Stars of tomorrow now on display

Teams reaping rewards from generation next

November 21, 2010|By Sam Farmer

Buccaneers quarterback Josh Freeman has nine career victories, six of them fourth-quarter comebacks.

Browns running back Peyton Hillis has emerged as one of the NFL's toughest ballcarriers to bring down.

Ravens left tackle Michael Oher has locked down the most difficult position on the line, and — in keeping with the book and movie that chronicled his teenage years — he's now protecting the blind side.

They are but three of the league's up-and-coming players, emerging household names. Time will tell if they are lasting stars or merely shooting ones.

Heading into a weekend pitting some of the most prominent players of the past decade — Peyton Manning vs. Tom Brady, Brett Favre vs. Aaron Rodgers, Michael Vick vs. Eli Manning — it's worth noting that a lot of teams have benefited from generation-next players, ones well on their way to spending the next decade in the spotlight.

A look at some players to watch:

Freeman: As the 17th player selected in the 2009 draft, the former Kansas State quarterback didn't come out of the blue. But, for a player who only began starting the second half of last season, he has performed remarkably well. He has won five of his last six starts on the road.

Hillis: There aren't many backs who run with the brute force of Hillis, who has nine touchdowns in his last nine games. If he scores another touchdown Sunday against the Jaguars, he will be the first Browns player to have 10 in the first 10 games of the season since 1968.

Oher: Best known as the central figure in "The Blind Side," the second-year Ravens tackle moved from the right side as a rookie to the left. He's not yet Jonathan Ogden, the All-Pro he was drafted to replace, and he might never be. But he has provided the Ravens with security at the position and did a particularly good job in a victory over the Steelers earlier this season.

Kroy Biermann, defensive end, Falcons: One of the reasons John Abraham (eight sacks) has been so effective this season is the emergence of Biermann, who plays on the opposite side. Offenses have a more difficult time double-teaming Abraham because Biermann, a fifth-round pick in 2008, is a legitimate pass rusher, far better than Jamaal Anderson, the eighth overall pick in 2007.

Patrick Chung, safety, Patriots: The second-year safety is second on the team in tackles behind defensive captain Jerod Mayo. Chung has shown the potential to be a similar player to the Colts' Bob Sanders, the type of hitter who can change the course of a game. He also had two blocked kicks in the Patriots' lopsided victory over the Dolphins.

Mike Williams, wide receiver, Seahawks: A former USC star the Lions drafted 10th overall in 2005, Williams could wind up being the league's comeback player of the year. He resurfaced after two years out of football to emerge as a central figure in the Seahawks offense. In a victory over the Cardinals last week, he had a career-best 145 yards and had 11 catches, tying the career high he set earlier this season.

Jacob Tamme, tight end, Colts: Replacing the injured Dallas Clark is a tall order, especially for an inexperienced player such as Tamme. But, in keeping with the Colts' "next-man-up" philosophy, Manning has a way of bringing along young receivers, as he did last season with Pierre Garcon and Austin Collie. In the last three games in place of Clark, Tamme has 24 receptions for 245 yards and two touchdowns.

Manning could have been speaking for teams and young players all over the league this week when asked if he trusts Tamme to make the plays he needs to make.

"I think you have to trust him," the quarterback said. "There is no time to get out there and say, 'Boy, I can't make this play because I'm not sure.' You have to go out there and go play."

sfarmer@tribune.com

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