Who are the NFL’s best young defensive backs?

Ronald Darby

Ronald Darby

NFL careers are short. How can they not be, given the overall physical nature of the game, the league’s eligibility minimums, and the influx of hungry new talent entering each year trying to make veterans obsolete?

By the time an NFL player is 25 years old, he’s looking at five more years in the league if he’s one of the lucky ones. So while a best-under-25 list in other sports may be a collection of athletes who are just coming into their own, for the NFL it could include guys who are already midway through their careers.

Sporting News writer Vinnie Iyer recently made up a roster of his picks for the NFL’s best players under the age of 25, which includes prized draft picks on the verge of breaking out like Texans LB Jadeveon Clowney, rising talents like Dolphins WR/KR Jarvis Landry, and established stars like Steelers RB Le’Veon Bell.

There are also two rookies on the list, both of whom do their work in the secondary: Bills cornerback Ronald Darby, a 2015 second-round draft pick from Florida State; and Chiefs cornerback Marcus Peters, a first-round pick out of Washington. The safeties are Tyrann Mathieu of the Cardinals (3rd year as a pro) and Ha Ha Clinton-Dix of the Packers (2nd year). Here are their write-ups from the SN piece:

CB: Ronald Darby, Bills
It took us all the way to the secondary before we tabbed our first rookie, but it was hard to ignore Darby, the Florida State product who’s even outplayed Buffalo’s other fine young corner, Stephon Gilmore, already 25. Darby had 10 passes defensed and two INTs in his first month as an NFL player. Not bad at all.

CB: Marcus Peters, Chiefs
If it hadn’t been for Darby, Peters would have been the NFL’s defensive rookie of the month in September. Peters has been burned at times like the rest of Kansas City’s secondary, but the first-rounder has delivered, using his size (6-0, 197) and swagger and making plays reminiscent of a young Antonio Cromartie.

S: Tyrann Mathieu, Cardinals
Mathieu is an awesome Swiss Army knife in the middle of Arizona’s defense, a versatile cover man and quick tackle who operates as half slot corner, half extra linebacker. The former “Honey Badger,” still only 23, was a sweet steal of a third-round pick in 2013.

S: Ha Ha Clinton-Dix, Packers
It was a tough call between him and the Jets’ Calvin Pryor, taken three spots ahead of Clinton-Dix who was the No. 21 overall pick in 2014. Although we respect Pryor’s skills as an able thumper, Clinton-Dix is just the better all-around playmaker for now, despite some issues in coverage — which he is smart enough to correct.

Three of the four DBs are on teams currently in playoff contention. Clinton-Dix’s Packers are one of the NFL’s five remaining undefeated teams; Mathieu’s Cardinals lead the NFC West; Darby’s Bills are 3-3 and trending downward, but are still in the AFC mix. It appears that Peters’ Chiefs, at 1-5 and having lost star RB Jamaal Charles for the rest of the season, are pretty much done.

Through Week 6, Peters has 31 tackles and three interceptions, including a pick-six of Peyton Manning. Darby has 29 tackles and two INTs. Clinton-Dix has 43 tackles, a forced fumble and an interception. Mathieu has 36 tackles, a forced fumble and two interceptions, including one pick-six, and was named NFC Defensive Player of the Week for his Week 3 effort against San Francisco.

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