There’s a strangely small optimal age in the NFL. When a player gets over 30, many start to look closely at him for signs of wear and tear, for signs that he’s ageing out. If a player is too young, despite having earned a spot on the roster, many think they need experience before they’re able to move from back-up or bench warmer to a consistently active part of the team.
Every player who gets drafted into the NFL obviously stunned in college – with countless colleges possessing mammoth rosters, you only get the NFL’s attention if you’re truly a star. Some draft picks turn out to be busts, players who may have peaked in college and find it difficult to play as well at an NFL level. Other players end up surprising everyone – while a large majority of NFL players who end up achieving a lot of success are very early round picks, sometimes someone will surprise you. There was once this small guy picked in the sixth round, Tom Brady? You may have heard of him.
Some rookies are forced into the water unexpectedly, moved from back-up to starter because of a team mate’s unforeseen injury. Some just prove themselves in their small windows of playing time so well that they get bumped up in the coach’s opinion and consequently allowed more field time. While there is something to be said for experience, a lot of the young players in the NFL prove that you don’t need to be a veteran to rock the field. Here are 25 NFL players under the age of 23.
25 Teddy Bridgewater – QB, Minnesota Vikings
Though Bridgwater showed a lot of promise and was picked up in the first round of the 2014 NFL Draft, people expected him to remain a back-up for awhile. When the Minnesota Vikings’ Matt Cassel went down with an injury, however, they tossed Bridgwater into the water head first – and he sure didn’t sink. The 21 year old, who played college ball at Louisville, stunned everyone by holding his own despite being a rookie.
24 Devonta Freeman – RB, Atlanta Falcons
This 22 year old fourth round pick hasn’t yet had many chances to show his stuff on the Falcons field. However, there’s someone on the Falcons who is notoriously injury prone (sorry, Mr. Jackson). If Freeman continues to put in the work, there’s a strong chance that he could get a bigger piece of the Falcons pie if he’s called on to step up.
23 Allen Hurns – WR, Jacksonville Jaguars
Another rising star who initially went undrafted, Hurns was picked up by the Jacksonville Jaguars and this is his rookie season. He proved the Jaguars’ choice to be a good one when he made a little bit of history – he was the first rookie to get two receiving touchdowns in the first quarter of his first game. It’s a fairly specific record, but hey – what a way to start.
22 Donte Moncrief – WR, Indianapolis Colts
This 21 year old entered the NFL as an underclassmen, selected in the third round by the Indianapolis Colts. He has less than 100 NFL receiving yards to his name, true. However, he comes to the NFL from college football giant Ole Miss, where he was very productive indeed. He needs some time to transition from college ball to the NFL, but this rookie is one to watch.
21 Khalil Mack – DE, Oakland Raiders
Khalil Mack, who sharpened his skills at the University of Buffalo, had an incredible college career. He began to put himself on the map at Buffalo, where he holds the all-time NCAA record for forced fumbles. His skills led him to be selected fifth overall in the 2014 NFL Draft by the Oakland Raiders - breaking another Buffalo record, as it made him the highest selection from Buffalo ever. Mack has been proving the Raiders right in their first round pick - though he hasn't recorded any sacks yet, Pro Football Focus has given him the best run defense grade out of all linebackers in the league. Not bad for a rookie. All he needs now is a catch phrase for when he begins getting endless sacks, and with a last name that rhymes with 'attack,' that shouldn't be too difficult.
20 Johnny Manziel – QB, Cleveland Browns
Ah, Johnny Football. This former Texas A&M Aggie is certainly not boring. He won countless awards in his college career: the Heisman Trophy to the AP Player of the Year, Manning Award, Davey O’Brien Award, Sporting News Player of the Year, etc. He also rubbed a lot of people the wrong way due to his cocky attitude and antics, leading Barry Switzer to call him “an arrogant little prick.” After the Browns picked him in the first round, he was soon fined for flipping the bird in a pre-season game. Brian Hoyer is still in possession of the starting quarterback role, and fans can’t help but wonder if Manziel’s attitude is causing the Browns staff to be wary of sticking a ticking time bomb onto the field. Whether viewers are waiting to see his meteoric rise in the NFL or waiting to see him shoot himself in the foot by doing something stupid, all eyes are definitely on this 21 year old Texas native.
19 Jerick McKinnon – RB, Minnesota Vikings
While Adrian Peterson being deactivated wasn’t good news for the Minnesota Vikings, it did allow rookie Jerick McKinnon to shine. The 22 year old Georgia Southern alum, who was drafted in the third round, got his chance to step up to the plate in Peterson’s place. He’s still learning and getting acclimated to the NFL, but his week four performance against the Falcons proves he has a lot of potential, particularly if Peterson doesn’t return for awhile.
18 Jake Matthews – T, Atlanta Falcons
Jake Matthews, a 22 year old rookie offensive tackle for the Atlanta Falcons, was selected 6th overall in the 2014 NFL Draft. He comes from college football powerhouse Texas A&M. Matthews, a massive 6’5, 310 pound beast, also has quite the football pedigree. His father is Hall of Fame player Bruce Matthews, both his brothers have played for the Aggies, and he has two cousins (Clay Matthews III and Casey Matthews) in the NFL, and also lists an uncle (Clay Matthews, Jr.) and grandfather (Clay Matthews Sr.) as NFL veterans. The Thanksgiving football games in the Matthews family are probably pretty badass.
17 Derrick Coleman – FB, Seattle Seahawks
To already have a Super Bowl ring at the young age of 23 is certainly nothing to scoff at. Coleman also broke records by being the first deaf offensive player in the NFL. Though he initially went undrafted, Coleman was eventually brought on with the Seahawks. Based on average age, Seattle is a young team in the NFL, and Coleman is one of their younger players. While he may not be as decorated as some of the league’s other young players, he’s been cited as a great role model and inspiration.
16 Ha Ha Clinton-Dix – S, Green Bay Packers
Ah, the name that caused so many players to squint for verification. Fun fact – his real name is Ha’Sean, but Clinton-Dix goes by his nickname, Ha Ha. This 2014 first round pick got signed by the Packers for a four year, roughly $8.4 million contract. He’s still a very green rookie, only receiving his first NFL career interception recently in week 3, but University of Alabama produces a lot of amazing players (including his team mate Eddie Lacy) so many eagerly await Clinton-Dix’s career trajectory.
15 Geno Smith – QB, New York Jets
Smith initially competed with quarterback Mark Sanchez for the Jets’ starting quarterback position, but a shoulder injury on Sanchez’ part pushed Smith to the front. It’s not that common for a rookie quarterback to immediately be given the reins, but with circumstances as they were, Smith had to learn hands-on. While he wavered occasionally, he steadily improved and has nearly 4,000 passing yards under his belt to date.
14 Justin Hunter – WR, Tennessee Titans
Hunter, entering the draft a year early from the University of Tennessee, was snapped up in the second round by the Tennessee Titans. His performance hasn’t been the steadiest, as he has some poor games and some fairly good ones, but he’s been coming into his own and will likely continue to improve.
13 Isaiah Crowell – RB, Cleveland Browns
Crowell’s had a bit of controversy in his past, being dismissed from the University of Georgia team for an arrest before hopping on board with Alabama State. His college switch may have had an impact on his draft potential, but the Cleveland Browns eventually picked him up as a third-string running back option. Though his $10,000 signing bonus is peanuts compared to some rookies’ multi-million dollar ones, he’s been putting in the hard work and the 21 year old has nothing but time to grow.
12 Bishop Sankey – RB, Tennessee Titans
This second round pick was the first running back chosen in the 2014 NFL Draft, entering after his junior year. Sankey’s stats aren’t too amazing for now, with one touchdown and about 211 yards to his name, but the Titans player has been getting a lot of hype. Look to see his role increasing as his rookie year progresses.
11 Cody Parkey - K, Philadelphia Eagles
This 22 year old kicker managed to beat out veteran Alex Henery for the 2014 Eagles kicker spot. The Auburn alum has been proving his worth lately, making 12 out of 13 attempted field goals thus far. His 90.9% field goal percentage is certainly nothing to scoff at, and in a position that frequently contains players in their late 30s, Parkey likely has a long career ahead of him.
10 Zac Stacy – RB, St. Louis Rams
Zac Stacy, the 23 year old running back who honed his skills on the fields of Vanderbilt University, isn’t exactly an in your face type of player. While he performed very well at Combine, he was only drafted in the fifth round. However, with over 1,200 rushing yards and 8 rushing touchdowns to his name, he seems to be doing alright so far. Though he may not have snagged as many awards as some of the NFL’s other young players, many have marked Stacy as one to watch as his career continues.
9 DeAndre Hopkins – WR, Houston Texans
Another player who decided to forego his senior year in favor of entering the draft early, Hopkins caught the eye of the Houston Texans in the 2013 NFL Draft. He was only the second wide receiver the Texans had ever drafted in the first round, a true testament to the potential he exhibited during his time at Clemson. He has five receiving touchdowns and over 1,000 receiving yards in his NFL career so far.
8 Sammy Watkins – WR, Buffalo Bills
Clemson alum Sammy Watkins, a mere 21 years of age, was the fourth pick in the 2014 NFL Draft. His potential snagged him a four-year deal with a staggering $12.8 million signing bonus. Apparently football runs in the Watkins bloodline, as his brother Jaylen Watkins plays for the Philadelphia Eagles. Watkins has already flashed big-game potential in his rookie season and has Bills fans getting excited about the prospect of watching him over the next decade.
7 Le’Veon Bell – RB, Pittsburgh Steelers
The Steelers picked Bell in the second round after he decided to forego his senior season at Michigan State to enter the draft. The choice paid off, as Bell won the Pittsburgh Steelers Rookie of the Year award in 2013. He’s had some scandal this season with team mate LeGarrette Blount, but one can only hope he continues to play as he did in his rookie season.
6 Jadeveon Clowney – LB, Houston Texans
Anyone picked first overall is likely to garner a lot of attention, and 2014 Draft pick Jadeveon Clowney certainly has. The Houston Texans snagged the 21 year old linebacker that USA Today called “the most freakish physical specimen in this draft” based on his lightning quick 40 yard dash. Clowney banked an impressive $22.272 million deal with a $14.518 million signing bonus – not too shabby. He’s had some injury issues, first undergoing a hernia surgery prior to the 2014 season, and then one for a torn meniscus, but his potential is enormous.
5 Brandin Cooks – WR, New Orleans Saints
Cooks, a first round selection, has a lot of buzz surrounding him. The Oregon State alum has many college awards to his name, and the Saints’ four-year, $8.3 million contract suggests they believe he has the potential to continue excelling on the field. While he only has one touchdown so far, he’s been impressing in his limited time on the field and his role will likely be increased soon.
4 Giovani Bernard – RB, Cincinnati Bengals
22 year old Giovani Bernard was selected by the Cincinnati Bengals in the second round of the 2013 NFL Draft. Since entering the league, Bernard has had over 1,000 rushing yards and 9 rushing touchdowns. He shows no signs of slowing down in his second season in the league – in fact, he had his most productive NFL game this season against the Carolina Panthers
3 Blake Bortles – QB, Jacksonville Jaguars
When football fans are suggesting the back-up rookie quarterback be put in to replace the starting quarterback, you know he’s doing something right. The Jaguars drafted Bortles in the first round of the 2014 NFL Draft and signed him to a $20 million, four year contract. Bortles’ NFL debut was a result of the Jaguars’ blowout loss to the Colts. The rookie, who was put in to replace Chad Henne when the Jaguars figured they had nothing to lose, blew everyone away that game. He was named starter after his performance and quickly made his first NFL start, which went so well that he earned a spot in the NFL record books with his 78.4% completion percentage.
2 Keenan Allen – WR, San Diego Chargers
The University of California, Berkeley alum, once a five-star recruit, was projected to go extremely early in the 2013 NFL Draft. An injury in his 2012 season meant he struggled a bit, most significantly not working out during the Scouting Combine, and consequently was drafted in a later round than anticipated. However, the Chargers ended up signing him to a four-year, $2.81 million contract and in his rookie season he put himself on the map by leading all NFL rookies in receptions, and recording 1,046 receiving yards. The 4 time Pepsi NFL Rookie of the Week, 2013 Sporting News NFL Rookie of the Year, and 2013 PFWA Offensive Rookie of the Year continues to grow and improve.
1 Luke Kuechly – LB, Carolina Panthers
Like most of the players under the age of 23 in the NFL, Kuechly decided to forego his senior year and enter the NFL Draft early. He was selected in the top ten overall (ninth, to be specific) and has won countless awards, including being the third youngest to win the Associated Press NFL Defensive Rookie of the Year award in 2012 and the absolute youngest to win the AP NFL Defensive Player of the Year Award in 2013. With over 350 tackles to his name, Kuechly continues to stun on the field. NFL Network analyst Mike Mayock has referred to him as “Clark Kent” because “he can turn into Superman on Saturdays and Sundays.”