Here are five players who surprised during the otherwise disappointing 8-7-1 season from the Green Bay Packers:
1. DL Mike Daniels
The most obvious player on this list, Daniels entered 2013 as a rotational pass rusher for a deep defensive line and ended as the front seven's most consistent and disruptive defender. In fact, there's a strong case to be made that Daniels was Green Bay's best defensive player in 2013. Despite playing just over 550 snaps, Daniels finished tied for the team lead in sacks (7.5) and quarterback hits (six) and was second in hurries (27). His 41 overall disruptions were second behind only Mike Neal (46). At Pro Football Focus, Daniels led the defense in overall grade at plus-22.4, which was over three times higher than the next best player (Tramon Williams, plus-6.6). He also graded out as the team's best against the run and rushing the passer. Daniels, a fourth-round pick in 2012, has Geno Atkins-like potential.
2. RB James Starks
Back in August, some wondered aloud if Starks would even make the Packers final 53-man roster. A season-ending knee injury to DuJuan Harris ensured at least one more year in Green Bay, and Starks made the absolute most of it. He played in 13 games—tying a career high—as the primary backup to Eddie Lacy, a role that now looks ideal for the once injury-prone back. He responded with 493 yards on just 89 carries, good for a career-best 5.5 yards per carry. One could actually make the case that Starks deserved a bigger role on offense. Over 99 total touches (including 10 catches), Starks broke 22 tackles—or one every 4.5 touches—and averaged 3.0 yards after contract. Lacy, on the other hand, averaged a broken tackle every 5.2 touches and 2.3 yards after contact. Starks, who averaged 7.3 yards per carry against Chicago and San Francisco to end the season, will be an unrestricted free agent this spring.
3. DB Micah Hyde
Drafted into a cornerback group that included Tramon Williams, Sam Shields, Casey Hayward and Davon House, Hyde wasn't expected to be a major contributor in 2013. Not many fifth-round rookies are, regardless of the positional depth. But by season's end, Hyde had become a fixture on both defense and special teams. He played nearly 500 defensive snaps and generally held up well, despite covering the slot on just over 200 passing plays. He finished as Green Bay's third-highest graded defensive player at PFF. On special teams, Hyde returned 24 punts, of which one went 93 yards for a touchdown, and 22 kicks, with a long of 70. He also made seven special teams tackles. A position switch to safety could be in his near future.
4. WR Jarrett Boykin
A year after clawing his way onto the final 53-man roster, Boykin made himself into a valuable asset for Green Bay's depleted passing game. He opened the season as the Packers' No. 4 receiver but quickly became a much bigger part of the puzzle, as injuries to Randall Cobb and James Jones opened the door for opportunities. Despite not catching a pass until Week 6, Boykin finished the season third on the team in catches (49) and receiving yards (681). He even produced without Aaron Rodgers, catching 33 of his 49 passes and two of his three touchdowns from Seneca Wallace, Scott Tolzien and Matt Flynn. He could slide into a much bigger role in 2013 if Jones leaves in free agency.
5. OT David Bakhtiari
It didn't take long for Bakhtiari to go from the relative comfort of a redshirt rookie to being thrown directly into the fire. An unfortunate ACL tear suffered by Bryan Bulaga in the Family Night scrimmage forced the fourth-round pick into the starting lineup at left tackle, arguably the most demanding of all positions on the offensive line. All things considered, Bakhtiari put together an impressive rookie campaign. There were a few clunkers—most notably at Cincinnati and at Detroit—but the Packers couldn't have asked for much more from a first-year player who really could have used a redshirt season. Bakhtiari played well enough for the Packers to consider keeping him there and returning Bulaga to right tackle. He'll need to add some weight and strength to take the next step.
Evan Dietrich-Smith: During his first year as the unquestioned starter, Dietrich-Smith vaulted himself into the top half of NFL centers. He'll be an unrestricted free agent in March. The Packers need to keep him around.
Jamari Lattimore: Once a college defensive end, Lattimore successfully transitioned from outside to inside linebacker with the Packers. He's athletic and unafraid to hit. He probably wouldn't start on a good defense, but he's proven to be a more than capable backup.
Chris Banjo: A late add to training camp, Banjo impressed enough as a reserve safety and special teamer to make the final 53-man roster. While he may not be a long-term answer in the defensive secondary, Banjo did become a core member of the special teams. His nine tackles on that unit trailed only Jarrett Bush (12).
Zach Kruse is a 25-year-old sports writer who contributes to Cheesehead TV, Bleacher Report and the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel. He also covered prep sports for the Dunn Co. News. You can reach him on Twitter @zachkruse2 or by email at [email protected].
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