|2||Clay Matthews||LB||6-3||255||28||6||Southern California|
Rodgers: Shockingly, Rodgers tops our list again. As if his value to the team wasn’t obvious in the best of times, it became painfully apparent in the worst of times.
In the eight games that Rodgers started and finished, the Packers went 6-2 and averaged 30.6 points per game. In the eight games in which he was sidelined by a broken collarbone, the Packers went 2-5-1 and averaged 21.5 points per game.
Statistically, it was typical Rodgers. His 104.9 passer rating matched his career mark — which just happens to be an NFL record. He finished second in the league with 8.7 yards per pass attempt and fifth in rating and completion percentage (66.6).
Along with passer rating, Rodgers owns league career records with 28.21 points per start (Tom Brady is second with 27.99), a 1.76 percent interception rate (Brady is second at 2.03 percent) and 3.62 touchdowns per interception (Brady is a distant second at 2.68 touchdowns for every interception).
The numbers are great, but Rodgers is 1-3 in the last three postseasons. To help get the team back to the top of the mountain, he’ll be relying more than ever on young faces. He has four three receivers and tight ends who have more than 10 career receptions. It’s a challenge he embraces.
“As you become a veteran player in this league and in this offense, my voice needs to be heard a lot by those young guys, because there’s an offense on paper and an offense the way I like to run it,” Rodgers said. “There are little tweaks we put in, things that veteran guys and myself — that Jordy (Nelson) and Randall (Cobb) and (Jarrett) Boykin have seen me do that you need to pass on to those guys so they have an idea of the types of things I’m looking for at the snap and after the snap. Those guys will come along. This is going to be an exciting training camp. I’m probably more excited for this season than I’ve probably been in a long time because of the attitude I see from this team and just the young talent that we have. If we can put it all together, then it could be pretty exciting around here.”
Matthews: No. 2 on the annual list isn’t a surprise, either, although these sets of numbers will surprise you. In 11 games with Matthews, Green Bay averaged 2.82 sacks and, by the coaches’ count, 6.63 quarterback hits. Without Matthews, the Packers weren’t all that far off the pace, with averages of 2.67 sacks and 6.50 quarterback hits. In the five games he missed with his twice-broken thumb, the Packers went 4-1. Out of the five outside linebackers, he ranked fourth with one tackle for every 11.42 snaps.
Still, he’s an indispensable piece of the defense. Even while playing with two healthy hands for four games, he led the team with 7.5 sacks and 25 quarterback hits, and he matched his career high with three forced fumbles. His tackle rate was actually better than in 2012 (12.53) and 2011 (14.06) and the second-best of his career (10.59 in 2010), perhaps because teams felt inclined to run toward him more than in the past because of the injury. Nonetheless, teams averaged 0.25 yards less per carry with Matthews in the game than with him on the sideline due to injury or to take a breather.
More than ever, he’ll be a focal point of the defense. His role is top secret and, with Matthews’ thumb allowed to heal throughout the offseason, the coaching staff was able to conveniently keep any twists under wraps. Still, because of his talent and the depth around him with the additions of Julius Peppers and Carl Bradford, it’s safe to say he’ll be used in new ways to play to the team’s defensive strength.
“I doubt I’m going to have to sacrifice statistics because I always feel like I can make my plays but. at the same time. there will be some opportunities to present some mismatches, so it may not be your traditional line-up-here-line-up-there,” Matthews said. “There might be a little more difficulty for the offense, narrowing in on certain players, especially with the personnel that we brought in, myself included moving around a little bit more and just having fun with it. It seems like we’re going to have a little more fun on defense and be able to make a few more plays.”
Hayward: Hayward, a second-round pick in 2012, was one of the leading candidates for Defensive Rookie of the Year with a brilliant season of six interceptions and a second-ranked 44.6 percent completion rate, according to ProFootballFocus.com. As an encore, he played in only three games and 88 snaps due to recurring hamstring issues. The team suffered the consequences of not having its No. 1 ballhawk. In 2012, the Packers intercepted 18 passes (and allowed 55.1 percent completions). In 2013, they intercepted 11 (and allowed 61.6 percent).
“Casey’s shown the ability to get the ball. He has a knack,” cornerbacks coach Joe Whitt said. “Some players, the ball finds them and he’s one of those players. Ed Reed, Charles Woodson, the ball just finds those guys. Well, the ball finds Casey. So, when you have an extra guy on the field that can do that and can get the ball, it adds to your defense.”
The Packers got by without Hayward roaming the nickel position with Tramon Williams and Micah Hyde. Those two, however, don’t possess Hayward’s total package. Williams is a ballhawk but lacks Hayward’s physicality. Hyde has physicality but isn’t a ballhawk.
So, robbed of his chance for an encore season, what can Hayward do in 2014?
“You just try to get better than what you were,” he said. “Sometimes the picks don’t matter, but I would love to get six-plus again, but if I’m shutting down my man and not giving up a lot of completions, not giving up a lot of touchdowns, tackling well, I think that’ll show good on this defense and good on this team.”
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Bill Huber is publisher of Packer Report magazine and PackerReport.com and has written for Packer Report since 1997. E-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org, or leave him a question in Packer Report’s subscribers-only Packers Pro Club forum. Find Bill on Twitter at twitter.com/PackerReport.