On the very first day of this century, January 1, 2000, Tom Brady played in his final college football game. With little regard for the Y2K disaster that would bring humanity to its knees, Brady led Michigan to a 35-34 overtime win over Alabama in the Orange Bowl, completing 34 of 46 passes for 369 yards with four touchdowns, three of which went to star wideout David Terrell.
Cam Akers, who legitimately ain’t got one thing to do with Brady but like every other writer I’m tying an age comparison to him, was not yet six months old. But also, Brady’s age is endlessly fascinating so I don’t feel any guilt about it.
With Akers, the LA Rams have the youngest player on an NFC West roster right now, but let the anti-San Francisco campaigning begin because the 49ers have assembled the best group of 25-and-younger talent in the division. They also have the highest 2021 draft pick (12th) and because the Seattle Seahawks and Rams have already traded out of the first round, San Francisco will also use their second round pick (43rd overall) before Seattle (56th) and LA (57th) choose for the first time.
These are the best players in the division right now who were born in 1996, 1997, 1998, or 1999. This is not a ranking.
Born in 1996
Deebo Samuel, WR, 49ers
Fred Warner, LB, 49ers
Budda Baker, S, Cardinals
D.J. Reed, CB, Seahawks
Seattle’s Rashaad Penny and Will Dissly appeared to be a lot more valuable a year or two ago, but have struggled with injuries. Michael Dickson was born in 1996, but is only a punter. Van Jefferson didn’t do enough as a second round rookie to warrant inclusion but has the most upside for the Rams born in 1996.
LA’s players born in 1996 also includes Nsimba Webster, Greg Gaines, and Justin Hollins. It’s not that they can’t carve out roles, but Samuel, Warner, and Baker are the clear stars here, while Reed’s clearly become very important to the Seahawks.
Reed is not well known, but emerged as the Seahawks best cornerback in the second half of the season and whether it is correlation or causation, Seattle’s defense improved when he got playing time.
Born in 1997
Javon Kinlaw, DT, 49ers
Dre Greenlaw, LB, 49ers
Nick Bosa, DE, 49ers
Kyler Murray, QB, Cardinals
Jordyn Brooks, LB, Seahawks
Damien Lewis, G, Seahawks
DK Metcalf, WR, Seahawks
David Edwards, G, Rams
Arizona doesn’t have many players of note in the 25-and-younger club, but Murray is the prospect in the division who obviously has the most valuable upside. I mean, if he won MVP in 2021, it wouldn’t be that strange. But he could also have the type of year that gives the Cardinals pause before extending him. Brycen Hopkins was born in 1997 but didn’t play at all as a rookie.
Brooks didn’t do much as a rookie but he was playing behind Bobby Wagner and KJ Wright. I’m giving first round picks some leeway on this list.
The concern here for the Rams, Seahawks, and Cardinals is the Warner-Greenlaw-Bosa-Kinlaw front seven that also includes Arik Armstead, Dee Ford, and another player born in 1997 who barely missed the cut, Kevin Givens. I don’t know much about Givens other than Kyle Posey of Niners Nation telling me that Givens is one of the most intriguing prospects on the defense.
Born in 1998
Brandon Aiyuk, WR, 49ers
Isaiah Simmons, LB, Cardinals
Jordan Fuller, S, Rams
Fuller may have been a sixth round pick but he earned a spot on this list just like he earned a spot starting next to John Johnson. Fuller tied for the rookie lead with three interceptions despite only playing in 12 games. Terrell Burgess was also born in 1998 — and he might have an even brighter future than Fuller — but he didn’t get enough PT last season.
Alton Robinson only member of Seahawks who came close. Terrell Lewis is on a similar level and his health is the main sticking point.
Simmons was the eighth overall pick in 2020 and he’ll deserve some time to find a role in Arizona. It can be hard to learn a position in the NFL even if you’ve been playing it for years already. Simmons doesn’t even know what position he plays yet.
Aiyuk looked like a star player when he was healthy. Aiyuk, Samuel, and George Kittle could be the top trio of weapons in the division in 2021, which would be especially concerning if the 49ers upgraded at quarterback.
Born in 1999
Cam Akers, RB, Rams
The only other two players in the NFC West born in 1999 are Seattle tight end Colby Parkinson (fourth round) and Cardinals running back Eno Benjamin (7th).
Akers won’t be the youngest player in the division next year. Soon, there will be players in the NFL who were not yet born when Brady played in the Orange Bowl. And that’s just super. Maybe Akers still has another 21 years of football left in him too.