Three Rookies make my 2003 All-Pro team, the largest contingent of first-year players in the 25 years my selections have appeared in SI. The Patriots, with the NFL's best record, and the Ravens, with a great defensive tradition, have the most players represented, with three each.
Quarterback came down to a two-man race between the Colts' Peyton Manning and the Titans' Steve McNair. I give McNair a slight edge for two reasons. He doesn't have as high-powered an offense to work with, and he has played through a number of injuries.
There has never been a richer crop of running backs than this year's. You could go with any of a half-dozen players and be comfortable. The Ravens' Jamal Lewis is poised to set the NFL single-season rushing record, but no one combines pass catching and running as well as the Chargers' LaDainian Tomlinson does. At fullback I like the Sea-hawks' Mack Strong, one of the league's most underappreciated blockers and receivers for many years.
Colts wideout Marvin Harrison has the rare combination of being a possession receiver and a deep threat. He has the best hands in the league. The other spot came down to Torry Holt of the Rams and the Vikings' Randy Moss. Holt, a precise route runner, is a slight choice over Moss, the most feared downfield receiver in the game. At tight end ever-consistent Tony Gonzalez of the Chiefs is back after a year's absence.
Jonathan Ogden, the Ravens' powerful drive-blocking left tackle, is a big reason why Lewis is closing in on the rushing record. On the other side Jordan Gross, the Panthers' rookie first-round draft choice, reminds people of a young Anthony Mu�oz. He's athletically gifted and light on his feet. Seahawks guard Steve Hutchinson is the most consistent and technically sound lineman in the league. At the other guard spot I'm going with the Packers' Mike Wahle over his running mate, Marco Rivera, because of his agility. Center Tom Nalen, at 286 pounds one of the league's lighter linemen, has been the fulcrum of Denver's great line for years.
Michael Strahan, one of the few bright spots in a dismal Giants season, and the Panthers' Mike Rucker are my defensive ends. Strahan is that rare sack specialist who takes great pride in playing the run. Rucker is the disruptive force on one of the NFL's finest defensive lines. I've set up my defense in a 3-4, because I like the inside linebackers better than I do the tackles, except for the Patriots' Richard Seymour, who plays outside in the base 3-4 but moves inside on pass-rushing downs.
I don't like the idea of having to choose between Ray Lewis, the Ravens' emotional leader, and the Dolphins' Zach Thomas, who has more pass-coverage responsibility than any inside linebacker, so I'm putting both on my team. On the outside I'm going with the Titans' Keith Bulluck, who has always been athletically gifted and now is a complete backer, and the 49ers' Julian Peterson, who can rush the passer but is also valuable in man coverage.
I've always admired the toughness and fire of Bills cornerback Antoine Winfield, and he's finally moving up to the elite level. Bears corner Charles Tillman, a rookie second-round draft pick, has come on with a rush. He doesn't back down from any receiver. Ravens strong safety Ed Reed makes plays all over the field, while the Patriots' Rodney Harrison is my other safety. Always a feared hitter, he has become valuable in downfield coverage. My nickelback is another Patriot, rookie Asante Samuel, who has been a fine fit from Day One.
Colts kicker Mike Vanderjagt, a perfect 35 for 35 on field goal attempts, is an easy choice, and so is Dante Hall, the Chiefs' amazing return man. My punter is the Bills' Brian Moorman, who gets the nod based on number of kicks inside the opponent's 20-yard line (19) versus touch-backs (three). My special teams player is the Eagles' Sean Morey, who ranks first on the team in a Philadelphia grading system that takes into account blocks and tackles, among other statistics.
Bill Belichick, whose Patriots survived a staggering assortment of injuries, is my Coach of the Year, McNair is my MVP and Tillman, who will be gracing All-Pro teams for years to come, is my Rookie of the Year.