In the spring of 2006, there were few in the Packer blogosphere who petitioned harder for AJ Hawk to be taken with the #5 overall pick in the draft than yours truly. To me, of the players that would still be available, it was a slam dunk. Oh, there were certainly some folks who were screaming for the freakish talent of Vernon Davis over the fears of Hawk's low ceiling, but in the end, we all seemed happy with the pick, at the time.
Fast forward two-and-a-half seasons and AJ Hawk has turned in a solid, yet flawed perfomance. Even more, the promise of the 2007 season led us to believe that Hawk was in store for his breakout season this year. Unfortunately, putting it as succinctly as possible, he's probably taken a step back this year.
So, when it was announced this week that Hawk was going to move to the middle linebacker slot vacated by injured Nick Barnett, it made me reflect back on that draft, and how that impacts this game against the Bears.
In 2006, there were an assortment of players that the Packers were going to have the benefit of being able to pick early in the draft, though it was murmured that this wasn't a particularly strong draft class. Mario Williams, Vince Young, Reggie Bush, D'Brickeshaw Ferguson, Vernon Davis, Michael Huff, and Hawk were considered the top tier of players in the draft. And of those seven, three would fall to the Packers at pick #5.
Most of us believed (correctly) that Bush, Young, and Williams would be gone by the time we got to pick, so most of the debate ran around Davis, Ferguson, and Hawk (personally, I had Huff as my second choice). As I looked at the scouting reports, we saw a range of promise. Ferguson was the likely bookend tackle you could put in and not worry about for ten years. Hawk was the solid, if unspectacular dynamo, and Davis was the boom-or-bust freakish talent.
The reason I got behind Hawk wasn't some product of my intensive study of measurables and viewing of hours of game film. I looked at scouting reports and one thing stood out to me: of all the lists of negatives, Hawk had the shortest list.
Well, it wasn't quite as simplistic as all that, but the idea was there....Hawk was the least risky pick. Overly conservative, I stand accused. But we witnessed the impact of the misfires of Tony Mandarich and Terrell Buckley on the team, realizing you can't afford to mess up when you get one of the first picks of young talent. The Jamal Reynolds lesson taught us that under today's draft cap, a early pick mistake not only costs you talent, it can tie up money in your cap for years, even if the players sits and rots on the inactive list.
I looked at Hawk, and felt that he did have some faults. He was short for a linebacker, a trait that would likely limit him to the weak side, mostly covering runners out of the backfield in coverage. I knew that he might be limited in terms of stats...Will linebackers aren't necessarily known for making huge impacts on the game when compared with the Urlachers and Ray Lewises of the NFL. I felt that critics would start picking apart his numbers and saying he wasn't worth his draft status or contract, when most weak siders aren't put into a position to make plays as often.
People said that he had a very low ceiling. When playing with a draft pick that high, I was happier than he had a very high basement. I proposed that, at worst, we'd have the next John Anderson, able to fill a hole solidly for the next ten years. If you think about it, when compared to the Mandariches and Buckleys, getting a solid position player seems like a better use of a draft pick than spinning the wheel on a high-ceiling/low-basement guy like Davis.
In retrospect, of the players available to the Packers at #5, Hawk has probably been the best pick. Both Huff and Davis have recently been benched by their respective coaches. But Hawk's struggles since his rookie year with pass coverage has been a liability at times. Now that Hawk appears to be struggling even more with basic pursuit and tackling, it almost seemed as if Hawk was on his way to joining them. The acquisition of Brandon Chillar had already impacted AJ's playing time, and it wouldn't have surprised me if Hawk may have taken more and more of a seat as the season went on.
But now, Hawk is getting his golden opportunity, the chance to not only regain a full-time starting position, but to do even more: Hawk gets a chance to take over the middle linebacker position, likely have the green-dot helmet and make the defensive play calls and adjustments, and most of all, to be put in the position to make all the plays that we were wishing Nick Barnett would be making.
This doesn't change his limitations, and his height may be cause for some concern. But this is a chance for Hawk to show the flash and high-energy that we drafted him for. Height isn't everything, and certainly players can succeed, even at less than prototypical height. Hawk's endless motor and fanatical attention to study of plays and gameplans may well work to his advantage in the middle. It can also give him the opportunity to simply break loose, play all-out, put all that athleticism to good use.
There's no doubt that this game is going to be a rough one for him. The entire front seven has struggled and underperformed all year, and the linebackers on each side of him (Poppinga and, likely, Brandon Chillar) have both been inconsistent, too. The injuries along the defensive line (Justin Harrell and Jeremy Thompson) means that all three linebackers are going to be very busy in stopping the run game. And since Chicago often runs a two tight-end set, the outside backers are going to be busy enough.
In other words, he's not going to get a lot of help from the guys around him.
But this is Hawk's chance to really make a name for himself, struggles or not. No one likes to see an injury, but if this ends up being Hawk's true position for the future, chances are without Barnett's injury we would never have had a coaching staff that would have been willing to shake things up enough to find it.