NFL Nation: emerging stars NFC

 
  Jerry Lai/US Presswire
  Tight end Greg Olsen appears to be the Bears' de facto No. 1 receiving threat.

Posted by ESPN.com's Kevin Seifert

BOURBONNAIS, Ill. -- On a random August evening, I felt a crisp breeze and for a moment thought I was standing at a fall practice. It was an unusually cool night on the campus of Olivet Nazarene University. All around me were signs of midseason football.

The Chicago Bears were rolling through a two-minute drill with a precision that suggested they had been practicing for months, not weeks. One constant stood out, however, as the Bears' offense moved down the field. Three times in an eight-play drive, quarterback Jay Cutler found tight end Greg Olsen downfield. Olsen's first two catches converted first downs, and on the third, he one-handed the ball in the corner of the end zone for a touchdown.

Emerging Stars
A series examining a potential breakout player in each division.
Tues.: AFC West | NFC West
Wed
.: AFC North | NFC North
Thurs
.: AFC South | NFC South
Fri
.: AFC East | NFC East
Teasing Olsen afterward, Cutler said: "Do you ever use two hands?"

The connection between Cutler and Olsen is no joke, of course. Olsen emerged in camp as Cutler's most trusted and reliable target, the de facto No. 1 receiver on a team with an otherwise inexperienced group of pass-catchers.

The Bears have elevated Olsen to starting status after two years behind veteran Desmond Clark, and the intersection of those events makes Olsen our choice as the NFC North's Emerging Star for 2009.

Even while splitting time last season with Clark, Olsen caught 54 passes; that total was the 10th-most among NFL tight ends and the highest total for a Bears tight end since Mike Ditka caught 75 in 1964. With additional playing time this season and his clear chemistry with Cutler, it seems Olsen is poised to take over the Bears' offense.

"I think people are going to be surprised at how good our receivers are going to be and how much those guys can make plays," Olsen said.

"[But] I look at myself as someone that can be 'That Guy.' I feel like I can do a lot of different stuff: Play the receiving role, play tight end and just do whatever I can to help other people get open or make the play myself. I kind of embrace that and have those high expectations of myself."

Olsen's combination of size (6-foot-5, 255 pounds) and speed (he ran the 40-yard dash in 4.51 seconds during the 2007 scouting combine) provide the Bears enormous flexibility in developing their pre-snap formations. He appears equally comfortable lining up as a tight end, H-back, slot receiver or outside receiver. That versatility helps offensive coordinator Ron Turner create mismatches and keep defenses guessing.

"He's a tight end and we feel confident lining him up on the line to block a defensive end," Turner said. "But he also gives us all kinds of flexibility. We'll have packages for him everywhere on the field."

That confidence didn't crystallize until Olsen improved his blocking skills to reach the Bears' standards. Like many pass-catching tight ends, Olsen wasn't asked to block much while playing at the University of Miami. As a result, he spent much of the past two years learning technique and understanding how to use his body.

"Everybody knew he came in as a great receiver," Clark said. "It was funny watching him trying to block his first year. He admits it -- he didn't work on his footwork and that kind of stuff at Miami because he didn't have to. When he got here, me and [former Bears tight end John Gilmore] used to sit back and crack jokes about it. Now, when you look at his footwork, it's right there with any tight end in the league. So the past couple years, he's really put in the work to get better."

The key, Olsen says, is accepting that technique can help overcome size and strength differential.

"Very rarely is the tight end going to be the bigger of the two guys matched up," he said. "There are very few guys who can overpower a defensive end. It's not going to happen. So especially for us lighter guys, we've got to win with things like footwork and hand placement. I never realized how important that really was. Getting good leverage, learning angles and hand placement and footwork -- all of that goes a long way. People think it's just whoever is bigger and stronger, but that's not really the case."

As he polished his blocking skills this spring, Olsen also focused on developing a relationship with Cutler -- whose April arrival was late by NFL (or, at least, non-Favre) terms. They spoke by phone a few hours after the Bears finalized his acquisition, met a few days later and continued working together this summer after the Bears' offseason program concluded.

For much of July, Olsen, Cutler and other Bears receivers worked through the passing tree on their own time at the team's practice facility. Midway through training camp, Olsen estimated he and Cutler understood each other's thinking 85-90 percent of the time.

"I feel like we have a fairly good idea of what each other wants to do," Olsen said. "Once we get into game-planning, that's where the rest of that comes into play."

With improved blocking, more playing time and an elite-level quarterback, Olsen seems poised for a breakout year. He'll need a monster performance to earn Pro Bowl honors now that perennial All-Pro Tony
Gonzalez
has moved to Atlanta and the NFC. But at the very least, everything is in place for Olsen to elevate his name into those elite conversations. Already this summer, he is in midseason form.

"Personally, I feel like I can put myself into that group, which over the past couple years has really been the same guys," Olsen said. "The Gonzalezes, the Jason Wittens, the Dallas Clarks, [Antonio] Gates are kind of the usual suspects when you talk about the best tight ends in the game. Personally, I feel like I have the ability to be one of those guys now that I'm becoming a veteran guy. Those guys have all put in six, seven or eight years in the league.

"I feel like as a young guy I can put myself up there and be one of those guys."

Larry French/Getty Images
The Giants are expecting more this season from second-year safety Kenny Phillips.
Posted by ESPN.com's Matt Mosley

Growing up 15 minutes from the University of Miami campus, Kenny Phillips idolized Hurricanes such as Ed Reed and the late Sean Taylor. His choice came down to either Miami or Tennessee, and he decided to go with the program that could be referred to as Safety U.

Phillips eventually became a star for Miami before becoming a first-round draft choice for the Giants in '08. Some scouts said he was the best tackling safety they'd seen in years. Phillips quickly asserted himself as a playmaker in his first training camp, but he wasn't transferring it to the field.

His best season in college had actually been '06, when he could lean on safety Brandon Meriweather (now with the Patriots) in terms of making calls. He was available late in the first round of the '08 draft (No. 31), in part, because he slipped a little bit without Meriweather.
Emerging Stars
A series examining a potential breakout player in each division.
Tues.: AFC West | NFC West
Wed
.: AFC North | NFC North
Thurs
.: AFC South | NFC South
Fri
.: AFC East | NFC East

He couldn't crack the starting lineup heading into his rookie season with the Giants because he was thinking too much instead of trusting his instincts. A year later, he's poised to become one of the most dynamic players in the division.

He's my pick from the NFC East in ESPN.com's Emerging Stars series. Phillips has once again been one of the best players during training camp, but this season there's reason to believe he'll take that production to the field.

"There's a calmness about [Phillips]," Giants general manager Jerry Reese told ESPN.com earlier this month. "It never looks like he's straining. Everything comes easy for him. He's had a great camp and you can start to see that he's got some star qualities."

Even the grouchiest man in camp, coach Tom Coughlin, has gushed about Phillips. He'll replace James Butler at strong safety and play opposite Michael Johnson. Butler joined the Rams in free agency, but even if he'd stayed, he wasn't going to hold off Phillips another season.

This past offseason, Phillips added 15 pounds of muscle and is now playing at 217. And the funny thing is, he doesn't have a clue how he did it. He'd always had a tough time retaining weight, but something changed. Now, one of the surest tacklers on the team has a more menacing look about him. And as evidenced by several highlight-reel interceptions early in camp, Phillips didn't have to sacrifice any speed.

"I'm way more confident in the defense this season," Phillips said Friday via phone. "I'm playing football now and I'm not having to think so much. It's like back in college or something."

(Read full post)

 
  Frank Victores/US Presswire
  After several underwhelming years, the Saints are hoping that former first-round pick Robert Meachem will be a major contributor this year.

Posted by ESPN.com's Pat Yasinskas

Let's take a look at a few snapshots to sum up Robert Meachem's career.

Start with this one from 2007, when the rookie first-round pick of the New Orleans Saints was visibly limping on the practice field. On game days, he was sitting out entirely.

Next, take a glance at this one from 2008. The limp was gone and Meachem was able to make an impact. But it was minimal. In a season when top receiver Marques Colston was hurt much of the time, quarterback Drew Brees was tossing footballs all over the field for anyone to catch. Meachem responded with 12 receptions. He once forced coach Sean Payton to call a timeout out when he broke to the wrong side of the field coming out of the huddle. When reporters checked in to ask about his progress, Meachem barely could look them in the eye. His answers were brief, usually not even good enough to use as quotes.

Emerging Stars
A series examining a potential breakout player in each division.
Tues.: AFC West | NFC West
Wed
.: AFC North | NFC North
Thurs
.: AFC South | NFC South
Fri
.: AFC East | NFC East

Now, take a look at this last picture. It comes from a morning in early August. Meachem had just finished a practice where he caught a bunch of passes from Brees and even drew some words of encouragement from the quarterback. Meachem was sitting on a bench. He was smiling and talking extensively -- so extensively that a second glance at the jersey number was required to make sure this guy really was Meachem.

"They're going to see the first-round draft pick this season," Meachem said.

Meachem's words were so emphatic that you almost have to believe he's a different player than in his first two seasons. Listen to his teammates and coaches a bit and you'll understand why we made him the NFC South's representative in our Emerging Stars series.

"I can see Robert becoming more confident in his own abilities and his knowledge of the offense and realizing you've got to give a little bit extra to really succeed," Brees said. "I'm really impressed with his progression. He's got an opportunity to be a big part of this offense and I'm excited about that."

The Saints and their fans have been excited about Meachem ever since he was drafted out of Tennessee. He's 6-foot-2 and 210 pounds and, on paper, has the perfect combination of size and speed to be an all-purpose receiver. That's why fans have been so disappointed with Meachem's first two seasons.

So why should the third year be any different? Because Meachem really is a different guy this year.

"My confidence is sky high," Meachem said. "I'm back to being the old me. I've got my explosion back. I'm back to being the player I was in college."

Maybe more than that. At Tennessee in 2006, Meachem had a breakout season as a junior. He set a Tennessee record with 1,265 receiving yards, had six 100-yard games and scored 11 touchdowns. That was enough to make the Saints take him as the 27th overall pick and people viewed him as an instant replacement for Joe Horn.

He wasn't even close to that. Coming off knee surgery, Meachem's limp was obvious in practice, he didn't know the playbook and he didn't have the trust of Brees or the coaching staff.

The limp was gone last season, but not much else changed.

"My rookie year, that was crazy," Meachem said. "It was real tough because I was a first-round draft pick and you want to make all the plays and you want to be on the field all the time. I couldn't even get on the field. Last year, I wasn't nearly as comfortable as I am now. Last year, they got me involved, but it wasn't like I wanted it to be."

Meachem said there are a couple of reasons why he believes this year will be like he and everyone else wants it to be. The first is physical. His knee is fine and he spent time in the offseason working with a speed coach. He said he's as fast ever.

The next part is the mental side of the game.

"The positive thing about the first two years is that I got a chance to learn about football and about myself," Meachem said. "God teaches you a lot of things. I wasn't ready. I just wasn't ready for all this. You come in as a star, but you've got 100 other stars out there as well. That's when you start to realize you've got to put in the work to set yourself apart."

Watch the Saints in practice and you'll frequently see Brees talking to Meachem between plays.

"I think there was some of that in the past with Robert," Brees said. "But I think his desire to make himself a bigger part of this offense has helped him to grow."

Meachem is heeding the words and wisdom of a man who threw for more than 5,000 yards last season. Colston is healthy again, but there are plenty of passes to go around in the Saints' offense and Meachem is competing with Lance Moore and Devery Henderson for playing time.

"I feel like Drew's got a lot of trust in me and that means a lot," Meachem said. "You've got to love it as a receiver in this offense because we come off the bus throwing the football."

And when the Saints get off the bus this season, there just might be a very big role for Meachem.

"They're going to rely on me," Meachem said. "Drew and I talk a lot and I'm really starting to understand what he sees and what coach Payton sees. The game is fun again. I don't have to think as much. The last two seasons, I was thinking too much. I was trying to do everything right instead of just playing. Now, I"m just going out and playing."

Posted by ESPN.com's Mike Sando

SANTA CLARA, Calif. -- It's an offseason afternoon at San Francisco 49ers headquarters and young receiver Josh Morgan is reaching deep into the team's video archives.

 
  Jed Jacobsohn/Getty Images
  Josh Morgan should start the season as San Francisco's No. 2 receiver.

He cues up vintage 49ers practice footage featuring Jerry Rice, the player his grandfather taught him to admire from an early age.

"They've got it on old Beta tapes, those little small ones," Morgan later says. "It's the old-school technology."

Morgan watches Rice run specific routes in practice, then in games, and he is awestruck.

"If you just imagined the DB not being there, the way he runs routes in games looks exactly the same as when you watch old practice film of him running," Morgan says. "All his routes, he got in and out of within two steps. It's scary. It's scary that a guy could work that hard to be that great."

Morgan has yet to strike fear into opponents during his brief career. Staph infection and a groin tear conspired against him as a rookie, limiting Morgan to 20 catches.

Healthy again, Morgan is an ascending player with the ability and opportunity to break out -- as long as he stays patient in a run-oriented offense. He appeared destined for the starting lineup even if first-round draft choice Michael Crabtree had signed and reported to camp on time. With Crabtree still unsigned and free-agent addition Brandon Jones sidelined well into the season, Morgan and Isaac Bruce are clearly the primary options at wide receiver.

Longer term, Morgan projects as a solid No. 2 receiver for years to come.

"Does [Morgan] have the potential? Absolutely," coach Mike Singletary said, "but a guy like Isaac Bruce isn't around a long time for nothing. He knows what he is doing. He knows the workout routine he has to have. He knows how to be effective. He knows the routes. Time is one of the things that will answer that question."

Emerging Stars
A series examining a potential breakout player in each division.
Tues.: AFC West | NFC West
Wed
.: AFC North | NFC North
Thurs
.: AFC South | NFC South
Fri
.: AFC East | NFC East

Morgan had a reputation to live down. An arrest for disorderly conduct while at Virginia Tech and questions about Morgan's attitude and dedication pushed down his draft stock. As a rookie, Morgan impressed the 49ers with his ability to grasp offensive concepts quickly. The 49ers became convinced they'd gotten a steal in the sixth round.

"The guy has unbelievable talent," quarterback Shaun Hill said. "He's such a hard worker and a good kid -- a good young man, I should say. I can't say enough good things about him."

The 49ers list Morgan at 6 feet tall and 219 pounds, thick for a receiver. Morgan reported for training camp 5 pounds lighter than his target weight, his body fat down from 8 or 9 percent as a rookie to 3.8 percent this summer. Massive thighs still compel Morgan to buy oversized jeans, but he said his preferred waist size has dropped from 38 to 32.

Such was the power, largely, of the 49ers' decision to draft Crabtree.

Morgan was modeling the 49ers' new uniforms at a team-organized draft party when the team unexpectedly found Crabtree available later than anticipated. The 49ers drafted the Texas Tech receiver with the 10th overall choice. Not long after, Morgan recalled reading a magazine story suggesting his looming obsolescence.

"I don't know what magazine it was in, but I read it the whole summer, over and over again," Morgan said.

The part questioning Morgan's speed "triggered" something in him. Morgan reported spending extra time at the track with 49ers teammate and fellow Washington, D.C. native Vernon Davis, and Davis' younger brother, Miami Dolphins first-round choice Vontae Davis. Their trainer would make up workouts from hell.

They might run 10 100s in less than 12 seconds apiece, six 200s in less than 22 seconds each and two 400s in a time Morgan couldn't quite recall, other than to say it was less than 50 seconds.

"You start praying for your legs so you can walk to your car and get home after that workout," he said.

Morgan hasn't dented the stat sheet much through two exhibition games, catching one pass for 7 yards Saturday night against the Raiders. The 49ers have been shuttling quarterbacks through the offense and trying to establish a hard-nosed identity through the ground game. Rookie third-round choice Glen Coffee leads the NFL this preseason with 196 yards rushing, 56 more than any player.

Raye will run the offense through running back Frank Gore when the games start counting. Davis, a Pro Bowl alternate at tight end last season, often led the 49ers in receptions during training camp practices. Bruce remains Mr. Reliable.

None of them possesses Morgan's combination of size, speed, youth, hands, blocking ability, versatility and knack for learning complex offenses.

"In a three-wide set, he could play all three positions, including the slot," Raye said. "He can pla
y both 'X' and 'Z', and so that makes him, in a game-day situation, a real plus, a real positive."

Morgan averaged 16 yards per reception as a rookie. His three touchdown passes covered 48, 31 and 30 yards. Morgan can also deliver in the run game, as when he cleared out a Raiders linebacker to spring Coffee for a long gain Saturday.

"For a big-bodied guy, for a big receiver, he has excellent explosion," Raye said. "He doesn't look like he would have that kind of explosion, but he's an explosive guy, a great leaper. Because of his arms, his circumference range is very good. He can get to some balls with extension that some guys cannot."

Morgan wants to improve his route-running and ability to recognize defenses. He couldn't have a mentor better equipped than Bruce -- unless Rice came out of retirement.

"I'm nowhere near Isaac Bruce level and definitely nowhere near a Jerry Rice level," Morgan said. "I have to get a lot better because those are the expectations I have for myself and the expectations Coach Singletary has for me."

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