When the Packers plucked A.J. Hawk fifth overall three years ago, they inherited a Pro Bowl lock. The safest pick amid a slew of boom-or-bust playmakers came in the form of a beastly linebacker with a retro mop trickling out of his helmet.
Hawk was the basement, the foundation from which Green Bay's defense would flow. Finally, the linebacker-deprived Packers had secured a modern-day Nitschke. Any notion to the contrary had to be narcotically driven.
The Packers expected to pencil Hawk in at weak-side linebacker for 15 years.
The reality may be three years.
Sift through those dizzying Under Armour commercials, forget the $37.5 million contract and block out the "he's steady" assumptions, and you see the real A.J. Hawk. Sloppy in pass coverage, soft in run support and too top-heavy to make a consistent impact.
Forty-six games in, Hawk hasn't altered his collegiate tendencies. In the Big Ten — where athletes are as fast as molasses — he could settle with arm tackles and kill shots. In the pros, Hawk's style translates to soft bear-hugs 5 or 7 yards downfield.
Against Jacksonville on Sunday, it was more of the same. One week after getting dragged — literally dragged — downfield by 5-foot-9, 203-pound Steve Slaton, Hawk was dreadful again. Against a bland, lifeless Jacksonville offense, Green Bay's defense was torched again in crunch time. At the epicenter of these by-air and by-foot collapses this season is Hawk —guilty on both fronts.
Oh, Hawk teases. Like his blink-of-an-eye sack of David Garrard in the fourth quarter. Every four games or so, Hawk provides an Ohio State flashback, a taste of potential. The teases quickly sour, though. Reality is never far away. On the next play, a third-and-18, Dennis Northcutt burned Hawk for 17 yards. And on the ensuing fourth-and-1, Garrard shimmied around Hawk for a first down.
Instead of forcing the Jaguars to punt and getting the ball back with a 13-7 lead, the Packers gave up a touchdown five plays later.
The sequence was a petri dish of Hawk's career with the Packers: inconsistent and unreliable.
Tight ends have feasted on him all season — even backups. Remember Billy Miller's lumbering route-and-catch for a score three weeks ago? Against the run, he's average at best. Hawk led the Packers with eight solo tackles on Sunday. But therein lies the illusion of Green Bay's only top-five pick in the past 17 years. While Hawk has eclipsed 100 tackles the past two years, most of them are head-slapping stops near the first-down marker. He doesn't possess the low center of gravity needed to stuff runs near the line of scrimmage.
Rather than plugging holes with a jolt and stopping backs with leverage, Hawk absorbs ball-carriers high. Maybe it's a bad habit that's too hard to break. Maybe Hawk is too top-heavy to maneuver on this level. Whatever the reason, Hawk is hardly the gap-plugging, back-guzzling linebacker the Packers envisioned three years ago.
If you're looking for a scapegoat on the Packers' horrid defense this season, Hawk is a good place to start. There's plenty of blame to toss around: an injured/inefficient secondary, Cullen Jenkins' season-ending injury, no pass rush opposite Aaron Kampman, Bob Sanders' scheme, the stubborn man-to-man coverage. You name it, nearly everybody's to blame.
But Hawk was the one piece of the puzzle that should have never gone awry. After totaling 4.5 sacks and three interceptions in his first two seasons, it became expected that maybe Hawk wasn't the playmaker everyone envisioned. This year, his fundamental flaws have been exposed. Sure, his sternum and groin injuries may be lingering. But Hawk has digressed tremendously this season — to a point where linebackers coach Winston Moss said "we need to get more production out of him" last week.
As the losses mount, so does the pending 2008 fallout. Someone's head must roll for this defensive implosion. If Ted Thompson idly stands pat for a third straight offseason, his once-secure job status should be questioned. The unit he so methodically constructed must now he deconstructed. Who stays, who goes should be the overriding theme from February to August.
Hawk is no longer invincible. After four straight lackluster games, Green Bay must test-drive Desmond Bishop over these last two games. Moss said that when his job is on the line, he puts the best three linebackers on the field. So, why not vault Bishop to weak side against Chicago and Detroit and see if this special-teams kamikaze could be a long-term answer? Two weeks ago, he was a $20 bill in a garbage pile, amassing 12 tackles, one sack and two forced fumbles in the disaster against Houston.
With playoff hopes officially squashed, Bishop deserves a look. Hawk's ceiling has topped out.
Maybe the real draft pick that burned the Packers defense wasn't Justin Harrell. No. Maybe it was Hawk. Because after getting gutted by a jitterbug running back yet again, 350-pound sumo-in-pads Haloti Ngata sure would look good in a green-and-gold uniform.
Tyler Dunne writes for Packer Report. E-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Hawk goes from solution to problem
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