24 UNDER 24

December 21, 2015

So this is an idea that I got from Major League Soccer, who does a feature on their top 24 players under the age of 24 on mlssoccer.com. The editorial always sparks some controversy and gets team's fan bases riled up, so I wanted to see if I could translate this to the NFL. I know Elliot Harrison does an All-Under 25 Team every year for NFL.com, but I wanted to do this regardless of position. I am going to add one player to this list each day and update the blog live. Enjoy!

 

#1 AARON DONALD

Aaron Donald is the next Warren Sapp. There, I said it. Since coming into the league as a rookie last season, Donald has been damn near unstoppable. His interior disruption is a work of art, but don't mistake him for a finesse DT. Donald also has the power to throw aside 323 pound men like they are obsolete CD towers. Donald tops this list at #1, but it was very close to the player who will come in at #2 tomorrow. Stay tuned...

#2 TYRON SMITH

Can you believe that Tyron Smith still qualifies for this list? Smith might be the best left tackle in football, and I legitimately considered him for the #1 spot on this list. I don't have to get into how talented the former Trojan is - it's just amazing that he is already on his second contract and still eligible for the #24under24, as he was only 19 years old when he was drafted.

 

#3 ODELL BECKHAM JR.

Odell Beckham Jr. will turn 23 on November 5th, and although "The Catch" capitulated the former LSU Tiger into an entirely now stratosphere of popularity, he is perhaps the most dominant a WR coming straight out of college I've seen since Calvin Johnson. Earning a Madden cover in his rookie year which he missed the first several games due to a hamstring injury, I would expect Odell's game to only continue to elevate. Scary thought.

 

#4 LE'VEON BELL

Le'Veon Bell is probably the best RB in the NFL right now, and he doesn't turn 24 until February. Bell needs to keep taking care of his body and he can be a dominant RB for the Steelers for the next decade. I wouldn't be surprised if Bell ends up eventually breaking all of Jerome Bettis' records for Pittsburgh, and *spoiler alert* the Killer B ends up being one of only 3 RBs on this list.

 

#5 KHALIL MACK

When Mike Mayock said that the Texans should take Khalil Mack #1 overall over Jadeveon Clowney, everyone laughed. Despite being a South Carolina alum, I agreed with Mayock, and if you strapped a lie detector to Texans GM Rick Smith, I'm positive it would go bonkers if he were to say he would still prefer Clowney. Mack has become a tremendous difference maker for the Raiders and Ken Norton Jr. is only going to continue to develop Mack, who is already a Pro Bowler in my mind. Mack turns 25 on February 22nd.

 

#6 TYRANN MATHIEU

If you watched this past week's Monday Night Football clash vs. the Ravens, I don't have to go into too much detail here about how good Mathieu is. He is playing at such a high level that he is currently in pole position for Defensive Player of the Year. The game vs. the Ravens was fun because I have been dubbing Mathieu as the "Steve Smith of Defense" since he entered the NFL due to his diminutive stature (5'9" 174 lbs) but aggressive mentality. With the recent retirements of safety legends Ed Reed and Troy Polamalu, Mathieu is exactly the safety that this league needed, and he is going to be good for a long time. Mathieu doesn't turn 24 until May of next year, so the Cardinals have a playmaker in their secondary for the next decade-plus.

 

#7 FLETCHER COX

The Eagles have been disappointing this season, but one consistent staple of this team is DE Fletcher Cox. There were rumors that Chip Kelly was looking to move Cox to Tennessee to move up and get Mariota before the draft, and although they could really use Mariota right now, Cox is one of the most dominant 3-4 DEs in the NFL. Cox won't be eligible for this list for long, though, as he turns 25 on December 13th.

 

#8 SHELDON RICHARDSON

I was debating on whether to put Sheldon Richardson above Fletcher Cox on this list because I think he is a better pure athlete than Cox, but his four game suspension made enough of a difference for me to give the nod to Cox. With Muhammad Wilkerson due to hit free agency this offseason and the selection of Leonard Williams at 5 overall, I believe the Jets are preparing to make Richardson the leader on that talented defensive line next year. Like Cox, Richardson won't be able to stay on this list for very long, as he turns 25 on November 29th this year.

 

#9 DEANDRE HOPKINS

I'm not sure that there's been a wide receiver in the NFL who has done more with less this year than Nuk Hopkins. The Clemson alum is the only weapon on this tepid Texans offense, and literally everyone on the planet (including opposing DBs) knows that the ball is going to go to Hopkins, and he comes up with it anyway. He is currently leading the NFL in targets with 113 and is embarrassing defensive coordinators week in and week out. They just can't contain him. I'm serious - he can't be contained. Oh, and he's still super young despite being in his third NFL season already, turning 24 on June 6th.

#10 ZACK MARTIN

A second Cowboys offensive lineman in the Top 10? You betcha. This Cowboys line is special, and it looks like it's going to be even better with La'el Collins flipping a switch this past week vs the Seahawks. Zack Martin is a big reason for this offensive line's success, ranking just under teammate and All-Pro Tyron Smith this year on Pro Football Focus following a Pro Bowl rookie year. We'll have to replace him on this list in three weeks, though, as Zack Martin turns 25 on November 20th.

#11 CJ MOSLEY

Despite a challenging 2015 season for the Ravens, one bright spot has been they continued development of second-year ILB CJ Mosley. There were some durability concerns about Mosely coming into the league since Nick Saban's Alabama program wears players to the bone before the hit the NFL, but Mosley has been available and his toughness shows through from week to week. Mosley turns 24 in June of next year.

 

#12 ALLEN ROBINSON

Although it might not show up on the win-loss column, the Jaguars have some very impressive young building blocks at the skill positions in the offense. Of this bunch, none has been more impressive than Allen Robinson so far in 2015. Robinson leads the league with a 17.7 yards per catch average this season  (min. 25 catches) and is on-pace to set some Jaguars franchise records previously held by receiving greats Jimmy Smith and Keenan McCardell. Most impressively, AR15 pitched a tent on Revis Island, going off for 121 yards vs. a future HOF cornerback. Robinson doesn't even turn 23 until August of next year.

 

#13 TEDDY BRIDGEWATER

This is probably the stretch of the editorial that starts to get the most controversial. We have Teddy Bridgewater above some of the rest of his fellow classmates due to his consistency and the fact that he doesn't do anything to give games away for the Vikings, despite average statistics. Bridgewater is a leader for Mike Zimmer and the Vikings and has them tied atop the NFC North with a 6-2 record. It also helps that today is Teddy's birthday! Happy birthday, Teddy.

 

#14 DEREK CARR

I know this has been one of the hottest debates of 2015 in terms of which sophomore QB is the furthest along in their development. The only reason Bridgewater is ahead of Carr on this list is because the Vikings are tied for first place in the division and Teddy does a better job of protecting the football and not making mistakes. But again, it's splitting hairs, because an argument can be made that Carr has done more with less talent around him. Time will tell, but Carr will remain on this list until his 25th birthday in March.

 

#15 TODD GURLEY II

Gurley set an NFL record by running for 566 yards in his first four career starts. (Billy Sims had held the record with 539 yards in 1980). He also holds the record for youngest player in NFL history with four consecutive games with 125+ yards. HC Jeff Fisher took a lot of criticism in going RB, a dying position, with the 10th overall pick, but boy has it worked out for them. Gurley has single-handedly powered the Rams offense and is the Eddie George to Jeff Fisher's Super Bowl Titans blueprint. Gurley is going to be on this list for a long time - he turns 22 in August of next year.

 

#16 BLAKE BORTLES

As of Week 10, Bortles ranks 11th in the NFL in passing yard and tied for 7th with Philip Rivers in TDs. That's not bad for a second year QB who's offense was beyond stagnant last year. In fact, Bortles has the second-most improved QBR in the NFL from last year behind only Derek Carr. What puts him behind his classmates Carr and Teddy Bridgewater is his W-L record and pedestrian completion percentage (55.3%) Regardless, the young QB is on pace for about 3,750 yards and 30 TDs and 17 interceptions - that's definitely better than expected before the season started. Although it would fall just short of Mark Brunell's franchise record of 4,367 yards in a season, it would shatter the franchise records for passing touchdowns in a season (David Garrard - 23).

Don't let the early-onset MPB fool you - Bortles is 23, looks 43, and thinks he's 33.

 

#17 AMARI COOPER

There is a youth revolution underway in Oakland, and Amari Cooper may be Che Guevara. Sure, Derek Carr is playing out of his mind this season, but Amari is a big reason for Carr's consistent play. The Raiders are 4-3 this season when Cooper — who had two drops this past Sunday vs. the Lions— has five or more receptions. When he has had four or fewer, they are 0-3. Despite not turning 22 until next June (whew), this young gun has already shown maturity beyond his years. It's appropriate he is in the Silver and Black because he has a very Jerry Rice/Tim Brown "no-nonsense" approach to the position.

 

#18 JAMEIS WINSTON

After a slow start to his rookie campaign, Jameis has really come on strong lately. His 5 TD performance vs. the Eagles was a real eye-opener, and it certainly seems the Bucs having something special in a Winston/Evans connection that should be prolific for years to come. And crab legs might not be the only thing he's stealing - Winston's strong play might snatch a late Wild Card spot in the NFC if he keeps it up. All he needs to do now is stack some consecutive strong performances.

#19 MIKE EVANS

Back to back Bucs? Back to back Bucs. The Buccaneers have some young and exciting players at the skill positions between Jameis and Evans, and if they can complete the set with Ezekiel Elliott this upcoming May, this offense could be at dynasty status. Evans has had somewhat of a sleepy sophomore campaign in the TD department (2) after a monster rookie year which saw him bring down 12 balls for 6. As Jameis continues to find his groove, look for Evans' TDs and production to continue to increase. Evans doesn't turn 23 until next August.

 

#20 MARCUS MARIOTA

Can you imagine if the Titans decided they were OK with Mettenberger and passed on Mariota? That's a world I'm sure Titans fans wouldn't want to live in. After physically being in attendance this past week as the Titans took on the Jaguars, I can confirm that Marcus Mariota is actually #good. He has one of the quickest releases in the NFL already and is the perfect example of a pro-style, pocket passer who looks to throw first but can get it done with his legs when plays break down. Between Andrew Luck, Blake Bortles, and Marcus Mariota, look for the AFC South to evolve into the next power division, similar to the NFC West did the year after the Seahawks made the playoffs at 7-9.

 

#21 SAMMY WATKINS

Sammy Watkins had a turbulent rookie season, but has recently been playing up to his #4 overall draft selection that the Bills traded away a second first rounder to get. Watkins has to continue to demonstrate consistency, and that is the only reason he is not higher on this list, but with Tyrod Taylor looking to stick around for a little bit, the rapport Watkins has built with his QB can help accomplish that goal. Watkins turns 23 on Jun 14th.

 

#22 LEONARD WILLIAMS

You want to know why Muhammad Wilkerson, as good as he is, won't be in New York next year? Here you go:

Everyone thought the Jets taking Williams at 5 in last year's draft was curious with the other needs that they had, but it is clear that GM Mike Maccagnan has his sights set for the future. He knew Wilkerson was entering the last year of his contract and wanted to earn some insurance in case he couldn't bring him back. Leonard Williams is showing he was worthy of all the number one overall pick hype pre-draft, and the best part about it for Jets fans? He's barely old enough to drink. Williams turns 22 on June 20th.

 

#23 MARTAVIS BRYANT

Why isn't he higher? A 4 game suspension this year certainly didn't help Martavis Bryant, but there's no questioning his skill. Even more remarkable - Bryant is the THIRD Clemson WR to debut on this list. How did the Tigers not win a National Championship with Bryant, Sammy Watkins and Nuk Hopkins on the same team? Unreal. Martavis is also sneakily older than you may think, turning 24 on December 20th.

 

#24 TELVIN SMITH

Telvin Smith may not be a household name to most NFL fans due to the fact he plays in a small market and is a defensive player, hence missing the fantasy football recognition, but Smith is a baller. The former Seminole runs like a CB and hits like a DE, forcing opposing offensive coordinators to gameplan around his range and athleticism. Telvin's instincts and awareness took a big step forward this season, and the former 5th round pick currently ranks 4th in the NFL in tackles with 122 with 7 pass deflections. I would expect the 24 year old to earn some Pro Bowl love next season now that he is starting to fall on more people's radar.

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