Having young talent is an enormous key to continued success in the NFL, but it isn't the only thing that matters.
That is the wording we'd use to describe the fact that 2010's No. 1 team in our U-25 organizational rankings, the Houston Texans, went 6-10 that season. It also helps explain the debacle that was the 2011 Tampa Bay Buccaneers, our first-place team in 2011. Both teams came into the season with high expectations and both teams flopped miserably due to poor luck, injury attrition and, in Tampa's case last season, essentially quitting on their coach.
Remember that these rankings represent nothing more than a snapshot in time. If there's anything the regression-analysis we mainly dabble in shows us, it's that what goes up may eventually come down. With that in mind, we'd like to offer our sincere condolences to fans of the AFC team that is No. 1 this year in the event that the No. 1 slot on this list becomes a hex of some sort.
Here are the criteria we used to come up with our rankings:
• The number of games in 2011 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 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 2012 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 resulting in the final version that you see below.
The turnover on this list, from year to year, is staggering. While it goes without saying that football is a young man's game, it's also the sport where injury attrition is the worst for young players. Having young stars is an important thing in the NFL, but with most players able to stay on the list for only three or four NFL seasons, lists of organizational talent will shift dramatically based on recent draft pools.
You'll see a number of references to Football Outsiders stats on our list, in particular DVOA (defense-adjusted value over average), which takes every play and compares its success to the NFL average based on situation and opponent. You can read more about that and other FO stats on this page.
Without further ado, here are our organizational rankings for this season. (Note: All ages are as of Sept. 8, 2012.)
Truth be told, our statistical analysis last year said the Patriots had the best 25-and-under talent in 2011, but we went with our gut instead. Lesson learned. New England had 15 significant contributors last season who qualify this season as well, but we really need only to discuss the three who helped produce the No. 3 offensive DVOA in the league. If you can believe it, tight ends Rob Gronkowski and Aaron Hernandez will still each only be 23 years old at the end of this coming season. Whether we look at standard or advanced stats, Gronkowski had a record-setting season: He was the first tight end ever to lead the NFL in receiving touchdowns, and also had the best receiving DYAR (defense-adjusted yards above replacement) for any tight end since 1991. To put the latter in perspective, the second-through-fourth-best tight end seasons were clustered at 357 or 358 DYAR; Gronkowski beat that by about 100 (459).
Of course, lest we forget Hernandez in New England's double-shot of matchup nightmares; he led all tight ends by breaking 21 tackles and he actually carried the ball 11 times in the team's final five games. Nate Solder (24) helped make huge tight end seasons possible by giving up only 2.5 blown-block sacks in his rookie year. With the retirement of Matt Light, Solder will switch from right tackle to left tackle, further increasing his value.
Times are good in New England.