Moss moves to head of hot rookie class '98 draft group getting high marks so far

October 16, 1998|By Ken Murray | Ken Murray,SUN STAFF

The biggest riddle going into the 1998 NFL draft has become its most provocative answer.

The rookie who has made the greatest impact on his team in the first six weeks?

Easy. Wide receiver Randy Moss with the Minnesota Vikings.

The same Randy Moss who was passed over by 19 teams -- one of them twice -- before Vikings coach Dennis Green leaped on him like a hammer on a nail with the 21st pick.

The resulting strike sent shivers through the rest of the NFC, a territory once governed by the Green Bay Packers. Moss has 22 catches for 463 yards in five games. His 21.0 average per catch leads the NFL and his six touchdowns lead the NFC.

"The early return on Moss is he's outstanding," said Bill Kuharich, president of the New Orleans Saints and one of those who passed. "But I don't think anybody questioned Moss' skill."

With Moss at the forefront, the Class of '98 has gotten off to a great start. In a year when franchise quarterbacks Peyton Manning and Ryan Leaf opened the draft, the list of playmakers covers an expansive amount of ground. Rarely has a class

offered so much promise so early.

Here are a few of those highlights:

Jacksonville running back Fred Taylor, ninth pick of the draft, has ripped off touchdown runs of 52 and 77 yards since taking over for injured James Stewart in Week 3. He has a pair of 100-yard games and a 5.7 average carry.

New England running back Robert Edwards, 18th pick, pounded out his first 100-yard rushing game in Week 6 while scoring his fifth and sixth touchdowns. Remarkably, Edwards already is being compared to Denver's Terrell Davis, and not just because they both played at Georgia.

Oakland cornerback Charles Woodson, fourth pick, got burned in the opener, but bounced back with two interceptions since then, one for a 46-yard touchdown that helped beat Arizona, 23-20.

Green Bay defensive end Vonnie Holliday, who went 11 picks after his North Carolina teammate Greg Ellis in the first round, has four sacks and two fumble recoveries. He filled a huge hole for the Packers.

Detroit cornerback Terry Fair, 20th pick, has returned kickoffs for touchdowns of 105 and 101 yards and moved into the starting lineup.

Other prominent rookies include Arizona defensive end Andre Wadsworth (four sacks), Chicago running back Curtis Enis (306 yards rushing), Tampa Bay's Jacquez Green (95-yard punt return), Atlanta's Tim Dwight (93-yard kickoff return, 44-yard touchdown catch), New Orleans tight end Cam Cleeland (13.4 average gain on 18 catches) and Detroit quarterback Charlie Batch, who's shown poise under pressure.

Perhaps only the Class of '96 -- with first-rounders Keyshawn Johnson, Kevin Hardy, Simeon Rice, Jonathan Ogden, Terry Glenn, Eddie George, John Mobley, Marvin Harrison and Ray Lewis -- got off to a better start in this decade.

The Class of '98?

"No question, when you look at what they've done, it looks like it will be a pretty good group," said Tom Donahoe, director of football operations for the Pittsburgh Steelers.

"But I have to caution drawing conclusions after five or six games. I know fans and the media like to do that. One of the biggest tests of players in this league is consistency and who can do it over the long haul.

"A lot of players come into the league and are a flash in the pan. lot of players struggle early -- you look and say 'He's a failure' -- then get their feet on the ground, get some confidence, learn how to practice and end up being pretty good players."

Although there have been a number of fourth-round contributors -- like Dwight, Miami defensive end Lorenzo Bromell, Jacksonville running back Tavian Banks, Chicago tight end Alonzo Mayes -- this was not viewed as an especially deep draft.

"I thought this was a first-day draft," said Ozzie Newsome, vice president of player personnel for the Ravens. "At the end of the first day, everybody's board was wiped out."

The first round was intriguing for its twists and turns. Defensive ends Grant Wistrom (sixth pick) and Greg Ellis (eighth) went to St. Louis and Dallas, respectively, even though some rated Holliday higher.

"Look who's doing the drafting there," said Mel Kiper Jr., Baltimore's draft guru, who rated Holliday in his top 10. "The Rams took Lawrence Phillips a few years ago and Dallas has been a poor drafting team, too. Just because a team makes a pick doesn't mean it's the right one."

Holliday fell into the Packers' lap at 19 after they had traded up ostensibly to get safety Shaun Williams. Why did Holliday drop?

"He had an injury and didn't work out until right before the draft," Newsome said, indicating there also was a question on Holliday's competitiveness.

Holliday was another player the Saints considered with the seventh pick, along with Moss and offensive tackle Kyle Turley, whom they eventually took.

"It was the first draft in a long time where we felt whatever guy we picked was 'bingo,' " said Kuharich. "And Holliday has been great in Green Bay."

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