By Steve Silverman
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We have reached the unofficial halfway point of the NFL season, so this is as good a time as any to identify and honor the best players at each position thus far.
I am making my evaluations based on performance, not reputations.
QB Russell Wilson, Seattle Seahawks — Wilson rates slightly higher than Alex Smith, Carson Wentz and Tom Brady. He has been especially hot over the last month, and that’s a good thing in Seattle, because the offense was a problem early on. Wilson has thrown for 2,008 yards with 15 touchdowns and four interceptions. His big-play ability when things appear to be breaking down separates him from the rest.
RB Kareem Hunt, Kansas City Chiefs — The Chiefs made a decision to upgrade their running attack and hit the jackpot when they selected Hunt in the third round of this year’s draft. He has rushed for 763 yards and is averaging 5.2 yards per carry, with four rushing TDs and eight plays of 20 yards or more. He’s also a stellar receiver.
RB Todd Gurley, Los Angeles Rams — After a brutal 2016 season, Gurley has responded in a big way with 627 yards and five TDs on the ground. He is also a dynamic receiver with 27 receptions for 293 yards and three other scores. Gurley always makes the tough catch and is quite elusive.
WR DeAndre Hopkins, Houston Texans — Hopkins is doing cartwheels because he’s finally on the receiving end of a competent quarterback. Deshaun Watson has transformed the fifth-year wideout back into a menace, as he has 45 catches for 606 yards and seven TDs, plus 10 plays of 20 yards or more. Hopkins’ ability to run after the catch separates him from the rest of the pack.
WR Antonio Brown, Pittsburgh Steelers — Brown remains the best receiver in the sport because he combines incredible skills (hands, pattern running and ability to work the sidelines) with eye-catching athleticism. Brown has caught 57 passes for 835 yards and three TDs, with 13 long plays (20 yards or more). Look for Brown to reach double digits in TDs by the end of the season.
TE Zach Ertz, Philadelphia Eagles — Rob Gronkowski remains the most devastating and dangerous tight end in the league, but nobody should sleep on Ertz. He goes all out on every play and has caught 43 balls for 528 yards and six touchdowns.
OTs Andrew Whitworth, Los Angeles Rams and Eric Fisher, Kansas City Chiefs — These positions would have been filled by Cleveland’s Joe Thomas and Philadelphia’s Jason Peters had they both not suffered season-ending injuries in Week 7. Whitworth has been opening big holes for Gurley, and Fisher is a much-improved player who has helped upgrade the Kansas City offense.
OGs Zack Martin, Dallas Cowboys and Shaq Mason, New England Patriots — Martin is a mauler who will protect Dak Prescott on every snap. Mason is a top pro who meets head coach Bill Belichick’s exacting standard.
C Alex Mack, Atlanta Falcons — Mack is a sensational line leader who is having a brilliant season even though the Falcons have lost something with Steve Sarkisian as their offensive coordinator. Jason Kelce of the Eagles is nearly at the same level.
DEs Everson Griffen, Minnesota Vikings and Demarcus Lawrence, Dallas Cowboys — Griffen is just a monster for the Vikings and may end up being Defensive Player of the Year. He has 29 tackles, 10 sacks and an amazing 45 QB pressures. Lawrence also has 29 tackles, plus 10.5 sacks, three forced fumbles and two fumble recoveries.
DTs Akiem Hicks, Chicago Bears and Aaron Donald, Los Angeles Rams — The Bears have gone from an afterthought on defense to having one of the most dangerous units in the league. Hicks (26 tackles and seven sacks) is their best player and has performed at a spectacularly consistent level. Donald is the quickest interior lineman in the league and can destroy the run and get in the backfield to harass the quarterback. He has 27 QB pressures and three sacks.
OLBs Ryan Shazier, Pittsburgh Steelers and Luke Kuechly, Carolina Panthers — Shazier is a do-it-all linebacker who leads the Steelers with 64 tackles and has 10 passes defensed, two interceptions and two forced fumbles. As strong as he has been in the first half of the season, Shazier may get even better the rest of the way. Kuechly is skilled at all aspects of the position and is clearly the best when it comes to pass coverage. Despite missing one game with a concussion, Kuechly remains a huge force and the Panthers’ best all-around player.
MLB Bobby Wagner, Seattle Seahawks — The Seattle secondary has lost some of its effectiveness, and the defensive line is not at its peak, either. But Wagner is by far the best middle linebacker in the game and may soon rank with the best players at that position over the last 25 years. A brilliant tackler filled with ferocity, Wagner leads the Seahawks with 61 tackles.
CBs Jalen Ramsey, Jacksonville Jaguars and Xavier Rhodes, Minnesota Vikings — In only his second season, Ramsey has turned into the league’s top cover man. He has 13 passes defensed and two interceptions, to go along with 25 tackles. More than the numbers, Ramsey plays with the extreme confidence that all great cornerbacks need. Rhodes plays with a similar style, and opponents really don’t like to pass to the receiver he is covering.
SS Micah Hyde, Buffalo Bills and FS Harrison Smith, Minnesota Vikings — Why are the Bills playing winning football and on track to earn a playoff spot for the first time since 1999? One of the biggest reasons is because Hyde is a brilliant playmaker who has registered five interceptions, 13 passes defense and 30 tackles. Smith is the best free safety in the game because his instincts are finely honed and he knows what the quarterback is thinking on more plays than any other defensive player in the league. The numbers say that he has nine passes defensed and three interceptions, but his non-statistical contributions have been display each and every week.
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