Which team has the best young core in the NFL? The answer to this question won’t directly determine the winner of the next Super Bowl, but these rankings will provide some insight into the clubs positioned best to succeed on offense over the long-term, and there’s nothing better than being a perennial contender in this league.
So you know I’m not labeling “young” arbitrarily, regardless of talent, to be considered for these rankings teams must have:
- A starting QB entering no later than his fifth NFL season.
- Receivers and tight ends entering no later than their fourth NFL season.
- Running backs entering no later than their third season
The thought behind the distinction between quarterbacks and skill-position players is simply based on positional shelf life. Quarterbacks can play well into their second decade in the NFL. Offensive skill-position players? Not so much. Therefore, I’ll still consider a fifth-year quarterback “young.” The same goes for a fourth-year receiver or tight end and a third-year running back.
Some players listed below are not in line to be full-time players but are still listed based on how I envision their futures unfolding in the NFL. Lastly, having a “young,” currently starting quarterback weighed more than anything when deciding whether a team was to be included in these rankings or not. And, lastly, these cores aren’t guaranteed to stay together — mostly due to salary cap reasons — but let’s break down which clubs, theoretically, are best set up to flourish on offense for a long time.
Had to squeeze the Cardinals onto this list because of the young talent that roster has right now. Murray was good for a rookie quarterback who entered the league with one year of collegiate experience. His high-end plays were outstanding. He needs to be more consistent. Kirk has never lived up to his second-round draft status but is serviceable. As a rookie last year, Johnson caught 21 passes as a sixth-round pick.
Then there’s Isabella, the small, amazingly fast wideout Kliff Kingsbury and Steve Keim picked in the second round in 2019 who had a hard time getting on the field as a rookie. Despite his lack of playing time, he did score an 88-yard touchdown and had a 55-yard reception. Don’t pigeon-hole him into a slot-only role — Isabella ran 4.31 at the combine. I have no idea how and/or why Benjamin lasted until the seventh round in April. He was a productive, feature back for multiple years at Arizona State, caught 77 passes in his final two years there and crushed his combine workout. He’s the future of the running back spot for the Cardinals.
10. Washington Football Team
Haskins has a long way to go before he looks like a future franchise quarterback for Washington, which factors into the lower ranking for this team. McLaurin looks like a future star at receiver — he wins in every way imaginable and has blistering 4.35 speed.
After him, Washington’s offensive skill-position group is mired in uncertainty. Gandy-Golden is a ferocious rebounder, although he might struggle separating at the NFL level. Sims is a slippery slot receiver, and Sprinkle made a small collection of plays down the stretch but averaged just 9.2 yards per catch in 2019. Gibson is the X-factor because there’s just so much we don’t know about him. At Memphis, he was barely involved in the offense — just 77 touches in two seasons — but averaged 11.2 yards per rush and 19.0 yards per reception. Oh, and he has 4.39 speed at a rock-solid 6-0 and 228 pounds.
Minshew played well beyond his years and draft status as a rookie and was awesomely connected to Chark. In his second NFL season, Chark eclipsed the 1,000-yard plateau and demonstrated better route running than he ever did at LSU and thrived in jump-ball situations. At nearly 6-foot-3 with 4.34 speed, Chark has massive upside. For some reason, after a rookie year with 42 grabs for 748 yards — 17.8 yards per — Cole was phased out of Jacksonville’s offense. The big-play talent hasn’t subsided. He needs to be a larger part of the offense in 2020. Westbrook has established himself as a reliable, underneath chain-mover.
Shenault is phenomenally talented, and if he can stay on the field, he’ll flourish as a YAC-based wideout for Minshew. While Johnson never really improved in college at Texas, he plays to every inch of his 6-6 frame. This group is missing a promising young back.
We haven’t seen Burrow play in the NFL yet, but I have hunch he’s going to be good. Heck, everybody thinks that. His precision to all levels, calm play under pressure, and athleticism as a scrambler indicate he has the exact, advanced skill set to have instant impact at the game’s most vital position.
And outside of A.J. Green and Tyler Boyd, Burrow finds himself with a collection of youthful playmakers in Cincinnati’s offense. Tate flashed ridiculous rebounding skills in 2019 before injury and is the frontrunner to be the offensive MVP of training camp for the Bengals, per ESPN’s Ben Baby. Higgins has a Tate-sized catch radius and deceptive YAC skills. While he’s already drifted deep into bust territory, Ross averaged 18.1 yards per grab in 2019 but seemingly can’t dodge the injury bug. I don’t have much optimism for Sample ever becoming a high-end player at his position because he wasn’t much of a receiving threat at Washington. The No.1 tight end spot is his for the taking though, and one would assume Cincinnati will give him every opportunity to succeed after taking him in Round 2 last year.
When healthy, Wentz is one of the most gifted quarterbacks in the league. He’s proven that. And after a disastrous year at the receiver position — due to injury and ineffective play from starters — the Eagles went berserk adding wideouts this offseason. In the backfield, Sanders is primed to be one of the best young backs in the league after what he showcased as a multi-faceted threat as a rookie.
Reagor has loose hips and blazing downfield speed, plus, he high points the football like he’s well over 6-foot. Hightower is another vertical monster who glides like a gazelle at 6-1 and 190 pounds. Watkins has the most impressive timed speed of the bunch. He ran 4.35 at the combine and was primarily utilized on downfield routes at Southern Mississippi. Ward, a converted quarterback, flashed as a receiver late last season, and I’m not ready to quit Arcega-Whiteside, who has an argument for the best contested-catch wideout I’ve scouted after Mike Evans. Goedert rounds out the group as a reliable, athletic pass-catching tight end who move people as an in-line blocker. The Eagles have gobs of young — but mostly unproven — targets for Wentz.
Mahomes is truly a transcendent quarterback talent — the first of that rare kind since Aaron Rodgers — so his presence alone gets the Chiefs on this list. Edwards-Helaire is an ideal fit as a pass-catching, in-space specialist for Andy Reid’s system. Thompson is another small, compact receiving back with suddenness who theoretically could be a productive backup to CEH this season.
Hardman doesn’t have the agility of Tyreek Hill and is a tick slower, yet severely threatens a defense with 4.33 speed. As a rookie, the former Georgia star had four touchdowns of more than 40 yards. Hill and Travis Kelce are the horses in this offense, but the Chiefs have begun to plan for the future with Mahomes signed to a decade-long contract.
Yes, Danny Dimes’ squadron lands just ahead of the Mahomes-led Chiefs. Jones surprised me in his rookie year. He held up better and made more pinpoint throws downfield than I expected he would and worked the short, quick game very well at times. Right now, this team is buoyed by Golden Tate and Sterling Shepard at receiver — Slayton represents the future with his 4.39 speed at 6-1. The fellow rookies generated a productive rapport in 2019, and exactly 25% of Slayton’s 48 receptions last year went for 20 or more yards. Pretty darn good.
Barkley, of course, still has best-back-in-the-league potential, and when healthy, Engram is one of the more dangerous, YAC tight ends in the NFC. It’s a smaller core than some of the other teams on this list, but I like the running back-receiver-tight end dynamic Jones has with the Giants.
Hating on Goff is so in right now, and while he certainly regressed last season — the regression actually started in the Super Bowl loss — he’s still a highly talented passer in a QB-friendly system with a brilliant offensive head coach in Sean McVay. Oh, and he’s not 26 until October.
Beyond the too-old-for-these-rankings Robert Woods, Kupp is a proven commodity in the Rams offense and only entering his fourth season in the NFL. Reynolds can flash at times, I don’t know if he’s ready to fill in for the departed Brandin Cooks. There’s plenty to like about Jefferson’s game — he’s a dazzling route runner and knows how to combat press at the line — he just wasn’t a big stat-creator in college and is returning from a broken foot he suffered during the pre-draft process. Everett is a freaky athlete for the tight end spot, and I really loved the receiving intricacy Hopkins demonstrated during his time at Purdue. As for Akers, he was my RB2 in the 2020 class thanks to his natural elusiveness, bounce in his thick, lower half and breakaway, 4.47 speed, he’s the complete package. Rather quietly, the Rams have a fun young core on offense.
The reigning MVP is the real needle-mover here, of course, and I like the group Baltimore GM Eric DeCosta has assembled around him. Dobbins is a glorious fit in Greg Roman’s power-based scheme. He’s built low to the ground with springy steps and a well-rounded skill set. Brown isn’t as complete of a player but has electric downfield play-making skill and is apparently up to 180 after playing in the 150s (!) as a rookie, per ESPN’s Jamison Hensley. We all know how good of a pass-catching tight end Andrews is, and he’s only turning 25 in a few weeks.
As for the other members at the No. 3 spot — Boykins has two rockets for legs. He ran 4.42 at the combine last year, and had a broad and vertical in the 98th and 99th percentile at the receiver position respectively. And he did all that at nearly 6-4 and 220 pounds. The production never matched his explosiveness at Notre Dame, and that very well may be the case in the NFL, but the potential is sky high. Duvernay is a rare, faster than quick — yes, you read that right — slot wideout who will stretch the field from that inside position with his 4.39 speed, and he tracks it naturally downfield. Proche is the least springy of the group yet provides the most complete skill set — route-running savvy, YAC skills, and a tremendous catch radius for being a smaller wideout.
Prescott threw for 4,902 yards with 30 touchdowns and 11 picks last season, and now he has another explosive weapon at his disposal in Lamb. There are a fair amount of teams who’d sign up for this core as their complete unit, not just a “young one.” Gallup went over 1,000 yards in 2019 and can do it all. So can Lamb, my WR1 in the 2020 class.
Pollard intrigues me because he’s situated behind a high-paid bellcow back but flashed more juice than Zeke Elliott last season. Not to say Pollard is a better back than Zeke. He’s not. But it’ll be fascinating to watch how much Kellen Moore decides to utilize the second-year runner in 2020 to lighten Zeke’s workload after Pollard averaged 5.3 yards per carry a season ago. Jarwin is a breakout candidate too given how dynamic he can be off the line. If Prescott is extended, the Cowboys have outstanding long-term viability at the offensive skill positions.
Giddy. Up. It won’t just be Denver’s thin air that’ll test the conditioning of secondaries of Broncos’ opponents. Denver is fast on offense. Really fast. Jeudy’s a 4.45 guy. Hamler probably would’ve run in the high 4.3s at the combine. Fant ran 4.50 at 249 pounds. Albert O, Lock’s buddy from Missouri, clocked in a 4.49 at 258 pounds a few months ago. Even Sutton, the most complete receiver on the roster, ran 4.54 at nearly 6-4 and 218 pounds in 2018.
And Denver’s receiving group is filled with unique talents. We know Lindsay is a capable, lightning-quick back who runs with more aggression than most 5-8, 190-pound ball carriers. The Broncos, and Lock, are set up amazingly to be very dangerous on offense for a very long time.