I CAN'T pick an All-Pro team yet, but I can give you a look into my workbook, the players I have put into the FOR FURTHER STUDY file. It's always a work in progress at this point, a pile of notes. Here's my hot list.
QUARTERBACK The Bengals' Carson Palmer is staking his claim. The Steelers game brought him back to earth, but the rest of the season will determine if he's ready to unseat the big boys, Peyton Manning and Tom Brady.
RUNNING BACKS Cadillac Williams was the thrilling new face in town, but it looks as if Bucs coach Jon Gruden is trying to burn him out before his career gets going. I know the big numbers belong to Edgerrin James of the Colts and Shaun Alexander of the Seahawks, but Willis McGahee is very much in the running. That's because the Bills don't threaten anyone with their passing game and teams load up for McGahee. I thought he would be a flashy type when he hit his stride, but he's not. He's a horse who wears people out. My sentimental favorite, as usual, is the Falcons' Warrick Dunn, who's having a terrific year.
TIGHT END That's easy. San Diego's Antonio Gates is running away with it.
WIDEOUTS The Panthers needed someone to step into the Muhsin Muhammad role, and Steve Smith has just been killing people. He is way ahead of the pack. The other spot? Well, Santana Moss has provided the punch in the Redskins' attack. Cincy's Chad Johnson makes the most spectacular catches, but he'd make me happier if he cut down on the drops.
OFFENSIVE LINE Tackles, as usual, are hard to come by. I'm intrigued by Rams rookie Alex Barron, who seems to have taken control of the team's traditional problem position, RT. I like the Patriots' interior three of LG Logan Mankins, C Dan Koppen and RG Steve Neal, as well as some of those sleek, greyhound-style, Alex Gibbs--coached run blockers in Atlanta--RG Kynan Forney, C Todd McClure and LT Kevin Shaffer. All will be subjects for further study. The Chargers got rid of 350-pound LG Toniu Fonoti and inserted Kris Dielman, who looks better than anyone else on San Diego's front five.
DEFENSIVE LINE Before he got hurt, the Pats' Richard Seymour was playing the best football of his life. He'd been freed from some of the two-gap tedium and allowed to hit the creases, and he was raising hell. The Giants have a fine pair of base defensive ends in Michael Strahan, who can still bring it when annoyed, and Osi Umenyiora, the guy who has really come on. Oh, yes, they are also nickel edge rushers, but the best pair are the Colts' Dwight Freeney and Robert Mathis, though the Chargers' Shaun Phillips and rookie Shawne Merriman are hell on wheels. The Ravens' Terrell Suggs and the Bills' Aaron Schobel have been relentless from the outside; ditto Seattle's Bryce Fisher, a real surprise.
Here's a great story: 33-year-old Bryant Young, playing base DE and tackle in the nickel, has launched a storybook comeback with the 49ers. Why is Rams DE-DT Tyoka Jackson a backup? Every time I see him, he's better than the starters. And, in my ultimate sleeper file, there's Cowboys rookie DE Chris Canty, a fourth-rounder whom I like better than their two first-round picks. At nosetackle, how about the Vikings' Pat Williams--program weight: 317; actual weight: maybe 40 more. He's not one of those one-play fat guys who's on the bench sucking oxygen in the fourth quarter. He keeps it going for a whole game.
LINEBACKERS There's a mob of quality middle men, the best in years. My highest grades have gone to the Eagles' Jeremiah Trotter. Indy's Cato June has been the best player on the outside, great in space.
DEFENSIVE BACKS The Steelers' Chris Hope might unseat Philly's Brian Dawkins at free safety. Don't ask me about corners--they're almost impossible to grade: one week, great; the next week, toast. The best performance I've seen this year was by Carolina's Ken Lucas against New England. And the last time I saw him, against Minnesota, the Vikings didn't throw a single pass into his coverage area until they trailed 38-7 with six minutes left.
Dr. Z's Forecast: Dallas Does It
Who were those impostors in the dark uniforms on Sunday night? They couldn't have been the Eagles. These guys spent the whole first half sitting back, letting Mark Brunell take his time completing passes. They missed tackles. They made heroes out of receivers you never heard of. I would have bet that the Terrell Owens flap would have united this team and the fires would have been burning high. Nope, the weird up-and-down defensive fortunes that have followed the Eagles all season were still there.
Enough hand-wringing. Philly hosts Dallas in the Monday-nighter, once an easy pick for the home team. Not anymore, not until the Eagles look something like their old selves. The Cowboys will win it.
Normally I'd say Kansas City's ground game would overwhelm a Buffalo defense that has had trouble stopping the run. But left tackle Willie Roaf has a torn hamstring, and the O-line doesn't do well without him. I'll take the Bills. No logical reason for the next one, just a strong hunch that Tampa Bay will get it together and beat the Redskins.
Oakland is one place that doesn't intimidate the Broncos. A road victory for Denver and another one for the Patriots at Miami. And here's an upset: the Rams to beat the Seahawks in Seattle.
Last week: 5-2 Season: 50-26
McGahee (top) has been a workhorse and Suggs a relentless pass rusher.