Charles Tillman, 24, CB, Chicago.
In his rookie year, 2003, with Chicago nursing a late 13-10 lead over Minnesota, Tillman was covering Vikings wideout Randy Moss. As Daunte Culpepper floated a throw toward Moss in the end zone, Tillman went up and wrestled it away for an interception. Corners need to ooze confidence; Tillman already had it at age 22. "If I don't have confidence, if I doubt myself, Moss would have caught that football," Tillman said last week. "In this position if you start thinking, you get burned. You've just got to use your instincts and fight out there." Fast-forward to Week 8 this year, Bears and Lions tied at 13 in overtime at Detroit. The Chicago front pressures Lions quarterback Jeff Garcia. Tillman lies in the weeds. Garcia floats one across the middle. Tillman picks it cleanly and sprints 22 yards for the winning touchdown. He's a technically sound cornerback who rarely gets beaten deep and clearly has a nose for the big play.
Jared Allen, 23, DE, Kansas City.
The Chiefs picked Allen in the fourth round of 2004 in part because they needed a long snapper and he had done that at Idaho State. But they were so deficient on defense, particularly their pass rush, that they gave Allen an early shot at defensive end last year, and the move paid off. At 6'6" and 265 pounds with quick feet, Allen sacked Mike Vick twice in one game in '04. "I should have had him three times," Allen said last week, with a tinge of regret. His nine-sack rookie year means that he now gets chipped more by running backs and tight ends, but he's shrugged off the extra attention and still delivered five sacks this season, three in one game against Washington. "I love him, I love him, I love him," Cunningham says. "Monster attitude, relentless, great character. He could be good for a long time."
Darrent Williams, 23, CB, Denver.
Last year the Broncos signed cornerback Champ Bailey for $63 million over seven years. Now, with Bailey in and out of the lineup with a bad hamstring, they're getting great cornerback play from two rookies, second-rounder Williams and third-round pick Domonique Foxworth. This is why the Denver coaches love Williams: Against Philadelphia he covered Terrell Owens for about 15 snaps, and Donovan McNabb threw two passes Owens's way, both incomplete. "I really wanted him to throw at TO when I had him," Williams says. "You build a reputation by playing well against guys like that." Against Philly the 5'8" rookie bobbed and jumped at the line, keeping the Eagles guessing before flying in for a rib-jarring sack of McNabb. Williams plays like a 6'1" veteran. Nothing fazes him. "My uncle, Stanley Williams, taught me the most valuable lesson I learned growing up--don't back down. When you're a corner my size, it's something you need to remember all the time."
Don't back down. Good credo for the new wave of D stars.