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NFL Green Bay Packers

Top 5 Most Improved Green Bay Packers

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Top 5 Most Improved Green Bay Packers

Thomas Campbell - USA Today Sports

Instead of wasting away the time moping over the Green Bay Packers’ devastating playoff loss to the San Francisco 49ers, I’m going to be more positive. Right now, with four lucky teams still getting to play on the weekend, it’s hard to see the Green Bay season as anything other than a huge disappointment, but the truth is there was a lot of good in the 2012 season for the Packers.

They overcame the NFL cheating via the incompetence of the replacement referees. They didn’t listen when people lost faith in them after a 2-3 start. They went on to win nine of their next ten games, and finished a solid 11-5. They captured the NFC North title.

I won’t go through the list of all the things they didn’t do, because I’m still a little too emotionally raw for that at the moment, but the point is that good things were achieved by the Packers this season. On an individual level, there were several key players that made big leaps in their development from last year to this year.

These players are all still young and, if they continue to improve, are likely to be the core of their position groups in the future. With nothing left to do as a Packers fan but look forward to next season, there are a few players whom I am especially excited to watch in the 2013 season.

Click through at the top of the page to see my Top 5 Most Improved Green Bay Packers of the 2012 season.

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Mike Neal

Benny Sieu - USA Today Sports

When Mike Neal was drafted in 2010, he made a big splash in training camp, but suffered a rib injury. Then a torn rotator cuff. Then a knee injury the following season. Then was suspended for the first four games of the 2012 season for violating the NFL’s PED policy.

Entering just his third year, fans - including myself - were ready to write Neal off as unreliable. “Injury-prone” threatened to become a permanent prefix to his name. But Neal’s performance this season has reminded people of all the promise he showed back in 2010. He missed just one game due to injury (I’m still not ready to put the red flags away completely), but returned the following week and posted his best game of the season: 1.5 sacks, a tackle for a loss, a quarterback hit, and plenty of quarterback pressures in Week 15 against the Chicago Bears. Neal led the Packers defensive line with 4.5 sacks on the season, despite playing significantly fewer snaps than the rest of the line.

I’m still a little leery about Neal’s injury history, but I’m very excited to see what he can bring in 2013.

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Morgan Burnett

Jeff Hanisch - USA Today Sports

Drafted in 2010, the safety had a rough couple of seasons to start off his career. Though he certainly appeared to have the raw talent, Morgan Burnett had a hard time with assignments and defensive scheme. Add to that the fact that he played much of 2011 with a cast on his arm, and Burnett seemed to be a weak link in the Packers secondary (which, to be fair, was full of weak links.)

This year, Burnett has been much, much improved in staying behind the offense, and more reliable in coverage, as well. He seems to be better at recognizing schemes and making adjustments, too. I think Burnett still has a lot of room for improvement, but Packer fans have to like the direction Burnett is headed in.

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Jermichael Finley

Andrew Weber - USA Today Sports

After idling on the Most Regressed list the past two seasons, Jermichael Finley earned a spot on this list with a very solid second half of the season. Early on in 2012, Finley got on everyone’s bad side as he struggled with drops while battling through a shoulder injury, and then with all his talking. Oh, his talking.

But Finley really buckled down, shut his mouth, and started catching balls. Though I still believe he is not the dominant player he should be, he came up with some big catches late in the season, especially on third downs. He lost his chance at being Aaron Rodgers’ primary target, but did show that he still had the ability if he were ever to re-earn the quarterback’s confidence.

Despite a report that suggested that the Packers had had enough of Finley’s underachieving ways, it seems like Green Bay will almost certainly hold onto the tight end for the final year of his contract. Speaking after the season, head coach Mike McCarthy had this to say about Finley: “I feel very good about the way he finished the year. He did some good things Saturday night. There was a change in that young man.”

Next year is Finley’s last chance to make an argument for being one of the highest-paid tight ends in the league. Though I feel strongly that the Packers should let him move on after next season, I like the prospect of watching a financially-motivated Finley on the field for Green Bay.

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James Jones

Jeff Hanisch - USA Today Sports

Packer fans, how many of your 2010-2011 Sundays were spent screaming, “Darn you, James Jones!” as you watched a perfectly-thrown ball glide through the receiver's hands like a ball of butter?

For every great catch he had, Jones seemed to have two or three dropped passes. When his contract was up after the 2010 season, no one was too disconcerted about the thought of Jones leaving. The only exception was Aaron Rodgers, who publicly lobbied for the Packers to resign Jones, which they did. This season, Rodgers’ faith in JJ was rewarded.

Jones was fantabulous this season. He led the league in touchdowns receptions with 14, and unofficially led in ridiculous, optical-illusion, how-on-earth-did-he-catch-that catches. He also is listed at only two drops in 98 targets.

With number one receiver Greg Jennings likely leaving, Jones will be needed to step up again in 2013.

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Sam Shields

Jeff Hanisch - USA Today Sports

I can’t say enough about how much Sam Shields has improved. When he was in first season in 2010, you couldn’t miss how incredibly fast Shields was, but, man, was he bad. Receivers could turn him around so easily, and he always looked just a little bit lost in coverage. His speed and athleticism made him exciting to watch, and a threat to jump a route at any moment, but I just didn’t know if he could develop into a reliable cornerback who wasn’t constantly getting fooled by opponents.

It seemed like more of the same when training camp rolled around and Shields was beat out by 3rd-string cornerback Jarrett Bush (who should really be about 16th-string). I do not know what Shields did between training camp and the start of the season, but it worked. He has been fantastic in coverage all 2012. Despite the fact that the referees routinely called him for pass interference when the receiver was assaulting him, Shields still managed to contest nearly every pass that came his way. I don’t need flashy statistics like interceptions from my cornerbacks (though he had three of those), I need them to make the receivers work for their catches, and Shields has done a great job of that.

I’m not the only one who has been impressed. Green Bay cornerbacks coach Joe Whitt Jr. has said that there will be open competition next year for the starting cornerback spots (take note, Tramon Williams) because of the strong seasons put in by Shields and rookie Casey Hayward. I’m looking forward to Shields becoming a bigger part of the Green Bay defense in 2013.

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