Which NFL Teams Have the Most Young Talent?
In a league with salary limitations that force teams to make tough financial decisions each offseason, the league-wide push seems to be for younger, cheaper players who have the ability to do everything from rounding out depth charts to competing at a Pro-Bowl level. With personnel decisions leaving talented but overpriced veterans jobless more than ever before, the bulk of teams are counting on youth to carry them to the promised land.
A youthful roster is no longer synonymous with a rebuilding one. Rookies are now expected to step into starting roles more and more each year so the core veterans can consume the lion’s share of the salary cap.
So, in order to determine which rosters have the most talent, a cutoff needed to be established. Players who entered the NFL in 2012 or later define a "young player" for the purpose of this exercise.
After all, in today’s NFL, a player in his fourth year is considered an experienced veteran entering the prime years of his career.
In order to find out which teams are stacked with the best young talent, it required a rather extensive basis for comparison.
Using the research from my scouting database built up over the years, I was able to establish a familiarity with these younger players from their tape in college—such as rookies who have yet to accumulate any NFL playing time.
NFL production was also factored in along with predraft scouting analysis using the positional grades per Pro Football Focus (subscription required). Even a player's overall physical potential was considered thanks to a database ranking three years worth of draft classes. All of these elements were then combined to generate a point system to rank the young talent of all 32 NFL teams.
In the end, the teams that made this slideshow stood out as having the best young talent in the league.
New England Patriots
The Patriots may have one of the most talented rosters of young players in the league, but they also have established a well-balanced team in terms of young and old.
Though Tom Brady is in the twilight of his career, this organization is certainly built to last.
New England has built an arsenal of talent that includes Chandler Jones, the most productive defensive end taken since 2012. Last year Jones had a career-high 11.5 sacks.
Dont’a Hightower is another name on the defensive side of the ball who has established himself as a rising star. Hightower has proven his worth with versatility and power at the linebacker position, which is ideal for the multiple defensive fronts the Patriots like to run.
Another versatile linebacker who could end up being one of the best in the NFL is Jamie Collins. Not only is Collins one of the most physically gifted players drafted in the last three years, but he is also an extremely talented football player who is learning fast. His performance in the playoffs last year has caught the attention of the entire football nation.
B/R's Michael Schottey seems to agree that Collins is the real deal.
Rookie defensive lineman Dominique Easley was a calculated risk in the latter part of the first round. His film was one of the most impressive tapes I’ve seen from an interior lineman but was drafted later because of a history of knee problems. If he can stay healthy, the Pats could have yet another Pro Bowl addition to this defense.
With that said, Easley will likely take it slow his rookie year as he continues to recover from knee surgery which kept him from all the predraft workouts.
This organization also managed to add great value in the later rounds with recent picks like safety Tavon Wilson and cornerbacks Logan Ryan and Alfonzo Dennard.
If wideouts like Aaron Dobson, Kenbrell Thompkins and Josh Boyce can step up, Tom Brady should be able to distribute the ball with relative ease as they put up some big-time passing yards in 2014. Last year, this young group struggled as they tried to learn the speed of the game.
Expect this unit to look more efficient this time around.
The Patriots appear ready for both the present and the future as they continue to represent a model organization on all levels.
Although things are not looking good for Josh Gordon after his recent arrest for a DWI, he is still a member of the roster (at least for now) and one of the most talented young stars in the NFL. In 2013, his 1,646 receiving yards led the league despite him missing the first two games due to a suspension.
Hopefully Gordon gets the help he needs to sort out his off-field issues.
But there's much more on the horizon for the Browns roster with guys like linebacker Barkevious Mingo and cornerback Justin Gilbert to anchor the defense. Even under-appreciated rising stars like defensive lineman Billy Winn, CB Jordan Poyer and defensive tackle John Hughes are primed to make a real impact in the coming years.
As for a potential steal among this year's crop of rookies, keep an eye on fourth-round cornerback Pierre Desir out of the small school known as Lindenwood.
Offensively, Johnny Manziel may be the franchise quarterback they've longed for but could never find. Without a single snap of pro football to his name, Manziel has been anything but boring.
Offensive tackle Mitchell Schwartz is entering his third year in the league and has already established himself as one of the best young tackles in the nation.
Finally, with a receiving corps sure to be thinned out by Gordon's pending suspension, Travis Benjamin is a promising young player who has the potential to really step into a bigger role this year.
Don’t expect the Super Bowl champs to relinquish their crown without one heck of a fight in the coming years. This roster is loaded from the top down with a large inventory of promising individuals.
Quickly establishing himself as one of the best quarterbacks in the NFL, Russell Wilson has defied the odds en route to stardom.
Having one of the most talented rosters of young talent without a first-round draft pick in the last two years is quite an accomplishment. Pete Carroll and the rest of the coaching staff are certainly doing a lot of things right.
Running back Christine Michael is one of the most physically gifted athletes to come along in years and was drafted by Seattle in the second round last year. Expect a much bigger role for Michael in 2014 as he helps to take some pressure off Marshawn Lynch.
Their last first-round pick was Bruce Irvin, who has flashed a lot of promise at times. His athletic upside is scary.
J.R. Sweezy and Michael Bowie are slated for starting roles on the offensive line this year and are each off to promising starts to their careers. Both guys played decently in 2013 given their limited experience. They were both graded on the high end of all players with at least two years in the NFL, per PFF (paid site).
A key contributor to the defense, especially in the front seven, is linebacker Bobby Wagner. Wagner has put up big numbers in his brief career and has proven to be an amazing steal in the late second round of the draft.
One guy who could be a surprise after going undrafted is the rookie linebacker from Texas, Jackson Jeffcoat. Jeffcoat had a productive collegiate career and was one of the more physically gifted prospects of 2014. Don’t be surprised if Jeffcoat makes the final roster cut despite a stacked list of talent within the organization.
Turning our attention to the NFC East, we have the new-look Eagles who have inherited some talented young players starting with the surprise emergence of quarterback Nick Foles. Foles led the NFL in 2013 with a 119.2 passer rating. In a quarterback class that saw Andrew Luck, Robert Griffin III, Russell Wilson and Ryan Tannehill, Foles is often the forgotten name.
As a supporting cast, few teams are as physically gifted as the Eagles. Rookie receiver Jordan Matthews is a tall speedy target who has been turning heads this offseason. Offensive tackle Lane Johnson is the highest ranked lineman in my scouting database in three years in terms of overall athletic potential. Mychal Kendricks is another freakish specimen with the explosion and speed to cover sideline to sideline.
Third-year defensive linemen Vinny Curry and Fletcher Cox are still trying to adjust to the new 3-4 system but are coming along strong. Cox is a name to watch for this year as a player on the rise.
Tight end Zach Ertz should thrive with a bigger role in Chip Kelly’s high-octane offense. He showed some potential last year and is a guy seated in the perfect situation.
Cornerback Brandon Boykin has emerged as a star on this defense while former QB-turned-outside-linebacker Marcus Smith should prove to be a formidable pass-rusher. Boykin finished the year with six interceptions, which was tied for second-most in the NFL to Richard Sherman's eight.
If Jordan Matthews and Josh Huff can carry the load in the passing game, this team has the potential to be dominant in the years to come.
It's hard to argue against the idea that the Bengals have established one of the most talented young rosters in the NFL over these last few years. As a result, the Bengals managed to win 11 games in 2013 on their way to a division title in the tough AFC North.
One of the most exciting young players to keep an eye on this season will be tight end Tyler Eifert. Eifert was the Bengals' first-round pick in 2013 and has the athleticism to be a real star in this league. Pair him up with rising stars Giovani Bernard and rookie running back Jeremy Hill and you should have a dangerous trio of attack options between the hashes.
Vontaze Burfict is an undrafted inside linebacker who has established himself as one of the best in the NFL. He’ll be joined by this year’s first-round selection corner Darqueze Dennard out of Michigan State.
Dennard is one of the most promising young cornerbacks taken this year and should provide this defense with a ton of depth in the secondary.
Safety George Iloka is a tall physical specimen for the position which helps him when matching up against taller receivers and tight ends.
Athletically gifted youngsters have become a common theme throughout Cincy’s roster. Players such as Marvin Jones, Mohamed Sanu and Margus Hunt are all elite specimens with ideal measurables for the NFL.
Even the Bengals offensive line is loaded with blossoming stars between guard Kevin Zeitler and center Trevor Robinson.
On paper, the youth on this roster gives the Bengals a very bright-looking future.
Ryan Riddle is an NFL Featured Columnist for Bleacher Report. Before B/R, Ryan played for the Raiders, Jets, Falcons and Ravens. Follow him on Twitter.