|Bill Baptist/Associated Press|
|Panthers QB Cam Newton, who turned 23 earlier this month, set rookie records for passing yards and rushing TDs.|
One of my favorite offseason activities is to study the depth charts of all 32 teams. During my research this past week, one thing jumped out at me: The NFL is loaded with young talent.
To illustrate this point, I've compiled a list of the top 10 players under the age of 25. Since we haven't seen them on the field yet, I've excluded all of the incoming rookies from the list. Here we go:
Playing linebacker for the 49ers and finding a way to escape the shadow of Patrick Willis is not an easy task. Bowman was able to do just that with a monstrous sophomore season in San Francisco. He led the team with 143 tackles and also chipped in with two sacks. He is a prototype linebacker. He can run sideline to sideline, he's an explosive tackler, he can cover and he can blitz. He checks every box on a coach's LB wish list.
The NFL is loaded with young studs at wide receiver. There were several worthy candidates for this list but Green is the best of the bunch. He has ideal size, short-area quickness, deep speed and ball skills. He also has the toughness to work in the middle of the field. He finished his rookie campaign with 65 catches for 1,057 yards and seven TDs. I'd look for all of those numbers to rise significantly in his second season.
The word "Beast" is grossly overused in today's sports vernacular. However, in Gronk's case, there is no better term to describe him. In just his second season, he established himself as the best tight end in the NFL. He hauled in 90 balls for 1,327 yards and 17 TDs (a record for tight ends). He had multiple TDs in seven different regular season games. He has ideal size, speed and hands. His ability to use his frame to wall-off defenders on third down is a huge luxury for Tom Brady. I'd also rank him as the second best red-zone target in the NFL behind only Detroit's Calvin Johnson.
McCoy's first two seasons in Philadelphia were very solid. He took his game to an entirely new level in his third year. He ran for 1,309 yards and led the league in both rushing TDs (17) and rushes over 20 yards (14). He also hauled in 48 balls for 315 yards and three TDs. He is the NFL's most elusive open-field runner. He has rare stop-and-start quickness and he doesn't get enough credit for his ability to power through tackles. He also has worked to become one of the better pass-protecting running backs in the league.
Miller didn't waste any time making his presence felt on the Broncos defense. He posted 10.5 sacks in their first 11 games before suffering a broken right thumb. He finished his rookie season with 11.5 sacks and was honored as the Defensive Rookie of the Year. He is a very versatile defender. He excels as a pass rusher because of his suddenness off the ball and his ability to bend around the edge. He is also athletic enough to drop in zones or run with tight ends down the seam.
Do you remember when everyone was concerned about Cam Newton's play calls being too simple at Auburn? I'm pretty sure that didn't end up being much of a problem. All he did in his rookie season was throw for more than 4,000 yards and combine for 35 TDs. He proved that he was capable of staying in the pocket and making plays with his arm. He throws a beautiful deep ball and helped revitalize the career of Steve Smith. He's a very dangerous runner when he decides to leave the pocket, and he's built to take the extra pounding that results from it. He is capable of posting video game-like numbers. I wouldn't be shocked if he put together 30 passing TDs and 20 rushing TDs in the same season. How crazy would that be?
In just his second season, JPP placed himself in the Defensive Player of the Year discussion. He had a dominating season that resulted in 86 tackles and 16.5 sacks. He did all of this damage despite only starting 12 of the 16 regular-season games. He has ideal size, length, explosiveness and awareness. His motor is always running and he proved on several occasions that he is capable of dominating a football game. He should lead the league in sacks multiple times the next 7-8 seasons.
Pouncey has put together two dominant seasons for the Steelers and established himself as the top center in the NFL. The Jets' Nick Mangold and the Panthers' Ryan Kalil are both outstanding but neither possesses Pouncey's combination of size and athletic ability. He has the strength to anchor in pass protection and the power to create movement at the point of attack in the run game. He is outstanding at the second level. He can adjust and pick off linebackers with very little effort. He should be the top player at his position for a very long time.
Smith is the third pass rusher to make this list. He recorded 14 sacks during his rookie year despite not starting a single game. He has an outstanding feel for rushing the passer. He is sudden off the snap and he has a wide variety of hand moves to defeat offensive tackles. He needs to improve his play against the run, but he's already established himself as one of the league's elite pass-rushers.
Surprised? It's hard to believe that Stafford is still only 24 years old. After two injury-plagued years, he was able to stay healthy and post some incredible numbers in 2011. He passed for more than 5,000 yards and 41 TDs while leading the Lions back to the playoffs for the first time since 1999. He has a tremendous skillset for the position. He has good size, arm-strength, touch and poise. He should be one of the league's elite signal callers for the next decade.
Just missed the cut: Giants WR Hakeem Nicks (24), Bengals DT Geno Atkins (24), Seahawks FS Earl Thomas (23), Cardinals CB Patrick Peterson (21), Falcons WR Julio Jones (23), Bengals QB Andy Dalton (24), Redskins DE Ryan Kerrigan (23), Steelers RB Rashard Mendenhall (24), Browns CB Joe Haden (23), Cowboys WR Dez Bryant (23).
Follow Daniel Jeremiah on Twitter @MoveTheSticks