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.

Bailey will learn from one of the NFL's best, too, hooking up with seven-time Pro Bowl corner Darrell Green, now in his 17th season. Bailey was the seventh pick in the draft after the Redskins swung a huge draft-day deal and bypassed Ricky Williams. He had an excellent preseason.

10. Ricky Williams, Saints, running back, 22

The NCAA's all-time leading rusher became a Saint after a pair of stunning draft-day moves. First, the Colts passed on Williams to take Edgerrin James with the fourth pick. Then the Saints surrendered eight picks, including two first-rounders, to the Redskins for the chance to get Williams at No. 5.

At 5-10 and 236 pounds, Williams has power to gain yards after contact and open-field speed to break the big play. He had a tendency to fumble at Texas, and was not used much in the passing game. But that didn't deter Saints coach Mike Ditka, who bet the ranch Williams will deliver in a big way. Ditka will build his offense -- and playoff hopes -- around Williams.

11. Andre Wadsworth, Cardinals, defensive end, 24

After missing all of training camp as a rookie, Wadsworth started 15 games for Arizona last season and, predictably, got better as the season wore on. The third pick in the draft delivered 42 tackles and five sacks. He had two sacks in the playoff win over Dallas.

12. Vonnie Holliday, Packers, defensive end, 23

Although Holliday was scheduled to fill Reggie White's slot at left end, the Packers moved him back to the right side in camp, where he logged eight sacks a year ago. In 12 starts -- an injury prematurely ended his rookie season -- the 19th pick in the draft also had 9.5 stuffs.

Prime time

These are 10 games you don't want to miss this season:

Vikings at Falcons, Sept. 12: The Dirty Birds knocked the Vikings out of the Super Bowl last season.

Jets at Broncos, Oct. 3: The Jets blew a 10-point lead here in last year's AFC title game.

Jaguars at Jets, Oct. 11: The Jags' AFC title hopes cut through the Meadowlands.

Vikings at Broncos, Oct. 31: The Super Bowl that wasn't.

Seahawks at Packers, Nov. 1: Mike Holmgren goes back to Lambeau Field.

Ravens at Browns, Nov. 7: Guess who won't go back to Cleveland?

Broncos at Seahawks, Nov. 14: Denver's biggest division challenge is here.

Dolphins at Cowboys, Nov. 25: Jimmy Johnson does Dallas.

Broncos at Jaguars, Dec. 13: Denver finally has to come to Jacksonville.

Packers at Vikings, Dec. 20: Can the Packers stop Randy Moss this year?

High decibels

These are the loudest stadiums to play in:

Denver's Mile High Stadium (capacity 76,082): Will the new stadium be deafening like this one?

Kansas City's Arrowhead Stadium (capacity 79,451): It's always a sea of frothing red.

Giants Stadium (capacity 79,469): There's nothing like the swirling winds and howling crowds of December.

Pittsburgh's Three Rivers Stadium (capacity 59,600): Religion starts here in Pittsburgh.

Dallas' Texas Stadium (capacity 65,675): The partial roof helps retain the noise.

On the hot seat

The pressure is on for these players to perform at a higher level:

Broncos QB Brian Griese: In just his second season, trying to fill John Elway's Super Bowl shoes.

Lions RB Ron Rivers: Barry Sanders is an impossible act to follow.

Bucs QB Trent Dilfer: It's now or never in Tampa.

Chiefs LB Derrick Thomas: Trashed his own reputation in 1998.

Redskins DT Dana Stubblefield: The knee injury was only half the story.

Steelers QB Kordell Stewart: Quarterbacks don't cry.

Giants DE Cedric Jones: One last chance to shed his "bust" label.

Patriots WR Terry Glenn: Now the Patriots know what Bill Parcells knew.

Colts CB Tyrone Poole: He'll count $4.9 million against the salary cap in '99.

Falcons FS Eugene Robinson: Still living down his Super Bowl faux pas.

And it's even hotter for these coaches:

Redskins' Norv Turner: Doesn't have Charley Casserly to blame now.

Rams' Dick Vermeil: Returned to a different NFL and hasn't adjusted.

Lions' Bobby Ross: It's never good to irritate your franchise player.

Patriots' Pete Carroll: The Super Bowl is a distant memory.

Bengals' Bruce Coslet: Cincinnati claims another one.

Titans' Jeff Fisher: Three 8-8 seasons in a row with that talent are Crazy Eights.

Ready and able

The most capable backup quarterbacks in the league:

Warren Moon, Chiefs: Better than starter Elvis Grbac.

Rob Johnson, Bills: Could take the job once defenses adjust to Doug Flutie.

Tony Banks, Ravens: Given time and Brian Billick's tutelage, he'll be the starter somewhere.

Jeff George, Vikings: Randall Cunningham will be looking over his shoulder.

Rodney Peete, Redskins: Figures to get plenty of action behind Brad Johnson.

Neil O'Donnell, Titans: At last, a job he won't be fired from.

Jockeying for position

Four teams that could achieve a major breakthrough this season:

Jaguars: S Carnell Lake and defensive coordinator Dom Capers should put them over the top.

Dolphins: Jimmy Johnson's defense will carry the day if his running backs carry the ball.

Bills: GM John Butler has put the pieces back together.

Giants: If QB Kent Graham can hold his job, the defense will do the rest.

Four teams that figure to fall back:

Cardinals: One of the NFL's most exciting teams, they lost too much to take the next step.

Patriots: Where did it all go? With Bill Parcells? Or free agency?

Falcons: Dan Reeves did what he does best last year -- over-achieve.

Lions: OK, so they don't have far to fall. But imagine them without Barry Sanders.

Top lieutenants

Scanning the horizon for potential head coaches:

Willie Shaw, Raiders def. coordinator: Instilled discipline where there was none and lifted the Raiders' defense from 30th to fifth.

Dave McGinnis, Cardinals def. coordinator: Too efficient to work for the Bears.

Sherman Lewis, Packers off. coordinator: Out from under Mike Holmgren's shadow, he should make a name for himself.

Emmitt Thomas, Packers def. coordinator: Did a masterful job with minimal talent in Philadelphia.

Rich Brooks, Falcons def. coordinator: Got a raw deal in St. Louis; could get a second chance.

Jim Haslett, Steelers def. coordinator: Brought up in the Pittsburgh tradition.

Bill Belichick, Jets def. coordinator: Despite a change in ownership, he may still be in line to replace Bill Parcells if/when Parcells retires.

Trading places

The 10 best moves of the off-season:

CB Dale Carter to Broncos: One of the league's best cover corners.

S Carnell Lake to Jaguars: The Jags needed a leader in the secondary.

QB Rich Gannon to Raiders: After Jeff George, Oakland will love him.

LB Jamir Miller to Browns: Miller is playing for next year's contract.

C Wally Williams to Saints: Ricky Williams should have room to run.

QB Brad Johnson to Redskins: As long as he stays healthy.

FB Larry Centers to Redskins: A premier pass-catcher out of the backfield.

RB Marshall Faulk to Rams: The versatile big-play back they've been lacking.

TE Pete Mitchell to Giants: A novelty in New York -- a pass-catcher at tight end.

WR Rocket Ismail to Cowboys: His speed will stretch defenses for Troy Aikman.

Five moves that won't work:

QB Kerry Collins to Giants: At $16.9 million, he's a huge gamble.

TE Eric Green to Jets: Bill Parcells wants the young Eric Green, but gets the old one.

LB Cornelius Bennett to Colts: Arrived 12 years after his due date.

FS Steve Atwater to Jets: Has to prove a subpar 1998 season was a fluke.

CB Cris Dishman to Chiefs: Another player trying to turn back the clock.

Pub Date: 09/10/99

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