NFL

Rodgers, Woodley, Harbaugh worthy of awards

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Their work is only half completed, yet they deserve front-runner status for this season's NFL awards. And yes, we know how everything can change in the next eight weeks.

For now, though, here's the who's who of honorees for 2011.

OFFENSIVE ROOKIE: Cam Newton, QB, Carolina.

It's hard - make that nearly impossible - to argue with this choice. From his debut right through the bye week, the top overall draft pick has surpassed early expectations. Newton has been just as dynamic and creative as he was in leading Auburn to the national championship, and he's made the Panthers relevant again even if they are 2-6. They are not an easy out for any opponent.

Runners-up: Andy Dalton, QB, Cincinnati; A.J. Green, WR, Cincinnati; Doug Baldwin, WR, Seattle; Marcus Gilbert, T, Pittsburgh; Stefan Wisniewski, G, Oakland.

DEFENSIVE ROOKIE: Aldon Smith, DE-LB, San Francisco.

Smith has been a force as a pass rusher and solid in run defense almost from the beginning of the season, and really has stepped up the last few weeks. He played end in college, but the transition to pass coverage has gone well, too; of course, it helps having star LB Patrick Willis nearby.

Oddly, Smith is not a starter yet. Still, defensive coordinator Vic Fangio estimates Smith is on the field more than he is off it.

Runners-up: Chris Conte, S, Chicago; Brooks Reed, LB, Houston; Ryan Kerrigan, LB, Washington; Von Miller, LB, Denver; Patrick Peterson, CB, Arizona.

OFFENSIVE PLAYER: Calvin Johnson, WR, Detroit.

''Megatron'' to the Max best describes what Johnson has achieved in eight games: 11 TDs, joining Randy Moss as the only players since the 1970 merger with 11 TD catches in his team's first eight games. His combination of speed, size, moves and moxie make Johnson not only the most dangerous receiver in the league this year, but the most impressive offensive player. And the competition is fierce.

Johnson often draws double coverage, yet has 47 catches for 804 yards (17.1 per catch). Many of those receptions are, well, to say spectacular is an understatement.

Runners-up: Aaron Rodgers, QB, Green Bay; Adrian Peterson, RB, Minnesota; Wes Welker, WR, New England; Matt Forte, RB, Chicago; Fred Jackson, RB, Buffalo.

DEFENSIVE PLAYER: LaMarr Woodley, LB, Steelers.

Woodley is dealing with a left hamstring problem, about the only thing to slow him this season. Forget James Harrison or Troy Polamalu, Woodley has been the best and most influential player on the Steel Curtain. It's amazing how Pittsburgh always seems to find the perfect linebacker for its system.

Woodley is dynamite as a pass rusher, in coverage and, especially, against the run. He has become a leader on a defense not lacking for them, and he's only in his fifth year.

Runners-up: Jared Allen, DE, Minnesota; Darrelle Revis, CB, New York Jets; Haloti Ngata, DT, Baltimore; DeMarcus Ware, LB, Dallas; Patrick Willis, LB, San Francisco.

COMEBACK PLAYER: Steve Smith, WR, Carolina.

Nobody has been recharged more than Smith, who was expecting to ask out of Carolina after last season's two-win season. He even contemplated retirement.

Now, energized by the addition of Newton and a new coaching staff, Smith is as dangerous and dynamic as ever. He is averaging 20 yards a reception for his 46 catches, has scored four times, and also has provided guidance for Newton and several other younger Panthers in what could be his fifth Pro Bowl season.

Runners-up: Will Smith, DE, New Orleans; Matthew Stafford, QB, Detroit; Chris Houston, CB, Detroit; Alex Smith, QB, San Francisco; DeMeco Ryans, LB, Houston.

COACH: Jim Harbaugh, San Francisco.

A valid argument can be made for a handful of coaches whose teams have either surged unexpectedly in the standings (Detroit, Buffalo, Cincinnati), improved exponentially from a very good to great team (Green Bay), or overcome a slew of injuries and some locker room tension to be in first place (New York Giants).

The best job has been done by a rookie. Harbaugh not only has changed the mindset and attitude in the Bay Area with his enthusiasm, but he's turned Alex Smith into a serviceable and, more significantly, winning quarterback.

''When there's somebody who brings something like that to the table, it gives you, I don't know if it's confidence or if it just gives that joy in going out and playing that hard,'' punter Andy Lee said. ''You want to go out and play for this guy.''

Runners-up: Jim Schwartz, Detroit; Tom Coughlin, New York Giants; Marvin Lewis, Cincinnati; Mike McCarthy, Green Bay; Chan Gailey, Buffalo.

ASSISTANT COACH: Mike Zimmer, defensive coordinator, Cincinnati.

Cincinnati has had some defensive tools in recent years, most notably CB Leon Hall, but there are no stars on the Bengals' D. Except, perhaps, for the guy dialing up the coverages and the blitzes and the intensity.

Zimmer is doing it with the likes of Rey Maualuga, Jonathan Fanene and Geno Atkins, and the Bengals rank near the top in most defensive categories.

Runners-up: Rob Chudzinski, offensive coordinator, Carolina; Vic Fangio, defensive coordinator, San Francisco; Curtis Modkins, offensive coordinator, Buffalo.

MVP: Aaron Rodgers, QB, Green Bay.

As the NFL has evolved into a quarterback-driven league, that position has dominated the headlines, the highlight shows and this award. Unquestionably the best QB in the league this year is Rodgers, who has parlayed his superb playoff run last winter, his Super Bowl MVP trophy and an unmatched sense of confidence - call it swagger - into a spectacular start.

Some would say the current version of Rodgers is better than any particular version of predecessor Brett Favre during his record-setting career. If Rodgers keeps this up, the full version could surpass Favre, too.

Runners-up: Calvin Johnson, WR, Detroit; Darrelle Revis, CB, New York Jets; Haloti Ngata, DT, Baltimore; LaMarr Woodley, LB, Pittsburgh; Eli Manning, QB, New York Giants; Matt Forte, Chicago.

Tagged: Bears, Bengals, Lions, Packers, Vikings, Saints, Giants, Jets, 49ers, Seahawks, Panthers, Ravens, Cardinals, Steelers, Steve Smith Sr., Will Smith, Andy Lee, Aaron Rodgers, Alex Smith, Haloti Ngata, LaMarr Woodley, Calvin Johnson, Patrick Willis, Darrelle Revis, Chris Houston, Matt Forte, A.J. Green, Patrick Peterson, Aldon Smith, Andy Dalton, Chris Conte

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