That day came on Wednesday when the Green Bay Packers released Hawk, the franchise’s career leader in tackles.
"I spent nine great years in Green Bay,” Hawk said in a statement released by the team. “I had awesome teammates and coaches and a great medical staff and equipment staff. Many of them have become my closest friends. We won a ton of games, as well as a Super Bowl, and I loved everything about playing for one of the greatest franchises in all of sports. The fans in Green Bay are incredible. Between playing at Lambeau Field as well as seeing them on the road, they always supported us. I am looking forward to my next opportunity in the NFL, but I'll always cherish my years as a Green Bay Packer."
Speaking on his Hawkcast, Hawk said he expected the move to be made and knew it was coming about a week ago. The announcement was put on hold until Hawk returned from an Ohio State charity cruise.
"I wasn’t taken by surprise," Hawk said. "They stayed awesome throughout this whole process. They’ve been super classy like they have my whole nine years there.”
Hawk turned 31 in January and was set to count $5.1 million against the salary cap in 2015, his final year under contract. The transaction frees up $3.5 million against the cap. Along with the release of Brad Jones last week and the NFLPA stating the salary cap will increase to $143 million, the Packers should be a little more than $33 million under the cap, according to OverTheCap.com. That’s quite the financial arsenal to take care of free agents Randall Cobb and Bryan Bulaga.
Hawk was the fifth pick of the 2006 draft out of Ohio State. Tough, unassuming and unselfish, Hawk showed up week after week after week. Injuries were part of the game and not anything to be talked about as an excuse. For instance, Hawk said that his diminished play in 2014 had nothing to do with playing hurt. After the season, however, Hawk had surgery to remove bone spurs in his ankle.
"I didn’t consider myself hurt. I wasn’t. I honestly still don’t feel that way," Hawk said. "It’s just things you’ve got to get taken care of when the season ends. Whether it’s considered lying to the people who asked me, I don’t look at it even as lying because I wasn’t in my mind. I wasn’t hurt. It’s just one of those deals you’ve got to get taken care of when your season’s over. There’s some things you can play with and there’s something you can’t and you’ve got to get taken care of right away, and this wasn’t something that I needed to get taken care of right away."
Hawk played in 142 of a possible 144 regular-season games, including 136 starts. Since the team began counting tackles in 1975, his 1,119 career tackles rank No. 1 in franchise history. Hawk led the team in tackles five times (2006, 2008, 2010, 2012 and 2013) and was selected for the Pro Bowl in 2010, when he helped the Packers win the Super Bowl.
He topped 100 tackles in seven of his nine seasons (2006 through 2008 and 2010 through 2013). He tallied 93 tackles in 2014, even while being demoted for the last five games of the regular season.
"A.J. is a consummate Packer and we are grateful for all that he has given and how he represented the organization over the past nine seasons," general manager Ted Thompson said. "He was a durable and consistent contributor to our success, but more importantly, he is a great person and teammate. The Packers are grateful for all that he has done on the field and in the community. We wish A.J., his wife Laura, and the rest of their family all the best."
Without Hawk and Jones and with free agent Jamari Lattimore unlikely to return, the top three players on the season-opening depth chart at inside linebacker probably will not return. That leaves behind only Sam Barrington, who replaced Hawk late in the season, and Carl Bradford, a fourth-round pick in 2014 who didn’t receive any playing time while transitioning from collegiate defensive end. Unless Clay Matthews, who rescued the defense upon moving into a part-time role at inside linebacker at the bye, is the long-term answer.
Either way, inside linebacker will be a priority in this year’s draft.
“Definitely, I think the inside linebacker position could probably be compared to where we were last year at the safety position,” coach Mike McCarthy said at the Combine. “Obviously, we had a number of moving parts there. So we’ll see what this process that we go through as far as player acquisition, how that affects it. I like the step Sam Barrington made. I thought he made a huge step and that’s what you look for once again. He’s a second-year player who needed to take a big step and Sam did that.”
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