NFL

Best NFL players under 25 at every position entering 2017

Joey Bosa, Jack Conklin
Jesse Reed
Written by Jesse Reed

The future belongs to the young. This is certainly the case for a select few NFL players who are already dominating the league before their 25th birthday.

A trio of teams are lucky enough to featured two players on this list — two reside in the NFC East. Some choices are sure to prove controversial, while others were just no-brainers.

These are the best NFL players under the age of 25 at every position. We’re looking at one player per position, minus special teams.

Quarterback: Dak Prescott, Dallas Cowboys

There was a bit of internal debate about whether Prescott or Jameis Winston would be featured here. In the end, though Winston has an extra season on Prescott and has shown a tremendous ability to get the ball to his playmakers downfield, we went with the guy who doesn’t make as many mistakes.

On that note, what Prescott did in his rookie season compares favorably with a couple of the game’s legends.

Starting in all 16 games, he finished the season with a 67.8-percent completion rate (absurd for a rookie), 3,949 total yards and 29 total touchdowns while throwing just four interceptions.

If not for the insane finish engineered by Aaron Rodgers in the playoff game against Dallas, the Cowboys would have gone on to face the Atlanta Falcons in the NFC Championship Game. Prescott surely played well enough in the contest.

Blessed with a fantastic supporting cast and one of the game’s best receivers in Dez Bryant, there is no limit to what Prescott can accomplish in the coming years. And the best part? Prescott is, in no way, satisfied with what he and the ‘Boys accomplished last season.

Running back: Ezekiel Elliott, Dallas Cowboys 

While there was some debate about the quarterback position, none exists when discussing who the best under-25 running back is in the NFL. Elliott, still just 21 (he’ll be 22 by the time the season starts) is coming off a year in which he rushed for more yards than any running back in the league.

He finished the season with 1,994 yards from scrimmage and totaled 16 touchdowns.

And before you head straight to the comments section to talk about how he has it easy because of his offensive line, take a gander at this.

Who knows how long this former Buckeye will be able to keep up this type of pace. But right now? Nobody in the league is touching him. And he still has a few years left in the under-25 club.

Wide receiver: Odell Beckham Jr., New York Giants

Here’s a slight caveat: OBJ will turn 25 in late November. But he’ll still be 24 when the season begins.

And based on the numbers he’s already put up in his career, we can’t ignore he’s the best under-25 receiver in the game right now. A close second would be Mike Evans of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, but Beckham rules right now.

In his first three seasons, Beckham Jr. has hauled in 288 passes for 4,122 yards and 35 touchdowns.

Those are just staggering numbers. If he manages to stay status quo and plays for 10 seasons, then OBJ will haul in close to 1,000 passes for almost 14,000 yards and roughly 117 touchdowns — all top-10 or top-20 numbers in NFL history.

And the scary part is that Beckham Jr. can be so much better than he already is. If he cuts down on his drops and manages to learn how to play with a level head, the sky is the limit for this young man.

Tight End: Hunter Henry, Los Angeles Chargers

Hunter Henry

There was a spirited argument between myself and one of the other writers at Sportsnaut about this spot, with his choice being Eric Ebron of the Detroit Lions. In terms of volume, Ebron was clearly the more productive receiver last year between the 20s.

In the end, Henry was the choice. Mainly this is because he’s only 22 years old and is already a touchdown-scoring machine for Philip Rivers and the Chargers.

Appearing in 15 games and starting just 10 last year, the baby-faced former Arkansas stud tight end hauled in eight touchdowns. He also showed off deceptive wheels getting behind linebackers in the middle of the field and averaged 13.3 yards per catch en route to a rookie campaign that saw him catch 36 passes for 478 yards.

Antonio Gates is still out there fighting to stay relevant, but it’s clear the future is in the very capable hands of Henry.

Offensive tackle: Jack Conklin, Tennessee Titans

The Titans feature two of the best young offensive tackles in all of football. Taylor Lewan is just 25, and Conklin, a rookie last year, is just 22 years young.

Both are highly effective in the run game and against the pass. Conklin, in particular, was downright dominant on the edge protecting Marcus Mariota, earning very high marks in this regard from the folks at Pro Football Focus for the 2016 season.

Tennessee’s entire offensive line is rock solid. Conklin, the former Michigan State stalwart, was a big reason why the Titans allowed just 28 sacks and rushed for 2,187 yards (No. 7 and No. 3 in the NFL last year, respectively).

Offensive guard: Shaq Mason, New England Patriots

After struggling in his rookie season manning the left guard position, Mason switched to right guard during the playoffs following the 2015 season. He’s been a run-blocking dynamo ever since, teaming up well with right tackle Marcus Cannon.

They were particularly dominant after New England’s bye week (Week 9).

This past season, Mason helped the Patriots put up one of the NFL’s best rushing attacks. His strong play on the right side had a lot to do with LeGarrette Blount going over 1,000 yards and scoring 18 touchdowns.

At the age of 23 (he’ll turn 24 in late August), the arrow is still pointing up, up, up for Mason.

Center: Ali Marpet, Tampa Bay Buccaneers

Ali Marpet

Marpet spent his first two seasons at right guard and is now being asked to kick inside to take over as the center for Joe Hawley. It’s the position he played at Division III Hobart before becoming the highest-selected player ever to come from D-III in 2015 (No. 61 overall).

Now, there’s always the chance that Tampa Bay decides to stick Marpet back at guard — his move to center isn’t official yet. But based on comments made by defensive tackle Gerald McCoy, it seems like it’s only a matter of time before it’s a done deal.

“I think he’ll be a dominant, like next-level center in my personal opinion,” McCoy said in April, via Greg Auman of the Tampa Bay Times. “He’s a small-space guy, and you get him in a small space, you’re in trouble. From here to here is all a center needs, and from here to here, with how athletic he is, he’s got these grippers (where) once he puts his hands on you, you’re in trouble. I truly believe, and you can stamp this and quote it: I believe Ali Marpet will be a dominant — not good — dominant center.”

Marpet has a chance to be to Jameis Winston what Jeff Saturday was to Peyton Manning during their careers with the Indianapolis Colts. They are both young, talented players that appear destined to take the league by storm over the course of the next decade.

Defensive end: Joey Bosa, Los Angeles Chargers

When the Chargers drafted Bosa, it was thought they’d be turning him into a 3-4 defensive end. And while he did play some inside last year, he was almost exclusively used on the edge, which made a lot more sense. He’s an edge player. And he dominated in that role.

Despite missing the first four games of the season after a ridiculous contract dispute with the Chargers, Bosa ended up finishing the year with 10.5 sacks, good for No. 13 in the NFL. He also racked up 41 tackles and showed up well against the run.

In addition to his impressive sack totals, Bosa pressured quarterbacks at an elite level, earning a top-five grade by Pro Football Focus.

Oh, and he won the NFL’s Defensive Rookie of the Year Award.

Playing. In. Just. Twelve. Games.

Defensive tackle: Danny Shelton, Cleveland Browns

Danny Shelton

In today’s NFL, it’s hard to find pure defensive tackles that are dominant at such a young age. We waffled between Shelton and Malcolm Brown of the New England Patriots. Another player we thought about using is DeForest Buckner of the San Francisco 49ers, but he’ll play a lot on the edge as a movable piece in Robert Saleh’s defense.

In the end, this scribe decided to go with Shelton, who showed big improvements last year from a pretty miserable rookie season. He improved in every aspect of the game, showing off the strength, quickness and agility that made him a first-round pick in 2015.

Shelton finished with 59 total tackles (very impressive for a 3-4 defensive tackle) and 1.5 sacks. He was stout against the run and was solid pushing the pocket in the passing game.

And he has reason to smile about the addition of defensive coordinator Gregg Williams, whose 4-3 scheme should allow Shelton more opportunities to make impact plays.

Outside linebacker: Shane Ray, Denver Broncos

Nov 27, 2016; Denver, CO, USA; Denver Broncos outside linebacker Von Miller (58) and outside linebacker Shane Ray (56) react to a defensive stop in the first quarter against the Kansas City Chiefs at Sports Authority Field at Mile High. Mandatory Credit: Ron Chenoy-USA TODAY Sports

DeMarcus Ware retired this offseason, opening the door for Ray become a full-time starter for the Broncos in 2017.

In his first two years as a pro, the former Missouri star has certainly shown a spark off the edge, tallying 12 sacks. He started eight games last year and came up with eight sacks, adding a defensive touchdown on a recovered fumble.

Ray has high hopes for his upcoming season playing opposite Von Miller — one of the best in the business. He averaged a sack per game in his final season with the Tigers and believes he can do the same as a pro.

“I look at that in the NFL and honestly I feel the same way,” he said, per Jeff Legwold of ESPN. “Nobody can block me for a whole game. One sack a game for me is equivalent to 16 games — that’s 16 sacks. That could lead the league, not to mention playoffs or any of that stuff. That’s how I break stuff down for me, and that’s what I’m going to do.”

The Broncos have some serious talent on defense. Now if only they can get that whole quarterback thing figured out, they might be going places again.

Inside linebacker: Deion Jones, Atlanta Falcons

Based on the way Jones played during his rookie campaign last year, it’s hard to believe the Falcons stole him in the second round (No. 52 overall).

An undersized inside backer at 6-foot-1 and just 222 pounds, this young man can simply fly across the field. A sideline-to-sideline player with tremendous instincts that allow him to knife between blockers on running plays, he’s the new breed, perfect for today’s pass-happy NFL.

He totaled 106 tackles last year and intercepted three passes, turning two of those into scores for the Falcons.

Atlanta’s defense is built on speed. In this capacity as quarterback of the defense, Jones has already become a linchpin for Dan Quinn and Co. It’s crazy to think that he’s still just a pup (22 years old) and has so much room to grow.

Cornerback: Marcus Peters, Kansas City Chiefs

Peters is not only the best cornerback under 25 years of age, he’s also one of the NFL players in the entire league, regardless of age or position.

A kid with an unbelievable nose for the ball, the physicality and size to jam up the best receivers in the game and the natural instincts that all great cornerbacks possess, Peters has already hauled in an astonishing 14 interceptions in his first two NFL seasons.

Not without his flaws, Peters still has a lot of room to grow. He gets beat off the snap by quicker receivers at times and can be baited by savvy quarterbacks who know how to use their eyes. With that in mind, it’s scary to think about how good he can become in the next handful of years as he gets more and more involved in film study and cleans up his technique.

Safety: Landon Collins, New York Giants

As a rookie in 2015, Collins pretty much was who we thought he was coming out of Alabama. He racked up tackles and wasn’t a liability in pass coverage.

Then last year, he took his game to another level — one this scribe didn’t know existed for the former Crimson Tide star.

Collins was one of the best all-around safeties in the NFL. He not only gobbled up tackles at a more impressive rate than many linebackers, he also became a dominant cover man. Tallying five interceptions (one of which he returned for a touchdown), he also defended 13 other passes.

In general, quarterbacks learned it’s not exactly smart to throw Collins’ way. Which is crazy considering this guy essentially is the same size as Deion Jones, who we covered earlier in this article. Throw in the four sacks Collins racked up and we’re talking about one of the best all-around defenders in the game today.

About the author

Jesse Reed

Jesse Reed

Managing Editor here at Sportsnaut. Featured on Yardbarker, Foxsports.com and MSN.com, and formerly was a breaking news writer/NFL analyst for Bleacher Report.