Ryan Clady, Ray Rice top 'futures'
They are among 10 stars who soon will prove vital to their teams' success
1. Ryan Clady, LT, Denver: Clady might suffer from a slow start this fall -- thanks to an offseason knee injury that sidelined him from late April until this week -- but don't think any struggles will last long. This dude is well on his way to being the best left tackle in the business, if he isn't there already. At 6-foot-6 and 325 pounds, Clady has the body, the long arms and the nimble feet that make quarterbacks rest easier when they're dropping back to pass. He's already been to one Pro Bowl and most think he was snubbed in his rookie season. However, it's doubtful that Clady has fretted much about his honors. The way his career is playing out, there will be plenty more to come.2. Ray Rice, RB, Baltimore: Yes, we know the Ravens have plenty of depth in their backfield. What they don't have is a runner who can do all the things that Rice can at a high level. Last season Rice emerged from a crowded depth chart to gain 1,339 rushing yards and another 702 receiving yards (on 78 receptions). Those numbers earned him a trip to the Pro Bowl along with the trust of creative offensive coordinator Cam Cameron. So even with all the talent in Baltimore's backfield, expect Rice to continue his role as a dominant, multidimensional weapon. 3. Matt Ryan, QB, Atlanta: Ryan seemed well on his way to making this list even earlier until he followed a stellar rookie season with a less impressive second year. That doesn't mean he'll stay down for long, though. Now that he's put a nagging turf toe injury behind him -- and benefited from another offseason of preparation -- look for Matty Ice to regain the consistency that has helped him lead Atlanta to consecutive winning seasons during his tenure. Running back Michael Turner still might be the workhorse of the Falcons' offense, but Ryan is unquestionably its future centerpiece. 4 . Brian Cushing, OLB, Houston: No rookie defensive player had more impact on his team than Cushing had on the Texans in 2009. Along with posting eye-popping numbers -- 133 tackles, four interceptions and four sacks -- he brought a palpable intensity to a Houston defense that had been lacking that in previous years. As Houston general manager Rick Smith once said, "When Brian hits people, they stay down." You can expect more of that physical play this fall after Cushing returns from a four-week suspension for violating the league's policy on banned substances. It's a good bet he'll be ready to make up for lost time once he returns.
5. Jamaal Charles, RB, Kansas City: The Chiefs quickly discovered what they had in the 5-11, 199-pound Charles once they finally dumped Larry Johnson midway through last season. All Charles did was gain 968 yards and seven touchdowns in his eight games as the feature back (he finished with 1,120 yards on the year). This season the Chiefs will team him with Thomas Jones to ease the burden on a diminutive star who played with a painful shoulder injury throughout most of 2009. But everybody around Kansas City knows the truth. At this stage, Charles is the best thing the Chiefs have going for them.
6. Jermichael Finley, TE, Green Bay: If you saw Finley's final game of the 2009 season (a six-catch, 159-yard effort in a playoff loss to Arizona) you know this guy has superstar written all over him. Finley has the speed to blow past slower linebackers and the size (6-5 and 247 pounds) to manhandle smaller defensive backs. Oh yeah, he also gives the Packers all sorts of mismatch opportunities in the red zone. So as long as he's able to avoid the injuries that slowed him last season -- when he still caught 55 passes -- you can expect Finley to turn into a 1,000-yard, double-digit touchdown weapon in the near future.
7. Michael Crabtree, WR, San Francisco: If there's one thing we learned about Crabtree in 2009, it's that he doesn't need much time to get up to speed. After a lengthy holdout cost him the first five games of his rookie season, he responded with 48 receptions, 625 yards and two scores in his final 11 contests. Those numbers tell us that the kid is a gamer. They also tell us he should be somewhere around 80 to 90 catches this coming fall.
8. Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie, CB, Arizona: Rodgers-Cromartie has all the skills teams covet in a topflight cornerback: rare speed, great size (6-2, 192) and elite leaping ability. He also had six interceptions in 2009, his second NFL season, which put him in his first Pro Bowl. Now does Rodgers-Cromartie still need to work on his consistency? That's a fair criticism. But even when he's not at his best, he can still elevate a defense in ways very few cornerbacks can these days.9. Jairus Byrd, FS, Buffalo: Like Cushing, Byrd made the Pro Bowl in his first season in the NFL. And just like Cushing, he'll have to face new challenges from teams that have had more time to ponder how best to attack him. But Byrd didn't intercept nine passes last season (tying him for the league lead) off sheer good fortune. He has the mind and the instincts for the game and he should avoid a letdown in Year 2. 10. Alex Mack, C, Cleveland: For all those people who might question a center being on this list, keep in mind that Mack regularly faces some of the league's best 3-4 nose tackles (such as Baltimore's Haloti Ngata and Pittsburgh's Casey Hampton) in the AFC North. Mack also started all 16 games for the Browns as a rookie and quietly proved to be a rising star at the position. If that isn't enough evidence of his value, just realize that he eventually will be called upon to help ease the transition for quarterback of the future Colt McCoy. Sure, left tackle Joe Thomas is the star of the Browns' offensive line. But Mack has Pro Bowl potential as well. Senior writer Jeffri Chadiha covers the NFL for ESPN.com.
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