Analysis  

 

Russell Wilson, J.J. Watt headline NFL.com's All-Under-25 Team

Russell Wilson was the choice, after much consternation and internal strife.

Last week, we had an Instant Debate asking which player you would most want when starting a team from scratch. It's an interesting query. Who would your selection be?

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Pro football is a young man's game -- no doubt about that. Nonetheless, it is generally understood that the prime of a player's career is when he is still in his athletic peak, yet the game has slowed down enough for him, in a figurative sense, that he knows what he's doing without thinking about it. Wilson does not meet both criteria, in theory, because he still could use more seasoning, whereas we're seeing Adrian Peterson -- who has six NFL seasons under his belt -- at the height of his career.

If a general manager is building a team, though, he wants young players. He wants to get the longevity you get with a player in ascension -- he doesn't want one elite year, then a decline -- without having to pay as much coin as he would for an established player like Peterson.

With that in mind, I began pondering ... Who are the best players in the league? And more crucially, which guys have the most upside (with the caveat being that they are under 25)? Call it the All-Start-Up Team, with the best 25 players under 25 on the board -- 11 on offense, 11 on defense, a kicker, a punter and one extra defender, to account for 4-3 and 3-4 alignments.

Talk about some tough calls to make! Wilson over Andrew Luck. ... Alfred Morris on the outside looking in. ... Dez Bryant getting the nod over Julio Jones. (Jones hasn't shown a propensity for dominating games, and Bryant was statistically superior in 2012. It was the slimmest of margins.) J.J. Watt's inclusion required no such internal debate.

We're sure you'll find several slots below worth haggling over. There is a dark horse or two, a Jacksonville Jaguar and at least one dude you might not have heard about. Per the usual, feel free to send your own take to @Harrison_NFL.

Now, let's get to the All-Under-25 Team!

(Click on player name to see complete 2012 statistics.)

OFFENSE
Quarterback
Russell Wilson, Seattle Seahawks
Wilson remains a narrow choice over Luck, but you can't go wrong with either. Robert Griffin III's style of play causes durability qualms. Wilson's efficiency and leadership set the tone in Seattle.

Running Back
LeSean McCoy, Philadelphia Eagles
McCoy had a down year in 2012, partially due to lack of usage/injury woes. He's still as versatile as they come and has averaged 4.6 yards per carry over his career behind so-so lines.

Running Back
Doug Martin, Tampa Bay Buccaneers
What a rookie season for the Bucs running back, who gained 1,926 total yards from scrimmage, far and away the most by a player under 25. Martin is a reliable receiver out of the backfield.

Wide Receiver
A.J. Green, Cincinnati Bengals
Move over, Andre Johnson -- A.J. Green is the best wideout in the AFC. In two seasons, Green has exploded for 2,407 yards and 18 scores. His supreme athleticism is ever-apparent.

Wide Receiver
Dez Bryant, Dallas Cowboys
Every team has a guy capable of being a knucklehead. Bryant fits that role ... but he can also take over a football game like T.O. circa 2002. Bryant had 1,382 yards and 12 scores in 2012.

Tight End
Rob Gronkowski, New England Patriots
Good luck taking anybody over Gronkowski -- 25, 35 or any age. Gronk's 6-foot-6, 265-pound frame has contributed to his red-zone dominance; he has 39 touchdowns in three seasons.

Tackle
Trent Williams, Washington Redskins
After getting challenged by Mike Shanahan last offseason, Williams really came on in his third NFL campaign. He still has mental lapses but holds his own against tough NFC East pass rushers.

Guard
Kevin Zeitler, Cincinnati Bengals
This is one guy who had a very strong rookie season without much acclaim. You can nitpick, but he was called for just two penalties in 16 starts and can be a mauler.

Center
Mike Pouncey, Miami Dolphins
Mike and Maurkice Pouncey are both stud centers, but the nod here goes to the less-heralded twin. He is particularly strong in pass protection, allowing just 1.25 sacks all season.

Guard
Jon Asamoah, Kansas City Chiefs
You probably haven't heard of Jon Asamoah. Hey, the Chiefs did finish fifth in the NFL in rushing. Asamoah has really come on and was ranked as the 10th-best guard by Pro Football Focus.

Tackle
Tyron Smith, Dallas Cowboys
Smith draws his fair share of flags, but he recently turned 22 and is already a two-year starter with immense upside. He has played left and right tackle, giving up three sacks in 2012.

Kicker
Justin Tucker, Baltimore Ravens
What a rookie season for the undrafted kicker. He finished in the top 10 in every major category, while making several clutch kicks, including a 47-yard game-winner at Denver in the playoffs.

DEFENSE
Defensive End
J.J. Watt, Houston Texans
The slam-dunk pick for this squad, Watt earned NFL Defensive Player of the Year honors after posting 20.5 sacks and knocking down 16 passes. He's THE disruptive force in the NFL ... at 23.

Defensive End
Jason Pierre-Paul, New York Giants
Yes, he had a dip in production in 2012, but that's because teams simply would not let him match 2011. Pierre-Paul still had 6.5 sacks and 21.5 knockdowns/hurries, and even had a pick-six.

Defensive Tackle
Geno Atkins, Cincinnati Bengals
Atkins was a huge factor in Cincy going from 3-5 in November to 10-6 and in the playoffs come January. Atkins led all DTs in sacks with 12.5, recording 34.5 combined hurries and knockdowns.

Defensive Tackle
Gerald McCoy, Tampa Bay Buccaneers
Only Atkins and Ndamukong Suh (who's 26) had more combined knockdowns and hurries from DT last year than McCoy. He is a huge reason the Bucs fielded the NFL's best run D in 2012.

Outside Linebacker
Von Miller, Denver Broncos
In two NFL seasons, Miller has 30 sacks. He's an athletic mismatch for anyone trying to stop him in pass protection, and he's no slouch against the run. Every team is looking for the next Miller.

Outside Linebacker
Aldon Smith, San Francisco 49ers
The big concern you've heard about Smith is his disappearing act in the 2012 playoffs. While somewhat true, he recorded 19.5 sacks and led the NFC in combined knockdowns/hurries (41).

Inside Linebacker
NaVorro Bowman, San Francisco 49ers
Along with Smith, Bowman represents the future of the Niners' D. He's an every-down LB who can play the run and cover. He's only 24, but has already been named All-Pro twice ... First Team.

Inside Linebacker
Luke Kuechly, Carolina Panthers
Kuechly edges out Seahawks stud Bobby Wagner because of his ability against the run (still crucial, despite the NFL's pass-happy ways). He recorded 164 total tackles as Defensive Rookie of the Year.

Cornerback
Richard Sherman, Seattle Seahawks
He has a big mouth, but certainly backs it up. Sherman led the NFL with 24 passes defensed while allowing QBs to complete just 45.7 percent of their passes against him. Great size, to boot.

Cornerback
Patrick Peterson, Arizona Cardinals
Peterson's versatility as a dangerous returner moves him past Joe Haden on this list. He allowed just 45 receptions in 90 attempts while intercepting seven passes and breaking up 17.

Strong Safety
Reshad Jones, Miami Dolphins
Jones was the subject of the most research for this piece. What I uncovered was a high-quality season. Jones recorded 73 solo tackles and four picks, allowing just 21 receptions.

Free Safety
Earl Thomas, Seattle Seahawks
Truth be told, the Seahawks' All-Pro safety might be a hair overrated. Yet, he makes clutch plays and has more of a track record than Minnesota's Harrison Smith and Denver's Rahim Moore.

Punter
Bryan Anger, Jacksonville Jaguars
This dude can punt, and had a solid rookie campaign. Jacksonville's Anger finished in the top seven in punting average (47.8), net average (40.8) and punts inside the 20 (31).

Follow Elliot Harrison on Twitter @Harrison_NFL.

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