The Packers officially released nine-year veteran linebacker A.J. Hawk on Wednesday, signaling the end of a tenure that saw the 2006 draft’s fifth overall pick start 136 regular season games for Green Bay and win a Super Bowl in 2010. For the Packers, the move comes at a time where they are in danger of losing several priority free agents and the release of Hawk will free some valuable space on their cap. Could the Giants be beneficiaries?
In analyzing the return rate of top picks in the draft, A.J. Hawk falls into the grey area of the usually binary classification of top prospects as superstars and busts. Coming off the board fifth overall in 2006, Hawk as a 4-3 linebacker was as highly a sought after a prospect as they come at a position where the best players usually don’t come off the board until later in round one. He never looked the athletic specimen his workouts showcased he would be though and he would never receive a Pro Bowl or All-Pro selection his entire career in Green Bay.
On the other hand, Hawk was a starter from day one until the end of this past season and a model of durability. He would start for Green Bay at several linebacker positions, including weak side and inside in a 4-3 as well as more recently inside in a 3-4. He was respected in the locker room and seen as a leader. In his prime, Hawk was a solid player but rarely spectacular. His role this past year was essentially as a two-down linebacker and the usually durable Hawk was held back by an ankle injury, leading to the poorest season of his career. Is age catching up, or can he still offer a team like the Giants something at age 31?
As I wrote in a piece earlier this week on the team’s draft needs and potential targets, the linebacker core has to be considered one of the bigger problem areas for Jerry Reese going forward. There is no doubt however that there are more important needs to address, and especially as it pertains to free agency a limited amount of resources to fix them. The attractive aspect for Jerry Reese from the get-go with Hawk is that his price is going to be modest. As the pending franchise tag or long-term deal for Pierre-Paul threatens to eat up a significant chunk of the available cap, Reese will be scrambling with the remaining available cap space to find solutions at other pressing areas of need like offensive line and safety.
Hawk returning to his original position on the weak side in a 4-3 on the surface is an attractive prospect, but his recent relegation to a more limited role in Green Bay is an indicator of declining athleticism. More likely, the utility of Hawk for the Giants comes as a like-for-like replacement for Jon Beason. Hawk’s leadership and skillset at this point is similar to Beason, but has been throughout his career a significantly more durable player. The injury factor as it relates to Beason will be key in how Jerry Reese addresses the linebacker position.
Beason is the on-field soul of the defense, but his release can free up the space necessary to bring in a player like AJ Hawk who generally has been much more durable. Speaking at the NFL combine Jerry Reese was noncommittal on Beason’s future, and it’s something to keep an eye on going into free agency. Should Reese decide that Jon Beason’s health status is too unreliable, look for AJ Hawk to be a pursued alternative.