Green Bay – Criticism is to be expected. Only two other Green Bay Packers players were drafted in the top five the last 25 years.
From Day 1, A.J. Hawk has been surrounded by massive expectations.
“When you’re the fifth pick in the draft, you understand what the hell is going on,” inside linebackers coach Winston Moss said. “You have a lot of pressure on you to make some plays. He understands that, and I think he’s dealt with that going on seven years now.”
That may be true. Such an entrance demands a player to be a star, not a placeholder. Still, Hawk regressed sharply last season. According to Pro Football Focus, he was in on 960 snaps. And all season, Hawk had zero interceptions, zero forced fumbles and just 1 1/2 sacks.
This off-season, outside linebackers Brad Jones and Jamari Lattimore moved inside. The team drafted N.C. State playmaker Terrell Manning in the fifth round. D.J. Smith and Rob Francois – playing 524 less snaps than Hawk – combined for three picks.
Pressure would seem to be rising for Hawk, even by his standards. The Packers could now have Plan B, C and D ready. There are options. But repeatedly, Moss assured the Packers are confident in Hawk.
While saying Hawk didn’t make enough “impact plays,” Moss dismissed the notion that Hawk had a down season.
“His year was just quiet,” Moss said. “When he got in, there wasn’t a lot of tackle production and there weren’t interceptions so you look at his stat line and you say, ‘Well, what the hell did he do last year?’ A.J. is not a problem. A.J. is not an issue. A.J. didn’t play poorly last year. He just didn’t make those impact plays.
“I’m fine with what A.J. is doing. But on the flipside of that, you want your guys being impactful and making plays. He didn’t do it last year and I’m sure he’s not satisfied. He’s going to respond accordingly.”
Moss points to the Packers’ Super Bowl season in 2010 when Hawk didn’t play a down in the season opener. He then responded.
When Nick Barnett eventually went down for the season, Hawk handled run and pass situations admirably with 111 tackles (72 solo), three interceptions and 10 pass breakups. Beyond the numbers – and you’ve heard this before – coaches and teammates trumpet Hawk’s intangible value to the defense.
They say his ability to relay plays in and pilot the defense cannot be underestimated.
“What if Aaron (Rodgers) didn’t give everybody all the calls and all the audibles to the receivers?” fellow starter Desmond Bishop said. “The offense would be crap. It goes the same way for the defense.
“We have a lot of adjustments and calls we have to make and sometimes it’s in the heat of the moment. He’s the perfect guy to make those calls. It’s an intangible thing. You can’t hear it. We hear it.”
Moss believes the fact that Hawk was voted a team captain in the postseason speaks volumes. The defense doesn’t become “unraveled” with defensive calls flowing through him, he said. There’s a sense of calm.
“When it comes to being able to make the correct adjustments, to making the right calls at the right time and being able to get us in the calls when the situation calls for it,” Moss said, “there have been times when he has had to make a decision where he has really helped us out.
“I can say that has happened a numerous amount of times these last couple years. He’s been very important.”
Still, the raw footage wasn’t pretty last season. After signing a five-year, $33.75 million contract extension, Hawk was not the same player.
At 247 pounds, Hawk often played too small. He tackled backs 5, 10 yards downfield, moved slow laterally and never forced a turnover.
Be it four-time Pro Bowl player Adrian Peterson or third-stringer Kahlil Bell, Hawk was not always reliable. During Green Bay’s Christmas Day win over the Chicago Bears, Bell rushed for 121 yards on 23 carries with Hawk biting on cutbacks and failing to plug the hole.
The Packers allowed 4.7 yards per rush last season, the seventh-highest total in the league.
In his new haircut – goodbye, locks – Hawk said the defense as a whole is looking to improve.
“I’m sure Ted (Thompson) would tell you that competition is always good for everybody,” Hawk said. “There’s definitely no lack of talent on the defensive side of the ball. We know how great the offense is. It’s time for us as a defense to step up and play the way we should. Last year, that didn’t happen.”
And competition was certainly added at his position. On a 90-man roster full of undrafted players, there isn’t dead weight at inside linebacker. Jones and Smith could grow into realistic threats to Hawk. Speaking of the position in general, Moss said that “if you fall asleep at that position, you’re going to lose your job.”
But with Hawk specifically, he remains stoic and sure.
“He didn’t have a down year,” Moss said. “He just needs to get back to making the plays he’s capable of making. He’s a playmaker. His sacks and interceptions are right up there with anybody else in the league over the last couple years.
“We’ll see what happens this year.”
By Tyler Dunne of the Journal Sentinel