Pro Football Focus analyzes every play of every NFL game to grade players on their performance. Comparing their statistical and in-depth analysis to one's overall impressions can confirm or contradict what you think about someone. To my untrained eye, A.J. Hawk appeared to struggle mightily last year, while rookie D.J. Smith appeared promising when he filled in for the injured Hawk late in the year.
Therefore, when the people at PFF say that Smith played significantly better than Hawk in 2011, I'm inclined to believe them.
The PFF analysis indicates that Hawk graded out at -3.5 overall in 2011, indicating a below-average performance over his 14 games. Smith, however, graded at +5.7 despite playing substantially on defense in only four games. For comparison's sake, Desmond Bishop was by far the team's best ILB, and earned a +14.5 overall rating in 13 games.
When broken down into rate statistics (per play or per tackle), Smith fares well again. He ranked better than Hawk in run stopping and was about equivalent in pass rushing. What made Smith really stand out was his tackling efficiency, which measures how many tackles made per tackle missed. His ratio was 18.0, which would have ranked in the top 10 of all inside linebackers if he had played more snaps. Hawk's tackling efficiency was a little more than half of Smith's (10.1), meaning he missed tackles almost twice as often.
Does this mean that Smith will suddenly supplant Hawk as the starter at inside linebacker? I doubt it, given Hawk's contract and experience with the defense. However, the case for giving Smith more playing time and Hawk less is certainly mounting, and I'd like to see #51 on the field on defense a lot more in 2012.