We continue our 2012 report card grades with the Packers defense.
Please be understanding that this is an inexact science at best with players who haven't received major chunks of playing time.
My grading scale is as follows: A=Pro Bowl caliber, B=Solid NFL starter, C=Average NFL player, D=Below average player, F=Fringe NFL player.
B.J. Raji (B)––From the bye week onward, Raji was a force. It didn't matter if it was stuffing the run or collapsing the pocket, Raji showed a burst on a regular basis, not unlike the type of performance he put forth week after week during the Packers' Super Bowl run in 2010. Before the bye, Raji was merely mediocre and actually didn't play two games at midseason due to an ankle injury. No one expects a nose tackle to put up big-time sack numbers, but the Packers could use at least a couple from a former first-round draft choice. After all, he had 7.5 in 2010 season (regular and postseason combined). Raji had zero in 2012.
Ryan Pickett (B+)––At 33 years old and in his 12th season, Pickett continues to defy age. For about the past three seasons, you think Pickett might start showing signs of age, but he just keeps playing at the same, high level in a run-stuffing role. The Packers keep internal statistics different from those kept by the NFL. They have Pickett down as making 75 tackles in 2012, an insanely large number for a 3-4 defensive lineman. There might be some liberties taken with those stats, but they still point to a very productive defensive lineman. Pickett doesn't provide a pass rush, nor is he really expected to.
C.J. Wilson (C+)––Wilson put together the most complete season of his career, excelling as a run-stuffer but still providing an unexpected 2.5 sacks as well. Wilson is a tactician and takes his job as a job as a 3-4 defensive lineman very seriously, swallowing blockers so the linebackers can make plays. For someone that's only 300 pounds, he anchors better than most players of that weight. A knee injury slowed him late in the season, and he may have had his poorest performance of the year in the loss to the 49ers. If he could add a few more pounds without sacrificing his agility, he'd be an even better player.
Mike Neal (C+)––Neal overcame a four-game suspension to open the season and put together the best season of his career. Better yet, Neal overcame nagging injuries to become a consistent contributor, whereas in the two previous seasons, injuries derailed his campaigns. Neal was second on the team in sacks with 4.5 as he filled a role that saw him used primarily as an interior pass rusher on passing downs. For someone whose job was almost solely to get after the quarterback, he still seemed absent in stretches.
Jerel Worthy (D+)––With Neal suspended to open the season, the Packers threw Worthy to the wolves early on but got little in the way of production from him. Yes, he notched 2.5 sacks, but none of them seemed to come at a critical moment when the Packers needed it most. Worthy displays a quickness unseen by most defensive lineman but also appears to have a switch where he turns it on and off. He apparently underwent surgery on his knee recently, putting in question how much time he'll miss during the offseason. Worthy needs as much practice as he can get.
Mike Daniels (C-)––There's not as much natural talent from Daniels as compared to Worthy, but with Daniels, you get every ounce of effort. Despite a small frame, he claws and fights his way through blockers, so much that the Packers weren't afraid to use him in four-lineman packages in short-yardage. He's a better pass rusher and finished the season with 2.0 sacks and a team-leading two fumble recoveries.
Jordan Miller (incomplete)––The only game Miller saw any action was the Titans game, and his playing time was sparse at that. It's encouraging that the Packers had enough confidence in Miller to sign him to the 53-man roster, but he's far from guaranteed a roster spot next season. Miller will need to earn it.
Clay Matthews (A-)––Considering he missed four games late in the season, it's amazing that Matthews was still able to rack up 13 sacks. He's the best defensive player on the Packers, bar none. His effort far surpasses that of his peers. Every time you see him run down a running back from the back side, you're seeing a play that few other people on this earth can make. But might he give so much effort that he wears down late in games? That almost seemed to be the case in the playoff loss to the 49ers. The seemingly annual hamstring injuries come as a concern too. Matthews doesn't want to gain a reputation as a fine piece of porcelain.
Erik Walden (D+)––Every once in a while, Walden will make a play that makes you think, "Hey, this guy is a player." The problem is, those moments come too few and far between. He's made big strides in setting an edge against the run compared to where he was in 2010, but then you watch him in the 49ers game and know Walden is still behind the curve. The Packers can and should do better than having Walden man the position opposite Matthews.
Dezman Moses (C+)––For someone that was used only as a part-time player, it's remarkable that the Packers have Moses down as making 39 tackles on the season. Every time he made one of his four sacks, it was as if he'd take you by surprise, like you didn't think he had it in him. There's a lot of potential trapped inside Moses. In some respects, it's like the surface hasn't even been scratched. He's one of those players that could really benefit from an offseason workout program. As athletic as Moses is, it's perhaps somewhat surprising he didn't make a bigger impact on special teams.
Nick Perry (C)––Six games wasn't really enough to get a good gauge on Perry. He did alright, but there were only a few instances in which he made you go "Wow." You have to wonder how much his wrist injury impacted his play before landing on injured reserve. There's no reason to think he shouldn't fully recover. The Packers have no choice but to put all their eggs in one basket and hope he's the answer opposite Matthews.
Frank Zombo (D-)––It's been a steep fall from grace for Zombo since starting in Super Bowl XLV and sacking Ben Roethlisberger. The most telling sign was how the Packers made Zombo inactive during the playoffs, deeming his services less valuable than those of Moses or Walden. He'll get a crack at making the team again next year, but he'll have to be lights-out during the offseason if he's going to catch anyone's attention.
A.J. Hawk (C)––Credit the Packers for understanding Hawk's limitations and taking him off the field in obvious passing downs, those third-and-long situations in which he can't be exposed in pass coverage or adequately be used as a blitzing linebacker. Hawk plays smart, he understands playing with leverage and can make a lot of tackles. But as always, he doesn't make the big play often enough, the interception or sack that changes the course of a game. The Packers have to strongly consider moving on from Hawk, especially at his salary.
Brad Jones (C+)––Brad Jones surprised a lot of people by playing as well as he did. As the Packers' third option behind Desmond Bishop and D.J. Smith, Jones more than held his own. Just because he exceeded expectations, however, doesn't mean Jones is the next coming of Ray Lewis. He has a lithe frame and has decent athleticism. But like Hawk, there weren't enough of those game-changing plays you like to see from an inside linebacker. Perhaps if he played beside Bishop instead of Hawk, Jones would fare even better. When he became a full-time defensive player, the Packers missed Jones' contributions on special teams.
D.J. Smith (C)––Smith entered the season as a player on the rise. Comparisons to Sam Mills were thrown about, perhaps just wishful thinking. In the season's first six games, Smith perhaps played well for a relatively inexperienced player, but little was made in terms of impact. He made tackles like any inside linebacker would, but didn't have the "wow" factor. Perhaps he would have improved as the season progressed, but that's simply guesswork.
Rob Francois (C)––Francois' grade comes exclusively from his special teams contributions where he was second on the team in tackles. He rarely, if ever, stepped on the field on defense unless it came on an extra point. He did bring an attitude to special teams where he sacrificed his body for the good of the team and could frequently be seen jawing with players on the opposing team.
Terrell Manning (C+)––If it seemed like Manning got off to a slow start to the season, it's understandable. He lost 15 pounds during training camp and was hospitalized multiple times with a condition called colitis, a swelling of the large intestine. Then in the playoff win over the Vikings, you saw why the Packers traded up to grab Manning. He made two special teams and jarred the ball loose from returner Marcus Sherels, which the Packers recovered. It will be fun to see what Manning can do on defense next season if he can put his health issues behind him.
Jamari Lattimore (C)––Like Francois, Lattimore's grade comes nearly exclusively on special teams, though he did see a handful of snaps on defense (literally like less than 10). The most impressive thing about Lattimore might be that his teammates regarded him highly enough to vote for him as a postseason special teams captain. That says a lot about his maturity and leadership.
Desmond Bishop (Incomplete)––Bishop not only didn't play in a single regular season game, he barely played in the preseason, having been hurt early in the Packers' first exhibition game of the year. The Packers missed his ability as a thumper, the one guy who could really lay the wood at the inside linebacker position. There's hope that because his injury occurred so early in the season that he might be ready in time for the start of 2013.
Tramon Williams (B)––The good news is that Williams got back to playing at a level on par with his 2010 season, at least in terms of coverage. He was one of the better cover men in the NFL, frequently shadowing the other team's No. 1 receiving option. The bad news is that Williams was a non-factor in terms of tackling, perhaps a product of his shoulder injury suffered in 2011. What's disappointing is that Williams used to be an aggressive tackler as recently as 2010. He also faded down the stretch this season, saving his two worst games among the Packers' final three, the forgettable loss to the Vikings in the regular-season finale and again in the playoff loss to the 49ers.
Casey Hayward (A)––Hayward performed like a player beyond his years, and it didn't even take very long for him to gain a reputation in the NFL. It was as if there was a memo put out to NFL quarterbacks that you don't throw in Hayward's direction, because he wasn't even tested all that often. And when he was, he shut receivers down. Whereas seemingly every Packer was nabbing interceptions in 2010 and 2011, Hayward was the only player to do it with any consistency in 2012. There's no way Hayward isn't a three-down player in 2013.
Sam Shields (A-)––After being benched for the first games of the season in favor of Jarrett Bush, it didn't take long for Shields to regain his job and become perhaps the premiere cover cornerback in the NFL. The Packers sent a message that unless Shields became a more aggressive tackler, he wouldn't play. He received that message and not only did he become a willing tackler, he impressed with the way he met and wrapped up Vikings running back Adrian Peterson in a playoff victory. His speed and ability to recover remains his best asset. Missing six games at midseason with an ankle injury was about Shields' only negative.
Davon House (C+)––House was a victim of perhaps the deepest position on the team. He didn't exactly poorly when he saw playing time, in fact he probably played slightly above average as he was able to notch 13 passes defensed. But he also wasn't as good as Williams, Hayward and Shields. A shoulder injury prevented House from playing the first six games of the season and then again for the last three when he was made inactive.
Jarrett Bush (B-)––Minus the first game of the season when he got torched by the 49ers, Bush filled his role to the best of his ability. He was once again a special teams standout, making the most tackles on the team and downing punts inside the 20 with regularity. He also played on the Packers' goal-line defense and short-yardage defense, which suited his skill set well. If he could only cut down on some of the bonehead special teams penalties.
Charles Woodson (D+)––Woodson missed nine games with a broken collarbone, but did a good job coming back from injury to help prevent Adrian Peterson from running wild in the playoff win over the Vikings. Even before injury, however, Woodson did little of note. He had one interception and made 1.5 sacks, but even that wasn't overly impressive over the course of seven games. The Packers have the unenviable task of deciding whether Woodson is bringing back next season at a salary of around $10 million.
Morgan Burnett (B)––Burnett came up with the best season of his young career by making 137 tackles (by the Packers' count), two interceptions, two sacks, two forced fumbles and 13 passes defensed. Most impressive was the way he became a physical presence in the Packers secondary. He worked at transforming his body and has become the type of player not afraid to take running backs head on. If you take away his game against the Vikings in early December when he grabbed both his interceptions, however, his season doesn't look quite as good. You'd like to see a player who saw the most snaps on the entire defense to come up with a few more turnovers.
M.D. Jennings (D+)––There was the 72-yard interception for a touchdown at midseason against the Lions, but other than that, Jennings did little to impress. He was okay in coverage, but you've got to do more than come up with one interception when you play over 600 snaps. One might argue that he should have been credited with an interception against the Seahawks, but would Jennings have been better off just batting the ball down?
Jerron McMillian (D+)––The Packers experimented with McMillian as a deep safety early in the season, but determined Jennings was better off filling that role. From that point onward, McMillian was used primarily as a slot cornerback in the dime defense. He showed an aggressiveness and a willingness to tackle, but it's clear that McMillian is a work in progress from a coverage standpoint. He did grab one nice interception at midseason. He needs to diversify his game with hard work in the offseason.
Sean Richardson (Incomplete)––Richardson saw action during a five-game stretch at midseason and impressed on special teams by making four tackles. He also had a cup of coffee on defense, but not enough to glean any information about him. What's known is that Richardson is a physical specimen. Now he has to try to come back from back surgery, which isn't necessarily a good omen for someone in his line of work.