Availability Wins Out for Veteran Hawk

Desmond Bishop is gone. Brad Jones is in. A.J. Hawk? Well, he's never left. For the Packers, that seems to be just fine at the inside linebacker position. For what Hawk might lack in creating impact plays, he makes up for by being counted on each week.

A.J. Hawk has always been there for the Green Bay Packers.

When the team needed a safe pick at No. 5 overall in the 2006 NFL Draft during a transitional period for the franchise, Hawk was the man.

When Nick Barnett went down in 2008 and the defense needed an inside linebacker to take his spot, Hawk moved over from outside linebacker and barely missed a beat.

And when general manager Ted Thompson needed some salary cap room to negotiate contracts with the Packers' megastars this off-season, Hawk was willing to work with the team on his own contract to make that happen.

As big-hitting inside linebacker Desmond Bishop leaves (he was released this week), the much less flashy Hawk is set to embark on his eighth training camp with the Packers. Only three other teammates – Aaron Rodgers, Jarrett Bush and Ryan Pickett – can lay claim to such longevity on the practice fields in Green Bay.

Staying relatively healthy – not only for game days, but practice as well – has been Hawk's saving grace in Green Bay. One could argue that Bishop and Barnett were better players at inside linebacker, but neither could stay on the field on a consistent basis quite like Hawk. For this Packers' coaching staff, Hawk's availability, if not his production, means everything.

Hawk has missed just two of a possible 122 games (including the playoffs) in his career. He has been remarkably durable at a position that demands it, and for that, he has become the Packers' resident ironman on defense.

Until a calf strain on Thanksgiving Day 2011 at Detroit forced him to the game day inactive list for the first (and only) time in his career, Hawk had run off a streak of 101 consecutive games played (97 starts) since being drafted by the Packers. Only Rodgers has been Hawk's equal as far as availability during that time frame. (Rodgers missed just one game, following a concussion, during the 2010 season.)

By contrast, the Packers' situation at the other inside linebacker spot has been much more unstable. Barnett, Hawk's teammate for five years in Green Bay, missed 24 games due to injury from 2006 through 2010. Wrist surgery during the Packers' Super Bowl season claimed the largest share of those games (16, including playoffs) for Barnett before he was released just as the following season's training camp began.

That offseason marked a changing of the guard at inside linebacker for the Packers. In a salary cap move, the Packers cut Hawk on March 2, 2011, only to re-sign him the following day to a re-structured deal. Bishop, who took over Barnett's spot in 2010, played well enough to earn the starting spot alongside Hawk. But Bishop played in just 14 of a possible 35 games over the next two seasons due to injuries. The most damning was a torn hamstring in the 2012 preseason opener that put him on injured reserve for the entire season.

D.J. Smith, another inside linebacker the Packers released this offseason, was also unable to stay in the lineup. After six starts taking over for Bishop in 2012, he tore his ACL on Oct. 14 at Houston and was placed on injured reserve, too.

What Hawk may lack in impact plays when compared to Barnett, Bishop and even Smith, he makes up for by being counted on each week. Said assistant head coach/inside linebackers coach Winston Moss of Hawk following the Packers' forgettable playoff loss at San Francisco last season, "I thought he was consistent, as always. I thought he was disciplined, as always. For the most part, he played all the run fits and handled his gap responsibilities well. I think you've got to understand that as a defense, from a discipline standpoint — there were struggles all around where we didn't get the production, the consistency, the discipline, the execution that we needed."

Hawk has been selfless, too. Though he has seen his snaps diminish in recent years as the defense has become more specialized, he has rarely complained. And in addition to re-signing in 2011 after being cut, he took a pay reduction this offseason in advance of the Packers extending monster contracts for Rodgers and linebacker Clay Matthews. According to Packer Report's story on March 18, Hawk's salary reduction cleared an additional $1.85 million under the cap for 2013 and also cut the total worth of his deal by $7.5 million over the final three years. (Hawk's contract expires after the 2015 season.)

That means for at least another three years, Hawk will likely be staying in green and gold – just as he always has.

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Matt Tevsh has covered the Packers since 1996. E-mail him at matttevsh@hotmail.com

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