Midseason awards — not stating the obvious

There are so many things that can be debated at the midseason point in regards to players and coaches who have succeeded and failed. Although I’m about to give props to some deserving guys who might not be getting the recognition they deserve, there is still a lot of football to be played.

In other words, all of these mentions might not be worth you-know-what come playoff time, but I’m giving shout outs to some folks who I think have done their teams and their fans justice to this point.

I’m also hoping you readers chime in with your nominees because there are dozens of players who’ve been doing good things who either flew under my radar or who didn’t measure up to some of the guys I think deserve some love. So leave your comments for me below.

Most overlooked difference-maker

Seahawks Cowboys Football

Jay Ratliff has 28 tackles, 4 sacks and a forced fumble this season. (Donna McWIlliam / Associated Press)

Defense Jay Ratliff, DT, Dallas Cowboys. One of my favorite players in the NFL the past two years,  this 2008 Pro Bowler (who also was so overlooked in college that he wasn’t even invited to the scouting combine) has been as disruptive a force as there is with 28 tackles, four sacks, one forced fumble. At least two or three times a game he’s either tackling someone in the backfield, getting to the quarterback or forcing him toward someone else. I also see Ratliff having one of the best games of his career this weekend: He’s facing the Packers.

Offense — Vincent Jackson, WR, San Diego. He should be mentioned among the top players at his position in the NFL. His numbers are sick: 42 catches, 722 yards, 17.2 reception average, 7 TDs. At 6-foot-5, 230 p0unds, Jackson is a matchup nightmare (and a fantasy gem who I don’t have on my mediocre fantasy team).

Breakthrough player

Offense (tie)Rashard Mendenhall, RB, Steelers and Mike Sims-Walker, WR, Jaguars. Mendenhall is only running the ball 12.5 times a game, but he’s clicking off 5.7 yards a carry. Let me do the math — that’s a first down every two totes. Mendenhall’s emergence gives the now pass-first Steelers some balance as well as an every-situation rushing threat. Big Ben and that once-enigmatic offensive line are looking a lot better since RM started doing his thing.

Sims-Walker started nine games in his previous two seasons in Jacksonville, a stretch in which the Jags were begging for a wide receiver to surface. A six-game starter this season, Sims-Walker has 36 catches for 554 yards and four touchdowns. If I had any idea who he was a few months ago, I would have picked him for my fantasy team (along with Jackson).

DefenseCurtis Lofton, MLB, Falcons. The second-year, second-round pick from Oklahoma is a flat-out beast. Playing behind a rotation of unknown nose tackles, Lofton has proven to be a cross between throwback thumper and a pursuit player who makes plays in space. Oh, and guess who is leading the NFL in tackles (84)?

Comeback player

Cedric Benson, RB, Bengals — Ok. I had to state the obvious. Can’t help but throw a little shine on Tampa running back Cadillac Williams and the guy who plays quarterback for New England, too.

Most crucial to teammates’ success

OffenseAndrew Whitworth, LT, Cincinnati Bengals. This fourth-year pro is one of, if not the best, tackles in the AFC North. QB Carson Palmer has been sacked just 12 times this season and just three times in the past four games. Two of those games have been against the Ravens and in a shutout of the Bears. Benson, the NFL’s second-leading rusher, also has rushed for 837 yards. Whitworth has been the glue to an offensive line that was supposed to be a train wreck.

DefenseWill Smith, DE, New Orleans Saints. Smith has taken full advantage of not being suspended for the first four games, courtesy of a Minnesota court that threw a wrench into the NFL’s plans to send four players into Time Out for testing positive for a banned ingredient in a weight loss diuretic.

He has 6.5 sacks, 23 tackles, two forced fumbles, an interception and four passes he’s broken up. In turn, the Saints have forced an NFL-high 24 turnovers and have a pass rusher off the edge teams must account for. And when the movie is made, I’d like to see Will Smith play Will Smith (I’m sure Will Smith has never heard that before).

Coach who hasn’t and won’t receive proper credit

Jim Caldwell, Colts. He’s got Tony Dungy’s players, one of whom is named Peyton Manning, so he’ll be perceived as a coattail rider. That’s a shame, but it won’t and shouldn’t bother him a lick because he was a longtime assistant to Dungy who had an awful lot to do with the development of a lot of these players, including Manning.

Most underappreciated rookie

Austin Collie, WR, Colts. Minnesota WR Percy Harvin is the all-around real deal, who could be the difference in getting Minnesota to the Super Bowl. Buffalo’s Jairus Byrd is a stud DB, who shares the NFL lead with seven picks. Those numbers will go down in the second half of the season because teams are going to stop throwing at him.

Collie, a fourth-round pick from Brigham Young, has 32 catches for 356 yards and four touchdowns. He is a reliable option who’s earned Manning’s trust. It looked like he could be the odd man out when Anthony Gonzalez returned from a knee injury, but Gonzalez just had another procedure that will keep him out a few more weeks, during which Collie could make himself indispensable.

Most overlooked Hype man

Drew Brees, QB, Saints. With all apologies to Baltimore LB Ray Lewis, who has the best individual entrance in the NFL, nobody breaks ‘em down like Brees.

After all his teammates step on the field, they gather in the end zone near their locker room and get it brewing while Brees steadily emerges from the fringe. Other guys say their peace but when No. 9 gets in the middle, the party gets started. It’s a rhythmic back-and-forth like a preacher calling to his flock, only to hear deafening ‘Amens,’ over and over.

We’ve seen the clips over and over again on television, but it’s really moving when you see how players follow Brees’ lead, and then break the huddle, ready for action. Total Braveheart style adrenaline rush.

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