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The best and worst of the 2014 NFL season so far

We're halfway through the NFL season, which means it's time to hand out some awards. Danny Kelly picks the best and worst from the season's first nine weeks.

Time flies when you're having fun. Every team has now played at least eight games, which means we've officially passed the half-way point of the 2014 NFL season. You've probably already seen about twenty articles doling out midseason NFL MVPs, Defensive Players of the Year, Rookies of the Year, Coaches of the Year, etc, so instead of adding to that chorus, here are a few of the undercard midseason "awards" that don't get quite as much hype.

Most improved player awards

OLB Justin Houston, Kansas City

Houston has been a good player and solid contributor during his first three seasons in the NFL, but with 12.0 sacks through eight games, he's on pace for 24, which would beat the all-time NFL sacks record of 22.5. Impressively, Houston's performance has been marked by consistency week-to-week rather than in bunches against an inferior opponent or advantageous situation. Houston has at least one sack in seven of KC's eight games.

RB Le'Veon Bell, Pittsburgh

Bell had a strong rookie season, but is already approaching his rush yardage totals from last year (711) half-way through 2014, and has already surpassed his receptions (47) and receiving yards (433) totals. Bell's yards-per-carry has improved to 4.7 as compared to 3.5 in 2013, and he's the workhorse back for the streaking Steelers. He's explosive, agile, versatile, and is way better than I thought he would be as a pro.

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Least improved player awards

WR Tavon Austin, St. Louis

One of two things is happening here, it seems: The Rams still haven't figured out how to use Austin, or have realized he's not as good as they thought. After catching 40 passes for 418 yards in his rookie season, Austin is on a slower pace this season, with 15 catches for 134 yards at the half-way point. He's added 17 carries for 72 yards on the ground, but still has yet to show any semblance of becoming the dynamic, game-changing weapon St. Louis envisioned him being when they traded up to eighth overall to select him.

QB Jake Locker, Tennessee

Locker came into the 2014 season without his fifth-year option picked up, but he still had the chance to prove that he's the Titans' long-term franchise quarterback and that he can stay healthy. He did neither, and now he's been benched in Tennessee, permanently. Locker started four games, completed 58 percent of his throws with four touchdowns and four picks, then injured his hand. He was replaced by Charlie Whitehurst for several games. Titans head coach Ken Whisenhunt finally decided to move on from Locker and go with Zach Mettenberger for the rest of the season.

RB Trent Richardson, Indianapolis

Richardson is running at the best yards-per-carry of his career in 2014 ... it's still only at 3.6 yards per attempt. Considering Indy gave up a first-round pick to the Browns to acquire Richardson, that trade still looks bad, especially considering how well Ahmad Bradshaw has been playing.

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Best player we thought was bad awards

RB Mark Ingram, New Orleans

It's Ingram's contract year, so this isn't exactly unheard of .The Saints' former first round pick looks like a new man. Ingram has rushed for 488 yards on 88 totes and is averaging 4.9 yards per carry as New Orleans' new go-to guy on the ground. He's gone over 100 the last two games and is poised for a big second half and hopefully, for his sake, a big payday.

RB Denard Robinson, Jacksonville

The Jags drafted Robinson in the fourth round in 2013 and immediately labeled him an "offensive weapon." As you'd expect, the NFL didn't allow this, and it took Robinson a while to figure out exactly what type of player he should be at the next level, whether it be at running back or receiver. Well, the answer appears to be in the backfield, where Robinson has rushed for 423 yards on 83 carries, taking over the starting job for Jacksonville. He's put up 329 yards on 57 carries over the last three games, good for 5.7 YPC. Look for Robinson to try and build on this in the second half.

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Worst player we thought was good award

QB Kirk Cousins, Washington

Cousins has been the subject of trade rumors for much of his short career as the primary backup to Robert Griffin, and even after struggling during the final five games to close out last season, there were still many that believed Cousins could develop into a quality starter in the NFL. The intrigue around Cousins' potential has made him a potentially valuable trade chip, but Washington continually refused to trade him. Well, when Griffin again got hurt in Week 2, Cousins' proponents got their wish, and Cousins got his shot. Instead of forcing Washington's hand for a trade or giving him a shot as the full-time starter, he was benched after five starts, and replaced by Colt McCoy.

RB Doug Martin, Tampa Bay

Martin was a first-round pick in 2012 and was electric as a rookie, rushing for 1,454 yards and 11 touchdowns on 4.6 yards per carry, but he missed most of 2013 with a shoulder injury. Dealing with a combination of nagging injuries this season, Martin has rushed for 58 times for 166 yards -- 2.9 yards per carry. He's been robbed of any of the explosiveness that made him one of the most exciting young backs in the NFL just two years ago. With Martin, it's clear that the injuries are the major factor at play, but he's just not the same player he was in 2012.

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The "still got it" awards

TE Antonio Gates, San Diego

Chargers backup tight end LaDarius Green was the talk of the town over the offseason and one of the hot "sleepers" in fantasy for 2014. Well, Gates was having none of that fade into the background talk, and has already caught 35 passes for 445 yards and a ridiculous nine touchdowns. Don't stick a fork in him, he ain't done.

WR Steve Smith, Baltimore

Steve Smith, Sr: the fiesty former Panther has 47 catches for 711 yards and 4 touchdowns through nine games, already encroaching on his totals from last season. He's on pace for 83 catches for 1,264 yards. Not shabby for a 35 year old that was released by Carolina after last season.

OLB DeMarcus Ware, Denver

The long-time Cowboys' legend already has eight sacks through nine games and has fit in perfectly with his new role in the Broncos' defense. Again, not shabby for a 32-year old that was released by Dallas at the end of last year.

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Out of nowhere award

RB Justin Forsett, Baltimore:

Forsett, the role playing former seventh rounder out of Cal that spent last year in a reserve role for the Jags, is leading all running backs in yards per carry (5.4) at the half-way point. Forsett has 113 carries for 609 yards and three scores, and has proven to be a great replacement for Ray Rice. The former Jaguar and Seahawk is well accustomed to the Gary Kubiak zone-blocking scheme after running in similar schemes his entire career, so he's turned out to be one of the best, most prescient free agent acquisitions of the offseason.

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Best free agent signing award

WR Golden Tate, Detroit

Speaking of great free agent acquisitions, Tate's taken his game to the next level as he's moved out of Seattle's low-volume passing offense to become a go-to guy in Detroit's more liberal scheme. Tate's assumed the job as the Lions' #1 receiver when Calvin Johnson has been out, and as per usual, is among the league leaders in yards after the catch. The gyroscope-looking receiver is having a breakout season.

WR Emmanuel Sanders, Denver

Sanders' previous career high in catches came last year in Pittsburgh when he reeled in 67 passes for 740 yards and six touchdowns, and half way through 2014 he already has 57 catches, a career-high 785 yards, and four touchdowns in the Peyton Manning offense. The Broncos got themselves a bargain on the free agent market in Sanders, who signed a three-year deal worth up to $18 million, and thus far he's earning every penny of it as a speed threat that can make circus catches with consistency.

DE Willie Young, Chicago

Jared Allen got the fan-fare when he signed with the Bears, but Young's proven to be a better acquisition in free agency. The former Lion already has 7.0 sacks in a rotational role, but will get a shot at playing more downs with the injury to Lamarr Houston in Chicago. Keep an eye on Young in the second half.

CB Darrelle Revis, New England

Revis just doing his thing. Not really a surprise.

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Worst FA signing award

QB Matt Schaub, Oakland

Schaub has one pass attempt this season, and it was intercepted. He's making $8 million to back up Derek Carr on an 0-8 Raiders team.

S Jairus Byrd, Saints

Byrd was one of the big-time signees during this past free agency period, and was supposed to become the final piece in New Orleans' dangerous secondary. That has not panned out. Byrd missed much of the preseason to injury, played poorly the first four games, then got placed on the injured reserve. The good news is that he has time to bounce back. The bad news is that he can't do that until next season.

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Best trick play award

In a Week 7 NFC West slugfest, St. Louis pulled off an ingenious fake-out punt return for a touchdown and that play helped them build a big first-half lead and eventually knock off the defending champs. The concept was simple -- the Rams had noticed that Seattle always punts to the back left corner when they're kicking to a short field, so when Seahawks punter Jon Ryan let one loose to that area, St. Louis sprung into action.

The entire punt blocking team ran to the right side of the field, pretending to block for Tavon Austin, and Seattle's punt return team took the bait. Bad.

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While almost all of Seattle's coverage team ran toward where the Rams were blocking, Stedman Bailey caught it where the ball was going. He then just ran downfield for a score.

Best touchdown celebration

Pittsburgh's William Gay returned a pick-six on Andrew Luck in Week 8, then celebrated it.

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Worst touchdown celebration:

... um, ... Pittsburgh's William Gay returned a pick-six on Andrew Luck in Week 8, then celebrated it.

Best press conference reaction

The Patriots struggled out of the gates and Tom Brady had issues getting on the same page with his receivers early in the season. After New England was blown out by the Chiefs in primetime in Week 4, and after Tom Brady's 14 of 23, one touchdown and two interception game, Bill Belichick was asked if "will the quarterback position be evaluated?" Or, in other words, would the future Hall of Famer, the legendary Tom Brady, get benched? His reaction:

Since Belichick's awesome reaction to that question, the Patriots have rattled off five wins in a row and Brady has connected on 133-of-197 passes for 1,601 yards, 18 touchdowns to one pick, 8.13 yards per attempt and a cool 120.5 rating. Good gravy.

Best catch

I don't know if I can really decide, so I'll just list a few. These guys are absurdly good.

WR Dez Bryant, Dallas

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WR Julio Jones, Atlanta

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TE Rob Gronkowski, New England

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So there you have it -- a few categories that I found interesting. Go ahead and add a few candidates of your own below in case I've forgotten about anyone or any of the NFL's top plays from the first half of the 2014 season.