I'll be taking heat for picking the Giants' Mark Collins over Atlanta's Deion Sanders at cornerback and Washington's Tim Johnson over Minnesota's John Randle at defensive tackle, so I'll address those choices first.
Sanders is the best pure cover man in the NFL, the guy who turned the Falcons' season around, according to his coach, Jerry Glanville. But he plays with a kind of athletic arrogance: He can't always be bothered with 10-yard square-outs. He's waiting for something more serious. Collins is blue collar, a blood-and-guts guy who goes all out on every play. You can't take him deep, and he plays the force better than anyone else (Deion's tackling has improved, but he's no force playing the force). And Collins didn't devote a piece of the season to baseball.
The same thinking holds at defensive tackle. Johnson has had a remarkable year. He's always around the ball. He goes hard every play. Randle is more gifted, more spectacular, a guy who will make many big plays but take himself out of others. Once again, I go blue collar.
The 49ers' Jerry Rice is my Player of the Year based on consistently high performance, and I'm starting to believe he may be the best ever—though I'll always have a soft spot in my heart for Lance Alworth. Jerome Bettis of the Rams, who loses out to Thomas at the running back spot, is my Rookie of the Year, but William Roaf, the Saints' classy right tackle, is close.
The most outrageous omission from the Pro Bowl is LeRoy Butler, the Packers' strong safety, a converted cornerback whose speed and coverage lifted the position to a new dimension. Mo Lewis, the Jets' weakside linebacker, didn't make the Pro Bowl either, but he has turned into a terrific coverage guy (he always could rush the passer and play the run). Dante Jones, my middle linebacker, held the Bears' defense together, and San Diego's Junior Seau plays a new position in the NFL this year, stack linebacker—an inside-outside man, usually stacked behind a defensive lineman.
The sleepers on this team: the Niners' Merton Hanks, whose frenzied style of free safety play captured me and earned him the position by an eyelash over the Oilers' gifted Marcus Robertson, and Mike Schad, who has had a quietly spectacular year for the Eagles. He edges out the Jets' Dwayne White, the Road Grader, whose performance against the Colts on the road received the highest grade I've ever given for an NFL offensive lineman. Of course, everyone grades highly against the Colts.
Another tough choice was the second running back, after the Cowboys' Emmitt Smith. Thurman Thomas of the Bills got it on total production, shading Bettis, the Lions' Barry Sanders, who missed too many games, the Jets' Johnny Johnson and my sentimental favorite, Atlanta's Erric Pegram.
I usually pick a blocker at tight end, but the Broncos' Shannon Sharpe, playing the old Kellen Winslow slot position, was simply too big a part of the Denver offense. And Cowboy Troy Aikman, $50 million contract and all, is my quarterback, shading the Niners' Steve Young and Denver's John Elway.
Aikman also is the author of one of my favorite quotes of the year. Someone asked him if his new contract would affect his thinking as the Cowboys headed down the stretch, and he said, "I try to block it out of my mind." Which is like saying to a guy who has just hit the lottery, "Block it out of your mind, Joe, and be at the tilling station at eight o'clock tomorrow morning."