The NFL isn't always a young man's game. Take, for example, two of the best quarterbacks still doing it in the NFL: Tom Brady, 44, and Aaron Rodgers, 38, just might be the favorites in the NFC this season, and rightfully so. But that doesn't mean football is hurting for young talent. Rookies are increasingly expected to contribute early, and a slew of hotshot signal-callers, like recent Super Bowl starters Joe Burrow and Patrick Mahomes, contended for titles on their first contracts.
And that's just the QBs. Each year at CBS Sports, we rank the top 25 players 25 and under. And this year, in particular, was incredibly difficult. Why? Because the NFL is absolutely loaded with promising young players. That's one of the reasons we've included such an extensive honorable-mention list for 2022; there are too many up-and-comers to properly acknowledge in a list of 25. Still, we're confident our top pecking order will convey just how many stars of today and tomorrow reside in football.
Before we get to the rundown, some criteria:
- Why is age 25 the cutoff? Generally speaking, most top players enter the NFL at ages 20-21. That means their first contracts tend to run right up until about 25. It doesn't mean 26-year-old superstars aren't young, but this gives us an easy dividing line. That way, in many cases, you can view this list as the top players still on their rookie deals (or deserving of new ones).
- What is the cutoff for a player turning 26? We're counting a player as long as they are 25 or younger when the 2022 season officially begins on Sept. 8. It doesn't matter if they turn 26 in Week 2; anyone who begins the year 25 or younger is in play.
- Is anyone else excluded from the list? Yes, this year's rookies. While we could project top picks like Travon Walker and Kayvon Thibodeaux onto the list, our focus is on players who have already established themselves in the NFL, even if for just one season. Hence ...
- What goes into the ranking? Both past performance and projection, as well as, to a lesser degree, positional value. So it helps if a player has already been really good for three years, but it also helps if his future outlook is really bright. It also helps if the player is a quarterback rather than running back, for obvious reasons. Try not to get too caught up in whether this ranking indicates where they currently rank or where we think they will rank after 2022; it's a hodgepodge of where they stand right now and where we think they're headed.
Without further ado, the ranking:
25. Panthers S Jeremy Chinn (24)
Carolina's woes have overshadowed his impact as a sideline-to-sideline playmaker. As a quasi-linebacker/cover man, he's racked up 224 tackles, 10 QB hits and forced or recovered six fumbles in two years. That's production you have to game-plan around.
24. Cowboys WR CeeDee Lamb (23)
Playing in a stacked receivers room alongside Amari Cooper and Michael Gallup, he's still produced like a star-in-the-making, totaling 2,037 yards and 11 scores in two years. With Cooper gone, he's poised to see an even bigger share of Dak Prescott's throws as the explosive counterpart to Gallup and Dalton Schultz.
23. Buccaneers LB Devin White (24)
Is he a perfect linebacker? Surely not, as evidenced by slip-ups in coverage. But you can't teach speed, and he has it. Over his last two seasons, as a lynchpin of Todd Bowles' championship defense, he's been a missile at the heart of their unit, totaling 268 tackles, 12.5 sacks, 34 QB hits and 23 tackles for loss.
22. Titans DT Jeffery Simmons (25)
If you're looking for the next Aaron Donald or Fletcher Cox, this is probably your guy. Since a quiet rookie year, Simmons has emerged as the superpowered anchor of Tennessee's feisty front, never more clearly than during the Titans' mauling of Joe Burrow in the 2021 playoffs. He plays even bigger than he is, and after an 8.5-sack breakout, he's still got room to grow.
21. Panthers DE Brian Burns (24)
You can see why Panthers fans must be so frustrated about the QB uncertainty; there are promising core pieces ready to help Carolina compete. Burns might be the best, as he's stayed around the QB ever since his arrival. In three years, he's logged 25.5 sacks, 55 QB hits and 26 tackles for loss. And he's not in his prime yet.
20. Bengals S Jessie Bates III (25)
He wasn't nearly as dominant during Cincinnati's underdog Super Bowl candidacy in 2021, but Bates was one of the most underrated starters at his position for his first three seasons. The total package at the back end, he's a true deep safety with the athleticism and physicality to offer both pass and run support.
19. Steelers S Minkah Fitzpatrick (25)
If Bates deserves to reset the safety market, then so does he. The former Dolphins first-rounder set such a high standard as a ballhawk immediately after coming over from Miami that his 2021 numbers (124 tackles, seven pass deflections, two INTs) registered as just OK. He is the perfect modern safety in the way he leverages his athleticism in coverage.
18. Panthers WR D.J. Moore (25)
The Allen Robinson of Carolina, Moore has put up bona fide No. 1 numbers despite erratic QB play. Rightfully rewarded with a new deal this offseason, he's looking to log a fourth straight season of at least 65 catches, 1,100 yards and four touchdowns.
17. 49ers LB Fred Warner (25)
San Francisco has a history of fostering prototype linebackers, and Warner has fit the bill for some time. As durable as they come, missing just one game in four years, he makes his presence felt all over the field, totaling a whopping 504 tackles since 2018.
16. Cowboys LB Micah Parsons (22)
Lest we allow recency bias to crown Parsons after one year, it's hard not to envision the Penn State product headlining Dallas' defense for a decade-plus. A physical freak whose traits transcend the "linebacker" label, he instantly reshaped the Cowboys' pass rush with a 13-sack debut and has the upside to mask his defense's weaknesses.
15. Chargers OT Rashawn Slater (23)
It didn't take long for the Northwestern product to shore up Justin Herbert's blind side in Los Angeles. And there are fewer jobs more important than keeping a franchise QB upright. Slater already has the makings of a perennial All-Pro at left tackle.
14. Commanders DE Chase Young (23)
The former No. 2 overall pick has "just" nine sacks through two years, but that's mostly because an ACL tear prematurely ended his sophomore campaign. Like Nick Bosa, he's got the physical and technical pedigree to be a top-10 edge presence for years.
13. Bears LB Roquan Smith (25)
Maybe it's the Bears' recent struggles that have hidden his elite impact at the heart of Chicago's "D," but Smith deserves even more recognition than a pair of All-Pro nods. He's always been a heat-seeking tackling machine, but the last two years, he's emerged even more as a presence in opposing backfields, totaling 30 tackles for loss since 2020.
12. Eagles WR A.J. Brown (25)
He's the biggest reason the Eagles are actually a good bet to make an NFC East title run now. As long as he and the team monitor his usage, he should be a perfectly imposing No. 1 for Jalen Hurts. The man is big, plays big and, best of all, also plays fast.
11. Seahawks WR DK Metcalf (24)
He's just the more physically freakish version of Brown, his fellow 2019 second-rounder. That's simplifying, of course, but what Metcalf lacks in steady eye-popping numbers he makes up for with raw dominance on jump-ball opportunities. He's a speed demon with a linebacker's size, guaranteed to offer big plays as both a deep and red-zone target.
10. Colts RB Jonathan Taylor (23)
Yes, running backs are more interchangeable than most positions, but in Taylor's case, the Colts' offense quite literally runs through him. Not just because they force-feed him, but because he does a ton with the ball in his hands. In two years, he's racked up 3,639 yards from scrimmage, averaging 5.3 yards per carry, while scoring 32 touchdowns.
9. Packers CB Jaire Alexander (25)
Even after missing most of 2021 due to injury, he remains one of the top young cover men in the game. A few more takeaways would elevate him to perennial All-Pro, but he brings an unfazed aggression and physicality to one-on-ones.
8. Cardinals QB Kyler Murray (25)
Murray's a bit of a difficult code to crack. On one hand, he's ended all three NFL seasons either hurt or in a slump, has overseen a combined Cardinals record of 22-23-1 and is all but demanding a new deal before a single promising playoff game in Arizona. On the other, he's easily a top-10 dual threat when at the height of his game, with a fiery arm and unending elusiveness. Odds are, whether in Arizona or elsewhere, his talent will keep him in the big-game conversation for longer than most QBs.
7. Buccaneers OT Tristan Wirfs (23)
Redraft the 2020 class, and Wirfs probably isn't making it out of the top five. Sure, he mans the right side rather than the coveted blind-side spot, but few men have had a more direct hand in Tom Brady's Tampa Bay resurgence. A premier title-winning pass-blocker who's still growing, he's exactly the type of lineman you plug into your lineup expecting 10-plus years of Pro Bowl protection.
6. Bengals WR Ja'Marr Chase (22)
A walking -- no, sprinting -- highlight reel, Chase couldn't have had a more promising debut, teaming up with old LSU buddy Joe Burrow to give the Bengals the most dangerous QB-WR pairing this side of Aaron Rodgers and Davante Adams (now defunct). Just get the ball in his hands. That's the game plan with Chase, who averaged 18 yards per catch as a big-play machine.
5. Vikings WR Justin Jefferson (23)
He laid the groundwork for Chase to exit LSU and enter the NFL as an instant home run threat. The lanky No. 1 is on a Randy Moss pace in Minnesota, serving as a constant outlet for Kirk Cousins and single-handedly spreading out the Vikings' offense. His team couldn't have found a better Stefon Diggs successor, adding both swagger and electricity in Jefferson.
4. 49ers DE Nick Bosa (24)
No one moves the needle in the trenches for the front-seven-dependent 49ers more than Bosa, who's totaled 24.5 sacks in three years despite missing 14 games (!) in 2020. This is just an old-school defensive end with the strength and speed to overmatch everyone in front of him. With 37 tackles for loss and 58 QB hits in his young career, he's due for a monster deal.
3. Bengals QB Joe Burrow (25)
Joe Cool is everything you want in a franchise QB: prototypical size, championship-level poise, and steady mechanics across the board. Advancing all the way to the Super Bowl in year two confirmed him as top-10 material, even in a stacked AFC, and with an improved line, he should feel even freer to spread the ball from the pocket. The only chief concern, if you're looking to nitpick, is his long-term durability, considering he's not a definitively mobile signal-caller and has already had a big knee injury.
2. Ravens QB Lamar Jackson (25)
If you prefer Burrow here (or higher), we're not gonna fight you over it. Jackson certainly still has to prove himself as a consistent/big-game passer, especially if his future is tied to a run-heavy system in Baltimore or elsewhere. But there's just no way most teams wouldn't love to inject his pure, MVP-level electricity into their lineup. With an underrated arm and lightning-fast speed, he can never be counted out, so long as he's healthy.
1. Chargers QB Justin Herbert (24)
The crown jewel of a loaded crop of ascending AFC QBs, Herbert is the first player in NFL history to throw 30-plus TDs in each of his first two seasons. And he's made it look incredibly easy. Funny enough, he hasn't yet made the playoffs like Burrow or Jackson or even Murray. But he throws the ball better than all but maybe ... Rodgers? Brady? If this is his starting point, imagine what his peak could be. L.A. fans should be very grateful to have such a big, joyful, laser-armed face of the franchise.
Jaguars RB James Robinson (23), Raiders RB Josh Jacobs (24), Commanders RB Antonio Gibson (24), Eagles RB Miles Sanders (25), Giants RB Saquon Barkley (25), Eagles WR DeVonta Smith (23), Bengals WR Tee Higgins (23), Dolphins WR Jaylen Waddle (23), Lions TE T.J. Hockenson (25), Falcons TE Kyle Pitts (21), Jets OT Mekhi Becton (23), Browns OT Jedrick Wills Jr. (23), Bengals OT Jonah Williams (25), Chiefs C Creed Humphrey (23), Panthers DT Derrick Brown (24), Jets DT Quinnen Williams (24), Raiders DE Maxx Crosby (25), Packers OLB Rashan Gary (24), Jaguars OLB Josh Allen (25), Bills LB Tremaine Edmunds (24), Chiefs LB Nick Bolton (22), Broncos CB Patrick Surtain II (22), Falcons CB A.J. Terrell (23), Cowboys CB Trevon Diggs (23), Buccaneers S Antoine Winfield Jr. (23), Dolphins S Jevon Holland (22), Bengals K Evan McPherson (23)
Maybe next year
Jaguars QB Trevor Lawrence (22), Eagles QB Jalen Hurts (24), Patriots QB Mac Jones (24), 49ers QB Trey Lance (22), Jets QB Zach Wilson (23), Rams RB Cam Akers (23), Lions RB D'Andre Swift (23), Steelers RB Najee Harris (24), Broncos RB Javonte Williams (22), Broncos WR Jerry Jeudy (23), 49ers WR Brandon Aiyuk (24), Steelers WR Chase Claypool (24), Lions WR Amon-Ra St. Brown (22), Bills WR Gabriel Davis (23), Bears WR Darnell Mooney (24), Steelers TE Pat Freiermuth (23), Seahawks TE Noah Fant (24), Lions OT Penei Sewell (21), Colts DE Kwity Paye (23), Dolphins OLB Jaelan Phillips (23), Giants OLB Azeez Ojulari (22), Ravens OLB Odafe Oweh (23), Panthers CB Jaycee Horn (22)
Just too old
Chiefs QB Patrick Mahomes (26), Bills QB Josh Allen (26), Browns RB Nick Chubb (26), Panthers RB Christian McCaffrey (26), Buccaneers WR Chris Godwin (26), 49ers WR Deebo Samuel (26), Commanders WR Terry McLaurin (26), Dolphins TE Mike Gesicki (26), Cowboys TE Dalton Schultz (26), Colts OG Quenton Nelson (26), Packers OL Elgton Jenkins (26), Chiefs OT Orlando Brown Jr. (26), Browns DE Myles Garrett (26), Dolphins DT Christian Wilkins (26), Ravens CB Marlon Humphrey (26), Ravens S Marcus Williams (26), Chargers S Derwin James (26)