During their improbable roll through the AFC playoffs last
winter, the Jacksonville Jaguars grew accustomed to hearing the
impassioned voice of coach Tom Coughlin booming through meeting
rooms the night before a game. In an attempt to motivate his
players, Coughlin would call out the individual matchups that he
felt would be particularly important to the outcome of the next
For instance, before the wild-card playoff game in Buffalo on
Dec. 28, Coughlin shouted, "Tony Boselli against Bruce Smith!"
Kevin Hardy, a 23-year-old linebacker, was new to Coughlin's
practice of publicly identifying the would-be
superstar-neutralizer. "You could hear all the guys kind of
saying, 'Ooooh,'" Hardy recalls. "Kind of like when Coach called
my name out the next two weeks against Denver and New England.
I can still hear it: 'Kevin Hardy against Shannon Sharpe!'
'Kevin Hardy against Ben Coates!' You hear that and you think,
Wow, I've got a pretty important role here. I went into the
Denver game honestly thinking that how I did against Shannon
Sharpe would be the big factor in the game."
Coughlin had something to shout about--he knew that as two of
the NFL's rising stars, Boselli and Hardy could handle their
heady assignments. Against Buffalo, left tackle Boselli held
Smith to three tackles and no quarterback pressures. Final
score: Jaguars 30, Bills 27. At Denver, Hardy permitted Sharpe
just two catches, for 31 yards. Jaguars 30, Broncos 27.
When SI talked to coaches and personnel directors during the
off-season to identify the best young players at each
position--the kind of players they would build a whole team
around--it became apparent that Jacksonville's playoff run last
season was no fluke.
Our 18-man honor roll of young stars (to be eligible, players
had to have been born in the 1970s) includes four Jaguars:
Boselli, Hardy, 26-year-old quarterback Mark Brunell and
22-year-old defensive end Tony Brackens.
The NFL can use some Bosellis and Brunells just about now. The
league is graying at the temples: Jerry Rice and Bruce Smith are
34; Dan Marino, Reggie White and Steve Young are 35; and Marcus
Allen, John Elway and Darrell Green are 37. While the flow of
outstanding talent is cyclical in every sport, the NFL needs to
cultivate some new stars soon. The league went through some dry
drafts in the late '80s and early '90s, when colleges failed to
develop many marquee players (Troy Aikman and Brett Favre are
among the few that come to mind). The big-market teams in New
York and Chicago are in horrendous slumps. The Jets' biggest
star is their coach, Bill Parcells, and going into the 1997
draft, not one of the Giants' previous 66 draft choices had made
it to the Pro Bowl. The Bears, 32-32 since Dave Wannstedt took
over as coach in 1993, are the definition of mediocrity. The NFL
is approaching the place where the NBA was five years
ago--facing life without Magic Johnson and Larry Bird--and
looking for a bunch of kids to transform into household names.
Well, here they are--18 players who will be household names at
Quarterback: Brunell. In the two-year history of the Jaguars,
not one of their 32 regular-season games had been played on
national network television. So last season, when Brunell threw
for a total of 674 yards and ran for 87 more in three playoff
games that were beamed nationwide, America got its first glimpse
of the man who will soon succeed Young as the most exciting
quarterback in the game. "It all happened so fast," Brunell said
a few months after his team was eliminated in the AFC title game
by New England. "Golly, what was it, three weeks? What I'd done
didn't set in until after the season. And then the Pro Bowl.
Gosh, it was amazing. Shoot, we really did some things around
here, didn't we?"
Gee whiz, Mark, you sure did, leading the NFL with 4,367 yards
passing and finishing third in completion percentage (63.4%),
behind Young and Aikman. At six feet and 217 pounds, Brunell is
mobile without being a pushover. "The pocket passer is still
pretty effective," Brunell says. "Look at Dan Marino. But I
think being mobile is a strong asset of mine." Make no mistake:
Brunell is the prototypical quarterback of the year 2000.
Running Back: Eddie George, 23, Oilers. The first time you meet
George, you think, He's too tall to be a great back; at 6'3",
232 pounds, he's too lanky and, worse, he runs downright
upright. You think, This can't last; he'll get hit too much.
Well, he may, but in the last four seasons--three at Ohio State
and one in Houston--he has carried 966 times, averaging more
than five yards per carry, and he has not missed a single game
due to injury. As an NFL rookie he finished fifth in the league
in rushing, with 1,368 yards. Think of the last tall running
back who shouldn't have lasted. He was 6'3" Eric Dickerson, and
all he did was gain 13,259 yards--second most in history.
Fullback: Mike Alstott, 24, Buccaneers (page 48). They don't
make 'em like this kid anymore. "I've never wanted a real job,"
says Alstott. "Since I was six years old, I wanted to be a
player in the NFL." When he was growing up in suburban Chicago,
Alstott didn't like the Bears. His favorite team was the
Washington Redskins because fullback John Riggins was his
favorite player. Now, at 6-feet, 240 pounds, Alstott, a fullback
who runs like a tailback and blocks like a tackle, is
reminiscent of Riggins. As a rookie last season he rushed for
377 yards and caught 65 passes.
Though Tampa Bay selected running back Warrick Dunn in the first
round of last spring's draft, Alstott's role in the offense will
not diminish. "We were so impressed with Mike that we're going
to give him a bigger load," says coach Tony Dungy. "It's not
just his ability. It's the way he plays. He's infectious. He's
like your 15-year-old brother who comes to stay with you at
college and says, 'Wow, this dorm food is great!'"
Wide Receiver: Joey Galloway, 25, Seahawks. In April cornerback
Shawn Springs was drafted by Seattle in the first round. Though
nearly overcome with excitement, he talked about one man. "One
of the reasons I'm so happy to be here," he said, "is now I get
to work with Joey Galloway, the best, and he'll make me better.
Covering Joey every day at Ohio State helped make me the player
I am. Practicing against him was like playing the best receiver
I could imagine." Galloway is the electrifying deep threat that
every passing game needs. He has terrific hands and 4.3 speed in
the 40. The only question: Will his quarterback--be he John
Friesz, Warren Moon or John Kitna--be able to give Galloway the
chance to become even better?
Tight End: Jason Dunn, 23, Eagles. We know--he has only 15
receptions in his entire NFL career. But his coach, Ray Rhodes,
thinks Dunn just might revolutionize the position of tight end.
He has the potential to become a cross between Mark Bavaro and
Kellen Winslow; in three years he could be the league's finest
drive-blocking tight end and a downfield threat in the passing
game. Last year he averaged 22.1 yards per catch.
For Dunn to develop further he must improve his route running
and his concentration on short passes. He was replaced in the
Eagles' 14-0 loss to San Francisco in the playoffs last season
because Philadelphia's offensive coordinator, Jon Gruden, felt
that he needed to use a veteran tight end (Jimmie Johnson) in
his West Coast offense. But when Dunn masters the short game,
there will be no benching him.
Offensive Tackle: Boselli. You'd think he'd still be flying high
from his domination of Bruce Smith in the Jaguars' victory over
the Bills in the AFC playoffs. You'd be wrong. In fact, he's
tired of hearing about it. "I played well," he said this spring.
"I neutralized him and he wasn't a big factor. Was that a
life-changing game? Not at all. If I don't play well this year,
it'd all have been for nothing."
Boselli will play well this year, and the year after and the
year after. He and Baltimore's Jonathan Ogden are the next great
tackles. They are as quick as they are strong. Watch Boselli:
Even in the rare instance when a linebacker gets around him, he
never crosses his feet. He is always moving--smoothly, quickly,
effortlessly. When a 323-pound tackle can do that, greatness is
on the horizon.
Guard: Larry Allen, 25, Cowboys. John Madden has already put
Allen in his own galaxy, and rightly so. His beginnings,
however, were humble. At that famed football factory, Sonoma
(Calif.) State, Allen had a prodigious career as a blocker, good
enough to earn him an invitation to the Senior Bowl. In the week
before the game, he ate up Arizona State defensive lineman
Shante Carver during practice. But on draft day, Dallas chose
Carver in the first round and Allen in the second. Nineteen
months later, Allen was in the Pro Bowl.
Center: Tom Nalen, 26, Broncos. Two things we know about Nalen:
He has a habit of vomiting before games (and some practices),
and he won't allow his practice uniform to be washed during the
season. A superstitious guy with a delicate stomach is not
someone you'd traditionally like to be the anchor of your line,
but we'll make an exception for Nalen. He's that good.
At 280 pounds, Nalen is tiny for an offensive lineman. But he
makes up for his small size with smarts and mobility. No one
ever seems to get through the middle of the Denver line (the
three interior linemen allowed a total of 1 1/2 sacks in 1996).
When the Steelers' 32-year-old center, Dermontti Dawson, decides
to hang 'em up, Nalen will take his place as the best center in
Defensive End: Brackens. "I know he's not exactly his size, but
I'm telling you right now, this is the next Bruce Smith," says
Boselli of Brackens, who is the same height and 13 pounds
lighter than Smith. Watch your tape of last season's
Jaguars-Bills playoff game (what do you mean you can't find
it?), and you'll see why Brackens is getting raves. Though he
split time with veteran Clyde Simmons at right end, he still
knifed through the Buffalo line to make four tackles and a sack
and force a fumble. A week earlier he had chased down Atlanta
wideout Tyrone Brown from eight yards behind to save a
touchdown--a touchdown that would have kept Jacksonville out of
To what does he attribute his quick adjustment to the NFL?
"Living the ranch life makes you a man early," says Brackens,
who was raised on a Texas ranch and used his signing bonus to
buy cattle. "I never had sleepovers, or those normal kid things.
Sports was my pleasure."
Pass Rusher: Simeon Rice, 23, Cardinals (page 38). We invented
this position because it just wouldn't be fair to compare Rice
to other defensive ends. "He's the closest thing to Lawrence
Taylor we've seen in a while in this league," says Arizona
personnel chief Bob Ferguson. After a 12 1/2-sack rookie season,
Rice seems set to become the league's next great pass rusher. At
265 pounds, he's not going to get knocked off his feet easily.
Like LT, he has been remarkably adept at forging a path to the
quarterback where there appeared to be none. And, like LT, he is
confident. "Every time I talk to him," says Hardy, Rice's
college teammate at Illinois, "he tells me, 'I'm killing 'em.'"
Defensive Tackle: Bryant Young, 25, 49ers. Minnesota's John
Randle is the quickest defensive tackle on the planet. But if
you watched the 49ers last season, you saw a 6'2", 276-pound
tackle who might have been a millisecond slower but was also a
good bit stronger than Randle. "Bryant Young is an incredible
force," said then Rams coach Rich Brooks after Young's
three-sack, eight-tackle performance in St. Louis last October.
Since most NFL teams now play a 4-3 defense, tackles have become
especially prized. A team must rely on one of them to stop the
run and the other to rush the passer. Young excels at both.
Outside Linebacker: Hardy. This guy is Carl Banks reincarnated,
an outside linebacker who is at home rushing the passer or
covering the tight end. Last year in the playoffs, the Jaguars
played three teams with outstanding tight ends. And Buffalo's
Lonnie Johnson, Denver's Shannon Sharpe and New England's Ben
Coates combined for 63 yards on six receptions. In other words,
Hardy allowed an average of one completion per half to three of
the top tight ends in the league. "What has helped me is I'm
playing the same position I played in college, so I'm pretty
familiar with it," Hardy says. "Now we're going to start
blitzing more. That'll be fun." Not for quarterbacks.
Inside Linebacker: Ted Johnson, 24, Patriots. Last season the
Patriots plugged Johnson into the middle of their new 4-3 and,
in just his second year in the league, asked him to call the
signals. "Big adjustment," Johnson says. "I was almost invisible
my rookie year because I think veterans respect guys who come in
and play, not talk. Now I had to do things I wasn't comfortable
with, like getting on veterans." How'd he do? In December, Fox
television analyst Matt Millen said, "Ted Johnson is the best
linebacker I've seen all season."
In the 4-3, Johnson would career from sideline to sideline
making plays. Over the last five weeks of the season, he
averaged 10 tackles per game despite sitting out on most passing
downs. "I'd love to be used more creatively," Johnson says, and
new Patriots coach Pete Carroll just might do that, using him
on every down.
Cornerback: Donnie Abraham, 23, Buccaneers. Tampa Bay coach Tony
Dungy heard the snickers when he took Abraham, a speedy
cornerback from East Tennessee State, in the third round in
1996. Let them make their jokes, he thought. Sure, Abraham had
played in a small college program. True, he wasn't exactly a
punishing hitter. But Dungy had the last laugh on Nov. 17 in San
Diego. He assigned Abraham to cover Tony Martin (page 150), one
of the best receivers in the NFL. Abraham intercepted one pass,
deflected four others and held Martin to one catch for 18 yards.
"That's when we knew we had someone special," Dungy says. When
Abraham improves his tackling (and that should be soon--he added
eight pounds in the off-season), he'll have every team in the
league wishing he was theirs.
Safety: Toby Wright, 26, Rams. He's a strong safety--a very
strong safety. (We didn't select a free safety because none of
the younger players have yet distinguished themselves at that
position.) Wright is a budding Ronnie Lott, a safety who buzzes
the line of scrimmage and then falls back to put fear into the
hearts of wideouts.
Kicker: Michael Husted, 26, Buccaneers. He has hit on just 72%
of his field goal attempts in four seasons in Tampa Bay, but
what makes Husted special is his long, high kickoffs. Last year,
on average, Buccaneers opponents began drives after receiving
kickoffs on their own 22; over the last three years, Tampa Bay
leads the NFL in that category. Husted needs to improve his
field goal percentage to replace Atlanta's Morten Andersen as
the league's premier kicker, but his intentions are on target.
"I know I'll be more accurate," he says. "But I think your team
gets a real rush when you pin the offense back with a long
Punter: Todd Sauerbrun, 26, Bears. The highest-drafted punter in
two decades (second round in 1995), Sauerbrun looked like a
bust. He finished 30th in the league in '95, with a 37.8-yard
average. But last season he showed why he'll eventually be a
force in the NFL. It all turned around for him at Washington on
Sept. 8. He punted seven times, averaging 47.4 yards per boot,
including a 72-yarder, and allowed zero return yards. He
finished the season with a 44.8-yard average, sixth in the
league. He has to work on pooching (he was 13th in the NFC in
putting the ball inside the 20), but with his galactic leg
Sauerbrun will one day be the league's best punter.
Returner: Tamarick Vanover, 23, Chiefs. "Now you see why we were
so aggressive in trying to get him out of Canada," Kansas City
president Carl Peterson said in the middle of last season. After
a protracted negotiation with the now defunct Las Vegas Posse of
the CFL in 1994, the Chiefs finally acquired Vanover. Over the
last two seasons, his 25.7-yard kickoff return average was the
best in the NFL. The only thing that can prevent him from
becoming one of the great return men in history is his becoming
one of the great wideouts in history. Coach Marty Schottenheimer
calls him "a prototypical receiver," but for those of you who
consider the kickoff return the most exciting play in the game,
root for the Chiefs to find some very good wideouts, very soon.
COLOR PHOTO: JOHN IACONO Budding stars like Brunell and Brackens (90) have made the Jaguars winners in a hurry. [Mark Brunell in game]
COLOR PHOTO: ROBERT ROGERS [See caption above--Tony Brackens]
COLOR PHOTO: DAMIAN STROHMEYER Vanover (left) is a thriller for the Chiefs; the Eagles' Dunn is the tight end to watch; and the Oilers' George (27) stands tall--and sturdy. [Tamarick Vanover in game]
COLOR PHOTO: RICK STEWART/ALLSPORT [See caption above--Warrick Dunn in game]
COLOR PHOTO: PHIL HUBER [See caption above--Eddie George in game]
COLOR PHOTO: ROB TRINGALI JR./SPORTSCHROME In '96, the Patriots' Johnson (52) earned accolades stalking sideline to sideline, and the little-known Nalen made a name for himself in Denver. [Ted Johnson in game]
COLOR PHOTO: PETER READ MILLER [See caption above--Tom Nalen]
From the top young players (born after Jan. 1, 1970) we chose
one at each position to set the standard over the next four
years. Welcome to the future.
OFFENSE AGE HT. WT. DRAFT ROUND (OVERALL)
QB Mark Brunell,
Jaguars 26 6'0" 217 lbs. fifth round in '93 (118)
RB Eddie George,
Oilers 23 6'3" 232 lbs. first round in '96 (14)
FB Mike Alstott,
Buccaneers 23 6'0" 240 lbs. second round in '96 (35)
WR Joey Galloway,
Seahawks 25 5'11" 188 lbs. first round in '95 (8)
TE Jason Dunn,
Eagles 23 6'4" 257 lbs. second round in '96 (54)
T Tony Boselli,
Jaguars 25 6'7" 323 lbs. first round in '95 (2)
G Larry Allen,
Cowboys 25 6'3" 325 lbs. second round in '94 (46)
C Tom Nalen,
Broncos 26 6'2" 280 lbs. seventh round in '94 (218)
DE Tony Brackens,
Jaguars 22 6'4" 260 lbs. second round in '96 (33)
Pass Simeon Rice,
Rusher Cardinals 23 6'5" 265 lbs. first round in '96 (3)
DT Bryant Young,
49ers 25 6'2" 276 lbs. first round in '94 (7)
OLB Kevin Hardy,
Jaguars 23 6'4" 245 lbs. first round in '96 (2)
ILB Ted Johnson,
Patriots 24 6'3" 240 lbs. second round in '95 (57)
CB Donnie Abraham,
Buccaneers 23 5'10" 189 lbs. third round in '96 (71)
S Toby Wright,
Rams 26 5'11" 203 lbs. second round in '94 (49)
K Michael Husted,
Buccaneers 26 6'0" 195 lbs. undrafted
P Todd Sauerbrun,
Bears 26 5'10" 206 lbs. second round in '95 (56)
RET Tamarick Vanover,
Chiefs 23 5'11" 213 lbs. third round in '95 (81)