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Notebook: Postseason repeats might hinge on these

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Notebook: Postseason repeats might hinge on these guys

Pete Prisco July 8, 2005

By Pete Prisco

CBS SportsLine.com Senior Writer

With training camps opening at the end of the month, all 32 teams will have jobs on the line, jobs for which they will need young players to step up in order to have a chance for a successful season.

That includes the playoff teams from a year ago. Nobody in this cap era, even in the top tier, is immune from needing young players in key spots.

Nate Burleson faces the nearly impossible task of replacing Randy Moss in Minnesota.

Even two-time defending champion New England needs help from young players and the Patriots do as well as anybody at putting them on the field and not missing a beat. (See Randall Gay from last year.)

So we thought here in early July would be a good time to take a look at the key young players who must come through for the 12 playoff teams from a year ago.

If these players stumble to fill the role, their teams could have problems. In some cases, it could mean missing the playoffs -- which says something about these players' importance.

AFC

New England Patriots, Vince Wilfork, nose tackle: The Patriots let Keith Traylor walk, which forces Wilfork in as the starter. Wilfork is a powerful player who can play the run, but he also has the quickness to get a few sacks. Traylor, and Ted Washington before him, were nothing but run stuffers, but Wilfork showed more than that as a rookie. Wilfork should prove to be a major upgrade over Traylor and will once again prove the Patriots to be one of the best drafting teams. This guy was one of our favorites coming out in 2004, and we won't back away from that. New England stole him.

Pittsburgh Steelers, Max Starks, right tackle: The Steelers lost right tackle Oliver Ross to Arizona in free agency, which puts Starks at the top of the team's depth chart. A third-round pick in 2004, he's a massive man at 6-feet-7, 337 pounds, but the knock on him is that he's soft. He'll have to prove to the Steelers that he's tough enough. That's a big task considering line coach Russ Grimm was one of the toughest in the game. If Starks falters, the Steelers could turn to Trai Essex, their third-round pick this year, but that would be rushing him. Starks has to come through, particularly since the right tackle is so vital to the running game.

Indianapolis Colts, Marlin Jackson, cornerback: The Colts used a first-round pick in April on Jackson, who should be a rookie starter on opening day. He impressed with his silky smooth coverage ability during the team's offseason work. Even Peyton Manning noticed, which says something about the way he played. Jackson doesn't run that well, but in the Colts' cover-two scheme, he's the perfect fit. He was a playmaker at Michigan, and that won't change in the NFL. If he struggles, though, the Colts defense could again be hit by a lot of big pass plays.

New York Jets, Adrian Jones, right tackle: The Jets lost Kareem McKenzie to the Giants in free agency. That was a big hit, particularly since Curtis Martin does most of his running to the right. Jones was a left tackle in college at Kansas State, so he's a little light (297) for right tackle. But he's still growing and has outstanding feet. McKenzie was a good player, but not a great one. The Jets feel Jones can develop into the same type of player. He might struggle some early on, but he has a chance to be a good one.

San Diego Chargers, Drayton Florence, cornerback: When Sammy Davis went down last year with an injury, the Chargers secondary got better. That's because of Florence. A third-year player from Tuskegee, Florence was clearly an upgrade over Davis, who was a first-round pick in 2003 when Florence came in the second round. The Chargers now have Florence penciled in as the starter. Davis will likely be the nickel back if he can't beat out Florence in camp.

Denver Broncos, Tatum Bell, running back: When the Broncos traded Ruben Droughns to the Browns, it made clear what many thought: Bell's their guy. As a rookie last season, Bell showed late that he had the explosiveness the Broncos like from their backs. He is perfect for their cutback running attack, and his speed will provide a lot of big plays. He added some muscle in the offseason, which should help him withstand the pounding inside. Look for Bell to have a 1,300-yard season.

NFC

Philadelphia Eagles, Shawn Andrews, right guard: The Eagles used a first-round pick on Andrews last year, and he was set to start at left guard before he broke his leg in the opener and never returned. With the loss of Jermane Mayberry to the Saints in free agency, Andrews will now start at right guard. At 6-3, 340 pounds, he is an overpowering player who is far more athletic than he looks. There should be no drop in play at right guard with Andrews taking over. The Eagles, like the Patriots, do a great job of replacing players.

Atlanta Falcons, Demorrio Williams, linebacker: The Falcons are excited about Williams, a smallish linebacker who can run. He showed he could be an effective run-and-chase linebacker last year as a rookie, starting one game. With Matt Stewart gone, Williams will battle veteran free-agent signee Ike Reese for the starting weak-side spot. Williams is younger and faster, and word is it's his job to lose. With Williams Playing next to Edgerton Hartwell and Keith Brooking, the Falcons think he will blossom. Linebackers who can run and cover are valuable commodities in this era of wide-open football. Keep an eye on this guy.

Green Bay Packers, Adrian Klemm, Matt O'Dwyer and Kevin Barry, guards: The Packers lost both starting guards in free agency. Mike Wahle signed with the Panthers, and Marco Rivera went to the Cowboys. That's a tough hit, but remember an important thing: They're guards. They're replaceable. The question is whether Klemm, O'Dwyer and Barry are up to it. Klemm was a tackle with the Patriots before coming to the Packers, but he has the athletic ability to move inside. O'Dwyer is a street fighter who is limited athletically and has battled injuries the past couple of seasons. Barry is also a former tackle who has dropped weight to become a factor at guard. The Packers won't be as good inside as they were last season, but the key is making that drop in play less than expected.

Minnesota Vikings, Nate Burleson, receiver: When Randy Moss missed time last season, Burelson played well. But that was in a temporary role. With Moss traded to the Raiders, it's time for Burleson to step up and become the go-to guy for Daunte Culpepper. Burleson had nine touchdowns last year, so he can make big plays. It's another step up, though, when teams know you're the No.1 receiver. The key will be how well Burleson handles that pressure. Replacing Moss is impossible. But Burleson has to come close.

St. Louis Rams, Alex Barron, right tackle: When Kyle Turley was lost for the season in training camp last summer with a bad back, the Rams line went from a strong point to a problem. They tried a bunch of players to fill the hole, but they still gave up 50 sacks, 27th in the league. That's way too many. To remedy that problem, the Rams used a first-round pick on Barron. He was considered a left tackle by most teams, but with Orlando Pace on the roster, he was moved to the right side. That shouldn't be a problem since he flip-flopped at Florida State. Barron will certainly be an upgrade on anything the Rams had playing there last season. This line won't give up 50 sacks.

Seattle Seahawks, Marcus Tubbs, defensive tackle: The Seahawks gave up 126.9 yards per game last season, which was 27th in the league. That's terrible for a playoff team. They thought Tubbs, their first-round pick in 2004, would be a big answer to their run-defense woes. It never happened. Tubbs struggled as a rookie and started three games. But he has had a good offseason and is expected to take over for Rashad Moore as the starter. At 6-4, 320, he has the size to help shut down the run game. It takes time for defensive tackles to adjust to the NFL. The Seahawks feel that Tubbs used last year to do that, and now he's ready for a big season.

Around the league

* The league's supplemental draft is next Thursday, and the top prize is Southern Cal defensive tackle Manuel Wright. He's a power player who has all the tools to be a quality NFL starter. He didn't always play up to those abilities at USC, but if he gets with the right team and realizes his vast potential, somebody will be getting a heck of a player. The word around the league is Wright will be taken in the third round, although it wouldn't be a shock to see him go in the second for this draft, which is held for players with special cases. Wright had academic troubles, which is why he's available; otherwise, he'd be starting for the Trojans this fall.

The late word is that Wright's stock is rising with a lot of teams. It makes sense. Seeing him, at 6-6 and 310 pounds, chase down Cal quarterback Aaron Rodgers for a sack when the Trojans beat Cal last year was an impressive display of speed for a man his size. That ability has him moving up in the eyes of a lot of scouts and personnel people.

Another player who could be selected is Clemson receiver Roscoe Crosby, who's 6-2, 210 and has been timed at under 4.5 in the 40. He's a raw kid who impressed as a freshman in 2001 at Clemson, then quit to play minor-league baseball. He returned to school in 2003 but quit the team. He decided to enter this draft instead of using his three years of college football eligibility. It's a risky move, but with his size and speed, somebody might take a chance on him.

The team that uses a pick on a player in the supplemental draft will have to forfeit that pick in next April. For example, if a team uses a second-round pick on Wright, it would not have one next spring. That makes using a high pick risky, but we feel Wright is worth it. Some players who came into the league via the supplemental draft are Cleveland quarterback Bernie Kosar, Seattle linebacker Brian Bosworth and Jets receiver Rob Moore. All were first-round supplemental picks.

* The National Football Scouting and Blesto scouting services, which do a lot of the preliminary scouting around the league, recently held their summer meetings to release their grades on 2005 college seniors. This has typically been a laughable thing for many team scouts, who actually do the brunt of the real evaluation. "It's nothing more than a starting point," said one team's personnel director. "Look at some of their rankings heading into the seasons from years past. They don't come close." An AFC scout added, "They're a bunch of young guys just starting out working for those services. That shows up in their grades." The teams that subscribe to the services use them mostly for a place to start. National ranks USC quarterback Matt Leinart as the sixth-best prospect. That's a joke. Leinart will be one of the top two or three players picked next April.

* Jason White won a Heisman Trophy at Oklahoma in 2003 and then had another good year last season. Then he didn't get drafted. Now we might know why. Three of White's receivers -- Mark Clayton, Mark Bradley and Brandon Jones -- have their new NFL teams excited about their chances of being contributors as rookies. Clayton, a first-round pick by the Ravens, is expected to push for a starting job right away; Bradley, who has already signed his contract as Chicago's second-round pick, has the deep speed the Bears will need opposite Muhsin Muhammad; Jones, a long strider taken in the third round by the Titans, impressed during the team's summer work while catching some balls from White, who the Titans signed as a free agent. Throwing to Clayton, Bradley and Jones, it's no wonder White looked as good as he did.

* The Falcons have decided to keep Peerless Price and give him a chance to redeem himself for two lackluster seasons since they traded a first-round pick to get him two years ago. But there are some inside the Falcons building who think Price has been open more than his numbers indicate. That means Michael Vick hasn't used him enough. The feeling is that Vick doesn't look to the receivers enough and instead uses tight end Alge Crumpler as his security blanket too much. That was something Price said to me late last season, although he didn't quite come out and blame Vick. Instead, he told me to watch the tapes. Word is those tapes show Price open. So why not give him another shot?

The Falcons also have Michael Jenkins, a 2003 first-round pick, and Roddy White, a 2004 first-round pick, in the mix at receiver to go with Brian Finneran and Dez White. The word is that Roddy White didn't show as well as the Falcons say he did during the team's offseason work. In fact, some said he came across as a cocky player who needed to be taken down a peg. So don't be surprised when the smoke clears if Price is again one of the team's starting receivers. Maybe he'll finally get some use.

* The weak spot of the Saints defense is linebackers, but the coaching staff is high on second-year player Colby Bockwoldt. He came on last season to become a starter in the second half, which surprised a lot of people. Bockwoldt was a seventh-round pick who showed more speed than expected. He has bulked up in the weight room, and the Saints think he'll be better equipped to handle the running game. He should be one starter at linebacker with Courtney Watson and James Allen. Rookie Albert Fincher could push Watson at middle linebacker, which would force Watson outside.

* Shaun Alexander told a Seattle newspaper this week that he would not sign the one-year franchise tender and would hold out if he didn't get a long-term deal. Guess what, Shaun? You're not getting one. Alexander, despite what he said, will eventually sign the franchise tender of $6.32 million. He's not going to sit out and pass up all that money. The Seahawks tried to trade him the past couple of months, but they got no takers. That's because teams are reluctant to trade for a player and then have to give him a big-money deal. Running backs can be found in the draft, and backs wear down as they move toward 30. Alexander will be 28 next month, so he's getting there.

If Fred Taylor is not healthy by mid August, the Jaguars could consider a move for Alexander, although that's unlikely. And would Seattle trade him to Jacksonville, considering they open with them? The reality is Alexander is probably stuck. So he signs the tender offer, takes a long-term deal to the Seahawks' liking, or sits out. Count on his doing the first one. Nobody is dumb enough to leave $6.3 million on the table.

* Just as we predicted months ago, Vikings coach Mike Tice got away with a fine after being caught scalping Super Bowl tickets. Why just a $100,000 fine? The NFL wanted this mess to go away. Tice, we hear, was ready to take down a bunch of people in the league for doing the same thing if he was suspended or fired. That was enough for the NFL to back down and just fine him. Scalping Super Bowl tickets is a dirty little secret in the league, something a lot of front-office personnel and coaches do. By letting Tice off easy, this might prevent a major scandal for the league.

* Don't buy into those Terrell Owens trade rumors, particularly the one that had him going to the Raiders for Jerry Porter. That won't happen because Porter signed a new deal this spring that included a $7 million signing bonus, and a trade would accelerate it onto this year's salary cap. The other thing that might hold up the deal, something lost on most everybody when talking about it, is that Porter turns 27 next week while Owens will turn 32 in December. That's a big age difference, one any smart personnel man would use to prevent any such trade. Raiders personnel man Mike Lombardi is too smart to trade Porter for Owens. Porter has more good years left, and he runs better. That isn't to say he's better, but the potential is there. Plus, could you imagine Owens and Randy Moss together? They're great separate, but together, they could be a nightmare.

Copyright © 1995 - 2005 SportsLine.com, Inc. All rights reserved.

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