Who are the most promising rising stars in the NFL? Marc Sessler compiled a roster of the top players under 25 years old heading into the 2019 season. Note that players must be less than 25 years old on Sept. 5, the day the season kicks off. Players have been listed with their age as of Sept. 5.
Quarterback: Patrick Mahomes, Kansas City Chiefs (23 years old as of Sept. 5). No need to get too cute out of the gate: Mahomes is the clear choice under center after an MVP campaign that rewarded fans with more than just bursting box scores. Yes, the Chiefs passer notched the kind of statistical feats that make keyboard-facing number bods hot and bothered (for starters, his 134.2 passer rating from a clean pocket marked the highest qualifying single-season mark in the 13-year history of Pro Football Focus) while tossing for 5,097 yards at 8.8 yards per attempt with 50 touchdowns and 12 picks. It's about how the newbie starter did it, though, beguiling cover men and puzzling even the smartest chess players with a fast-arriving ball that left defenses out of position all season long. With Mahomes at the helm, the Chiefs were an explosive beast with a knack for raining down points like an NBA team on a 24-2 run. It's fair to expect Mahomes' numbers to regress some in 2019, but that doesn't diminish his physical gifts. Cleveland's Baker Mayfield (24) would be my second choice here -- with so much to like -- but Mahomes is the unquestioned leader today.
Running back: Ezekiel Elliott, Dallas Cowboys (24 as of Sept. 5). Elliott remains firmly in place as a do-everything workhorse in Dallas, one who led the NFL in ground yards per game for the third straight campaign in 2018. He might not top last year's 77 catches -- he amassed just 58 total grabs during his first two seasons -- but the fourth overall pick in the 2016 NFL Draft remains a danger through the air. It's fair to wonder how long he can churn out 330-plus touches per year, but no current doubts exist about Elliott's immense meaning to the Cowboys as one of the more watchable and fascinating rumblers of our generation.
Running back: Saquon Barkley, New York Giants (22 as of Sept. 5). What more could you ask from a rookie? The Offensive Rookie of the Year had nine big-play snaps of 40-plus yards -- five more than any other back. The second overall pick in the 2018 NFL Draft also finished second among runners with 91 catches and rolled through his rookie season as the central focus of New York's offense. Like Elliott before him, Barkley has fully delivered on his lofty draft pedigree. It's worth noting that Todd Gurley -- knee concerns aside -- turns 25 on Aug. 3, before the opener.
Running back: Alvin Kamara, New Orleans Saints (24 as of Sept. 5). After tossing and turning over a variety of combinations that would dump either Elliott, Barkley or Kamara to the curb, I've come up with a solution: We'll use all three -- at once. Envision Zeke, Saquon and Alvin bouncing around unhindered out of a grisly combination of Wishbone and Power I sets. Will we go heavy up the middle? Or unleash Kamara into the flats to employ the same jaw-dropping physical gifts that allowed him to freak out the league with back-to-back 81-catch campaigns? Kamara can run, too, blasting into would-be tacklers with more power than expected, for 5.1 yards per carry over 31 appearances.
Once we've gone 16-0, my editors can issue their rebuttal for including a third back on MY FOOTBALL LIST.
Wide receiver: JuJu Smith-Schuster, Pittsburgh Steelers (22 as of Sept. 5). Pittsburgh sets the bar when it comes to finding and developing wideouts. Some balked when 2009 third-rounder Mike Wallace was allowed to hit the market in 2012. The Steelers, though, knew what they had in Antonio Brown, despite the former sixth-round pick failing to reach 70 catches in any of his first three campaigns. Smith-Schuster's ceiling already feels inspired by Michelangelo; consider that he pulled down 111 balls for 1,426 yards last season with Brown still in the lineup. Age aside, JuJu has already become one of the league's anchoring stars. The question is whether Pittsburgh can flip the switch on second-year (and suddenly vastly important) wideout James Washington.
Wide receiver: D.J. Moore, Carolina Panthers (22 as of Sept. 5). The age cutoff for this piece eliminates a flock of stars -- Tyreek Hill (25), Michael Thomas (26), Mike Evans (25) and Amari Cooper (turning 25 in June) -- but Moore fits here as Carolina's tough-as-nails heir to Steve Smith. The rookie brought rugged traits to Carolina's air attack, finishing second league-wide in missed tackles (17) and first in yards after the catch per reception (7.91) among wideouts with 40-plus grabs. Corners, safeties and cowed would-be tacklers learned that Moore delights in chaos, as the first-rounder led all receivers in yards after contact per reception (5.06), the mark of a formidable punch-for-punch pass-catcher anointed by Smith as his "spirit animal," with Smith saying: "They have never been able to replace me. Until today." Atlanta's Calvin Ridley is equally deserving, but Moore is my choice today.
Tight end: O.J. Howard, Tampa Bay Buccaneers (24 as of Sept. 5). Before you ask, San Francisco's George Kittle already hit the quarter-century mark in October. Howard, however, fits here -- and remains my choice over the also-inviting David Njoku (22) -- after a tantalizing second season that saw him emerge as a strong-handed pass-catcher who now owns 60 receptions, 997 yards and 11 touchdowns over 24 tilts. In a post-Gronk universe, Howard is a candidate to fill that unfillable space. Questions linger over his usage in an offense led by Bruce Arians, who has historically deemphasized tight ends, but the Bucs coach never housed a toy like this in Arizona.
Offensive tackles: Braden Smith, Indianapolis Colts (23 as of Sept. 5) and Orlando Brown Jr., Baltimore Ravens (23 as of Sept. 5). After dominating at Auburn as a road-grading guard, the versatile Smith finished his rookie season as PFF's 18th-ranked tackle. Colts general manager Chris Ballard told reporters Smith would be given this offseason to stay and grow at right tackle -- that's good enough for me. Across from Smith, we've got Baltimore's Orlando Brown Jr., who needs polish as a run-blocker but gives our squad a wild-bodied 6-foot-8, 345-pound protector up front. Age prohibited us from nabbing Ryan Ramczyk (25), Laremy Tunsil, Mike McGlinchey, Jack Conklin, Taylor Moton (all turning 25 in August), Ronnie Stanley (25), George Fant (26) or Taylor Decker (25).
Offensive guards: Quenton Nelson, Indianapolis Colts (23 as of Sept. 5) and Will Hernandez, New York Giants (24 as of Sept. 5). The Colts keep giving, with the presence of Nelson, who graded out as PFF's fourth-best run-blocking guard and anchored an Indy line that properly protected Andrew Luck for the first time in Earth's history. A nasty football lifer, Nelson would make any gridiron list around -- forget the age requirement. Hernandez, meanwhile, brought a dose of stability to a Giants front lost at sea. Both Andrus Peat and Joe Thuney -- a couple of blue-hairs -- are 25-plus.
Center: Garrett Bradbury, Minnesota Vikings (24 as of Sept. 5). In another move bound to be critiqued by the reader, I've filled our center spot with an untested rookie in Minnesota's first-rounder, Garrett Bradbury. Way I see it, the Vikings already housed Pat Elflein (last year's center selection by colleague Elliot Harrison), who now moves to guard to make room for the newbie, before they selected Bradbury 18th overall. Bradbury is "the prototype starting center in the NFL," one scout told longtime beat writer Bob McGinn. "His size and strength issues will always persist." Doubters take heed: I plan to kick up my feet and drink a stiff glass of Pappy Van Winkle's Family Reserve once proven correct.
Edge rusher: Joey Bosa, Los Angeles Chargers (24 as of Sept. 5).Danielle Hunter (24) and T.J. Watt (24) hover closely, but no way do I pass on adding Bosa to the mix. I don't need him to pen a dense, intricately plotted Russian novel for the public. Instead, he will be used to turn opposing quarterbacks into doomed and greying mincemeat Sunday after Sunday. Durability concerns linger, but I also see a player who missed his entire rookie offseason, only to notch 10.5 takedowns in his first 12 NFL appearances. No assembly required.
Edge rusher: Myles Garrett, Cleveland Browns (23 as of Sept. 5). Housed on our roster, Garrett will be allowed to use more than two moves come kickoff. If it's true that former defensive coordinator Gregg Williams limited Garrett's bag of tricks, that makes his 13.5 sacks under Williams last season look even more remarkable. After leading all qualifying edge defenders with an 18.5 % win rate, per PFF, Garrett stands at the threshold of making his a monster career.
Defensive tackle: Jonathan Allen, Washington Redskins (24 as of Sept. 5). The Redskins love their Alabama defenders, with Allen, Daron Payne, Reuben Foster, Ryan Anderson, Shaun Dion Hamilton and Landon Collins all hailing from the college powerhouse. Injuries stunted Allen as a rookie in 2017, but he showed promise last autumn by winning more pass-rushing battles (11.7 percent) than any qualifying interior defender from his draft class.
Defensive tackle: Kenny Clark, Green Bay Packers (23 as of Sept. 5). More people should know Clark, the somewhat anonymous Green Bay anchor who played well against the run and pass in 2018. Tampa's Vita Vea (24) deserves a mention here, too, while Chris Jones (turning 25 in July), Leonard Williams (turning 25 in June), DeForest Buckner (25) and Sheldon Rankins (25) all missed out due to age.
Linebacker: Darius Leonard, Indianapolis Colts (24 as of Sept. 5). The quickly ascending Colts strike again with another young game-changer in Leonard. The 2018 Defensive Rookie of the Year hit the ground running with 10-plus tackles in a league-leading seven starts. The 6-foot-2, 234-pound seek-and-destroy droid rocked box-score nerdlings with a whopping 19 tackles (15 solo) against the Redskins in Week 2. Ridiculously snubbed as a Pro Bowl entry in December, Leonard vowed to notch 40 tackles against the Giants in Week 16. He fell short, but that changes nothing: The Colts have found the dictionary definition of a centerpiece on defense.
Linebacker: Leighton Vander Esch, Dallas Cowboys (23 as of Sept. 5). Vander Esch was a marvel to the eye as a rookie in 2018, dominating linemen and giving Dallas a lock-and-load tackler who singlehandedly turned the middle of the Dallas defense into a black hole. Down the stretch, Vander Esch and Jaylon Smith (23) -- so close to making this list -- formed the finest linebacker duo in the NFC and made us wonder why Sean Lee was re-signed in March.
Linebacker: Deion Jones, Atlanta Falcons (24 as of Sept. 5). You can make an argument for Jacksonville's Myles Jack (23), but I'm picking Jones in a tight race. Last year was largely a wash after Jones underwent foot surgery following the season opener, but he returned in time for five late-year starts. One of the premier coverage 'backers in the NFL, this young Pro Bowler brings speed and a rare skill set to the position.
Cornerback: Jalen Ramsey, Jacksonville Jaguars (24 as of Sept. 5). Ramsey struggled at times inside a Jacksonville defense held hostage by a confused and wandering offense. None of that stops me from siding with a player who reimagined the position in 2017. One memory sticks: Watching Ramsey, as a rookie, comprehensively maul people during otherwise invisible All-22 special teams snaps. Ramsey brings innate nastiness to the role to go with next-level precision and dedication to the game.
Cornerback: Marshon Lattimore, New Orleans Saints (23 as of Sept. 5). The New Orleans corner fell off a tad from his wondrous Defensive Rookie of the Year campaign in 2017, but Lattimore's dance card featured bouts with Odell Beckham, Mike Evans, Antonio Brown, Alshon Jeffery and Calvin Ridley inside a Saints secondary that took time to figure itself out. Tre'Davious White (24), Denzel Ward (22) and Desmond King II (24) hover beside Lattimore as some of the game's brightest young corners.
Safety: Jamal Adams, New York Jets (23 as of Sept. 5). While I hemmed and hawed at some positions, safety was simple. Adams evolved into a complete player in Year 2, the rare backstop who excels in coverage while operating as a dangerous pass-rushing nuisance. He's a vocal, high-energy leader respected by veterans out of the gate. It's fair to ask if Adams is already the best at what he does.
Safety: Derwin James, Los Angeles Chargers (23 as of Sept. 5). Seen by some as a snub for Defensive Player of the Year, Derwin logged a monster 1,169 defensive snaps as a wire-to-wire rock for the Chargers. Coordinator Gus Bradley was able to reimagine his secondary largely because of the versatility James brought as a rookie. The former Florida State luminary lined up all over the field, brought tangible pass-rushing prowess and finished fourth among qualifying safeties by allowing just 7.1 yards per catch. Who can forget James trash-talking the doomed Ravens during a wild-card tilt that saw him jammed up at the line to stymie scramble-happy QB Lamar Jackson?
Kicker: Harrison Butker, Kansas City Chiefs (24 as of Sept. 5). What's not to like? In an era where a flock of kickers flub extra points left and right, Mr. Butker has pegged 40 of 41 kicks inside 40 yards and nailed 93 of his 97 career PATs. He's reliable from longer ranges and serves as an appropriate fit for Kansas City's high-octane attack. It's worth noting Wil Lutz of the Saints turns 25 before HE'S ALLOWED TO in terms of this exercise.
Punter: Michael Dickson, Seattle Seahawks (23 as of Sept. 5). Finishing as football's second-best punter, via PFF, Dickson capably replaced the long-standing Jon Ryan in Seattle. Only Andy Lee of the Cardinals foisted up a higher average (48.6) than Dickson's 48.2 yards per punt among qualifying punters -- and, while not claiming to serve as a savant on the art of punting, I'd suggest that Arizona's dead-on-arrival offense offered Lee more real estate to work with, thanks to a league-low 21.18 yards per drive.
Returner: Desmond King II, Los Angeles Chargers (24 as of Sept. 5).Tarik Cohen (23) deserves a mention here, but the Bears weapon only returned three kicks last season, including playoffs. One of the game's top slot corners, King put his stamp on last year's Chargers campaign with a flurry of special-teams magic, highlighted by his 73-yard punt return score in a comeback win over Pittsburgh in Week 13. Doubling down in his X-factor status, King also notched a 72-yard kick return in the playoff win over Baltimore.