UNDER 25 TALENT
A hugely long tale that ranks teams by “young talent”. We have the list with the explanation for the top 5 and bottom 5 teams of this from Scott Spratt of ESPN.com:
Football Outsiders’ annual effort to rank every team by its talent under 25 years old has always provided a preview of the teams most likely to compete for the playoffs in future seasons. But increasingly, these rankings also capture teams’ short-term chances, in particular for the ones that hit on their drafted quarterbacks and can use the cost savings from their rookie deals to load up on veteran skill-position and defensive talent.
Look no further than the 2018 Los Angeles Rams. They made it all the way to the Super Bowl the same year that they jumped from 27th to first in our under-25 rankings. Perhaps this year’s top team can follow suit with a similar formula.
This year’s rankings have a new wrinkle: We are still ranking teams based on their under-25 talent, but are giving consideration to the value and length of those players’ current contracts. That will push up the teams with productive players who have several years left on inexpensive rookie contracts and push down the teams that have already had to, or will soon have to, pay their experienced young talent. That change adds a bit of complexity to the rankings, but better aligns them with the mission of this endeavor to identify the teams best positioned to succeed over the next few years.
Head here for more information on our ranking methodology, and go here for intel on some stats we reference throughout. You can learn more about these and other Football Outsiders statistics from this article, the Football Outsiders glossary, or in the newly released Football Outsiders Almanac for 2019.
1. Cleveland Browns
2018 ranking: 4
Blue-chip players: Baker Mayfield, QB; Denzel Ward, CB; Myles Garrett, DE; Kareem Hunt, RB
Notable graduated players: Larry Ogunjobi, DT, Joe Schobert, MLB; Emmanuel Ogbah, DE; Duke Johnson, RB; Trevon Coley, DT
Calling the Browns’ draft-day decisions from 2016 to 2018 controversial might be underselling it. They traded away the No. 2 pick that became Carson Wentz; selected pass-rusher Myles Garrett ahead of quarterbacks Mitchell Trubisky, Patrick Mahomes, and Deshaun Watson; and finally selected Mayfield and Denzel Ward with their resulting top-four picks when many preferred Sam Darnold, Bradley Chubb or Saquon Barkley, among others. Executive Sashi Brown and head coach Hue Jackson couldn’t survive those decisions — and maybe should not have considering their entire body of work — but new general manager John Dorsey and head coach Freddie Kitchens are poised to have the last laugh at the helm of the league’s most valuable young roster.
Mayfield is the Browns’ keystone asset. They were rewarded for adhering to QBASE-Football Outsiders’ quarterback prospect projection system and other advanced metrics that preferred Mayfield to the more physically gifted Darnold and Josh Allen. Mayfield looks like a star in traditional statistics (63.8% completion percentage, 27 touchdowns and 14 interceptions) and by his 628 passing DYAR, 12th in the NFL, as a rookie.
Ward and Garrett join Mayfield as blue-chip players with several years left on their rookie deals. The former had the third-highest success rate in coverage in his rookie season (63%), and the latter was a top-10 run-stopper at his position who added 13.5 sacks and 33 hurries. Kareem Hunt has been a blue-chip performer on the field, as well, adding more than 300 combined rushing and receiving DYAR in 11 games in 2018 before the Chiefs released him after the release of a video that showed him in an altercation with a woman in early 2018. If he makes good on his second chance, he will return from an eight-game suspension to join second-year back Nick Chubb in what could easily be the best running back duo in football.
Beyond their top talent, the Browns are flush with young depth on both sides of the ball in the form of receivers Antonio Callaway and Rashard Higgins, tight end David Njoku, and their second- and third-round draft picks in 2019, cornerback Greedy Williams and linebacker Sione Takitaki. They might not be the favorite to win the upcoming Super Bowl, but they will be the best-positioned team to make runs in each of the next five seasons if they can correctly balance their new talent’s disparate personalities.
2. Indianapolis Colts
2018 ranking: 23
Blue-chip players: Quenton Nelson, LG; Darius Leonard, OLB; Malik Hooker, S; Braden Smith, RT
Notable graduated players: None
It would be difficult to currently grade the 2018 draft on an A-F scale because the Colts broke the curve. First- and second-round offensive linemen Nelson and Smith were blue-chip blockers from Week 1 on, combining to allow just 3.5 sacks on 1,991 snaps on the season. They transformed the worst pass-blocking offensive line from 2017 into one ranked second in adjusted sack rate in 2018 and helped Andrew Luck cut his total of sacks taken in half from 2016 (he missed 2017 due to injury). Linebacker Darius Leonard anchored a similarly massive defensive turnaround from 31st in DVOA to ninth. His 37 run defeats trailed league-leader Luke Kuechly by just one with one fewer start. Even Day 3 running backs Nyheim Hines and Jordan Wilkins were positive contributors, adding 73 and 61 DYAR, respectively, as a receiver and a rusher.
It was a magical season for the Colts, as their inconsistent 2017 rookies blossomed into productive and efficient players. Malik Hooker impressed more due to his lack of stats than with the value of them. Opposing quarterbacks targeted him just nine times over 913 snaps, the lowest rate at the position and an irrefutable sign of respect. Fellow second-year corner Kenny Moore was up for the increased attention — he was top 25 at the position with a 56% success rate in coverage and further complemented Hooker as the No. 1 run-stopper at the position. Anthony Walker was a run-stopping force, as well, ranking top five among linebackers in both stop rate and yards per carry allowed on his run tackles. And Marlon Mack made a compelling case to be a workhorse running back. Mack’s total of 215 rushing DYAR was fourth-best at the position, trailing only Todd Gurley, Derrick Henry, and Alvin Kamara.
Luck covered up the team’s only weakness in 2018, receiver depth. T.Y. Hilton had a disproportionate amount of the team’s receiving production with 359 DYAR; no other receiver or tight end had 70. But the Colts will likely eliminate that weakness in 2019 with their addition of second-round rookie Parris Campbell and the healthy return of Deon Cain, who flashed potential with exceptional 4.43 and 6.71-second 40-yard dash and three-cone times at the 2018 combine before a torn ACL ended his rookie season before it began.
The team falls just short of the Browns in the under-25 rankings because they don’t have a cost-controlled rookie quarterback, but they have perhaps the best one in Luck for at least the next three years. They might be the championship favorite in each of them.
3. Kansas City Chiefs
2018 ranking: 2
Blue-chip players: Patrick Mahomes, QB
Notable graduated players: Tyreek Hill, WR; Chris Jones, DE; Reggie Ragland, ILB
The Chiefs land one spot behind the Colts despite getting there in a polar-opposite fashion. With Hill and Jones each turning 25 before the start of the 2019 season and Hunt being released, the Chiefs are left with just one young blue-chip player. But what a player Mahomes is. He earned his 2018 MVP on the strength of 5,000 passing yards and 50 passing touchdowns but was just as historically great with 40.1% DVOA and 2,039 DYAR, both comfortably first at the position. And he will still be 23 years old at the start of the 2019 season and have three years left on his rookie contract.
Mahomes could have propelled the Chiefs to the top spot in the under-25 rankings if he had any help from the team’s 2018 draft picks, all six of whom played defense. Instead, they contributed just 17 combined starts and minimal production. Cornerback Kendall Fuller is still 24 and is an effective run-stopper, and former Jets linebacker Darron Lee immediately became the team’s most accomplished young defender when they traded for him in May for a sixth-round pick in 2020. The Chiefs have to hope that Day 2 safety Juan Thornhill and defensive tackle Khalen Saunders can make quick contributions and help turn around the No. 26 DVOA defense from 2018.
They might not look great on paper, but there can be optimism about the Chiefs’ defense because defensive performance is less consistent from year to year than offensive performance. Meanwhile, the Chiefs’ offense and special teams were so good that they ended up as the No. 1 overall DVOA team in 2018 despite the defensive limitations. This offseason, the team added second-round rookie Mecole Hardman, who has the same makeup of speed and quickness that Hill has. And kicker Harrison Butker is the best under-25 asset at his position, hitting on 62 of his 69 career field goals and leading the league in gross kickoff value in 2018.
4. Houston Texans
2018 ranking: 14
Blue-chip players: Deshaun Watson, QB
Notable graduated players: Will Fuller V, WR; D.J. Reader, DT
The Texans continue the trend of top teams with cost-controlled young quarterbacks. Watson was at risk of a sophomore slump since his amazing freshman production came in just six starts before a torn ACL prematurely ended his season. Instead, Watson was even better in 2018, completing 68.3% of his passes for 26 touchdowns and only nine interceptions. He was the only quarterback who finished the year top 10 in passing and top five in rushing DYAR, just ahead of his NFL archetype Russell Wilson in both categories.
With a birthday the same week as Mahomes and career-to-date production better than every young quarterback but Mahomes, Watson is the second-best young asset in football. Injuries are the only major fear for his long-term value. The Texans are clearly concerned about Watson being knocked down 138 times in 2018 — 27 more than any other quarterback — because they drafted offensive tackles in the first and second rounds (Tytus Howard and Max Scharping). They should fortify a line that finished 30th and 32nd in adjusted sack rate in Watson’s first two seasons, although some of that blame also falls on Watson’s shoulders. Just because he performs so well on his passes under pressure doesn’t mean Watson should stand in and take those hits.
The Texans didn’t have a first- or second-round draft pick in 2018 because of the Watson and Brock Osweiler trades but have done a nice job of finding value in later rounds. Strong safety Justin Reid started 12 games in his rookie season and counterbalanced the rookie inconsistencies with some big plays, most notably a 101-yard interception return for a touchdown against the Redskins in Week 11. Tight ends Jordan Akins — who is omitted from the ranking as a 27-year-old sophomore — and Jordan Thomas combined to provide 62 DYAR on just 52 targets, making veteran Ryan Griffin expendable. Keke Coutee offers atypical speed from the slot and can play the No. 2 receiver spot if Fuller continues to struggle with injuries.
5. New York Giants
2018 ranking: 6
Blue-chip players: Saquon Barkley, RB; Daniel Jones, QB; Will Hernandez, LG
Notable graduated players: Landon Collins, S; Dalvin Tomlinson, DT; Chad Wheeler, RT
Giants GM Dave Gettleman has somehow made a slew of analytics-opposing trades and moves, but he still accumulated a top-five roster in under-25 talent. If his freshman season is any indication, Barkley is the once-in-a-generation rusher that might justify his top-five selection. His 94 broken tackles were 31 more than second-place finisher Christian McCaffrey, and Barkley will play his entire second season at just 22 years old. Still, it is difficult to make a compelling argument that Barkley will be anywhere close to as valuable as crosstown rival quarterback Sam Darnold, so the Giants will need to hit on this year’s No. 6 pick from 2019, Jones.
QBASE is not a big fan of Jones thanks to his subpar college yards per attempt and completion rates. But Jones did not play with a single player who was drafted by the NFL in his three-year Duke career. It is possible he will improve more than his contemporaries because of a greater step up in surrounding talent.
That surrounding talent won’t include star wide receiver Odell Beckham Jr., who Gettleman traded to the Browns. It was a strange move for a team with a rookie quarterback and limited receiving options, but it subtracted a 26-year-old player who was already excluded from these rankings and added Jabrill Peppers and two 2019 draft picks — Dexter Lawrence and Oshane Ximines — who are 23 and younger. The Giants also have a young blue-chip left guard in Hernandez who allowed just 4.3 sacks over a line-leading 1,028 snaps, Football Outsiders’ favorite unheralded prospect is pass-rusher Lorenzo Carter and the team has a pair of potential cornerback starters in 22-year-old Deandre Baker and 23-year-old Sam Beal. If fifth-round rookie receiver Darius Slayton adds a deep threat to a passing game that is overly skewed toward Barkley and tight end Evan Engram in the short passing game, then the Giants will have a valuable young asset at every level of their team.
6. Buffalo Bills
2018 ranking: 26
Blue-chip players: Tremaine Edmunds, ILB; Josh Allen, QB; Tre’Davious White, CB; Ed Oliver, DT
Notable graduated players: Matt Milano, OLB; Dion Dawkins, LT; Shaq Lawson, DE; Robert Foster, WR
The Bills’ under-25 ranking has been a roller coaster in recent seasons, falling from seventh in 2017 to 26th last year as Sean McDermott jettisoned almost all of his incumbent talent before rebounding to sixth this year on the strength of a few top draft picks. Whether or not that roller coaster continues will rest on the shoulder of Allen.
7. New York Jets
2018 ranking: 17
Blue-chip players: Sam Darnold, QB; Jamal Adams, S; Quinnen Williams, DT
Notable graduated players: Leonard Williams, DE; Nathan Shepherd, DT; Jordan Jenkins, OLB
The Jets are nowhere close to as deep as the rival Giants in under-25 talent, but they nearly bridge that quantity gap with a few quality assets. Unlike Mayfield, who was taken two spots before him, Darnold looked like a rookie in parts of his rookie season.
8. Pittsburgh Steelers
2018 ranking: 18
Blue-chip players: JuJu Smith-Schuster, WR; T.J. Watt, OLB; Terrell Edmunds, S; Devin Bush, LB
Notable graduated players: Mike Hilton, CB
The Steelers lost two of the NFL’s biggest stars in Antonio Brown and Le’Veon Bell this offseason. But stardom does not always correspond with value, and the Steelers are incredibly well-equipped to replace from within.
9. Los Angeles Chargers
2018 ranking: 13
Blue-chip players: Derwin James, S; Joey Bosa, DE; Hunter Henry, TE
Notable graduated players: Dan Feeney, LG; Jatavis Brown, OLB; Darius Philon, DT
The Chargers and the No. 11 team in these rankings could move around a bit depending on the length of the holdouts of their workhorse running backs.
10. Arizona Cardinals
2018 ranking: 28
Blue-chip players: Kyler Murray, QB; Budda Baker, S
Notable graduated players: None
The Cardinals likely sabotaged their chances of a top-five ranking by trading away their first-, third-, and fifth-round draft picks in 2018 to move up and take Josh Rosen, who they subsequently traded away after one disappointing season for a second- and future fifth-round pick. Still, after finishing 31st and 28th the past two years in the under-25 rankings, 10th is an exciting place to be.
The silver lining of Rosen’s poor play was that it helped earn the Cardinals get the No. 1 overall draft pick in 2019, and quarterback Kyler Murray will be the team’s best under-25 asset if he can live up to that billing.
11. Dallas Cowboys
2018 ranking: 9
Blue-chip players: Leighton Vander Esch, OLB; Ezekiel Elliott, RB
Notable graduated players: Amari Cooper, WR
As I write this, one half of the Cowboys’ duo of blue-chip under-25 players has yet to report to camp. And if Elliott holds out into the regular season or lands the long-term extension he wants, he will sabotage the value the past two years of his rookie contract would otherwise represent.
12. Carolina Panthers
2018 ranking: 20
Blue-chip players: Christian McCaffrey, RB; D.J. Moore, WR; Brian Burns, LB
Notable graduated players: Taylor Moton, RT, Shaq Thompson, LB
The Panthers will likely live or die by the health of their quarterback Cam Newton in 2019, but GM Marty Hurney has done his best to add speed and quickness to ease Newton’s burden.
13. Washington Redskins
2018 ranking: 30
Blue-chip players: Daron Payne, DT; Jonathan Allen, DE; Dwayne Haskins, QB, Montez Sweat, DE
Notable graduated players: Kyle Fuller, G; Matt Ioannidis, DE
The Redskins are another team with the top-end quality to make the top 10 of the under-25 rankings, but not the quantity. Their No. 13 ranking will seem way too low if rookie Haskins is the franchise quarterback the team believes him to be.
14. Oakland Raiders
2018 ranking: 19
Blue-chip players: Clelin Ferrell, DE
Notable graduated players: Karl Joseph, SS; Jalen Richard, RB
The Raiders took a healthy dose of criticism for trading Khalil Mack — especially while Mack provided five sacks, four forced fumbles, an interception, and a touchdown in the Bears’ first five games in 2018 — but at least they paid forward some part of his value since they were ill-equipped to compete in Mack’s current peak years. It would have helped if they hadn’t spent the first of their two gained first-round draft picks on Josh Jacobs, who plays a less valuable position at running back and isn’t a slam-dunk prospect at the position in any case.
15. Green Bay Packers
2018 ranking: 25
Blue-chip players: Jaire Alexander, CB
Notable graduated players: Blake Martinez, LB; Geronimo Allison, WR
The Packers had come up a bit short of their reputation as one of the best talent evaluators and developers in recent years, but prudent trades and injury-driven poor seasons have fully restocked their prospect cupboards. The team made 11 total picks in the 2018 draft, and three in the top 50 in 2019.
Cornerback Alexander is their only recent pick I’d label as blue chip right now.
16. Cincinnati Bengals
2018 ranking: 27
Blue-chip players: Billy Price, C
Notable graduated players: Bobby Hart, RT
The Bengals may have waited too long to move on from coach Marvin Lewis for many fans; Lewis won just six, seven, and six games in his final three seasons after never winning a playoff game in his best years. But three straight seasons of astute Day 2 trade-downs in the draft have helped the team add extra picks to rebuild on the fly and jumped them 11 spots from the No. 27 under-25 ranking from last year.
17. Jacksonville Jaguars
2018 ranking: 7
Blue-chip players: Jalen Ramsey, CB; Josh Allen, LB; Yannick Ngakoue, DE
Notable graduated players: Dede Westbrook, WR
The Jaguars owe much of last year’s marked decline from eighth to 22nd in total DVOA to injuries.
18. Detroit Lions
2018 ranking: 15
Blue-chip players: Frank Ragnow, LG/C; T.J. Hockenson, TE
Notable graduated players: Kenny Golladay, WR
The Lions dropped only three spots in the under-25 rankings from last year, an impressive feat for a team that loses credit for the now-25-year-old breakout receiver Kenny Golladay. The key to that ranking resilience is a newfound offensive balance.
19. San Francisco 49ers
2018 ranking: 12
Blue-chip players: Nick Bosa, DE; Fred Warner, MLB
Notable graduated players: Mike McGlinchey, RT; DeForest Buckner, DT; George Kittle, TE; Reuben Foster, OLB; C.J. Beathard, QB; Arik Armstead, DE
The 49ers are a difficult team to rank, and the most likely one to either over- or underperform their No. 19 ranking by 10 or more spots. \
20. Tampa Bay Buccaneers
2018 ranking: 5
Blue-chip players: Devin White, LB; O.J. Howard, TE
Notable graduated players: Jameis Winston, QB; Kwon Alexander, MLB; Caleb Benenoch, RG; Peyton Barber, RB
The Buccaneers were a top-five team in the under-25 rankings in 2017 and 2018, and they have done the right team-building things since then, like trading down from 7th to 12th to add a pair of second-round picks in the 2018 draft and trading an early third-round pick for two later third-round picks in the 2019 draft. The reason the Buccaneers have fallen precipitously to the No. 20 ranking is because they have failed to hit on their premium draft picks.
21. Miami Dolphins
2018 ranking: 21
Blue-chip players: Minkah Fitzpatrick, S
Notable graduated players: Laremy Tunsil, LT; Kenyan Drake, RB
Whether or not they are “tanking,” the Dolphins made the trade of the offseason, giving up a second- and future fifth-round pick to land quarterback Josh Rosen just a year removed from his being drafted 10th overall.
22. New Orleans Saints
2018 ranking: 3
Blue-chip players: Alvin Kamara, RB
Notable graduated players: Ryan Ramczyk, RT; Sheldon Rankins, DT; Andrus Peat, LG; Wil Lutz, K
The Saints are one of the biggest fallers in the under-25 rankings, a decline stemming from a combination of factors. They lose credit for graduating blue-chip, 25-year-old offensive linemen Ryan Ramczyk and Andrus Peat, who allowed just 2.5 sacks across 1,735 combined snaps last year. Exceptional rookie corner Marshon Lattimore declined sharply against the pass and the run in his sophomore season, allowing 10.7 yards per target, which was third worst among qualified cornerbacks. Free safety Marcus Williams also took a step back in his second season, and while Eli Apple boosted the secondary as a midseason acquisition, the Saints showed their pessimism for his future value when they declined his 2020 fifth year option this summer. He and strong safety Vonn Bell are both 24 and entering the final years of their rookie deals.
Finally, the Saints suffered from disappointing seasons from their top two 2018 draft picks, defensive end Marcus Davenport and wide receiver Tre’Quan Smith. That was particularly distressing given that the team traded their 2019 first to move up to take Davenport, and were desperate for a second receiver to take pressure off of No. 1 wideout Michael Thomas.
23. Denver Broncos
2018 ranking: 29
Blue-chip players: Bradley Chubb, OLB
Notable graduated players: Phillip Lindsay, RB; Justin Simmons, S
The Broncos enjoyed a four-year run of 12 or more wins between 2012 and 2015 that culminated in a Super Bowl win in early 2016. But subsequent late picks and draft busts — most notably first-round quarterback Paxton Lynch — dragged the Broncos to a nadir of a last-place ranking in the under-25 rankings back in 2017.
24. Los Angeles Rams
2018 ranking: 1
Blue-chip players: Jared Goff, QB
Notable graduated players: Brandin Cooks, WR; Todd Gurley, RB; Cory Littleton, ILB; Gerald Everett, TE; Dante Fowler Jr., OLB
The Rams experienced the biggest rise in the under-25 rankings from 27th in 2017 to first in 2018 — and now suffer the biggest fall, from first to 24th this season. Jared Goff’s career production is at the heart of both extremes. His disastrous rookie season in 2016 that featured a 54.6% completion percentage seemed to sabotage the talent around him; most notably, Gurley finished with minus-66 DYAR that year but has finished with at least 170 DYAR in his other three seasons. Goff’s unprecedented turnaround restored Gurley’s true self and elevated the team’s trio of new receivers Brandin Cooks, Robert Woods and Cooper Kupp. Now, Gurley and those three receivers have aged out of the under-25 rankings, as have defensive starters Cory Littleton and Dante Fowler. Ironically, Goff is the team’s last young blue-chip player standing, just two years after he was summarily dismissed as a bust.
25. Baltimore Ravens
2018 ranking: 22
Blue-chip players: Lamar Jackson, QB; Marquise Brown, WR; Marlon Humphrey, CB
Notable graduated players: Ronnie Stanley, LT; Tavon Young, CB
In some ways, Lamar Jackson was the most successful rookie quarterback in 2019. He took over a middling Ravens team in Week 10 and rattled off six wins in seven weeks to lead them to an AFC North title. But there are myriad reasons to be skeptical of his chances to continue that success. First, defensive improvements carried the team’s second-half resurgence; Jackson’s offense was actually worse (-3.4% DVOA) than Joe Flacco’s from the first half (4.3%). Second, Jackson threw just 23 passes per start, barely half of Flacco’s total. The novelty of such an extreme offense likely caught many of their opponents off guard, but other teams have since had the offseason and the film from the Chargers’ playoff win over the Ravens to try to solve it. And third, Jackson was not even an otherworldly productive runner, thanks mostly to his alarming total of 15 fumbles in just eight regular and postseason starts.
26. Atlanta Falcons
2018 ranking: 16
Blue-chip players: Calvin Ridley, WR; Keanu Neal, S; Deion Jones, MLB
Notable graduated players: Duke Riley, OLB; Wes Schweitzer, LG
The Falcons are hurt most by our change in methodology to consider team control rather than just 2019 value. Linebacker Deion Jones and safety Keanu Neal are clearly blue-chip players, but they will both be 24 this season.
27. Chicago Bears
2018 ranking: 10
Blue-chip players: Roquan Smith, ILB; James Daniels, LG
Notable graduated players: Mitchell Trubisky, QB; Eddie Goldman, DT
The Bears accelerated the timetable that made them the No. 10 team in the under-25 rankings this time last year with their blockbuster trade for Khalil Mack.
28. Minnesota Vikings
2018 ranking: 8
Blue-chip players: Brian O’Neill, RT; Danielle Hunter, DE
Notable graduated players: Stefon Diggs, WR; Pat Elflein, C
The Vikings have prominent veterans at quarterback and the skill positions, but their pair of young blue-chip players come from their offensive and defensive lines. Brian O’Neill allowed just one sack in 800 snaps in his rookie season. An increase in playing time for O’Neill and the addition of rookie center Garrett Bradbury will hopefully fortify a unit that has finished in the bottom six teams in pressure rate the last two seasons. Defensive end Danielle Hunter turned in his usual excellent season in 2018 with 14.5 sacks and 39 hurries, but he already has four years of NFL experience and a big-money new contract at 24 years old. The Vikings are no doubt thrilled to have him locked up through 2023, but he is no longer a boon in these rankings given his age and cost.
Away from the line, running back Dalvin Cook will play all of the 2019 season at 24 years old. And while he has struggled with knee and hamstring injuries throughout his career, he has still produced 21 rushing and 40 receiving DYAR in two seasons and could do more with better health in the back half of his rookie deal. Cornerbacks Mike Hughes and Holton Hill did not play a ton as rookies behind veterans Xavier Rhodes and Trae Waynes, but they have potential; the former as a first-round pick and the latter flashing an impressive 63% coverage success rate in his limited opportunities in 2018. Otherwise, most of the Vikings’ best players are in their late 20s or early 30s, which is good for their playoff chances in 2019 but bad for their under-25 ranking.
29. Tennessee Titans
2018 ranking: 11
Blue-chip players: Corey Davis, WR
Notable graduated players: Jack Conklin, RT; Marcus Mariota, QB; Derrick Henry, RB
Marcus Mariota’s fourth year as a starter in 2018 was a critical one to establish his long-term value. And although his completion percentage spiked to 68.9 percent, Mariota offset that with shorter passes to land at the same 7.6 yards per attempt he had in two of his three previous seasons. His lack of growth would have sabotaged the Titans’ former top-12 under-25 ranking even if Mariota hadn’t aged out by the end of last season.
I’m willing to give the No. 5 pick from the 2017 draft, wide receiver Corey Davis, the benefit of the doubt as a blue-chip player in part because of Mariota’s poor play. Davis fell short of 900 receiving yards in 2018 in a run-focused offense, but he did add 104 DYAR. Fellow 2017 first-rounder Adoree’ Jackson is the best the team can offer the under-25 rankings on the other side of the ball, but he was only moderately productive with a 43% success rate in coverage and is a frequent target of opposing quarterbacks.
The Titans gambled with a pair of trade-ups that left them with just four picks in the 2018 draft, and the early returns were not great, as all three of Rashaan Evans, Harold Landry, and Dane Cruikshank dealt with early-season injuries that derailed their chances of productive rookie seasons. Hopefully they’ll have better luck with their top picks from 2019, defensive tackle Jeffery Simmons and wide receiver A.J. Brown. They don’t have many other reasons for optimism.
30. Seattle Seahawks
2018 ranking: 31
Blue-chip players: None
Notable graduated players: Germain Ifedi, RT; Kache Palacio, LB
With the offseason departure of free agent safety Earl Thomas, the Seahawks lost the final member of the Legion of Boom. Most teams would have added a handful of premium draft prospects as they hemorrhaged such an incredible collection of talent, but the Seahawks have been too good to properly rebuild. They have now won nine or more games every year since 2012.
That continued on-field success has stalled the Seahawks out in the bottom three spots of the under-25 rankings. But the 2019 draft may have finally tipped the scales with the team adding four players in the top 100 and 11 draft picks in all. Unfortunately, the team’s top pick, defensive end L.J. Collier, suffered a high-ankle sprain and he will likely miss the remainder of the preseason. Meanwhile, second-round safety Marquise Blair and receiver DK Metcalf may take a while to contribute as explosive athletes who need to develop discipline and polish.
The Seahawks did land some later-round gems the past few seasons. Seventh-round running back Chris Carson broke out in 2018, contributing 176 DYAR as a rusher and receiver and breaking 61 tackles, third most at the position. He will turn 25 about a week into the season, but the team has efficient 23-year-old sophomore back Rashaad Penny waiting in the wings. Tight end Will Dissly looked like an absolute steal in the fourth round, adding 31 DYAR on just 14 targets before a torn patella tendon landed him on injured reserve after just four weeks. Former Aussie rules football punter Michael Dickson lived up to his hype, finishing fourth at the position in gross punt value, and earning first-team All Pro honors.
No one would confuse 24-year-old cornerbacks Tre Flowers and Shaquill Griffin and free safety Tedric Thompson with the Legion. Flowers was the best of that group with an uninspiring 47% coverage success rate, but they are unusually battle-tested for their ages coming off a combined 45 starts in 2018. And nose tackle Poona Ford quickly earned his roster spot as an undrafted free agent thanks to a tremendous preseason. He is a strong run-stopper who made 17 tackles as a rotational lineman in the final five weeks of 2018.
31. New England Patriots
2018 ranking: 32
Blue-chip players: None
Notable graduated players: Malcom Brown, DT; Elandon Roberts, LB, Deatrich Wise, DE
The Patriots tend to perpetually live at the bottom of these rankings, and their sixth Super Bowl win and ninth appearance of the Tom Brady era in 2018 illustrate how much they care about that fact. The team let their 2015 first-round pick, 25-year-old defensive tackle Malcom Brown, walk at the end of his rookie deal. They lost their first-round picks in 2016 and 2017, the former because of Deflategate and the latter because of a trade for receiver Brandin Cooks, who they traded away just one year later. But even though the Patriots jumped just one team in the under-25 rankings since their last-place finish in 2018, they have gotten the wheels turning for the rebuild they may need should Brady ever decline or retire.
That second Cooks trade netted the team a replacement first-round pick in the 2018 draft, and the Patriots shocked the world by actually using those picks on Georgia teammates Isaiah Wynn and Sony Michel and their 2019 first-round pick on Arizona State receiver N’Keal Harry. Wynn tore his Achilles tendon last preseason and missed the entire year, but Michel proved to be the team’s favorite and most productive rusher. They will hope for a similar quick impact from Harry since the Patriots lost veterans Rob Gronkowski, Chris Hogan, Cordarrelle Patterson and (probably) Josh Gordon from their passing attack this offseason.
The Patriots did end up with two extra Day 2 picks in 2019 thanks to a pair of 2018 draft trades, and while neither will start their careers as apparent blue-chip players, the Patriots have turned a number of late-round picks into quality starters in recent seasons, thanks in large part to their volume of chances. Linebacker Ja’Whaun Bentley and cornerback J.C. Jackson look poised to join that company in 2019. Bentley flashed unexpected coverage skills with his promised run-stopping in three games as a rookie, and may start at mike linebacker over Roberts this year. And Jackson allowed just 5.8 yards per target, second on the team behind star corner Stephon Gilmore.
32. Philadelphia Eagles
2018 ranking: 24
Blue-chip players: None
Notable graduated players: Ronald Darby, CB; Jalen Mills, CB
The Eagles haven’t enjoyed the sustained success of the Patriots over the past two decades, but they land in the No. 32 spot in the under-25 rankings for the same reason the Patriots land one spot earlier. They have accumulated one of the deepest and most talented rosters in football, but nearly all of that talent is over 25 years old. Carson Wentz remains one of the most appealing franchise quarterbacks in the game, but he aged out of the under-25 rankings last year. Every starter at wide receiver and defensive back is 26 or older. And perhaps the team’s best unit, their offensive line, has an average age of 31 years old.
Things could easily change for the Eagles this time next year if their three picks from the top 60 of the 2019 draft — offensive tackle Andre Dillard, running back Miles Sanders, and wide receiver JJ Arcega-Whiteside — are productive. But the Eagles are clearly more interested in competing with what’s left of their Super Bowl roster than entering a full rebuild. They only made two more picks in the 2019 draft, and they hope one of them — quarterback Clayton Thorson — never has to start for them.
The Eagles injected a bit of young talent by trading a future sixth-round pick for running back Jordan Howard, who will still be 24 years old when he kicks off the 2019 season. But Howard finished below the replacement level as both a runner and receiver last year. The rookie Sanders is a better bet to emerge as a blue-chip player in the future. 2018 second-rounder Dallas Goedert was efficient with 38 DYAR on 44 targets, but will likely play second fiddle to Zach Ertz for his full rookie deal. Defensive end Derek Barnett was trending up in his sophomore season of 2018 before a torn rotator cuff cost him the final 10 games of the year. Fourth-rounder Josh Sweat may have a higher ceiling if his impressive SackSEER rating manifests as NFL production. And cornerback Avonte Maddox turned in an impressive 61% coverage success rate in part-time work in his rookie year.