((couldn’t find the actual clip on Youtube, sorry))
Hey guys, sorry for the extremely late post today. I’ve had internet and computer problems the last day or so, so I won’t delay the column. Just like I promised last week, here are the young stars for the NFC:
Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie – DRC has become one of the best and most important members in the Arizona secondaries, which is quickly becoming one of the best in the league. He crept out draft boards after his cousin, Antonio Cromartie, had one of the better seasons stats-wise for a corner, and also after running a blazing time in the 40 (4.29). In his first two years, he’s recorded ten interceptions, which is as good as Champ Bailey’s first two years, and only one less interception than the total in Nnamdi Asomugha’s career. He will be their star corner and an elite player in the league for years.
San Francisco 49ers
Patrick Willis – This was another one of those no brainer picks. Willis has taken the NFL by storm since the Niners drafted him in 2007, and is now indisputably the best middle linebacker in the league. He is just a machine between the numbers, with speed usually possessed by outside backers. My friend also had the chance to attend the Niners against the Rams in October, and told me that his hits sounded significantly louder in person. Just insane. While the Niners are not my favorite team, I’m lucky to live in the greater San Francisco area to watch this guy play every Sunday.
John Carlson – Despite being stuck with an atrocious offense last year, Carlson did put up average numbers for a tight end. He did record seven touchdowns and accumulated 574 yards. He has shown flashes of brilliance, but he just hasn’t had the opportunities that other quality tight ends have had. If/when Pete Carroll pulls the trigger and gets a legitimate quarterback, his numbers will still float around the average level. Believe me, though: he will eventually be able to keep up with the Antonio Gates’ and Dallas Clark’s. Eventually.
St. Louis Rams
James Laurinaitis – What a team in terrible disarray. They won one game last year. One! They were so hard to watch; it looked like Alabama could have beaten them. The second round tackle machine out of Ohio State though, was a bright spot for the team. In his debut season, he recorded 120 tackles, two sacks and two interceptions. If the Rams decide to draft Nebraska’s Ndamukong Suh, their defense will be headed towards a very solid direction for their future. I hope that headman Steve Spagnuolo will utilize Laurinaitis more next year.
Greg Olsen – Olsen has produced more and more since coming into the league, and with the Jay Cutler trade occurring, he should compile more stats. He grabbed eight touchdowns last year, along with more catches and more yards. Despite having primadonna at quarterback (don’t worry, I’m not bitter), he is sure an upgrade from Kyle Orton’s or Rex Grossman’s noodle arms.
Matthew Stafford – This guy was the first pick of the draft last year, and despite injuries and playing in Detroit, he did have some bright spots. That last play against Cleveland where he avoided team doctors, ran back on the field, and threw the game winning touchdown. Sure, he threw a ton of picks, but he showed amazing toughness and poise despite throwing passes to the other team.
Green Bay Packers
Clay Matthews – After Aaron Kampman went down last year, people thought the Green Bay defense was done. With a combination of skilled veterans (Charles Woodson, defensive player of the year) and this rookie rusher, their defense was arguably the best in the NFL. Matthews recorded ten sacks in his freshman year, including two a piece on Joe Flacco and Ben Roethlisberger. He could have been defensive rookie of the year, I’d say I would have slightly preferred his year to Brian Cushing’s (both were great though). Regardless, if Green Bay cannot keep Aaron Kampman, they will have a legitimate pass rushing threat regardless. The two of them would be a killer bookend combo.
Adrian Peterson – He may have one of the worst cases of fumblitis in recent memories, but he is currently the best rusher in the league. Last year, number four from Southern Mississippi hijacked the offense and turned it into a passing one, which led to a slump for “All Day.” Then again, an “off year” of 1383 yards and 18 touchdowns could be a career year for most players. His yards per carry have slowly been declining, but he still ran at a good 4.4 yards per carry last season, bringing him to 4.9 yards/carry in his career. Hall of Famer Jim Brown has a career mark of 5.2. AP is scarily close to that mark, and may not reach it. However, anything above a 4.5 is considered great, and Peterson will only get better. He will have his best season next year.
Miles Austin – I remember watching the Denver-Dallas game, and seeing Tony Romo ignoring an open Miles Austin in the back of the end zone. Sure, he missed a couple of open balls on the drive, but he was open! I would guarantee if this game was played around week ten, Denver would have chalked up another loss. Austin had his coming out party against Kansas City the next week, going for a ten catch, 250 yard and two touchdown performance. The week after, against Atlanta, he had six catches, 171 yards and another two touchdowns. I remember seeing an ESPN stat that in those two games, Austin had almost as many yards as Roy Williams did in his career with the Cowboys. Just insane. He has really come out and shown that he is a legitimate threat for the Cowboys, and makes their offense more dangerous.
New York Giants
Steve Smith 2.0 – There was a very real concern that the New York passing offense would crumple after the departure of Amani Toomer and Plaxico Burress, but the very young receiving corps stepped up. Smith was the most impressive of the bunch. Smith had his first 100 catch, 1000 yard season in his first year as the true number one. People have stopped referring to him as the OTHER Steve Smith (or at least I have), due to Carolina’s dropping off last year. I expect to Smith to have another solid year, but expect more contribution from Mario Manningham, Hakeem Nicks and Ramses Barden.
DeSean Jackson – DeSean Jackson is quickly becoming the most electrifying player in football. In almost every game, he had a touchdown for 50 yards or more. He is also the premier player in the Eagles special teams’ squad. He averaged almost 19 yards per catch last year! That is unbelievably good. His incendiary speed burns most opposing corners, allowing for Donovan McNabb to throw up the long ball to him. Two pieces of news that will make Jackson produce more: 1) the Eagles hired special teams guru Bobby April to help focus in on Jackson’s return game and 2) the Eagles cut longtime running back and playmaker Brian Westbrook. This will open up the offense to Jackson, and second year running back LeSean McCoy.
Brian Orakpo – If you ever have the chance to talk to Dylan Davis, my colleague and friend, ask him how angry I was when the Broncos passed up Orakpo for Knowshon Moreno last year. I was so excited that he was skipped by Buffalo, and declared that there was NO WAY they would pass on Orakpo. Well, needless to say, I was wrong. Orakpo led rookies last year with 11 sacks recorded after being thrust in to the fire that is the Redskins defense. The defense did have a very solid year last year, but did not translate into many wins. Orakpo is a fierce pass rusher, and has made the adjustment to the NFL very well. A Haynesworth/Orakpo combo, along with LaRon Landry in the secondary, will make for a very good ‘skins defense.
Matt Ryan – Gentlemen and gentlemen (if you are a female non-relative who reads this, I will change this line), your next big star in the NFL. Ryan was bit by the injury bug last year, but he had a phenomenal rookie year. He led the last place Falcons to an 11-5 record, and into the Wildcard round of the playoffs. Hell, his first career pass was a 62 yard touchdown pass. His GM, Thomas Dimitroff, added future Hall of Famer Tony Gonzales to the roster last year, to add another weapon, and it seemed to work. In two less games played, Ryan completed six more touchdowns and only three more interceptions. In three to four years, Ryan will be full steam blowing ahead in his career, hitting the magical age of 27-28, which seems to be the beginning of a QBs prime. He’s already made the city of Atlanta forget about the whole Mike Vick debacle.
Jonathan Stewart – Coming out of Oregon, Stewart was a huge risk. There were questions whether or not he could play healthily in the wear and tear league, and if his turf toe was fully healed. There was controversy on draft day when Carolina picked him 13th, but the critics have quieted. Stewart has been excellent running in tandem with DeAngelo Williams. In his first two years, Stewart has knocked over defenders for 20 touchdowns, with a Petersonesque 4.9 yards per carry. After Williams got hurt, and Delhomme threw his 291st interception of the year, Stewart became the workhouse they needed. Williams was above average last year and was hurt, so I’d hope the roles at RB switch next year for Carolina.
New Orleans Saints
Tracy Porter – The Super Bowl champs worked through their regular season on their explosive weapons and plethora of weapons, but if it were not for the brilliant play of Darren Sharper, Jabari Greer and Tracy Porter, the Saints would have been home two weeks early. Porter made the jump on the Vikings QB at the end of regulation to take the game to overtime, and made the clutch jump on Reggie Wayne’s route to seal the deal during the Big Game. He only had four interceptions and two force fumbles in the regular season, but had two interceptions off of future Hall of Famers, and a forced fumble. The trio of Porter, Greer and Randall Gay will be able to help the Saints next year on their repeat campaign.
Tampa Bay Buccaneers
Clifton Smith – Man oh man is this roster picked over. They have two young quarterbacks who couldn’t seem to do anything last year despite two quality targets (Kellen Winslow Jr. and Antonio Bryant), and a defense that is lacking veteran leadership. I almost picked Aqib Talib, who had five picks last year, but I chose Smith. He was an undrafted free agent coming out of Fresno State, but made an immediate impact in the Bucs’ return game. Hopefully Tampa Bay adds some more quality players, but until then, Smith is a small beacon of hope for them.
That’s all for this week, sorry I didn’t talk about the combine. I’ll hit that and the beginning of free agency next time. Until then, stay classy Planet Earth.