KIMO VON OELHOFFEN
I've loved his rugged style ever since he was eating up blockers with the Bengals in the late '90s. Now he's one of the mainstays of Pittsburgh's 3--4, freeing linebacker Joey Porter to rush from the outside.
Need someone to stop the running game? Here's your guy. Over his 11-year career, Zgonina has done it for six teams, most recently Miami. He feels lonely when he doesn't get double-teamed.
Not the biggest end in the world at 273 pounds, he still mans the power side, meaning he spends the game fighting the double team. In five years Kerney has never missed a game, playing in 80 straight.
He makes his reputation as a pass rusher, but he's tough at the point, too, and here's what impressed me: Three weeks after being accidentally shot in the upper thigh last September, he was back on the field.
Want him to be a linebacker? He'll line up on the strong side and drop into coverage. Want him to be an end? He'll mix it up with a tackle. He's the perfect situational player in an ever-changing system.
He's tough and lets everyone know it, which might be grounds for disqualification from this team. But when Lewis is ranting and raving, his teammates don't cover their ears. They seem to take heart.
So he's a little guy (5'9", 180 pounds), but will any other corner play the force and give up his body the way Winfield does? He's the only corner in the league who's genuinely feared for his hitting.
A couple of years ago he played with a soft cast on his hand, running around and knocking down passes with that thing. A former teammate, Sammy Knight, told me Thomas was the toughest guy on the team.
There are plenty to choose from, but Woodson is the pick because he has been doing it for 12 years. Last season he covered punts and kickoffs, too--at 34. I asked him about it. "I volunteered," he said.
There's a lot of sentiment for the Cowboys' Roy Williams, but this is an easy choice. Dawkins is a wild man on the blitz, and he'll close quickly on a receiver and deliver a blow with the best of them.
The former Saints bad boy has settled down, and last year he gave the Rams something they lacked: a mauler at right tackle. Mess with one of his teammates and Turley is still the first to jump in.
This seven-year veteran out of Navy is tough to separate from Green Bay's other guard, Marco Rivera, but Wahle keys a power running game that has been one of the league's best for years.
Not what you'd call a form blocker, he'll claw and scratch and get the job done any way he can. Originally signed as a free agent by the Steelers, he has become a fixture in Philly, starting 47 of 48 games.
"One of the toughest people, mentally and physically, that I've ever been around," says Scott Pioli, New England's player personnel director. Andruzzi powers the running game and plays when he's hurt.
The smallest starting tackle in the NFL at 6'3", 289 pounds, this former 49er battles pass rushers to the final whistle. Injuries have slowed the 13-year veteran, but he can fire up an offensive line.
He's the in-line blocker when K.C.'s in a two-tight-end set, and few in the NFL are better at it. The tackles get a lot of credit for Priest Holmes's yards to the outside, but Dunn creates the soft corner.
Fearless over the middle, sure-handed in traffic, he's been Steve McNair's go-to wideout for four years. Last season Mason caught a career-high 95 passes and also returned a few punts and kickoffs.
He had 301 receptions over the last three seasons but is most feared and respected for his aggressiveness. No one finishes a play as well as Ward does, and he'll block anything with a heartbeat.
He considers it a bonus when he can practice for a full week. McNair dislocated a finger early last season and was playing with a strained calf muscle and a cracked bone spur in his ankle at the end of '03.
He started 111 straight games for the Titans despite an endless string of injuries, and in last season's wild-card win over the Ravens, he dislocated his shoulder but still had 88 yards on 25 carries.
All fullbacks are tough, but in a game against the Bears in 2002 he played with a cracked bone in his back. He took on Brian Urlacher, and his blocking set up James Stewart for a 172-yard rushing day.
Every defensive coach looks for a guy like him, someone who will light up your whole team. Believe me, they're rare.
DONNIE HENDERSON, Jets defensive coordinator, on Ray Lewis
Do you have any idea how tough he has to be to take the punishment he does? Our guys give him everything, but he's still standing.
JEROME BETTIS, Steelers running back, on Steve McNair.
PHOTOGRAPH BY TOM DIPACE (LEWIS)
RAY LEWIS, Ravens
ALBERT DICKSON/SPORTING NEWS/ICONSMI (MCNAIR)
STEVE McNAIR, Titans
TWENTY-TWO COLOR PHOTOS
HEAD SHOTS COURTESY OF NFL
TWNETY-TWO COLOR PHOTOS