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Years later, Packers’ choice of AJ Hawk over Vernon Davis remains a complicated debate

A number of variables make Green Bay’s decision during the 2006 NFL Draft impossible to evaluate merely by statistics and Pro Bowls.

Divisional Playoffs - Green Bay Packers v San Franciso 49ers

In Ted Thompson’s second draft as General Manager of the Green Bay Packers in 2006, he faced what many believed to be a two-player decision with the fifth overall selection: tight end Vernon Davis or linebacker A.J. Hawk.

They say that hindsight is 20/20 and that may be the case when revisiting the team’s choice to ultimately draft Hawk. The easy assumption is that if the Packers could do it all over again, drafting Davis would have been the best route after his long and successful NFL career. But there are several variables that make the decision difficult to evaluate, even more than a decade later.

Davis, an athletic marvel, blew up the NFL Combine with incredible 4.38 speed at 254 pounds to go along with 33 bench press reps and a 42-inch vertical. In what was the beginning of a league trend at the time toward faster receiving threats at tight end, Davis was the prototype. For the Packers, Davis would have been the pass-catching target opposite the more block-friendly Bubba Franks and a dynamic force in Brett Favre’s last few seasons.

Yet, Davis emerged as an aerial weapon by year two in San Francisco after being selected one pick later and earned two Pro Bowl nods for the 49ers. The former Maryland tight end would tally both 13 receiving touchdowns and more than 900 yards twice in his career before making additional stops in Denver and Washington. Until his retirement earlier in 2020, Davis was a steady pass-catcher over 14 seasons — well into his mid-thirties.

However, while Davis probably would have had a productive career in Green Bay as well, it is not a guarantee that he would have been the same force.

San Francisco was a perfect spot for Davis, who truly fit the “quarterback’s best friend” term typically associated with tight ends. He was basically the default target for Alex Smith, who had minimal wide receiver options on the outside besides Michael Crabtree and a couple years of Anquan Boldin. Green Bay, by comparison, was much more receiver-friendly for both Favre and Aaron Rodgers, and had playmakers such as Greg Jennings, Donald Driver, Jordy Nelson, and James Jones in that same time frame. It is reasonable to think that Davis would have remained a matchup nightmare for the Packers, but it is hard to see him eclipsing 900 receiving yards for Green Bay with those type of receivers splitting the receptions.

Add to that group Jermichael Finley, who almost surely would not have been drafted by the team in 2008 with Davis in the fold. Finley certainly had an up-and-down career for the Packers, but in a healthy prime he was just as scary for defenses as Davis. In fact, Finley might be a good barometer for the type of stats Davis would have produced in Green Bay. In his best seasons, Finley grabbed between 55 and 61 receptions, resulting in a maximum yardage mark of 767. While injury ultimately ended Finley’s career too soon, the Packers still were able to find a significant receiving tight end outside of Davis for a number of seasons.

While that need at tight end was eventually filled, Hawk solidified another need by starting all but two games at linebacker over his nine-year Packers career. He may not have been an All-Pro player as his draft slot would suggest, but he was a stellar collegiate player at Ohio State who would have been drafted in the top ten regardless of the Packers’ pick. Stability can be undervalued and Hawk was a model of leadership and toughness in the middle of the defense, especially for the Packers’ Super Bowl squad. His career tackles mark of 1,020 remains a franchise record.

Much of the struggles Hawk had as his career progressed were due to playing out of position at 3-4 inside linebacker, which impacts the overall Davis-Hawk debate. When he was drafted in 2006, Hawk was penciled in as the right outside linebacker in the team’s 4-3 defense. He actually had two of his better seasons statistically in that role his first two years with the team, posting 4.5 sacks and contributing to eight turnovers. But when Green Bay hired Dom Capers to run the 3-4 defense for the 2009 season, Hawk was a positional casualty and moved to the middle alongside Nick Barnett. The change was not perfect for Hawk, whose size allowed offensive linemen to engulf him a times in the running game and whose struggles in coverage were exposed on third down. While Hawk still got in the action for 10 turnovers from that position and was used as a blitzer toward the end of his tenure, he was just an average middle linebacker by NFL standards.

Had Hawk been drafted even in the middle of the first round, it is hard to find many fans that would scoff at his consistency and contribution to the Packers franchise. But the expectations that came from being drafted in the top five certainly put a damper on his career. Had Davis been a flop, perhaps Hawk’s career would be looked at from a much different perspective as well.

Still, with the Packers’ receiving corps in place at the time, Finley’s arrival, Hawk’s stability, and his unfortunate positional swap, the debate of Hawk over Davis remains more complicated than meets the eye.