Award season rightly focuses on the league’s elite; it’s the time of year to recognize and reward excellence. However, that doesn’t paint the full picture of the season — there are plenty more stories to tell of those players who sit behind the league’s top shelf performers or who didn’t quite hit those heights for the entire year.
One of those stories to be told is of the players who got better as the season wore on. Metronomic, consistent performance is an extreme rarity, form fluctuates as the season goes and if you can’t start as you mean to go on then you want to progress towards that point.
Here we’ll tip our cap to those players who made the biggest strides from the first half of the season (Week 1 to Week 9) into the second half. These might be full-time starters who were slow out of the gate only to finish strong or they might be rookies taking time to adjust to the speed of the NFL and improving as they got more comfortable.
Whatever the circumstances and whether from mediocre to strong or from poor to solid, we present here in team form the league’s most improved players at each position– those on the rise from the first half to the second of the 2013 NFL season.
Quarterback: Alex Smith, KC (+5.5 Weeks 10-17; -6.1 Weeks 1-9)
A successful first season for Smith in Kansas City but one which ran against the Chiefs’ team successes. Very much a baby sitter during their nine-game winning streak to start the season, Smith didn’t get (or take) the opportunities to offset poor throws early in the season, earning negative passing grades in seven of his first nine starts. In six starts after the bye week he earned four positive passing grades and threw five more touchdowns on 121 fewer pass attempts compared to before.
Honorable Mention: Colin Kaepernick (SF)
Running Back: Chris Ivory, NYJ (+7.1 rushing; -2.9)
Finally in a situation where he got to see more of the ball, Ivory was a more consistent part of the Jets’ ground game down the stretch and topped 5 yards per carry four times in seven games during the second half of the season. Courtesy of one heavy workload in the first half (34 carries against the Patriots) Ivory actually had two fewer carries in the second half of the season, but came up with 95 more yards (94 extra after contact) and broke seven more tackles. Ivory’s yards per carry rose from 4.0 to 5.2 in the second half, in line with increasing his yards after contact per carry from 2.5 to 3.6 in the same period.
Honorable Mention: LeGarrette Blount (NE)
Fullback: Jerome Felton, MIN (+10.9; -3.5)
His improvement was in no small part thanks to his spectacular stretch during the third quarter of the season when he earned a spot in our Team of the Month for his work leading the way for Adrian Peterson’s spectacular production in that spell. After sitting out the start of the year, Felton took some time to find his best form but certainly hit his straps after he got a few weeks under his belt.
Honorable Mention: Marcel Reece (OAK)
Tight End: Charles Clay, MIA (+6.3; -7.0)
Making strides both as a run blocker (+6.2 improvement) and as a receiver (+7.0 improvement) Clay stepped up his all-around game in a second half of the season that promised so much for the Dolphins until the final seven days. Only putting two balls on the ground in the second half (five in the first eight weeks), Clay was also more elusive with ball in hand as the season turned for home. After breaking only three tackles in the first half, Clay bested that in single games twice later in the season (four vs San Diego, six at Pittsburgh) on his way to breaking 13 in the second half.
Honorable Mention: Jason Witten (DAL)
Wide Receivers: Josh Gordon, CLV (+13.9; +1.2) and Eric Decker, DEN (+16.3; +0.6)
Two receivers who were the stuff fantasy football dreams are made of over the course of the second half of the season. Riding out a drop-ridden start, Decker was a force in the final five weeks, topping 100 yards three times and snagging eight of his 11 touchdowns while putting only one pass on the ground in that spell. Gordon was a revelation after he returned from a two-game suspension to start 2013, setting records on a bad team to turn in big play after big play as the Browns came out of their Week 10 bye.
Slot Receiver: Julian Edelman (NE)
Honorable Mention: Anquan Boldin (SF) and Michael Floyd (ARZ)
Tackles: Jason Peters, PHI (+23.8; +6.2) and Tyson Clabo, MIA (+9.8; -10.6)
Returning from a twice ruptured Achilles tendon that cost him his 2012 season, Peters made an inconsistent start to 2013, but really hit his stride down the stretch, surrendering 17 fewer pressures in the second half of the season. That is without even mentioning his improved run blocking that helped LeSean McCoy tear opposing defenses to shreds at the end of the year. On the opposite side, Clabo took time settling into Miami and his new scheme but responded positively to being sent to the bench, returning to the starting lineup more like the player we knew from his time in Atlanta. After letting up eight sacks and seven hits in the season’s first half, Clabo let up only three sacks and three hits on the run to the end of the year.
Honorable Mention: Tyron Smith (DAL) and Donald Stephenson (KC)
Guards: Josh Sitton, GB (+23.4; +9.7) and Jahri Evans, NO (+12.9; -2.4)
Like Peters this wasn’t about a turnaround for Sitton but an ever-developing dominance as the season progressed. His pass protection was one of those rare metronomic consistencies (positive grade every week, only eight pressures let up all season) but his run blocking got better as the season went on and the ground game became a more important part of the Packers’ offense. A similar story for Evans at right guard, though his struggles in run blocking lasted longer than Sitton’s. After five negative grades and a -8.3 run block grade at midseason, Evans emphasized his stature as one of the league’s most highly regarded guards with more consistent work and a +2.8 run block grade in the second half of the season.
Honorable Mention: Todd Herremans (PHI) and Mackenzy Bernadeau (DAL)
Center: Jonathan Goodwin, SF (+8.2; -3.4)
Much like the rest of the team, Goodwin took time to find his form this season but a strong showing against the Jaguars in London to end the first half of the season was a sign of better things to come after the 49ers’ bye. Goodwin earned a positive grade as a run blocker five straight weeks from Week 12 onward, though he hasn’t carried that form into the postseason with a poor display (-2.1 run block) in the opener against Green Bay.
Honorable Mention: Nick Mangold (NYJ)
Click to Page 2 for the Defense and Special Teams…
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