Replacing Desmond Bishop: How the Packers Use A.J. Hawk

Jonathan Daniel

We dive into the snap counts of one of the remaining Packers linebackers to show how his usage has changed over time.

We know about Desmond Bishop's impending departure from Green Bay now, so one of the big complaints about the decision by the Packers' front office is why Bishop is the man on the chopping block instead of fellow inside linebacker A.J. Hawk. While I can tell you that Bishop's injury and Hawk's contract and bigger amount of guaranteed money are major reasons for the decision, one thing is getting lost in the discussion. That is that the defense figured out how best to use Hawk on the field in 2012 and his play was better than many people realize.

As has been discussed ad nausem on APC, Hawk has struggled in pass coverage in recent years, though not as mightily as one might expect. Still, the general consensus on the team and among fans appears to be that he is better suited to run support than pass coverage, and his performance trends over the past few years seem to confirm that.

A while back I looked at the snap counts of each linebacker in 2012 to see trends among the various players. In that article, we noticed that Hawk was consistently taken off the field on third downs in favor of a defensive back. Today I decided to look at how Hawk's usage has changed over time and see if any trends can be extrapolated to how he will be used in 2013 without Bishop beside him (stats again from Pro Football Focus). Note that these totals apply only to games in which Hawk played, including playoffs - it does not count the two games he missed in 2011.

Year Team Snaps Hawk Snaps Ratio
2012 1260 847 67.2%
2011 1040 960 92.3%
2010 1216 1188 97.7%
2009 1084 646 59.6%

For this exercise, I looked back only to 2009, since that is when the team switched to a 3-4 defense. As you can see, Hawk's usage peaked in 2010 and 2011, when he had Bishop beside him. In 2012, he was taken off the field much more frequently than in the prior two years. One surprising result was Hawk's 2009 snap counts, especially seeing that he had six games in which he saw the field for fewer than 30 snaps.

Then I looked at the breakdown of Hawk's snaps in the various phases of the game. Again, we saw a very different breakdown in Hawk's usage in 2012 compared to the previous two seasons.

Year Total Snaps Run Pass Rush Coverage PFF Grade
2012 847 443 (52.3%) 79 (9.3%) 325 (38.4%) -2.2
2011 960 354 (36.9%) 166 (17.3%) 440 (45.8%) -10.4
2010 1188 460 (38.7%) 174 (14.6%) 554 (46.6%) -10.1
2009 646 299 (46.3%) 165 (10.1%) 282 (43.7%) -6.2

Notice a trend here? First, it's easy to see that Hawk saw a far greater percentage of running plays in 2012 than the previous two years. One can extrapolate this and infer that he was taken off the field in obvious passing situations, and especially on third downs.

As for his overall performance, Hawk plays best when he plays fewer snaps overall, but what is more clear here is that he indeed plays better when he is used heavily against the run and less frequently in pass rush or coverage. That split was somewhat noticeable when comparing his 2009 season to the following years, but the 2012 grade makes that even more clear. Admittedly, he's still not playing at a Pro Bowl level or even at what one might call "good", but when playing the types of snaps he did in 2012 he's definitely serviceable.

Of course, calling a player serviceable is not a ringing endorsement. If Hawk's cap hit were lower, it seems entirely possible that he could be the one departing Green Bay at this time. Those arguing with the move will likely point to Bishop's success in 2010 and 2011 as a reason to keep him around, and I will certainly not debate that he was the better inside linebacker those two years. However, with the recovery from injury still lingering over Bishop and his much more affordable cap hit, the business end of the deal makes sense.

Here's my takeaway from this analysis: I have confidence that the defensive coaches have thoroughly identified Hawk's strengths and weaknesses and will continue to put him in the best possible position to succeed in 2013, much as they did in 2012. That should be the key to his continued effectiveness as a member of the Packer defense.

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