Generation X And O

2000 And Beyond

September 10, 1999|By Ken Murray | Ken Murray,SUN STAFF

12 players to watch

Randy Moss arrived in the NFL with a bounty of big plays as a flamboyant wide receiver for the Minnesota Vikings a year ago. Peyton Manning checked in with a hail of pinpoint passes as a poised quarterback for the Indianapolis Colts.

From the Class of 1998, they are among the top stars who figure to be marquee names through the next decade.

In the countdown to the new millennium, here are 12 players who should play leading roles in the NFL's next generation.

1. Randy Moss, Vikings, wide receiver, 22

Few rookies have ever had the kind of impact Moss achieved last season. He was named to the All-Pro team with 69 catches and 1,313 yards. His 17 touchdown receptions and 19.0 yards per catch led the NFC and were instrumental in the Vikings' 15-1 regular season.

Moss altered the balance of power in the NFC Central, where he heaped his most abuse on the Vikings' biggest division rival, the Packers. In two wins over Green Bay, Moss had 13 catches for 343 yards and three touchdowns of more than 40 yards.

2. Peyton Manning, Colts, quarterback, 23

The first pick in the 1998 draft was the only quarterback in the league to take every snap for his team last year. Manning set NFL rookie records for completions (326), attempts (575), yards (3,739), touchdowns (26) and consecutive games with a TD pass (13).

His first season was not without its trials, however. He threw a league-high 28 interceptions and the Colts won only three games. What may have been his best individual performance (357 yards, three TDs) went for naught in a 38-31 loss to the Ravens that marked the Colts' first game in Baltimore since leaving in 1984.

3. Jake Plummer, Cardinals, quarterback, 24

A second-round draft pick in 1997, Plummer took Arizona to the playoffs in his second season. Along the way, he fashioned an Elway-esque reputation as a comeback king. In his first 26 games, Plummer logged nine come-from-behind victories in the fourth quarter. John Elway, the all-time leader with 47, had just four comeback wins in his first 26 games.

Despite his slender frame, Plummer was prolific in the passing game, throwing for 465 yards against Dallas and 394 against the Giants last season. His two-year record as a starter is 12-13.

4. Jonathan Ogden, Ravens, offensive tackle, 25

The first-ever draft pick of the Ravens in 1996, Ogden had the speed to launch his pro career at left guard and the skill to play left tackle his second season after a trade sent Tony Jones to Denver. Extremely athletic at 6 feet 8 and 320 pounds, Ogden was a starter for the AFC in the last two Pro Bowls, and was named second-team All-Pro last season.

5. Darrell Russell, Raiders, defensive tackle, 23

Switched from end to tackle, Russell matured into an All-Pro force his second season. The second pick of the 1997 draft delivered 10 sacks, three forced fumbles, one fumble recovery, two passes defensed and 12.5 stuffs (stopping the running back for the loss) among his 64 tackles.

Not coincidentally, the Raiders' defense leaped from last in the league in total yards to fifth-best.

6. Charles Woodson, Raiders, cornerback, 22

Another reason for Oakland's dramatic improvement on defense. The fourth pick in last year's draft, Woodson picked off five passes -- returning one for a touchdown -- in 16 starts. He was excellent in the Raiders' press coverage and was no liability against the run.

The 1997 Heisman Trophy winner from Michigan -- where he also played wide receiver -- earned Defensive Rookie of the Year honors.

7. Fred Taylor, Jaguars, running back, 23

When veteran James Stewart went down with a season-ending knee injury in Week 3 last season, the Jaguars turned their running game over to Taylor, the ninth pick in the draft. He exceeded beyond their wildest dreams, rushing for 1,223 yards in 15 games.

Taylor was a coast-to-coast threat both as a rusher and a receiver. His highlight reel included a 77-yard touchdown run and a 78-yard scoring reception. He had 17 touchdowns altogether, and accumulated six 100-yard rushing games.

8. Ray Lewis, Ravens, middle linebacker, 24

Roaming sideline to sideline, Lewis has been a tackling machine for the Ravens the last three years. He has registered 506 tackles in 44 games -- averaging 11.5 a game -- including 154 a year ago when he was named second-team All-Pro.

Despite missing two games and most of a third with a dislocated elbow, the intense Lewis led the team in tackles last season to earn his second trip to the Pro Bowl. He also defensed 10 passes, picked off two passes and registered three sacks.

9. Champ Bailey, Redskins, cornerback, 21

Another playmaker on the corner, Bailey is in the Woodson mold -- exceptional athlete with tantalizing versatility. A receiver and cornerback at Georgia, Bailey may get some time on offense once he learns his position.

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