Year in review: Grading the Packers and handing out team awards
Like any responsible sports media outlet – and as Packers fans who just don't want to let the season go – OnMilwaukee has revisited the year that was, closely studied and evaluated the performances and assigned grades to each of Green Bay's position groups for their play in 2016.
Because this team went 10-6, won the NFC North division, made the playoffs for the eighth straight year and came within one awful game of a trip to the Super Bowl, we're not failing anyone (although you came close, cornerbacks). We gave a distinct letter grade to each of the team's 10 position groups, as well as the coaches. We did not repeat any of the grades, because what's the fun in giving out five "B's"? We also handed out team awards; you'll never guess who was selected as MVP!
If you missed the rambling, non-recap Packers' 2016 season review, check it out here. You can get the lowdown on Green Bay's upcoming free agents and predictions about what general manager Ted Thompson might (or should) do with them this offseason here. Still need a Packers fix? Make sure to listen to this week's episode of OnMilwaukee's podcast, The Postgame Tailgate, on which we do a full team autopsy. And read about 12 fun things to do in Milwaukee over the next couple weeks to distract you from the fact that Green Bay isn't playing in the Super Bowl.
Anyway, here are position grades for the Green Bay Packers:
Midway through the season, Aaron Rodgers didn't look like himself. He was missing throws he typically makes, generating rampant speculation that his inaccuracy was due to everything from bad fundamentals and timing with his receivers to a lack of leadership and personal problems at home and with his family. The decline didn't last.
Over the Packers' final nine games, including playoffs, Rodgers threw 24 touchdowns and just two interceptions, completing 67.9 percent of his passes for an average of 296.8 yards per game and a rating of 115.5. He led the league in regular-season touchdown passes with 40. He's arguably the best in the league and among the greatest of all time. Backup Brett Hundley and third-stringer Joe Callahan, fortunately, weren't needed.
What running backs? Thompson didn't put Green Bay in great position before the season, keeping just two backs on the 53-man roster, and then both of them got hurt. Starter Eddie Lacy suffered an ankle injury that eventually needed surgery and ended his year after just six weeks; backup James Starks missed 10 games, including playoffs, because of a knee injury and then a concussion. The Packers tried several options in the backfield – trading for Knile Davis and cutting him a few weeks later, promoting practice-squadders Jon Crockett and Don Jackson and then placing them on IR, claiming Seahawks castoff Christine Michael off waivers, moving Montgomery full-time to the position and using Ripkowski frequently as a runner.
None of it really worked, save for Montgomery's huge Week 15 game, with Green Bay finishing in the NFL's bottom third in most rushing categories. No one had more than Montgomery's 457 yards, and Rodgers and Ripkowski finished second and fourth, respectively, in rushing. Joe Kerridge, the backup fullback, was essentially irrelevant. Now the Packers have important decisions to make at the position in free agency, the draft and on the current roster. They need to be better prepared, and with better personnel, than they were this year.
When the season began, the position seemed like perhaps the deepest on the roster and possessing plenty of talent. And for much of 2016 it was, before the year of attrition eventually had three of the team's top four receivers being hurt going into the NFC Championship Game.
Still, Jordy Nelson returned from the ACL tear that caused him to miss all of last season to lead the Packers in catches (97), receiving yards (1,257) and touchdowns (14), the last of which also led the league. Davante Adams stepped up as the No. 2 wideout, with 75 catches for 997 yards and 12 scores, while slot receiver Randall Cobb made up for a subpar regular season (60 for 610 and four) with a brilliant postseason (18 for 260 and three). Undrafted rookie Geronimo Allison emerged late in the year as a Rodgers-trusted playmaker, while speedy special-teams ace Jeff Janis didn't contribute much on offense. Rodgers makes everyone better, but this was a very good group.
Usually disinclined toward free agency, Thompson broke from that philosophy to sign Jared Cook to a one-year, $2.75 million contract last offseason, and the rare move paid off. While Cook had one of his least productive years during the regular season because of injuries, catching only 30 passes for 377 yards and one touchdown in 10 games, he showed why Rodgers loves him in the playoffs: 18 receptions for 229 yards and two scores in three games.
Rodgers and Cook spoke often about their shared chemistry and appreciation for each other; indeed, with the physically gifted Cook (6-foot-5, 254 pounds, 4.5-second 40-yard dash time) on the field creating mismatches, Rodgers averaged 2.0 more yards per attempt and had a higher passer rating. The quarterback said re-signing Cook, who is a free agent again, is a priority. Backup Richard Rodgers was quietly dependable in Cook's absence, as both a passer and blocker, and had a couple big moments, including a 34-yard touchdown reception in the Divisional Round playoff win over the Cowboys. More regular-season production at tight end would have helped a lot in 2016.
A line that McCarthy raved about all season and Rodgers praised often was consistent, mostly durable and overall pretty good. According to statistics compiled by Football Outsiders, the Packers ranked 19th in the league in run blocking – a grading that was no-doubt affected by the team's muddled backfield situation – and 11th in pass blocking; they were right in the middle, at No. 15, with 35 sacks allowed.
Both tackles, David Bakhtiari and Bryan Bulaga, started all 16 regular-season games, with the former being named an injury replacement to the Pro Bowl. Unproven left guard Lane Taylor replaced the released All-Pro veteran Josh Sitton just before the season, starting all 16 games and impressing. At center, JC Tretter started the first seven games before getting hurt, which coincided with the return from injury of regular starter Corey Linsley, who played the final nine contests. Right guard T.J. Lang, an unrestricted free agent, started 13 games and was named a Pro Bowler, though he can't play because he's undergoing hip surgery. Versatile Don Barclay was decent as a swing man, backup tackle Jason Spriggs looked promising in a couple fill-in starts and Kyle Murphy didn't factor.
Despite the unexpected offseason departure of big man B.J. Raji – who said he was taking the year off from football – Green Bay's defensive line was stout most of the season, quietly becoming the team's best position on that disappointing side of the ball. The Packers finished eighth in the league in rushing defense, allowing just 94.7 yards per game, though that figure didn't always accurately reflect the quality of play, both good and bad.
Mike Daniels, the fiery on-field and locker-room leader of the defense, had another excellent campaign, with 25 tackles and four sacks; he probably deserved a Pro Bowl nod. Letroy Guion was solid, taking up space and occupying blocks at the point of attack, not getting much backfield penetration himself but opening up lanes for pass-rushing linebackers. First-round pick Kenny Clark improved as the season went on, and the rookie looked like a potential impact player at times late in the year. Fourth-round rookie Dean Lowry had sacks in back-to-back games in Weeks 13-14, flashing some ability. Fourth-year end Datone Jones (22 tackles, one sack), who is a free agent, hasn't become anything more than a rotation player, if even that. Christian Ringo didn't make an impact after Week 1, and twice-suspended Mike Pennel was released in the playoffs.
In defensive coordinator Dom Capers' 3-4 scheme, which is often not an actual 3-4, the outside linebackers are intended – and given lots of opportunities – to be the premier playmakers. With Clay Matthews having moved back outside full-time, he was expected to play like a superstar again. He did not, finishing with career lows of 24 tackles and five sacks in 12 games. But a revived Nick Perry, signed before the year to a one-year, prove-yourself contract, picked up the pass-rushing slack, finishing with 52 tackles and a team-high 11 sacks. The free agent might have priced himself out of a return to Green Bay.
Another player with an expired contract is 37-year-old Julius Peppers, who proved he could still play on a limited snap count, recording 7.5 sacks, which moved him into fifth place in NFL history. Inside, rookie Blake Martinez showed he is smart and assignment-sound (69 tackles), though it's unclear if he can be the difference-maker the Packers have been looking for in the middle. Fellow rookie 'backer Kyler Fackrell had a couple of sacks, but was otherwise pedestrian. Of the second-year inside linebackers, Jake Ryan is instinctual and often in the right spot (second on Green Bay with 82 tackles, including a team-high eight for loss), but probably not a big playmaker, while Joe Thomas is OK in coverage, but has other limitations and isn't an NFL-caliber starter.
The obvious disclaimer here is that any position group that loses its top player in Week 1, followed by its No. 2 and No. 3 players for significant amounts of time in the following weeks, is not going to be at its best. But having said that, even without Sam Shields virtually the entire season and with Damarious Randall and Quinten Rollins out for a combined nine games, this unit was still terrible in 2016. Green Bay had the second-worst pass defense in the league, allowing 269 yards per game, and only four of its 17 interceptions were by cornerbacks.
Shields' career might be over after his fifth concussion, while Randall and Rollins – the Packers' first two draft picks in 2015 who had strong rookie seasons – hurt the team even when they weren't hurt. Randall often looked lost on the field, while Rollins always seemed a step slow or late. Demetri Goodson and Makinton Dorleant were deep reserves called upon to play because of injuries, and the pair struggled before going down themselves and landing on IR. Undrafted rookie Josh Hawkins didn't really play. One bright spot, which was dimmed in the NFC Championship Game, was the surprising play of LaDarius Gunter, an undrafted free agent last year who became Green Bay's de-facto No. 1 cornerback by the end of the year. Usually covering the opponent's best receiver, Gunter was fairly successful (team-high 12 passes defensed, two forced fumbles), even mitigating the damage done by Odell Beckham and Dez Bryant in the playoffs, before Julio Jones burned him alive in Atlanta. If Gunter is your No. 3 or even No. 2 corner, though, you're in decent shape.
It was always going to be hard for the safeties not to get lumped in with the cornerbacks as part of the Packers' awful secondary. They certainly played their part, especially in the playoffs, when the group was overburdened by injuries and increased responsibility. Individually, a few players shined, but standing back there and in charge of organization, the safeties were as much a part of that defective defensive backfield as the corners.
Nevertheless, Ha Ha Clinton-Dix had a career year, making the Pro Bowl for a season in which he had 80 tackles and a team-high five interceptions. Fellow starter Morgan Burnett led the Packers with 93 tackles, adding three sacks, two interceptions and nine pass breakups. Versatile Micah Hyde (58 tackles, three interceptions) did everything he was asked to do and more; his playoff game against Dallas (four tackles, one sack, one interception) was a big reason Green Bay was able to hold it together enough defensively to win. Undrafted rookies Kentrell Brice and Marwin Evans, a Milwaukee native, were unremarkable most of the season and deleterious in the playoffs.
Mason Crosby was one of the league's best kickers, making 27 of 29 field-goal attempts for a 93.1 percentage that ranked third in the NFL – though he did miss three extra points. Impressively, he was a perfect 5 for 5 on field goals from 50-plus yards, and he added two more massively clutch long-distance kicks in the final 90 seconds of the Packers' Divisional Round win over the Cowboys. In the NFC Championship Game, however, he missed his only attempt, a 41-yarder in the first quarter that could have helped Green Bay score points and gain some needed momentum.
Punter Jacob Schum took over for longtime veteran Tim Masthay before the season and was all right. He struggled early on but improved throughout the season; the Packers' bottom-five rankings in punting average and net yards were as much a reflection of where they were punting from, strategy and coverage as they were Schum's leg. Long-snapper Brett Goode, who had knee surgery late last year, recovered, won his job back before the season started and was reliable.
Like much of the rest of his team, McCarthy's first 10 games would earn him a different grade than his work over the last two months. Having taken back control of the play-calling duties last year, McCarthy's offense again belonged to him this season. He guided it to eighth in the NFL in total yards (368.8 per game) and fourth in scoring (27.0 average). It's difficult to put the blood of all the defensive carnage on his hands, but we have no problem putting it on Capers' – as well as cornerbacks coach Joe Whitt Jr. – and downgrading the staff accordingly overall.
The head coach experienced the most challenges and doubts of his tenure in Green Bay earlier in the year, as Rodgers and the offense struggled and it looked like the Packers might miss the playoffs for the first time since 2008. But during a midseason press conference, McCarthy stridently defended his track record, saying, "Let's state the facts: I'm a highly successful NFL coach." He then adjusted the offense to a more short-passing scheme, which got Rodgers and his receivers back in rhythm, worked around the running back issues and, when the season ended, the Packers had once again won the NFC North and returned to the playoffs. Game-planning and play-calling aside, McCarthy's team overcame its greatest adversity in recent memory, and the coach deserves credit for that.
Most Valuable Player: Aaron Rodgers
Defensive MVP: Ha Ha Clinton-Dix
Rookie of the Year: Blake Martinez
Most Improved Player: Nick Perry
Comeback Player: Jordy Nelson
Coach of the Year: Alex Van Pelt, quarterbacks
Play of the Year: Hail Mary touchdown from Rodgers to Cobb in the Wild Card Round playoff win over the Giants.
What do you think? Agree with any of them? Disagree with all? How would you grade the 2016 Packers? Let us know in the comments!
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