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  Tuesday, March 3, 2015
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A New Generation of Stars (Part 3)
By Paul Noonan

     Had he opted for the 2005 draft, it is very likely that QB Matt Leinhart would have been the first overall pick.  Instead, Leinhart wanted another NCAA title and then hoped to go first overall in the 2006 draft.  It turns out that by the end of the 2006 draft neither of those dreams of Leinhart’s were fulfilled.  His USC Trojans were defeated in the NCAA final and he slipped to number 10 in the draft.  Leinhart is a great example of the great crop of talent that is flowing into the NFL.  Sure, the NFL has been as popular as ever and the talent level hasn’t really thinned out that much, but many young faces are making the NFL as competitive as ever.


     Like the NHL draft, this year’s NFL draft was loaded with top notch talent, especially with the first dozen picks or so.  Analysts debated for weeks over the number one pick.  Reggie Bush, Vince Young, Matt Leinhart, who would be number one?  The Texans eventually answered the question in choosing DE Mario Williams with that pick.  Bush went second, and Young went third.  The best part of the draft though, is that of the top ten picks eight different positions were chosen.  One could argue that that’s because teams are trying to fill different positions, which is true, but it’s also because there was so much talent all over the field.  And that bodes well for the NFL. 


     The offensive talent in this draft was very good.  Reggie Bush has been getting ‘the next one’ kind of hype, and if he is as successful as he was in college he might be.  But even in his own draft class Bush will have some challengers.  Fellow first rounders Laurence Maroney and Deangelo Williams also had stellar college careers.  While Bush got all the attention, both Maroney and Williams have more total rushing yards than Bush (since 2003).  Granted, both have done so with significantly more rushing attempts, but you could argue that that was a result of them being more important to their team or more durable as well.  But it’s not just his own classmates, Bush will have to start the catching up to a lot of young running backs.  Of the fifteen 1,000 yard rushers in ’05, only four of them were over thirty years old.  Most of them were 27 or younger.  That should leave most of those running backs with at least five strong years left.  The quarterback controversy was the biggest talk of the draft.  Who is the best?  Vince Young?  Jay Cutler?  Matt Leinhart?  Well, the Titans believed it was Young, but while Young, for now, is the best of his class, he’s got a long way to go before being a top tier NFL quarterback.  Aside from having to compete with established veterans such as Tom Brady, Matt Hasselbeck, Peyton Manning, Brett Favre, etc., Young and company will have to compete with quick up and comers such as Ben Roethlisberger and Carson Palmer.  They will also be trying to outdo other young talents such as David Carr, Eli Manning, Rex Grossman, Michael Vick and Byron Leftwich, who with a little more seasoning should make a quarterback generation that will rival the days of Marino, Montana, Elway, Steve Young, Aikman, etc.  Of the top five receivers in the NFL last season, the oldest was Chad Johnson at 28.  Arizona is licking its chops that two of the top five are 25 year old Anquan Boldin and 22 year old Larry Fitzgerald.  Antonio Gates is only 25.  Donte Stallworth is as well.  Javon Walker, who has been forgotten a little bit because he missed all of last season, is just 27 and before his injury on his way to becoming a dominant receiver.  Patriots’ draftee Chad Jackson will hopefully be a force for years to come.  And Deion Branch, should he re- sign, hopefully will be too.  While this year’s WR class was weak, there is still enough already in the NFL to make cornerbacks shake and quarterbacks smile.  Even offensive linemen are feeling the love in the NFL.  Tackle D’ Brickashaw Ferguson was the fourth overall pick.  In 2004, Robert Gallery was the second overall pick. 


     While offense gets most of the attention, defensive players have been making a name for themselves, too.  Mario Williams is a prime example, as this year’s number one pick aims to prove the Texans made the right choice passing on Bush or Young.  Number five pick A.J. Hawk is already getting Brian Urlacher comparisons, and the two will be trying to get in each other’s way as their teams battle in the NFC North.  Seventeen other first rounders this year were defensemen.  In Green Bay, Hawk joins another good young linebacker in Nick Barnett, who was sixth in the league in tackles.  Jonathan Vilma, this year’s tackles leader is only in his third year.  Osi Umenyiora, while a little unheralded, finished second in the league in sacks.  22 year old linebacker Shawne Merriman was one of two linebackers who finished with ten or more sacks.  The linebacker is already one of the most feared in the league.  Julius Peppers’ had a little quieter of a year, but he’s still one of the best defensive ends in the league.  Dwight Freeney is looking to make that name for himself as well.  At cornerback, the NFL is loaded with young talent.  Eight quarterbacks finished in the top ten for interceptions, three were 24 or younger.  Five cornerbacks were chosen in the first round.  So while they don’t get talked about as much, the defensemen are a great crop as well.

     This generation of stars will have a tough road trying to prove they are the best.  The players of the nineties may take that title as numerous records were set in that decade on offense.  So the pressure is on both sides.  The offensive stars will be trying to outdo the nineties and put the days of Montana and company out of fans’ memories.  The defensive players however, have perhaps a better chance of being the greatest generation.  Defense has never had a truly great generation, more just many great players, but this group has a chance to end that trend.  With defense a big point of emphasis in the NFL now, defenders are expected to do more, and in some cases they do.  Whether both sides of the ball exceed expectation is yet to be determined, but they are keeping football atop the sports market and giving their teams chances to win every day.       

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Reggie Bush in aciton.