The NFL is a grown man's league and each game takes a huge toll on the players' bodies. This will often give a younger player an advantage from week to week as their recovery time is generally quicker than their veteran teammates. It elevates the importance for teams to stockpile talented youth in the draft because when a player reaches 30 years old in the NFL, they are considered over the hill and in the sunset of their career.
However, veteran players have advantages that only experience can bring and it is often why players in between 26 and 30 are considered to be in the prime of their careers. A player must earn his stay in a cut-throat league like the NFL, where the average career span is less than three seasons. So if a player under the age of 25 has already made a name for himself, it's usually a sign that they are an extremely special talent.
This list breaks down those rare players who have established themselves as being the future faces of the league. These "kids" can flat out ball and can excel on the field despite having limited NFL experience. The list looks at not only what these players have accomplished in their career to date, but also factors in their future potential.
20 20. Jameis Winston
Jameis Winston has struggled so far this season but that is not enough to not include him on this list. There were a lot of Winston haters entering his rookie season and he silenced many of them by throwing for over 4,000 yards and 22 touchdowns (Winston also rushed for 6 touchdowns).
As a big, strong-armed quarterback, it will take Winston several seasons to fully develop his potential. But luckily for the Buccaneers, incredible potential is not something Winston lacks. What has been most impressive about Winston is his apparent maturity and desire to be great. This offseason he showed a dedication to developing his technique, as well as his conditioning. He reported to camp this year in excellent shape for a quarterback his size.
19 19. Deone Bucannon
Who? Not many people know of Deone Bucannon on the Cardinals yet but that is going to change just like Bucannon is going to continue the change the linebacking position. Originally drafted in the first round as a hard-hitting safety out of Washington State, the Cardinals were forced to move Bucannon to linebacker due to injuries at the position his rookie season.
Although he was hesitant to make the position change, Bucannon accepted his role and immediately became a game-changing linebacker. In fact, he plays the position unlike any other player in the league to the point that they created a new position name for him, "The Moneybacker." At 6'1" and 211 pounds, Bucannon brings a ton of punch in the box, but is still able to use his natural safety skills to shut down other teams' tight ends and running backs. In his second season at linebacker, Bucannon registered 112 tackles and allowed the Cardinals to use defenses that defensive coordinators could only once dream about.
18 18. Stefon Diggs
The Viking used a fifth-round pick on Stefon Diggs in 2015 and it already appears to be an absolute steal. Diggs received little hype going into his rookie season but then burst onto the scene late and quickly became the Vikings go to receiver. It's difficult to pinpoint what exactly make Diggs so good, but his precise route running and top gear speed are hard to miss.
Some thought that Diggs would struggle in his second season now that teams are going to gameplan and put their no.1 corner on him, but he's shown that he's ready for the challenge. In Week 2 of this season, Diggs absolutely torched the Green Bay Packers secondary to the tune of 9 catches for 187 yards and a touchdown. He was consistently able to beat corners deep and made several incredible grabs.
17 17. Blake Bortles
Blake Bortles was drafted to be the future franchise quarterback for the Jaguars, a team in desperate need of some hope, and he has certainly provided just that. As a rookie, Bortles struggled but his potential was clear. In his second season, Bortles made the jump from timid rookie to gun-slinger when he threw for over 4,000 yards and 35 touchdowns.
16 16. Zack Martin
You're probably thinking, "did this writer seriously include a lineman on this list?" The answer is yes and with good reason. Zack Martin is not a sexy pick here and as an NFL lineman, he rarely gets any recognition for the tremendous work he does every Sunday. If a lineman is rarely talked about after a game, that means he did his job well.
Martin is a dominant force and the anchor for the best offensive line in football. All he has done in his two seasons in the league is make two Pro-Bowls and be named a first team all pro. He's perhaps the best guard in the league already and will remain so for the next decade plus.
15 15. Sammy Watkins
The Bills made a big draft day trade in 2014 when they traded the 9th overall pick and a future first round pick to move up to the 4th pick and take Sammy Watkins. Although Watkins may not have lived up to that type of price tag to this point, but he has shown that he can be a legitimate no.1 receiver when healthy.
Watkins backed up a solid rookie season with a 1,000 yard and 9 touchdown 2015 season. Injuries have certainly derailed his career trajectory to this point but when healthy, Watkins is a serious threat. With Watkins it's not whether he can produce, it's whether he can stay healthy. Let's hope for his sake and for the Bills that Watkins can remain healthy and have a very successful career.
14 14. Allen Robinson
Do the Jaguars have a machine that makes 6'3, 210 pound receivers? Between Allen Robinson and Allen Hurns, the Jaguars have developed quite a formidable receiving core. Although both Allen's are very talented, Robinson's 2015 season lands him on this list as teams were virtually unable to contain him at all.
13 13. Amari Cooper
Amari Cooper is the prototypical possession receiver in the NFL today. His size, speed, and great route running ability provides his young quarterback Derrick Carr with a great weapon on the outside. In his rookie year, Cooper showed an incredible knack to turn a 5 yard pass into a game-breaking 50-plus yard catch and run. His skill set is perfect for maintaining a long, successful career in the NFL.
12 12. Todd Gurley
The Rams desperately needed a face of the franchise before their big move to Los Angeles and Todd Gurley fits the bill for the leading role in Hollywood. Gurley dominated solid competition while playing at the University of Georgia before suffering a gruesome knee injury. Nobody knew for sure whether Gurley would ever be able to return to his powerful running style, but he has certainly shown that he can still run with the best of them.
Last season, Gurley was so much fun to watch for an otherwise unwatchable Rams offense. His presence has changed their swagger on offense as teams are now forced to stack the box in order to shut down the running game. Given that he is now in the biggest market (arguably) in the NFL, Gurley's star power will continue to grow.
11 11. Mike Evans
Mike Evans announced his presence as a future dominant wide receiver in his rookie season when turned 68 receptions into 1,051 yards and 12 touchdowns. At 6'5", 231 pounds, Evans is a massive force to be reckoned with against smaller cornerbacks. His size makes him the perfect red zone target as quarterbacks can simply throw it his way and expect him to beat the corners at the high point.
10 10. Derek Carr
The toughest thing for an NFL team to do is find a franchise quarterback and it appears that the Raiders did just that when they drafted Derek Carr in the second round of the 2014 draft. Since being drafted, all Carr has done is compile 62 touchdowns to only 26 interceptions.
While he has produced statistically, the most impressive element of Carr's game has been his control of the huddle and leadership ability for a team that desperately needed it. The Raiders are stocked with young talent and Carr is the centerpiece that makes it all work. Like most great quarterbacks, Carr should continue to develop and learn how to expose defenses.
9 9. DeAndre Hopkins
In his third season, DeAndre Hopkins hauled in 111 catches for 1,500 yards and 11 touchdowns. Those are impressive numbers alone but they become even more eye-popping when you see the quarterbacks (or lack thereof) that he's played with so far in his career in Houston. Hopkins is a classic no.1 receiver in this league as he has the home-run deep ball speed but runs precise routs that allow him to also be a possession receiver.
8 8. David Johnson
Although David Johnson doesn't have the pedigree that many of these players have yet, his talent is undeniable. A surprise pick in the third round of the 2015 NFL draft, Johnson has made Cardinals GM Steve Keim look like a genius. He has a unique blend of power, speed, and receiving ability that makes him a perfect fit for the new age NFL running back.
As a rookie, Johnson burst onto the scene with an 187 yard and 3 touchdown performance on Sunday Night Football against the Philadelphia Eagles. Since then, he has cemented himself as the Cardinals starting running back and he has lived up to the lofty hype he received this offseason. The guy is an incredible talent and is the best receiving running back in the NFL.
7 7. Marcus Peters
Marcus Peters came into the league with a lot of baggage given his on and off field issues while in college at the University of Washington, but his talent has never been questioned. The Kansas City Chiefs realized this and took a chance on the disgruntled cornerback and the selection has netted them arguably the best ball-hawk in the league.
As a rookie in 2015, Peters corralled in 8 interceptions which was good enough to finish tied for the league lead. He consistently covers the opposing team's no.1 wide receiver in man-to-man coverage, a feat that should not go overlooked. Peters is only in his second year and has already thrown his name in the hat with Patrick Peterson and Richard Sherman for the best corner in the league.
6 6. Aaron Donald
The quickest way to get to the quarterback is to go right up the middle and that is exactly what Aaron Donald is able to do. This beast of a man consistently destroys the pocket for opposing quarterbacks and makes offensive lineman look like children. He also has as a great feel in plugging gaps and stopping running backs in their tracks. He's the best nose tackle in all of football and it's only his third season.
5 5. Odell Beckham, Jr.
Odell Beckham, Jr. burst onto the scene as a rookie when he made the now infamous one handed catch heard round the world. He hasn't slowed down since then as he has put up back to back 1,000 yard seasons. Beckham is a freak athlete and is a nightmare for opposing cornerbacks with his speed, jumping ability, and hand-eye coordination.
Although Beckham has a hot temper while on the field, he is nearly unstoppable when he keeps his head into the game. With a veteran quarterback in Eli Manning throwing him the ball, Beckham will continue to put up huge numbers and make fantasy owners happy each week.
4 4. Luke Kuechly
It's surprising that Luke Kuechly is only 25 years old as it feels as if he has been in the league for many years already. His style of play is classic for an inside linebacker as he has excellent sideline to sideline speed and a tenacious attitude in getting to the ball. Although he's only entering his 5th season, Kuechly has the poise of a 15 year veteran.
Paired with fellow teammate (and beast) Thomas Davis at the linebacker position for the Carolina Panthers, Kuechly is a game changer. His coverage skills are second to none for linebackers and his instincts have helped him already accumulate 12 interceptions.
3 3. Khalil Mack
The Raiders are an up and coming team in the AFC and are stacked with young talent. Of their young stars, Khalil Mack certainly shines the brightest. Although he doesn't get as much national coverage as other speed rushers like Von Miller, Mack is a nightmare for opposing quarterbacks.
In 2015, Mack finished second to only J.J. Watt in sacks with 15. His speed and power creates a unique combination that makes him an extreme talent at the linebacker position. Mack continues to work on his coverage skills and continues to improve with each season; his potential is unlimited at this point.
2 2. Le'Veon Bell
Le'Veon Bell is the model for the new age running back in the NFL, as he has all the rushing and receiving tools you could ask for in a running back. His rushing style is patient, yet powerful and is truly a beautiful thing to watch. At times he makes the game look so easy that it appears he's not even trying and he's just hitting now hitting his prime.
As the lead back for the NFL's most dangerous offense, it's capable that he will put up the type of stats that most running backs could only dream of. For example, in 2014 Bell rushed for over 1,300 yards and also caught 86 passes for 854 yards. Those stats are almost mind-boggling and show just how talented Bell is.
1 1. Tyrann Mathieu
Tyrann Mathieu, more commonly known as the "Honey Badger," has had quite the path to stardom in the NFL. Always one of the shorter players on the field (standing only at 5'9"), Honey Badger has always played with a chip on his shoulder to prove he belongs. While at LSU, Honeybadger was in the running for the Heisman trophy his freshman year while playing defensive back and punt returner for the Tigers. After his breakout season, however, Mathieu hit adversity off the field and eventually was kicked off the team after failing multiple drug tests.
Despite being a year removed from football, the Arizona Cardinals took the risk of drafting Mathieu in hopes he would clean up his act and return to the dominance he displayed at LSU. For the Cardinals, the risk has certainly been worth the reward as Mathieu has been excellent both on and off the field.
Not blessed with great size, Honey Badger relies on his super human-like instincts and athleticism. If not for an injury last season, he would have won the Defensive Player of the year award. Yes, he was and is that good. Don't believe it? I'm sure Mathieu would love to prove you wrong.
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