By Dalton Del Don
Selvin Young - Being named the Broncos starting running back when training camp opens hardly means it'll last until the season opener, but Young currently sits atop the depth chart. Young averaged 5.2 YPC last season while flashing excellent receiving skills. With the addition of Ryan Clady, Denver's offensive line should be improved, and Young is competing with undersized Andre Hall, soon to be 33-year-old Michael Pittman and rookie Ryan Torain, making the job his to lose. Torain might become a major factor down the road, but he's coming off a serious foot injury and needs to learn the playbook. Young bulked up over the offseason in an effort to prove he can carry a full workload. There's huge upside to whoever gets the bulk of the work.
Aaron Rodgers - Buried beneath the Brett Favre saga is the fact Green Bay has made a major statement about Rodgers; he's the franchise's quarterback from this point forward. The offense is now tailored for Rodgers' skills, which should feature more rollouts and plays down the field to complement his mobility and arm strength. He's seen very little NFL action, but Rodgers is hardly a rookie, as he's now had three years to fully digest the playbook and the speed of the game at this level. Extremely impressive the one time he saw the field last year (7.8 YPA), Rodgers needs to prove he can stay healthy, but he has a tremendous receiving corps and offensive system at his disposal.
Jeremy Shockey - Shockey finally got his wish with the trade to New Orleans, which couldn't have been a more perfect fit. The Giants asked him to block quite frequently, but Saints coach Sean Payton will utilize his receiving skills first, as New Orleans desperately needed a No. 2 option in the passing game to take heat off Marques Colston. Drew Brees threw an NFL-high 652 pass attempts last season, so there will be plenty of targets Shockey's way. He needs to stay healthy, but Shockey's new situation should take better advantage of his unique skills downfield, so career-high yardage totals would not surprise.
Patrick Crayton - With the release of Terry Glenn, Crayton is now the unequivocal No. 2 receiver in Dallas. Crayton has improved his numbers during all four seasons in the league, and he scored six times during his 12 starts last year. He's no better than the third option in the Cowboys' passing game, behind Terrell Owens and Jason Witten, but it's a potent enough attack to still be relevant.
Andre Johnson - Johnson was forced to sit out OTAs after undergoing arthroscopic surgery on his left knee in May, but he's back practicing at training camp and feeling fully healthy. The surgery was definitely disconcerting coming off last year's knee problems, but it's better he got the procedure now rather than later. Johnson racked up 851 yards with eight touchdowns in just nine games last year, and he has about as much upside as any wide receiver in the NFL.
Marvin Harrison - Harrison is back practicing after two different knee injuries essentially ruined his season last year. He's supposedly cutting and looking like the Harrison of old, and considering the offense he plays in, Harrison could lose a step and still be a threat to score double-digit touchdowns. Still, he'll be 36 when the season starts, making it an uphill battle to be a major contributor even if back to full health. He's a risky proposition in 2008.
Ricky Williams - Williams has just six carries since 2005 and tore his pectoral muscle during the last one, ending his season last year. He's 31, which is ancient in running back terms, but because of the time off, his legs are fresh and his career mileage is still reasonable. Even more important, he's really impressed the new Miami coaching regime, and incumbent starter Ronnie Brown doesn't figure to be 100 percent during his first year back from ACL surgery. Bill Parcells is a fan of committees, so Williams could find himself getting plenty of touches this year.
Pierre Thomas - Reggie Bush has a career 3.7 YPC mark and projects best as a change-of-pace runner, as he's most effective in open space and lacks patience. Deuce McAllister is making a valiant attempt to return to the field, but he's coming off two major knee surgeries, including one that was a microfracture procedure. Since his knee is already swelling to the point of a needed MRI, he simply can't be counted on. And that leaves Thomas, who was extremely impressive whenever he got onto the field last season. Thomas has the coaching staff's trust, as they've already stated their confidence in his ability to carry the load if needed. Since he's in a good offensive system with mediocre competition, Thomas' stock is climbing.
Nate Burleson - Burleson has been a mostly inefficient receiver during his career, but after turnover and injuries at the position, he finds himself slated to be Seattle's starting split end. Despite acting as the team's third and sometimes fourth receiver, he did score nine touchdowns last season, and he should finally grasp the playbook entirely entering his third year in a Seahawks' uniform. Mike Holmgren's offensive scheme is extremely lucrative for receivers, and Burleson could be the main beneficiary in 2008.
Bryant Johnson - Playing behind Larry Fitzgerald and Anquan Boldin, Johnson goes from non-starter to the likely role as No. 1 receiver in San Francisco. At 6-3, 216, Johnson has the size to be a major force in Mike Martz's usually pass-heavy scheme. It sometimes take a while for a receiver to get acclimated when switching teams, but in this case, the whole team will be learning a new system under Martz. Johnson is in line to see a career-high in targets, at the very least.
Brandon Marshall - Marshall has a ton of talent and the upside of a top-five receiver, but he's also coming off a turbulent offseason. It appears he's recovered from a major arm injury that caused nerve damage, but he's now in danger of receiving a multiple game suspension because of numerous run-ins with the law. Moreover, he showed up to training camp out of shape. There's still huge potential here, but he now looks unlikely to play in 16 games this season because of the looming suspension.
Willie Parker - Parker might have been leading the league in rushing when his season ended because of a broken leg last year, but that was accompanied by a subpar 4.1 YPC clip and very little in the passing game. Not only does he have to return from a broken fibula, but Parker now also has to deal with competition, as Pittsburgh brought in Mewelde Moore and drafted Rashard Mendenhall in the first round. It's possible Parker still dominates carries between the 20s, but Moore is a superior option in a third-down role, and Mendenhall is already a better blocker and short-yardage option. Parker is going to see fewer touches, including little action at the goal line and in the passing game.
Jerry Porter - Learning a new system is hard enough for a wide receiver, and now Porter is way behind the eight ball after a hamstring injury has him sidelined leading up to the regular-season opener. With little competition at WR and a developing star in David Garrard, Porter is in a fine situation, but hamstring injuries can linger, and it figures to take a chunk of the season for him to become even relatively comfortable in the offense.
Antonio Gates - Gates is still the best tight end in football when on the field, but a serious foot injury that required offseason surgery has his immediate future cloudy. In fact, he might even be a candidate to start the season on the PUP list. With no setbacks, he should be able to return by Week 1, but it's likely to result in a slow start since Gates will begin the year having not practiced at all during training camp.
DeAngelo Williams - The Panthers selected Jonathan Stewart with the 13th overall pick, recently signed him to a big contract, and he showed up to practice proving he was completely over offseason toe surgery. Despite starter DeShaun Foster getting a paltry 3.5 YPC last season, he still saw more than 100 more carries than Williams, which gives you an idea of the coaching staff's trust. Williams has averaged a rock solid 4.6 YPC mark for his career, but he struggles during short-yardage situations and pass protection, two areas in which Stewart excels. Despite Foster's departure, Williams may actually be looking at a slightly decreased role in 2008.
Javon Walker - In theory, Walker should be the No. 1 option in Oakland's passing game, something he wouldn't have been in Denver. However, he downgraded offensive systems with the move to the Bay, having a quarterback with just one career start under his belt throwing him the ball. Additionally, Walker's knee issues are far from resolved, and he also suffered a reported broken eye socket and jaw during the offseason. He's also looked out of shape during OTAs. With health in question and entering a new offense that figures to be run-heavy, Walker is a huge question.
Earnest Graham - Graham was nothing but solid last year, but coach Jon Gruden can't stop talking about Warrick Dunn's veteran leadership. Dunn is still a very useful blocker, but he's 33 and averaged a microscopic 3.3 YPC last year. Still, it's clear he'll be in the mix for carries, and Graham is being forced to compete for the starting job, something that clearly hurts his stock, even if he is the favorite to win the job in the end.
Article first appeared 7/30/08