As the class of '02 shows, NEXT often means now -- or sometimes never.
Urlacher went from next to now with ease.
BRIAN URLACHER Last year's cover boy didn't disappoint. The game's best defender and top tackler went to the Pro Bowl and is headed there again. Plus, watching him chase ball carriers in the open field kind of reminds us of one of those Discovery Channel shows. You know, the ones with the lions and antelopes.
JIMMIE JOHNSON Jeff Gordon's garagemate had 21 top-10 finishes, which got him all the way to fifth in the final Winston Cup standings. Johnson was the second rookie in modern history to soar so high. The first? Some hothead named Stewart.
JULIUS PEPPERS Dominated in Chapel Hill, moved a shotgun-snap away to Charlotte -- and promptly dominated the NFL. Face it, 12 sacks is a big number, even if dietary supplements are getting credit for a couple of them.
ADAM DUNN MLB's youngest All-Star showed a Bondsian combination of power (26 HRs), patience (128 BBs) and speed (19 SBs), and not even a second-half tank (.190 BA) could keep the leftfielder from a higher OBP (.400) than Sammy Sosa and Shawn Green. Count on this Big Red to last a little longer, too.
ILYA KOVALCHUK Okay, so he only finished second in Calder voting to teammate Dany Heatley. He led the Thrashers -- and all rookies -- in goals (29) last season. Won a bronze with the Russians in Salt Lake. Scored six goals in the YoungStars game on All-Star weekend. But his most impressive trick was making hockey in Atlanta fun to watch.
BAD CALL CLINT MATHIS While his USA soccer teammates stole the summer, a Barcalounger conditioning program left him a nonfactor in Asia and cost him millions in Europe. Bold move with the Mohawk, though.
Trouble in paradise made these ladies an Olympic footnote.
JEN DAVIDSON AND JEAN RACINE Did we say Davidson and Racine? Our bad. We meant to say Jill Bakken and Vonetta Flowers. As it turns out, our "team to beat" wasn't even a team in Salt Lake: Racine dumped brakeman Davidson and finished fifth with her replacement. Bakken and Flowers, meanwhile, were the first U.S. women to win Olympic bobsled gold.
JAVIER VAZQUEZ Hits allowed? Up. ERA? Up. Homers allowed? Up. Wins? As you might guess for this exposed Expo, down.
APOLO ANTON OHNO The soul-patched speed skater got the 1,500M gold only when the winner was DQ'd for cutting him off. Then there was that pileup in the 1,000M final, when Ohno staggered to the line, bruised and bleeding, to get silver. We won't even mention those tired puns on his last name.
Give these guys time, they don't even shave yet.
RYAN SHECKLER AND TYLER BLEDSOE For now, call it 1-for-2 in the 12-year-old prodigy category. Sheckler was fourth in last May's Slam City Jam, one of pro skateboarding's major contests. Bledsoe, meanwhile, is developing a little more like, well, a preteen. He spent his summer touring for Tony Hawk's clothing line. Not a bad gig, but not quite Next. Yet.
LONG BEACH POLY The five studs are just out of high school and already Winston Justice is USC's RT, TB Hershel Dennis is its top returner and UCLA's Marcedes Lewis is a backup TE. Yet Darnell Bing (S) and Manuel Wright (DT) cram at JCs.
JUAN CARLOS FERRERO The Mosquito was ranked fourth -- a spot higher than in '01 -- won twice, made the French finals and nearly dethroned Lleyton Hewitt in a five-setter at the year-end championships. Problem is, majors are what matter.
WLADIMIR KLITSCHKO The Ukrainian hulk has a wait problem: Older bro, Vitali, will get first crack at Lennox Lewis this spring. Looks like '04 before Wlad makes us look good.