There have never been as many great noseguards as there are now. Klecko moved inside from defensive end and became the hub of the Jets' defense with his relentless pressure up the middle. But I can't honestly say he's better than Cincinnati's Krumrie, who goes sideline to sideline and never lets up. The first few times I saw him I couldn't believe how good he was so I made a few phone calls. The answers were always the same: "He killed us." The Raiders' Pickel had an impressive year. So did the Giants' Jim Burt, my pick last season, and Seattle's Joe Nash and the Browns' Bob Golic...hey, this list seems endless. This definitely is the golden age of noseguards.
Tackles are a vanishing breed in the 4-3. A lot of people who played the Bears wish Steve McMichael would vanish, too. Every time you watch their defense, he's exploding up the middle, making things happen. His teammate, Dan Hampton, is a fine player who was held down by injuries. In a normal year the Cowboys' Randy White would be our choice again, but McMichael simply came on too strong.
Once upon a time you automatically penciled in the Giants' Lawrence Taylor at outside linebacker and searched around for another guy to fill the hand. Not this year. Oh, he's still pure hell when he's rushing the passer, but the rest of his game has taken a strange turn. At times he seemed to be in a fog. The Patriots' Andre Tippett and the Bears' Otis Wilson, who has finally arrived, were more consistent.
Denver's Karl Mecklenburg and the Jets' Lance Mehl represent the two styles of inside-linebacker play. Mecklenburg, who goes strong side in the base 3-4, turns pass rusher in the four-man nickel setup, and he has been devastating, especially working stunts with Rulon Jones on the right side. Mehl, who switched from the right outside to the weak inside spot this year, is more in coverage, although he has been an effective blitzer. The Bears' Mike Singletary still rules the 4-3 middle linebacker kingdom.
I had three cornerbacks on my list, Mike Haynes of the Raiders, the 49ers' Eric Wright and LeRoy Irvin of the Rams. Irvin was my sentimental choice. I love the way he plays the force and throws himself in front of the tidal wave, but it's still basically a coverage position, so sentiment took a dive and I went with Wright and Haynes, who started off slowly but came on strong in the stretch.
I saw the Cardinals' strong safety Leonard Smith four times this year. Maybe I just caught Smith on a great day each time, or I didn't see the Seahawks' Kenny Easley on some of his better ones, but I can only go on what the two eyes tell me, so Smith gets the nod. If I were giving an award for heroism through the years, the Colts' Nesby Glasgow would get it. Free safety was a position loaded with talent this season. The Cowboys' Michael Downs, the Giants' Terry Kinard, Kansas City's Deron Cherry were outstanding, but none made the impact that Philly's Wes Hopkins did.
I've never picked a nickelback before for the simple reason that their assignments are so different. Some play a cornerback role, some of them are linebackers or strong safeties. Every time I saw the Rams' Vince Newsome, though, something was always happening around him—bodies were flying, the ball was popping loose.
For field goals and extra points, Eddie Murray of the Lions (18 of 19 from 30 yards and longer, after 15 games) is our guy, but three or four others have equally impressive credentials. The punters were easier to sort out. Ever since they started being graded on net yardage nine years ago only one man has ever netted 38 or better, Miami's Reggie Roby, 38.1 in 1984. The Rams' Dale Hatcher is at 38.0 now. His ratio of touchbacks (six) to shots placed inside the 20-yard line (31) is the best of anyone's, except for Buffalo's John Kidd, and Hatcher beats him on both net and gross yardage. Hatcher's single most impressive talent is being able to boom one and then have it bounce straight up, whereupon it's downed in the shadow of the end zone, usually by Newsome.
Our Player of the Year is Marcus Allen, based on one criterion: Where would the Raiders be without him? Our Coach of the Year is Chicago's Mike Ditka. Everyone else's, too. For Rookie of the Year we went to a skill position—offensive tackle. You're darn right it takes skill to block Howie Long and those guys. The Falcons' Bill Fralic is our man. He also went part-time at guard. A future superstar. How do you think Riggs got all those yards?