Gazing Into a Crystal Ball

<i>The following are a series of fearless predictions for the '02 NFL season made by yours truly:</i><br><br> Breakout players to watch out for: Every year, there are always some players that take that next step in the process of progression for their respective team. Last year, Plaxico Burress broke out of his rookie shell, and became a true no.1 wide receiver in the NFL last year.

Many thought Laveranues Coles would be a no.3 or no.4 wideout for the Jets last year, behind Wayne Chrebet, Matthew Hatchette, and Santana Moss. Due to injuries, Coles got the chance to step up, and he did.


In Green Bay, highly touted tight end Bubba Franks made great strides last year to prove he is a part of the elite class of tight ends in the NFL. Keith Brooking was deemed an injury prone player before last season, although he always had great promise as a linebacker coming out of Georgia Tech. Now, Brooking is deemed as one of the top tier middle linebackers in the game, with his great combination of speed, and his relentless attitude.


The biggest breakout season from last year may have come from wide receiver David Boston. Boston, a ton ten pick a couple of years ago, made the jump from being a second tier talent, to being a bona fide all-pro receiver.


Now, here are eight players that could have legitimate breakout seasons this year:


1.      Dan Morgan: He's ready to take his place among the truly elite middle linebackers in the game. Morgan played weakside linebacker last year, where he wasn't able to fully assimilate himself to the position. Now, Morgan will play his natural position of middle linebacker, where he excelled in college. With former Ravens linebackers coach Jack Del Rio taking over as defensive coordinator of the team, the same coach who worked with Ray Lewis will tutor Morgan.


2.       Leonard Davis: It's hard to call an offensive lineman a "breakout" player, but Davis will stamp his name among the best guards in football this year. Although he didn't exactly play badly last year, Davis did struggle to make the clean switch from being a left tackle in college, to being a right guard in the NFL. That said, Davis, the no.2 pick from last year's draft, has the size (351 pounds), and skills, to become the next Larry Allen or Jon Hannah. 


3.      Michael Bennett: With a renewed commitment to run the ball under head coach Mike Tice, look for Bennett to explode this season. Bennett, was Minnesota's first round pick last year, and was looked on to pick up the slack after Robert Smith retired. Bennett, who suffered from nagging ankle injuries through the first half of the season, couldn't get himself going until the tail end of the year. Now the Vikings will take more of an advantage of Bennett's outside speed by running off the edges, behind the left side of their offensive line.


4.       Steve Hutchinson: Another offensive guard has been added to the list. Like Davis, Hutchinson is a first round talent who has the talent to be special. He's more of a blue-collar, smash mouth lineman who crushes players that stand in his way. This is especially true when he is blocking for standout tailback Shaun Alexander. Hutchinson also has a mean streak that could be unrivaled throughout the league.


5.      Michael Vick: There may not be a more scrutinized player this year than Michael Vick. The no.1 pick from last year's draft has been labeled as the "Second Coming" at the quarterback position. A player that runs like a running back, and can throw the ball 60 yards at will, Vick certainly has the physical tools to excel. However, if he's to become an elite quarterback in this league, Vick needs to improve his accuracy, and he'll need to learn how to make the right reads on the field.


6.      Thomas Jones: The fans in Arizona have grown restless with Jones lack of production within the last two years. Chosen as the no.7 pick in the '00 draft, Jones has yet to play up to his draft status. However, the true indication of how good a player Jones really is will come this year. With Michael Pittman's departure to Tampa Bay, Jones will get most of the carries this season. With an imposing offensive line to run behind, and a good pass attacking to help take the pressure off of him, Jones has enough talent around him to prove he's not a bust.


7.      Todd Heap: With his combination of speed, soft hands, and keen route running ability, Heap is reminding the Ravens of their old tight end, Shannon Sharpe. Taken out of the first round last year, Heap didn't get much of a chance to prove his worth playing behind Sharpe last season. Now, not only is Heap the Ravens' starting tight end, but probably one of their top two weapons on offense. Look for first year quarterback Chris Redman to develop an instant rapport with Heap.


8.      Nate Clements: Clements had a strong rookie campaign last year, but he could be ready to take the next step as a dominant shutdown corner this year. His combination of size, speed, and strength makes him very hard to throw on. Against Jacksonville last year, Clements kept all-pro wide receiver Jimmy Smith in check, and he fared well against other receivers like Plaxico Burress and Marvin Harrison. With fellow standout corner Antoine Winfield on the other side, the duo will make life hell for opposing quarterbacks this year.



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