Talented players under the age of 26 rarely hit the free-agent market. This list covers 10 who will likely be coveted this offseason.
Rookie salaries are laid out for incoming prospects—minus offsetting language. Four service years later, NFL players have the freedom to negotiate new contracts through their agents with production as leverage.
Free agents with fewer than four accredited years are restricted to their current teams via tender but allowed to negotiate with other clubs. The original squad can match outside offers. If not, it allows the player to sign elsewhere.
Focusing on the aforementioned free-agent designations (restricted and unrestricted), we'll highlight the top 10 talents in the 25-and-under category of this year's free-agent class. Past production and perceived potential were the determining factors for this list.
The selections feature players who will be 25 years old or younger at the start of the 2019 season, which opens September 5.
RB Jalen Richard, Restricted
It might be hard to believe the Oakland Raiders' 28th-ranked scoring offense has a hidden gem in the backfield. But running back Jalen Richard blossomed as a pass-catcher in head coach Jon Gruden's offense.
Richard ranked seventh in receptions (68) and sixth in receiving yards (607) among all running backs in 2018. The 2016 undrafted Southern Mississippi product tied tight end Jared Cook for most catches on the team and had an 84 percent catch rate. Because he only totaled 55 carries, he wasn't considered one of the top dual-threat tailbacks in the game.
In 2016, Richard held a more consistent role in the Raiders ground attack, logging 83 rush attempts for 491 yards and a touchdown. For his career, he's averaging 5.3 yards per carry. Though it's a small sample, Richard has proved capable of contributing to a backfield committee on a week-to-week basis.
As a slasher who can bounce outside the blocks, the 25-year-old running back provides a spark on the ground. If the Raiders don't retain him, Richard could emerge with another club as a versatile asset on the rise.
WR Rashard Higgins, Restricted
Wide receiver Rashard Higgins sporadically displayed his playmaking ability in a modest role with the Cleveland Browns. He recorded 72 receptions for 961 yards and six touchdowns through three seasons but never saw more than 53 targets in a single campaign.
In 2018, Higgins ranked fourth among Browns pass-catchers in yards (572) behind Jarvis Landry, David Njoku and Antonio Callaway. Yet, he averaged more yards per reception (14.7) than all three. The Colorado State product stretched the field at the collegiate level, and he's capable of more success in the pros.
Higgins has good speed and showed reliable hands last season with a 73.6 percent catch rate. Of his 39 catches, 27 went for first downs. Barring an injury to a player ahead of him on the depth chart, the 24-year-old is unlikely to see an expanded role in Cleveland. A change of scenery and more looks in the passing game would help him emerge as an ascending talent.
WR Devin Funchess, Unrestricted
Don't sour on wideout Devin Funchess after he took a step back in the 2018 season. He struggled with drops, missed two games with a back injury and his role diminished through December. He converted 55.7 percent of his targets into receptions.
Still, teams looking for wide receiver help can utilize Funchess as a solid red-zone target. At 6'4" and 225 pounds, the Michigan product can win matchups in tight quarters. He had 16 of his 21 touchdown receptions inside the 20-yard line with the Panthers.
In a wide receiver class that doesn't feature many emerging talents, Funchess should garner a fair amount of interest in March. Among those 25 years or younger, he's a standout who has the potential to flourish in his next chapter.
It's best to view Funchess as a high-end possession receiver and a safety blanket in the aerial attack. He's coming off a disappointing year, but the 24-year-old should have a bounce-back campaign in a situation that utilizes his size and ball-tracking ability in the end zone.
TE Jesse James, Unrestricted
Over the last three terms, tight end Jesse James held a prominent role within the Pittsburgh Steelers' aerial attack. He recorded 112 receptions for 1,133 yards and eight touchdowns in that period.
Despite Vance McDonald's increased involvement in the offense, James logged a career-high 423 receiving yards and averaged 14.1 yards per reception with a 76.9 percent catch rate. He's also a solid pass-blocker who can help seal the edge against a top-notch defender.
According to Behind the Steel Curtain writer Nick Farabaugh, James' talents may be too rich for Pittsburgh's front office. "He is the peak of solid and can catch and block extremely well," he wrote. "The question is did he price himself out of Pittsburgh? I would bring him back at the right price, but I am not overpaying."
With McDonald on the books through 2021, James may land a bigger salary elsewhere, though a strong draft class at the position may cap his value. The 24-year-old is an option for clubs that want a potential big-play target.
DT Malcom Brown, Unrestricted
Defensive tackle Malcom Brown turned 25 years old one day before winning Super Bowl LIII. His year could take another positive turn in March during free agency. He's more than just a gap-stuffer in the middle.
Typically, the big bodies in the trenches receive little credit for their work on the interior, but Brown stood out as a key cog on the Patriots defensive line. Since coming into the league as the No. 32 overall pick of the 2015 draft, he's notched 103 solo tackles and 8.5 sacks.
Brown hasn't generated as much chatter as Atlanta Falcons defensive tackle Grady Jarrett, who turns 26 in April, but he's a viable alternative option at the position.
The Patriots have been known for replacing slightly above-average talents rather than paying them a higher salary. Wherever he lands, Brown should move into the top 15 in yearly pay among defensive tackles.
LB Cory Littleton, Restricted
Los Angeles Rams linebacker Cory Littleton trailed tight end Rob Gronkowski in coverage on a critical play late in the fourth quarter of Super Bowl LIII, but that's not a microcosm of his 2018 season.
Earlier in that contest, he snagged an interception off a tipped ball. For the year, Littleton recorded 90 solo tackles, three picks, four sacks and 13 pass breakups en route to a Pro Bowl selection.
In his first two seasons with the Rams, Littleton saw limited action. He served as a core special teamer and backup linebacker before taking over a starting role in 2018. The coaching staff's decision to feature him paid off. Now, the 25-year-old goes into the offseason as a restricted free agent with a chance for a big raise.
If the Rams attach a tender to Littleton, front-office executives should prepare to match an offer sheet. The Washington product put his versatility on full display in three seasons. He can cover kicks, shadow pass-catchers, supplement the run defense and take down quarterbacks on designed blitzes.
EDGE Dante Fowler Jr., Unrestricted
In three seasons, Dante Fowler Jr. has served in a designated pass-rushing role and accumulated 16 sacks. The Jacksonville Jaguars decided to trade him to the Rams before last year's deadline. The Florida product started six of eight games in Wade Phillips' defense.
Fowler isn't known for stopping the run, but he's 24 years old with a track record for pressuring the pocket. That alone will put him in position to sign a lucrative deal.
Clubs won't hesitate to pursue Fowler, the No. 3 overall pick from the 2015 draft, in hopes of further unlocking his potential. Fowler's best years are likely in front of him as long as he's placed in a role that gets him on the field for more than 80 percent of the defensive snaps.
Whether a play-caller runs a three- or four-man front, Fowler is apt to collapse the pocket off the edge.
LB Kwon Alexander, Unrestricted
Linebacker Kwon Alexander's contract year ended on injured reserve with a torn ACL six games into the season. Before his shortened 2018 term, he patrolled the field as a reliable tackler and serviceable short-area pass defender for the Tampa Bay Buccaneers.
Alexander recorded 20 pass breakups and six interceptions between the 2015 and '17 seasons. He's an ideal centerpiece in a modern defense tasked with covering an increasing number of pass-catching running backs and tight ends active in the aerial attack.
Assuming Alexander fully recovers from his knee injury, the 24-year-old will have the closing speed to help out against the run as well. He finished the 2016 term as the league leader in solo tackles (108) and went to the Pro Bowl in the following campaign.
The LSU product's service will be costly on the open market, but he's worth the price if there's a void in the middle of the defense.
CB Ronald Darby, Unrestricted
Cornerback Ronald Darby has only suited up for 17 contests over the previous two seasons because of a dislocated ankle in 2017 and a torn ACL in 2018. He still managed to log four interceptions and 21 pass breakups in that span.
There's no question Darby performs at the level of a starting-caliber cornerback when healthy. Suitors on the open market will have to gamble on his availability. Spotrac projects a $13.4 million annual salary for him. That figure would make him one of the top eight earners at his position.
Darby tore his ACL in November; he'll likely miss a portion of the offseason program. If the 25-year-old signs a multiyear contract, the team acquiring his services will probably view the investment through a long-term lens.
Although Darby may not look his best early in the 2019 campaign, he'll eventually boost a secondary with sticky perimeter coverage and solid tackling.
S Landon Collins, Unrestricted
Safety Landon Collins can set the tone on the field and in the locker room. He served as a team captain for the New York Giants during the 2018 campaign. The three-time Pro Bowler finished the year with 67 solo tackles and four pass breakups.
Unfortunately, Collins suffered a season-ending shoulder injury in Week 13. As an All-Pro safety who provides leadership, Collins has a shot at the franchise tag even if the Giants are concerned about his fit within James Bettcher's system. Regardless of scheme, it's difficult to ignore production.
Collins has led Big Blue in solo tackles every year since entering the league as a second-rounder in 2015. The 25-year-old isn't the best cover defender but flashed in that aspect between the 2016 and '17 terms, logging seven interceptions and 19 pass breakups.
If the Alabama product hits the open market, multiple teams will line up to sign him as a thumper closer to the line of scrimmage with the idea he can grow in other areas.