<
>

The best NFL players at every age, from 21-44

Ezekiel Elliott is one of the league's best rookies, and Adam Vinatieri is still the league's best kicker. Getty Images

The NFL is a young man's league. You can't keep 'em down. According to Pro Football Reference, nearly 85 percent of players this season are younger than 30.

ESPN draft analyst Mel Kiper and NFL Insider Mike Sando have updated their annual ranking of the NFL's best players under 25. It's cute. But old-timers like me -- they used to call us Generation X before everyone started piling on Millennials -- know there is talent throughout the age spectrum.

So let's one-up Kiper and Sando and choose the absolute, indisputable, completely rock-solid top player in each age group. We'll start with the 21-year-old rookies and finish with the 40-something kickers.

Note: We used Pro Football Reference's age designations, which are based on how old the player will be on Dec. 31, 2016.


21 years old

RB Ezekiel Elliott, Dallas Cowboys

Elliott is on pace to become the youngest rushing champion since Edgerrin James (also 21) in 1999.

Key stat: Leads league with 1,285 yards in his first 12 NFL games.

22 years old

WR Amari Cooper, Oakland Raiders

Cooper was born in 1994, the year Cris Carter set an NFL record with 122 receptions in 16 games.

Key stat: His 981 receiving yards rank sixth in the NFL.

23 years old

WR Mike Evans, Tampa Bay Buccaneers

Evans doesn't get the publicity of some other receivers, but his production puts him ahead of Melvin Gordon, Marcus Mariota, Dak Prescott, Jay Ajayi and Jadeveon Clowney, among others.

Key stat: Has 76 receptions for 1,058 yards, both third in the NFL, and 10 touchdowns.

24 years old

WR Odell Beckham Jr., New York Giants

With equal playing time, Le'Veon Bell or Tyrann Mathieu might top Beckham here, but neither has played a full season.

Key stat: Has 75 receptions, including eight touchdowns, for 1,015 yards; ranks No. 4, No. 4 and No. 5 , respectively, in NFL.

25 years old

QB Derek Carr, Oakland Raiders

Carr has the edge among a group of studs that includes Aaron Donald, David Johnson, Tyron Smith and Khalil Mack -- primarily because he's a high-producing quarterback for one of the NFL's best teams.

Key stat: Has an 86.6 Total QBR in the fourth quarter, second best in the NFL.

26 years old

CB Xavier Rhodes, Minnesota Vikings

Rhodes has been dominant in coverage, although he has missed two games, and he's having a better (if less publicized) season than Patrick Peterson.

Key stat: Has a career-high four interceptions, tied for fourth in the NFL.

27 years old

LB Von Miller, Denver Broncos

With J.J. Watt on injured reserve, Miller is fighting off Mack as the best and most feared pass-rusher in the game -- and creates a tough bracket for fellow 27-year-olds Julio Jones, Rob Gronkowski and Earl Thomas.

Key stat: Leads NFL with 13.5 sacks in 12 games.

28 years old

S Eric Berry, Kansas City Chiefs

Berry has resumed his role as one of the most consistent playmakers on one of the NFL's top teams, making it too tough for Geno Atkins, Antonio Brown, Richard Sherman, Dez Bryant, Matthew Stafford or A.J. Green to claim this age group.

Key stat: Tied for NFL lead with two defensive touchdowns, plus one two-point defensive conversion.

29 years old

DT Ndamukong Suh, Miami Dolphins

Suh won't be reaching the sack totals of his initial seasons in the NFL, but he remains an every-down force -- he's playing 88 percent of the Dolphins' snaps -- and is a big reason the Dolphins remain in the playoff race.

Key stat: Ranked among the top five interior defenders this season by Pro Football Focus.

30 years old

RB LeGarrette Blount, New England Patriots

Blount has become a focal point of the Patriots' Gronk-less offense; he's on pace for a career high in rushing yards at an age when most running backs are nearing their final days in the league.

Key stat: Has an NFL-leading 13 rushing touchdowns.

31 years old

QB Matt Ryan, Atlanta Falcons

Michael Bennett has been great for the Seattle Seahawks, but he has missed five games, so it's Ryan and his sky-high QBR.

Key stat: Ranks No. 3 in Total QBR (81.1).

32 years old

OT Joe Thomas, Cleveland Browns

Thomas is the best player on the NFL's worst team, and a dozen of teams would love to acquire him.

Key stat: Hasn't missed a snap this season, or ever, in a streak that has reached 9,684 consecutive plays.

33 years old

QB Aaron Rodgers, Green Bay Packers

In one of the most difficult choices here, Rodgers has the edge over Larry Fitzgerald (NFL-high 88 receptions) because of the relative difficulty level of two positions.

Key stat: Ranks No. 4 in Total QBR (77.4).

34 years old

QB Ben Roethlisberger, Pittsburgh Steelers

Roethlisberger has slipped a bit from last season (No. 2 in QBR), but his chief rivals here are Cameron Wake (8.5 sacks) and Terrell Suggs (8.0) -- neither is an every-down player anymore.

Key stat: Ranks No. 12 in Total QBR (68.2).

35 years old

LT Andrew Whitworth, Cincinnati Bengals

Whitworth has been one of the Bengals' few bright spots, so he beats out Philip Rivers (No. 9 in QBR) because this list doesn't have to be all skill players, right?

Key stat: Ranked as a top-five left tackle for most of this season by Pro Football Focus.

36 years old

WR Anquan Boldin, Detroit Lions

Boldin beats out Green Bay Packers defensive end Julius Peppers, who has 6.5 sacks but has played just over half the Packers' defensive snaps. Boldin has appeared on nearly 80 percent of the Lions' offensive plays.

Key stat: Has 52 receptions and six touchdowns in 12 games.

37 years old

QB Drew Brees, New Orleans Saints

Brees has now been the Saints' quarterback (2006-16) for as long as Archie Manning (1971-81).

Key stat: NFL leader in passing yards (3,913) and completion percentage (71.4).

38 years old

CB Terence Newman, Minnesota Vikings

Newman gets the nod over Steelers linebacker James Harrison, who has 5.5 sacks in 12 games, because Newman is still a full-time player chasing speedy receivers 15 years younger than him. Newman has played more than 70 percent of the Vikings' snaps while Harrison has played about 50 percent of the Steelers'.

Key stat: Has seven passes defensed, one interception in seven starts.

39 years old

QB Tom Brady, New England Patriots

Brady is under contract until he is 42; no NFL quarterback age 42 or older has thrown for more than 1,632 yards in a season (Warren Moon, who was 42 in 1998).

Key stat: In his 17th season, Brady leads the NFL with a 19-1 touchdown-interception ratio.

40 years old

P Shane Lechler, Houston Texans

Among his teammates with the 2000 Oakland Raiders were Eric Allen, Rich Gannon, Tim Brown and Andre Rison.

Key stat: Ranks seventh in NFL in gross yards per punt at 47.7, a sign of his still-booming leg strength.

41 years old

PK Matt Bryant, Atlanta Falcons

Like many aging kickers, Bryant found new life with a team that plays indoors, having converted 88.3 percent of his kicks with the Falcons since moving from the Buccaneers in 2009.

Key stat: Ranks third in the NFL with 27 field goals, including three from at least 50 yards.

44 years old

PK Adam Vinatieri, Indianapolis Colts

Vinatieri shows no signs of slowing down, and soon it will be time to start comparing him to Hall of Fame quarterback/kicker George Blanda, who kicked until he was 48.

Key stat: Set an NFL record last month by converting his 44th consecutive field goal attempt.