We begin our 2012 report card grades with the Packers offense.
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.
Aaron Rodgers (A): It’s the same Aaron Rodgers everyone has become used to seeing: the player who can make throws that no one else in the league is capable of making, the leader of the team and probably the best quarterback in the NFC. Rodgers is stating his case to go down in NFL history as the quarterback who can best make big plays and limit interceptions, and that combination always makes him one of the league’s leaders in passer rating. He wasn’t as dominant as he was in 2011, however. There were fewer instances in which he almost single-handedly took a game over. And after not losing a single fumble in all of 2011, it was disappointing to see Rodgers fumble six times and lose four of them in 2012, including the postseason. That being said, he’s still the prototypical pocket passer, and there’s few, if any, other quarterback you’d trade Rodgers for.
Graham Harrell (F): The only thing anyone will remember about Harrell from 2012 is his goal-line fumble against the Saints in relief of Rodgers that was returned for a touchdown. He completed two of four passes for 20 yards in garbage time, but he did nothing in either the regular season or the preseason to make anyone comfortable about having a solid insurance policy. The Packers have to consider spending a draft choice on a quarterback as high as the second day of the Draft or determine if B.J. Coleman might be a better option.
DuJuan Harris (B+): It’s dangerous to assume or project that Harris might have been able to maintain his level of production over the course of an entire season, but in limited opportunities, he sure looked like the real deal. Between the regular season and the playoffs combined, Harris had 51 carries for 204 yards, an average of 4.0 yards per carry. He also showed in the playoff win over the Vikings that he can be useful in the passing game as an outlet option. He’s quicker than any other back on the roster, and while he still has a lot to prove, he deserves first crack at being the starter heading into the 2013 season. The NFL has shown in recent times that running backs don’t have to be high-round draft choices. Maybe Harris is the next scrap-heap star.
Cedric Benson (C): Early in the season, Benson was by far the Packers’ best option at running back. His production was merely average with 71 carries for 248 yards (3.5 avg.), but at least he wasn’t the fumble-prone player he was in Cincinnati. As someone that agreed to an NFL-minimum contract, the Packers took on very little risk. If Benson would agree to another such contract in 2013, there’s no reason to at least see if he’s got anything left in the tank during the offseason.
Alex Green (D+): Green led the Packers in rushing with 135 carries for 464 yards (3.4 avg.) but amazingly didn’t score a single touchdown all season long. One moment he looked explosive with a 41-yard run against the Colts, and then the next he looked like a run-of-the-mill running back. Fatigue in his surgically-repaired knee led the Packers to choose not to play Green down the stretch, including the playoffs. If Green is to have any sort of future with the Packers, he needs to prove this offseason that his knee troubles are behind him.
Ryan Grant (D): In his one extended look all season, Grant had 20 carries for 80 yards and two touchdowns in a win over the hapless Titans. That was about it as far as highlights go for Grant. His fumble the week prior against the Chicago Bears stands out as the low point. For an injury-riddled unit, Grant provided a veteran presence that was familiar with the Packers offense, but that’s about the best he can provide at this point in his career.
James Starks (D): The injury history is maddening. First Starks missed the first five games of the season with a turf-toe ailment and then missed five games down the stretch with a knee injury. In between, he rushed 71 times for 255 yards (3.6 avg.), but made little impact. The Packers have to decide in the offseason whether it’s worth it to invest a roster spot into a player that’s been injured every year of his professional career and dating ever further back into college.
Brandon Saine (Incomplete): Saine’s only role in the first six games of the season was on special teams, not even so much as getting a single carry or reception. He was placed on injured reserve with a torn ACL. He enters the offseason with no job security. If he wants a roster spot next year, he’ll have to earn it in the offseason.
John Kuhn (C-): Kuhn is capable of doing some good things with the ball in his hands as evidenced by his two-touchdown performance against the Vikings in the wildcard round of the playoffs. But he’s not a fearsome goal-line or short-yardage ball carrier. His calling card is the job he does in pass protection, among the best in the NFL. As the season went on, the Packers appeared to use Kuhn less than usual as a traditional fullback in the I-formation. He’s a leader, a cult hero, and blue-collar player willing to play on special teams, but you have to wonder if there’s not a better option out there.
Greg Jennings (C+): It was the worst season of Jennings’ career, but the fault lies mainly in an abdominal injury that took away half his season. He started to play better toward the end of the year as he got more healthy. Consider that Jennings had eight catches for 120 yards and two touchdowns in the regular-season finale and followed that up with 10 catches for over 100 yards and a touchdown in the playoffs. The seemingly annual injury troubles are a growing concern. Jennings is a free agent and will be looking for a lucrative contract during the offseason whether it’s with the Packers or someone else.
James Jones (A-): It was finally the season that Jones put it all together. With 14 touchdown receptions, Jones led the entire NFL in receiving touchdowns and the NFC in overall touchdowns. He was a dependable red-zone target and wasn’t prone to the drops that have plagued him in the past. Jones displays rare strength both in his hands as he snatches the ball and in his running after the catch. He also gained the trust of his teammates as he was voted a postseason captain. It’s amazing how far Jones has come from a maturity standpoint, both on and off the field.
Randall Cobb (A-): Cobb went from being a player oozing with potential during his rookie year to realizing it in his sophomore campaign. He led the Packers with 80 receptions for 954 yards to go along with eight touchdowns while becoming a trusted target of Rodgers. He’s one of the elite slot wide receivers in the NFL. Cobb finds ways to get open through exceptional route-running and supreme physical ability and quickness. After returning a punt for a touchdown in the first game of the season, it was disappointing that Cobb wasn’t able to anything else on returns the rest of the way. At least he didn’t turn the ball over like Jeremy Ross did in the playoffs. The package that used Cobb in the backfield as a running back was extremely effective and almost under-utilized by the Packers.
Jordy Nelson (B-): Despite being plagued with knee, ankle and hamstring injuries, Nelson was still a downfield threat for the Packers in 2012. He led the team in average yards per catch (15.2 avg.) among players with at least double-digit receptions. On the season, he had 49 catches for 745 yards and seven touchdowns. Nelson has never shown to be a player that’s injury-plagued, so perhaps 2012 will just be an anomaly.
Donald Driver (D): Driver might be one of the most popular players in team annals, but he was used sparingly in 2012. At least he made his eight receptions count by finding the endzone two times. But the Packers elected to not even use Driver as the season came to a close, having been made inactive in four of the final seven games. Unless there some sort of unforeseen rash of injuries, it’s almost impossible to see the Packers brining back Driver in 2013. But thanks for the memories, Double D.
Jarrett Boykin (D-): For someone in whom the Packers invested a roster spot, you would have perhaps liked to have seen more than five catches for 27 yards. But Boykin was just a rookie. His best play of the year came on converting a critical first-down late in the Week 17 game against the Vikings, but it was also a play in which he injured an ankle. Boykin enters next season looking to make a big leap in the wide receiver pecking order with the possibility of both Jennings and Driver leaving town.
Jeremy Ross (D+): The fumble in the divisional-round loss was a killer and erases almost every good thing Ross did before it. He showed a ton of potential with 40-plus yard returns on both kick and punt returns late in the season, but ball security is vital in the NFL. Ross is young and capable of learning from his mistake. If he does, there’s a good chance he might be able to take over return duties from Randall Cobb next season.
Jermichael Finley (B): With 61 receptions, Finley set the single-season franchise record among Packers tight ends. And his 767 yards was second only to Paul Coffman’s 814 in 1983. For all those catches and yards, however, Finley was only able to find paydirt two times. Following a midseason slump and shoulder injury, Finley played his best football at the end of the season, which might suggest bigger things yet to come. Still, the drops continue to be a concern and the distractions created by his diarrhea of the mouth are an even bigger problem.
Tom Crabtree (C+): There’s fewer players you’d rather root for. Crabtree is the quintessential Packer, a blue-collar blocker and special teams player who’s an even better person off the field. Despite not being known as a receiving threat, Crabtree provided two of the most exciting plays of the entire season, a 27-yard touchdown reception off a fake field goal in a win versus the Bears and a 72-yard catch-and-run for a score in a win over the Cardinals in which he repeatedly looked over his shoulder. Crabtree’s playing time on offense decreased as the season progressed, however, maybe a sign that his blocking skills weren’t up to par compared to his peers.
D.J. Williams (D): The Packers have invested two seasons into Williams and have little to show for it. He had seven receptions for 57 yards on the season but did appear to play the best football of his career the last month or so of the season, both on offense and on special teams. One might argue that even Williams’ best is extremely mediocre. He was inactive for four games, including the final game of the year in the playoff loss to the 49ers when the Packers decided to make Driver active instead.
Ryan Taylor (D+): There’s two Ryan Taylors: one who displays a toughness on special teams and one that failed to make any strides on offense. He earns his keep on special teams, but in the NFL, those kinds of jobs are becoming increasingly de-valued as kickoff returns occur less frequently.
Andrew Quarless (Incomplete): The Packers took a chance on Quarless at midseason when he came off the Physically Unable to Perform list, but his surgically-repaired knee was unable to hold up. He’ll get one more chance to prove his worth in training camp in 2013, but unless he’s fully healed, the Packers probably won’t take chances with a player that’s less than 100 percent.
Marshall Newhouse (C+): There were several performances worthy of applause for Newhouse. In particular were the two games each against San Francisco 49ers and Minnesota Vikings when Newhouse squared off against Pro Bowl type players like Aldon Smith, Justin Smith and Jared Allen and held his own. But there was still too much inconsistency and too many sacks allowed. At the very least, Newhouse took a huge step forward in 2012 compared to 2011 when he went from a D-level player to a C-level player. What the Packers must decide is if he’s capable of making a jump from C-level to B-level in 2013.
T.J. Lang (B-): One thing learned in 2012 is that Lang is a much better guard than tackle. It’s nice that he can play tackle in a pinch, but it’s not in the Packers’ best interests to have Lang playing anywhere but guard, at least long-term. Lang shows a physicality much better than his predecessor, Daryn Colledge, but it’s not like Lang is among the best guards in the NFL yet. He was responsible for his fair share of the Packers’ 51 sacks.
Evan Dietrich-Smith (C): There’s only one spot on the offensive line that Dietrich-Smith is capable of being a solid NFL starter, and that’s center. Like Lang, it’s nice that “EDS” provides some position flexibility, but it’s not in the Packers’ best interests to have him at guard. Dietrich-Smith provided an upgrade over Jeff Saturday when the Packers decided to make the switch at center later in the season, especially in the run game where he got a little more push. The question is now whether “EDS” is the long-term answer at center or the Packers need to draft one.
Josh Sitton (A): Fans got a grim glimpse of what life would be like without Sitton in the lineup when he had to exit the playoff loss to the 49ers to apparently fix his shoe. Ray McDonald immediately got penetration against Dietrich-Smith and Saturday whereas Sitton just neutralized opponents all season long. He’s equally effective in the run and the pass game. It might not even be a stretch to say the Packers would not be a playoff team without Sitton.
Bryan Bulaga (C+): Something appeared off with Bulaga, even before a hip injury ended his season. Perhaps it was a knee injury that hampered him in the Seahawks game when the Packers gave up eight sacks in one half, and Bulaga looked silly going up against Bruce Irvin. Still, the sky is the limit with the Packers right tackle. There’s no reason to think he won’t be the starter on the right side for the next decade and do it well at that.
Don Barclay (C): Considering Barclay was an undrafted rookie, he far exceeded expectations to become a contributing member of the Packers offense after Bulaga went down. His presence was especially felt in the run game where his effort alone helped open holes. There’s a ton for Barclay yet to learn, especially in pass protection, but he’s setting himself up for future success.
Jeff Saturday (D): It wasn’t a poor decision by the Packers to sign Saturday as a free agent. He was able to bring stability to the position in the face of Scott Wells’ departure. He provided veteran leadership and was able to execute a no-huddle offense. His pass protection wasn’t bad, either. But it was clear age had caught up to Saturday. His agility wasn’t what it once was and he offered next to nothing as a run blocker. The Packers will thank Saturday for his contributions, but it’s impossible to see him coming back next season barring an unforeseen injury. Hope to see you in Canton someday.
Greg Van Roten (Incomplete): Van Roten saw more time as an extra tight end and on special team than he ever did on the offensive line. But it speaks volumes that the Packers kept him first on their practice squad and later on their 53-man roster. If he can continue to make progress in offseason, Van Roten might have a chance to enter the mix at center.
Defense coming Wednesday.
Brian Carriveau is the author of “It’s Just a Game: Big League Drama in Small Town America,” a member of the Pro Football Writers of America and an editor at Cheesehead TV. To contact Brian, email firstname.lastname@example.org.