Who are the most promising rising stars in the NFL? Marc Sessler compiled a roster of the top players under 25 years old heading into the 2020 season.
NOTE: To be eligible, players must be younger than 25 years old on Sept. 10, the day the season kicks off.
Were you expecting someone else? Thirty-one starts into his made-for-cinema career, Patrick Mahomes appears to harbor no weakness, topping his 50-touchdown MVP frolic of 2018 with a Super Bowl title one season later. Lamar Jackson and Deshaun Watson spin a special brand of brilliance, but Mahomes looms today as the most complete-package quarterback of our time. Emitting downfield laser fire and flair-drenched sidearm spells with ease, Mahomes scans defenders with the eyes of a hawk and remains underrated in one key category: physical toughness. The beating heart of the Chiefs played through a laundry list of concerning injuries last autumn to reach the promised land and cap off a torrid, two-year run that all but redefined what we feel about the most important position in sports.
One of the more impeccable gridiron specimens to grace earth, McCaffrey's ground artistry and pass-catching elegance are the stuff of nightmares for would-be tacklers. As the only player in league history to notch 2,500-plus yards rushing and receiving over his first three seasons, McCaffrey's biggest feat is this: Accounting for 43 percent of Carolina's offense last season when teams knew he was the guy snap after snap after snap. Consider that his 116 grabs a year ago were topped only by Saints luminary Michael Thomas. As a 23-year-old, McCaffrey joined forces with Roger Craig and Marshall Faulk as the only trio of backs to cross 1,000 yards rushing and receiving in the same campaign. Faulk, the Hall of Famer, didn't mince words, saying of McCaffrey: "He's a better version of me."
A reminder to agitated Twitter types that Ezekiel Elliott, Alvin Kamara and Dalvin Cook all turn 25 this summer. Besides, Barkley has a case against anyone as a dual-threat, clad-in-blue freak whom enemies targeted from the minute he hit the field for the wanting Giants. To a lesser degree than McCaffrey, Barkley roams as a towering danger in the passing game with a juicy 143/1,159/6 line over two seasons. Coming off an injury-shaded sophomore effort, Barkley should shine for years to come as an electric, slippery wonder in New York's backfield.
Long before Tom Brady ventured south, Godwin shape-shifted into a whirlwind for secondaries to ponder. Bucs coach Bruce Arians crystal-balled a big year for Godwin last offseason, saying: "I think [he's] going to be close to a 100-catch guy." Close, indeed, with 86 grabs for 1,333 yards (third among all wideouts last season) and nine touchdowns. All of this came with veteran receiver Mike Evans gobbling up a 67/1,157/8 line of his own for a Tampa offense set to explode with Brady and Rob Gronkowski added to the lineup.
The future at receiver appears bright with A.J. Brown, D.J. Moore, Terry McLaurin and D.K. Metcalf in the mix. I'll take the underrated Sutton over all of them after seeing him thrive as a bona fide No. 1 option in a Denver offense that suddenly looks spicy. With Emmanuel Sanders traded at midseason, the sophomore Sutton spent many Sundays tangling with top-flight cover men, yet still racked up 1,112 yards and six touchdowns on 72 catches. After a rookie campaign stunted by drops, the Broncos wideout registered just three flubs off 115 targets in an offense weighed down for much of the year by stone-age pony Joe Flacco.
I flip-flopped Chubb and Barkley more than once while piecing this together. Offering flickers of Jim Brown with his brute power and bounce-off-you rumblings, Chubb can do anything asked of him on the ground, outrushing Saquon over two seasons and topping both the Giants star and McCaffrey with his gaudy 5.1 yards per blast. Chubb's 1,122 yards after contact trailed only Derrick Henry in 2019, per Pro Football Focus.
Andrews tore off the doors last season with 16 catches for 220 yards and two scores during Baltimore's raucous 2-0 start to the year. His 64/852/10 line topped Ravens skill players across the board, as Andrews served as Lamar Jackson's favorite weapon when Baltimore's backfield wasn't blasting front sevens into the dirt. From another angle: Andrews was explosive enough to allow the Ravens to trade away first-round tight end Hayden Hurst.
Speaking of last year's Ravens, Brown started 16 games on the right side for Baltimore and finished as football's 10th-best pass-blocking tackle, per PFF. His run-blocking could use a boost, but the Ravens have no questions about whether Brown belongs.
No questions linger over Smith, either, with the second-year Colts tackle scoring PFF's fourth-highest run-blocking mark at the position as an integral part of one of the AFC's top lines.
Forget the age restrictions: Nelson is already the finest guard in all of football. One of the most complete interior linemen of the 21st century, the third-year blocker cuts the figure of a mauler who could thrive in any era. It's a shame Andrew Luck didn't get his services sooner, but Philip Rivers isn't complaining.
Our second guard spot goes to Jenkins, who stepped into the role as a Packers rookie and meshed immediately as a prized Aaron Rodgers bodyguard.
What more can you ask from a rookie center? McCoy surpassed his second-round pedigree to earn PFF's fourth-highest mark by a pivot off a third-ranked run-blocking score and eighth-best pass-blocking grade. With newly minted first-rounder Cesar Ruiz added to the crew, the Saints have compiled a bully-centric interior line.
Football heads spent last offseason predicting that Bosa -- like brother Joey -- would emerge right away as a game-altering horror show off the edge. Football heads were right. The second overall pick of last year's draft treated opposing tackles like frightened toddlers en route to a rookie record 80 total pressures, per PFF, with the site labeling Bosa's handiwork the "best rookie season" recorded at the position. Does the Bosa clan have any other brothers lying around, by chance? Bradley Chubb deserves a mention here, too, despite a season wiped out by injury after just four games.
Understandably lost in Garrett's inexcusable helmet smash of Steelers passer Mason Rudolph was the makings of a stellar campaign. Despite a resulting suspension that ended Garrett's season after Week 11, the third-year edge man posted an NFL-high 25 percent pass-rush win rate, per PFF. The Browns watched their defense fall apart without him down the stretch, as thrilled offensive coordinators could suddenly forget about one of the game's most ferocious balls of energy. Garrett has the ability to top 20 sacks in the right environment.
Green Bay's defense crumbled into playoff dust against the Niners, but it wasn't for lack of talent. As the keystone of an improved Packers front, Clark appropriately earned Pro Bowl honors as a pocket-pressing nuisance whose 52 inside hurries trailed only Aaron Donald (53) last season, per PFF. Clark flies under the radar, but his consistent handiwork over 46 starts reveals one of game's hidden gems.
With Vita Vea just past the 25 mark, Lawrence gets the nod over Jeffery Simmons, Taven Bryan and Da'Shawn Hand. The first-rounder was a raging headache against the run in Year 1 and brought a ray of hope to an otherwise-lost-at-sea Giants defense. It appears 340-pound behemoths still have a place in today's NFL.
Vander Esch struggled through a painful neck injury last season, but no doubt lingers over his ceiling when healthy. A force-of-nature Pro Bowl selection as a rookie in 2018, the Cowboys' first-rounder piled up 140 tackles, two picks and six pass breakups. Two seasons ago feels like the early 1970s, but it's a crime to forget Vander Esch and Jaylon Smith shrinking the field as sideline-to-sideline wizards. We'll be reminded again come kickoff.
Many to pick from with Devin Bush, Devin White and Dre Greenlaw showing plenty as rookies. Okereke produced the most complete campaign of the bunch, though, finishing as PFF's ninth-rated linebacker with an ability to line up all over the field. He's dynamic in coverage, too, more of a need than ever in today's NFL. Colts general manager Chris Ballard has an eye for stacking talent in the middle of his defense, pairing Okereke with alpha dog Darius Leonard to cause a special blend of havoc in Indy.
Lattimore's sensational debut in 2017 triggered Rookie of the Year honors. While less flashy since, Lattimore remains a steady presence inside a stout New Orleans secondary. As an unquestioned No. 1 corner, the former Buckeyes standout is tasked with stopping a murderer's row of problematic NFC South wideouts in Julio Jones, Mike Evans, Chris Godwin and D.J. Moore. "He's in a top echelon of DBs," Bears coach Matt Nagy said during the season. "We know that."
Today's NFL is stocked with difference-making corners as teams regularly roll out a fifth and sixth defensive back to counter exploding air attacks. Denzel Ward, Jaire Alexander and Adoree' Jackson are candidates for this list, but I'm sticking with Humphrey. Packed into a deep Ravens secondary, the 2017 first-rounder has logged 47 forced incompletions -- fourth league-wide -- over his first three seasons.
Let's bypass hot-stove league chitchat about Adams resting -- or not resting -- on the trade block. His stellar career has been riddled with endless verbal wind over wanting an extension, desiring more money and maybe seeking a relocation to Dallas. On the field, Adams has blossomed into the most dominant Jets defender since Darrelle Revis took flight. Able to thrive as a one-man band, Mr. Everything has logged six forced fumbles, two picks, 12 sacks and 25 pass breakups over the past three seasons. Chameleon-level versatility allows Adams to drop hammers as a pass rusher, in the slot, hugged against the line -- and everywhere else one might dream. He should never be traded.
Entirely worth the first-round pick Pittsburgh shipped to Miami, Fitzpatrick hit the Steel City as a change agent. Serving as the tipping point for a stocked defense, Fitzpatrick zoomed to an All-Pro nod as a ballhawking marauder stacking five interceptions, two forced fumbles, three fumble recoveries, nine passes defensed, one pick-six and a fumble taken to the house. "We have a first-round pick," Steelers general manager Kevin Colbert said in April. "And that was Minkah Fitzpatrick."
Are we allowed a flex on defense? My editors will decide, but James makes this list because -- if not for a season mostly lost to injury -- he might be sitting here as the best defensive player of them all. His rookie showing was storybook fodder, leaving no doubts about James authoring a massive comeback tale in 2020.
Losing veteran Graham Gano to a season-ending leg injury, the Panthers reached into their bag of tricks to dial up Slye in 2019. The newbie nailed 25 of 32 field goal attempts and showed off his powerful leg to hit on 8 of 11 tries from 50-plus yards. Slye also ranked third league-wide in kickoff distance (71.9 yards) before inking a one-year extension in February.
Seattle's Michael Dickson and Green Bay's J.K. Scott deserve mention. "The Scottish Hammer" earns our bid, though, after nabbing Special Teams Player of the Month honors during his first September in the NFL before finishing the year with the game's 10th-best average (46.2) and, per PFF, the third-lowest percentage of returnable kicks (31.7).
An undrafted free-agent signee, the 5-foot-6, 170-pound Harris lit up opponents to lead the NFL in punt-return yardage, while gifting New Orleans with an electrifying 53-yard score to fuel a 33-27 win over Seattle in Week 3. Overcoming early-season jitters, Harris wound up wooing onlookers with his sizzling moves en route to All-Pro honors. Said Saints wideout Michael Thomas: "He has a special talent that can go very far in this league."