The Green Bay Packers offense got their bad news. Now it’s time for the defense. The defense finished sixth in the league in points allowed and 15th in the league in yardage. In other words, not too bad. That’s usually good enough for the Packers to win, but this season wasn’t normal at all.
Regardless, that doesn’t mean everyone had a stellar year either.
Mike Daniels: A
Mike Daniels was possibly the best Packer this season. That was good timing, since it earned him a fat paycheck. Daniels is a hard worker, has a high motor, likes to hit people and then talk about it. It is doubtful that getting a big paycheck will change any of that. We will see. Daniels plays on the edge, but you need a guy or two on defense who plays like that.
B.J. Raji: C+
Raji was on a show-me contract and showed pretty much what he has been since 2010, when he wasn’t injured. He started well, got injured and quiet in the middle of the season and then showed up a little at the end. People still seem disappointed that he isn’t the guy he looked like he might be in 2010. By now, we know he isn’t. Raji is a big guy with enough quickness to flash into the backfield on occasion. He gets put on skates once in a while, but most defensive linemen do. If Daniels is worth $10 million a year, then Raji might be worth between $3 and $4 million. Whether he returns next season as a Packer will have a lot to do with whether the market offers more than that.
Letroy Guion: C
Guion started the season suspended and then it took awhile for him to get his feet under him. Once he did, he was probably just as much an impact player as Raji or Mike Pennel. He was a no show on the pass rush, but he is easily the best short-yardage defender on the team. He could replace Raji full time next season if his price is better. Personally, I’d lean towards Raji due to Guion’s off the field history, but the Packers appear to be over that.
Mike Pennel: C+
I know, another boring C, but Pennel was definitely an improved player from last season without making enough of an impact to earn a B. After being a little more than a very large man last season, Pennel learned how to use his hands better this season. He is never going to be a pass rush threat, but you need guys who can stop the run too. If he can take another step forward next season, then he should become the Packers’ best run defender. His improvement certainly allows the Packers to part with Raji or Guion or both.
Datone Jones: C-
Jones flashed in the middle of the season when the rest of the defense was momentarily struggling. He finished the season with 20 tackles and three sacks. That is an improvement over prior seasons, but still nothing to get excited about. The Packers played Jones at outside linebacker more often than not down the stretch. Ironically, that might position him to replace Nick Perry as the run stopping outside linebacker. Next year is a big season for Jones. He needs to produce if he wants to make some real money in the NFL.
Julius Peppers: B
Peppers might be a terminator. He has now played in 135 straight games. He led the Packers in sacks with 10.5 and was just barely second best on the team to Matthews in rushing the passer altogether. That is pretty good for the oldest player on the defense and a guy who gets far fewer snaps than Matthews. Peppers was as much a liability against the run as last season and didn’t make as many big plays. However, he is giving the Packers what they are paying him for. He will be even cheaper next season — $7 million — so he will be back.
Mike Neal: C-
Neal led the team in snaps at outside linebacker. Like me, you may not have noticed. Neal led the team in tackles for a loss, so he is capable of making plays, but he is also susceptible to giving up big plays. Other than the rare times Jayrone Elliot got a snap, Neal is the Packers’ worst edge setter against the run. He often takes risks and either gets a tackle for a loss or gives up a big run. His four sacks leave him among the worst pass rushers in the league based on sacks versus total rushes. He is a good athlete who plays hard and has managed to play all 16 games for a couple years in a row now. That might give him an edge versus Nick Perry.
Nick Perry: C+
With 31 tackles, Perry actually led the outside linebacker position in tackles per snap. He also had 3.5 sacks in far fewer rush attempts than Neal. He remains the Packers’ best edge setter against the run. It typically just isn’t a good idea to run at the guy. When healthy, he has a strong bull rush, and he even showed a little speed rush in the playoffs. Unfortunately, Perry is rarely healthy. He has missed games in every season he’s been a Packer, and that continued this year as he hurt his shoulder again. The hurt shoulder pretty much neutralized his bull rush, which essentially neutralized him. I remain intrigued by the prospect of having Perry and Matthews on each end of the line, but I wouldn’t blame the Packers for giving up on Perry due to availability issues. Perry has had four seasons to be healthy, and it hasn’t happened yet.
Jayrone Elliott: D
When Elliott blew up against the Seattle Seahawks in week 2, it seemed like the sky was the limit for this guy. However, a quad injury and Datone Jones getting his snaps led to disappointment from that week on. Elliott will have one more shot next season to prove he belongs.
Andy Mulumba: D
Mulumba was once an intriguing prospect, but you now have to wonder if he’s ever going to be capable of being a regular contributor. Mulumba played in just six games in 2015, taking only four snaps after week 8. Those all came as a pass rusher at Washington. When he was on the field, he was never better than an average player.
Clay Matthews: B
Matthews has now made the Pro Bowl as both an outside and inside linebacker, which means one more Super Bowl ring in his career would probably make him a lock for the Hall of Fame. He was a Defensive Player of the Year candidate through the first half of the season before tailing off in production down the stretch. He finished fourth on the team in tackles (66) and second in sacks (6.5) while being the best pass rusher on the defense overall. The organization has expressed a determination to put Matthews back outside for 2016. They remain convinced that is his better position. I am not convinced.
Jake Ryan: C
Jake Ryan finally replaced Nate Palmer in the starting lineup in week 11. He was an automatic upgrade in run defense, showing good flow to the ball and tackling ability. However, he does not pack a punch when he hits people and his coverage skills were reminiscent of the position for the first eight games last season. My impression right now is that Ryan will only be a viable NFL starter if a really good athlete plays next to him.
Nate Palmer: D
Palmer stepped in and played when Sam Barrington went down in week 1. Palmer was decent in coverage and immediately, when paired with Matthews, gave the Packers the best cover inside linebackers that they’ve had since 2010, at least. Palmer was never strong against the run and actually got worse in coverage as the season went on. Ryan replaced him for the stretch run and Palmer will likely never get that job back.
Joe Thomas: C-
After cutting Thomas, the Packers went out and picked Thomas up off the Cowboys practice squad to immediately start him in week 2. Unfortunately, that game was his high-water mark. Thomas will never be a run stopper and he was not aggressive enough in coverage down the stretch.
Sam Shields: B
There is no doubt Shields is the Packers’ best cover man. He even recorded 39 tackles, though that will never be a strong suit. Even though he is undersized, Shields never gets beat deep. He is one of the faster players in the NFL and has great ball skills. However, receivers can get after him on stops and inside slants where they can use their size to box him out. Shields’ size also means he is unlikely to ever make it through an entire season without missing games. This season it was a concussion that sidelined him for four crucial games down the stretch, which is another concern. Doubtful that there is anymore upside to his game. Shields is what he is at this point, which is a second-tier corner. Lastly, Sheilds’ three drops of probable INTs in the final game of the season had a lot to do with it being the final game.
Damarious Randall: B
Randall just had more impact as a rookie than any first-round pick Ted Thompson has ever selected. The supposed plan during the offseason program was that Casey Hayward was going to get his shot on the outside while the Packers’ two picks at corner were going to hopefully be able to handle the slot. Yeah, well, you know what they say about plans. They are all great until Casey Hayward gets totally burned again. Randall quickly became the Packers best option for the outside, while Hayward went back to the slot. With a rookie corner opposite Shields, teams focused on him and went after him. Randall held his own extremely well until the final six weeks, when perhaps the rookie wall began to take its toll. Randall runs naturally with receivers, has decent size and can play the ball as well. He led the team with four interceptions between the regular season and playoffs. Randall needs to work on his tackling and his zone play, which is true of pretty much everyone in the Packers’ secondary.
Casey Hayward: D
Hayward didn’t play as poorly as many Packers fans would have you believe. Believe it or not, he’s actually a pretty solid slot corner. The problem is he gets lazy in zone coverage and he is a poor tackler. Those are significant negatives, especially when it is contract time. We can argue that giving the guy a D is pretty harsh, but the fact of the matter is that this was a contract year where Hayward had the opportunity to prove himself an outside corner and make himself some big money. He failed on that account. He should go the way of Terrell Buckley and spend a career as a slot corner… somewhere else.
Micah Hyde: B-
Similar to James Starks, I give Micah Hyde a B because he’s a man. He plays hard and hustles on every play. He will run 40 yards across the field to get in on a tackle while 75 percent of players are jogging across the field, hoping someone else makes the tackle. He doesn’t have the straight line speed to play corner. He is smart enough to get by through physicality, which makes him a good match-up against tight ends. His ideal position is safety, where maybe someday the Packers will ship out Morgan Burnett and allow Hyde to pair with Ha Ha Clinton-Dix. After being a stellar punt returner last season, Hyde was only mediocre this season. Jared Abbrederis might be the heir apparent there.
Quentin Rollins: C+
Rollins had one of the better games of the season by anyone when he snagged two interceptions and a touchdown return against the Rams. However, that would be all the picks Rollins would get all year. He was pretty much as advertised when he made the field. He seems to have a natural feel for the game and isn’t afraid to stick his nose in there. He needs more opportunities to make a bigger impact next season. At this point, it appears the slot position is likely his. One can sugarcoat it, but if there was ever a battle for the starting spot opposite Sam Shields, Randall won it and Rollins lost.
Demetri Goodson: D
This was the season that Goodson was allegedly going to find his place with the team. Well, apparently that place is on the special teams, where Goodson teamed with Jeff Janis to give the Packers one of the best punt coverage units in the NFL. As far as being on the field for defense goes, it never really happened for Goodson. Like Janis, apparently Goodson is a long-term project who the Packers didn’t feel was ready for the field. Well, now Rollins and Randall have passed him by on the depth chart and those guys aren’t going anywhere anytime soon.
LaDarius Gunter: I
Gunter was active for just eight games and played only nine defensive snaps until the Packers were forced to insert him at Washington because of mounting injuries. Gunter played with confidence in that game and looked like he belonged. That’s not really enough to base an analysis on, though. Gunter needs to get better on special teams — better than Demetri Goodson, to be exact — to not be on the inactive list on Sundays. We suspect he can play and maybe he’ll get that chance next year with Casey Hayward likely heading out of town.
Ha Ha Clinton-Dix: B
Clinton-Dix had a year similar to his rookie year — up and down. He did miss fewer tackles and improved his play near the line of scrimmage, leading the team in tackles with 100. He had two interceptions and showed himself to be a decent threat to blitz with three sacks. Clinton-Dix still has a ways to go against the pass. In fact, he might never be that guy. However, his play in the postseason the last two years suggests otherwise. It would be nice if he took that play to the regular season as well. Clinton-Dix had a disastrous game against Carolina and that is the kind of thing he needs to clean up.
Morgan Burnett: C-
Burnett was just more of the same this season. He is a solid safety around the line of scrimmage who finished tied for second on the team in tackles with 68. He also made nearly zero plays in the passing game, with zero sacks and zero interceptions. Basically, Burnett is a less physical version of Clinton-Dix. He also counts about $6 million against the cap for 2016. That is more than he is worth. However, his dead cap hit probably prohibits the Packers from doing anything about it for one more season. We can now say pretty clearly that Burnett should not have been given the signing bonus he received.
Chris Banjo: B
Banjo is getting that grade largely for his special teams play, where he was solid and his leadership earned him a playoff captain nod. Early in the season, Banjo got plenty of time on defense too, with Morgan Burnett nursing whatever injury he was nursing. Banjo played 30-plus defensive snaps in both week 3 and week 5 and he was solid enough that you didn’t notice him, which is what a backup is supposed to be. He didn’t take another defensive snap after week 12, however. That shouldn’t suggest he wasn’t a valuable performer for the Packers though.