Commentary

Jones-Drew has clear path to stardom

Originally Published: June 11, 2009
By John Clayton | ESPN.com

Maurice Jones-Drew, Santonio Holmes and Aaron RodgersUS PresswireJacksonville RB Maurice Jones-Drew, left, Pittsburgh WR Santonio Holmes and Green Bay QB Aaron Rodgers head an impressive list of ascending offensive players.

Last season, as is the case just about every year, several young offensive stars had breakthrough seasons.

At wide receiver, Roddy White of the Falcons caught 88 passes for 1,382 yards. Dwayne Bowe had an 86-catch, 1,022-yard season for an offensively challenged Chiefs team. Brandon Marshall reached star status for the Broncos, catching 104 passes for 1,265 yards.

At running back, rookies Matt Forte of the Bears, Kevin Smith of the Lions and Chris Johnson of the Titans immediately established themselves as factors by having 1,000-yard seasons.

At quarterback, Matt Ryan of the Falcons and Joe Flacco of the Ravens were rookie successes, while Matt Cassel of the Patriots went from non-starter to franchise player and was traded to the Chiefs.

As teams start to wrap up minicamps and OTAs, let's look at 10 young offensive players who could hit it big in 2009.

1. Maurice Jones-Drew, RB, Jacksonville Jaguars: Jones-Drew is the easiest to project. The Jaguars cut halfback Fred Taylor and handed the starting job to Jones-Drew. The team rewarded him with a four-year, $30.565 million contract. At 24, Jones-Drew is ready to change the way general managers scout backs. Most GMs downgraded him because he's only 5-foot-7, thinking the shorter back wouldn't be as durable. During his rookie season (2006), scouts and GMs realized it's not height that determines a running back's success; it's talent. In 2008, Jones-Drew had 824 yards on 197 carries. In 2009, he'll likely get 275 to 300 carries and should exceed 1,200 yards.

2. Santonio Holmes, WR, Pittsburgh Steelers: In his final 10 games last season -- including the playoffs and Super Bowl -- Holmes had 39 catches for 628 yards and five touchdowns. With the Steelers' coaches feeling more comfortable letting Ben Roethlisberger have 30-pass games, Holmes should be on target for his first 1,000-yard season and come close to 10 touchdown receptions. Holmes had a career game in the Super Bowl, catching nine passes for 131 yards and a touchdown. The confidence and momentum from that performance will carry over to this season. Roethlisberger will try to get the ball to Holmes at least five times a game, depending on the coverage.

3. Aaron Rodgers, QB, Green Bay Packers: Because of the controversy surrounding Brett Favre's departure and the disappointment of a 6-10 season, Rodgers' 4,038-yard season is often overlooked. He struggled in the latter stages of games, and that should improve because of experience. Rodgers has one of the strongest arms in football. He threw 28 touchdown passes in 2008 and proved his toughness by playing the second half of the season despite a shoulder separation. Rodgers should be one of the NFC's top quarterbacks this year.

4. Steve Slaton, RB, Houston Texans: Because he plays on a Texans team that has been stuck at 8-8 seemingly forever, Slaton had the quietest 1,282-yard season in recent memory. Now there is no question Slaton is the feature back. Although his gaudy 4.8-yard rushing average will probably drop, his carries will increase from the 268 he had last year. There's a good chance he could go over 1,300 yards, and the Texans have an outside chance of winning nine or 10 games this year, which will make Slaton more known around the league.

5. Darren McFadden, RB, Oakland Raiders: Al Davis loves speed, which is why he drafted Darrius Heyward-Bey and why McFadden should have a breakout season this year. Foot problems nagged him throughout the 2008 season. This fall, his season should be on better footing. McFadden first has to beat out Justin Fargas for the starting job. What's pretty clear is that McFadden won't be limited to the 113 carries of his injury-marred rookie season. Because of his speed, he should have a high yard-per-attempt average. If he can get 225 carries, he should get 1,000 yards. Clearly, head coach Tom Cable, whose specialty is coaching offensive linemen, will focus more on the run than the pass.

6. John Carlson, TE, Seattle Seahawks: Those who have been watching Seahawks practices have three comments: Matt Hasselbeck looks great, Aaron Curry is a beast and Carlson looks awesome. Carlson was impressive as a rookie, catching 55 passes for 627 yards and five touchdowns. He might catch only five to 10 more passes this season, but the quality of those receptions will be a big asset for the Seahawks' offense. New offensive coordinator Greg Knapp is expanding Carlson's role in the middle of the field. Carlson, who is 6-foot-5, and T.J. Houshmandzadeh are bigger targets for Hasselbeck when the Seahawks are in the red zone. It wouldn't be out of the question for Carlson to get eight to 10 touchdowns.

7. Greg Olsen, TE, Chicago Bears: Since arriving in Chicago after being traded from Denver, quarterback Jay Cutler can't be spotted anywhere without Olsen by his side. They've developed a close friendship on and off the field, and that should translate into improved numbers for Olsen, who caught 54 passes for 574 yards last season. The Bears' receiving corps is undermanned, so Cutler has to make the best out of his close relationship. Olsen could end up being Chicago's No. 1 pass-catcher.

8. Ray Rice, RB, Baltimore Ravens: There's been a lot of turbulence in the Ravens' backfield this offseason. Le'Ron McClain said the team plans to use him at fullback. Willis McGahee had two offseason surgeries and is coming off an "off" season in 2008 in which he had only 170 rushes for 671 yards. Those issues have cleared the path for Rice to be the starter, and that means a lot in Baltimore. The Ravens ran the ball 37 times a game last season. Flacco's growth might cut down that number a little, but Rice will see plenty of action. He averaged 4.2 yards a carry last year. If he can get 275 carries, he should get over 1,000 yards easily.

9. Jerricho Cotchery, WR, New York Jets: He should have a great season by default. Unless they can land Plaxico Burress, Cotchery is the Jets' only legitimate receiving threat. He caught 71 passes for 858 yards last season. Coach Rex Ryan isn't planning to throw the ball a lot this season because he wants to run the ball about 37 times a game. Most of the time, an eighth defender is going to be concentrating on stopping the run, so Cotchery should get five to six pass-catching chances a game.

10. Vincent Jackson, WR, San Diego Chargers: Antonio Gates and LaDainian Tomlinson remain the top two passing options for quarterback Philip Rivers, but the 6-5 Jackson could be 2A. He caught 59 passes for 1,098 yards and seven touchdowns last season. During a three-game stretch in December, Jackson caught 18 passes for 348 yards. It's not out of the question for him to catch 70 passes this season.

John Clayton, a recipient of the Pro Football Hall of Fame's McCann Award for distinguished reporting, is a senior writer for ESPN.com.

John Clayton

NFL senior writer

ALSO SEE