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The envelope please ...

Before playoffs begin, let's hand out awards for 2003

Posted: Friday December 26, 2003 5:33PM; Updated: Saturday December 27, 2003 2:25PM
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Torry Holt
Torry Holt has emerged as an elite NFL receiver.
Elsa/Getty Images

Only 16 games and one more weekend remain in the NFL's 256-game regular season. But before the playoffs beckon, let's hand out the awards for 2003. Our All-Pro team is followed by our nominations for the league's top individual honors.

In the vast majority of cases, as you might notice, the selections were culled from playoff-bound teams. We say, to the winners go the spoils. The envelopes, please ...

Offense

 Quarterback
 
Tom Brady, New England: He's in line to get my MVP vote over the Colts' Peyton Manning and the Titans' Steve McNair, and that makes him my All-Pro quarterback. All he does is win, without much help.

 Running backs
 Jamal Lewis, Baltimore: He managed to carry an entire offense on his back this season and run over defenses specifically designed to stop him. Ain't that right, Cleveland?

 Priest Holmes, Kansas City: He's a scoring machine, and his quest to break the NFL's single-season record for touchdowns (he has 25, one shy of Marshall Faulk's 26 in 2000) has not gotten enough attention.

 Fullback Mack Strong, Seattle: Yes, it's a thankless, niche position in today's NFL. But nobody clears the way better than the valuable Strong, one of the league's more aptly named players.

 Receivers
 Torry Holt
, St. Louis: He did it all this season -- had the yards, catches, touchdowns and big plays when the Rams really needed them. He's fully wrested the No. 1 receiver title in St. Louis from Isaac Bruce.

Randy Moss, Minnesota: One does not bypass the Colts' Marvin Harrison lightly, but with 16 touchdowns, 1,576 yards and a 14.9 average, Moss remains the NFL's surest big-play bet.

 Tight end
 Tony Gonzalez
, Kansas City: With 65 catches, 862 yards and 10 touchdowns, he is the Chiefs' primary receiving threat and remains the league prototype for the position.

 Tackles
 Jonathan Ogden
, Baltimore: It was very difficult to choose between Ogden and K.C.'s Willie Roaf at the key left-side slot, because both are superb. But Ogden deserves the nod based on Jamal Lewis' success.

Jon Runyan, Philadelphia: Though Cincy's Willie Anderson got Pro Bowl recognition at right tackle, Runyan also had a strong season and even fared well against Michael Strahan this season.

 Guards
 Mike Wahle
, Green Bay: The Packers have a quality pair of guards in Wahle and Marco Rivera, but Green Bay's outstanding running game starts with Wahle's reliable work in pulling for Ahman Green.

Steve Hutchinson, Seattle: When the Seahawks run left behind him and left tackle Walter Jones, with fullback Strong clearing out the hole, you don't want to be in the vicinity if you're on defense.

 Center
 Tom Nalen
, Denver: The Broncos' undersized line remains a thing of beauty when it's clicking on all cylinders, as it was last Sunday night in Indianapolis. Nalen is its motor.

Defense

Ends
 Michael Strahan
, N.Y. Giants: Nothing went right in New York this season, but you can't blame the gifted Strahan. His 17 sacks lead the league, and he played superbly as the debacle unfolded all around him.

Mike Rucker, Carolina: When the Panthers needed to make a play, it seemed as if Rucker was the one to step up. Even more than his 12 sacks, he helped give the Carolina defense a fiesty attitude.

Tackles
 Richard Seymour
, New England: He's the one Patriots lineman that the opposing offense has to account for on every play. In his third season, he has emerged as one of the game's most disruptive inside players.

Kris Jenkins, Carolina: Jenkins followed up on his breakthrough 2002 season with another strong effort. He's now officially a handful in the early Warren Sapp mold.

Outside linebacker
 Mike Vrabel
, New England: We would have liked to have named the 49ers' Julian Peterson to this team, too. But the Patriots have a great defense, and Vrabel, with his 9.5 sacks, is a blue-collar star.

Middle linebacker
 Ray Lewis
, Baltimore: Nobody impacts a game on defense like Lewis, and he never seems to take a play off. He's one of the few NFL players who raises the level of his teammates' game.

Outside linebacker
 Keith Bulluck
, Tennessee: Always around the ball, Bulluck has become the glue of the Titans' defense. They can and have won without Jevon Kearse and Samari Rolle, but Bulluck is tough to replace.

Cornerbacks
 Ty Law
, New England: He played the best blanket coverage in the NFL this season. He took quality receivers completely away at times. His six picks were another indication of his adept play-making skills.

Patrick Surtain, Miami: Something was again missing on defense for the Dolphins in 2003, but with an AFC-high seven picks, Surtain did nothing to sully his reputation as one of the game's premier cover men.

Safeties
 Ed Reed
, Baltimore: He blocks punts, he picks off passes, and he can deliver a blow. With three touchdowns on returns this season, Reed is a human highlight film. And he's still learning the NFL game.

Rodney Harrison, New England: Plenty thought him washed up when the Chargers released him last offseason, but Harrison proved otherwise. He's been the defensive MVP on the NFL's best team.

Specialists

Kicker
Mike Vanderjagt
, Indianapolis: The Colts are ever so glad they kept the "idiotic kicker'' around for another year. His quest for a perfect season has reached 35-of-35 in field goals and 44-of-44 in extra points.

Punter
Brian Moorman
, Buffalo: In tough winter conditions, Moorman has been right there with Carolina's Todd Sauerbrun. Moorman has a 37.3-yard net, a 44.7 average, just three touchbacks and 19 punts inside the 20.

Kick returner
Dante Hall
, Kansas City: True, he cooled off from his touchdown-a-week pace of September. But he had a great season (or career) for himself in K.C.'s first five games. What a run. In more ways than one.

Special teamer
Brian Westbrook
, Philadelphia: We're fudging a bit to create a position for the talented Westbrook, who has contributed to the Eagles' great season in so many key ways. Not the least of which was his game-winning 84-yard punt return against the Giants with 1:16 left, which almost singlehandedly turned Philly's season around.

The Awards

Most Valuable Player
 New England quarterback Brady: Boil it all down and he has been the best player on the NFL's best team. Isn't that a pretty good place to start looking for an MVP?

Offensive Player of the Year
 Baltimore running back Lewis: He hasn't matched Holmes in the touchdown department, but Lewis has carried a heavier load for his team than any other offensive star.

Defensive Player of the Year
 Baltimore linebacker Lewis: There's no more feared defender in the game. And there's really not anyone close to him.

Coach of the Year
 Bill Belichick, New England: Candidates are plentiful in this year of the coach, but Belichick's job of keeping the Patriots sailing along no matter the adversity has been simply masterful.

Executive of the Year
 Scott Pioli
, V.P. Player Personnel, New England: Not to make this an all-Patriots exercise, but Pioli deserves much of the credit for their ridiculously deep roster in this era of salary-cap realities. The Patriots use every last man they have and are never caught unprepared.

Offensive Rookie of the Year
 Arizona receiver Anquan Boldin: As close to a unanimous selection as there is in the NFL this year, Boldin gives second-round picks a good name. He debuted with a huge opening day in Detroit and never really slowed down.

Defensive Rookie of the Year
 Baltimore linebacker Terrell Suggs: Bears cornerback Charles Tillman and Patriots safety Eugene Wilson were real finds, but Suggs, playing most of the year as a situational edge rusher, has 12 sacks and six forced fumbles. Not bad for a guy who turned 21 in October.

Comeback Player of the Year
 Minnesota quarterback Daunte Culpepper: Quincy Carter's probably going to win it, and Jake Plummer can make his own case for the honor. But why not Culpepper, who was in danger of losing his job at times last season, when he finished with 18 touchdowns, 23 interceptions and a 75.3 QB rating? This year he has silenced all critics, throwing for 24 touchdowns, just 10 picks, with a 97.4 rating for the soon-to-be-playoff-bound Vikings.

Don Banks covers pro football for SI.com.

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