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Sunday, May 27, 2018
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NFL column: Halfway home, stars shining

TAMPA — Remember those midterm grades you received as a teenager?

They didn’t always hold up throughout the school year, but at least you had an indication where things stood heading into the stretch. The same theory applies in the NFL as the league reaches the halfway point of its 94th year.

With two months remaining in the regular season, here are your preliminary award winners:

MVP QB Peyton Manning, Broncos

When a four-time league MVP is off to the best start of a 16-year career, it’s difficult to argue that he hasn’t been the NFL’s dominant player. With the Broncos off to a 7-1 start, Manning leads in virtually all of the key passing categories, and the NFL’s No. 1 attack is on pace to score 80 touchdowns. You heard me ... 80.

Offensive Player

QB Peyton Manning, Broncos

The Broncos average 43 points per game, and Manning has been particularly effective in the fourth quarter, averaging a whopping 10.87 yards per pass attempt while tossing seven of his 29 touchdowns. Overall, Manning has thrown 10 more touchdowns than runner-up Drew Brees.

Defensive Player

S Earl Thomas, Seahawks

Seattle CB Richard Sherman garners most of the attention in the NFL’s premier secondary, but Thomas is the catalyst for a defense that has yielded only six touchdown passes in eight games. The 14th pick in the 2010 draft, Thomas is tied for the NFL lead with four interceptions, and he easily tops the Seahawks with 57 tackles.

Head Coach

Andy Reid, Chiefs

This one is no contest. With KC off to an 8-0 start, Reid has quickly regained his stature after some shaky final years in Philly. Reid gave a talented 2-14 team some confidence and implemented a winning formula, emphasizing aggressive defense and a disciplined, physical attack.

Assistant Coach

Defensive coordinator Rob Ryan, Saints

New Orleans was a defensive joke in 2012, leading to a 7-9 finish despite a potent attack. As long as Brees remains under center, the Saints will be known for scoring lots of points, but Ryan has installed a dynamic defensive scheme and the results have been startling.

Offensive Rookie

RB Giovani Bernard, Bengals

Anyone who saw Bernard’s dazzling 35-yard touchdown run against the Dolphins on Thursday night can attest to his game-breaking skills. The 37th overall pick in the draft averages 4.5 yards per carry and is an outstanding target out of the backfield, scoring six touchdowns in limited duty for a top-10 offense.

Defensive Rookie

LB Kiko Alonso, Bills

A second-round choice out of Oregon, Alonso has excelled in all facets at the pro level. While deftly handling Buffalo’s defensive signals, Alonso has been credited with 81 tackles and has picked off four passes.

Most Improved Player

TE Jordan Cameron, Browns

After catching a total of 26 passes in his first two NFL seasons, Cameron has blossomed despite Cleveland’s instability at quarterback. A fourth-round pick out of Southern Cal in 2011, Cameron announced his arrival in Week 1 this year, catching nine passes against Miami. He is on pace for 98 receptions, 1,192 yards and 12 touchdowns in a breakthrough season.

Best Free-Agent

Signing WR Wes Welker, Broncos

Some skeptics suggested Welker wouldn’t be nearly as effective without Tom Brady, but the league’s best slot receiver boasts an NFL-high nine touchdown catches, and he keeps moving the chains. Of Welker’s 50 receptions, 35 resulted in first downs.

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