“I’m not saying more things were designed for me, but obviously [Jarrett] Boykin didn’t have many reps in games and Myles [White] was our third receiver for a bit. So the focus kind of came to me,” Nelson said. “A lot of it is about the opportunity. The more opportunities you get the more comfortable you’ll be in running those routes and how to get open.”
Defensive player of the year: Mike Daniels, DT
Remember when Cullen Jenkins was such a good pass-rushing complement to outside linebacker Clay Matthews that defensive coordinator Dom Capers started lining the two up on opposite sides of the formation – even though Jenkins was a down lineman and Matthews a linebacker – so they could play off each other? Perhaps that’ll be the approach with Daniels going forward. One of six straight picks used on defensive players in the 2012 NFL Draft, Daniels, a fourth-round pick, was the only one who consistently contributed this season. While Matthews was sidelined by a broken thumb – twice – and fellow 2009 first-round pick B.J. Raji’s role diminished, the Packers may have unearthed an actual playmaker who was right under their noses.
“It’s football. We’ve been playing this game our whole lives. It doesn’t matter the system, whatever. If you’re a good player, you’re going to make the plays,” Daniels said. “We’re good players.”
Special teams player of the year: Mason Crosby, K
What an astonishing turnaround story Crosby was. A year after putting his job in serious peril by making only 21 of 33 field-goal attempts, Crosby rose to the training-camp challenge of Giorgio Tavecchio, then answered when the team cut his salary from $2.4 million to $800,00 and dared him to earn it back through incentives. And wouldn’t you know, he hit every one – just like he hit almost every kick he attempted. Crosby finished the year having made 33 of 37 kicks for an 89.7 accuracy rate, only 26 points higher than the league-worst 63.6 percent “success” rate he had last year.
“My goal was 90 percent, and I wanted to be there. So in that sense it’s almost a positive to me,” Crosby said of having something to shoot for next year. “I accomplished a lot of goals and a lot of things I wanted to do. But I want to be over that 90 percent for a season. So that definitely will keep my focus sharp for the offseason and I’ll keep working toward that.”
Rookie of the year: David Bakhtiari, LT.
Yes, Lacy would seem to be the frontrunner for the NFL offensive rookie of the year award, which will be announced on the eve of Super Bowl XLVIII at the annual NFL Honors event. But he wasn’t the only rookie to deliver, and there’s an argument to be made that after veteran Bryan Bulaga’s season-ending knee injury in training camp, the entire season could have been lost had Bakhtiari, a rookie fourth-round pick from Colorado, hadn’t risen to the challenge. While he wasn’t perfect, there’s no denying he was one of the season’s saviors.
“I’m a realist. Things are going to happen. It’s how you’re able to respond to it,” Bakhtiari said. “I’m pretty sure the organization is happy. They haven’t said anything to me. And I still have my job, so I guess they trust me a little bit.”
QB Aaron Rodgers: Finished the regular season having completed 193 of 290 passes for 2,536 yards with 17 touchdowns and five interceptions (104.9 rating). Turned 30 on Dec. 2, in the middle of his seven-game stint on the sidelines after breaking his collarbone on the opening series of a Nov. 4 loss to Chicago. Fought a losing battle to get back on the field sooner and admitted after the fact that team physician Dr. Pat McKenzie saved him from himself by not clearing him until the Dec. 29 regular-season finale against the Bears. Confessed on his weekly radio show that he’ll have to work extra hard this offseason to ward off Father Time, who is starting to creep up on him.
QB Matt Flynn: Signed on Nov. 12 after being cast adrift by Oakland and Buffalo and was a godsend. Came on in relief against Minnesota on Nov. 24 and rallied team from a 16-point fourth-quarter deficit to earn a 26-26 tie that proved vital. It foreshadowed his Captain Comeback routine, which saw him lead rallies against Atlanta, Dallas and Pittsburgh before rubbing off on Rodgers in the regular-season finale. Completed 102 of 166 passes for 1,146 yards with seven TDs and four INTs (86.1 rating). Had one god-awful game – at Detroit on Thanksgiving – but proved that he can do the job when called upon. Will be unrestricted free agent but is open to returning to be his pal Rodgers’ backup.
QB Scott Tolzien: Ex-University of Wisconsin starter who was signed to the practice squad after training camp ended and proved to be a prescient pickup. Showed genuine potential when thrust into action and threw some of the prettiest deep balls you ever did see in a Nov. 17 loss to the New York Giants. Alas, he also turned the ball over too much, something that a player as smart and driven as Tolzien is will grow out of. Finished having completed 55 of 90 passes for 717 yards with one touchdown and five INTs (66.8 rating). Signed through 2014 and definitely worth bringing back and developing.
QB Seneca Wallace: Veteran backup scooped up off the scrap heap on Sept. 2 after Graham Harrell, Vince Young and B.J. Coleman all fell flat as backup options in camp. Played poorly in relief of Rodgers after Rodgers’ collarbone injury against the Bears, then completed his first five passes against Philadelphia as the starter the following week before a torn groin muscle sent him to surgery and injured reserve. Classy, wise veteran who would have been helpful to Rodgers if he’d have simply been the old hand who never played. A free agent, he won’t be brought back.
RB Eddie Lacy: Fourth running back taken, after Cincinnati’s Giovani Bernard, Pittsburgh’s Le’Veon Bell and Denver’s Montee Ball. Turned out to be a steal at No. 61, rushing for 1,178 yards and 11 touchdowns in basically 14 regular-season games because of a concussion on his opening carry vs. Washington on Sept. 15. Takes a licking but keeps on ticking. Dishes out almost as much punishment as he absorbs. If he stays healthy, his future is immensely bright.
RB James Starks: Injury-plagued running back who delivered big-time as a rookie during the 2010 title run had his healthiest, most productive season in a limited role. Ran 89 times for 493 yards and three TDs, averaging a whopping 5.5 yards per carry. Played 239 total snaps but made the most of them. Unrestricted free agent who could be back if market is dry.
RB Johnathan Franklin: Rookie fourth-round pick was unproductive in training camp and preseason, when coaches kept run scheme vanilla to save best stuff for gams that counted. Suffered season-ending neck injury and placed on IR Nov. 27. Shining moment was 103-yard effort at Cincinnati on Sept. 22, but his fourth-quarter fumble was returned for the game-winning touchdown by the Bengals.
RB DuJuan Harris: Came on strong to end 2012 and went into camp as the starting running back according to McCarthy. Knee that troubled him all offseason became an issue again in the Aug. 23 preseason game against Seattle and that was it. Went on IR before the season and underwent patellar tendon surgery. Said this week he expects to be full-go for offseason program. Intriguing player who could be Lacy’s complement if healthy.
RB Kahlil Bell: Veteran stopgap signed Dec. 3 after Franklin landed on IR. Did not play a snap from scrimmage on offense but chipped in on special teams. Free agent who’s unlikely to be back.
FB John Kuhn: “Great player, great teammate, nobody I trust more on the field than John. He’s an exceptional guy.” That’s what Rodgers said about his friend and personal third-down protector, who’s set to be an unrestricted free agent. May have more value to Packers than the other 31 teams, so could be back. Played only 337 snaps on offense but running backs coach Alex Van Pelt called him the best third-down pass-blocking back in the league. Carried 10 times for 38 yards in regular-season play and had two key 1-yard runs in playoff loss: A 1-yard TD and a 1-yard gain on fourth-and-inches. Best play of the year was diving to chip onrushing Julius Peppers in season finale to let Rodgers uncork game-winning TD pass to Cobb.
WR Jordy Nelson: Showed he is indeed an elite-level NFL wide receiver when he was the only legit receiving target when Jones, Cobb and tight end Jermichael Finley were sidelined. Played a whopping 1,165 snaps on offense and went hard on every one. Will be unrestricted free agent after 2014 season and has been a total bargain playing for the three-year, $12.6 million extension signed in October 2011. Will make just $2.55 million next season, which is absurd.
WR James Jones: Played final weeks of season with broken ribs, per Lori Nickel of the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel. That may explain in part the two drops that he had on tough but catchable balls in the playoff loss to San Francisco. Caught 59 passes for 817 yards, setting a career high for receiving yards. Wasn’t the touchdown machine he was the previous year (NFL-high 15) and at age 29, it’ll be interesting to see what the free-agent market is for him. Veteran leader who is admired in locker room. Finished year having played 925 snaps, after missing two games with Oct. 13 knee injury. Came back before he should have and toughed it out.
WR Randall Cobb: Was team’s leading pass-catcher (29) at time of his injury, a small fracture in his right leg at the top of the tibia, just below the knee. Suffered on low hit by Baltimore safety Matt Elam on Oct. 13, placed on injured reserve two days later with designation to return. Was eligible to come back Dec. 15 at Dallas but was still on sideline for that game and Dec. 22 loss to Pittsburgh. Came back at Chicago in finale and caught only two passes thrown his way, both for TDs. Clearly a player who tilts the field in Packers’ direction when healthy. Entering a contract year and is a core player the Packers want long-term but must rebound with healthy year.