Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports
The Packers' are a draft and develop team, meaning that a large number of players need to improve each year in order for the team to continue to be successful. As such, there are plenty of nominees for this year's most improved player award.
The Packers have been a draft and develop team for a couple years now, and so it should not be a surprise that this is the healthiest number of nominees for our 2012 team awards. If the Packers don’t have many guys competing for this award then something is wrong with their philosophy and it’s time to start talking about coaching changes. Fortunately, there a number of strong candidates who made the most with their time and improved from the 2011 season. This is a good sign for the future depth of the team and hopefully the trend will continue next year as well (especially with the continued development of some of those exciting defensive rookies).
The change in Shields’ career has been dramatic and noticeable in 2012. Shields may have been the biggest disappointment in 2011 and looked left for dead through much of the preseason. Near the end of the preseason he started to turn things around and eventually earned his way back on the field after being benched in favor of Jarrett Bush for the first game of the year.
After getting back on the field, he overcame phantom PI penalties and his previous fear of tackling to become one of the better corners the Packers had this year. Considering the breakout success of Casey Hayward and generally steady play of Tramon Williams (yes, he did struggle at the end of the year but otherwise turned in a solid year covering some of the best receivers in the league), that’s saying something.
Over the past few years there have always been that key Packer or two that the fans have been clamoring to trade at any price. On defense it’s typically A.J. Hawk. Up through the beginning of the year this year that guy on offense has been James Jones. Jones has traditionally been a streaky player who could make some incredible catches and have a fantastic game or two, only to follow this up dropping everything thrown to him for a couple weeks. In 2012 this all changed. Jones was able to put together a career year with his highest totals in receptions, yards, and touchdown receptions (he also led the league in TD receptions). More to the point though, Jones settled in as one of the most reliable options for Aaron Rodgers during a year where the offense seemed to struggle each week. Now Packer fans are going to have to worry about whether the Packers can afford Jones’ next contract rather than what sort of pick they could get for him in a trade.
If you look at the stats there is not a radical difference between Burnett’s 2011 and 2012 statistics. He had 16 more total tackles in 2012 and one more sack, but one less interception. This is not an earth shattering difference. Despite the apparent similarity in production, there was a large jump in what Burnett was able to do on the field. The turning point for Burnett’s season was the injury to Charles Woodson. No other player filled the gap left by Woodson more than Burnett and was able to provide the leadership and support needed during Woodson’s absence. This is a good sign for Burnett’s career and the future of the secondary for the Packers, and it shows why Thompson made the move up to get him a few years ago.
Newhouse is a bit of a whipping boy at left tackle, yet he was able to make strides in his first full season as the starter. Newhouse turned in a decent 2012 season and mostly struggled against the physically elite pass rushers of the league such as Jason Pierre-Paul, Julius Peppers, and Robert Quinn. He was able to put together some respectable games against top end pass rushers without this unique physical tool set though such as Jared Allen. Newhouse has developed into an acceptable option as a starting left tackle….which is more than countless first round picks for the Chicago Bears can say these days.
Admit it, at the beginning of the year this year you probably would have loved to see the Packers just cut ties with Mike Neal. Who could blame anyone for having this opinion either? He was coming off of two rather forgettable and injury riddled years and caught up in a rather strange four game suspension. After returning though he started to show why the Packers have had so much patience with him. Neal ended the year with 4.5 sacks, giving him the most sacks for any Packer not named Clay Matthews. Neal is slowly becoming what the Packers have hoped for, a very interior pass rusher. He still has to find more consistency to his game, but even showing this much of a turnaround is very promising for the former second round pick.
Last year Randall Cobb caught one touchdown pass. It was the first game of the season and he ran the wrong route on the play. He then disappeared for most the rest of the year and was mostly used as a kick and punt returner. This year Cobb went from bit player to central focus of the offense. He became the top target for Aaron Rodgers for the bulk of the year and led the team in receptions and yards. Most telling though is that the rise of Randall Cobb has all but made Greg Jennings, who is still a top receiver in this league, basically a luxury to resign for next year. Hopefully Cobb can continue to grow in the high powered Packer offense and be released from his return duties in the near future.
Like many of the other awards, there are probably some players that may have been missed. Maybe Alex Green was able to impress you as the year went on and his knee got healthier, maybe Jermichael Finley deserves a nod after he shut up and started catching footballs, or maybe B.J. Raji’s improved game during the last half of the season is enough to earn him a nomination in your mind. If any of these or other players deserves nominations feel free to let us know in the comments section.
Who was the most improved Packer in 2012?
Sam Shields (103 votes)
James Jones (287 votes)
Morgan Burnett (5 votes)
Marshall Newhouse (11 votes)
Mike Neal (27 votes)
Randall Cobb (171 votes)
Someone else (write in who in the comments section) (5 votes)
609 total votes