LAST FLIGHT FOR A. J. HAWK? Jerry Gilbert 9/3/11
In 2010, with first round draft choices Nick Barnett and A.J. Hawk manning the middle of the Green Bay Packer defense, inside linebacker was viewed as one of the most stable positions on the team. At that time, Brandon Chillar and Desmond Bishop provided solid veteran reserves. Inside linebacker was a position of strength and the group played pretty well in the 2010 Super Bowl season despite season ending injuries to Barnett and Chillar. The success of the group was largely due to the emergence of Desmond Bishop as a difference maker on the defense.
2011was a different story. Barnett was not considered to be worth his salary, and he was released. Chillar could not at that time pass a physical and he too was cut. That left the unit with only hawk and Bishop along with unproven street free agents. In the 2011 college draft, General Manager Ted Thompson added small school prospect D.J. Smith, who, due to the lockout, and like all other prospects that year, entered the season with very little preseason training or experience. Nevertheless, Smith performed at about the level of the other linebackers when he got a chance to play. Some fans and commentators began to call for Smith toe replace Hawk in the starting lineup. Smith became almost as popular as an unknown backup quarterback when the starter is having problems.
One problem with evaluating the play of A. J Hawk, or for that matter DJ Smith, last year is that the entire defense was out of sync. Not a veteran player on the unit can be said to have had his best season. The Packer defense in 2011, missed assignments, missed tackles and generally played at a level that must have embarrassed them as professionals. Only the coaches with their experience and film library can evaluate the extent to which any player may have looked bad because of the need to cover up for the weakness of his teammates. For example, it is possible that Safety Morgan Burnett looked a little worse than he really was because of the times that players who were not his responsibility were running free because a teammate had blundered. A defense succeeds and fails as a unit.
Be that as it may. A. J Hawk is not the quickest or most agile linebacker on the team. He is not an accomplished pass defender and he tends to get swallowed up in blocks. Having been the sixth overall selection, in the first round of the 2006 Draft, Hawk would have been expected to be a play maker and likely an all pro As we know, A.J Hawk has not lived up to those expectations. He has been available and steady, but not a star. Availability is one of the factors cited by team management when talking about the player. He has missed only two games in his Packer career, and is not a player who gets tired. In fact, some of his most notable plays have been goal line stops following long drives by the opposition.
He is also the official leader of the defense who gets everyone else aligned. Coaches and player praise his leadership, and that may help to compensate for other deficiencies. However, under his leadership last season the defense was about as bad as it could be in many ways. The leader has to take some of the blame for the poor showing.
Last season, A. J. Hawk missed some time. That put rookie D.J. Smith on the field, and he seemed to have more range and make at least as many plays as the starter had been making. William is not polished as a blitzer or in pass coverage, but his youth and quickness allow him to make plays. He was a tackling machine as Appalachian State and showed some of that ability as a Packer.
Smith also is being paid about one tenth of the average $5 million annual salary in the contract signed by A.J. Hawk. Ted Thompson has often parted ways with a veteran if he has a cheaper player who is a comparable performer. Given the need to offer new contracts to Greg Jennings, Aaron Rogers and others within the next few seasons, the opportunity to save money at inside linebacker may be tempting to the Green Bay General Manager.
Other reserve inside linebacker deserves mention. The most impressive plays in pass defense by a Packer inside linebacker in 2011 were made by Robert Francois, who on at least two occasions deflected an otherwise certain touchdown pass. I suspect that his overall grade is not as high as a few plays would indicate. On the other hand he has made plays, and could be part of the solution to improvement at the position. With the logjam at outside linebacker created by the fact that first round draft choice Nick Perry is almost certain to make the roster, holdover players such as Brad Jones or
Vic So'oto might be switched inside. These players are not likely to have more than a situational impact but their readiness to contribute could effect decisions as to the preferred starter.
The player who is currently most likely to effect the future of A.J Hawk in Green Bay was the fifth round selection in the recent draft, Terrell Manning 6-2 237 NC State. The fact that Ted Thomson traded up to select Manning leads to the conclusion that the rookie may be counted on to make a contribution sooner rather than later. At a press conference during the draft, Inside Linebackers Coach Winston Moss stated that Manning would be used inside and that he would “ be a good addition, and I think he’s going to press the guys who are in the room right now”. If Manning is ready to be a significant contributor this season or next and Smith continues to progress, it will be hard to justify the presence of a multi-million dollar inside linebacker on the roster other than Desmond Bishop. The flight of the Hawk may not be featured in Green Bay beyond this season.