By Steve Silverman
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As the NFL moves into the second half of the season, many of the usual stars are leading the way for their respective teams.
The New England Patriots are on top in the AFC East, and Tom Brady ranks first in passing yards per game and passer rating among full-time starters. The Pittsburgh Steelers are in first place, and Le’Veon Bell is leading the league in rushing yards while Antonio Brown is doing the same in receiving yards.
And the Falcons’ Julio Jones and the Cardinals’ Larry Fitzgerald are near the top among NFC receivers.
The NFL’s superstars continue to produce. However, there are a number of surprising performances this year, and they are difficult to fathom considering their past performances.
Quarterback Case Keenum and wideout Adam Thielen of the Vikings have exceeded expectations dramatically, and Robert Woods has become a go-to receiver with the Los Angeles Rams after having a minor role with the Bills in previous seasons.
Defensive end Adrian Clayborn had a monster game for the Falcons in Week 10, while Harrison Butker has become a star kicker for the Chiefs.
Keenum was a lightly regarded backup quarterback at the start of the season, and head coach Mike Zimmer never anticipated he would have to start seven of the team’s first nine games.
Starter Sam Bradford was sharp in the team’s Week 1 win over New Orleans, but back issues have kept him from regaining his starting position. Bradford returned for the Vikings’ Week 5 game at Chicago, but he could not finish it and relinquished his position to Keenum
The backup quarterback looked a bit tentative at the start of the year, but he has gotten consistently better. Meanwhile, the Vikings are on top of the NFC North with a 7-2 record. Keenum has completed 170 of 262 passes (64.9 percent) for 1,914 yards with an 11-to-5 TD-to-interception ratio.
He threw for four touchdowns and two interceptions in the Vikings’ 38-30 Week 10 win at Washington, and he has built a tremendous rapport with Thielen, who established himself as a good receiver last year with 69 catches for 967 yards and five TDs.
However, Thielen has raised his profile dramatically this season. He has 56 receptions and ranks third in the NFL with 793 receiving yards, trailing only Brown and Houston’s DeAndre Hopkins.
Thielen has surpassed Stefon Diggs as the Vikings’ go-to receiver, and he has 14 receptions of 20 or more yards.
Zimmer may eventually have to turn the starting QB job back to Teddy Bridgewater, and he has not been afraid to point out issues in Keenum’s game.
“The two turnovers were bad,” Zimmer said after the Vikings’ 38-30 win over the Redskins on Sunday. “Back to back, and we had the game pretty much in hand. The rest of the game, he played pretty darn good. He moved in the pocket well, threw the ball good. He started slow in the last couple ballgames and started really fast in this game in the first half, came back in the second half a little bit.”
Woods has become the Rams’ top receiving weapon after signing as a free agent in the offseason.
He had been solid with the Bills but was held back because the Buffalo coaching staff lacked confidence and trust in quarterback Tyrod Taylor, and because they believed Sammy Watkins was a better pass catcher than Woods.
Watkins has also joined Woods on the Los Angeles roster, but Woods is manning the starring role. He has caught a team-leading 39 passes for 622 yards with four touchdowns and has 11 plays of 20 or more yards, while Watkins has had a bit of a slow start in Los Angeles, catching 21-372-4.
Woods does not have spectacular stopwatch speed, but he is elusive and hungry after the catch and is capable of weaving his way through the secondary as the Giants found out in Week 9.
A star may have been born in Week 10 as Clayborn came out of nowhere to sack Cowboys quarterback Dak Prescott six times in a 24-7 win by the Atlanta Falcons.
Clayborn came into the game with a weakened biceps and was only expected to see limited action against the Cowboys. However, with Dallas Pro Bowl left tackle Tyron Smith out of the lineup, Clayborn was a man on a mission. He was all over Atlanta QB Matt Ryan, and the Cowboys could do little to stop him as he recorded a franchise-record six sacks in the game. Clayborn has eight sacks for the season, along with two forced fumbles and one fumble recovery.
Clayborn made a surprising recovery and said he felt healthy when he lined up against the Cowboys.
“That’s what you can do when you are healthy,” Clayborn said. “It felt good to make that kind of contribution, and we knew we were going to have opportunities because they had to throw the ball.”
Butker got his chance with the Chiefs when the reliable Cairo Santos went down with a groin injury in Week 3. Butker stepped in Week 4 against the Redskins, and he has made 19 of 20 field goal attempts.
He has shown a powerful leg, making 7 of 8 kicks from 40 to 49 yards, and 2 of 2 from 50 yards and beyond. He does not flinch when he faces potential game-winning kicks in the final moments.
Butker will hold onto the job for at least the rest of the season, as the Chiefs waive/injured Santos.
The NFL is tough on its players and will not hesitate to cut a veteran when a younger player comes along.
Keenum, Thielen, Woods, Clayborn and Butker have all taken advantage of their opportunities this year.
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