By Pat Kirwan
Special to NFL.com
(June 22, 2003) -- It's always a combination of events that cause players to emerge in a season or recapture their former form.
I spent a few days with a prominent NFL defensive coordinator and went through the receivers as we get ready for the 2003 season. We agreed on 10 players who have an excellent chance to significantly improve upon their 2002 performance. It doesn't take a rocket scientist to expect Randy Moss or Marvin Harrison to continue on their path to greatness, but identifying guys positioned to improve in '03 is more interesting to me at this time of year.
Here's a list to consider, and why we liked them more than before.
1. Ike Hilliard, N.Y. Giants -- Ike was Kerry Collins' go-to guy before his injuries put him on the sideline in 2002 with only two touchdowns. While he was gone, Collins took another step in his development as a QB, Amani Toomer edged closer to being a Pro Bowl receiver, and -- most important -- TE Jeremy Shockey became the premier player at his position. As one defensive coordinator said, "Ike will be the fourth option we have to defend now, and he will get great matchups in 2003."
2. Marc Boerigter, Kansas City -- He started only two games in his first NFL season for the Chiefs but he found the end zone eight times and had the longest play in the NFL last year with a 99-yard touchdown reception, which tells me he can run. The Chiefs know how to score points, Johnnie Morton looks more like a third receiver now, and Snoop Minnis and Sylvester Morris should be more worried about making the team. As my defensive friend said, "This kid looks like he could produce Ed McCaffrey numbers." I reminded him he caught more TD passes than Keyshawn Johnson, Tim Brown, Jerry Rice or Keenan McCardell last season.
3. Corey Bradford, Houston -- Corey scored six times last year as the No. 1 receiver for the Texans but his QB, David Carr, was sacked 76 times. Usually the sacks came while Carr was holding the ball waiting for the wide receivers to come open downfield. If the protection improves to 45 sacks, that means at least another 20 balls will come Bradford's way. With Andre Johnson on the other side taking some pressure off and stretching the field, Bradford could have a great season.
4. Josh Reed, Buffalo -- Drew Bledsoe is the QB, Peerless Price is gone and the defense will get the ball back for the offense more this year. Reed will enter his second season with enough experience to make the jump up to starter. With Eric Moulds opposite him, Reed should double his receptions in 2003.
5. Deion Branch, New England -- As many first-year players do, he started fast and ran out of gas last year. According to people with the Patriots, he is working hard and should not hit the wall late this season. Also, Tom Brady led the NFL in touchdown passes last season and Branch will be on the receiving end for more than the two he had last season.
6. Santana Moss, N.Y. Jets -- Most players who undergo major surgery don't regain their quickness for two years, and Moss is all about quickness. He will be healthy, Chad Pennington ended up the top-rated QB in the league in his first year as the starter, and someone has to pick up for Laveranues Coles.
7. Kelly Campbell, Minnesota -- He went from an undrafted rookie to finding himself in the end zone three times in his first season. He played for defensive coordinator George O'Leary at Georgia Tech, Randy Moss will draw all the attention, and Culpepper is learning to find his second and third read.
8. Joe Jurevicius, Tampa Bay -- He played well in the second half of last season and scored four times. Jon Gruden went to a lot more three-wide-receiver sets as he drove his team to the Super Bowl. He will come back in '03 with the same sets, and Jurevicius will reap the benefits with Keyshawn and McCardell on either side. He's a large target in the red zone.
9. Freddie Jones, Arizona -- Jeff Blake is now the QB and he connected with Todd Heap for six TDs in 2002 when he piloted the Ravens. It will not be hard for Blake to hit Jones in the red zone for more than the one TD he had last year.
10. James Whalen or Dan Campbell, Dallas -- Bill Parcells loves the tight end in the red zone, and he uses the "bunch" package with multiple tight ends a lot to keep it simple for the QB. Parcells revived Vinny Testaverde's career with that package with the Jets, and I suspect he will do the same with his young QBs in Dallas. That means at least one of these tight ends will see his production go way up.
Remember, a year ago no one could imagine Brian Finneran would lead the Falcons in receptions or TE Christian Fauria would hit paydirt seven times, but they did, and a few from the list above will have career years in 2003.
The most important thing my defensive coordinator friend said to me was, "These guys are positioned to improve and we can't pay special attention to them, which means they have a great chance to succeed."