The breakout list: veterans on offense ready to excel
Friday, June 8, 2001
The Sporting News

Dan Pompei
The Sporting News

There is a point in every great player's career when ability and preparation come together, and takeoff is achieved. After consulting with NFL executives, head coaches and assistant coaches, here is my list of young veterans on offense who will get to that point in 2001.

Quarterback -- Rob Johnson, Bills
I set out thinking Aaron Brooks of the Saints, Matt Hasselbeck of the Seahawks or Tim Couch of the Browns would be the best candidates to break out, and they still are good candidates. But the enthusiasm of Bills coach Gregg Williams was convincing. Johnson hardly is a young player -- he is 28 and has six NFL seasons behind him. But many quarterbacks start to figure it out as they near 30.

What's impressive and different about Johnson is the way he's approaching his job. "He's putting in longer hours than the coaching staff, even working on weekends,'' Williams says. "The criticism was that he got rid of the ball too slowly. Now, if anything, he's getting rid of the ball too quickly because he's so far ahead of his teammates.''

Johnson should be a great fit in the West Coast offense being installed by coordinator Mike Sheppard.

Running back -- Ahman Green, Packers
He already had a very good season in 2000, rushing for 1,175 yards and 10 touchdowns and showing outstanding straight-ahead speed. But Green can take it to another level and become a premier all-around back. Packers coach Mike Sherman believes Green will do that in part because he has enhanced his receiving skills.

"He's catching the ball better and is more confident and patient as a receiver,'' Sherman says. "He's focusing on the ball and seeing it into his hands.''

In the West Coast offense, a running back can do a lot of damage catching the ball.

Fullback -- Robert Thomas, Cowboys
An undrafted rookie in 1998 who was converted from linebacker, Thomas could be the new Daryl Johnston. He's probably the best young lead blocker in the league, and he was the subject of a free-agent bidding war in the offseason.

Wide receiver -- James Thrash, Eagles
Norv Turner and his staff loved Thrash in Washington because he worked hard and always found ways to make the most of his abilities. Going into his fifth year in the NFL, Thrash is ready to become a go-to receiver.

He'll get plenty of opportunities on a team that has no other proven receiver and really needs him to be productive. So far, team insiders say it looks like he is developing good chemistry with quarterback Donovan McNabb.

Wide receiver -- David Boston, Cardinals
He started to come into his own last year, but he can become an All-Pro-type player this year. Boston has a new attitude this offseason and is benefiting from working with new receivers coach Jerry Sullivan, considered one of the best technique teachers in the NFL. Cardinals coaches say Boston is working harder than ever and is in the best shape of his career.

Boston is taking to offensive coordinator Rich Olson's new offensive system. Olson promises to move Boston around to avoid the double-team and to find ways to put him in positions to make plays.

Tight end -- Bubba Franks, Packers
He had a rough rookie season, but Franks is capable of making a big jump this year. In offseason workouts, he has appeared quicker and less methodical as a route runner. With Brett Favre throwing to him, Franks should be productive. Coming out of the University of Miami after only three seasons, Franks lacked ideal lower-body strength, and it showed in his blocking. But in the offseason he has focused on increasing his leg and hip power, which should make a difference.

Another tight end with potential is Steve Heiden of the Chargers.

Offensive tackle -- Chris McIntosh, Seahawks
McIntosh played well as a rookie but should play much better in his second season now that he's entrenched in the system. Last year, he missed all of training camp because of a contract holdout and didn't become a starter until nearly two months into the season. He has Pro Bowl potential.

Offensive tackle -- Solomon Page, Cowboys
After playing most of the last two years at guard, Page will move back to his more suitable position, replacing Erik Williams. At right tackle, Page will be able to use his range and athleticism more than he could at guard.

Guard -- Cosey Coleman, Buccaneers
He was good enough to play as a rookie, but probably benefited from sitting and learning for a year. The Bucs expect him to be an automatic upgrade from the departed Frank Middleton. Coleman was one of the best offensive linemen in the draft last year.

Guard -- Chris Liwienski, Vikings
After alternating with Corbin Lacina last year, Liwienski is ready for full-time duty. This huge, blue-collar, hard-working lineman has benefitted from the coaching of offensive line coach Mike Tice, who has proven adept at developing blockers. Vikings coach Dennis Green says he sees Liwienski as a younger version of David Dixon, who mans the Vikings' other guard position.

Center -- Casey Wiegmann, Chiefs
This free agent from the Bears was one of the best offensive linemen in the league last year, even though he didn't become a starter until Olin Kreutz got hurt. Although he's lighter than the ideal center, he's athletic enough to reach-block, get to the linebackers and pull. In his fifth year, he has all the know-how he'll need.

Another center to watch is Eric Beverly of the Lions.

Next week: defensive players.

Senior writer Dan Pompei covers the NFL for The Sporting News. E-mail him at

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