FOX Sports recently put together a list of the top 25 NFL players under the age of 25, with New York Giants star wide receiver Odell Beckham checking in at No. 3. OK, OK, let's get this part out of the way. FOX lists Pittsburgh Steelers running back Le'Veon Bell as No. 2 and Indianapolis Colts quarterback Andrew Luck is No. 1.
Go ahead. Gnash your teeth and complain that Beckham should be No. 1. At the least he should be ahead of Bell. Done with that now? Good. Let's move on to what I really wanted to talk about here. That is to try to identify the best Giants' players under the age of 25.
The 22-year-old Beckham is clearly No. 1. Let's cross our fingers that the young man stays both healthy and grounded because if he does those things we could be looking at a historic career unfolding. Now, let's look at the best five Giants under the age of 25 who are not named Beckham.
For the purposes of this exercise I am not including any members of the 2015 rookie class. That isn't fair, since we haven't seen any of them play real games yet. Here's my list.
No. 5. -- RB Andre Williams
Williams did not light the world on fire as a rookie in 2014. In fact, some analytics will tell you that his first season in the NFL was historically awful. He averaged just 3.3 yards per carry, gaining 721 yards on 271 rushing attempts. Pro Football focus ranked Williams 76th in the league among running back in its 'Elusive Rating,' and 91st in the league in yards after contact. Williams was 57th in the league in 'Breakaway Percentage,' defined as yards on runs of 15 yards or more.
The numbers don't look impressive. Williams, though, played far more than had been expected due to injuries to both Rashad Jennings and Peyton Hillis. He did that behind an offensive line that was a solid pass-blocking group, but among the worst in the league in run-blocking. Four of the five Giants offensive linemen has negative run-blocking grades, along with tight end Larry Donnell. The only offensive lineman with a positive run-blocking score was Will Beatty, out now with a torn pectoral muscle.
Let's see what Williams can do if the Giants can structure an offensive line that can actually give him some places to run.
No. 4 -- OC Weston Richburg
Richburg was drafted in the second round a year ago to be the team's center of the future. Much like an injury is pushing this year's first-round pick, Ereck Flowers, into an important role at left tackle he wasn't expected to play, Richburg was thrust into a difficult spot a season ago. The retirement of Chris Snee and the injuries to Geoff Schwartz forced the Giants to play him at left guard. Richburg started 15 games, but ended up with a -14.3 PFF grade (-8.7 run-blocking) while trying to play an unfamiliar position.
Richburg will move to center this season. The year of experience at the NFL level and the move back to his natural position should make this a better year for him. Richburg is undoubtedly looking forward to it.
"Today felt right," Richburg said after the team's first OTA. "I like center because it gives me a little more control, per se. I am directing the offensive line. I like that leadership role. I really enjoyed being there today and being in charge of making those calls and communicating with Eli. It was fun."
Richburg should anchor the Giants' offensive line for years to come.
No. 3 -- LB Devon Kennard
Giants' fans are rightly more excited about Kennard than they have been by a young linebacker in more than a decade. In 12 games (6 starts) last season, Kennard had 4.5 sacks from his SAM linebacker spot, a pass defensed and two forced fumbles. He had 43 combined tackles.
Kennard is the pass-rushing, play-making outside linebacker the Giants and their fans have been seeking for a long time. He may eventually be the leader of the linebacking group.
There is only one thing standing in the way -- Kennard's injury history. He missed time early last season with a hamstring injury and did not play in the season finale due to a toe injury. Kennard dropped to the fifth round of the 2014 NFL Draft, partially because he missed the entire 2012 season with a torn pectoral muscle. He also had thumb and hip surgery while at USC, and suffered a torn ACL as a high school senior.
No. 2 -- WR Rueben Randle
Randle was not originally a player I would have put on this list. Honestly, I was a little suprised when I looked at the roster and realized the fourth-year wide receiver (yes, he's entering his fourth year) is still just 24 years old.
Randle is often maligned and thought of an an under-achiever, especially after landing in coach Tom Coughlin's doghouse a year ago and being suspended for parts of a couple of games. His product has increased year, however. He had 19 receptions as a rookie in 2012, 41 receptions in his second season and 71 receptions for 938 yards (13.2 yards per catch) a season ago.
Randle is a lot like that proverbial box of chocolates in the movie 'Forrest Gump,' you never know what you are going to get. He can be spectacular at times, and spectacularly frustrating at other times. And at times that changes from play to play.
Still, Randle has 131 career catches before his age 24 season and his career should be on the upswing. If he continues to get better the combination of Randle, Beckham, Victor Cruz and Larry Donnell, with Shane Vereen catching passes out of the backfield, will be as good as any in the league.
No. 1 -- DT Johnathan Hankins
It is simply hard to fathom how the Giants were so bad against the run a season ago, finishing last in the league by giving up 4.9 yards per carry, with a player of Hankins' caliber in the middle of the defense.
The 6-foot-3, 320-pound Hankins emerged as a force in his first season as a full-time starter. He had a team-best +12.1 PFF grade against the run, and had a surprising seven quarterback sacks.
There could well be Pro Bowls, and a rich contract, in Hankins' future. The Giants have a history of drafting defensive tackles and not signing them to second contracts (Barry Cofield, Linval Joseph, Marvin Austin). It would be a mistake if they fail to keep Hankins when the time comes.
A word about Damontre Moore
The defensive end didn't make the list -- he would have been No. 6. We have to talk about him, though, since we are talking about players under 25. Moore is entering his third season and it is easy to brand his first two seasons as a disappointment and to wonder if he will ever live up to the potential he flashed early on after the Giants made him a third-round pick in 2013.
Here is something astonishing about Moore, however, and that must be remembered to put everything into context. Is is still just 22 years old. Twenty-freakin-two!! He turns 23 in September. That makes him younger than Richburg, Kennard, Randle and Hankins. It also makes him younger than third-round pick Owamagbe Odighizuwa (23), sixth-round pick Geremy Davis (23) and last year's third-round pick, Jay Bromley (23).
We talk a great deal about Moore's maturity, about his learning to be a pro, and we talk about his first two seasons perhaps being a disappointment -- whatever you believe the reason to be. Let's not write him off just yet, though. Let's remember how young he really is, and that he has two years under his belt while many players his age are just starting their professional careers. There is still plenty of time for him to turn into a very good NFL player.