As training camps wind down, most teams have the majority of their 53-man roster figured out, but not much is set in stone. Around this time last year, it looked as though Matt Schaub was going to be Oakland's starting quarterback, but rookie Derek Carr started every game. No one expected Green Bay centerCorey Linsley, a fifth-round pick, to start every game for the league's top-ranked offense, but he got his opportunity after an injury.
Players will rise to the occasion in a multitude of ways this year, but there are some who already have made a name for themselves. To look at which teams have the most future potential, we ranked all 32 NFL teams by their talent under the age of 25.
Last year's rankings had the Rams at No. 1 and the Seahawks at 32. Not much has changed in regards to those teams this year, but that just shows some of the differences in team building. Most of Seattle's core is just above the age-25 cutoff, while the Rams have loaded up in recent drafts without the results to show for it yet.
We wanted to create a ranking that balanced opportunity with performance and potential, so we used the following criteria:
The number of games started by players under the age of 25 in 2014
The number of snaps played by U25 players in 2014
Whether a team's young starters last season were simply injury replacements
The number of U25 first-team All-Pros and Pro Bowlers a team has on its roster (All-Pros were given more weight than Pro Bowls)
Positional value (young quarterbacks and positions impacting the passing game carry more weight; backup running backs and kickers are devalued)
The amount of value a team added in the 2015 draft, with a focus on the first two rounds (premium picks)
The expected number of key starters and reserves under the age of 25 in 2015
A team's recent track record of developing and retaining young talent
Players with significant injury or suspension issues in 2015 are downgraded
You'll see a number of references to Football Outsiders stats on our list, in particular DVOA (defense-adjusted value over average), which takes every play and compares its success to the NFL average based on situation and opponent. You can read more about that and other FO stats on this page. Statistics that reference game charting come from ESPN Stats & Information, as well as Football Outsiders.
Here are our organizational rankings for this season. (Note: All ages are as of Sept. 10, 2015.)
2014 ranking: 11
Of the six first-team All-Pro players in the study, the Cowboys have two: left tackle Tyron Smith and right guard Zack Martin. Center Travis Frederick makes for a third Pro Bowl selection on the offensive line, and Dallas even snagged guard La'el Collins, considered by many to have first-round talent, after he went undrafted following unusual circumstances. Last season the Cowboys' offensive line ranked first in adjusted line yards and Joseph Randle could be the next running back to take advantage of one of the league's most stacked units.
There are reasons for optimism on defense as well. DeMarcus Lawrence, who missed the first eight games last year with a broken foot, should be a Week 1 starter after notching a sack in both playoff games, including a huge forced fumble to clinch the win against Detroit. First-round pick Byron Jones should be the team's nickel corner, which is basically a starter in today's game. The Cowboys took a risk on Randy Gregory this offseason, but he's a very talented pass-rusher who should see the field on third downs. Linebacker Anthony Hitchens is also a likely starter after he showed as a rookie he was capable of playing each position in Rod Marinelli's defense.
2014 ranking: 29
No team had a bigger change in its U25 ranking than Miami, climbing 27 spots from last year. We're projecting Miami to have as many as 10 U25 starters this year, the most of any team. The trade for Kenny Stills provides Ryan Tannehillwith one of the league's best deep threats to complement the short passes Jarvis Landry gobbled up last year. Add in DeVante Parker, the team's first-round pick, and that's an embarrassment of riches for Tannehill in the passing game.
Speed back Lamar Miller is poised to improve on last year's success in a contract year behind an offensive line that should have its best players healthier. Fourth-round pick Jamil Douglas has an outside shot to start at left guard, while Billy Turner, a favorite from the 2014 draft, has the inside track at right guard.
Defensively, second-round defensive tackle Jordan Phillips should helpNdamukong Suh stop the run, but probably not in a full-time capacity in 2015. Defensive end Olivier Vernon has 18 sacks in the past two seasons. LinebackerJelani Jenkins led Miami with 110 tackles last year. Chris McCain, undrafted in 2014, could be the team's starting strongside linebacker. At this point, it seems likely cornerback Jamar Taylor (2013 second-rounder) will start opposite Brent Grimes. Taylor charted well in limited action last year, allowing 5.7 adjusted yards per pass on 38 targets.
2014 ranking: 1
Robert Quinn turning 25 had a lot to do with the Rams dropping from the top spot, and Aaron Donald's Defensive Rookie of the Year season had a lot to do with the Rams still ranking third in U25 talent. The defensive line had a slow start, but finished strong, with Donald's 20.5 quarterback hurries leading the team.Michael Brockers may lose his starting job to Nick Fairley, but he's still another first-round talent in this front seven. Alec Ogletree, E.J. Gaines and T.J. McDonald should provide the defense with three more capable U25 starters.
The problems are on offense where the talent has not panned out as well. We're still waiting for Tavon Austin to prove he's anything more than a decent return man who somehow commanded the eighth overall pick. Greg Robinson, the No. 2 pick in the 2014 draft, has a lot of pressure to perform well at left tackle with new quarterback Nick Foles in town. Rob Havenstein has a decent shot to win the other tackle job as a second-round rookie, but the Rams have not been solid up front for many years.
Tre Mason looked like a fine running back last year, but in a very Jeff Fisher move, the Rams still drafted Todd Gurley 10th overall. He may not be healthy enough to start the season at a high level after last year's torn ACL. Foles has really been a different quarterback in each of his three seasons. We'll see if he can help the Rams reach their potential on offense.
2014 ranking: 2
Buffalo slipped after losing U25 eligibility for Marcell Dareus and Kiko Alonso(who was traded to the Eagles). The good news is that third-round rookie linebacker Preston Brown made Alonso expendable last year with a surprisingly strong performance. Brown leads a young LB corps that also could start Randell Johnson this year behind one of the deepest defensive lines in the league.
Stephon Gilmore won't turn 25 until Sept. 19, so he just makes the cut here as one of the best young cornerbacks in the NFL. Nickell Robey has fittingly been good in the nickel role, and the Bills even drafted cornerback Ronald Darby in the second round. You can never have enough good corners. Safety Duke Williamsstruggles a bit in pass coverage, but the Bills are loaded in so many other places defensively.
The offense still features both starting wide receivers as U25 players: Sammy Watkins and Robert Woods. Watkins was open a lot last year, but 34.4 percent of his targets were deemed uncatchable by game charting, the fifth-highest rate in 2014. Unfortunately, the quarterback situation has not gotten any better, and some of the young offensive line starters have not panned out. Seantrel Henderson was a 16-game rookie starter as a seventh-round pick, but he ranked 34th at his position in snaps per blown block. The Bills should give Cyrus Kouandjio, a 2014 second-round pick, another look at right tackle.
2014 ranking: 16
Not only is Le'Veon Bell the best U25 running back, but if he repeats his 2014 All-Pro performance, he'll vault to the top of the running back ranks. His two-game suspension to the start the season downgrades him ever so slightly this year, but it was incredible to see the improvement Bell made after a less-than-stellar rookie season.
Wide receiver Martavis Bryant was a stellar rookie for the Steelers, catching eight touchdowns in 10 games. He ranked as the NFL's best prospect in our story Wednesday. He's a perfect fit as Ben Roethlisberger's deep threat, and he could do a lot more damage in a full season this year. Markus Wheaton and rookieSammie Coates provide the depth to give the Steelers arguably the best U25 receiving corps in the league -- and that's without Dri Archer and his game-breaking speed being fully implemented into the offense.
Pittsburgh's defense fell to 30th in DVOA last year, the worst rank for the Steelers since at least 1989. New defensive coordinator Keith Butler will have to replace a retired Troy Polamalu with safety Shamarko Thomas, who played three defensive snaps last year. Small rookie cornerback Senquez Golson figured to factor in heavily right away, but he could miss the season after shoulder surgery. Ryan Shazier, last year's first-round pick, expects to be healthier than last year (seven missed games). The Steelers went with another outside linebacker in the first round (Bud Dupree). They hope he'll provide the pass rushJarvis Jones has failed to generate.
2014 ranking: 30
The Giants climbed 24 spots after Odell Beckham Jr. had one of the greatest rookie seasons ever -- in 12 games. There hasn't been this much anticipation over a wide receiver's second season since Randy Moss in 1999. While Beckham gets all the attention, Rueben Randle continued to improve and makes for a solid No. 3 wide receiver behind Beckham and Victor Cruz. Andre Williams actually led the Giants in rushing last year because of injuries to Rashad Jennings, and he's going to be a significant part of this offense in 2015.
First-round rookie Ereck Flowers looks to take over the left tackle job. He joins Justin Pugh and Weston Richburg as recent high draft picks the Giants have invested into the line to protect Eli Manning. Pugh appears to be permanently moving from right tackle to left guard.
Defensively, the cupboard is barer, but safety Landon Collins should be able to start immediately, health permitting. Defensive tackle Johnathan Hankins was very solid in his first year as a starter with 7.0 sacks and an 86 percent run stop rate. Devon Kennard projects as a starting strongside linebacker, but he'll have to prove he can drop into coverage after only five targets last season.
2014 ranking: 3
There's a buzz for the Vikings this year, but they fall on this list for four main reasons. First, Cordarrelle Patterson was one of the most disappointing players of 2014, as he failed to develop at WR as expected. The return of Adrian Peterson diminishes what Jerick McKinnon might do this year. Xavier Rhodes,Blair Walsh and Kyle Rudolph all turned 25.
Finally, there's the case of quarterback Teddy Bridgewater. His rookie season was full of troubling patterns. For one, he had a hard time connecting on the deep balls -- and he didn't throw them that often, relying on a lot of yards after the catch. He ranked 32nd out of 37 quarterbacks in DVOA under pressure. He was the best rookie quarterback out of a bad bunch, but the way he finished 2014 is why he enters 2015 with a lot of hype. He's a wild card, and it's likely the Vikings' 2016 rank in U25 talent will be almost exclusively based on what Bridgewater does this year.
Defensively, Mike Zimmer has some great toys with Anthony Barr, Sharrif Floydand the two rookies likely to make an impact: linebacker Eric Kendricks and cornerback Trae Waynes.
2014 ranking: 20
Carolina made one of the bigger jumps in the rankings this year. One reason? The Panthers have the most honored U25 player in the league. Luke Kuechlyhas two first-team All-Pro selections, two Pro Bowls, a Defensive Rookie of the Year award (2012) and a Defensive Player of the Year (2013) award. He led all defenders with 110 stops last year, defined as tackles or passes defensed which prevent the offense from gaining successful yardage. First-round linebackerShaq Thompson was an interesting pick who should start next to Kuechly this year, but there's not much else to speak of defensively. Cornerback Bené Benwikere and safety Tre Boston have a shot to win starting jobs in a secondary that has undergone a lot of recent turnover.
Andrew Norwell and Trai Turner may be the starting guards, though the offensive line is still a weakness in Carolina. The biggest weakness now is at wide receiver after Kelvin Benjamin tore his ACL. He was great for this offense last year. Rookie Devin Funchess and Corey Brown will be counted on to replace Benjamin's production. That seems unlikely, which is why we moved Carolina down from the top four after Benjamin's injury.
2014 ranking: 22
Like last year, it's hard to rank the Jaguars when they have so much young talent, but lack results. Several of these players wouldn't start for many teams.According to snap-weighted age, the 2014 Jaguars fielded the youngest offense (24.7) since 2006. The results weren't pretty either. Blake Bortles was unable to transfer his preseason success into the games that counted. He failed to surpass 5.7 yards per pass attempt in his last six games. At least the young wide receivers looked like playmakers. Allen Robinson is a favorite in fantasy this year, and he's part of a young trio with Marqise Lee and Allen Hurns. With Cecil Shorts III gone, they all could see their production increase this year.
Rookie T.J. Yeldon could be the workhorse back Toby Gerhart was supposed to be, but Denard Robinson deserves to be the No. 2 RB after several strong games last season. Luke Joeckel has the top draft pedigree along the offensive line, but right guard Brandon Linder charted the best at his position in 2014. Linder ranked third among right guards in snaps per blown block, compared to Joeckel's rank of 24th at left tackle.
The defense thought it was adding a franchise player in Dante Fowler Jr., but sadly the No. 3 pick in the draft tore his ACL on the first day of rookie minicamp in May. We didn't give Jacksonville full credit for the pick even though this was just really bad luck. Some key U25 defenders taking the field this year for Jacksonville include Telvin Smith, Aaron Colvin, Demetrius McCray and Josh Evans.
2014 ranking: 7
The only positive from Jordy Nelson's crushing torn ACL is that the Packers are equipped to overcome that loss. Davante Adams was Green Bay's No. 3 wide receiver, but he can still have 100-yard games because Aaron Rodgers is his quarterback. Now that Adams is the No. 2, we may hear the names Jeff Janisand Ty Montgomery often this year as other U25 wide receivers in Green Bay. We also might see tight end Richard Rodgers take on a bigger role in his second season. Left tackle David Bakhtiari and center Corey Linsley helped to solidify the best (and most melodic) offensive line Rodgers has had yet.
Green Bay has been loading up the secondary and it shows with the U25 collection of safeties Ha Ha Clinton-Dix and Micah Hyde (also good on special teams) and this year's draft choices, cornerbacks Damarious Randall and Quinten Rollins. Linebacker Sam Barrington had 23 stops in limited playing time last year and figures to be a bigger factor with A.J. Hawk gone.
2014 ranking: 15
The Chargers are one of the few teams with their No. 1 wide receiver (Keenan Allen) and No. 1 running back (rookie Melvin Gordon) both under 25. Allen regressed a bit last year after an incredible rookie campaign, but he played through some injuries -- as did Philip Rivers -- and he still has very reliable hands. Gordon should be a favorite for Offensive Rookie of the Year, especially if he can factor into the checkdown game after not doing much receiving in college. Right tackle D.J. Fluker has been moved inside to guard to hide him from edge rushers. His lack of quality play keeps San Diego out of the top 10.
Cornerback Jason Verrett is the best young player on this defense, and we needed only six games last year to see that. If he stays healthy this year he should make for a great cornerback duo with veteran Brandon Flowers. Manti Te'o has been steady enough and rookie inside linebacker Denzel Perryman can lay the wood. Edge rusher is position where the Chargers are searching for just one quality player. Some combination of Melvin Ingram (often injured), Tourek Williams (injured in preseason) and Jeremiah Attaochu (10 career games played) will give it a try this year.
2014 ranking: 21
Let's start with the good stuff. Left guard Joel Bitonio was the real deal as a rookie, ranking seventh in snaps per blown block at his position. First-round pickCameron Erving is unlikely to start this season, but he's there for the long-term plan. Isaiah Crowell, Terrance West and rookie Duke Johnson Jr. combine for a talent-laden trio of running backs. Nose tackle Danny Shelton should be a perfect fit for a defense that had to rotate in a plethora of linemen last year. Christian Kirksey and rookie Nate Orchard provide solid depth at linebacker.
If everything went according to plan, the Browns would be in the top three of this list. But there have been some major problems. We didn't give the Browns any credit for Josh Gordon because he is suspended for the entire 2015 season.Johnny Manziel should be starting over Josh McCown, but that's not the case so far. The early returns on Manziel have not been good either. Barkevious Mingowas drafted sixth overall in 2013, but we're still waiting to see an impact there. And 2014 eighth-overall pick Justin Gilbert should be starting opposite CB Joe Haden, but he has to show more maturity and beat out veteran Tramon Williamsfirst.
That's a lot of high draft picks not panning out so far for the Browns, which is why they are only 12th.
2014 ranking: 31
The Raiders are climbing on potential. It's not crazy to think this team has found its franchise quarterback (Derek Carr), No. 1 wide receiver (rookie Amari Cooper), No. 1 running back (Latavius Murray), No. 1 tight end (rookie Clive Walford) and a very solid left guard (Gabe Jackson). OK, maybe because it's Oakland, it is crazy to think all of these players will work out, but there's more reason for optimism than usual. Carr's rookie season had a lot of warts, but a better team around him should produce better results in Year 2. Cooper was the top wide receiver in the draft. Murray's potential is fascinating, though he's not a workhorse and that 90-yard touchdown run against Kansas City is a huge part of his production and legend. Walford has a shot to be Dwayne Allen-like as a blocker/receiver at tight end. And Jackson ranked second among left guards in snaps per blown block last season.
Then there is the player we're actually confident about living up to the hype. Don't be fooled by Khalil Mack's 4.0 sacks as a rookie. He had a whopping 30.5 quarterback hurries according to Football Outsiders' game charters, but just didn't get there in time for more sacks. Jack Del Rio and Ken Norton should improve the defense this year and get Mack more opportunities to finish plays. He already has shown he can dominate against the run.
2014 ranking: 13
Cody Parkey is the only Pro Bowl kicker in the study, but the Eagles rank 14th thanks to the strength of four very important players: wide receiver Jordan Matthews, linebacker Mychal Kendricks, tight end Zach Ertz and defensive endFletcher Cox. After losing DeSean Jackson and Jeremy Maclin the past two years, this is the first time Chip Kelly doesn't have a clear-cut No. 1 wide receiver in his offense. Matthews had a very good rookie season, but expectations are rising. First-round rookie Nelson Agholor also should command his share of targets in 2015.
Philly's 2014 first-round pick Marcus Smith is still lagging behind at linebacker, but it's a different story for 2015 second-round pick Eric Rowe, a former safety. After losing both starting cornerbacks from 2014, the Eagles brought in Byron Maxwell from Seattle and drafted Rowe 47th overall. The 6-foot-1 rookie should be a Week 1 contributor, ready to match up with the NFL's big receivers.
2014 ranking: 28
Detroit does not get nearly as much attention as Dallas because the players are not all first-round picks, but the Lions have done significant work in rebuilding the offensive line. Travis Swanson is taking over at center after 14 seasons of Dominic Raiola. Larry Warford has met expectations at right guard. Undrafted right tackle LaAdrian Waddle ranked first at his position in snaps per blown block in 2014. If first-round pick Laken Tomlinson beats out Manny Ramirez for the left guard job (or eventually takes over), the Lions will have four U25 starters on the offensive line. Left tackle Riley Reiff, the first piece of the rebuild, is still just 26.
Eric Ebron didn't show a lot last season, but that's not uncommon for rookie tight ends. He expects to be a bigger part of the offense, as does receiving back Theo Riddick, one of three Detroit backs with at least 50 targets in 2014. Second-round pick Ameer Abdullah could even end up leading the team in rushing with Detroit's committee approach.
The defense has a veteran front seven, but No. 1 cornerback Darius Slay, 24, is coming off a strong sophomore season. If Nevin Lawson's foot is healthy, he could lock up the nickel corner job.
2014 ranking: 26
Perhaps more than any other team, we're banking on the potential of Houston's elite U25 talent. DeAndre Hopkins already ascended to a 1,210-yard season despite the quarterback situation last year. With Andre Johnson gone, he might be ready to do more despite the quarterbacks arguably getting worse. He's one of the league's most impressive young wide receivers.
The other big name is, of course, Jadeveon Clowney, the No. 1 overall pick in the 2014 draft. He lasted only 143 defensive snaps before undergoing the dreaded microfracture surgery. We may never see his full potential realized, but the thought of what he can be in a defense with J.J. Watt is still worth dreaming about.
Beyond those two players, the Texans really just have some backup skill guys of note -- running back Alfred Blue, rookie wide receiver Jaelen Strong and tight end C.J. Fiedorowicz. Xavier Su'a-Filo is expected to take over the left guard job. The defense carried the Texans last year and their first two picks in the 2015 draft, cornerback Kevin Johnson and linebacker Benardrick McKinney, have a good shot to play significant roles this season.
2014 ranking: 5
Cincinnati started this year's draft with two offensive tackles for the future, but veterans Andrew Whitworth and Andre Smith should still be the Week 1 starters. We didn't give the Bengals much credit at all for their draft in terms of 2015 value. For the 2014 draft, center Russell Bodine was a good find in the fourth round, but first-round cornerback Darqueze Dennard is still buried on the depth chart going into his second season.
What the Bengals really have going for them is the return of Pro Bowl linebackerVontaze Burfict and the emergence of running back Jeremy Hill, who led the league in rushing after Week 8. Giovani Bernard is still just going on 24 years old, but he's more of the receiving back now. If Burfict can avoid starting the year on PUP after microfracture surgery and Hill gets a heavy workload from Week 1, the Bengals will have two of the best U25 players in the league this year.
2014 ranking: 8
Leonard Williams was a surprising draft pick given the fact that Jets already have Muhammad Wilkerson and Sheldon Richardson as defensive ends in the 3-4 scheme, but Richardson's four-game suspension opens the door for some early Williams returns. We still downgraded the position because of the suspension and post-suspension difficulties in getting all of these linemen functioning together.
The Jets have issues elsewhere, most notably at quarterback. Geno Smith hasn't proved he can be an effective NFL quarterback yet, and apparently he's not winning over every teammate off the field. The supporting cast around Smith was going to be the best yet. Devin Smith is a big-play threat, but he figures to be only a No. 4 wide receiver this year. Tight end Jace Amaro stands to improve on his rookie season, and Zac Stacy was a solid addition to the backfield even if he's only the third-best back on the team.
Safety Calvin Pryor showed some promise as a rookie, but another factor holding back the Jets is the lack of progression from CB Dee Milliner. Even after last year's Achilles injury, the former top-10 pick should be surging ahead as a starter in Year 3, but instead the Jets have gone back to the future with Darrelle Revis and Antonio Cromartie starting at cornerback. Milliner is not even better than nickel back Buster Skrine at this point, and he's also hurt once again (wrist surgery).
2014 ranking: 6
Patrick Peterson's departure from the U25 Club led to one of the bigger falls, but the Cardinals still have a lot of young talent in the secondary. It's just that most of the players are built to play a safety role -- Tyrann Mathieu, Tony Jeffersonand Deone Bucannon. Defensive coordinator Todd Bowles had a good feel for using extra defensive backs last year, but he's gone to coach the Jets so it's hard to say how much the Cardinals will stick to last year's success with pressure. Alex Okafor and Kevin Minter should start in the linebacker corps, and second-round rookie Markus Golden will probably stick to pass-rushing downs.
Offensively, D.J. Humphries can earn a chance to start at right tackle by beating out veteran Bobby Massie. Troy Niklas showed almost nothing at tight end last year, but Bruce Arians has to love his four wide receivers. Anything from Niklas is a bonus this year. (For those wondering, the fine young receiver John Brownturned 25 in April, so he's not part of this ranking.) Running back David Johnsonis Arizona's sleeper. The third-round pick is built to be a power back to complement the speed of Andre Ellington.
2014 ranking: 18
Baltimore struck gold again with linebacker C.J. Mosley last year. He's the centerpiece of the team's U25 talent, but defensive tackle Timmy Jernigan will get his chance to shine this year. He did well when Haloti Ngata was suspended last year and now Ngata has left for Detroit. The middle of the defense is fully represented, but safety Matt Elam has not lived up to expectations. He tore his biceps earlier this summer and is expected to miss the season.
While trusting general manager Ozzie Newsome is easy to do, we'd be higher on Baltimore if it wasn't for the usual difficulties rookie receivers face. Wide receiverBreshad Perriman and tight end Maxx Williams should see plenty of opportunities right away, but this isn't a high-powered offense. Joe Flacco has yet to throw for 4,000 yards in his seven seasons. Expectations for these receivers can't be all that high, but they just need to play efficiently. The other U25 talent includes role players at the skill positions. Lorenzo Taliaferro will spellJustin Forsett. Marlon Brown has decent size at wide receiver, and Michael Campanaro can be effective in the slot.
2014 ranking: 10
A league-high 40.3 percent of Justin Hunter's targets were uncatchable last year. You might think he could benefit greatly from the addition of Marcus Mariota, but Hunter has off-field issues to worry about now. Instead it might be rookie receiver Dorial Green-Beckham getting those targets. Mariota should get some easier underneath throws with veterans Kendall Wright, Delanie Walker andHarry Douglas. All signs point to the former Oregon star starting in Week 1 as most rookie quarterbacks do these days.
Running back Bishop Sankey is expected to get a big workload, but he didn't impress too much last year. The offensive line is very young with Taylor Lewan,Brian Schwenke and Chance Warmack returning as three U25 starters. Rookie third-round pick Jeremiah Poutasi could make it four starters if he wins the right tackle job. Lewan was solid in limited snaps last year, but Warmack hasn't quite lived up to first-round expectations yet. Schwenke ranked 29th among centers in snaps per blown block.
Defensively, two mid-round picks from the 2014 draft should start this year, defensive end DaQuan Jones and linebacker Avery Williamson.
2014 ranking: 9
Last year's high ranking was probably our Lavonte David appreciation shining through. He no longer qualifies along with most of the defense, save for free safety Bradley McDougald, who may take over for a position that has been a problem in recent years.
Offensively, this group all depends on how much you love the Jameis Winston toMike Evans connection. It could be really good with Winston giving his very talented receiver ample chances, or it could turn into a lot of interceptions. Evans also had a strangely uneven season with a monster three-game stretch in the middle. Tight end Austin Seferian-Jenkins and running back Charles Sims likely factor into this year's offense, but neither showed any star quality last year. The offensive line was a mess, but hopefully two premium picks (left tackle Donovan Smith and right guard Ali Marpet) make that situation stronger, or else Winston is in for a very long year.
2014 ranking: 17
Denver would be higher if we ranked only on potential, but there's just too much uncertainty right now. The offensive line could have two U25 starters on the left in tackle Ty Sambrailo and guard Max Garcia, depending on which guard spot the Broncos choose to put Evan Mathis. Shane Ray was a bit of a luxury pick in the first round, but he's not going to have a ton of production this year unlessDeMarcus Ware or Von Miller get injured.
The Cody Latimer bandwagon is intriguing again, but historically Gary Kubiak does not like using three wide receivers. Since 2008, Kubiak's offenses have used three-wide sets on 35.8 percent of plays for an average rank of 29th. Peyton Manning may convince him otherwise, though. What Kubiak always does well is get production from his running backs, so C.J. Anderson should be set up for a huge season in this zone-blocking scheme. His backups, Ronnie Hillman andMontee Ball, aren't bad either, though Anderson is going to be the workhorse. The only other known quantity for Denver is nickel back Bradley Roby, who played starter-quality snaps last year as a rookie.
2014 ranking: 23
Left tackle Eric Fisher improved on his difficult rookie season, but he's still not dominating at the level a No. 1 overall pick should. That's mainly why the Chiefs rank just 24th, because the other U25 offensive talent consists of role players such as De'Anthony Thomas (great return specialist), slot receiver Albert Wilson, rookie receiver Chris Conley and backup running back Knile Davis. If rookie center Mitch Morse wins a starting job, then that raises the profile of this group.
We still don't expect Dee Ford, the team's 2014 first-round pick, to take many snaps away from Tamba Hali or Justin Houston, but he should do more than last year (just 115 snaps played). Phillip Gaines needs to lock down the starting cornerback job opposite of Sean Smith after it was a revolving door last year. Gaines will have to be the team's top cornerback in September given Smith's three-game suspension. First-round rookie cornerback Marcus Peters should push for significant playing time in 2015 as well.
2014 ranking: 14
The 49ers' stunning offseason has led to quite a few job openings, and San Francisco is not devoid of young talent. It's just a group of largely unproven players who will have to step up for rookie head coach Jim Tomsula. Marcus Martin struggled at center as a rookie, ranking 28th at his position in snaps per blown block. Brandon Thomas has yet to play in the regular season, but he could start at left guard this year. Carlos Hyde will take over for Frank Gore, but he didn't show a lot last season. Bruce Ellington had two touchdowns on 12 targets as a rookie, but he'll be expected to do much more as a No. 3 wide receiver.
The 49ers' linebacker corps will greatly miss Chris Borland, who stood out as a rookie before retiring this offseason at age 24. Linebacker Aaron Lynch seemed to have surpassed Ahmad Brooks on the depth chart even before Brooks' recent legal troubles. First-rounder Arik Armstead has a great shot to step in immediately to replace the retired Justin Smith.
San Francisco added safety Jaquiski Tartt in the second round, but that's more of a future replacement for Antoine Bethea, who is still expected to start and limitJimmie Ward's snaps. That's why we downgraded the 49ers a bit for having too many safeties and not enough ways to use them all this year. Eric Reid is the Pro Bowler of the group, but his stops -- plays that prevent the offense from having a successful play based on down and distance -- dropped from 29 as a rookie to 14 last year.
2014 ranking: 24
The Falcons would have been ranked higher had it not been for cornerbackDesmond Trufant turning 25 on the cutoff date (Sept. 10). Second-round cornerback Jalen Collins projects more as a nickel back than a starter this season. Fortunately, Vic Beasley is the next major piece added to Atlanta's defense and the pass-rusher should fare well in Dan Quinn's system.
Offensively, Jake Matthews didn't quite match his pedigree in Year 1 at left tackle, but at least he started 15 games for a line that was ravaged by injuries. The Falcons are counting on better health from Matthews leading to more holes for the young running back duo of Devonta Freeman and rookie Tevin Coleman. Both players have a lot to prove in an offense that has struggled to run effectively in recent years. Otherwise, Atlanta's U25 talent includes backup players such as tight end Levine Toilolo and rookie wide receiver Justin Hardy.
2014 ranking: 19
Wide receiver Brandin Cooks had a solid rookie year, but expectations are much bigger in 2015 with all the losses the Saints have suffered at the skill positions. After stumbling through some growing pains in his first year as starter, Terron Armstead finished 19th among left tackles in snaps per blown block. SafetyKenny Vaccaro was an imposing figure his rookie season, but last year he struggled to make as many plays on the ball. He also went from three missed tackles to 10. None of these three players has yet to complete a full 16-game season.
The Saints had three picks in the first two rounds of the 2015 draft, but it's not a given offensive lineman Andrus Peat or linebacker Stephone Anthony will start in Week 1. Peat has seen work at right tackle (second-team reps) and Anthony projects as a Mike linebacker. Linebacker Hau'oli Kikaha got a big boost when the team released Junior Galette, so he'll likely fill in that role, but that's still a considerable drop in expectations for the Saints on defense.
2014 ranking: 27
Even though the standard of defense hit a new low in Chicago, the Bears still needed offensive help too. Wide receiver Kevin White was a logical addition after trading Brandon Marshall to the Jets, but he just had shin surgery and will miss anywhere from six games to the entire season. Right tackle Jordan Mills has been one of the steadier lineman on the team, and third-round pick Hroniss Grasu could be the center of the future.
The Bears are switching to a 3-4 defense under John Fox, but the defensive line is up in the air. We didn't want to give too much credit to too many of those players because at least one of Will Sutton and Ego Ferguson will get snaps only because of the Ray McDonald fiasco and Jeremiah Ratliff's age. Second-round rookie Eddie Goldman figures to take over at nose tackle. The middle of the defense has been a big problem, and that's where linebacker Jonathan Bostic and safety Brock Vereen have to get better as starters. Cornerback Kyle Fuller had a good early buzz that night Colin Kaepernick threw a pick parade for him, but Fuller finished the season ranked 69th in adjusted success rate in coverage. Fox has done some great defensive turnarounds before, but he has his work cut out for him in Chicago.
2014 ranking: 12
Bryan Stork fared well as a rookie center for the Super Bowl-winning Patriots. He might be paired alongside a familiar face: fourth-round rookie Tre' Jackson, who played guard with Stork at Florida State. With Dan Connolly retiring this offseason, Jackson has little competition to win the left guard job. The offense otherwise has a pretty veteran cast, unless James White is the latest running back to shine for the Patriots. We did give backup quarterback Jimmy Garoppolosome credit in case he's the starting quarterback for a chunk of the season. His mobility makes him a much different type of quarterback than Tom Brady, but you have to figure Bill Belichick will have him ready to play well if necessary.
Several of New England's key defenders just turned 25, hence the drop to 29th. A much retooled secondary should get at least one new U25 starter in cornerback Logan Ryan, who played at least 500 snaps in each of the past two seasons. Safety Jordan Richards was drafted to fill Belichick's quota of second-round defensive backs you never hear good things about. At least that's the concern over the pick, which some scouts feel was a reach.
The Patriots have gone defensive tackle in the first round two years in a row, but look for rookie Malcom Brown to be the Vince Wilfork replacement rather than 2014 first-rounder Dominique Easley.
2014 ranking: 4
No team suffered a bigger drop in the rankings than the Colts. Andrew Luckbarely made the age cut last year, so his removal is the main reason for this fall. The only projected U25 starter for the Colts is Jack Mewhort, who was mediocre as a rookie last year, ranking 25th in snaps per blown block among left guards. He has been working at right tackle this offseason to replace the disappointingGosder Cherilus.
For an offense like the Colts', the secondary wide receivers (Donte Moncrief and first-round rookie Phillip Dorsett) are likely to see a lot of playing time and targets. They round out one of the league's best receiving corps, but the Colts already had one of the best before the Dorsett pick. Acquiring young building blocks for the defense has been a major problem in general manager Ryan Grigson's tenure. Draft experts like the third-round selection of defensive endHenry Anderson, but he may not be ready to make an immediate impact. Third-round cornerback D'Joun Smith projects as a dime back at best for a defense that ranked as the oldest in the NFL last year.
The best hope for an impact defender this year is Jonathan Newsome, who led the Colts with 6.5 sacks last year. But the edge rusher depth chart is pretty crowded, with Robert Mathis, Trent Cole, Bjoern Werner and Erik Walden all seeking playing time.
2014 ranking: 25
The choice of right tackle Brandon Scherff with the fifth overall pick in this year's draft came as a bit of surprise. It became a bit of a concern when he was moved to right guard, which is traditionally not a position you spend such a high pick on.Morgan Moses moved to right tackle, and he was destroyed in his lone start as a rookie against the 49ers last year, allowing five blown blocks and three sacks.
Washington's other U25 talent comes in pairs with question marks. CornerbacksBashaud Breeland and David Amerson ranked 64th and 75th respectively last season in our charting project for adjusted success rate in coverage. The NFC East is a tough division to play in with shaky corners given the wide receiver talent.
With Brian Orakpo gone, the defense needs another pass-rusher to line up opposite Ryan Kerrigan. Trent Murphy (2014) and Preston Smith (2015) are both second-round picks, but who gets the starting job? Murphy only had 8.5 quarterback hurries last year. We split the credit between the players because it's unlikely either will force a healthy Kerrigan to the sideline.
2014 ranking: 32
Lacking talent under 25 isn't such a bad thing when you have plenty of talent between 25 and 30. Seattle has to be last on our list again after Bobby Wagner,Jermaine Kearse and Jeremy Lane all lost their eligibility. That leaves left guardAlvin Bailey and right tackle Justin Britt as the only likely U25 starters in 2015. The offensive line also is considered the weakest link on this Seattle roster. Two U25 role players include Paul Richardson and rookie Tyler Lockett, but this isn't an offense designed to throw many passes to No. 3 and No. 4 wide receivers.
Second-round defensive end Frank Clark was Seattle's first pick in the draft this year, and he may be the best U25 player on the team, but he's unlikely to keepMichael Bennett and Cliff Avril off the field for too long. Jordan Hill came on with 5.5 sacks late in the season, but he's still just a part of the defensive tackle rotation. And Tharold Simon really struggled in the Super Bowl after filling in for Lane at cornerback.
If the Seahawks three-peat as NFC champions, no one will care that they keep ranking 32nd here, but eventually the team does have to start getting more of a return on its draft classes. The way Seattle became such a great contender was mostly with success in the 2010-12 drafts. With teams unable to pay everyone big money because of the salary cap, the draft is crucial for reloading. Even the great teams can't escape that.