Defensive player of the year:Clay Matthews, OLB
Even with the four games he missed with a hamstring injury – or perhaps because of the time he missed, which served as a painful reminder – it was clear that Matthews’ presence tilted the field in the Packers’ direction. While he was a non-factor in the playoff loss to San Francisco, he finished fourth in the NFL in sacks (13.0) in regular-season play and added three more in the playoffs. He is entering the final year of his contract and has made himself a princely sum by showing how indispensable he is. That said, the mystery of his hamstring problems must be solved. The Packers managed to go 3-1 in the four games he missed, but with an apparently more daunting schedule in 2013, the team can ill afford to have him in street clothes on the sideline.
Offensive player of the year:James Jones, WR
Unless you’re the ultimate grudge holder, Jones has more than atoned for the drops that plagued him during the 2010 season – a season in which the Packers still won the Super Bowl despite a few high-profile butterfingered moments from Jones. According to ProFootballFocus.com, Jones had four drops in 18 games and 103 targets in 2012, after dropping six passes in 17 games and 56 targets last season. He led the NFL with 14 touchdown receptions, and set career bests in receptions (64), receiving yards (784) and TDs. With Jennings expected to depart and tight end Jermichael Finley’s future unclear, Jones has gone from being a bargain re-signing before the 2011 season to a vital part of the offense now entering the critical final season of his contract.
Special teams player of the year:Tim Masthay, P
While he tailed off a bit at the end as the weather became unpleasant, Masthay has clearly proven his worth. While kicker Mason Crosby struggled through an extremely disappointing season, Masthay was the picture of consistency. In 2010, he tied the franchise record for net punting average at 37.6, improved it to 38.6 last season and was even better in 2012 at 38.9. He also finished seventh in the NFL in punts inside the 20-yard line (30) and had just five touchbacks in 70 punts.
Rookie of the year: Casey Hayward, CB
A second-round pick from Vanderbilt, Hayward stated a good case for NFL Defensive Rookie of the Year, despite only seeing part-time action as the team’s primary nickel back. He started seven games (six in the base defense and one as the third cornerback) and finished with six interceptions, most among rookies and tied for fifth-most in the NFL. According to ProFootballFocus.com, Hayward was targeted 76 times on the season and allowed only 33 completions (a 43.4 catch rate) for 456 yards and no touchdowns and an opposing passer rating of 30.4. More impressively, he was not flagged for a single penalty all season.
QB Aaron Rodgers: Biggest area of criticism was his league-high and career-high 51 sacks. Of those, ProFootballFocus.com charged 10 to Rodgers. It’s part of the territory with the interception-allergic Rodgers, but he can still improve in that area. Also, Rodgers fumbled five times, losing four – something that rarely happened in his career. In the previous two seasons, Rodgers fumbled six times, losing only one.
QB Graham Harrell: Fumbled in first career NFL regular-season snap when thrust into a goal-line situation against New Orleans on Sept. 30. Saw garbage-time action in three more games. Will benefit from another offseason in the program and a training camp, but could Packers do better, with practice-squadder B.J. Coleman or someone else?
RB DuJuan Harris: Short (5-foot-7) but powerful runner who is intriguing prospect for 2013. Took 53-man roster promotion on Dec. 1 and ran with it. However, running backs coach Alex Van Pelt hesitated when asked if he can be an every-down back.
RB Alex Green: After torn ACL ended his rookie season, finished as the team’s leading rusher (464 yards) but disappeared late in the season, as DuJuan Harris emerged and his knee began giving him troubles. Apparently, not everyone recovers from an ACL tear like Adrian Peterson. Still will be factor in competition for starting running back job.
RB James Starks: Starting to look like his injury luck will never turn. Entered camp as the starter and lasted half of one preseason game, suffering a toe injury on Aug. 9 in San Diego. Came on against Minnesota on Dec. 2 and promptly went down with a knee injury. His 2010 playoff run seems like a distant memory. Simply can’t stay healthy.
RB Cedric Benson: Seemed to be hitting his stride at the time of his Lisfranc foot injury, which turned out to be season-ending, on Oct. 7. Had a pair of 80-yard games and proved valuable as pass-catcher out of the backfield (14 receptions in four games before the injury). Expressed desire to return to Green Bay but is a free agent.
RB Ryan Grant: Had 20 carries for 80 yards and two touchdowns vs. Tennessee on Dec. 23 but was otherwise a non-factor upon his Dec. 5 return. Showed he still has something left in the tank, although once again the team has younger, lower-mileage options. Benson seems more likely to return.
RB Brandon Saine: Key special-teamer who faces a long recovery after season-ending torn ACL.
FB John Kuhn: Respected veteran who knows the offense better than perhaps anyone other than Rodgers. Had 23 regular-season carries for 63 yards and gained four first downs but was largely ineffective in short-yardage situations on straight handoffs.
WR Randall Cobb: Coaches couldn’t wait to use him in varied ways after promising rookie season and figures to only become even more vital to offense with likely departure of free-agent Greg Jennings. Durable, smart and explosive playmaker who has his quarterback’s confidence in spades.
WR James Jones: Good thing fans’ hopes of seeing him traded went unrealized. Proved valuable to offense in setting career highs in nearly every category. Role figures to remain significant next season. Somewhat limited to lining up outside in most packages.
WR Jordy Nelson: Was unable to improve on breakout 2011 in large part due to injuries (hamstring, ankle, knee). Appeared to struggle to get on same page as his quarterback after absence. Still team’s best deep-ball threat (team-leading 15.2 yards per reception). Expect a rebound season in 2013.
WR Greg Jennings: Showed he still tilts the field when healthy. Missed eight games with lower abdominal muscle tear, finished with 36 receptions for 366 yards and four touchdowns in regular season and then caught team-high 10 passes for 115 yards and a TD in two playoff games. Seemingly as good as gone as a free agent, although Chicago Tribune’s Dan Pompei suggests tough market in National Football Post article.
WR Donald Driver: Caught only eight passes for 77 yards and two touchdowns and was charged with three drops out of 13 targets by ProFootballFocus.com. An ignominious end to a storied career in Green Bay as the franchise’s all-time leading receiver. Should’ve declined pay cut after Dancing with the Stars win and gone elsewhere. Will be interesting to see if anyone signs him or if he retires.
WR Jarrett Boykin: Promising undrafted rookie free agent who made the team after coming in as a tryout player at the rookie orientation camp when Jacksonville inexplicably cut him. Caught four passes in regular-season play, including a critical fourth-and-1 reception at Minnesota in the regular-season finale that resulted in an ankle injury that basically ended his season. Impressive physically (6-foot-2, 218 pounds) and could be a factor as fourth WR next year.
WR Jeremy Ross: Season met a disappointing end with backbreaking muffed punt against 49ers in playoffs, but still a promising player as returner. Saw action on offense down the stretch, largely because he can block as a receiver. Did not have a regular-season catch but has impressed the starting quarterback with his smarts and desire to learn. Could be the team’s full-time return man if he rebounds from costly fumble.