Who are the most promising rising stars in the NFL? Nick Shook compiles a roster of the top players under 25 years old heading into the 2022 season.
NOTE: To be eligible, players must be younger than 25 years old on Sept. 8, the day the season kicks off.
The quarterbacks who have appeared in this space in the last couple of years have aged out. That means it's time for a third-year star to make his first and only appearance on this list before he, too, turns 25. Herbert's trajectory has surprised just about everyone (Chargers likely included) to this point, and the sky might not even be the limit for the incredibly accurate and poised former Oregon Duck.
Taylor blew the doors off the entire NFL last season, going from collegiate workhorse and promising rookie to absolute machine for the Indianapolis Colts in Year 2. A clip from the Colts' Hard Knocks: In Season appearance showed Colts general manager Chris Ballard raving about Taylor, calling him a top-five offensive weapon in the NFL. Not top-five running back -- top-five weapon. And frankly, after witnessing his performance in 2021, it's tough to disagree with Ballard. Taylor is among the most promising, if not the most promising member of the under-25 team.
Harris deserves a steak dinner and a new car as a reward for how much he carried the Steelers' offense last season. As a rookie with plenty of wear on his tires from 638 career carries at Alabama, Harris looked fresh as a daisy in Pittsburgh, piling up nearly half of his entire collegiate total in one NFL season with 307 totes. He also nearly equaled his receptions total from college (80) in his rookie campaign, catching 74 passes. Yes, that's 381 touches in one season for a rookie. It's a lot -- in fact, it led the NFL -- but Harris handled it well, scoring 10 total touchdowns and gaining 1,667 scrimmage yards. Does volume inflate that total a bit? Yes, but it doesn't take a genius to see that Harris is a stud. Here's hoping the Steelers don't wear him out too quickly.
Chase opted out of his final season at LSU amid the COVID-19 pandemic, then followed his year off by resetting the NFL's rookie receiving record. He finished fourth in the league in receiving yards (1,455) and third in touchdown grabs (13). His team won its division and conference, and nearly won the Super Bowl. And he did all of that in one campaign. Chase sprinted so far beyond the limit of a fluke season, it isn't even visible in the distance. He's already a household name -- and he's only 22 years old.
Jefferson set the standard for Chase just a season earlier by racking up 1,400 yards and seven touchdowns in Year 1, breaking the record for rookie receiving yards to that point. Then Chase came in and wiped it away by 55 yards and nearly twice as many touchdowns. But Jefferson, like Chase, is still very young and proved last season that his first year certainly wasn't a fluke. The proof is in the production: Jefferson finished second only to triple crown winner Cooper Kupp in receiving yards (1,616), hit double digits in touchdowns (10) and further cemented his standing as one of the top receivers of the new generation. He's going to be here again next year, too, because he's only 23.
Pitts entered the NFL as the highest-drafted tight end in league history in 2021, and despite Atlanta's struggles, the Florida product still reached the Pro Bowl in his first season. He's not as alone as he was last season, either, thanks to the Falcons' first-round selection of USC wideout Drake London and trade acquisition of Bryan Edwards. Still, Pitts will be a focal point expected to again break 1,000 receiving yards and power this offense. The second-year stud is not going anywhere but up.
As we've learned, Metcalf is a freak of an athlete who is also quite good at football. Russell Wilson's departure certainly won't help Metcalf in 2022, but I refuse to judge him based on who is throwing him the ball. Metcalf has proven his worthiness for this team for one final season, as he turns 25 in December.
Who'd have guessed the last of the top four tackles taken in a loaded 2020 OT class would end up being the best? Wirfs has been a monster since he stepped into the starting lineup as a rookie, winning a Super Bowl in his first season before earning first-team All-Pro honors last year. He's about as rock solid as they come at right tackle.
Slater entered the league in the shadow of Detroit's Penei Sewell, but it didn't take long for the league to get wise. Slater was an effective tackle from his very first NFL game and finished in the top eight among all tackles in the NFL in terms of overall offensive grade, per Pro Football Focus. After facing far too much pressure in his first season, Justin Herbert learned he could count on Slater to protect him in 2021. The Chargers have their franchise cornerstone at quarterback and left tackle.
New England has made a habit of mining the draft for quality offensive linemen, and this is the most recent find. Let's turn back to the PFF grades for Onwenu, who finished behind only Joel Bitonio and Zack Martin among all guards in overall offensive grade. The former top-ranked recruit in the state of Michigan wasn't drafted according to his high school status, but he's back among the elite now that he's in the NFL, and he's only just getting started.
Kansas City entered the 2021 offseason with a ton of questions along the offensive line. The Chiefs responded by signing Joe Thuney, trading for Orlando Brown Jr. and drafting two gems, starting with second-round center Creed Humphrey (listed below) and continuing into Day 3 with their sixth-round choice of Smith. Again referencing PFF, Smith proved to be a top-15 guard in the league in his first professional season and was good enough to earn Pro Football Writers of America All-Rookie Team honors. The interior is solidified in Kansas City for years to come.
Humphrey dazzled film grinders as a rookie, finishing as Pro Football Focus' top-graded center in the entire league by a considerable margin and landing alongside his teammate, Trey Smith, on the PFWA All-Rookie Team. Humphrey is good -- very good. He's only 23 years old. He'll likely be here again a year from now.
Bosa reminded folks of his value by returning from an extended absence due to a torn ACL and racking up 15.5 sacks for a Niners team that nearly reached the Super Bowl. He's now considered by some to be the better of the Bosa brothers, which is significant, considering Joey is also elite. Nick turns 25 in October, meaning he makes the cut this time around. And he's due for quite a pay day in the near future.
I've been guilty of overlooking Burns in the past, paying for it dearly in social media currency. I've since learned from my mistake, and I'll never discount Burns again -- especially not after he posted his second straight nine-sack season in 2021. Burns turns 25 in April, meaning this will be his last year on this team, but he's still very much a spring chicken with more Pro Bowls in his future.
If the Jets can turn the corner toward legitimacy sometime soon, folks are going to realize how effective Williams has become. He's racked up 13 sacks and 17 tackles for loss in his last 28 games, and he's only getting better with each season. PFF doesn't look as kindly upon him as some others, but the 2019 No. 3 overall pick has proven he's reliable.
Oliver made a name for himself at the University of Houston because of his dominant play and affinity for horses. He's elevated himself further in Buffalo, recording three or more sacks in each of his first three professional seasons. Giants DT Dexter Lawrence was another candidate for this spot, but I'm giving Oliver the nod because of his edge in sacks and tackles for loss. Both are solid players on the right track.
I don't need to spend much time explaining this selection. Parsons earned a first-team All-Pro selection, a Pro Bowl nod and the Defensive Rookie of the Year Award in 2021. He's a blitzing monster who is a three-down linebacker, and at 23 years old, he's a central piece in Dallas' long-term plan.
White had a rough 2021 season, but that doesn't tell his entire story. White lost his running mate, Lavonte David, for five games in 2021 and was forced to own the second level on his own in just his third professional season. Statistically, he took a step back, but he still has 15 sacks, four forced fumbles, 10 passes defensed and 359 tackles to his name to this point.
Terrell would be more of a national name if he'd played on a legitimate contender in his first two seasons. Instead, he's operating in relative obscurity in Atlanta, but we'd all be wise to pay close attention to him. Terrell landed atop my June list of the top 10 coverage defenders for good reason: No one was better than Terrell in completion percentage allowed (as the nearest defender targeted) and yards allowed per target, and he posted a coverage success rate of nearly 69 percent in 2021.
This depends on what you want out of your cornerback: a dependable, blanket cover man on the rise ... or a ballhawk with an innate sense for attacking the pass and making significant plays. Diggs is the latter and grabbed plenty of attention in 2021 for his knack for securing takeaways, leading the NFL in interceptions with 11 in only his second professional season. Pro Football Focus doesn't look too kindly upon Diggs because of his performance on the plays between the highlights, but that hasn't stopped his hype train. It didn't stop me from putting him on this list, either.
Winfield's performance early in his career isn't too surprising to those who remember his father's pro play, but the younger Winfield is making a name for himself in this league. Winfield announced his presence on the NFL stage as a rookie starter on a team that went on to win Super Bowl LV, complete with a museum-worthy taunting of Tyreek Hill in the Buccaneers' blowout win over the Chiefs for the Lombardi Trophy. He then followed up that first season with a sophomore campaign good enough to earn Pro Football Focus' second-best overall defensive grade among safeties. That certainly qualifies him for this mention as a budding star.
Holland joined the NFL as an early second-round selection of the Dolphins in 2021 and didn't waste much time proving Miami correct. Holland appeared in 16 games total, logging 13 starts with two interceptions and 10 passes defensed, three fumble recoveries and 69 tackles, including 2.5 sacks. He played primarily in the shadows of his highly paid secondary mates (cornerbacks Xavien Howard and Byron Jones), but make no mistake: Holland is for real.
Moehrig isn't a flex in the strictest sense of the term, but I'm using this spot as a place for a third selection at safety. Moehrig came to the Raiders via a second-round selection in 2021 and immediately stepped into a starting role opposite Johnathan Abram, playing all 17 games and recording his first interception in a Week 6 win over the AFC West rival Broncos. Moehrig's yet to catapult himself into stardom, but he's only been in the league for a year. I expect him to continue on his upward trend toward becoming a marquee name in a city filled with them.
Do I really have to explain this? The kid has ice in his veins. He called his shot in the Divisional Round and played a huge role in helping the Bengals reach Super Bowl LVI. McPherson was so good as a rookie, he essentially convinced a division rival (Cleveland) to spend a fourth-round pick on a kicker (LSU's Cade York).
There aren't a lot of under-25 punters available to choose from; luckily, Gillikin's production last season was worthy of this list. He dropped 29 punts inside the 20 and put seven out of bounds while averaging a net of 42 yards per punt. There are better punters, but most are 25 or older. Gillikin, an undrafted addition out of Penn State in 2020, is pretty solid.
Do we care more about return averages spread over a large volume of attempts or explosive returns that produce touchdowns? The latter is pretty rare these days; the only player in the NFL with multiple return scores last season was Nwangwu, who fielded a grand total of 18 kicks and took two back to the house. Does he have a solid future as a returner? Sure looks that way. But maybe he could crack Minnesota's backfield lineup behind Dalvin Cook. Regardless, it was fun to watch him return kicks in 2021.
NFL+ gives you the freedom to watch LIVE out-of-market preseason games, LIVE local and prime-time regular-season and postseason games on your phone or tablet, the best NFL programming on-demand and more! Wherever you are, this is how you football! Learn more about NFL+.