Tuesday, April 7, 2009

Watershed Year for AJ Hawk

I happened across MJ Kasprzak's writeup of our linebackers over at The Frozen Tundra, and I thought a lot of what he brought up was insightful. He is pretty optimistic, as we all should be when the record is 0-0, but he did bring up the transition to the 3-4 is not guaranteed.

The one writeup that stood out to me was that of AJ Hawk, who had what could best be described as an off year in 2008.

A.J. Hawk, ILB (6'1", 248 lbs., four years): 3.0 sacks, 86 tackles, 67 solo

There has begun to be some rumblings about Hawk's performance, but he had 14 more tackles than the next-highest teammate*. He also looked better once he was moved over to middle linebacker from the weakside, a position he was better-suited for with good size and only above-average speed.

He should also excel in the new system, as he is versatile: Hawk is an excellent open-field tackler, can cover in a zone or man-to-man, and was 2008's best pass-rushing linebacker. He is physical enough to shake blockers and is developing better instincts as he gains experience.

I found MJ's writeup pretty optimistic, because there's a lot of people out there naysaying him at this point...so much as to be calling Hawk's pick a bust. Greg Bedard over at the JSOnline Blog had this to say:

But Thompson's draft choices since he was hired to run his own ship with the Packers illustrate the hit and miss history associated with the first round:

2005, QB Aaron Rodgers (24th overall): Looks like it will pay off well, but could we have said the same if he didn't have the luxury of sitting behind Brett Favre for three years? Not many teams can afford that.
2006, LB A.J. Hawk (5th): A solid pro but hasn't had near the impact a player taken that high should. Doesn't appear he ever will.
2007, DT Justin Harrell (16th): Uh, yeah.
2008, Traded out of 30th pick.

Thompson has batted, arguably, 1 for 3 on his first-round picks with the Packers in terms of impact and where they were drafted. Not great at all. Two out of three when you use King's bar of being a consistent starter. Better, but should Hawk be a success if he's just a consistent starter?

Now, in both defense of MJ and Bedard, it is still too early to classify Hawk as a success or failure. But the whispers are out there that Hawk may not even land a starting spot in 2009, even if they add a linebacker position.

This gets to me a bit, because around this time three years ago, there was no one who was campaigning harder for Hawk than me. I really felt that he was the smartest, safest pick. Face it, after missing on Mandarich and Buckley, can the Packers afford to whiff on yet another top 5 pick?

Hawk's draft reports all seemed to say the same thing: great work ethic, workout warrior, lot of potential. He had very few negatives other than his height.

Thinking back though, there were always some questions about how low his ceiling might be. And when you are drafting at #5 overall and taking a playmaking position like linebacker, you end up having the expectations that he should be Ray Lewis by this point in time.

But, as we are seeing, he hasn't become the breakout star many would have liked. This doesn't necessarily surprise me. I remember saying several times that if all he ever ended up being was the next John Anderson, then we would have made a good pick. Maybe a Pro Bowl here and there, but solid play from a solid person. It's better than investing that kind of coin and having him bust.

For some folks like Bedard, this isn't quite enough, and it is understandable. Hawk isn't a game-changer at this point, and it does appear like he regressed last year. But while I was concerned about how low his ceiling was, I was also confident that his basement was high.

In other words, Hawk isn't going to bomb out, a la Terrell Buckley or Tony Mandarich. We just don't know how good (or great) he will be.

Now, in the NFL, there are players that you can put on any team and that player will instantly make the players around him better. Reggie White, of course, comes to mind as that kind of player.

AJ Hawk is not one of those kinds of players, and I don't think he will be. But, I also think there are types of players in the NFL who have higher plateaus when surrounded with great players. Robert Ferguson, for example, could be placed with the best talents and put in the best schemes, and while his level of play would increase, it was negligible compared to other talents. There are players that just seem to rise to greatness when placed in good situations and are surrounded by good people.

This is the type of player that I see Hawk as...if you get the right people around him and put him in the right situations, you will see a high ceiling. Last year, he didn't have that.

For one, the Packers were reeling from the offseason drama with Favregate. Secondly, there was clearly a rift among the defensive coaches that directly or indirectly led to the linebacking corps being the most disappointing squad on the field, with the defensive line close behind.

In other words, the front seven of the Packer defense last year underperformed from front to back, and Hawk underperformed with the rest of them. But, he isn't solely to blame for the defense's woes last year, and the transition to a Dom Capers' 3-4 (or hybrid) brings some new life.

In 2007, our linebacking corps was pretty good. I am a subscriber to the philosophy that the entire defense underperformed, but the talent and the potential is still there. I also am hopeful that Capers is going to bring out the best in the talent we have, and put them in positions to execute.

In other words, I think this is going to be Hawk's year to shine. If you remember, last year around this time many of us were writing off another third-year Thompson pick, saying he was likely to lose his starting job to a street free agent or a draftee.

Who was that guy we were so down on a year ago? Nick Collins.

I think Hawk is going to prove a lot of people wrong this year, and as Capers creates a healthy climate and keeps everyone on the same page, many of the players are going to return to the levels they played at in 2007. And for a guy like Hawk, who I believe thrives on having that around him, that will be welcome news.

Let's not get ahead of ourselves. A couple things that Kasprzak mentioned in his write up made me take pause, particularly his assessment that Hawk "can cover in a zone or man-to-man". Anyone who watched a game knows that coverage isn't one of Hawk's strengths right now. The idea that, with his size, he can play the middle and shed offensive linemen blockers is something I'd rather see before I buy into it.

No, Hawk may never be a superstar, and may never be a true game-changer. But, I think this is the year that, like Nick Collins, we are going to get a good look at why he was drafted and what havoc he can wreak on defense. One thing for sure: Dom Capers and Winston Moss are going to put him in the position to prove himself.

From there on, its up to him.

* Just a note on how whacked-out the Packers' defense was...yes, Hawk did lead the team in tackles. But take a look at the next guys in the rankings: Nick Collins (a safety), Brandon Chillar (backup linebacker), Tramon Williams (backup cornerback), and Charles Woodson (cornerback). By the time we get to starting linebackers and defensive linemen, Poppinga, Kampman, and Barnett ranked 6th, 7th, and 9th in tackles. So, yes, saying Hawk led the team and had 14 more than "the next highest player" sounds good, but your defense is messed up when your secondary is making more tackles than your front four. Period.


IPB said...

First off, I see a lot of packerfan websites somehow going ga-ga over Greg Bedard. Not sure I feel like getting on that bandwagon just yet. Most of the Personnel at JS have pushed quite a bit of slanted reporting over the Gunslinger Soap Opera. So much, in fact, that unless you lived in and around Milwaukee or Green Bay, then you didn't hear much nor read much of what made those fans vote 75% Mgmt in the whole Saga. I'll wait for awhile to see whether this (?) insightful reporting has any lasting value.

As for AJ Hawk being in an off-year. I've questioned whether or not his Wife is interfering with his focus on the game. He did get married right away and Wives will use a man's job as something to compete with. It's what women do. I also think (seriously) that AJ had some issues in the weight room, last season. I would like to think that Redding will correct that problem. Everyone on the team seemed to get winded in the 4th quarter, last season.

I do wish Hawk was a bit more nimble on his feet. He could have avoided Al Harris. I agree AJ should be showing flashes of Ray Lewis by now. All of packerfandom was happy we picked AJ Hawk. It didn't shock anyone, but who cares.

I would go so far as to say that when Hawk was drafted, Barnett should have moved immediately, so as to allow AJ hisnormal playing position. maybe that has had something to do with his caliber of play, to date.

Personally, I think Bedard toots his own horn a bit too much. He has days where his writeups are solid. Other days, it's nothing more than blogging as opposed to real sports writing. This Article you cite would be the latter.

Easily 50% of all draft picks usually fail. If, so far, all we have to worry about is Justin Harrell, then I'm fairly satisfied with TT's success to date. You mention rating AJ with Anderson. That's fair. I would buy into that. As far as giving TT a failing grade? Nah. Ron Wolf drafted John Michels. How long did he last. And, wasn't it also injury issues?

One of your better assessments, C.D.

Totally agree that the Defense was basically held together with band-aids and velcro. Again, hopefully this is something that Redding can train away. Wish they'd let me setup a lawn chair to watch the workouts.

C.D. Angeli said...

To be honest with you, IPB, as much as I kind of like Pelissaro and Bedard's candor, you almost seem to think they are becoming more "bloggish". I think we need to look to the professional journalists to keep that journalistic integrity and leave the opinions and "taking sides" to us amateurs. It's the whole ESPNization of the media. But, I digress.

Never thought much about Hawk's wife. You would think with a husband and a brother as NFL players, she'd have a lot more insight into what it takes to support him.

Actually, Patty from PackerChatters summed up the success of draft picks in a way that makes sense: 33% live up to their draft position, 33% end up playing at a lesser level, and 33% bottom out. I think Hawk is hovering in that middle area, as I think he is a good starter, but I'd like to see him move up into that top area.

The defense will be better. It can't get much worse!

Tommy said...

I've been just the opposite, I was against A.J. Hawk from way back when he was in Ohio State, because I watched how he picked up most of his tackles - by joining in a pile, and OSU gave everyone a tackle. His stats were artificially raised because of this.

This is it, if he can't pull through this year I think he's officially a bust. He's the only Packer I can truly say I've never liked.