Who are the most promising rising stars in the NFL? Nick Shook compiles a roster of the top players under 25 years old heading into the 2023 season.
NOTE: To be eligible, players must be younger than 25 years old on Sept. 7, the day the season kicks off.
A year ago, I would have scoffed at this selection. That's how much progress Lawrence made in one season with Doug Pederson as his head coach. In 2022, Lawrence demonstrated the ability that made him the most prized prospect in the 2021 NFL Draft, throwing for 4,113 yards and a 25:8 TD-INT ratio. He led the Jaguars to their first playoff win since the Sacksonville days. The future will remain bright in Jacksonville for as long as Lawrence is on the roster because he's only going to improve.
NOTE: Eagles quarterback Jalen Hurts, the MVP runner-up last season, will turn 25 one month before the start of the 2023 season, rendering him ineligible for this list.
Yes, I'm aware Taylor had a difficult 2022 season. Injuries and the Colts' offensive dysfunction contributed to the worst campaign of Taylor’s three-year career. That didn’t discourage me from including him here, though. Let’s not forget what he accomplished prior to last season. He’s rushed for 1,100-plus yards twice (including a league-leading 1,811 yards in 2021) and posted 29 rushing touchdowns over his first two seasons. A down year shouldn't wipe all of that away.
Sure, he missed most of his rookie season after suffering an ACL tear, but the football world saw enough from Hall to know he's special. He averaged 5.8 yards per carry in his seven games, scored five total touchdowns, and did so while starting just twice. Had he remained healthy, his greatest competition for Offensive Rookie of the Year would have been his teammate Garrett Wilson, the eventual OROY winner. I believe a healthy Hall likely would have won the award over Wilson, too.
After leading the NFL in receiving yards (1,809) and receptions (128), Jefferson's place on this list is unquestioned. It would have been tough to argue against him even if he had not posted league-best marks in those categories. Now all that's left is to decide how much money the Vikings are going to be forking over to keep him with the team for years to come.
Last season was a down year for Chase, based on the standard he set as a rookie in 2021. A 1,046-yard, nine-touchdown season still isn't anything to scoff at, though. He has now reached 1,000 yards in consecutive campaigns. He did it in 2022 while dealing with a nagging hip injury that cost him four games, yet he still led the AFC North-champion Bengals in receptions and receiving yards. I expect him to be among the game's elites for quite some time.
While I wait for the Falcons to show me the true potential of Kyle Pitts, who made this team a year ago, I’m including a less heralded -- but effective -- tight end in Freiermuth. After an encouraging rookie year, Freiermuth set career-high marks in receptions (63) and receiving yards (732) in 2022. He scored just two touchdowns, but likely would have found the end zone more often with better quarterback play. Freiermuth proved he can be counted on, no matter who is throwing it to him (it should be Kenny Pickett from here on out), and I expect him to be a staple of the Pittsburgh offense for a long time, much like Heath Miller was for Ben Roethlisberger.
A former Ohio State receiver -- Garrett Wilson or Chris Olave, take your pick -- will likely end up here a year from now. As of 2023, though, this spot belongs to Lamb, a highlight-making receiver who took on the responsibility of carrying the Cowboys' receiving corps in 2022. He responded by posting career-high marks in receptions (107), receiving yards (1,359) and receiving touchdowns (nine). Lamb ranked sixth league-wide in receiving yards, proving he's more than just a guy who makes a spectacular grab here and there. He should be in an even better spot this season with more help (e.g., Brandin Cooks) now on the roster.
Wirfs gets the nod here for the second straight year. He went from a first-team All-Pro selection in 2021 to a second-team pick in 2022, but that doesn't affect his standing here much. Despite Tampa Bay's struggles up front last season, Wirfs didn't waver. He turns 25 in January, so he bids this list adieu with a bright future ahead of him.
In the span of a few days in early 1999, two of the NFL's top tackles under 25 years old were born. Thomas arrived first -- he was born on Jan. 22, two days before Wirfs -- but he didn’t earn All-Pro status until last season, as a second-team selection. Brian Daboll's arrival certainly contributed to New York's turnaround, but give Thomas credit for staying dedicated to improving. The results are indisputable. It turns out former Giants GM Dave Gettleman made a good pick when he drafted Thomas in 2020.
No surprise here. Smith has been excellent since he arrived in the NFL two years ago. The Chiefs have remained elite thanks, in part, to the pivotal draft picks that helped them rebuild their offensive line prior to the 2021 season. Of course, having Patrick Mahomes at quarterback helps, too. Smith was one of those picks in 2021 and, as a sixth-round selection (226th overall), he's already exceeded expectations.
Vera-Tucker was playing premier football before he went down with a season-ending triceps tear in 2022. It's no coincidence his injury (in addition to the loss of Breece Hall) almost immediately preceded the Jets’ downturn last season. It appears Vera-Tucker was well worth the first-round pick the team spent on him in 2021.
Hutchinson led all rookies with 9.5 sacks last season. In a typical year, that production probably would earn him Defensive Rookie of the Year honors, but he happened to be part of the same draft class as Jets cornerback Sauce Gardner, who won the award. Hutchinson’s three interceptions further underscore how much of an impact he can have on a game. I can't wait to see what he does in Year 2.
Phillips might fly a bit under the radar, but those who have had a chance to watch him play will likely agree with this choice. With 15.5 sacks in his first two NFL seasons, Phillips is already producing at a level worthy of his draft billing as a first-rounder in 2021. I expect to see him on a number of lists identifying breakout candidates entering 2023, and for good reason.
He didn't register a sack as a rookie, so you might not agree with this pick. That's fine; I believe it will end up proving prescient. Davis was playing an important but understated role for the Eagles last season, occupying blockers and stuffing run lanes. Look no further than Philadelphia’s decision to hit the free-agent wire and sign not one but two veteran defensive tackles to fill the void when the rookie missed time with an ankle injury in the middle of last season. Davis will soon be a household name; I'll take the hat tips then.
Detroit's Alim McNeill fits here, too, but I'm going with Barmore because of how his impact jumps out when I watch him on film. He's an interior havoc-wreaker, making contributions that will never be accurately reflected in his stat line (2.5 sacks in 10 games last season). The Patriots have a gem in Barmore, even if he's often overlooked.
At this point, Parsons is essentially an edge rusher listed as a linebacker, but I'll keep him with the ‘backers for now. He has the rare ability to single-handedly blow up an offense's game plan. He gets after quarterbacks and is athletic enough to cover from sideline to sideline. He's a freak athlete and future Defensive Player of the Year.
With the rise in popularity of sub packages, off-ball linebackers don't get as much love as they once did. The Chiefs' defense doesn't receive as much attention as it deserves, either, leaving players like Bolton in the shadow of Patrick Mahomes. Regardless, Bolton has played like a seasoned veteran since he joined the Chiefs in 2021, ranking second in the league in tackles with a franchise-record 180 last season and making a massive play in Kansas City’s Super Bowl LVII victory.
Gardner's ascension to Defensive Rookie of the Year might have felt tinged with hyperbole. He has a magnetic personality, a cool nickname and a wing sauce deal. But the tape doesn't lie: Gardner was elite in his first NFL season. He should continue play at that level (if not an even higher one) in the years ahead.
The Jaguars’ Tyson Campbell has a strong case to be included here, too (Next Gen Stats metrics certainly back that up). However, I’m going with Surtain. He was Pro Football Focus’ second-highest graded cornerback last season, behind only Gardner. Sure, Surtain recorded just two interceptions, but looking at that stat alone is no way to evaluate defensive backs. He was a first-team All-Pro pick for a reason. Surtain is the real deal.
Hufanga rose from a favorite of tape watchers to a breakout star in 2022, showing the ability to create game-changing takeaways (four interceptions, two forced fumbles) in his first year as a full-time starter. The rest of the NFL took notice of his performance, as he earned a first-team All-Pro nod. He is an established star now, but I have one recommendation: Go back and watch each of his games. Hufanga plays like a heat-seeking missile. He occasionally runs himself off course, but when he connects with his target, it's a spectacular sight.
Hamilton didn't really play a true safety spot for much of 2022, instead finding a role as a jack of all trades for Baltimore. Still, he earned PFF's top defensive grade among safeties, and now he’s stepping into an expanded role. The physical traits that made him a tantalizing prospect coming out of Notre Dame have translated, and it will be interesting to see just how quickly he takes another step in Year 2.
Woolen burst onto the scene at the 2022 NFL Scouting Combine, where he ran a blazing-fast 4.26-second 40-yard dash, which is tied for the fourth-fastest time at the event since 2003. Still, that wasn't enough to rocket him up draft boards last year. Pete Carroll's Seahawks picked him in the fifth round and reaped the benefits. Woolen received a full workload as a rookie, starting every game, and made a name for himself by tying for the league lead in interceptions with six.