NFL 25 Under 25 Rankings
Andrew Luck, J.J. Watt, Russell Wilson. Who leads the way?
The accumulation of premier young talent might matter more in the NFL than in any other sport. Because of the constant nature of injuries in this sport, what you become before you reach your mid-20s plays a huge role not just in your ability to have a shot at stardom but also in your earning power throughout your career. The average 25-year-old NFL player might be just finishing a rookie deal or have one year left on it to prove worthy of a rare major investment that teams must make to hold on to stars. Suffice it to say that, if you're on the list below, teams are already thinking of what the salary cap will look like with you accounting for a healthy chunk of that cap in the years to come.
The parameters are really important, so let's make them clear:
1. All players must be under age 25 as of Week 1 of the 2013 season.
So, a player such as A.J. Green, who would rank high here, isn't on the list because he'll turn 25 between now and Week 1.
2. Players are ranked based on overall talent, total production and the likelihood of future production.
It's necessary to include assumed future production because that's how teams value players, too. You are more valuable if you are likely to be a very good player in 2013, not just because you were fantastic in 2012. Contracts are given for production expected, not past production.
3. Positional value is a big factor.
Blair Walsh is a great young kicker, but he didn't make the list. The position you play matters here, just as it does when teams and players negotiate deals.
4. Health matters.
Staying healthy really is a performance evaluation in the NFL. Because future production is a factor, health must be, too.
Here is the list of the current top 25 NFL players under age 25 heading into the 2013 season.
Current: If you rely on raw totals from Luck's rookie season, such as a record for rookie passing yards, he looks good. But I think he looks even better in context. If you think the Colts were fortunate to win 11 games while being outscored on the season, you might be right, but remember that Luck was the main reason they did. His knack for clutch play led to comeback wins in games that maybe the team didn't deserve based on the numbers. And if you consider those records just more modern fluff, remember that he set them while throwing to numerous rookies (Indy led the league with 50 drops) behind an offensive line that allowed him to be sacked 41 times and take more hits than any other NFL quarterback. This ranking is not an indication that Luck performed better than the two other QBs from his class listed just below, but I'm not sure any rookie quarterback faced a bigger challenge.
Future: As I said, Luck didn't outpace Russell Wilson or Robert Griffin III based on performance in 2012, but he has a small edge. He is a big quarterback at nearly 240 pounds, has great mobility and strength, manipulates the pocket well, and has shown no reason to think he'll be prone to injury. He'll never again be hit as often as he was as a rookie. Perhaps more importantly, he'll just now get fully comfortable as he gets his college offensive coordinator back (Pep Hamilton) and will gain a better familiarity with his receivers and (hopefully) better blocking. The future is what pushed him to No. 1 for me, and he'll still qualify for this list 365 days from now.
To read Mel Kiper's full article on the top 25 NFL players under the age of 25, you must be an ESPN Insider.