Top 25 NFL players under 25: Patrick Mahomes takes top spot, Saints lead all teams with three stars – CBS Sports


It’s never easy moving on from the heroes we grew up watching, the ones who might’ve made us fall in love with football or furthered our passion for the sport, but with the arrival of Patrick Mahomes, Lamar Jackson, and Deshaun Watson, the future of football is here. It wasn’t so long ago that the idea of Tom Brady, Drew Brees, Aaron Rodgers, Philip Rivers, and Ben Roethlisberger reaching the final stages of their illustrious careers would’ve been terrifying, but with the arrival of the aforementioned quarterbacks, saying goodbye to aging Hall of Famers isn’t so scary anymore. The future of football is already here, and it’s just as bright as what came before.

Every year, I’m asked to assemble a list of the top 25 NFL players under the age of 25. Every year, the exercise provides a reminder that the NFL is oversaturated with young talent. It’s not just the aforementioned trio of quarterbacks, two of whom have won MVP trophies in the past two seasons, one of whom has already captured the first Lombardi Trophy of his career. It’s also the 22 other players who made their way onto the list. 

Unfortunately, the exercise isn’t just a reminder of how stacked the NFL is with young talent. It’s also a taxing process that requires leaving off 20 or so players under the age of 25 who deserve to be on the list, but just couldn’t fit. This year’s list is no different. There are more than 25 great players who are under the age of 25. From JuJu Smith-Schuster (a bad 2019 season that wasn’t entirely his fault) to Mark Andrews (just not enough volume in the Ravens’ offense) to Bradley Chubb (a torn ACL) to Josh Allen (the edge rusher who just had 10.5 sacks, not the quarterback), a ton of worthy players were snubbed. I’ll be the first to admit that. There are only 25 spots on this list and there are undoubtedly more than 25 great young players in today’s NFL. Tough decisions had to be made.

As for how the list came to be, let’s go over the rules. As I wrote a year ago …

The list is not a draft. This is not a situation where every player under the age of 25 was placed in a pool and then redrafted into the league. If the list was a draft, there’d be far fewer running backs on the list because running backs just aren’t valuable enough to justify their selection in a draft with this many good players who play far more important positions. I am not Dave Gettleman.

So then, what is the list based on?

  1. What they’ve done so far: How well has the player played to this point in their career? Recent success matters more than past success, but past success still matters. Availability also matters. That’s why someone like Chubb, who tore his ACL in Week 4, missed out. It’s not his fault he got hurt, but I couldn’t put him on the list after his second season ended with only one sack in four games.
  2. Future projection: What is this player’s ceiling? This isn’t just a list about prior accomplishments. It’s also about the future too.
  3. Positional value: It’s not a draft, but positional value is a factor — just not the only factor. You’ll find plenty of running backs on this list, because it’s not their fault they play the least valuable position on either side of the ball and because they should be rewarded for how dang good they are at playing their position. But you won’t find them that high up the list because they do happen to play the least valuable position on either side of the ball. It’s a balance.

What disqualifies a player from the list?

  1. Age: Being 25 years old or older. I repeat: If a player is already 25 as of Thursday, May 21, he is disqualified. 
  2. Experience: Being a rookie, since we have no way of knowing how good or how bad or how mediocre they’ll be in the NFL. You won’t find Joe Burrow or Chase Young on this list. If they perform well in the upcoming season, they’ll be on next year’s list. But first, we need to see it.

At the end of the list, you’ll find a list of notable omissions — these are the players I desperately wanted to find a spot for, but just couldn’t. If you think that one of the notable omissions deserved to make it over someone on the list, I don’t blame you. They were all tough decisions.

Finally, some quick facts about the list:

  • Nineteen of the 25 players also happened to qualify for Pete Prisco’s top 100 list.
  • Fourteen of the 25 players are offensive players.
  • Out of the 14 offensive players, four are quarterbacks, six are running backs, three are receivers, and one is an offensive lineman. No tight ends made the list, although Mark Andrews of the Ravens came awfully close.
  • Out of the 11 defensive players, three are edge rushers, one is a defensive lineman, one is a linebacker, two are cornerbacks, and four are safeties. So, every position on defense is covered.
  • One team had three players selected: the Saints.
  • Four teams had two players selected: the Browns, Colts, Ravens, and Chargers.
  • The Colts were the only team to have two players in the top 10, with the Chargers barely missing out.
  • The AFC outnumbers the NFC, 14-11.
  • Even though there are only four quarterbacks, the top three spots all belonged to quarterbacks. 
  • Even though there are six running backs, only one finished in the top half of the list — mainly because of positional value.
  • There were 13 carryovers from last year’s list. Out of the 12 players who did not make the cut this year after ranking in the top 25 a year ago, seven of them were disqualified due to age. Out of those seven 25-year-olds, two wouldn’t have made the list even if they were still under the age of 25, namely due to their performances in 2019. Those two players? Jared Goff and Baker Mayfield. The five players who missed the list due to performance and/or injury reasons? Bradley Chubb (torn ACL), Leighton Vander Esch (combination of both), Roquan Smith (took a slight step back in 2019), JuJu Smith-Schuster (a bad 2019 season that wasn’t entirely his fault), and Myles Jack (a mediocre 2019 season).

Without further delay, the list itself …

25. Saints S Marcus Williams (23)

Despite snagging 10 interceptions during his first three seasons (tied for the fifth-most in that span among safeties), it still feels like Williams is underrated. This past season, he posted a career high in passes defended with 13 (he had 10 in his previous two seasons combined) and finished as Pro Football Focus’ third-highest graded safety. Unfortunately for Williams, his involvement in the Minneapolis Miracle continues to overshadow just how good of a player he’s been since the Saints took him 42nd overall in the 2017 draft. 

24. Vikings RB Dalvin Cook (24)

Finally, after a couple of injury plagued seasons, it all came together for Cook in 2019, when he totaled 1,654 yards and 13 touchdowns in a 14-game season. 2019 was the first season where we saw just how great Cook can be if he can stay entirely healthy. In his entire career, he’s averaging 5.4 yards per touch. For Cook, it’s all about staying healthy. He’s missed 19 games in three seasons. 

23. Titans WR A.J. Brown (22)

First, it’s important to note that Brown is due for regression in 2020. That’s not an indictment of Brown, but rather a testament to how remarkable Brown was during his rookie season. He caught 52 passes for 1,051 yards and eight touchdowns, meaning he averaged an incredible 20.2 yards per catch. That number is bound to regress in 2020. But even if the regression monster comes for Brown, he should remain the focal point of the Titans’ passing game and one of the best young wideouts in all of football. While his efficiency numbers might decline, don’t be surprised if his skills as a receiver improve. He’s only entering Year 2.

22. Broncos WR Courtland Sutton (24)

Over the past two seasons — the entire duration of Sutton’s career to this point — the Broncos have started the following quarterbacks: Case Keenum, Joe Flacco, Brandon Allen, and Drew Lock. So, what Sutton has already accomplished at this stage of his career is even more impressive. Despite playing with those aforementioned quarterbacks, all of whom are not very good (with the notable exception of Lock, who still has a chance be good), Sutton is averaging 57 catches, 908 receiving yards, and five touchdowns per season. This past season marked his breakout. Despite playing with three of those four quarterbacks, Sutton posted career highs in catches (72), receiving yards (1,112), and touchdowns (six). As the Broncos fill out their offense around Sutton and as Lock matures, Sutton should continue to ascend in Denver.

21. Packers DL Kenny Clark (24)

Is Clark still underrated? It certainly feels that way. He’s the type of interior defensive lineman who’s capable of both plugging the run and generating pressure. Over the past three years, he’s averaged 5.5 sacks, 33 solo tackles, 7.3 quarterback hits, and 7.7 tackles for loss per season. Like all interior defensive linemen, Clark’s contributions are often overlooked as edge rushers around him rack up more sacks. But Clark is an elite player at his position group. He’s tied with Chris Jones (too old for the list), who entered the NFL the same year, in career approximate value. He deserves recognition for his dominance in the trenches.

20. Browns RB Nick Chubb (24)

Chubb is yet another example of how teams don’t really know how to evaluate players in the draft. In the 2018 NFL Draft, the Browns grabbed Chubb with the third pick in the second round. Which means Chubb was the fourth running back off the board. The three running backs taken before him? Saquon Barkley, Rashaad Penny, and Sony Michel. Only Barkley is a better player than Chubb, but considering where they were drafted (No. 2 overall compared to No. 35), it’s Chubb who represents better value. Put another way, the Giants would’ve been better off drafting someone else (they had a ton of options) at No. 2 and then getting Chubb at No. 34. Through two seasons, Chubb has totaled 2,917 yards and 18 touchdowns from scrimmage while averaging 5.3 yards per touch. In that span, he ranks fifth in yards from scrimmage among all running backs.

NFL: Arizona Cardinals at Seattle Seahawks

It only took one season for Kyler Murray to crack this list. 
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19. Cardinals QB Kyler Murray (22)

Fresh off an Offensive Rookie of the Year season that included 3,722 passing yards, 20 passing touchdowns, 12 interceptions, an 87.4 passer rating, 544 rushing yards, and four touchdown runs, Murray appears to be one of the next great NFL quarterbacks. But he still has a little ways to go until he reaches the heights that the three quarterbacks ranked atop this list have already hit, something that is confirmed by the advanced metrics. By DYAR, he ranked 21st — only one spot ahead of Gardner Minshew. By DVOA, which measures value per play, he also ranked 21st. And by QBR, which takes into account his rushing contributions, he ranked 15th. However, given the circumstances — he was a rookie starting for the worst team in football, behind a bad offensive line, with a rookie coach, and against the league’s toughest division — he was brilliant. After the Cardinals engineered the trade of the offseason to acquire DeAndre Hopkins, Murray should only continue to ascend. Murray ranks this high because he’s primed for an even better sophomore season after an already impressive rookie season — remember, future projection matters too. Also, he plays quarterback, the most valuable position in the sport. That gave him a boost.

18. Saints RB Alvin Kamara (24)

If Kamara wasn’t a running back, he’d rank far higher on this list. Even still, Kamara is the perfect running back for the modern NFL. For one, he was drafted by the Saints in the third round, proving yet again that teams can find great running backs at a tremendous value. Two, he can do a bit everything. As a runner, he’s averaging 802.7 yards and nine touchdowns per season, and 5.0 yards per carry. As a pass catcher, he’s averaging 81 catches, 689.3 yards, and 3.3 touchdowns per season, and 8.5 yards per catch. In New Orleans, where he’s been catching passes from Drew Brees in Sean Payton’s offense, Kamara has found a perfect home. In turn, the Saints have the perfect running back for the modern NFL and Payton’s offense. 

17. Giants RB Saquon Barkley (23)

Barkley ranks third in yards from scrimmage since 2018. In that sense, he’s done almost all that he can to justify the Giants’ decision to draft him No. 2 overall two years ago. He’s racked up 3,469 yards and 23 touchdowns from scrimmage while averaging 5.6 yards per touch. The problem is, despite Barkley playing out of his mind during the past two seasons, the Giants have posted a 9-23 record. Barkley really is the perfect example of how running backs simply don’t matter the way other position groups do. It’s not Barkley’s fault the Giants have sucked the past two seasons. But there’s nothing he can really do to drag them out of the gutter.

16. Saints CB Marshon Lattimore (24)

This marks Lattimore’s third straight year making an appearance on this list. While he peaked on this list after his rookie season, for which he won Defensive Rookie of the Year, he’s still been remarkably consistent since the Saints drafted him 11th overall in 2017 with eight interceptions, 44 passes defended, and 168 combined tackles. Earlier this offseason, the Saints picked up his fifth-year option, which shouldn’t come as a surprise. Letting him leave as he enters the prime of his career would be colossally stupid. The Saints should sign him to a long-term deal at some point in the next year. At best, he’s been a star (2017). At worst, he’s been a consistently good starter (2018-19).

15. Cowboys RB Ezekiel Elliott (24)

Since he entered the league in 2016, Zeke leads all running backs in yards from scrimmage by a wide margin with 7,024 yards. In second place? Todd Gurley with 6,200 yards. Given the trajectory of Gurley’s career, he’s unlikely to ever catch Elliott, who is coming off a 1,777-yard, 14-touchdown season. Like all running backs, Elliott’s value is limited. Players like Dak Prescott and Amari Cooper hold far more value to the Cowboys. But Elliott had done everything in his power to help justify the Cowboys’ decision to draft him at No. 4 in the 2016 draft over the likes of Jalen Ramsey and DeForest Buckner, neither of whom qualified for this list. (Note: They still should’ve drafted Ramsey or Buckner).

14. Ravens CB Marlon Humphrey (23)

Lamar Jackson’s MVP-level brilliance overshadowed just how well the Ravens’ defense performed in 2019, when they finished the season as the fourth-best defense by DVOA. Consider that the Steelers’ defense finished only one spot ahead of the Ravens, but because the Steelers’ defense was constantly bailing out Mason Rudolph and Devlin Hodges, they drew all the acclaim. For the most part, the Ravens’ defense was under-appreciated because they were never the most impressive aspect of their team thanks to Jackson and the rest of the offense. But the Ravens’ defense was great in 2019 and for that, they owe a lot to Humphrey, a 2017 first-round pick who blossomed in Year 3 with three interceptions (bringing his career total to seven), 14 passes defended, 65 combined tackles (a career high), and two defensive touchdowns. According to PFF, he produced an incomplete pass on 22.5 percent of his targets, which ranked fourth among cornerbacks.

NFL: Carolina Panthers at San Francisco 49ers

Nick Bosa was a force on the 49ers defensive line in his rookie season. 
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13. 49ers DE Nick Bosa (22)

Heading into the 2019 NFL Draft, some argued that the Cardinals should just give Josh Rosen another year as their starting quarterback and take Nick Bosa with the first-overall pick. While the Cardinals’ decision to draft Murray was entirely justified given his presence on this list after only one season, Bosa’s dominant rookie season with the 49ers, who took him at No. 2, also demonstrates why so many pundits thought he was worthy of the top pick. Like his brother before him, Bosa immediately emerged as a premier edge rusher with nine sacks, 16 tackles for loss, and 25 quarterback hits. In the 49ers’ Super Bowl loss to the Chiefs, he racked up 12 total pressures, according to Pro Football Focus, which was tied for the most pressures in a single playoff game since 2006. In three playoff games, he recorded four sacks. Per PFF, he was the third-highest graded edge rusher in 2019, trailing only T.J. Watt and Calais Campbell, neither of whom are eligible for this list. Don’t be surprised when Bosa ranks in the top 10 a year from now.

12. Jets S Jamal Adams (24)

If the Jets do continue to take offers for Adams, they could score a hefty ransom for one of the game’s best safeties. It’s been three seasons since Adams entered the NFL as the sixth-overall pick in a 2017 draft that produced some notable busts near the top, and in those three seasons, Adams has racked up 273 combined tackles, 12 sacks, 23 quarterback hits, 28 tackles for loss, and two interceptions — one of which he took back to the house. According to Pro Football Focus, there have only been two instances of a safety generating 20-plus pressures in a single season since 2006. Both belong to Adams. Since his career began in 2017, no safety has recorded more sacks, hits, or hurries.

11. Chargers S Derwin James (23)

It’s a testament to James’ rookie season that he’s still ranked this high, because in 2019, James was only available for five games due to a stress fracture in his foot. But about that rookie season in 2018: James immediately emerged as the league’s best hybrid safety, recording 3.5 sacks, three interceptions, and 105 combined tackles — enough for him to be named first-team All-Pro. Obviously, by ranking him this high after an injury-wrecked season, the expectation is that he’ll pick up right where he left off in 2020.

10. Steelers S Minkah Fitzpatrick (23)

If you thought the Steelers gave up too much when they sent a first-round pick to Miami in exchange for Fitzpatrick (Minkah, not Ryan) last season, Fitzpatrick proved you (and me) wrong in a single season. The Steelers managed to win eight games without Ben Roethlisberger because of their defense, which ranked third in DVOA and led the league in takeaways with 38. And their defense was as great as it was largely because of Fitzpatrick, who contributed five interceptions, one touchdown, one forced fumbled, two fumble recoveries, and 57 combined tackles in a 14-game season with the Steelers. Suddenly, it seems like the Steelers got an absolute steal by landing Fitzpatrick for only one first-round pick. Put another way, it’s unlikely they would’ve found a better player than Fitzpatrick in the first round of this year’s draft.

9. Buccaneers WR Chris Godwin (24)

After two promising seasons to begin his career, Godwin emerged as one of the league’s best receivers in 2019, catching 86 passes for 1,333 yards (15.5 yards per catch) and nine touchdowns, all of which are career highs. Together with Mike Evans, Godwin forms the best receiver duo in all of football. Now, he gets to work with Tom Brady. Even though Brady is a huge upgrade over Jameis Winston, don’t be surprised if Godwin’s numbers take a slight dip in 2020. Brady is better, but he’s also more cautious than Winston.

8. Panthers RB Christian McCaffrey (23)

Trust me, it wasn’t easy putting a running back in the top 10 given their lack of value, but that’s how good McCaffrey has been since the Panthers made him a first-round pick three years ago. In those three seasons, McCaffrey has totaled 5,443 yards (the most in that span) and 39 touchdowns (the second-most in that span) from scrimmage. He’s coming off an insane 2,392-yard and 19-touchdown season that landed him a historic long-term contract with the Panthers. But McCaffrey’s awesome 2019 season is also the perfect example of how little running backs can impact a team. Despite his heroics, the Panthers won five games. It certainly wasn’t McCaffrey’s fault, but even with him playing at his peak, he couldn’t change the Panthers’ fate. McCaffrey’s individual brilliance is why he’s ranked in the top 10. But the position he plays is why he’s ranked eighth as opposed to third or fourth.

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Darius Leonard is already one of the best linebackers in the league.
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7. Colts LB Darius Leonard (24)

Fun fact about Leonard: In 2018, after an incredible 163-tackle campaign, he captured both Defensive Rookie of the Year and first team All-Pro honors, but he did not make the Pro Bowl. In that sense, the most important contribution of Leonard’s career hasn’t been all of his tackles (284 combined since 2018, the third-most in that span), sacks (12), or interceptions (7), it’s been his 2018 season serving as further proof that using Pro Bowls as a measuring stick is as flawed as using a Rotten Tomatoes audience score as proof of a movie’s quality. But the Pro Bowl thing aside, Leonard has already emerged as the best young linebacker in the NFL. He can do a bit of everything: tackle, rush the passer, and cover downfield, giving him tremendous value in the modern NFL.

6. Browns DE Myles Garrett (24)

Through the first 37 games of Garrett’s career, Garrett’s registered 30.5 sacks, which means he’s averaging 0.82 sacks per game. For the sake of comparison, the leader in sacks over the past three seasons, Chandler Jones, is averaging 1.02 sacks per game. Garrett happens to rank 11th in sacks since 2017, when he entered the league as the top-overall pick. Out of the 10 players listed above him, only Jones, Aaron Donald, and Cameron Jordan have averaged more sacks per game in that span. It goes overlooked because of how his 2019 season ended prematurely, but Garrett was on pace to finish with 16 sacks — or one sack per game. 

5. Chargers DE Joey Bosa (24)

Like Garrett, Bosa’s overall sack numbers would be up if he hadn’t missed so many games over his career. He’s played in only 51 of 64 possible games since the Chargers selected him with the third-overall pick in 2016. But he’s still managed to bring down opposing quarterbacks 40 times for an average of 0.78 sacks per game. He has three double-digit sack seasons in four years — and in that lone season with a single-digit sack total, he was on pace to finish with more than 12 sacks. For Bosa, it’s all about staying on the field. If he does, he has a chance to become the best edge rusher in the league. But to this point in his career, that’s yet to happen.

4. Colts G Quenton Nelson (24)

The lone offensive lineman on this list, Nelson has already garnered two first-team All-Pro selections in as many NFL seasons. After an impressive rookie season, Nelson found a way to improve in 2019, dropping his penalty count from nine to three with zero pre-snap penalties after getting called for three false starts in 2018. Nelson isn’t just the best young offensive lineman in the NFL. There’s an argument to be made he’s the best guard across the entire league.

3. Texans QB Deshaun Watson (24)

If not for the rise of Lamar Jackson, Watson would’ve ranked second on this list behind only Patrick Mahomes. But Jackson’s rise did happen, which means Watson goes from the second-best player under the age of 25 to the third-best.

No player, besides Russell Wilson, continually does more with less than Watson. As a rookie, he went 3-3 as the Texans’ starting quarterback in a season where Texans starting quarterbacks not named Deshaun Watson went 1-9. In 2018, he led the Texans to an 11-5 record by throwing for 4,165 yards and 26 touchdowns while rushing for 551 yards and five touchdowns, even though he was playing behind the league’s worst offensive line. This past season, he once again dragged the Texans to the playoffs while throwing for 3,852 yards and 26 touchdowns and rushing for 413 yards and seven touchdowns in a 15-game season.

In 2020, his task will be to take the Texans to the playoffs for a third straight season, this time without his best playmaker in DeAndre Hopkins, who was traded to the Cardinals this offseason for an overpaid running back and a second-round pick. It’s almost like the Texans are trying to make Watson’s life as difficult as possible. Based on his first three seasons, Watson will likely find a way to overcome Bill O’Brien’s questionable personnel decisions.

2. Ravens QB Lamar Jackson (23)

The reigning MVP is more than just Michael Vick reincarnated. While Jackson did break Vick’s record for rushing yards in a single season by a quarterback in 2019, finishing with 1,206 rushing yards and seven touchdowns, what sometimes can go overlooked is how phenomenal he was at throwing the ball (almost like he’s always been best suited to play quarterback in the NFL as opposed to, say, wide receiver). Jackson completed 66.1 percent of his passes for 3,127 yards, 36 touchdowns, six interceptions, and a 113.3 passer rating.

While you might be underwhelmed by the number of yards he threw for, keep in mind that he averaged 7.8 yards per attempt, which ranked 13th (nearly identical to Watson’s average yards per attempt), and led the league in touchdown passes and touchdown rate (9 percent). For the sake of comparison, Jameis Winston finished second in touchdown passes with 33. To do so, he needed to attempt 626 passes. So, Jackson threw for three more touchdowns while attempting 225 fewer passes than Winston — not to mention, Jackson also threw 24 fewer interceptions. By DYAR, he ranked fifth. By DVOA, he ranked second. By total QBR, he ranked first.

What’s scary about Jackson is that 2019 was his first full season as a starter. It’s quite possible he could continue to ascend as he acquires more experience. Unlike so many other young quarterbacks, Jackson has the benefit of playing for one of the league’s best coaches and smartest teams.

1. Chiefs QB Patrick Mahomes (24)

The only right answer. Mahomes isn’t just the best player under the age of 25. He’s the best player in football. The 2018 regular season MVP and the MVP of Super Bowl LIV, Mahomes is capable of erasing a 24-point deficit in the span of a single quarter, and one of only two quarterbacks in NFL history to have thrown for 5,000-plus yards and 50-plus touchdowns in a single season. Mahomes is The Prince That Was Promised.

Let’s put his greatness into perspective. Including the playoffs, he owns a win-loss record of 28-8 as a starting quarterback, good enough for a winning percentage of 0.78. For the sake of comparison, Tom Brady’s winning percentage (including the playoffs) is 0.77. Over the past two seasons, even though he’s missed two full games in that span, he ranks first in touchdown passes — 10 more than Russell Wilson in second place. Even though his touchdown rate predictably plummeted in 2019 from 8.6 percent to 5.4 percent due to the unstoppable force of nature known as regression, what’s notable about his 2019 season is that he cut his interception rate in half (2.1 percent to 1.0 percent).

Mahomes might not ever throw for 5,000 yards and 50 touchdowns again, but he’s still getting better. That’s what so scary; at the age of 24, after only two full seasons as a starting quarterback, he’s the best player in football and he’s only getting going. It might be early, but Mahomes has a chance to become the best quarterback in NFL history. 

Just missed the cut: 49ers WR Deebo Samuel, 49ers LB Fred Warner, Bears LB Roquan Smith, Bengals RB Joe Mixon, Bills LB Tremaine Edmunds, Broncos OLB Bradley Chubb, Cardinals S Budda Baker, Cowboys LB Leighton Vander Esch, Jaguars WR D.J. Chark, Jaguars DE Josh Allen, Packers CB Jaire Alexander, Panthers WR D.J. Moore, Ravens TE Mark Andrews, Ravens OT Orlando Brown, Redskins WR Terry McLaurin, Seahawks WR D.K. Metcalf, Steelers WR JuJu Smith-Schuster, Titans CB Adoree’ Jackson.


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