Packers Profile: Hawk & ILBs

Senior writer jclombardi profiles ILB Hawk & linebackers status and future.

Consistent Hawk: Consistent. Hawk chuckled at the word, knowing full well its double meaning. It can be taken as a compliment, speaking to how reliable he has been (never having missed a game during his 82-game NFL career, registering more than 120 tackles in four of his five seasons). Or it can be seen as a euphemism, referring to his lack of big plays (8.5 sacks, six interceptions, two forced fumbles, four fumble recoveries in his career) and, according to most, his failure to live up to his lofty draft status. “It depends who you talk to,” Hawk said. “I think you can take it either way. Someone could say ‘consistent’ is a great thing; someone could say it’s not a good thing. “Consistency in life and in football, I would definitely look at it as a good thing.” Right now, that’s exactly what Hawk, who enters Sunday’s win-and-they’re-in game against the Chicago Bears aware, that it could be his last with the Packers, has. On the field, he has been the every-down linebacker he’d been earlier in his career, due to season-ending injuries to Barnett and Chillar. Hawk has taken over the huddle’s play-calling duties from Barnett. He also remains on the field for all defensive snaps. “He’s playing at a high level. That’s not a surprise,” said inside linebackers coach Moss who hasn’t been afraid to criticize Hawk in the past because of his lack of “impactful” plays. “In response to all of the distractions that could be going on and to really come on and play at a high level with a lot of production, fulfilling all the roles that he has, (being the) signal-caller, embracing all three downs. You couldn’t ask for anything more. I’m very pleased.” OLB Matthews made it clear that he hopes Hawk is back next year. “I think he is very much underappreciated.” Matthews said. “I think he’s done a fantastic job. In the two years I’ve been here, especially with all the injuries we’ve had this year, he’s kind of been the rock on the defense. He makes all the calls, he gets everybody lined up. The middle linebackers, they’re the stalwarts of the defense. For whatever reason, his contributions go unnoticed.”

LB Hawk steady through ups and downs: Hawk’s plight is nothing new to Packers fans. He put up strong numbers in his first four seasons, but, to borrow a phrase from cornerbacks coach Joe Whitt, Hawk hasn’t had those “splash plays.” Well, not enough to please some. Hawk’s role was reduced when defensive coordinator Dom Capers was hired and brought in the 3-4 scheme. He started inside in the base package, but was replaced in the nickel — which was used 60 percent of the time in 2009 and even more in 2010. In fact, Hawk never took a defensive snap in the season opener at Philadelphia as Brandon Chillar was on the field for nickel alignments. Fifteen games later, Hawk rarely leaves the field and was awarded the defensive game-ball after recording six tackles and an interception in a 45-17 win over the Giants. “A.J. was obviously wanting to play more before,” Capers said. “I’m sure this brought a smile to his face. To me, it’s a great example, if you hang in there through the course of the season, ups and downs, and you keep working, when you have an opportunity, you take advantage of it. “I’ve said all along, I think A.J.’s a good football player.” Hawk’s chance to play a more regular role came the same way as seven other starters through injury. The responsibility of making the calls shifted from Barnett to Hawk and he also stayed in on nickel downs. Inside linebackers coach Moss thinks that is when things changed.  “Two things happened,” Moss said. “Philadelphia. Not getting an opportunity to not have any kind of production. So, right off the start, it was almost one of those chip on the shoulders. When he got in there and Nick got hurt, and the defense was now his, the signal-caller, I think he took a lot of pride in that. It all kind of came together, this is my defense now. “It’s taken off from there.” Hawk leads the team with 121 tackles and ranks No. 2 with three interceptions. This makes a minimum of 121 tackles in four of five seasons. Coaches and teammates have always raved about his professionalism, but Moss admitted Hawk has increased his productivity.

Packers’ Desmond Bishop, A.J. Hawk shore up inside linebacker play: When the Packers played the Bears in Week 3, their inside linebackers in passing situations were Nick Barnett and Brandon Chillar. When the Packers line up in their nickel package Sunday against the Bears, they will have Desmond Bishop and A.J. Hawk on the inside. And there probably won’t be a noticeable difference. Of all the injuries the Packers have sustained, they’ve managed to cover up their losses at inside linebacker just fine. In fact, an argument could be made the Packers are better off now than they were before Barnett was lost for the season to a wrist injury in Week 4 and Chillar to a shoulder injury in late November. Hawk played only in the base defense alongside Barnett on obvious running downs to start the season but when Barnett went down, Hawk inherited the duties of being the defensive play caller, which means he would be on the field for all three downs. He’s been as solid as ever and has even made a few more big plays than in the past. Bishop moved into a starting role after Barnett got hurt and has been decent in coverage, which was Chillar’s specialty, but has become an even bigger playmaker.

Packers will have to pay to maintain depth at inside linebacker: Not many NFL teams could have lost Nick Barnett for the season after four games and Brandon Chillar to injured reserve after 11 games, and, basically, been no worse off. That’s one argument for holding onto depth rather than trading it. But that depth will take a hit this offseason because of costs. Desmond Bishop and A.J. Hawk in effect will be free agents — Bishop literally so, assuming the next collective bargaining agreement returns the eligibility minimum for free agency to four years. Hawk is scheduled to make $10 million in 2011, but that obviously isn’t going to happen, so he’ll either reach agreement on a new deal or know he’ll be cut and free to sign with any team. Barnett, 29, is scheduled to make $6.05 million in salary and bonus in 2011, and Chillar, 28, will make $2.6 million. Bishop and Hawk likely will cost in the $4 million range. There’s no way the Packers will pay four inside linebackers starters’ money. At least one will have to go. Chillar is the closest to a lock because he’s the cheapest and the best in pass coverage, a specialized skill that’s valuable to a team that plays nickel a majority of its defensive snaps. After that, any two of three could be back, depending on costs. Barnett is the most dynamic and accomplished player in the group, but he’s played a lot of NFL football as an every-down linebacker (113 games, playoffs included) with an abandon that has to have taken a toll on his 6-feet-2 and 236-pound frame, which is on the small side for his position. At his salary and age, it’s no guarantee he’s back. It’s all about bang for the buck, and the costs for Bishop and Hawk will be a factor there.  Hawk never became the playmaker the Packers projected when they drafted him but he’s shown more redeeming qualities this year. He hasn’t missed a game in his five years and in the second half of this season has played his most sound football. If the Packers offered him $3 million to $4 million a year, would he take it or think he could do better on the open market? Regardless, Bishop has been the better player of the two. Since becoming a starter in Week 5, he’s been the team’s leading tackler (74 tackles to Hawk’s 63) and for most of that time has played in the base and nickel defenses. After three long years waiting for his chance, Bishop has proven he’s a starting-caliber NFL player, a guy you can win with, a productive starter for a defense that ranks No. 2 in the NFL in scoring and No. 9 in yards allowed. The Packers want him back, but at what cost? Regardless, it’s hard to see the Packers paying Bishop at the level they paid Barnett. Barnett’s contract, signed in April 2007, paid him $11.5 million in the first year and averages $6 million a season. At the time he signed, he was one of the Packers’ best defensive players and at age 25 had just finished his fifth NFL season, all as a starter. But to get Bishop to forego his likely free agency, the Packers surely will have to pay him at least what they gave Chillar, if not more. In December 2009, Chillar signed a new five-year contract that averages from $3.8 million to $4.2 million a year. If the Packers pony up for Bishop, as their interest late this season suggests they’re inclined to do, then it’s down to Barnett or Hawk. There’s also the chance they’d go without either, draft an inside linebacker and go from there. But as this season showed, depth makes a difference. So the smart money says keep three to help weather any storms.

COMMENTARY: Beyond the fluff Packers press, this is a touch decision because these four quality veteran linebackers are needed in the Packers 3-4 defense.   We don’t see any of them going elsewhere. We see LB Barnett moving to OLB to complement OLB Matthews. Who may argue with that?

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