Youthful talent is always the name of the game when it comes to being successful in professional sports, and that especially reigns true in the sport of football. The likes of Christian McCaffrey, Saquon Barkley, Josh Jacobs, Kyler Murray, Nick Bosa, Jaire Alexander, and a whole plethora of others are helping bring the NFL to its next level, creating even more interest for the next generation of fans.
Now even though sports are all practically on hold due to the ongoing pandemic that is stopping most things around the world, the future still looks very bright for the NFL. Their 2020 NFL Draft took on a fully-digital tone this year, helping bring a sense of hope and positivity into the living rooms of fans everywhere, and the virtual offseason program looks to be in full effect for teams, as they are able to start to prepare for a regular season that as of right now is still on and set for its normal start date.
With that in mind, let’s take a look at the best defensive players 25 years old or younger that are primed to be the next generation of talent for the NFL.
DT – Kenny Clark (24), Ed Oliver (22)
Back in the 2016 NFL Draft, the Green Bay Packers made defensive tackle Kenny Clark the 27th overall selection in the first round, and the UCLA product joined the NFL at the ripe age of 20 years old, putting him on the fast track to being a dominating force in the league.
Now going into his fifth season, and Clark has become one of the best interior presences in the entire league, earning berths in the Pro Bowl and becoming a wrecking ball in the teeth of the defensive line. The fact that he is only 24, has been in the league for four seasons, and has played in all but four games speaks to his durability, his game-changing abilities, and his willingness to get dirty in the trenches and not put up stat sheet-worthy numbers.
Clar is in line for a huge contract extension from Green Bay as he enters his final season of his rookie deal with the team, and he has positioned himself to become the league’s next DT star and to get paid like one too.
For Ed Oliver, going to the Buffalo Bills at the ninth overall pick in last year’s draft, he joined an already-formidable front seven for the Bills, and put together a five-sack rookie year, pretty impressive numbers for the former Houston Cougar. While not on the level of dominance that Clark is, Oliver is two years younger than Clark and has a huge ceiling to grow into moving forward.
DE – Bradley Chubb (23), Nick Bosa (22), Myles Garrett (24), Brian Burns (22)
With this dominant quartet of defensive ends, Myles Garrett takes the cake for best player but not the most likable player, as seen in his on-field disaster with Mason Rudolph of the Pittsburgh Steelers. Regardless of that situation, Garrett has produced seven-plus sacks in all three years in the league, topping out at 13.5 in 2018.
After suffering a season-ending ACL tear in Week 4 of the 2019 season, Denver Broncos DE Bradley Chubb is looking to rebound this year and put the injury bug behind him. In his monster rookie year, the former North Carolina State product put up 12 sacks, two forced fumbles, and 60 total tackles across a full season, painting a very clear picture of how dominant he truly can be.
The youngest Bosa twin in the league, Nick Bosa was a member of the vaunted 49ers front that traded away DeForrest Buckner this offseason to Indianapolis. While the lack of Buckner as an interior force will put more pressure on Bosa to perform, his nine sacks in his rookie year, along with an interception and two fumble recoveries, should be enough to justify him being included in the next crop of defensive superstars.
The final entrant in the DE category is Brian Burns, who was taken in the same draft as Bosa, and has come on as the premier pass rusher for the Panthers, as seen by his 7.5 sacks in Year One. Undergoing a rebuild currently, Burns can be seen as a building block for that team moving forward under new head coach Matt Rhule.
OLB/EDGE – Leighton Vander Esch (24), Roquan Smith (23), Josh Allen (22), Devin Bush (21)
The Dallas Cowboys have one of the best linebacking cores in the entire league, headlined by 24-year-old stud Leighton Vander Esch, who made a name for himself as the do-it-all LB at Boise State. The former Bronco had a neck injury that ended his ‘19 season after nine games, but his rookie season the year prior saw Vander Esch make a name for himself to the tune of 140 tackles and two interceptions alongside fellow youngster LB Jaylon Smith.
Moving to the NFC North, Bears linebacker Roquan Smith is the bookend opposite Khalil Mack on that tough front seven for Chicago, and he has made 223 tackles, seven sacks, and two interceptions in his brief two-year career so far in the league. As a tackling machine, he is able to help track down plays and is a great compliment to the skillset that Mack brings to the table as well.
Moving to the AFC, Josh Allen of the Jaguars topped off his rookie year with a Pro Bowl appearance, which was much deserved after his 10.5-sack season, and the Kentucky product looks primed to be the next big thing on the JAX DL.
Seen as a slight reach when selected 10th in the ‘19 draft, Pittsburgh’s Devin Bush lived up to the hype in his rookie season with 109 tackles, and looks to be yet another solid LB in the Steelers’ system.
MLB – Darius Leonard (24), Myles Jack (24)
The South Carolina St. product that is Darius Leonard has become a household name overnight in the NFL, amassing 120+ tackles in each of his first two seasons, including 163 and five sacks his rookie year. Leonard looks to be the player that may end up being the best at his craft on this entire list in a few years.
Myles Jack has overcome some injury concerns to produce a very solid NFL career so far, and teaming up with Joe Schobert in Jacksonville will continue to make that defense even better as the year goes on.
CB – Marshon Lattimore (23), Jaire Alexander (23), Shaquill Griffin (24)
Marshon Lattimore has proven to be the best at his craft in the league, continually shutting down opposing no. 1 options all while earning less and less attention from opposing offenses during the game. By shying away from throwing his way, Lattimore is able to prove his dominance in the game at such a young age.
Jaire Alexander represents a sense of swagger brought into the league, and all he has helped do for Green Bay is right the ship in their secondary, becoming a stud at corner and earning the role of shutting down top receivers all across the league, and that will continue for many more years.
Shaquill Griffin has gone from third-round UCF pick to NFL star-in-the-making practically overnight for the Seahawks, and the Shaquill-Shaquem Griffin brother pairing has brought a renewed life to the once-vaunted Seattle defense.
S – Jamal Adams (24), Derwin James (23), Minkah Fitzpatrick (23)
Safety seems to be taking over the league as the next sexiest position on defense to play, and Jamal Adams, Derwin James, and Minkah Fitzpatrick all seem to have that role on lock in their NFL careers.
Amidst trade rumors, Adams has consistently proven time and time again that the Jets would be dumb to trade him from the Big Apple, especially when he puts up All-Pro seasons and Pro Bowl nods – while the Jets can make questionable decisions, trading the best under-25 safety would be one of their worst.
For James, he was taken by a team that was desperate for a defensive identity, and he has delivered – and then some. The former FSU product has become a force wherever he plays on the field, from in the box to safety, from the boundary to the line of scrimmage – James has helped redefine the term ‘safety.’
For Fitzpatrick, he was traded from the Miami Dolphins to the Pittsburgh Steelers, and he has lifted the play of the Steelers defense immediately, showing that while MIA did what they felt was right, he will be one of the more dominant young defensive forces in the league wherever he goes.