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NFL Watch: Five Guys to Keep an Eye on in 2009

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NFL Watch: Five Guys to Keep an Eye on in 2009
(Photo by Jeff Gross/Getty Images)

It's not uncommon to see a guy come into this league with a ton of potential or expectation.

No.

The very definition of a first-round draft pick being used on a guy, particularly in the top 10, seems to suggest that he is great already or will be soon.

However, there are some guys in the league who I think are "stealing money." They came out with all the pomp and circumstance but have largely been average and only mildly worthy of their millionaire status.

This list is meant to point out a few of these guys and say, "Hey, dude, get your act together."

In other words, it's time for them to "put up or shut up."

 

First on my list is Vernon Davis, San Francisco 49ers, TE

Vernon Davis came out of the 2006 NFL Draft a monster, but his play has been anything but that since he arrived.

He has proved to be nothing more than an undisciplined, unfocused, and unappreciative ball player—all of which has hindered him in his development into a truly elite football player.

This will be his fourth year in the league, and it's now or never for the young man who made a big splash at the 2006 NFL Combine after running a 4.38 forty and showcasing a 42" vertical to go with an excellent pair of hands.

Honestly, though, I can't blame it all on Vernon.

He has seen quite a revolving door at both the quarterback and the offensive coordinator position, and his most recent coordinator, Mike Martz, saw fit to use him more as a blocker than a pass catcher—a role he has done well at but was clearly not drafted to fill.

Further, who can be consistent when you don't know which quarterback will be throwing the rock your way?

Alex Smith, J.T. O'Sullivan, and Shaun Hill have all had their shot at the brass ring.

Even more, there is still the presence of Frank Gore, plus big-time draftee Michael Crabtree.

So, what's a poor former first-round pick to do?

Davis may not have any control over how he's used or where, but he can control his play when he gets his chance.

He needs to limit his drops and rediscover the solid hands he displayed at both the combine and the University of Maryland, get better at running more precise routes, and start using that sculpted body of his as a battering ram, because for all that strength, he doesn't have many yards after the catch—he's fairly easy to take down for a guy his size.

Most importantly, he needs to lose the attitude.

I like to see passion in a player as much as the next guy, but his "passion" is less fire and brimstone than it is powder and wind. His clueless sideline antics and his unwarranted ego need to go, and this needs to be the year.

His new offensive coordinator, Jimmy Raye, actually likes to use the tight end in his offensive scheme, and if Davis ever was going to thrive, it's going to be under Raye.

Plus, Davis did seem to get a bit better after the Mike Singletary tirade last year. Perhaps Coach Singletary is the guy who will be able to light a fire under the young guy and make him advance to that next level.

 

Reggie Bush, New Orleans Saints, RB

Listen, before all the Saints fans try to run me over with a concrete truck, let me explain.

Reggie is not a bust—not yet. The thing about him is he's not as advertised.

When Bush came out, he was touted as the savior for the New Orleans Saints franchise. Unfairly so, but still he was, and for all the good vibes he put out, he has been average as a running back.

He has yet to top 1,000 yards rushing in even one of his three seasons. Numerous injuries have, seemingly, kept him off the field more than on it, and his inability to play smart with the ball in his hands has left him open to a bit of an issue with ball protection—in 2007 alone he had eight fumbles.

I realize that he has the versatility to be good anywhere on the field, and his prowess as a kick returner cannot be denied, but the fact remains, he was supposed to be an every-down back, and as it stands right now, the Saints are paying for a multi-purpose back who will likely only be available 8-10 games a year.

Is he really worth that kind of money to be that guy?

When he plays, he's money, no doubt. However, durability over the long haul has got to be a concern.

Another surgery and rehab is behind him, and it's time for Reggie to break out and prove, once and for all, that he can play effectively for an entire season.

He needs to really shine this year.

 

Cedric Benson, Cincinnati Bengals, RB

Benson got off on the wrong foot with the Chicago Bears, the team that drafted him fourth overall in 2005 and intended to use him as their feature back.

He held out for all of training camp, and once he finally signed his contract, he showed up under the belief that he was still the best man for the job despite not having practiced much with his new team.

It would be hell for him from that point forward, as he would battle injury after injury and never quite gain enough momentum in the Bears' offense to be important.

By 2008, the Bears were fed up with Benson and his overly inflated ego and decided to roll the dice with another running back.

That guy's name was Matt Forte, and although his arrival was supposed to light a fire under Benson, it eventually led to his release altogether.

Now, under the revamped offensive line of the Cincinnati Bengals, Cedric will get the opportunity to prove that his bang is worth the buck.

In 10 starts with the Bengals last season, he managed 747 yards and two scores—all while running behind a mediocre offensive line.

With a new season approaching and a better opportunity of success with the addition of talented left tackle Andre Smith, Benson may be able to finally show that he is a top tier back in this league.

No time like the present, I say.

 

JaMarcus Russell, Oakland Raiders, QB

He hasn't been starting all that long, but he's been unimpressive in the starts he has had. His numbers are largely unimpressive, and for a guy who was a No. 1 pick, he has not shown that he is going to get appreciably better.

Blame it on the management, the personnel, or the overall inability of the Raiders to draft well on the offensive side of the ball; whatever the case, Russell seems ill-suited to be standing under center.

However, I don't think Russell has had the tools to succeed in Oakland yet. Gracious knows the season he spent under Lane Kiffin was a disaster because Kiffin was, well, a disaster.

Tom Cable is supposedly the guy who is going to bring stability and leadership. However, his competence seems to be in question after the drafting of Darrius Heyward-Bey in this years' draft.

I don't know how much Russell will progress this season, but here are a few facts that I feel cannot be disputed:

1. The Raiders have a talented, young running back in Darren McFadden who can do special things on the field. If he can stay healthy and they can incorporate him into the offense more, then Russell will be better—Russell played better when the run game was more consistent.

2. Zach Miller is one of the most talented tight ends in the league and at 6'5" makes for a very nice target as long as Russell can get him the ball.

3. The offensive line was bad, but by no means the worst in the NFL. Russell just needs to learn how to be a better leader and make smarter plays.

In short, Russell is in a bad situation, but it's not the worst by any means, and a lot of his issues have nothing to do with the Raiders.

He throws too many bad passes, he fumbles way more than he should, he seems to have problems reading defenses and scanning the field in an efficient manner, and when he finds an open receiver, he has lacked the ability to key in on him and connect on the throw.

All of these are largely rookie issues that can be corrected with good coaching, and this is the year to find out if Russell is ready to take the next step.

 

Matt Leinart, Arizona Cardinals, QB

Leinart was meant to be the franchise guy, and I believe that he still can be.

As of now, Kurt Warner will be calling the shots, but let's be honest...he's not the future of this team. Another year or two and the Cardinals will need to be making another switch.

It's time for Leinart to show that he has the moxie to get the job done. He may be riding the pine for now, but he needs to show that when Warner's time is done, he is the man that can continue to lead this team into contention for the foreseeable future.

He has seen his relevance to the team decrease over the last couple years, yet his popularity has gone up.

Some feel that his "Hollywood" status is more important to him than his football status.

However, I see a guy making the most of what could be labeled an embarrassing situation.

After all, here's this 26-yearold former Heisman winner, who was a top 15 pick, playing second fiddle to a guy who many thought was done after the Rams released him.

It's got to be a bit of a head scratcher for Matt.

That said, as the new season approaches, he will be playing for the No. 2 slot, and he needs to win that position by a landslide if he wants to start packing away the confidence for the time when the Cardinals will need to anoint their next guy.

That means becoming a better passer, making better decisions on reads, and being the leader that his teammates need.

If he fails to do so, I think his time in Arizona may be over sooner rather than later.

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