Claire Komarek, CBS Sports

It's a young man's game, they say. But how true is that, in the NFL? This offseason alone, the Buccaneers are dropping out of most playoff projections chiefly because their 45-year-old quarterback isn't returning, and the Jets are suddenly calling themselves title contenders after acquiring their own soon-to-be 40-year-old signal-caller.

Those examples, however, are the exception. Just consider the average age of our top 10 QBs going into this season, excluding Rodgers: 26.7 years. And that's just one position. The NFL is, in fact, driven primarily by youth.

And for further proof, we turn to this year's ranking of the top 25 players 25 and under. There are far too many Pro Bowl-caliber players to fit on such a list, which speaks to the abundance of fresh talent in football.

Before we get to the 2023 rundown, some criteria:

  • Why the age-25 cutoff? Generally speaking, most top players enter the NFL at ages 20-21. That means this list essentially doubles as a ranking of the top players still on their rookie deals (or deserving of new contracts).
  • What is the actual cutoff? Players are eligible if they are 25 or younger when the 2023 season officially begins on Sept. 7.
  • Is anyone else excluded? This year's rookies. Our focus is on players who have already established themselves in the NFL.
  • What goes into the ranking? Past performance, future projection and, to a lesser degree, positional value. At the end of the day, it's a hodgepodge of where guys stand right now and where we think they're headed.

Without further ado, this year's top 25 players 25 and under:

25. Justin Fields

Position: QB | Team: Bears | Age: 24

Justin Fields USATSI

The former first-rounder has yet to master decision-making through the air, but he's also endured lackluster supporting casts and exploded on the ground, topping 1,100 rushing yards as an MVP-caliber scrambler in 2022. The arrow is pointing way up.

24. Amon-Ra St. Brown

Position: WR | Team: LionsAge: 23

Justin Jefferson's NFC North counterpart has been more of a possession winner than big-play artist, but you can't argue with 196 catches, 2,073 yards and a 74% catch rate in two seasons. He's an ultra-reliable high-volume target with room to grow.

23. Tee Higgins

Position: WR | Team: BengalsAge: 24

The amount of attention he gets does not match his production. Teammate Ja'Marr Chase is more of a natural home-run hitter, but he's the total package with size (6-4, 215) and downfield ability, genuinely aiding Joe Burrow's MVP candidacies. Not only has he logged three straight seasons of 65+ catches and 900+ yards, but his catch rate has improved every year.

22. Penei Sewell

Position: OT | Team: Lions | Age: 22

The massive Oregon product was solid as a rookie, but his 2022 campaign saw him emerge as an elite right tackle for Jared Goff. You can't teach his size (6-5, 331) and athletic gifts, and at such a young age, he already looks like his spot's "gold standard."

21. DeVonta Smith

Position: WR | Team: EaglesAge: 24

In a stacked group of young wideouts, "Slim Reaper" might be the most underrated. A.J. Brown is the imposing No. 1 in Philly, but Smith often plays just as physical despite his slender frame, putting his body on the line for sideline and jump balls. He approached 1,000 yards in Jalen Hurts' mercurial first year as the starting QB, then easily approached 1,200 as part of the Eagles' title bid.

20. Garrett Wilson

Position: WR | Team: Jets | Age: 23

Garrett Wilson USATSI

The reigning Offensive Rookie of the Year, Wilson's smooth debut is all the more impressive because of the lackluster QB shuffle he endured. Fresh off a 1,100-yard season, he could reasonably challenge for the 2023 receiving title with Aaron Rodgers. Not entirely dissimilar to Justin Jefferson, he simply makes separation in coverage look seamless.

19. Rashawn Slater

Position: OT | Team: ChargersAge: 24

An injury cost the Northwestern product all but three games in his sophomore season, but Slater provided an instant wall for star QB Justin Herbert in an All-Pro debut. As long as he's upright, Herbert's blind side should be well-covered.

18. Quinnen Williams

Position: DT | Team: Jets | Age: 25

The former No. 3 overall pick finally lived up to his draft-day hype as the anchor of Robert Saleh's ascending, stingy defense in 2022, racking up 12 sacks, 12 tackles for loss and 28 QB hits from the trenches. At his best, he's close to un-blockable.

17. DK Metcalf

Position: WR | Team: SeahawksAge: 25

For all his superhuman traits, Metcalf isn't nearly as steady as counterpart Tyler Lockett, and he hasn't posted particularly gaudy numbers in three years. But every team must account for his raw size and speed, and poking holes in a 4,200-yard, 35-touchdown resume through four seasons feels like nitpicking. Anytime Seattle's in the red zone, he's scaring opponents.

16. Josh Jacobs

Position: RB | Team: RaidersAge: 25

Running backs may be replaceable in today's NFL, but if you want an old-fashioned workhorse who actually works, Jacobs is your guy. Always bruising but especially explosive in 2022, he's also underrated out of the backfield, where he's logged 107 catches for almost 750 yards the last two years. His tackle-shedding burst has often single-handedly kept Las Vegas alive.

15. Jonathan Taylor

Position: RB | Team: ColtsAge: 24

Jonathan Taylor Getty Images

His wear and tear is significant through just three seasons -- 860 touches and a lingering ankle injury is nothing to sneeze at. When healthy, however, there are few better pure runners. Everything he does -- find holes, break through them, etc. -- looks effortless.

14. Jaylen Waddle

Position: WR | Team: Dolphins | Age: 24

Tyreek Hill makes so much noise as the longer-tenured speedster, but Waddle's been just as, if not more, impressive through two seasons. As a rookie, he dominated as a high-volume, short-area safety valve. Alongside Hill, he mirrored "Cheetah" as downfield dynamite. In other words, he can do just about anything at high speed despite his smaller size (5-10, 182).

13. Trevon Diggs

Position: CB | Team: CowboysAge: 24

Critics will point to slip-ups in coverage, but you also don't accumulate 17 picks and 49 pass deflections in three seasons by accident. The man is a true ballhawk at corner, teaming up with Micah Parsons to make defense Dallas' headlining unit.

12. Trevor Lawrence

Position: QB | Team: JaguarsAge: 23

The former No. 1 overall pick benefits from some projection, with Calvin Ridley joining the fold as his new No. 1 target. But he showed serious zip on his throws operating under Doug Pederson in year two, erasing memories of a befuddling rookie season. Not only that, but he saved some of his best work for the brightest lights, guiding Jacksonville's historic playoff comeback to begin his postseason career. Even on his second regime in three NFL seasons, he profiles as a top-10 player at his position.

11. Creed Humphrey

Position: C | Team: ChiefsAge: 24

Kansas City needs little more than Patrick Mahomes to contend for annual titles. Or at least it feels that way. But Humphrey has been rock-solid as the QB of Mahomes' line since arriving as a second-rounder. Not only has he yet to miss an NFL start, but he's rarely penalized and grades out as one of the game's best run-blockers up the middle.

10. CeeDee Lamb

Position: WR | Team: Cowboys | Age: 24

CeeDee Lamb USATSI

Dak Prescott's clear-cut No. 1, Lamb is already living up to his No. 88 jersey, upping his production every year in Dallas. Consider that he logged a career-high 1,359 yards and nine scores with Prescott sidelined for a big chunk of 2022, and his future looks even more promising. With Brandin Cooks now alongside him, he's primed for yet another step as a go-to play-maker.

9. Tristan Wirfs

Position: OT | Team: Buccaneers | Age: 24

Tampa's recent O-line injuries, plus Tom Brady's deflating sendoff, shouldn't overshadow the fact Wirfs has been one of the cleanest, most reliable pass blockers at right tackle through three seasons. Now the Bucs are shifting him to the left side, which raises some questions. But the big man has shown enough strength and quickness to dominate at any position up front.

8. Patrick Surtain II

Position: CB | Team: BroncosAge: 23

He isn't nearly as flashy as his counterpart below, but Surtain II has been a rock in Denver's secondary since Day 1. His composure is greater than that of most longtime vets, and his 24 pass deflections through two years proves he's feisty at the catch point.

7. Sauce Gardner

Position: CB | Team: Jets | Age: 23

Just one year in, and Gardner is already rightfully considered one of the NFL's premier cover men. His rookie results backed up his confidence; no one had more than his 20 pass deflections. Surrounded by defensive prowess and boasting elite height (6-3) on the outside, he's got the tools to become a longtime household name in the league.

6. Justin Herbert

Position: QB | Team: Chargers | Age: 25

The big-game fireworks have yet to go off for Herbert, whose conservative streaks are tangled with the occasionally curious strategy of coach Brandon Staley. But everything is there for the youngster from a physical standpoint, and his livewire arm and prototypical pocket-passer build have registered one of the best TD:INT ratios (94:35) in NFL history through three seasons. Almost every team would sign up for Herbert and his quiet leadership to be their future.

5. Ja'Marr Chase

Position: WR | Team: Bengals | Age: 23

Ja'Marr Chase USATSI

The Bengals survived without him for part of 2022, but that doesn't mean he isn't a game-changer. After an effortlessly electric debut (81-1,455-13), Chase's numbers were more good than special as a second-year man (87-1,046-9), but those marks came in just 12 games, remember. He creates and capitalizes on open space with ease, hence Joe Burrow so often looking his way.

4. Micah Parsons

Position: DE/OLB | Team: Cowboys | Age: 24

It doesn't really matter where the Penn State product lines up. He must be accounted for. After a terrorizing debut in which he totaled 13 sacks, 20 tackles for loss and 30 QB hits, Parsons basically replicated his production despite quiet stretches in 2022. With the size of a traditional inside linebacker and the speed of a receiver, he's already the heart and soul of the Cowboys.

3. Nick Bosa

Position: DE | Team: 49ersAge: 25

If Parsons is elite for his ability to affect QBs all over the field, Bosa sets the standard for getting after pockets in the dirt. Even with almost an entire season lost due to injury, he's logged 42 sacks through five years, including 18.5 in 2022 to go along with a whopping 48 QB hits. The relentless headliner of a unit that helped DeMeco Ryans land a head coaching gig, he's probably the closest thing to an on-field MVP for a contender often characterized by coach Kyle Shanahan's scheming.

2. Jalen Hurts

Position: QB | Team: Eagles | Age: 25

In three seasons, Hurts has gone from scrambler to serviceable to bona-fide star under center, and truthfully, he's been getting better every year since the start of college. Always respected for his unshakeable resolve and work ethic, the QB unleashed vastly improved downfield touch and accuracy en route to the Eagles' Super Bowl appearance. Durability will remain a question as long as he's such a frequent, physical runner. But Philly couldn't be in much better hands at the most important position.

1. Justin Jefferson

Position: WR | Team: Vikings | Age: 24

Justin Jefferson USATSI

No question about this one. Jefferson's off to the best start by any receiver in NFL history, elevating his annual yardage total from 1,400 to 1,616 to 1,809 with ease. He's not invincible, but he's been close to it, working almost every secondary he's faced with smooth, speedy route-running and a knack for clutch big plays. Teams will surely key in on him more now that Minnesota's stripped its lineup of some familiar faces, but it might not matter, considering how gracefully he glides into open grass.

Honorable mention

Texans RB Dameon Pierce (23), Seahawks RB Kenneth Walker III (22), Saints WR Chris Olave (23), 49ers WR Brandon Aiyuk (25), Packers WR Christian Watson (24), Steelers TE Pat Freiermuth (24), Falcons TE Kyle Pitts (22), Giants OT Andrew Thomas (24), Vikings OT Christian Darrisaw (24), Panthers OT Ikem Ekwonu (22), Seahawks OT Charles Cross (22), Ravens C Tyler Linderbaum (23), Panthers DE Brian Burns (25), Lions DE Aidan Hutchinson (23), Giants DT Dexter Lawrence (25), Giants OLB Kayvon Thibodeaux (22), Dolphins OLB Jaelan Phillips (24), Chiefs LB Nick Bolton (23), Buccaneers LB Devin White (25), Bears LB Tremaine Edmunds (25), Falcons CB A.J. Terrell (24), Seahawks CB Tariq Woolen (24), Buccaneers S Antoine Winfield Jr. (24), 49ers S Talanoa Hufanga (23)

Just too old

Bengals QB Joe Burrow, Ravens QB Lamar Jackson, Giants RB Saquon Barkley, Eagles WR A.J. Brown, Bears WR D.J. Moore, Vikings TE T.J. Hockenson, Eagles OT Jordan Mailata, Raiders DE Maxx Crosby, Titans DT Jeffery Simmons, Ravens LB Roquan Smith, 49ers LB Fred Warner, Packers CB Jaire Alexander, Steelers S Minkah Fitzpatrick