Midseason Report: Who made the leap?

We're at the season's midway point, and we'll be handing out midseason superlatives here at Around The NFL all week. Next up: Players who made the biggest leap in performance.

Tyrann Mathieu a defensive star

Listing Tyrann Mathieu as a summertime "Making the Leap" candidate was a no-brainer for the Around the NFL crew. The Cardinals defensive back showed all the signs of stardom as a rookie before last year's sophomore effort was sideswiped by injuries. Mathieu has been as versatile and valuable as any player on Arizona's defensive roster. "He's all over the field. We ask him to do so much," said Bruce Arians, the Cardinals coach who once called "Honey Badger" his "happiest draft choice." Operating this season as the league's top coverage and pass-rushing cornerback, per Pro Football Focus, Mathieu's next leap could land him squarely on the seat for Defensive Player of the Year. -- Marc Sessler

Norman, Shortt fueling Panthers' 7-0 start

Luke Kuechly and Thomas Davis are among the NFL's most respected linebacker duos, driving the Panthers to back-to-back AFC South titles over the past two years. While Kuechly missed three games with a concussion early this year, though, a pair of impact defenders emerged to fuel Carolina's 7-0 start. Cornerback Josh Norman has emerged as a top-flight star, saving games with acrobatic plays and shutting down the NFL's best receivers. He's a legitimate Defensive Player of the Year candidate. Third-year defensive tackle Kawann Short has been a consistently disruptive force on the interior, earning a spot on Around The NFL's midseason All-Pro team. The Panthers' defense is one of the few with four players worthy of Pro Bowl consideration. -- Chris Wesseling

Bortles living up to draft value in Jacksonville

In the four weeks leading up to Jacksonville's win in London, Blake Bortles was one of the most productive quarterbacks in football. His stats took a hit across the pond, but the 2014 No. 3 overall pick finished the game off with a beautiful touchdown pass on the run and across his body against a Rex Ryan defense. It might be a little too soon to say Blake Bortles has arrived; Jacksonville needs to become a more consistent winner in order for that to happen. But, it's absolutely fair to say that Jacksonville made the right choice a year ago. Bortles has been developing ahead of schedule and has largely eliminated the wounded duck throws from a season ago. The mechanics are there and the confidence is certainly right alongside. His true test will be in the coming weeks when he faces a very angry Jets defense, a hungry Ravens team on the road -- Dean Pees is still a great coordinator -- and the Titans twice in three weeks. If we're still saying all of this about Bortles in early December, watch out. -- Conor Orr

Raiders' Renaissance

The Raiders have been bad for so long, that it's almost jarring to see them look competent. That thought crossed my mind several times as the Jets got their butt kicked for 60 minutes on Sunday in Oakland. There's reason for legitimate hope in the Black Hole, and much of that goes back to Derek Carr. The quarterback has exceeded all expectations in his second season, and has made huge gains following a quietly shaky rookie campaign in 2014. Carr has 15 touchdowns against just three interceptions and is running Oakland's offense like a cagey vet. No team is relevant without a quarterback, which explains why the world forgot about the Silver and Black. Carr's rapid progression has changed everything. * -- Dan Hanzus*

Tyler Eifert emerges as a top tight end

Who is the second best tight in football behind Rob Gronkowski? We would like to present Cincinnati's Tyler Eifert for the honor. Eifert's emergence as a consistent threat has transformed the Bengals offense almost as much as Andy Dalton's sudden ability to throw deep. On an offense with slender receivers, Eifert's ability to out-muscle defenders is a huge asset in the red zone. He doesn't need to be open to make catches, and Dalton has shown a lot of confidence throwing to Eifert in tight windows. He can catch screen passes or high point deep balls 20-25 yards down the field, showing an ability to make highlight-reel grabs. Eifert also is a solid blocker that adds to offensive coordinator Hue Jackson's versatility in Cincinnati. We were tempted to give kudos to our preseason Making the Leap pickAnthony Barr for his excellent season, but Eifert's jump was too hard to ignore. * -- Gregg Rosenthal*

Allen Robinson central to emerging Jaguars offense

Robinson should have been on our MTL list this summer. The Jags wideout displays great hands, a good understanding of the route tree and makes quality, quick cuts that earn separation from DBs. Robinson has complied 34 catches for 586 yards and six touchdowns in seven games. As a rookie, the knock was that Robinson wasn't a deep threat thanks to his 4.6 40-yard-dash time. Well, shut that narrative down. Robinson leads the NFL with 14 catches of 20-plus yards -- seven have gone for more than 25 -- and his 17.2 yards per catch is the highest among wideouts with at least 25 catches. Robinson might not have the speed, but his ability to win with route running, out muscling defenders and high-pointing the ball makes him a dangerous threat down the field. The rapport he's building with Blake Borltes should lead both to bigger and brighter days in Florida. -- Kevin Patra

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