Patrick Peterson, Luke Kuechly, Vontaze Burfict are among the best young players in the NFL


(Photo by Christian Petersen/Getty Images)

J.J. Watt was just signed to a six-year, $100-million contract extension that includes $51.876 million guaranteed, but he isn’t on this list, as a player must be less than 25 years old on December 31 to make the cut. Same for Andrew Luck and Russell Wilson. Current rookies are also not eligible for this ranking, so you won’t see names like Jadeveon Clowney or Sammy Watkins either.

But the players you do see are ranked based on overall talent, total production and the likelihood of future production — meaning injury concerns (apologies, Kiko Alonso) and off-field issues (sorry, Josh Gordon) are taken into account, as are Pro Bowl and first-team all-pro selections. Some of the metrics taken into account to gauge performance include Approximate value, Pro Football Focus ratings, Win Probability Added and Expected Points Added.

In other words, this is a ranking of how I would select these players if I were starting a franchise from scratch and would have them for the next several years, not just for the upcoming season.

Agree or disagree with the rankings? Let him know on twitter @ngreenberg.

1. Patrick Peterson, CB,  Arizona Cardinals

The Cardinals gave a five-year contract extension worth $70 million with $48 million guaranteed, making him the highest-paid cornerback in the NFL. Once you factor in the scheme he plays in, it is clear it was well deserved.

2. Luke Kuechly, MLB, Carolina Panthers

The 2012 defensive rookie of the year and 2013 defensive player of the year. Only 11 linebackers in NFL history have accumulated more tackles in their first two seasons than Kuechly (199) and none have more assists (132).

3. Vontaze Burfict, LB, Cincinnati Bengals

Burfict was nominated to the Pro Bowl last season after 115 tackles and 62 assists. He was also ranked by Pro Football Focus as the fourth best run stopper among 4-3 outside linebackers taking at least half  their teams snaps against the run.

4. Robert Quinn, DE, St. Louis Rams

It’s tough to find a better pass rusher in the league (he has 34 1/2 sacks in 47 games, including 19 sacks last season) but  Quinn stopped 36 of 591 running plays by the opposition, 11th best among defensive ends in a 4-3 system playing at least 500 run snaps over the past two years.

5. Lavonte David, LB, Tampa Bay Buccaneers

A first-team all-pro last season after leading all linebackers in Expected Points Added Plus (91.0) and having the third highest Win Probability Added Plus (2.44). In other words, only San Fransisco’s NaVorro Bowman and Buffalo’s Kiko Alonso had more of a positive impact on a team’s record than David.


 

6. Eddie Lacy, RB, Green Bay Packers

The reigning offensive rookie of the year, Lacy finished eighth in rushing yards (1,178) and had 11 total touchdowns. He also induced the fourth most missed tackles on the run.

7. Cordarrelle Patterson, WR, Minnesota Vikings

Recently named one of the NFL’s top open-field threats, Patterson caught 45 passes for 469 yards and four touchdowns in his rookie season. The former Tennessee Volunteer added two more touchdowns off kickoff returns and three more rushing despite starting just six of 16 games.

8. Tyron Smith, T, Dallas Cowboys

According to Pro Football Focus, only Denver’s Orlando Franklin and San Francisco’s Joe Staley, now retired, were better pass blockers last season than Smith.

9. Alshon Jeffery, WR, Chicago Bears

One of the best wide receiver in the NFL last year on go routes, Jeffery is the reason the Bears have the best wide receiver tandem in the league.

10. Robert Griffin III, QB, Washington Redskins

His talent lies somewhere between his 2012 performance, where his 102.4 passer rating earned him the AP offensive rookie of the year award and a Pro Bowl appearance, and last year’s 82.2 passer rating. But this is a quarterback-driven league, and, though his numbers may never again be as prolific as his rookie season, the potential doesn’t get much higher than RGIII’s.

11. Bobby Wagner,MLB, Seattle Seahawks

Wagner played 94.7 percent of the snaps for the best defense in the league on the team that won the Super Bowl. A tackling machine with exceptional rush skills and underrated coverage ability makes Wagner one of the best linebackers in the game.

12. Dontari Poe, NT, Kansas City Chiefs

A proven run stopper, Poe was only one of three interior defensive linemen with at least 40 tackles and four sacks last season.

13. Keenan Allen, WR, San Diego Chargers

The Chargers got tremendous value from their third-round investment in Allen, who caught 71 passes for 1,046 yards and eight touchdowns in his rookie season.

14. Eric Reid, FS, San Francisco 49ers

The 49ers traded up 13 spots to grab the former LSU Fighting Tiger in the 2013 draft. Reid overcame two concussions on his way to creating six turnovers (four interceptions and two fumble recoveries) plus earned a trip to the Pro Bowl.

15. Giovani Bernard, RB, Cincinnati Bengals

Bernard ran for 695 yards and five touchdowns as a rookie last year, earning him the third highest running back rating from the game charters at Pro Football Focus.

16. David Bakhtiari, T, Green Bay Packers

This “gym rat” started all 16 games for the Packers as a rookie and allowed just eight sacks, four hits and 27 hurries over 648 offensive plays. With quarterback Aaron Rodgers making it clear that he will not change his style of play after last year’s fractured collarbone, Bakhtiari protecting his blind side becomes all the more important.

17. Larry Warford, G, Detroit Lions

Warford was solid on the right side of the offensive line for Detroit, showing “strength to maul at the line of scrimmage and possesses the hand strength and movement to keep defenders off his body.” He lined up for 668 offensive plays and did not allow a single sack.

18. Chandler Jones, DE, New England Patriots

Jones registered 17 1/2 sacks in his first two seasons, and ranked seventh last year with 11 1/2, making New England one of 14 teams with two players (Rob Ninkovich) with at least eight sacks.

19. Travis Frederick, C, Dallas Cowboys

Fans and pundits raised some eyebrows when Frederick was taken in the first round of 2013 draft, but he allowed just four sacks and two hits on quarterback Tony Romo over 630 passing plays as a rookie.

20. Alec Ogletree, LB, St. Louis Rams

Ogletree shined during his rookie campaign, receiving all-rookie team honors for 95 tackles and six forced fumbles plus a 98-yard interception return. He was stellar against the run, making 28 stops on 407 plays, 7th highest among the 93 outside linebackers in a 4-3 defensive scheme.

21. Chance Warmack, OG, Tennessee Titans

The franchise had not taken a guard in the first round since 1983 but choose Warmack 10th overall in the 2013 NFL Draft. He started every game at right guard even though he started the final 40 games with Alabama at left guard, and while  Warmack did allow seven sacks last season, he still has a lot of upside.

22. Le’Veon Bell, RB, Pittsburgh Steelers

Bell missed the first three games of his rookie season, but finished with 244 carries for 860 yards and eight touchdowns. However, an arrest on charges of marijuana possession and a DUI plus a bevy of suspensions handed down by the league does cast a shadow on his NFL future.

23. Sheldon Richardson, DE, New York Jets

Richardson produced 101 tackles (11 tackles for loss), 3 1/2 sacks plus four hits and 24 quarterback hurries in his rookie season. He also had the fifth highest run stop percentage (9.8 percent) among the 26 defensive ends in a 3-4 scheme lining up for at least 50 percent of their team’s snaps.

24. Kenny Vaccaro, SS, New Orleans Saints

He made 62 solo tackles and assisted on 17 others while playing 81.2 percent of team’s defensive snaps (792 of 975 snaps). When in coverage, he allowed just two touchdowns and 100 yards after the catch over 413 passing downs.

25. Olivier Vernon, DE, Miami Dolphins

Vernon recorded 11 1/2 sacks and 46 solo tackles last season and led the team’s DEs with 21 stops against the run.

Neil Greenberg analyzes advanced sports statistics for the Fancy Stats blog and prefers to be called a geek rather than a nerd.
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