A.J. Hawk forever will be a lightning rod.
He makes a lot of money, with a cap charge of more than $6.53 million for this past season.
He doesn't make many impact play. While his three sacks matched his total from 2009 through 2011, Hawk for a second consecutive season wasn't involved in any turnover-producing plays (no interceptions, forced fumbles or recoveries.
He's essentially a part-time player. With Dom Capers' major offseason adjustment being the implementation of the dime defense, Hawk was off the field for about one-third of the snaps this season.
As the NFL quickly evolves to spread offenses and with quarterbacks becoming more of a factor in the running game, it's as if Hawk is becoming a football dinosaur. The Packers wouldn't have won the Super Bowl without him in 2010. When the Packers lost to the 49ers on Saturday night, Hawk was the least of the problems. Nonetheless, even while facing a run-heavy offensive attack, Capers had Hawk off the field for 23 of the 80 snaps.
Asked specifically about Hawk's performance against the 49ers, position coach Winston Moss said: "A.J. played well overall. His coverage on Vernon (Davis on the swift tight end's 44-yard reception) was excellent but there could have been some coverage to help out that could have taken that play away. Otherwise, being able to play inside, I was fine with his performance. 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 is good at playing his role. He's a fine run defender who showed a better nose for the football. Even with his limited snap count, Hawk led the team with 142 tackles. ProFootballFocus.com has a stat called "stops" that measures solo tackles that result in an "offensive failure," such as a tackle on first-and-10 that limits the play (run or pass) to 3 yards or less. Hawk had 54 stops, which ranked 13th among the 34 inside/middle linebackers who played 50 percent of their team's snaps. That's up from just 28 stops last season.
Talking purely run defense, Hawk's 43 stops on 363 running plays gave him the fifth-best percentage (11.8) among inside/middle linebackers. Last year, Hawk was next-to-last with 17 stops on 300 running plays (5.7 percent).
He's also one of the better tacklers at the position, ranking eighth in PFF's tackling efficiency. That's up from 24th last season.
"A.J. Hawk impressed with the consistency, reliability," Moss said. "He stepped up in point-of-attack tackles. Overall, his production was excellent in a reduction in snap count."
Rest of the depth chart
In a stroke of coaching genius, the Packers shifted Brad Jones from outside linebacker to inside linebacker during the offseason. With Desmond Bishop not playing a snap and his replacement, D.J. Smith, going down in Week 6, Jones played about as well as you could ask. To limit Hawk's exposure in pass coverage, the Packers went with Jones as the every-down inside linebacker and continued to pull Hawk in dime. He finished third with 102 tackles, including 10-plus in the final four regular-season games, and added two sacks, a forced fumble and led the group with six passes defensed.
"Brad Jones impressed overall with everything he did," Moss said, "from taking over, run game, blitz — didn't have a chance to blitz as much as I would have liked — but his pass technique was excellent. Any time he was matched up, whether they were running backs, tight ends or receivers, he did an excellent job."
Bishop, arguably the second-best defender on the team behind Clay Matthews, tore his right hamstring in the preseason game at San Diego. The Packers sorely missed his aggression, violence, versatility and playmaking ability. In 2011, he had 142 tackles, five sacks and two forced fumbles in 13 games. In 2012, the position group provided seven sacks and one forced fumble.
Smith tore his ACL during the Week 6 game at Houston. He contributed 42 tackles, two sacks and four passes defensed. Robert Francois (13) Jamari Lattimore (10) finished second and fourth in special-teams tackles. Rookie Terrell Manning, his development derailed by a virus that sent his weight tumbling during camp, added three special-teams tackles. His speed makes him an intriguing prospect.
C: Like we wrote about the safeties, the inside linebackers were solid. But the impact plays just weren't there. Look, for instance, at San Francisco's Pro Bowl duo of NaVorro Bowman and Patrick Willis. They combined for seven turnover plays. Jones had the only one for Green Bay. Bobby Wagner, who the Packers brought in for a predraft visit, had three interceptions for Seattle.
When Bishop returns, the unit will automatically be better.
"It's going to be a crowded room, it's going to be a competitive room," Moss said. "You'd expect that to make those guys better."
Hawk and Jones might have formed an outstanding duo even five years ago. However, the NFL has changed — and will continue to change with the running success of Colin Kaepernick, Robert Griffin III and Russell Wilson and the influx of the read option.
Does that mean the end of the line for Hawk, despite his improved production? He's got cap charges of $7.05 million in 2013, $7.55 million in 2014 and $8.05 million in 2015. That's a lot of money for a player who was on the sideline for more than 400 snaps in the regular season. However, it's worth noting that Bishop, Jones, Smith and Manning play the "mack" position (weak side) and Hawk and Francois play the more physical "buck" position.
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Bill Huber is publisher of Packer Report magazine and PackerReport.com and has written for Packer Report since 1997. E-mail him at email@example.com, or leave him a question in Packer Report's subscribers-only Packers Pro Club forum. Find Bill on Twitter at twitter.com/PackerReport.