ILB Brad Jones: Converted outside linebacker turned out to be a godsend when both Desmond Bishop and D.J. Smith suffered season-ending injuries. Became every-down linebacker, staying on the field in nickel and dime situations, over A.J. Hawk and also handled the job of making the defensive calls on the field with the helmet radio transmitter. Credited with 101 tackles and two sacks in 828 snaps but was also charged with 11 missed tackles by ProFootbalLFocus.com. Unrestricted free agent whom the team would like to re-sign.
ILB A.J. Hawk: Led the team in tackles (142) and also had three sacks but did not have a single turnover play for the second straight year. Played 847 snaps but was only in the base “Okie” and nickel package while Jones got the nod in dime, which the Packers played more frequently than past years. With a cap number north of $5 million, may be asked to take a pay cut.
ILB Terrell Manning: Rookie fifth-round pick did not play on defense after a poor, illness-affected training camp but grew into a key special teams role as the season wore on. Ended up playing in seven games as a rookie and could be a player to watch next season at a position in flux.
ILB Jamari Lattimore: Converted outside linebacker who was a non-factor from scrimmage (eight snaps) but was on all the special teams units.
ILB Robert Francois: Saw extensive action on defense last season while injuries sidelined Hawk and Bishop but did not play a single snap from scrimmage this year. Still a key special teams player.
ILB Desmond Bishop: Arguably the team’s best defensive player last season, went down with a ruptured hamstring tendon in his right leg in the Aug. 9 preseason opener and missed the entire season. Still isn’t 100 percent and faces a difficult offseason trying to regain his impactful form. On a defense lacking big hitters and playmakers, he was sorely missed.
ILB D.J. Smith: Took over for Bishop in the starting lineup, just as he had the year before, and looked the part despite being undersized. Then, suffered a torn ACL on Oct. 14 on a somewhat blind-side block against Houston and was done for the year as well. Played 385 snaps before the injury and had two sacks, one QB hit and five hurries. Team needs him to make a speedy recovery.
CB Tramon Williams: Returned to health after a shoulder injury led to a disastrous 2011 season, but still didn’t play like he did in 2010, when he was viewed as a shutdown corner. Williams had only two interceptions on the season – both against Chicago on Sept. 13 – and was credited with 22 pass breakups. According to ProFootballFocus.com, Williams played 1,240 snaps over 18 games (including playoffs) – mostly against opponents’ top receivers – and allowed 63 completions in 115 targets for 852 yards, missed six tackles and had an opponent QB rating of 77.2 against him. Against the 49ers, he allowed six completions for 75 yards. Now, he’ll face competition for a starting spot.
CB Sam Shields: A week into camp, he’d tumbled down the depth chart, had a bum elbow and appeared to be circling the drain. But the coaches stuck with him and were rewarded, as he regained his starting job, then came back from a six-game layoff because of a sprained ankle and turned out to be a difference-maker in the passing defense. Continued improvement would allow Williams to avoid covering the top WR on every down.
CB Casey Hayward: Showed immediately upon arrival as a second-round pick that he belonged, and when Charles Woodson went down with a collarbone injury Oct. 21, it was Hayward that manned the slot corner spot and did so brilliantly. Ended up with six INTs and showed some skill as a blitzer, although he had a costly whiff on Kaepernick on a flat-free blitz against the 49ers in the playoffs. Barring a sophomore slump, the sky’s the limit.
CB Davon House: Was in first position for the No. 2 cornerback spot before a shoulder injury in the Aug. 9 preseason opener at San Diego threw him for a loop. Ended up having to wait until Oct. 21 to make his season debut after a wasted rookie season in 2011 and proved to be a solid, physical option at outside corner. Reinjured his shoulder and also suffered a hip injury late in the season and was inactive for the regular-season finale and both playoff games. Worth watching in 2013.
CB Jarrett Bush: It seems like forever ago, but he actually started at corner opposite Williams in the opener. Gave up a touchdown in that game and was never heard from on defense again, save for 20 snaps at Houston and prevent/Hail Mary plays when the Packers flooded the field with DBs. On special teams, he was a deserving captain who led the club with 17 tackles there. Role is unlikely to change going forward with so many cover options.
S Morgan Burnett: The coaches have Pro Bowl aspirations for him, but did not play at that level. Was the only defensive player to play all 1,259 snaps and ranked second on the team in tackles (137) while registering two sacks and two interceptions. Did well in handling back-end communications but was thrust into tough spot after Nick Collins’ release and Woodson’s broken collarbone, serving as a leader in third NFL season.
S Charles Woodson: Transitioned from cornerback to safety at coaches’ behest and appeared to be taking to it when he fractured his collarbone Oct. 21 in St. Louis. At age 36, it’s hard to say whether his season would have been more productive (625 snaps, 1.5 sacks, one interception, one forced fumble, five missed tackles) had he played a full year. With a $10 million cap number, he may not return – and if he does, it will almost certainly be at a reduced salary.
S M.D. Jennings: Was the nickel and dime safety in the season-opener against the 49ers when Woodson would move to the slot but was benched after playing poorly. Returned to that role after Woodson’s injury and played better. Gained notoriety for his role in the controversial Sept. 24 loss at Seattle, when his apparent victory-clinching interception was ruled a Golden Tate touchdown by replacement officials.
S Jerron McMillian: Rookie fourth-round pick took Jennings’ place after the opener but wasn’t an appreciable upgrade. Did show the ability to hit – including a flag- and fine-drawing hit on Giants tight end Martellus Bennett on Nov. 25 – on a defense that doesn’t have many big hitters. Was viewed as a ballhawk coming out of Maine but seemed more adept as a box safety than in centerfield.
S Sean Richardson: Made the 53-man roster coming out of training camp as an undrafted rookie free agent before undergoing neck surgery. Impressive physical specimen who was Hayward’s college teammate at Vanderbilt.
Head coach Mike McCarthy: Went into the season with a plan to play younger players and mix personnel to keep team fresher for the stretch run after last year’s 15-1 season came crashing to a halt. Delivered on promise to make defense a better tackling outfit. Led team to second straight NFC North crown and was on the cusp of a second straight season sweep of the division before 37-34 loss at Minnesota to end the regular season. That loss proved costly, as the team went from the No. 2 seed and a first-round bye to the No. 3 seed and an NFC Divisional date at San Francisco, where McCarthy and his staff were outcoached by Jim Harbaugh and his staff, who used the bye week to their advantage. The no-drama coach had a few blunders, most notably throwing his challenge flag in the finale against the Vikings on a play that was going to be automatically reviewed, and opting to punt down 14 points to the 49ers with the ball at midfield in the fourth quarter of the playoff loss. Was publicly questioned by his quarterback on more than one occasion. They’ll have to make sure they’re on the same page going forward, since the franchise sinks or swims with them.
Defensive coordinator Dom Capers: Had the villagers at the wrought-iron gates of 1265 Lombardi Avenue with torches and pitchforks after his defense gave up 579 yards – including an NFL single-game quarterback record 181 yards rushing by Colin Kaepernick – in the playoff loss. In truth, after back-to-back top 5 defenses his first two years, he righted the ship after last year’s dreadful performance, getting his unit up to No. 11 in both scoring defense and total defense while seeing a whopping eight rookies’ faces in his meeting room. While sacks were up to 47, the unit’s calling card had always been takeaways, and 23 (including 18 interceptions) weren’t enough.
Offensive coordinator Tom Clements: A brilliant quarterbacks coach whom Aaron Rodgers credits most for his development, the jury’s out on his work as a coordinator. The numbers show a precipitous drop in production from the previous year – the Packers averaged 359.4 yards per game in 2012 compared to 405.1 in 2011, and averaged 27.1 points per game in 2012 compared to 35.0 in 2011 – but how much of that is related to Clements’ promotion is unclear. What seems true is this: The loss of Joe Philbin, who left to become head coach of the Miami Dolphins, was genuinely felt. Clements’ promotion led to Ben McAdoo shifting from tight ends to quarterbacks, Jerry Fontenot moving from running backs to tight ends and Alex Van Pelt, a quarterbacks coach by trade, being brought in as running backs coach. It will be interesting to see whether those roles remain the same in 2013.
Special teams coordinator Shawn Slocum: While kicker Mason Crosby was an inconsistent mess, his coach was steady. Things weren’t always perfect on special teams – Crosby’s misses and Jeremy Ross’ fateful muffed punt in the playoff loss to the 49ers stand out – but the unit was the team’s most consistent in terms of overall work on returns, coverage and in the kicking game. According to statistics compiled by the Chicago Bears using highly regarded Dallas Morning News columnist Rick Gosselin’s special teams ranking formula, Slocum and assistant Chad Morton’s group finished 15th in the 32-team NFL in a 22-category composite. The group also had some memorable plays: Tight end Tom Crabtree’s fake-field goal touchdown on fourth-and-26 against Chicago; fullback John Kuhn’s fourth-down conversion deep in Packers territory on a fake punt against New Orleans; a successful surprise onside kick recovery against St. Louis; a blocked punt by Davon House against Jacksonville. But there was also the boneheaded punt return lateral at Chicago and Ross’ game-turning blunder in the season-ender.
THE FRONT OFFICE
General manager Ted Thompson: While he still tried to claim that he took the proverbial “best player available,” the truth was that he saw a major deficiency on defense and set his mind to rectifying it by using his first six draft picks on that side of the ball. He traded up three times to accomplish his goal, moving up instead of letting the board come to him. The draft netted one sure-fire keeper in cornerback Casey Hayward in the second round, but the jury is still out on first-round pick Nick Perry, second-round pick Jerel Worthy, fourth-round picks Mike Daniels and Jerron McMillian and fifth-round pick Terrell Manning. Thompson once again was on his undrafted free-agent game, inking two who were vital to the cause down the stretch: Fill-in right tackle Don Barclay and outside linebacker Dezman Moses, both of whom showed potential and did the job, even when it wasn’t pretty.
In free agency, which is not his milieu, Thompson let Pro Bowl center Scott Wells walk as an unrestricted free agent (four years, $24 million to St. Louis), then saw Wells suffer a foot injury on his 21st snap of the season opener with his new team. Wells ended up on injured reserve with the designation to return, and did so for the Rams’ final six games. Thompson replaced him with five-time Pro Bowl center Jeff Saturday, who at 37 years old was supposed to bridge the gap until the next Wells was found or Evan Dietrich-Smith was ready. With two regular-season games left, the coaches decided Saturday had given all he could and benched him for Dietrich-Smith. Meanwhile, the club avoided using its franchise tag on tight end Jermichael Finley by reaching a two-year deal worth $14 million, but now a decision on Finley and his $8.25 million cap number looms. Defensive line pickups Philip Merling and Daniel Muir were non-factors, while 2011 seventh-round pick Lawrence Guy left the practice squad for a spot on Indianapolis’ 53-man roster and showed promise for the Colts. The August signing of running back Cedric Benson was looking better and better each week until the Oct. 7 foot injury that ultimately ended his season. Two other running back signings served their purpose, although the practice-squad promotion of DuJuan Harris turned out better than the emergency Dec. 5 signing of proud veteran Ryan Grant, whose role was limited.