Leader of the Pack: Can A.J. Hawk Still Improve?
Good, not great. That is the level of play that the Green Bay Packers have received from inside linebacker A.J. Hawk since he turned pro in 2006. The former Ohio State standout never developed into the force the Packers expected for the middle of their defense. If a middle linebacker were to be a top-five NFL Draft pick today, as Hawk was, that player would have to rate as a once-in-a-decade, freakishly athletic, superstar in the making. Instead the Packers got an above-average football player with very few outstanding traits. Although he shows flashes of quickness at times, Hawk has never been considered overly fast and he lacks big play ability.
Hawk, despite some of his limitations, played arguably his best full season of football in 2013. For a linebacker who had developed a reputation for making most of his tackles 6-10 yards downfield, he greatly improved his recognition and pursuit to the ball last season. Let’s take an in-depth look at the story of the statistics.
Below we will analyze A.J. Hawk’s 2013-14 season statistics as well as his career totals. To put them into perspective, we will compare and contrast the numbers with those of three other current NFL inside linebackers. Each of these three players:
A.) Were drafted within one year of A.J. Hawk (2006)
B.) Were first-round draft picks in their respective classes
C.) Have considerable experience in a 3-4 defensive scheme
D.) Have played for one NFL team for their entire career
Without yet knowing the player identities and their career numbers, Hawk certainly held his own last season. His 118 combined tackles marked his fifth time surpassing the century mark. His five sacks and 44 assisted tackles were career-highs and he tied his career-best stuffs total with seven. Next, take a look at the career totals and you will pick up on some distinguishing factors between these four inside linebackers.
For those who don’t have football statistics memorized and are still pondering over the identity of each player:
Player A is Kansas City Chiefs standout Derrick Johnson (2005: R1, 15th overall).
Player B is San Francisco 49ers All-Pro Patrick Willis (2007: R1, 11th overall).
Player C is Pittsburgh Steelers star Lawrence Timmons (2007: R1, 15th overall).
Based on name recognition alone, many would choose at least one, if not all three, of those players to play for their team ahead of A.J. Hawk. Even as a widely-recognized player himself, the discrepancy between Hawk and this linebacking trio is fairly obvious. Although he trails behind in many critical categories, there is one area where Hawk has the advantage over his counterparts – his ability to stay on the field. The defensive leader has only missed two regular season games in his nine-year career. That is an impressive feat considering the level of physical punishment that linebackers take.
Improvements and Expectations
Can A.J. Hawk continue to improve? Yes. Will he? Don’t hold your breath.
Eight seasons is a large enough sample size to presume that Hawk won’t be transforming into a game-changer anytime soon. He is a consistent, serviceable player but nothing much more. He will get you your tackles (many of the assisted variety), he will get you a handful of sacks and he will provide useful experience and leadership for the rest of the Green Bay defenders. That is what the Packers faithful have come to expect from the man in the middle of their defense.
If something is going to change, it must start with turnovers. Dom Capers needs more turnovers as a result of ole number 50. While Hawk does have nine career interceptions, including a nifty one-hander in 2013, his three forced fumbles are downright unacceptable. Patrick Willis, who has played in 20 fewer games than the Packers linebacker, has 13 more forced fumbles. Thirteen more! Hawk’s erratic pass coverage and inadequate “killer instinct” have also led to lowly deflection (33) and stuff (34) totals. Obviously not every player can be Derrick Johnson, Patrick Willis or Lawrence Timmons, but Hawk’s game leaves much to be desired in the department of impactful plays.
Hawk signed a 3-year, $10.6 million ($2.21 million guaranteed) contract extension prior to the beginning of the 2013 season. His cap hit for each season is approximately $5.1 million which ranks sixth highest on the Packers roster and 26th highest among NFL inside linebackers. It would be an eye-opener to see number 50, who is set to become an unrestricted free agent in 2016, back in a Packers uniform once his current deal expires.
What are your thoughts on A.J. Hawk? Will he continue to improve his play into 2014 and beyond? Do you think the Packers consider re-signing him at the conclusion of his current contract? Drop your two cents in the comment section below!
Thank you for reading. Chris Licata is a Green Bay Packers team journalist for Pro Football Spot. You can follow him on Twitter @ChrisLicata16 or add him on Google+. For even more NFL content, sign up and interact in the PFS forums and follow us on Facebook, Twitter and Google+.