Officially starting the second half of the 2018 season on Sunday against the Los Angeles Rams, the Seattle Seahawks have exceeded most outside expectations.
Though the team has lost a few tough games during the first couple months of the season, the Seahawks sit in second place in the NFC West and are in striking distance of a playoff berth, a far better position than most experts projected heading into the season.
Looking back at Seattle's first eight games, which players and coaches have had the greatest impact thus far?
Without further ado, here's a look at my selections for several midseason awards, including most valuable player, top rookie, and more:
Most Valuable Player: QB Russell Wilson
Coach Mike Solari deserves a ton of credit for transforming the Seahawks offensive line from the team’s biggest weakness into one of the better units in the league and helping resurrect the team’s run game. But the buck still stops with Wilson, who might have been playing the best football of his career until struggling a bit in last week's loss to the Chargers.
Outstanding pass protection has presented Wilson with consistently clean pockets over the past six games and he’s capitalized, throwing 13 touchdowns and only two interceptions while completing nearly 70 percent of his passes during that span. Unlike previous seasons, he’s not running for his life every time he drops back to pass and as a result, he’s efficiently carving up opponents and connecting on explosive pass plays off play action in bunches.
Top Offensive Skill Player: WR Tyler Lockett
Only a few months ago, plenty of skeptics criticized the Seahawks for extending Lockett with a new three-year deal worth up to $37.8 million. After all, the speedy target was only a year removed from a devastating compound fracture in his leg and had seen his overall receiving yardage decline in each of his three NFL seasons.
But with Doug Baldwin ailing and the combo of Paul Richardson and Jimmy Graham leaving as free agents, Lockett has put together a career-year to reward the Seahawks organization for their faith in him. He already has tied his career-best with six touchdown receptions from Wilson and is averaging a career-high 14.9 yards per reception. At this rate, he will finish the season with over 800 receiving yards and 12 scores, giving a huge boost to Seattle's offense this season.
Top Offensive Lineman: D.J. Fluker
Easily Seattle's best free agent acquisition, the 355-pound Fluker has been the real difference maker for a suddenly formidable offensive line since returning from a hamstring injury in Week 3. Over the past six games in which he's been starting at right guard, Seattle has averaged nearly 160 rushing yards per game, rushed for 4.5 yards per carry as a team, and produced a 100-plus yard rusher four times.
While Fluker was expected to play a key role in reinvigorating the Seahawks rushing attack and has lived up to the hype, he's also been surprisingly effective in pass protection. Since returning to the lineup, Wilson has only been sacked around two times per game after being sacked 12 total times in Seattle's two season-opening losses in Denver and Chicago.
Top Defensive Lineman: Frank Clark
With his price tag steadily rising each week as free agency awaits, Clark has emerged as one of the best pure edge rushers in football for a Seahawks team that lacks much of a pass rush away from him. The former second-round pick out of Michigan already has 7.5 sacks, 10 quarterback hits, and three forced fumbles through eight games.
Capable of beating opposing tackles with his speed bending around the edge as well as dominating opponents with power, Clark is on pace for a career-best 16.0 sacks. With that type of production, the Seahawks will have no choice but to pay him a king's ransom to keep him in the Pacific Northwest long-term.
Top Defensive Skill Player: Bradley McDougald
With Kam Chancellor forced to retire, Richard Sherman now playing in San Francisco, and Earl Thomas on injured reserve, the Seahawks secondary wasn't expected to remain a strength. But McDougald has been the glue guy for a young, inexperienced unit that has somehow held opponents to 218.5 passing yards per game and been an integral part in the team's fifth-ranked scoring defense.
Able to play both safety spots, McDougald leads the Seahawks with 47 combined tackles and also has recorded two interceptions and six passes defensed. His veteran presence has been critical playing alongside second-year cornerback Shaquill Griffin, safety Tedric Thompson, and rookie Tre Flowers. Though they may not be the "Legion of Boom," the group has played outstanding football for the most part and McDougald deserves a ton of credit for his on-field performance and leadership.
Top Rookie: P Michael Dickson
It’s very rare that a punter draws this nod, but Dickson isn’t an ordinary NFL punter by any sense of the word. He possesses a booming leg with an uncanny ability to make the football do bizarre things once it rockets off his foot, as he’s fourth in the league in yards per punt (47.5) and opponents have only fair caught six of his punts due to the trajectory of his kicks.
The former Texas standout has also drop-kicked a couple of kickoffs this year and took off on an ad-libbed fake punt in Week 8 to pick up a first down, so there’s never a dull moment when he takes the field. Most of the time, fans leave the comfort of their couch when teams punt, but Dickson has been must-see television for the Seahawks.
Most Improved: Nick Vannett, Jarran Reed
On the offensive side of the football, Vannett's breakthrough third season couldn't have come at a better time. Already without Graham and Luke Willson, who both left as free agents, rising rookie Will Dissly was lost to a patellar tendon injury in Week 4, leaving the former Ohio State standout as the only experienced option at the tight end position for Seattle.
Now healthy after dealing with a herniated disc the past two seasons, the "sky's the limit" for Vannett, who has already caught a career-best 19 receptions for 178 yards and scored his first touchdown last week against the Chargers.
As for Reed, there's not a player on the Seahawks roster who has made a bigger jump over the last calendar year. Once known as a pure run stuffing defensive tackle, the ex-Alabama star has evolved into a well-rounded interior defender capable of wreaking havoc as a pass rusher. He's already doubled his previous career-high with 5.0 sacks and has six tackles for loss and nine total quarterback hits in 2018.
Most Disappointing: Rashaad Penny
Fair or not, a running back selected in the first round is expected to be an immediate contributor in today’s NFL, and Penny has been anything but that in his first year with the Seahawks. Stuck behind rising star Chris Carson and reliable veteran Mike Davis on the depth chart, the former San Diego State star has only carried the football 42 times for 146 yards and hasn’t scored a touchdown.
When given opportunities to see the field in recent games, Penny has played fairly well, averaging over 4.5 yards per touch on his last 22 carries. But with Seattle riding Carson and Davis as the hot hands, he hasn’t logged a single carry in two of the team’s past four games and has been relegated to returning kicks.
Comeback Player: Chris Carson
Arriving out of nowhere as a seventh-round pick out of Oklahoma State, Carson took over as Seattle's starting running back early last season and rushed for 208 rushing yards in the team's first four games. Unfortunately, his rookie campaign ended with a thud as he fractured an ankle in a Week 4 win over the Colts.
Returning stronger and faster than prior to the injury, Carson wowed the coaching staff throughout the offseason, rocketed back to the top of the depth chart, and hasn't looked back. A catalyst for Seattle's much-improved run game, he's already bulldozed his way past the 100-yard mark in three games this season and has 497 rushing yards and two touchdowns in seven starts.
Biggest Surprise: Tre Flowers
Drafted in the fifth-round out of Oklahoma State, Flowers wasn't expected to be much of a factor this season as he transitioned from playing safety at the college level to cornerback in the NFL. But injuries to veterans Byron Maxwell and Dontae Johnson gave Seattle no choice but to throw him into the fire in the season opener as a starter across from Griffin.
Though he's been far from perfect, Flowers has exceeded all expectations through seven games. The lengthy 6-foot-3 cornerback has been a reliable tackler and two of his passes defensed have led to interceptions for teammates. Most notably, he knocked away a pass at the goal line against the Rams in Week 5 and Clark swooped in to pick off the deflection.
Most Valuable Coach: Mike Solari
With all due respect to Ken Norton Jr., who has done a commendable job keeping Seattle's defense among the league's best in his first year as defensive coordinator, Solari runs away with this one. The Seahawks offensive line has been atrocious for the past several seasons, leaving the team's franchise quarterback running for his life and the run game unable to find traction.
Since taking over for fired offensive line coach Tom Cable, Solari has preached fundamentals and technique for his offensive line and the results have been staggering. Along with paving the way for the Seahawks to average over 150 rushing yards per game since Week 3 versus Dallas, the front line has allowed only 36 quarterback pressures all season according to Pro Football Focus, the best mark in the NFL.