ESPN Insiders breakthrough offensive players
Breakthrough Players: Offense
By Ryan Early
Monday, July 14
Updated: July 14
2:18 PM ET
Each season brings with it new stars to capture our attention and fascination. Some are easy to foresee, like Panthers defensive end Julius Peppers, who burst onto the scene last year by making 12 sacks in his 12 games played. Others have stories and journeys that defy reason before they make it into the national spotlight.
Steelers quarterback Tommy Maddox bounced around different teams and found himself out of football until his career was resurrected by the now defunct XFL. His strong play there gave him the backup job in Pittsburgh, where suddenly he found himself taking over for a benched Kordell Stewart and leading his team into the playoffs.
While it is impossible to predict a story like that, here are several players poised to emerge as headline makers in the 2003 season.
Matt Hasselbeck, QB, Seahawks - Since coming from the Packers via trade in 2001, Hasselbeck has been in and out as the Seahawks starter, repeatedly swapping places with Trent Dilfer. Hasselbeck looked like he had lost the battle for good when Dilfer suddenly went down with a torn Achilles' tendon in Week 8 last year. Knowing that he could not be benched again that season, Hasselbeck stopped trying to do too much on the field and instead began trusting Mike Holmgren's offensive system. The results were impressive as over the final six games as he threw 12 touchdown passes and averaged 344 yards passing. He also finished the year as the NFC leader in completion percentage. He has an outstanding offensive line in front of him and an emerging and talented receiving corps. But most important, Hasselbeck now has hard experience to guide him in becoming an outstanding quarterback.
Patrick Ramsey, QB, Redskins - The Redskins' second-year quarterback is the biggest longshot among our breakthrough projections, but his situation has too much upside to ignore. Ramsey started six games his rookie year and went through the typical rookie quarterback growing pains, but still managed to throw for 1,539 yards and more touchdowns (9) than interceptions (8). With a full offseason to study Steve Spurrier's "Fun 'n Gun" offense, Ramsey will be much better at understanding where his receivers are and knowing how to adjust to what the defense is showing. Plus, the Redskins upgraded their offensive line and added several more receivers in wideouts Laveranues Coles, rookie Taylor Jacobs and running back Trung Canidate. The Redskins will air the ball out often, which should pad Ramsey's stats enough to keep him among the leaders in several offensive categories. The biggest danger to Ramsey's breakthrough year is the chance of the volatile Spurrier making a reactionary move to the bench when Ramsey makes a bad decision.
William Green, RB, Browns - Halfway through the 2002 season, the Browns' top draft choice was frustrated and underutilized, having gained just 161 rushing yards through nine games. But during the team's bye week head coach Butch Davis decided to make Green the primary runner rather than having him split carries with Jamel White. Before kickoff of the Week 11 game against the Bengals, a lot of his teammates were wondering if it was the right decision as Green was so nervous and keyed up that he became sick on the sideline. But the high-strung running back pushed that extra energy through his legs and powered the team to the playoffs. Over those final seven games, Green ran for 726 yards and five touchdowns and the Browns went 5-2 to make the postseason.
Kevan Barlow, RB, 49ers - The 49ers have split playing time between Garrison Hearst and Barlow in both of the last two seasons, with Hearst getting the bigger piece of the pie. That should finally change in Barlow's third season. Barlow has had a higher rushing average each year, and is finally showing the coaches that he can be trusted in his blocking and route running assignments. Hearst is an outstanding locker room leader, but if it wasn't for that he might not have been invited back to the team this year because of his high salary-cap number. He will definitely be gone next year and the 49ers need to see if Barlow can handle the every down pounding before making a decision to re-sign him in free agency. They may start the season splitting carries again, but by the second half of the year, Barlow should be the primary back.
Jerry Porter, WR, Raiders - Quarterback Rich Gannon is the best quarterback in the league at spreading the field and making accurate passes, but over the second half of last season it was obvious that starting receivers Jerry Rice and Tim Brown no longer had the speed necessary to push down the field. The answer emerged in the playoffs as Porter became the team's deep threat. He led the league in postseason receiving yards with 237 and scored three touchdowns. He was already the team's big play maker from the regular season by scoring nine touchdowns despite not being a starter. Porter has the total package in size and speed, but came into the league still learning how to play the wide receiver position. He had the best education in the world watching and learning from Rice and Brown and is now ready to take that knowledge and apply it in a full-time role.
Quincy Morgan, WR, Browns - Although the Browns ranked a disappointing 23rd in the league in offense, their roster is overflowing with talented players. Their top two quarterbacks are so close in talent that they've got a full-blown quarterback controversy this offseason. Their third and fourth wide receivers could start for some teams. And they have one of the deepest backfields in the league. In Morgan's rookie season of 2001, he frequently frustrated fans by making an acrobatic catch one play, then dropping his next pass. Last year, he made big strides to become a consistent big play threat, scoring seven touchdowns and finishing with at least 80 receiving yards six times. This offseason, he has improved his route running and catching even more; he looks like an elite receiver on the practice field. Even with so many other avenues for the quarterbacks to deliver the ball, they will know that Morgan is their new go-to guy.
Donte' Stallworth, WR, Saints - Every franchise is in a constant struggle to improve its team speed. The Saints got a leg up on their opponents last year when they spent the 13th overall draft pick on this late entry receiver. Saying Stallworth is a burner is an understatement. Rookie wide receivers rarely make much of an impact on the game because of their limited knowledge of pro offenses, but Stallworth gained almost 600 yards purely with his ability to blow by defenders. But what is especially scary to the teams on the Saints 2003 schedule is how much understanding Stallworth showed in his route running. With an All-Pro receiver in Joe Horn playing on the opposite side, neither receiver will see a lot of double-teams, as defenses must choose which man they want to be burned by.
Ashley Lelie, WR, Broncos - When he was leaving the University of Hawaii, his coach, June Jones, called him the best wide receiver he'd ever coached. Those are big words from the master of the run and shoot offense. Lelie had 525 receiving yards last year, including an 100-yard game against the Raiders. Those numbers could have been much better as he just missed on a number of acrobatic attempts. Ed McCaffrey is standing in Lelie's way in the fight for playing time, but McCaffrey has not been able to do his normal offseason preparation because of surgery. The increased reps that Lelie has gotten in minicamps will continue into training camp to help him solidify his hold on the starting job opposite Rod Smith. The biggest struggle Lelie has had is learning how to run block, a must-have skill for receivers in the Broncos' offense.
Randy McMichael, TE, Dolphins - While first-round tight end picks like Jerramy Stevens of the Seahawks and Daniel Graham of the Patriots were struggling to adjust to life in the NFL early last season, McMichael was forcing defenders to adjust to him. He may have lasted until the fourth round of the draft, but that was because of an especially deep tight end class and questions about his blocking ability, but he quickly proved himself as a receiver in his very first pro game, catching four passes for 73 yards and scoring a touchdown. His 12.4 yard average per reception is higher than many wide receivers in the league, but his production tailed off badly when Jay Fiedler went down to injury and was replaced by the erratic Ray Lucas. Then the grind of the longer NFL season started to wear him down. This year, the Dolphins have upgraded at the quarterback position by bringing in Brian Griese, and have added new plays to the offense specifically for McMichael. They also plan on keeping him on the field more. All of that adds up to him seeing a significant jump in stats in his second year.
Damien Woody, C, Patriots - Four years ago Woody entered the league as a rare first-round pick center and arrogantly declared he would end his career as the greatest center the NFL had ever seen. He quickly learned that it is easier to say things than actually do them, like distance snapping in shotgun formations, which he struggled with so badly the Patriots decided to move him to guard on those plays and have someone else snap. His internship in the NFL trenches is now over, and with four seasons of experience behind him, Woody is now ready to fulfill that potential he had entering the league. As far as best ever, we'll have to wait and see.
LeCharles Bentley, G, Saints - As a rookie last year, Bentley turned heads as soon as contact started in training camp by not just beating the men he lined up against, but manhandling them. When the Saints beat the Bucs, twice, Bentley shut down both Warren Sapp and Anthony McFarland. What's odd is that he is not a behemoth man-mountain who engulfs his opponent. Instead, he's a short, squat guard who struggles to get his weight up to 300, but that doesn't stop him from playing much bigger. He has so much tenacity that he looks like he's attacking defenders rather than blocking them. Because of his size limitations, Bentley will never be able to move outside to the tackle position. But he should have no problems making the Pro Bowl this year staying on the interior of the line.
John Welbourn, G, Eagles - Philadelphia sent three of its offensive linemen to the Pro Bowl but many on the team thought the most deserving was Welbourn, who was not selected. For linemen, recognition is based on reputation, which is both slow to come by and even slower to lose. Welbourn started out as a tackle and has the agility to handle that position well. He has had to adjust his game to play in the interior of the line and has improved his strength and power to deal with the hulking defensive tackles of the league. Welbourn missed five games early in the 2002 season with a broken leg and the Eagles' running game sputtered without him. Realizing how dependent they are on the young guard, the Eagles signed Welbourn to an unheard of eight-year contract extension.
Bryant McKinnie, OT, Vikings - After holding out in a contract dispute for over half his rookie season, McKinnie didn't get his first start until Week 11. But he quickly showed why he was selected with the sevnth overall pick in the draft as he possesses nimble feet and hands on a massive 6-8, 345-pound body. He is nearly unbeatable in pass blocking as he has the size to stop bull rushers cold and the frame and speed to keep up with speed edge rushers and steer them away from the quarterback. He still needs to learn to use his size more aggressively in run blocking, but that will come.
Levi Jones, OT, Bengals - Jones was a surprise mid-first-round pick in the 2002 draft that had many draftniks and football fans laughing at the perennially disappointing Bengals. By the end of his rookie season, Jones was the one laughing. While many thought the team could have waited and gotten Jones later in the draft, solid left tackles are so rare that the Bengals were more than justified taking him where they did. He quickly supplanted Richmond Webb as the team's starter and was one of the few strengths on the offensive line. Equally adept at run blocking, pass blocking and pulling, Jones looks to be one of the better versatile left tackles in the league for the next 10 to 15 years.
Kareem McKenzie, OT, Jets - When the Jets offered starting right tackle Ryan Young to the Texans in the expansion draft in exchange for helping them take some high-priced players off their books, it looked like an aggressive but risky move. Good offensive tackles are hard to come by, even those who play on the less challenging right side. But the Jets wanted to push second-year tackle Kareem McKenzie past Young on the depth chart anyway, and were just doing some shrewd cap maneuvering in the process. McKenzie started all 16 games on the right side and looks like an emerging star. He can dominate in the running game, exploding into the defensive end and driving him out of the play. His biggest improvement has come in pass blocking as he has learned to move laterally to deal with edge speed rushers.
Editor's Note: Check back Tuesday for defensive breakthrough players.
ESPN Insiders breakthrough offensive players
how slow some are to catch on to our offense, they\'ll be looking a lot slower come game time..........smittly
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