With the holiday weekend upon us, FOX Sports South takes a whimsical and eminently subjective look at ranking the NFL's Top 25 Players At Age 25 Or Younger. This countdown has superb depth, covering many different positions -- so much that we couldn't justify including many assets from the 2014 draft class ... or any prospects from the NFL's recently completed draft. (Photos: Brad Penner/Charles LeClaire-USA TODAY Sports)
25. QB Teddy Bridgewater, Minnesota Vikings
AGE (as of July 31): 22 ... 2014 STATS: 2,919 yards passing, 15 total TDs, 12 INTs ...REASONS FOR OPTIMISM: 1) Sure, it's early. But Bridgewater, the final QB taken in Round 1 last year, may end up being the purest passer of the Class of 2014. 2) Bridgewater posted a 6-7 record for the rebuilding Vikings last season. In fact, in his final six starts, the Louisville product accounted for 300 yards passing or multiple touchdowns five times. That represents tangible progress for Bridgewater, who didn't record a passing TD in his first three game. 3) Citing his final eight games last year, Bridgewater had a completion rate of 60 percent or higher seven times.
24. DT Star Lotulelei, Carolina Panthers
AGE (as of July 31): 25 ...CAREER STATS: 5 sacks, 1 pass deflection ... REASONS FOR OPTIMISM: 1) In just two seasons, Lotulelei has brought stability to a once-barren defensive line for the Panthers. 2) In Carolina's final nine games last year (including the playoffs), the defense surrendered 100 or more team rushing yards to the opponent just twice. 3) Citing the Average Annual Value rankings for Pro Football Reference, Lotulelei holds a two-year average of 7.5 -- a strong figure for a stout defender from a hot-and-cold team.
23. WR Kelvin Benjamin, Carolina Panthers
AGE (as of July 31): 24 ... 2014 STATS: 73 catches, 1,008 yards, 9 TDs ... REASONS FOR OPTIMISM: 1) Benjamin stealthily handled a starring role in the Carolina passing game last season, while compensating for the loss of Steve Smith. The rookie tallied 10 games of 90 yards receiving and/or one touchdown. 2) From a reliability standpoint, Benjamin also collected eight or more receiving targets 11 times. 3) The regular season numbers were sublime, but Benjamin's true coming-out party may have occured in the postseason. Against the NFC champion Seahawks (Divisional Playoff round), the Florida State product rolled for seven catches, 10 targets, 75 yards and two touchdowns. 4) Benjamin has the requisite size, speed and absurd athleticism to take another sizable leap this season. He's a good bet for 1,110 yards and double-digit TDs.
22. QB Robert Griffin III, Washington Redskins
AGE (as of July 31): 25 ... CAREER STATS: 8,097 yards passing, 48 total TDs ...REASONS FOR OPTIMISM: 1) Griffin, the former Offensive Rookie of the Year, was a media marvel in 2012, accounting for 4,015 total yards (3,200 passing) and 27 touchdowns (20 passing). 2) Despite injuries and coaching changes, Griffin still has a completion rate of 60-plus percent in all three NFL seasons. All told, RG3 has been a 64-percent passer. 3) The Redskins recently picked up Griffin's contract option for 2016, implying that Washington has committed to Griffin as the starter for another two seasons. REASON FOR PESSMISM: Griffin was a certifiable flop last year, the first under head coach Jay Gruden, notching only five touchdowns (four passing) in seven starts.
21. LB C.J. Mosley, Baltimore Ravens
AGE (as of July 31): 23 ... 2014 STATS: 3 sacks, 99 tackles ... ACCOLADES: Pro Bowler/Second Team All-Pro (Associated Press) ... REASONS FOR OPTIMISM: 1) With the Ravens last year, Mosley racked up one Pro Bowl berth, two interceptions, three sacks and 99 tackles. 2) Mosley was arguably the NFL's best rookie defender last season, possibly eclipsing Aaron Donald (Rams) and Khalil Mack (Raiders). 3) With Mosley making 16 starts as a rookie, the Ravens defense held the opposition to 23 or fewer points 12 times last season (including the postseason).
20. OL Zack Martin, Dallas Cowboys
AGE (as of July 31): 24 ... ACCOLADES: Pro Bowler/All-Pro as a rookie (2014) ... REASONS FOR OPTIMISM: 1) After just one season, Martin already belongs on the short list of the NFL's best offensive guards. 2) Martin's also an integral part of the league's best offensive line, anchored by left tackle Tyron Smith (more on him later). 3) Dallas ranked No. 2 in rushing offense last season, averaging 147.1 yards per outing. 4) It goes without saying: Cowboys VP Stephen Jones deserves props for talking his dad, owner/GM Jerry Jones, out of drafting QB Johnny Manziel in Round 1 last year.
19. LB Lavonte David, Tampa Bay Buccaneers
AGE (as of July 31): 25 ... CAREER STATS: 10 sacks, 319 tackles ... REASONS FOR OPTIMISM: 1) David has racked up 100-tackle campaigns in each of his first three NFL seasons. 2) In his All-Pro year of 2013, the Bucs linebacker expertly amassed two forced fumbles, five INTs, seven sacks, nine pass deflections and one safety. 3) Citing Pro Football Reference's Annual Average Value rankings, David's three-year average of 9.3 rates among the elite cluster of NFL linebackers. 4) Tampa Bay's defense showed tangible improvement after its bye last season, the first under head coach Lovie Smith, allowing 27 or more points just twice in their last 10 games. 5) David and defensive end Gerald McCoy are the foundational pieces of a Buccaneers defense that should be vastly improved in 2015.
18. WR Mike Evans, Tampa Bay Buccaneers
AGE (as of July 31): 22 ... 2014 STATS: 68 catches, 1,051 yards, 12 TDs ... REASONS FOR OPTIMISM: 1) Timing was everything last season for Evans, who lived in the shadow of fellow rookie Odell Beckham Jr. despite his own prodigious numbers. 2) That aside, Evans surely surpassed the Bucs' expectations for their prized wideout, who racked up the majority of yards and touchdowns once Mike Glennon became the starting fixture at quarterback.(By extension, he'll have no problems adjusting to Jameis Winston.) 3) In a three-game explosion against the Browns, Falcons and Redskins last season, Evans rolled for 21 catches, 458 yards and five TDs.
17. DT Aaron Donald, St. Louis Rams
AGE (as of July 31): 24 ... STATS: 9 sacks, 37 tackles ... ACCOLADES: 2014 NFL Defensive Rookie of the Year, First Team All-NFL (Pro Football Focus) ... REASONS FOR OPTIMISM: 1) Donald had an immediate impact on a Rams defense that was already stacked with premium young talent. 2) It's rare to see defensive tackles register at least one sack in five different outings, and yet, that's what Donald accomplished during a November-December stretch against the Broncos, Chargers, Raiders, Redskins and Cardinals. 3) During that time, St. Louis actually posted back-to-back shutouts, stifling Oakland and Washington. 4) The Detroit Lions, picking 10th in the 2014 draft, passed on Donald (even with Ndamukong Suh and Nick Fairley's impending free agency in 2015) ... and all-world rookie Odell Beckham Jr. For a tight end. Ugh.
16. DE Chandler Jones, New England Patriots
AGE (as of July 31): 25 ... CAREER STATS: 23.5 sacks, 103 tackles ... REASONS FOR OPTIMISM: 1) Jones has collected at least six sacks in all three NFL seasons -- highlighted by the 11 1/2 sacks from 2013. For that year, Jones also scored his first pro touchdown. 2) In his brief career, Jones already has tallied five outings of multiple sacks. 3) The Syracuse product, who also possesses the versatility to play DT, collected a sack in February's Super Bowl. 4) Of the Class of 2012 defenders -- a year which includes Fletcher Cox, Bruce Irvin, Quinton Coples, Whitney Mercilus and Dontari Poe (more on him later) -- Jones has amassed the most sacks.
15. RB Jeremy Hill, Cincinnati Bengals
AGE (as of July 31): 22 ... 2014 STATS: 1,339 total yards, 9 TDs ... REASONS FOR OPTIMISM: 1) Hill rushed for 1,124 yards as a rookie, despite starting the season as a backup and being part of the NFL's best backfields (along with Gio Bernard). 2) Of his final nine regular season games, Hill had per-outing averages of 113 total yards and 0.7 TDs. 3) Citing his last 10 games in 2014 (including the playoffs), Hill tallied 90 total yards and/or one touchdown seven times. 4) The explosive Hill, who averaged 5.1 yards per carry last season, could be a candidate for 1,800 total yards and double-digit TDs in 2015 -- with merely a nominal bump in touches.
14. DT Muhammad Wilkerson, New York Jets
AGE (as of July 31): 22 ... CAREER STATS: 24.5 sacks, 145 tackles ... ACCOLADES: Three "Second Team All-NFL" berths from 2012-14 (Pro Football Focus/Associated Press) ... REASONS FOR OPTIMISM: 1) Wilkerson has enjoyed two stellar seasons in his four-year career, and yet, he's never made the Pro Bowl. Go figure. 2) According to Pro Football Reference, Wilkerson's 2013 campaign with the Jets (one INT, two forced fumbles, 10.5 sackes, 43 tackles) warranted an Average Annual Value rating of 15 -- an elite-level figure for a defender. 3) Wilkerson might be the most attractive defensive free agent next March, possibly commanding a six-year deal worth $90 million to $100 million.
13. WR T.Y. Hilton, Indianapolis Colts
AGE (as of July 31): 25 ... CAREER STATS: 214 catches, 3,289 yards, 73 TDs ... ACCOLADES: 2014 Pro Bowler ... REASONS FOR OPTIMISM: 1) Hilton quickly has morphed into the one of the NFL's best receivers. At the very least, he belongs in the league's second wave of elite-level pass-catchers. 2) The Colts wideout has a stupendous three-year average of 81 catches, 1,115 yards and 6.3 TDs. Of equal relevance, Hilton has been remarkably consistent during this stretch of time. 3) The Colts are primed for a Super Bowl run this season, adding key playmakers like Andre Johnson and Frank Gore -- both Hall of Fame considerations someday. And yet, Hilton remains the No. 1 target in a juggernaut offense.
12. WR Alshon Jeffery, Chicago Bears
AGE (as of July 31): 25 ... CAREER STATS: 198 catches, 2,921 yards, 20 TDs ... ACCOLADES: 2013 Pro Bowler ... REASONS FOR OPTIMISM: 1) For the 2013-14 seasons, Jeffery was perhaps the NFL's best No. 2 receiver, racking up 174 catches, 2,554 and 17 TDs while essentially playing in the shadow of Brandon Marshall. 2) From Weeks 11-16 last year, Jeffery had a prodigious streak of at least one TD for six straight games (total of seven). 3) In 2013, Jeffery was on the short list of NFL wideouts to post multiple games of 200-plus receiving yards. 4) With Marshall now property of the New York Jets (offseason trade), Jeffery has the capacity for 100 catches, 1,300 yards and double-digit touchdowns.
Jerry Lai-USA TODAY Sports
11. DT Dontari Poe, Kansas City Chiefs
AGE (as of July 31): 24 ... CAREER STATS: 10.5 sacks, 109 tackles ... ACCOLADES: 2013/14 Pro Bowler; 2nd Team All-NFL for 2013 (Associated Press/Pro Football Focus) ... REASONS FOR OPTIMISM: 1) Poe has been a redoubtable home run for the Chiefs, at a time when the club may have been off the mark when drafting interior defenders. 2) Citing Pro Football Reference's Average Annual Value rankings, Poe's two-year average of 12 puts him in the elite class of defensive players. 3) The Poe-led Chiefs held opponents to fewer than 90 yards rushing six times last season, and for Kansas City's final 15 games, the opposing offense tallied 25 points or more just once. 4) At 6-foot-3 and 346 pounds, Poe has been a real-game changer for D-linemen, in terms of shooting the gaps and tackles-for-loss/sacks potential.
Denny Medley-USA TODAY Sports
10. LB Bobby Wagner, Seattle Seahawks
AGE (as of July 31): 25 ... CAREER NUMBERS: 9 sacks, 257 tackles ... ACCOLADES: 2014 Pro Bowler/NFL All-Pro ... REASONS FOR OPTIMISM: 1) Wagner has been a linchpin for the NFL's best defense, collecting at least two sacks and 80-plus tackles in all three pro seasons. 2) For its final six regular season games in 2014, Seattle's defense surrendered only 39 total points, for a staggering average of 6.5 points. 3) Wagner tallied double-digit tackles and one INT in the Seahawks' Super Bowl loss to the Patriots. 4) Wagner stands as one of the most complete defenders from the 2012 draft. He might even be the best of the bunch. 5) Citing Pro Football's Annual Average Rankings, Wagner has posted an elite-level score of 10 or higher for all three years.
9. DT Marcell Dareus, Buffalo Bills
AGE (as of July 31): 25 ... CAREER NUMBERS: 28.5 sacks, 139 tackles ... ACCOLADES: Two-time Pro Bowler, 2014 NFL All-Pro ... REASONS FOR OPTIMISM: 1) Dareus has raised the bar for NFL defensive tackles, collecting a minimum of 5 1/2 sacks in every campaign. In fact, Dareus boasts 17 1/2 sacks in the past two years. 2) Against the Lions last season, Dareus had a monster game of three sacks and five tackles while leading Buffalo to a crucial road win. 3) The Dareus-led Bills defense racked fourth in scoring last year, holding the opposition to fewer than 20 points eight times. 4) Digging deeper, for Weeks 1-6 last year, the stout Buffalo defense didn't allow a single opponent to post 100 team rushing yards.
Timothy T. Ludwig
8. WR Randall Cobb, Green Bay Packers
AGE (as of July 31): 25 ... 2014 STATS: 91 catches, 1,287 yards, 12 TDs ... ACCOLADES: 2014 Pro Bowlers ... REASONS FOR OPTIMISM: 1) Cobb (25 career TDs) took a quantum leap forward last season, establishing himself as one of the NFL's premier receivers. He finished shy of All-Pro Jordy Nelson's supreme numbers with Green Bay (98 catches, 1,519 yards, 13 TDs). 2) Cobb tallied three games of multiple TDs last year. In fact, in his first games in 2014, the Kentucky product had 10 touchdowns. 3) Cobb was a coveted prize during the offseason free agency period before opting to stick with the prolific Packers for four more seasons.
7. RB Eddie Lacy, Green Bay Packers
AGE (as of July 31): 25 ... CAREER STATS: 3,001 total yards (2,317 rushing), 24 TDs ... ACCOLADES: One-time Pro Bowler, 2013 Offensive Rookie of the Year ... REASONS FOR OPTIMISM: 1) Lacy has quickly become the NFC North version of Marshawn Lynch, posting two-year averages of 1,500 total yards and 12 touchdowns. 2) In his past 16 games (including the playoffs), Lacy has racked up 100 total yards and/or one TD 13 times. 3) From a year-to-year basis, the high-octane Packers have the NFL's top passing attack. And yet, through it all, Lacy shall remain a healthy bet for 1,700 total yards and double-digit TDs.
6. DE Robert Quinn, St. Louis Rams
AGE (as of July 31): 25 ... CAREER STATS: 45 sacks, 133 tackles ... ACCOLADES: Two-time Pro Bowler (2013-14), 2013 NFL All-Pro ... REASONS FOR OPTIMISM: 1) Quinn has among the NFL's most prolific sack artists since 2012, collecting 40 sacks in that three-year span. Two seasons ago, Quinn was the king of sacks (19). 2) In his four-year career, Quinn already has five games or three or more sacks. 3) The Quinn-led Rams were nearly as dominant as the Seahawks in the latter half of last season, posting back-to-back shutouts against the Raiders and Redskins. 4) Quinn has a long way to go, for sure. But at this pace, he could eclipse Bruce Smith's all-time sacks record of 200 ... sometime in 2029.
5. OT Tyron Smith, Dallas Cowboys
AGE (as of July 31): 24 ... ACCOLADES: Two-time Pro Bowler (2013/14), one-time NFL All-Pro (2014) ... REASONS FOR OPTIMISM: 1) According to Pro Football Focus, Smith anchors the NFL's best offensive line. The group helped DeMarco Murray capture the NFL rushing title last season. 2) Smith grades out as a top-five pass-protector. He also has supreme skills when pushing the Cowboys' rushing attack, as well. 3) Smith has started all 63 of his NFL games with Dallas. 4) After future Hall of Famer Joe Thomas, Smith might possess the best combination of size, athleticism, yearly production and physical upside, compared to the NFL's other left tackles.
4. LB Luke Kuechly, Carolina Panthers
AGE (as of July 31): 24 ... CAREER STATS: 6 sacks, 7 INTs, 306 tackles ... ACCOLADES: Two-time Pro Bowler (2013-14), two-time NFL All-Pro (2013-14), 2012 NFL Defensive Rookie of the Year, 2013 NFL Defensive Player of the Year ... REASONS FOR OPTIMISM: 1) Kuechly is the most decorated player of this countdown, collecting honor after honor and award after award. 2) Kuechly has averaged 102 tackles per year. 3) Citing Pro Football Reference's Annual Average Value rankings, Kuechly's only defensive peer of the past two seasons may be Houston's J.J. Watt. 4) It's early in his career, but Kuechly may already be on a Hall of Fame track.
3. WR Odell Beckham Jr., New York Giants
AGE (as of July 31): 22 ... 2014 STATS: 91 catches, 1,305 yards, 12 TDs ... ACCOLADES: 2014 Pro Bowler; NFL Offensive Player of the Year ... REASONS FOR OPTIMISM: 1) Yes, Beckham's one-handed, reach-back snag against the Cowboys shall remain one of the greatest touchdown catches in NFL history. But the kid's amazing rookie campaign actually transcended that moment. He inflicted all this damage over just 12 games. 2) Beckham has 'superstar' written all over him, perhaps joining the ranks of Calvin Johnson, Dez Bryant, Demaryius Thomas, Jordy Nelson, Julio Jones and Antonio Brown by season's end. 3) Beckham's 2014 campaign stands as the Super Bowl era's second-greatest season for a rookie wideout, eclipsed only by Randy Moss, circa 1998 (69 catches, 1,313 yards, 17 TDs).
2. RB Le'Veon Bell, Pittsburgh Steelers
AGE (as of July 31): 23 ... CAREER STATS: 3,474 total yards, 19 TDs ... ACCOLADES: 2014 Pro Bowler/NFL All-Pro ... REASONS FOR OPTIMISM: 1) Bell rolled for 2,215 total yards (1,361 rushing) last season, with a staggering average of 138.4 total yards. For good measure, the Michigan State product notched 11 TDs. 2) Here's an awkward testament to Bell's greatness: He'll serve a three-game suspension to start the season (drug possession) ... and yet, he's still an outside candidate for 2,000 total yards by year's end. 3) Bell (83 catches, 854 receiving yards last season) may be the NFL's best receiving back. 4) In 2014, Bell recorded 13 games of 100 total yards and/or one touchdown.
1. QB Andrew Luck, Indianapolis Colts
AGE (as of July 31): 25 ... CAREER STATS: 12,957 yards passing, 86 TDs ... ACCOLADES: Three-time Pro Bowler (2012-14) ... FOR WHAT IT'S WORTH:Luck is the oldest player in this countdown. REASONS FOR OPTIMISM: 1) Luck stands as the most prolific passer in NFL history -- after three seasons. In 2014 alone, Luck expertly accounted for 4,761 yards passing and 43 touchdowns (three rushing). 2) Under Luck's direction, the Colts have reached the playoffs three straight times, and during that span, Indy tallied 11 regular-season victories each time. 3) Luck is on the short list of NFL MVP candidates for 2015. As part of that, we're also betting that Indy will be the last undefeated to fall this season. 4) For 2013-14, Luck holds a cumulative compleition rate of 61 percent -- superb numbers for a drop-back, down-the-field passer.