Lions C Frank Ragnow (25), Browns DE Myles Garrett (25), Broncos OLB Bradley Chubb (25), Ravens CB Marlon Humphrey (25), Saints S Marcus Williams (25)





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