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Top Five 25-and-Under Cores in the NFL

Top Five 25-and-Under Cores in the NFL
Tom Rudawky is a former NFL scout for the New York Giants who previously worked in football operations for the Miami Dolphins and Minnesota Vikings. He now writes for The 33rd Team among other publications.

In the world of NFL roster building, decision makers walk a fine line between establishing a strong core of young players and possessing a distinguished group of veterans who have proven they can consistently handle the wear and tear of a long season. The top rosters in the sport most certainly have a strong combination of the two.

Here we take a look at the top five rosters in the league based solely off one of those criteria — their young core. In this case, we are looking at players who are still 25 years old and younger.

There were a solid 8-10 teams in consideration, but at the end of the day the teams with foundational players on both sides of the ball were selected first. With age 25 being the cut-off point, teams such as the Colts and Cowboys barely missed the cut with some stars that are 26. Please note that 2022 draftees are not part of the consideration, as we don’t truly know the type of players they are in the NFL just yet.

Cincinnati Bengals

Notable 25-and-under players:

QB Joe Burrow, RB Joe Mixon, WR Ja’Marr Chase, WR Tee Higgins, LT Jonah Williams, ILB Logan Wilson, S Jessie Bates III, K Evan McPherson

Wow. After seeing whom the Bengals have drafted and developed across the last few years, it’s easy to see how and why they’re the reigning AFC Champions – but also why they’re set up for great success moving forward. Drafting Joe Burrow number one overall in 2020 was truly a franchise-altering selection, but to then be able to add Tee Higgins and Ja’Marr Chase has brought their passing attack to life. Burrow, Mixon, Chase, and Higgins will continue haunting NFL defenses for years. The Bengals are still working on fortifying their offensive line, and while Jonah Williams is far from perfect, he still represents a young, ascending player up front.

Defensively, Logan Wilson and Jessie Bates III are cornerstone pieces at the 2nd and 3rd levels respectively. Bates played like one of the top safeties in football in 2021 – he’s got outstanding instincts to pair with ball skills and range in center field. Cincinnati has also done a great job of rounding out their personnel defensively – unfortunately besides Wilson and Bates, none of those guys are 25 or younger. The production of Evan McPherson also gives the Bengals a nice boost – Kicker is not a position Cincinnati should have to worry about for a while. Make no mistake about it, Cincinnati’s scouting department has done a great job in identifying impact talent in the draft.

Denver Broncos

Notable 25-and-under players:

RB Javonte Williams, WR Jerry Jeudy, WR KJ Hamler, G/C Quinn Meinerz, DE Dre’Mont Jones, OLB Bradley Chubb, CB Patrick Surtain II

When analyzing the Broncos roster as a whole, it’s a balanced, complete roster without many glaring weaknesses. As you can see with this list, it’s infused with solid young players on both sides of the ball. Offensively, the selection of Williams in 2021 was a home run – he’s a very well-rounded young back with great physical and athletic traits to continue ascending. Jeudy and Hamler are dangerous perimeter players – the Broncos just need to keep them healthy. Meinerz is a player who looked much better the more he saw the field, and if he continues making strides, will likely be a solid starter for years to come.

Moving to the defensive side, Chubb and Surtain are upper echelon NFL starters, with game-breaking skill sets. Similar to Jeudy and Hamler, the health of Chubb is a huge key to Denver’s pass rush being effective week in and week out. Jones is an underrated young defensive lineman. While these are all the top 25-and-under players, guys such as LB Baron Browning and TE Albert Okwuegbunam also have upside to develop into winning starters. The Broncos are in a real position to win big in 2022, and their young core of players is certainly a big reason why.

Baltimore Ravens

Notable 25-and-under players:

QB Lamar Jackson, RB J.K. Dobbins, WR Rashod Bateman, OLB Ofade Oweh, ILB Patrick Queen, CB Marlon Humphrey, S Marcus Williams

It’s no surprise to see the Ravens on this list, as they are consistently one of the better drafting front offices in the sport. All of these players were drafted by the Ravens with the exception of Williams, who was signed this offseason in free agency to fortify the back end. Obviously, Jackson and Dobbins are staples of this offense and their wear-you-down identity on the ground. Bateman was a 2021 first round pick and flashed last season. If the Ravens have a glaring weakness on the roster, it’s at wide receiver, so Bateman’s continued improvement is crucial.

On defense, Oweh posted five sacks and three forced fumbles as a rookie in 2021 and figures to be a major part of the Ravens future plans. One thing Baltimore does an outstanding job of is drafting, developing, then deploying edge defenders in positions to allow them to succeed. Oweh is another example. Queen, Humphrey, and Williams give the Ravens obvious building blocks moving forward. The Ravens excellent drafting is on display yet again with this list.

Tampa Bay Buccaneers

Notable 25-and-under players:

OT Tristan Wirfs, OLB Joe Tryon-Shoyinka, ILB Devin White, CB Carlton Davis, CB Jamel Dean, CB Sean Murphy-Bunting, S Antoine Winfield, CS Grant Stuard

Looking at this list, the main thing that sticks out to me is that the Buccaneers have truly been able to build a contender because of many of the players on this list. Obviously, Tom Brady has been the straw that stirs the drink, but General Manager Jason Licht deserves a great deal of credit for the draft picks of Wirfs, Tryon-Shoyinka, White, and Winfield. They all have the looks of elite, game-changing performers for years to come – and have already proven themselves as “blue-chippers.”

While all of these players except Wirfs are on the defensive side of the ball, Tampa Bay has been able to supply Brady with impact weapons in Evans, Godwin (who is 26, FYI), Gronkowski, and more. WR’s Scotty Miller and Tyler Johnson are both nice complimentary pieces, and are both under 25, but haven’t quite made enough of an impact to crack the list. Stuard, who is a stud on special teams, was a nice find in the 7th round in 2021. While Tampa will have a massive void to fill once Brady leaves, this crop of young stars should allow the Bucs to stay relevant.

Pittsburgh Steelers

Notable 25-and-under players:

RB Najee Harris, WR Chase Claypool, WR Diontae Johnson, TE Pat Freiermuth, OT Chukwuma Okorafor, ILB Devin Bush, S Minkah Fitzpatrick

As the 3rd AFC North team on this list, the Steelers also represent an organization that has been very sound in their drafting for a while now. The club will miss longtime General Manager Kevin Colbert, who retired following the draft in April. It’s hard to find fault with what Colbert left for new General Manager Omar Khan in terms of young and emerging talent. Harris, Claypool, Johnson, and Freiermuth all look like potential cornerstone players, and with the team’s giant question mark at quarterback, all are needed in the efforts to play winning offensive football.

Defensively, the acquisition of both Bush and Fitzpatrick represent aggressive, win-now moves that were made by Colbert. In 2019, Pittsburgh made a big move up to select Bush 10th overall. Less than five months later, Colbert traded a first-round pick to the Dolphins for Fitzpatrick, who is one of the better safeties in all of football. While the quarterback position is a big mystery, there’s no doubt that the young core of this roster remains on solid footing moving into the future.