Maybe the most impressive individual play linebacker A.J. Hawk made in his Green Bay Packers career was one that did not even count.
It came in the 2011 NFL season opener at Lambeau Field against the New Orleans Saints. The Packers were coming off a Super Bowl championship season and a fantastic game was about to come down to the final play. Trailing 42-34, the Saints faced a third-and-1 from the Packers’ 10 with just 3 seconds remaining. Quarterback Drew Brees bought some time out of the pocket and rolled to his right. Hawk, who had sagged into pass coverage, came out of his zone when Brees targeted running back Darren Sproles. As the ball was in the air Hawk soared, looking like Superman minus the cape, over the back of Sproles to deflect the pass away.
But even with the clock showing no time left, the game was not over yet.
The Saints were given one more untimed down from the 1-yard line after Hawk was flagged for pass interference. Replays confirmed that he had gotten there a little too early.
The same could be said for general manager Ted Thompson’s selection of A.J. Hawk nearly 11 years ago. Fair or not, Hawk will always be judged by going No. 5 overall in the NFL Draft ,which blurs the linebacker’s nine-year career in Green Bay.
“Everything is about expectations from the outside looking in and expectations for yourself,” said Hawk, who officially retired from the NFL this week as a Packer after last playing in Green Bay in 2014. “I guess at the time I was drafted, I wasn’t really too aware of how big of a commitment a team makes to take you at No. 5 overall.”
That Hawk went so high and failed to make the associated impact falls more on Thompson than it does on Hawk. One year after the surprise of drafting Aaron Rodgers in the first round – with Brett Favre still on the roster – Thompson nabbed what many billed as the safe pick in Hawk, which is just what the Packers got.
Hawk will never be remembered for making game-changing plays or tackles behind the line of scrimmage. And later in his career, even as he trained and shed weight to keep up with changing offenses, his limitations became apparent. Though tackles have only been tracked since 1975 in the Packers record books, Hawk departs as No. 1 in that category with 1,118, which is more of a reflection of his uncommon availability than his ability.
Hawk worked out diligently and played through pain at times that few knew about. He missed just two of a possible 144 regular season games in his Packers career.
“He’s just one of the toughest guys I’ve ever played with,” said quarterback Aaron Rodgers.
Hawk remains Thompson’s highest ever draft choice. It may be telling that the Packers have not taken an inside linebacker in the first, second, or even the third round since. There have been plenty of talented inside linebackers available over the years but the Packers have seemed to place less of a premium on the position based on their draft selections. The same goes for the lack of free agent signings. That should make Packers fans wonder if Thompson would draft Hawk again at No. 5 if he had a do-over despite a career that included a Super Bowl, a Pro Bowl and a possible spot in the Packers Hall of Fame.
Ex-teammates and coaches this week have remembered Hawk less for his on-the-field exploits and more for his intangibles. Leadership, professionalism, dependability and being a good teammate fall into that category. Few might remember that the Packers cut Hawk in 2011 to prevent paying him a large guaranteed option and that Hawk signed a day later on a re-worked deal. He then re-worked that deal in 2013 to save the Packers more money.
Had Hawk not been as flexible or a No. 5 overall draft pick he may not have lasted as long in Green Bay. Thompson tends to give his drafted players the benefit of the doubt and they tend to get more chances than players acquired through other means.
Because great plays like the one against the Saints were few and far between for Hawk, he probably falls outside the top 10 or even 15 best picks in the Thompson era. Then again, he will never fall in the category of say a Justin Harrell or Derek Sherrod.
“There’s obviously a million plays you’d love to have back and a couple more Super Bowl rings that I feel like we could have had while I was there,” said Hawk. “So you never fully live up to any expectations anyone places on you or that you have on yourself, I feel like. But overall, spending nine years in Green Bay, it’s been an absolute blessing. I’m super fortunate.”
GOING NO. 5 OVERALL
Here are the players that went No. 5 overall in the 10 years of the NFL Draft before and after the Packers took A.J. Hawk in 2006 (Pro Bowl selections are in bold):
2016 – Jalen Ramsey, CB, Jaguars
2015 – Brandon Scherff, T, Redskins
2014 – Kahlil Mack, LB, Raiders
2013 – Ezekiel Ansah, DE, Lions
2012 – Justin Blackmon, WR, Jaguars
2011 – Patrick Peterson, DB, Cardinals
2010 – Eric Berry, DB, Chiefs
2009 – Mark Sanchez, QB, Jets
2008 – Glenn Dorsey, DT, Chiefs
2007 – Levi Brown, T, Cardinals
2005 – Cadillac Williams, RB, Buccaneers
2004 – Sean Taylor, DB, Redskins
2003 – Terence Newman, DB, Cowboys
2002 – Quentin Jammer, DB, Chargers
2001 – LaDainian Tomlinson, RB, Chargers
2000 – Jamal Lewis, RB, Ravens
1999 – Ricky Williams, RB, Saints
1998 – Curtis Enis, RB, Bears
1997 – Bryant Westbrook, DB, Lions
1996 – Cedric Jones, DE, Giants
Matt Tevsh has covered the Packers since 1996. E-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org