NFL'S TOP UNDER-25 TALENT:
In the translated words of Scottish poet Robert Burns, "The best laid schemes of mice and men often go awry." Such was the case with last year's ranking of the 32 NFL teams according to their assembly of talent 25 years old or younger. Five of our top 10 teams (Carolina, Cleveland, Denver, Detroit and Houston) had their seasons irreparably derailed by injury. The good news, however, is that three of the other five (Atlanta, Baltimore and Kansas City) finished 2010 with a combined record of 35-13. Therefore, barring unpredictable events like the reigning sack champion suffering a season-ending training camp injury for the first time in the free-agency era, we're confident this is a worthwhile endeavor.
In developing this year's rankings, we focused mainly on factors we could quantify. Among these factors were:
• The number of games in 2010 started by players under the age of 25
• Whether or not a team's young starters last season were simply injury replacements
• The number of 25-or-younger first-team All-Pros that a team has on its roster
• The extent to which a team's 25-and-under talent plays impact positions in the passing game
• Whether or not a team has a talented, young quarterback
• The amount of value a team added in the 2011 draft
• A team's recent track record of developing and retaining young talent
Once we had our objective rankings, discussion amongst the crew at Football Outsiders tweaked the list, and resulted in the final version that you see here.
As you peruse our rankings, you'll notice several themes. First, for a variety of reasons, many teams have seen big changes in their rankings. Indeed, comparing the two years, the average change is approximately nine spots. Second, we can't resist talented young quarterbacks. Third, several teams were incredibly difficult to evaluate. Finally, we had an unexpected visit from a Super Bowl champion of the past.
Without further ado, here are our organizational rankings for this season (Note: All ages are as of Sept. 8, 2011).
32. New York Jets
The Jets may have been an 11-win team in 2010, but those 11 wins were courtesy of a starting lineup almost entirely composed of players who will be 26 or older in 2011. The obvious exception, of course, is Mark Sanchez, who happens to play the most important position on the field. It should be said, however, that Sanchez finished 2010 as the 18th-most valuable quarterback according to our DYAR metric, behind several other signal-callers of similar age. Therefore, the extent to which quarterback is the most important position for the Jets, specifically, is debatable.
Aside from Sanchez, left guard Matt Slauson was the only other young player to start double-digit games last season. Having chosen five-technique defensive end Muhammad Wilkerson with its only pick in the first two rounds, New York also didn't use April's draft to add much in the way of young talent at impact positions.
31. Dallas Cowboys
The loss of Tony Romo most impacted the Cowboys' fortunes last season, but their dearth of 25-and-under talent will have a much bigger impact in the long run. With a relatively healthy season outside of Romo's injury, Dallas still had a total of only 30 games started by young talent, 40 percent of which were courtesy of tight end Martellus Bennett. Felix Jones, Dez Bryant and first-round pick Tyron Smith are poised to become full-time starters in 2011, so that total should increase. However, if Smith, who played right tackle at Southern California, doesn't develop into the left tackle that the Cowboys envision, and Bryant's targets are limited by the presence of Miles Austin and Jason Witten, Dallas will be as unlikely as any NFL team to find Pro Bowl-caliber contributions from its young players.