In Defense of Packers Inside Linebacker A.J. Hawk

Matthew Emmons-USA TODAY Sports

With the safety position finally addressed in the draft, many Packers fans have selected a new target for their collective ire in the one of the team's veteran starters. He's not special, but perhaps he's not as bad as some may think.

If it seems to you that I'm an apologist, well, I guess I am, in one sense of the word.

My articles are generally optimistic, and that's because I tend to see the positive side of things. Except when it comes to Jarrett Bush. That's where I draw the line. (Sorry, Jarrett, I guess I'm picking on you today, but you had to expect it once M.D. Jennings left town. You're kind of the scapegoat now. Embrace it.) That said, I understand why we as Green Bay fans are not enamored with A.J. Hawk.

He is not a consistent playmaker. He's not an asset as a coverage linebacker, and he doesn't terrorize offensive linemen. Ask every defensive coordinator in the league who he's most concerned about when his team plays Green Bay, and you'd likely be hard pressed to find one who so much as mentions the former Buckeye. Could the Packers do better?

Absolutely.

But as we all knew, this year's draft class was weak at the inside linebacker position after Ryan Shazier and C.J. Mosley, so it's to the surprise of few that the team didn't find a suitable starter for 2014 and beyond. So that leaves on the depth chart a handful of UDFA linebackers, the never-healthy Brad Jones, and A.J. Hawk. Many a Packers fan has voiced his displeasure with the state of affairs, and that's fair enough; unless Datone Jones is a massive failure in his second year, ILB is likely to be the weakest position on the defense, if not the entire roster. But perhaps that says more about the quality of the team than the quality of the players.

Argument One: A.J. Hawk has produced in the recent past.

Wouldn't it be nice if the Packers had a good inside linebacker? Someone like, say, Patrick Willis? Well, in 2013 Hawk had more tackles for a loss, interceptions, and sacks than Willis. And, yes, that's after you extrapolate the data for Willis (who missed two games) over a full season.  If you believe this to be a statistical fluke, look at the numbers of another highly regarded player in James Laurinaitis of the Rams. Laurinaitis is coming off a career year for sacks, and yet he didn't as many as Hawk. And that's with the likes of Robert Quinn and Chris Long (and soon enough, Aaron Donald) occupying blockers for him. I'll be clear; I definitely would rather have Laurinaitis (or, in the absolute best-case scenario, Willis) than A.J. Hawk, and, yes, as has been pointed out before, statistics can (and sometimes do) lie. But you simply can't argue that Hawk is incapable of changing the game when he does stuff like this. And that brings me to my second argument.

Argument Two: Hawk's top-five draft status works against him.

When GMs draft third-rounders, they're generally satisfied with those players becoming solid, league-average players. When they draft top-five players, they expect excellence. Unfortunately, Hawk hasn't offered that. We learned a while back that the college star would be nothing more than a capable NFL starter, yet we still treat every missed tackle and every blown coverage as if it is to be expected from such a failure of a player. And when Hawk does make an athletic play? When he does force a fumble? When he leads his draft class' middle linebackers in sacks (and a class that features two well-regarded players in DeMeco Ryans and Stephen Tulloch?) Well, we shake that off as the bare minimum expected from a guy we picked instead of Mathias Kiwanuka. We can't have it both ways; we know by this point what Hawk is in his prime, so why set ourselves up for disappointment?

Argument Three: Hawk's 'veteran experience' is more than an empty credential.

Assignment-sure. Excellent work ethic. Good locker-room presence. These are terms that get thrown around by Green Bay's coaches whenever A.J. Hawk's name comes up at press conferences. For years, many of us have looked at these words as generic praise offered by a staff that can't find anything truly merit-worthy in the longtime starter. But looking at the Packers defense, there are only three potential starters who are thirty or older: Hawk, Julius Peppers and Tramon Williams. Peppers is likely learning a new position, and Williams may be phased out in favor of players such as Casey Hayward (another player I'll try to highlight in the next week or so), and that leaves AJ as the grizzled vet with the best chance of staying in the lineup.

Say what you want about Jamari Lattimore, but the Packers would have to see something unprecedented from him by his standards in order to replace Hawk. This is a young team, one that has stayed young through the great draft-and-develop process, but also a team that needs its (relatively) elder statesmen more than ever. If Hawk can combine his reliable play with that, why are so many calling for his head? Perhaps it's because of his draft status. Perhaps it's because he never jumps off the film. Or perhaps it's because he's been one of the faces that has symbolized the Green Bay defense's mediocrity since Super Bowl XLV. But for a team that's endured worse (Don Barclay at right tackle, M.D. Jennings and Jerron McMillian at safety, Andy Mulumba at outside linebacker, DuJuan Harris as the featured ballcarrier) in the starting lineup over the past few years, it's time for us to give him a break.

Unless he gets run over by Bishop Sankey in Week 1 of the preseason, that is. Regardless of how many sacks he collects, passes he breaks up, tackles he makes near the line of scrimmage, or calls he makes, that wouldn't be okay.

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