The NFL has seen some phenomenal young talent swell its ranks over the past few seasons. While Tom Brady continues to give Father Time the slip, Patrick Mahomes has become the league’s biggest star and arguably its best player.
Mahomes was the No. 1 player on this list the last time we ran through the best players in the league under 25, but alas, his 25th birthday has thrust him into the world of adulthood, complete with an engagement and a baby on the way.
So, now we get a chance to see what impact the first half of the 2020 season has had on the list and run through the 25 best players — regardless of position — that are under 25 years of age at the time of writing.
Christian McCaffrey is one of the best players in all of football, and when we remove position value from the equation, we can list him as the best player under 25 — at least for a little while longer.
While it is true that the Panthers' offense has played better without him in the lineup this season (significantly improved in expected points added per play), it’s working from a very small sample size, and it would be tough to compare it to the team last season given all the other changes involved. Even if it is McCaffrey’s influence, it’s a failing of the team becoming too predictable — not of him being less good.
Since coming into the league, McCaffrey has averaged 2.6 yards per carry after contact, broken 106 tackles on the ground and racked up 143 receiving first downs. He is a dominant player.
2. QB Lamar Jackson, Baltimore Ravens
It's clear this season that Lamar Jackson is at least from this world — not an alien who is set to completely rewrite all we know about the game. With a worse offensive line, scheme changes and a nagging injury, Jackson hasn’t been quite at his MVP level so far in 2020, but half of his performances have earned a PFF grade of at least 75.0.
With Ronnie Stanley lost for the year, the question for Jackson will be where his performance levels out for the season now that he is dealing with major adversity in terms of supporting cast for the first time in his NFL career.
3. EDGE Myles Garrett, Cleveland Browns
We saw signs of this dominance from Myles Garrett last season, but swinging a helmet at Mason Rudolph’s head prematurely ended his campaign halfway through. 2020 has shown that the light has indeed gone on for Garrett, who is now pairing his all-world athleticism and physical tools with consistent production.
For the second year in a row, his PFF pass-rushing grade is above 90.0, and he has 38 total pressures through the first half of the season — a little down on last year’s pace but still an elite number. Garrett has registered pressure in every single game this season and is one of the toughest assignments in the league for any pass blocker.
Knowing Patrick Mahomes would no longer be eligible for this list coming into the season, I would have expected Quenton Nelson to be the best player who qualified, but he hasn’t quite lived up to expectations so far in 2020. That’s not to say Nelson has been bad — he still has a 79.3 overall PFF grade and ranks in the top 10 in both overall PFF and pass-blocking grade — but he hasn’t built on last year when he was grading above 90.0 and looked like one of the best overall offensive linemen in football.
Nelson is still a phenomenal player who has allowed just three hurries all season in pass protection, and we know he is capable of even more.
5. WR Chris Godwin, Tampa Bay Buccaneers
Injuries have robbed us of much of Chris Godwin so far in 2020, but the glimpses we have seen suggest he’s well capable of picking up where he left off last season to remain one of the best receivers in the game. For his career, quarterbacks have a 113.2 passer rating when throwing the ball to Godwin, and that number is over 120.0 since the start of 2019.
He also has just five dropped passes in four years of play and boasts the versatility to line up in the slot or out wide. All we can do is wait patiently for the realization of a healthy Godwin teamed with Tom Brady later in the season.
6. WR D.K. Metcalf, Seattle Seahawks
Few players have taken a bigger jump than D.K. Metcalf this season, as he has become one of the league’s most devastating offensive weapons on the end of passes from Russell Wilson.
We knew Metcalf was a dangerous deep threat given his size and speed, but he has become a much more well-rounded threat this year, with 200 yards after the catch to his name and proof he can be dangerous in a number of ways to a defense. Wilson’s passer rating when throwing his way this season is an absurd 132.6, and Metcalf has almost 50 more receiving yards on deep targets than any other wide receiver.
7. CB Marlon Humphrey, Baltimore Ravens
Marlon Humphrey is one of the game’s best defensive backs but doesn’t quite get the recognition because the Ravens ask him to do different things than most top shutdown corners — some of which harm his overall numbers, such as covering the slot.
Since the start of the 2018 season, only Stephon Gilmore has a higher PFF coverage grade than Humphrey when in single coverage. And when limiting that to snaps played strictly at outside corner, Humphrey is No. 1 by some distance, with one of the highest forced-incompletion rates (31.3%) of any corner. Don’t let his role fool you; Humphrey is a true stud.
8. CB Jaire Alexander, Green Bay Packers
If there’s a young corner who can challenge Humphrey, it’s Green Bay’s Jaire Alexander, who has threatened this kind of ability for a while but looks like he is finally sustaining it in 2020. Alexander is the No. 1-graded corner in the league through eight weeks and has yet to have a disastrous coverage game — performances that have plagued him in the past.
Week 1 saw him surrender 66 yards in coverage, and that remains almost 40 more than any other game he has had so far this season. Across seven games, Alexander has allowed just 134 receiving yards.
9. EDGE Nick Bosa, San Francisco 49ers
Injury robbed us of the chance to see if Nick Bosa could maintain the hot start he had to his career as a rookie or even kick on from that first-year level. It’s only one game, but in the 57 snaps he played in Week 1 against Arizona, Bosa totaled five pressures and an 84.7 PFF game grade.
As a rookie, he shattered the single-season rookie record for total pressures, ending with 80 for the regular season before going on to add 22 more in the playoffs, and was still cooking on gas in the Super Bowl. Bosa already looks like one of the game’s best edge rushers.
10. RB Nick Chubb, Cleveland Browns
Nick Chubb is arguably the best pure ball carrier in the NFL and was putting up absurd numbers in Kevin Stefanski’s new-look Browns offense — just as he did in the previous scheme — before injury took him out this season.
Chubb is averaging 4.1 yards per carry after contact for his career, and the only thing keeping him from the very top of his list is a relative lack of use or skill set applicable to the passing game, which is king in today’s NFL.
11. WR Terry McLaurin, Washington Football Team
The work that Terry McLaurin has been doing with the quarterback situation in Washington since he entered the league deserves some kind of medal. Since being drafted into the NFL, McLaurin has a top-10 PFF receiving grade despite his quarterbacks ranking among the bottom few passers in the league.
He has caught 87.1% of catchable passes thrown his way while generating a 109.2 passer rating for those quarterbacks despite being the only receiving threat of note on the team. Other receivers may have more intimidating physical tools, but few are as good as McLaurin.
12. WR A.J. Brown, Tennessee Titans
One of those aforementioned physically imposing receivers is Tennessee’s A.J. Brown, who has been similarly impressive to McLaurin since they each entered the league — but with a much better environment around him in which to thrive.
Brown has averaged 7.9 yards after the catch since his rookie season while gaining over 2.5 yards for every pass pattern he has run. Brown also flaunts a top-10 PFF receiving grade since being drafted and has shown in recent weeks that his rookie success was no fluke, even if some defenses have held him to quieter stat lines this season.
13. LB Fred Warner, San Francisco 49ers
It’s been well-highlighted in recent national broadcasts that Fred Warner is an exceptional linebacker and a coverage game-changer for the 49ers. So far this season, Warner has the best PFF coverage grade of any linebacker (88.6) and has been beaten for just a 58.0 passer rating in coverage, almost 50 points lower than the average mark when throwing into a linebacker’s coverage.
To top that off, Warner has produced 24 defensive stops and only four missed tackles on the season.
14. WR Courtland Sutton, Denver Broncos
We are entering “injury row” on the list. Courtland Sutton is another promising young player who has been knocked out of the 2020 NFL season. The Broncos' No. 1 receiver emerged as a true threat last season, generating a 104.7 passer rating for the quarterbacks who threw the ball his way, massively up from their regular baseline.
Unfortunately, he lasted just 31 snaps this season before injury took him down and robbed us of the chance to see what he could do for Drew Lock.
15. S Derwin James, Los Angeles Chargers
Derwin James possesses the talent to be ranked at the very top of this list, but a growing injury history has derailed much of his time in the NFL. The hype was beginning to take on a life of its own for James as training camp videos emerged showing him covering star receiver Keenan Allen and making plays, but James won’t play until 2021 now, which makes it two straight years of missing the majority of the season.
As a rookie, though, James flashed what he was capable of, posting an 87.8 overall PFF grade and proving to be a real difference-maker.
16. RB Saquon Barkley, New York Giants
If you separate the fact that running backs are extremely dependent on their environment and the blocking in front of them, Saquon Barkley is a tremendous talent and player.
That environment has deteriorated around him since entering the league, but Barkley is still averaging 3.3 yards per carry after contact in his career and has 45 broken tackles on 149 catches as a receiver. Plus, he's a human highlight reel who everybody loves to watch play.
17. TE Mark Andrews, Baltimore Ravens
Andrews was underrated from Day 1. He was the better tight end when he was drafted despite being taken lower in the draft than Hayden Hurst, and he has set about proving that and becoming Lamar Jackson’s favorite target.
Since the start of 2019, Andrews leads the Ravens in targets (136), catches (87), touchdown receptions (15), first downs (60), yards per route run (2.37) and has almost three times more contested catches than the next receiver. He is an outstanding receiver over the middle for the Ravens offense and one of the best pass-catching tight ends in the game.
18. EDGE Chase Young, Washington Football Team
This is a high ranking for Young, especially given how early into his NFL career we are, but we are factoring in what we know of him from his college days. Though college tape doesn’t mean everything, it is significant that he outperformed players like the Bosa brothers and Myles Garrett, each of whom has gone on to be a dominant player at the next level. Young has already flashed that ability in the NFL and may have been even further along but for an injury sidelining him for a stretch. He looks like an elite talent for whom the sky is the limit.
Not much is going right for the Cincinnati Bengals defense in 2020, but Bates is certainly one of those things — he is making plays every time you watch a Bengals game. At 90.1, Bates has the best overall PFF grade of any safety this season and is over 10 grading points clear of the chasing pack. He already has a pair of interceptions and eight pass breakups, which is one more combined play on the ball ahead of where he was all last season. He has shown incredible range in coverage to make life difficult for opposing quarterbacks.
20. QB Josh Allen, Buffalo Bills
Ranking Josh Allen in any list feels like the fate of Sisyphus — just when you think you have pushed the stone to the top of the mountain, it rolls all the way back down again and you start over. Early this season, it looked like Allen had put it all together and was playing at an All-Pro level. Over the first four weeks of the season, Allen’s PFF grade was No. 4 in the league, trailing only Russell Wilson, Aaron Rodgers and Tom Brady.
After that point, his grades have fallen away (22nd), and he looks a lot more like the inconsistent but immeasurably talented player he was the previous two seasons. Apparently, that nets out at 20th on this list. Back we go to the mountaintop…
Marcus Williams is probably still best known for being the player on the wrong end of the Minneapolis Miracle at the end of his rookie season, but he has become an excellent NFL safety, even if he has had a slow start to 2020. Like the rest of the Saints defense, Williams has underperformed so far this season, but he has multiple years with a PFF grade above 88.0 and a coverage grade of 89.0. Even this season, his run defense has remained impressive, and he is likely just riding the downswing of variance that is inevitable at the safety position.
22. EDGE Brian Burns, Carolina Panthers
The development of an NFL pass-rusher is not usually an instant thing, and former first-round pick Brian Burns is showing in Year 2 why he was such a coveted prospect. At 90.6, he currently has the best PFF pass-rushing grade of any edge rusher in 2020, thanks to the impact plays he’s been able to make. He has only three sacks, but all three of them have been strip-sacks and game-changing plays for the Panthers defense. Overall, he has 25 total pressures on the year and is getting better as the season progresses.
23. CB Carlton Davis, Tampa Bay Buccaneers
The entire Bucs secondary is young and talented, but Davis looks like emerging as the No. 1 shutdown corner. One of his best plays of the season was sticking to Davante Adams on a slant route and forcing a pass breakup on a well-thrown pass from Aaron Rodgers to cause a second interception of the game and really accelerate the rot for Green Bay, but he has been excellent outside of that play as well. Davis now has 27 pass breakups since the start of last season, with five interceptions, and this year has allowed a passer rating of only 47.1 when targeted.
24. QB Kyler Murray, Arizona Cardinals
Murray hasn’t quite taken the leap forward many expected him to as a passer this season with the acquisition of DeAndre Hopkins and an extra year of experience both in the system and at this level, but his floor has been raised so much because of how much he is using his legs. Only Lamar Jackson has more rushing yards at quarterback on designed rushing attempts, and Murray also has the most yards on scrambles in the league. He has also become a goal-line nightmare for defenses and has seven rushing scores in seven games. If Murray does take that next step as a passer, look out, NFL.
25. WR D.J. Moore, Carolina Panthers
D.J. Moore seems destined to spend his life in the shadow of other players, but that shouldn’t cause us to ignore just how good he actually is.
Moore finished last season with a top-20 PFF grade, catching passes for almost 1,200 yards despite a disastrous quarterback situation. With Robby Anderson stealing the limelight this year, he hasn’t been quite as spectacular but still has 622 receiving yards, the seventh-most in the league. Since the start of 2019, Moore has the 11th-best yards-per-route-run figure among wide receivers (2.10)
Players to watch for the future
It felt a little premature to put them on the list, but both Burrow and Herbert have the potential to be special, albeit in very different ways. Burrow has been incredibly consistent despite a disastrous pass-blocking situation in Cincinnati and right now has the 12th-best PFF grade among all quarterbacks.
Herbert is right behind him at No. 13, but his grade has been compiled in a more spectacular manner. Herbert is the third-best quarterback in the league on third down (and had been No. 1 until this week) and is top-10 in both grade under pressure and in big-time throws. He may be bound for regression at some point, but his debut season has been spectacular so far.