Larry Fitzgeraldand Anquan Boldin
This could be thebeginning of a beautiful friendship. Playing a full season together for thefirst time in 2005, Fitzgerald (far left, 103 receptions for 1,409 yards) andBoldin (102 for 1,402 yards) matched each other catch for catch. Only oncebefore had two teammates had more than 100 receptions and 1,400 yards each(Herman Moore and Brett Perriman of the Lions, in 1995). "Q and I talkabout being the best in the league and going down in history," saysFitzgerald, 23, the former All-America at Pitt who was chosen third in the 2004draft. "That's what we want to do, but you have to do it year in and yearout." Boldin expects that he and Fitzgerald will be even better in '06."I haven't been playing receiver that long," says Boldin, 25, a highschool quarterback who switched positions at Florida State and was snapped upin the second round in '03. "We still have room to grow. That's the scarypart."
Bill Parcells hasnever been fond of playing guys right out of college, preferring the steady vetover the untested neophyte. So the most telling stat about Witten, a 2003third-round pick out of Tennessee who excels as a blocker and a receiver, isn'tthat he averaged 63 catches over his first three seasons or that he signed asix-year, $28 million deal this summer, but rather that he has 38 starts andjust turned 24. Witten has repaid the coach for his trust with two straighttrips to the Pro Bowl.
SAN DIEGO CHARGERS
Talk about aquick study. The 6'4", 295-pound Hardwick was focused on wrestling in highschool, walked on to the football team at Purdue and now commands one of theNFL's best offensive lines. "He does a great job communicating calls,"says coach Marty Schottenheimer of the 2004 third-round pick. "It's clearto players where he's going and where they need to go." In June theChargers locked up the 24-year-old Hardwick through 2011 with a contractextension.
NEW YORK GIANTS
When he joinedthe Giants in 2003 as a second-rounder out of Troy, Umenyiora turned downinvitations from All-Pro end Michael Strahan to work out together. "ThenI'd watch him in games," says Umenyiora, 24, "and wonder why he wasable to do all that stuff." The kid wised up, joined the veteran intraining and film study and last year started putting up Strahan-likenumbers--including an NFC-leading 14 1/2 sacks. Now Giants opponents aregetting it from both ends.
He showed speedand elusiveness as an All-America at Miami, but who knew that McGahee, who blewout his left knee in his final college game, would become the kind of tireless,heavy-duty back who could carry an offense? Last season, when he rushed for1,247 yards, McGahee had 10 games of 20 or more carries, including two withmore than 30. "The knee didn't feel totally right until the middle of lastyear," says McGahee, 24, who nevertheless was a first-round pick in 2003,"but now I feel I'm on top of my game. I'm ready for as heavy a load asthey want to give me."
TAMPA BAY BUCCANEERS
On draft day 2003Simms sat stunned in his New Jersey home. The Texas quarterback never thoughthe'd last until the final selection of the third round. Then Tampa Bay coachJon Gruden called. "Son," he said, "don't worry where you werepicked. You and I, we're going to take this league over." Simms, 26, ranthe offense well enough last year--he was 6-4 as a starter and led the Bucs tothe playoffs--that Gruden let steady Brian Griese go in free agency. Now theBucs are Simms's team. "Throughout the off-season you could see him growingin stature," says wideout Joey Galloway. "He's ready."
He neededsurgery--two operations, actually--but June, a 2003 sixth-rounder fromMichigan, chose to spend the second half of last season playing through asports hernia and knee pain. Agony aside, everything was going great. "Hewas becoming a big part of the defense," says coach Tony Dungy of June, wholed the Colts with five interceptions and was third in tackles. "He wantedto keep that going and show his guys he'd be there." The guys don't have toworry. Back from the off-season surgeries, June, 26, will be there again in2006.
It's no accidentthat Hall wears the uniform number of Deion Sanders, not when his stated goalis to be "the best corner since the old 21 retired." He's on his way:The former Virginia Tech standout, drafted in the first round in 2004, ismaking a name as a shut-down corner. At 22 he started for the NFC in the ProBowl last February. Among those speeding his progress is Sanders, who has givenHall some private tutoring. Says Hall of his mentor, "He's a freakingmastermind."
Photographs by ROBERT BECK
Photograph byPETER READ MILLER
Photographs by WALTER IOOSS JR.
Photograph by AL TIELEMANS