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Big Wheels Revved-up Cardinals defensive ends Andre Wadsworth (left) and Simeon Rice are among a plethora of dynamic young duos who are motoring toward NFL stardom

Simeon Rice and Andre Wadsworth
Cardinals Defensive Ends

They are young, athletic, hardworking and relentless, and they
hope to remain a tandem for the next decade. In Simeon Rice
(left) and Andre Wadsworth the Arizona Cardinals have bookend
pass rushers who love each other's company--on the field, at
least. Get them away from football, and they're about as alike
as Hennessy and strawberry milk.

Rice loves riding in limos; Wadsworth drives a Toyota Camry.
Rice has a recording studio in his house; Wadsworth has a
PlayStation hookup he hasn't even taken out of the box. Rice is
into hard-core rappers like Jay-Z; Wadsworth is into JC--as in
Jesus Christ--and prefers gospel music. Rice dates models;
Wadsworth, a self-proclaimed "hermit," doesn't date.

Rice, a 6'5", 260-pounder from Illinois who was the third pick
in the 1996 draft, was the NFL defensive rookie of the year two
seasons ago with 12 1/2 sacks, which matched the highest total
ever by a rookie. He slumped in his second year after dropping
20 pounds because of a viral infection in training camp, but he
has come back strong in '98. This year Rice already has more
sacks (nine) than he did last season (five), and he promises
he'll get better. "The only cat up front giving me any beef is
[Dallas Cowboys tackle] Larry Allen," he says. "I believe I'm on
my way to being the Michael Jordan of football on defense."

As high as he is on himself, Rice is equally enamored of
Wadsworth, the third pick in 1998, from Florida State. Rice
refers to the 6'4", 278-pound Wadsworth as the Gift because, in
Rice's eyes, "he was sent here to take our defense to another
level--he's the chosen one." Wadsworth, who was a preseason
holdout before signing a six-year contract that could be worth as
much as $42 million, became the starter at left end in the second
game of the season and has four sacks. "We're very competitive,"
Wadsworth says of himself and Rice, "and I'd like to catch him
before the year is done."

Any other requests? "Yeah," Wadsworth says. "I wish he'd stop
calling me the Gift. I can't stand it when he does that. I don't
know what's going on in that dome of his." --Michael Silver

Todd Steussie and Korey Stringer
Vikings Tackles

Every time he rushes for more than 100 yards in a game,
Minnesota Vikings running back Robert Smith takes his offensive
line out to dinner. With guests such as 320-pound left tackle
Todd Steussie (left) and 353-pound right tackle Korey Stringer,
the meals can get expensive. Sometimes they start with
five-pound lobsters--as appetizers--and it's not uncommon for
the bill for Smith and his linemen to be more than $1,000.

But keeping Steussie and Stringer happy is money well spent for
the explosive Minnesota offense. That unit was ranked second in
the NFL in total offense through Sunday, thanks largely to a
line built around the two tackles, first-round draft picks who
over the last four years have developed into one of the league's
most consistent blocking tandems. In an era of patchwork
offensive lines Steussie and Stringer already rank sixth and
seventh, respectively, in career starts for Vikings tackles.
"Our linemen may never get credit for offensive productivity,"
says wideout Cris Carter, "but they are the nuts and bolts that
make everything go."

For his good work, Steussie, who was drafted out of Cal in 1994
and made his first Pro Bowl appearance three years later, was
rewarded last February with a five-year, $22 million contract. He
hasn't been a disappointment since. In a 31-28 win over the
Chicago Bears on Sept. 27, he graded out at a near-perfect 1.96,
one of the highest marks ever awarded a Minnesota lineman.

The same month Steussie signed his deal, Stringer celebrated the
birth of his son Kodie. Stringer lost 40 pounds and reported to
training camp a step faster and in his best condition since he
was drafted out of Ohio State in 1995. He had a breakout game
against the Green Bay Packers on Oct. 5 when he dominated
defensive end Reggie White, as the Vikings rolled up 545 yards
of offense in a 37-24 win. "We would like to become known as a
great line," says Stringer, who is eligible to become a free
agent after the season. "That would be nice. But that comes with
winning. Usually for linemen the only recognition you get is
from your mother and your wife." --David Fleming

Ray Lewis and Peter Boulware
Ravens Linebackers

Ray Lewis (left) and Peter Boulware are different kinds of
players, have divergent personalities and came from rival
Florida colleges, but they have the same goal. "When it's all
said and done," says Lewis, "we want to go down as the best
linebacker tandem that ever was." After playing side by side for
just two years, they appear to have a shot at achieving that end.

Lewis, a ferocious run-stopping middle linebacker who was a
first-round draft pick from Miami in 1996, led the Ravens in
tackles as a rookie with 142 and then overcame a bruised spinal
cord in training camp to lead the NFL with 210 tackles last
season. "I think he's the best middle linebacker in football,"
says New York Jets coach Bill Parcells.

Boulware, a speedy, instinctive pass rusher who was the Ravens'
first-round selection, out of Florida State, in 1997, racked up
11 1/2 sacks from his outside spot last season and was named NFL
defensive rookie of the year. "I don't think you can compare
Boulware to anybody else," says Tennessee Oilers coach Jeff
Fisher. "We'll be comparing other players to him."

Last month the Ravens rewarded Lewis with a four-year, $26
million contract extension that makes him the league's
highest-paid linebacker. Despite sitting out two games with a
dislocated left elbow, Lewis has a team-high 111 tackles, and in
a 13-10 win over the Oakland Raiders on Nov. 8, he had 12
tackles and a sack. One week later Boulware had five tackles, 1
1/2 sacks and five quarterback pressures in a 14-13 loss to the
San Diego Chargers. For the year he has 7 1/2 sacks for the 5-8

Lewis is loud and animated, Boulware is laid back. "If I make a
play, I'm going to dance and laugh and scream and run around,"
says Lewis. "If Peter does it, he'll just ball up his fist and
quietly walk back to the huddle." Despite their different
styles, they've become fast friends. "That bond has helped us
push each other to be better," says Boulware. "There is so much
ahead of us in this league. The fact that we'll be going through
it together makes it easier." --D.F.

Fred Taylor and Daimon Shelton
Jaguars Running Backs

If rookie running back Fred Taylor (left) wanted to watch a
videotape of his highlights as a pro, he might have to spend the
better part of an afternoon in front of a television. In his
first play after replacing injured starter James Stewart in Week
3, Taylor reversed field and ran 52 yards for a touchdown
against the Baltimore Ravens. On the opening play against the
Miami Dolphins on Oct. 12, Taylor used his 4.35 speed to dart 77
yards for a score. During the fourth quarter in Week 11, he
scampered 70 yards for the winning touchdown as the Jaguars beat
the Tampa Bay Buccaneers 29-24. "Sometimes this whole season is
a shock to me," says Taylor, the former Florida star who was the
ninth pick in last April's draft. "I see some of the things I've
done, and I ask myself, How did I do that?"

The answer is usually right in front of him. Leading the way on
most of Taylor's carries has been second-year fullback Daimon
Shelton, a six-foot, 250-pound block of granite who is sort of a
glorified guard lining up in the backfield. Says Jacksonville
coach Tom Coughlin, "Daimon has been a key in the emergence of
our running game."

"I understand my role on this team," says Shelton, a sixth-round
pick out of Sacramento State in 1997 whose nickname is Rock. "I
could never be Fred Taylor, but I take a lot of pride in helping
spring him. I enjoy hitting linebackers." Indeed, Shelton once
described the perfect block as feeling "like an orgasm."

Thanks in part to Shelton's blocking, Taylor is vying for rookie
of the year honors. He leads all rookies with 1,005 yards
rushing; he's tied for second in the league in touchdowns with
14; and his 5.0-yard average is second to the Denver Broncos'
Terrell Davis. Taylor set the Jaguars' single-season rushing
record in Sunday's 37-22 win over the Detroit Lions, while
running for a team-record 183 yards.

Shelton, meanwhile, didn't carry the ball in Jacksonville's
first five games. He then jokingly petitioned the coaches for
just one opportunity per game. He got that--and more--when
injuries to Taylor and Tavian Banks left him as the primary back
in a Oct. 18 meeting with the Buffalo Bills. In that game
Shelton carried 13 times for 44 yards and caught two passes for
17 yards. The next week, however, he went back to his job as a
VIP escort. "We're a team, our success comes from working
together," says Shelton. "If he had to, Fred would throw a block
for me. At least, I'm pretty sure he would." --D.F.

Jerome Woods and Reggie Tongue
Chiefs Safeties

Three weeks before the 1996 NFL draft Reggie Tongue sat in a
Corvallis, Ore., restaurant staring at a tantalizing plate of
chicken. The bird had been grilled, but that was nothing
compared to what Tongue, an Oregon State senior, was about to
get from the seven Kansas City Chiefs coaches and talent
evaluators who were at the table. "They asked me every possible
question: What kind of people did I hang out with? What was my
childhood like?" Tongue says. "I didn't even get to take a bite."

K.C. defensive coordinator Gunther Cunningham, who had been
wowed by Tongue's workout earlier that day, says it was Tongue's
assured demeanor during that dinner that won him over. The
Chiefs wound up choosing Memphis safety Jerome Woods (left) in
the first round and Tongue, who in college had split time
between safety and cornerback, in the second, and just like that
Kansas City had solidified the middle of its secondary for years
to come.

By the start of the 1997 season Woods, at free safety, and
Tongue, on the strong side, had moved into the starting lineup.
Each has played with so much determination and intelligence that
some Chiefs coaches and staff members get them mixed up. It's as
if they're a composite: Jereggie Woodtongue, hard-hitting young
playmaker. "Someone yells, 'Romey,' I turn around," Tongue says.

This season Woods and Tongue have been the steadiest players on
a stumbling 5-8 team. In a 34-24 win over the Arizona Cardinals
on Nov. 29, Tongue had nine tackles and a sack. Woods had 15
tackles in a 40-10 loss to the New England Patriots on Oct. 11.
In the fourth quarter of that game, Woods broke his right hand
but came back. Later in the week, when Cunningham asked if he'd
be ready for the next game, Woods slammed his helmet across the
cast. "Any doubt in your mind now?" he asked.

"They're not even close to fulfilling their potential,"
Cunningham says of the pair. "They can end up being household

Perhaps they'll even be correctly identified in their own locker
room. --M.S.

Toby Gowin and Richie Cunningham
Cowboys Kickers

Dallas Cowboys assistant coach Steve Hoffman has found kickers
and punters just about everywhere. He discovered punter Toby
Gowin (left) on one of his 15 to 20 campus visits a year. He was
scouting a kickers' tryout camp in Reno when Richie Cunningham
caught his eye. He has invited four guys to work out in Dallas
based on what they showed in videotapes they mailed him. In
fact, he receives nearly 300 unsolicited tapes from kickers and
punters aspiring to be pros each year--even more when the
Cowboys lose a kicker or punter to free agency, which is often.

Whenever a Dallas booter hits the market--as Eddie Murray, Chris
Boniol and John Jett have since the end of the '93 season--owner
Jerry Jones waves goodbye and expects Hoffman to find a
replacement. "With the salary cap it makes sense," Hoffman says
of Jones's policy. "Why spend an extra $500,000 a year on a
punter with a 44-yard average when you can find a guy for the
minimum [$195,000] who can punt 43?"

Hoffman's knack for identifying players with strong legs and the
guts to perform under NFL pressure has provided Dallas with two
second-year booters who are making names for themselves:
Cunningham from Southwestern Louisiana, and Gowin from North
Texas. Cunningham has made 57 of 64 field goals since arriving
last season. Gowin, after a mediocre rookie year in which he
averaged 41.8 yards per punt, has improved his average to 44.1
yards this year. He doubles as the team's kickoff specialist.

Gowin and Cunningham, both 5'10" and 167 pounds and roommates on
the road, understand the Cowboys' stance on kickers. "Their
philosophy gives young guys like me and Toby a chance," says
Cunningham. "The first year I tried out [1994], Dallas had me,
Boniol and Jeff Wilkins in camp. Now we're all in the league.
Steve knows what to look for in kickers."

Hoffman became sold on Gowin when he visited North Texas on a
day the winds were blowing about 20 mph. Hoffman offered to
reschedule the tryout, but Gowin refused. Gowin's confidence and
the fact that his punts knifed high through the wind caught
Hoffman's eye. Now Hoffman thinks Gowin could become the first
punter-kicker in the NFL since Frank Corral of the Los Angeles
Rams in 1981. "In practice I'm pretty comfortable from 60 to 65
yards," Gowin says. "But I can't imagine the extra pressure of
kicking field goals in games."

After battling for the Cowboys' kicking job in 1994, Cunningham
was a '96 training-camp cut of the Green Bay Packers. Hoffman
brought him back in '97 after Boniol left for the free-agent
riches of the Philadelphia Eagles, and Cunningham won the job in
the preseason.

Both Gowin and Cunningham, who are making the minimum this
season, are scheduled to become restricted free agents after the
1999 season. The Cowboys will most likely offer them the minimum
again and watch them leave if they get significantly better
offers elsewhere. "Maybe we can be the ones to change Jones's
mind," says Cunningham. Not likely. "I never stop looking,"
Hoffman says. "I've already got a punter in mind, a guy doing an
internship on Wall Street." --Peter King

COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPH BY JEFFREY LOWE [Andre Wadsworth and Simeon Rice on Vespa scooters]

COLOR PHOTO: JEFFREY LOWE [Simeon Rice and Andre Wadsworth beside Vespa scooters]

COLOR PHOTO: WALTER IOOSS JR. [Todd Steussie and Korey Stringer]

COLOR PHOTO: WALTER IOOSS JR. [Ray Lewis and Peter Boulware]

COLOR PHOTO: BILL FRAKES [Fred Taylor and Daimon Shelton]

COLOR PHOTO: DAVID E. KLUTHO [Jerome Woods and Reggie Tongue]

COLOR PHOTO: DANNY TURNER [Toby Gowin and Richie Cunningham kicking]