Hawk the 'safest pick' in draft

PackerReport.com's Steve Lawrence finishes his series on players the Green Bay Packers are most likely to select with the fifth overall pick in this weekend's NFL Draft.

Predicting who will fall into the Green Bay Packers' hands when they spend the fifth pick of the NFL Draft on Saturday is nearly impossible.

After all, who knows what the Saints will do at No. 2? Will they use it on defensive end Mario Williams, or will they trade down a couple spots to get linebacker A.J. Hawk? What quarterback will the Tennessee Titans draft at No. 3? The so-called sure thing, Matt Leinart, the wickedly athletic Vince Young, or the guy who's drawn comparisons to Brett Favre, home-state product Jay Cutler? With a lot of money locked into the quarterback position, will the Jets draft another one with the fourth pick?

With all of that indecision, this is the last of three columns in which I'll talk about the guys most likely to be available at No. 5, their strengths and weaknesses, how they could help the Packers and, finally, the percentage chance of them being drafted by Green Bay on Saturday.

We started Saturday with the quarterbacks, a position in which I see a 20 percent chance the Packers will take either Matt Leinart, Vince Young or Jay Cutler. I continued with offensive tackle D'Brickashaw Ferguson (10 percent) and tight end Vernon Davis (25 percent). Today, I conclude with the one player everyone thinks the Packers will wind up with: linebacker A.J. Hawk.

A.J. Hawk, linebacker, Ohio State, 45 percent

How good is Hawk? Only nine linebackers have been selected in the first round over the last five drafts. A linebacker hasn't been selected in the top five of since LaVar Arrington in 1999.

Those facts almost certainly will change on Saturday.

North Carolina State defensive end Mario Williams probably will be the first defensive player drafted, but most scouts agree Hawk is the best defensive player available.

That's the way the draft works; the "best player available" isn't always the choice. Hawk isn't a quarterback, and he isn't a quarterback-sacking defensive end. Nor is he a once-in-a-generation running back.

"It's a position where they say you don't want to draft a guy too high, because how much of an impact can a linebacker have?" Hawk said. "We're not a defensive end, who's going to come in and get 15, 18 sacks a year, and we're not a running back, who's going to come in and rush for 1,500 yards.

"There are three or four of us on the field, so I guess you can justify not taking one too high. All I want is a chance regardless of where I'm taken. I'll gladly go to any team that wants me."

Hawk, a two-time All-American, is called the "safest pick" in the draft by Cleveland Browns GM Phil Savage. Safe is good, considering the amount of money that will be paid in upfront money alone to a top-five pick.

"A.J. is the safest guy among the defensive players in this class, no question," Baltimore Ravens director of college scouting Eric DeCosta told the Toledo Blade. "Mario Williams may have a higher ceiling, but he has a lower floor.

"A.J. is tenacious, with great instincts, speed and burst. He's very, very fast; he's an excellent blitzer, can chase to the sidelines; a can't-miss guy. He can play in any scheme. He's got a great nose for the ball, and is going to be a great player."

Hawk's numbers are off the charts. While Packers middle linebacker Nick Barnett sometimes gets engulfed by guards, Hawk tips the scales at a stout 248 pounds. Yet, he runs the 40 in 4.45 seconds and has a 40-inch vertical jump. That vertical is better than that of Ohio State teammate Santonio Holmes, who may be the first wide receiver drafted.

He has a great attitude, too. While just about every one of the elite prospects skipped the scouting combine workouts, Hawk competed in all of them.

Yeah, but can he play? Hawk tallied 121 tackles and 9.5 sacks last season, and led Ohio State in tackles all three seasons he started. Because he played in the rugged Big Ten Conference, you know toughness isn't an issue. He was the Big Ten's defensive player of the year last season. He's not a whiz in coverage, but he was quick and smart enough to pick off seven passes during his collegiate career.

"It's been a long, long time since I've seen a guy like him," a defensive coordinator said at the February scouting combine. "It's not just because he's big, fast and strong, but he's smart. Even in the interviews, he was so attentive and into the details. You just don't see many players like him at any position."

Writes NFL.com senior draft analyst Gil Brandt: "To be a great linebacker, you need to have outstanding instincts, be a great competitor, be able to get off blocks, drop into coverage, and be a good tackler. Hawk has them all, plus outstanding character. This is a very intense player with great work habits. He did not miss a practice or game at Ohio State. He's only 6-1, but Hall of Fame linebacker Mike Singletary was under 6-feet."

Perhaps best of all, Hawk fills a huge need — especially with Arrington choosing the Giants over the Packers — and he would love to land in Green Bay.

"Any team that wants me, I'll gladly go, especially to a team like Green Bay," he said. "With the tradition they have, the fans they have, it would be unbelievable."

The question to answer if you're Thompson: Is Hawk the best player who is best able to help the Packers immediately? If so, the choice is easy. If not, then Thompson will select tight end Vernon Davis or trade down to pick up extra picks to fill other holes.

Lawrence is a regular contributor to PackerReport.com. Send comments to steve_lawrence_packers@yahoo.com.

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