If last season wasn't the Year of the Rookie, it certainly was a banner year for first-time pros.
So many made major contributions. Dak Prescott and Ezekiel Elliott were in the MVP discussion, Jordan Howard lit it up in fantasy and Michael Thomas quietly became one of the NFL's better wideouts. In fact, 11 rookies made the 26-person roster below. The first year I did this exercise, there were six, including a then-controversial pick of a rookie QB -- Russell Wilson.
You will find a highly debatable choice at QB this year, as well. But before we get that convo going, one rule to note: Each player must be 24 or younger before the start of the first game of the 2017 season. So, no dice for Ryan Shazier, who turns 25 literally one day before the NFL Kickoff Game. I think I filled his spot well. Let me know ... @HarrisonNFL is the place.
Statistically, he is behind both Dak Prescott and Marcus Mariota. Yet Winston, the youngest of the three, is asked to do so much more on a football field in spite of that youth. He's already thrown nearly 300 more passes than Mariota, even though both came into the league the same year. (Of course, Mariota has missed some time due to injury -- but that's part of this equation, too.) Ultimately, Winston's lack of help -- juxtaposed with Mariota's luxury of leaning on a top-flight running game -- landed the Bucs QB a spot on this list. Asked one of our resident scouts here at NFL.com, Daniel Jeremiah, to rank them if he was starting an expansion team. "1) Winston, 2) Prescott, 3) Mariota. Obviously it's really close." There you go.
Maybe the best back in football. And while David Johnson might be more versatile, he is already too old to qualify for this team. Like Johnson, Zeke is an every-down back who does it all. In Year 1, all he did was pace the league in rushing while averaging 5.1 yards per carry. His coast-to-coast touchdown on a little screen pass against the Steelers showed what a threat Elliott is when the blocking is in place. On that note ... After a slow start, Elliott learned to wait on the blocking up front without trying to hit a home run on every carry. Hello, production.
The debate here is between Howard and Todd Gurley. Went with Howard, despite the fact that Gurley might be more gifted in terms of physical measurables. As fantastic as Gurley was during his rookie year, Howard was better. He ran for more yards, caught more passes and averaged more yards per carry than Gurley. Howard was an every-down, productive back -- in an offense that struggled through the air.
Hard to believe, but Beckham doesn't turn 25 until November. While his antics might be maddening at times, you can't overlook 35 touchdowns in three years. No young WR is even close. That said, 2016 represented career lows in yards per catch, touchdowns and yards per game. Let's see if Beckham gets as distracted in 2017. With a new teammate as unafraid to speak up as Beckham is brash, here's guessing the young wideout has more focus this season.
Mike Evans turned 21 in the preseason of his rookie year, so despite already catching 238 passes in the NFL, he won't turn 25 until August of 2018! Evans put up career highs in catches and yards last season, while leading the league in targets. There were times in 2016 when Evans represented the entire Bucs passing attack. The arrival of DeSean Jackson and continued development of TE Cameron Brate should only help Evans.
Easiest choice on the list of All-Under-25 players. The absence of quality young tight ends in pro football is palpable. Henry enjoyed big moments during his rookie season, despite being part of a TE timeshare with Antonio Gates. His eight touchdown receptions were second to Michael Thomas among ALL rookies. Also worth noting: Philip Rivers completed nearly 70 percent of the passes thrown Henry's way.
Spoke to several folks in our bidness, including former GM Charley Casserly, who had Conklin rated higher than the more-lauded Laremy Tunsil heading into the 2016 draft. All Conklin did as a rookie was start all 16 games and make first-team All-Pro. Much credit should go to Hall of Famer Russ Grimm -- the Titans offensive line coach has helped the entire group maximize its potential.
Another fresh face makes the All-Under-25 Team for playing well beyond his years in Year 1. Decker did an outstanding job protecting Matt Stafford. Despite Stafford throwing the ball 594 times, Decker's man only got to the franchise quarterback four times. Pretty impressive. With Detroit adding guard T.J. Lang and tackle Ricky Wagner, this offensive line will be Built Ford Tough.
His name might sound more like the goth chick in "Breakfast Club," but Marpet can run over a lot of people (including high school wrestler Emilio Estevez). A product of tiny Hobart College, Marpet has started every game he's played in the NFL. Frankly, he probably should've gone higher than 61st overall, although he was the highest-drafted pick in the history of NCAA Division III football.
Could've gone with the Patriots' Shaq Mason here, who is only 23 years old and already owns a Super Bowl ring ... but versatility wins the day. Turner was a stud at guard for the Panthers' Super Bowl 50 team but shifted to tackle last year when Ron Rivera needed him to move. The footwork is all different. The assignments are all different. Although Turner struggled some, 32 teams would want a guy like this.
Man, there were a number of impactful rookies on the offensive line last year. Kelly helped a Colts unit filled with youth gel late in the season. Case in point: The must-win game in Minnesota, when Indy started three rookies up front without allowing so much as one sack against the vaunted Vikings defense. They shut out the Raiders the next week, too. Kelly didn't allow one all season.
Not sure anyone thought Bosa was going to be this good, this fast. Despite missing four games last season -- his first in the NFL -- Bosa produced 10.5 sacks for the Chargers. Going beyond the sacks and hurries, he simply looked like the best player on the field at times. Remarkable, given he missed all of training camp and preseason due to a contract holdout.
Hunter recorded 12.5 sacks and, according to Sam Monson at Pro Football Focus, 55 total hurries last season. The amazing deal with Hunter is that he was a rookie at 20 years old, so despite having already played two years in the league, he will turn all of 23 in October. You know what I was doing at 23? Driving a teal Ford Probe GT. Good grief.
The best player on the Steelers' defense, Tuitt is a difference-maker for defensive coordinator Keith Butler. Besides being a consummate space-eater in the middle, Tuitt is often able to get a push up front, racking up 10.5 sacks in just 28 games over the last two seasons. Also worth noting: Tuitt deflected three passes and forced two fumbles in 2016. An effective run-stopper, he was very good in that category two seasons ago when he recorded 54 tackles.
Everyone raves about Williams, who doesn't turn 23 until this summer! Although officially listed as a defensive end, Williams spent much of last year as an interior D-lineman - a position not conducive to getting sacks. Still, Williams had seven QB takedowns in 2016. Perhaps even more impressive was getting in on 68 tackles. Despite the Jets' poor season, Williams earned a trip to the Pro Bowl. Next up: first-team All-Pro? Yes, it's possible, even for a Jet. Be nice.
Clowney started as an OLB, got moved to DE, then late last year was a classic hybrid. Even head coach Bill O'Brien acknowledges the Texansplay him everywhere. So I don't know where the heck to put him on this team. Either way, we finally saw why he was the first overall pick in the 2014 draft. Despite being in a defense sans J.J. Watt and often drawing the most attention, Clowney was disruptive. Sure, he secured six sacks, but he was quietly an excellent player against the run. In fact, he tallied a respectable 52 tackles in just 14 games. Against the Raiders in the playoffs, he played like how a Megadeth album sounds ... on the line, standing up, in pursuit. Awesome.
Ray made his presence known in the Broncos' defense last season filling in for an injured DeMarcus Ware. He posted eight sacks for defensive coordinator Wade Phillips despite playing part-time much of the season. With Ware's retirement this offseason, Ray will be counted on much more from new head coach Vance Joseph. Look for him to play about 900 downs in 2017.
It seems like McKinney is the least talked about solid player in football. You don't see anything on him anywhere. This despite the fact that he totaled 129 tackles and five sacks for the league's top defense (at least in terms of yards). Very few inside linebackers put up that many tackles AND sacks. Just wait until the Texans' defense gets J.J. Watt back.
Watching the first half of Super Bowl LI, you might have thought the best player on the field was No. 45 in red. Jones racked up nine tackles against the Patriots, finishing off a rookie season that saw him emerge as one of the NFL's better linebackers. All Jones did was record 108 tackles, three interceptions and two defensive scores. Yeah, so he deserves this nod. Word.
Peters isn't playing around. In just two seasons, he's picked off 14 passes, taking two back for points. Fourteen. His strip job on Kelvin Benjamin pretty much won the day in Carolina back in November. That sounded weird, but you get the point. The most impressive aspect of Peters' game might be his ability to be instant offense on defense. Example: 343 career interception return yards. Already.
Yet another rookie to make the All-Under-25 list, Ramsey delivered as advertised last season in Jacksonville. He held his own in coverage for a freshman starter. The proof was in the puddin' with Ramsey's impact, as the pass defense went from 29th to fifth in one year. With Ramsey, Telvin Smith, Malik Jackson, A.J. Bouye and Myles Jack, the Jaguars' defense is bursting at the seams with young talent.
Clearly Collins deserves a spot on this team when he not only made seemingly everyone's All-Pro team, but finished third in Defensive Player of the Year voting. Collins' statistical summary is worth marveling at ... 125 tackles, four sacks, five interceptions and a defensive touchdown that won the day in London. Simply put, he was easily the best safety in pro football in 2016. That boy good.
Like Collins, Clinton-Dix put up impressive numbers last season. Green Bay's young safety (who turns 25 in December) picked off five passes and knocked down seven more while tallying 80 tackles for the Packers. In fact, that number was down from the previous two seasons, when he posted 100 and 92 tackles, respectively. This guy was the steady presence in Dom Capers' defense. Still a great football name, too.
The Saints seem to have found themselves a kicker in Lutz. Despite being a rookie, Lutz performed like a steady veteran, making 28 of 34 field-goal attempts. Bear in mind that four of those misses were from 50 yards or more. His only errant extra point was that now famous block against the Broncos. Otherwise, Lutz was perfect.
Of course the one 49er to make the All-Under-25 team is a punter, though defensive end DeForest Buckner received serious consideration. Pinion darn near punted his leg off with 100 boots, averaging 44 yards per kick. Obviously, he was leaned on more than any punter in the game and did a heckuva job forcing fair catches instead of returns.
Our third special-teams rookie, Hill led the NFL in punt return yards (592), yards per punt return (15.2) and total return TDs (3). The speedster racked up more than 1,800 all-purpose yards for Andy Reid last season as an integral part of the Chiefs' offense. Perhaps most impressive was the fact Hill averaged 11.1 yards per carry on end arounds and the like. Look for Hill to move past his slow start in 2016 and be full go in 2017.