A.J. Hawk: Everything But Great
by Walter Rhein
Who is the Packers all time leading tackler?
Ray Nitschke comes to mind, but the Packers did not begin tracking tackles until 1975, so he and some other big names are out of the running. Still, some good to great linebackers have come through Green Bay since the ’70s: John Anderson, Bryce Paup, Johnny Holland, Tim Harris, Mike Douglass, Fred Carr, Nick Barnett, even Brian Noble. However, I think most Packer fans would be surprised to learn that according to Packers.com, the team’s all time leading tackler is none other than A.J. Hawk.
A.J. Hawk? The guy who got released twice in his time with Green Bay?
The fifth overall pick of the 2006 draft, A.J. played nine seasons for the Packers, leading the team in tackles for five of those seasons. He was also a Super Bowl champion and pro-bowl alternate in 2010 and 2011. Hawk was rarely injured, always ready to play, and not prone to making mistakes. As a fixture on the defense for nearly a decade, you’d think Hawk would be a revered figure in Packers lore, but oddly he’s kind of an afterthought.
About halfway through Hawk’s career, the fans perspective of Hawk began to change. They perceived him to be reliable and effective, but not particularly prone to impact plays and the mutterings for need of an “upgrade” began. Had Hawk been an unheralded sixth-round pick or an undrafted free agent, he’d probably have gone down in history as a fan favorite. But as the fifth overall pick in the first round, people expected more.
Is that really fair?
It’s easy to think of a high draft pick as a slam dunk, but history shows otherwise. Mark Sanchez (2009) isn’t a name that fans fawn over, and Justin Blackmon (2012) is still suspended for violating the league’s substance abuse policy. There are some great players who were taken fifth overall such as Junior Seau in 1990. However, the list of fifth overall picks is not heavily populated with players of Seau’s caliber. For every Deion Sanders (1989), there’s a Terrell Buckley (1992). A.J. Hawk is not either of those extremes, but if you get a guy who plays nine years and becomes the franchise’s all time leading tackler, you’re ahead of the curve.
Part of the case against Hawk might have been set down back in 1996. The Packers were in need of a middle linebacker, and Ron Wolf had grown enamored with a young man in Miami by the name of Ray Lewis. Sitting at #27 overall, the Packers watched Lewis fall and fall and fall only to be snatched away at pick 26, leaving the Packers to take OT John Michels, from USC. To come that close to an era-dominant player and end up with a guy who started only 14 games leaves the fan base with a lingering emotional trauma.
A similar thing happened in 2000. The Packers were still in need of a middle linebacker and Wolf was excited about New Mexico’s Brian Urlacher, who he called a “slam dunk.” Urlacher slipped off the board at #9, leaving the Packers to grab Bubba Franks at #14. Bubba made some pro bowls, but he was no Brian Urlacher.
I’m the first to admit that Packer fans have received more than their fair share of good fortune with QB play. The run goes beyond Rodgers and Favre, all the way back to Starr and Herber. In the nearly hundred year history of the franchise, the Packers have only failed to have a top-caliber QB for a dozen or so seasons. Even when losing, the Packers usually find a guy who can put some air under the ball. How they’ve managed to maintain that run of offensive prowess through so many regime changes is truly remarkable.
But wouldn’t it be great to have a “take your head off” LB to go along with that QB? A LB that imposed his will not just on the opposing team but on the whole league? A LB that could put the team on his back and allow you to win games 3-0?
Leading up to the 2006 draft, A.J. looked like he was going to be that guy. The mock draft boards consistently had Hawk dropping down in the #5 range. Some drafts thought Mario Williams might make it to the Packers, and most predicted a reach for a QB would push somebody good down a spot. There was some hope that the Packers would manage to land Reggie Bush, but the smart money was on Hawk who was also regarded as the safest pick of the draft. You know, the kind of guy who might not make the hall of fame, but who would potentially play for nine years, lead your franchise in tackles, be a pro-bowl alternate a couple times, and win a super bowl. Nobody expected him to play ten games and wash out.
Ted Thompson pulled the trigger on Hawk.
But let’s take a moment and look at the other players he might have picked. It’s easy to think “fifth overall pick,” but really that’s just an abstraction. There’s an assumption of quality because the pick is so high, but again history reminds us that there are some terrible draft classes. Remember, players like Ray Lewis and Brian Urlacher only come around about once a decade.
The players taken before Hawk were: Mario Williams, Reggie Bush, Vince Young and D’Brickashaw Ferguson. Young blew up and washed out of the league in spectacular fashion. His last chance was actually a pre-season run with the Packers back in 2013. Reggie Bush never made a pro-bowl, but had some electric moments. D’Brickashaw Ferguson has been solid, and Mario Williams dominant at times. Hawk’s career fits in well with these players, and is better than most of them.
The real fun and games start when you examine who was available after Hawk.
Vernon Davis was taken #6 and reportedly dropped to his knees and wept when he found out he didn’t have to play in Green Bay. He was high on the wish lists of many fans, as prone as we are to passing, and with the fond memories we all have of the Mark Chmura/Keith Jackson days. However, Davis never really emerged into a truly dominant tight end and the Packers ended up getting similar play out of Jermichael Finley.
Next up were Michael Huff (#7), Donte Whitner (#8), Ernie Sims (#9) and Matt Leinart (#10). There are some good contributors there, but, again, not guys with stats that blow Hawk completely off the page. Matt Leinart was a total bust as well, so there’s that to consider.
When you look at the top 10 players taken in 2006, A.J. Hawk was clearly one of the better picks. Hindsight is 20/20 so it’s easy to sit here and say Thompson should have grabbed a guy fifth overall who would eventually go in the third round, but that’s not the way a good GM works. You take a guy where he fits. There’s a famous story of the Steelers hiding the tape on John Stallworth because only one existed. They then had a luxury pick in the second round which they used on Jack Lambert. Incidentally, in that draft, the Steelers got Hall of Famers in the first three rounds (Lynn Swann in the first) and picked up a fourth in Round Five with their selection of Mike Webster. I bet there were still fans screaming for the GM’s head the morning after the draft.
But back to the 2006 draft. With pick #11, the Denver Broncos took none other than my boy, Vanderbilt QB “Smokin’ ” Jay Cutler. Now, if the Packers had needed a guy to fumble the hold on PATs or build up the defense’s ego by throwing an endless series of INTs in practice, Cutler would have been a great pick. Cutler’s value really comes from a trade possibility, but I don’t know if we could have swindled the Bears out of two firsts and a third-round pick with Kyle Orton thrown in to boot, like Denver got in 2009. Come to think of it, it would have been a nice luxury to have Kyle Orton sitting on the bench, since there’s a guy who only seemed to play well against the Packers. So, yeah, if Thompson could have predicted it was possible to trade Cutler for a boatload of picks, maybe this is the guy he should have grabbed, but I think if Ted could have foreseen that trade he’d be working for the government in Area 51 on some special precognition unit instead of managing the Pack.
When you scroll through the list of guys taken after A.J. Hawk in 2006, there aren’t a lot of huge names. Haloti Ngata at #12 would have been nice since there is always a shortage of good big guys. Chad Greenway (#17) is still going for Minnesota, but his numbers are comparable to Hawk’s and word is he’s going to retire after this year.
You don’t get to a name that really makes you think until #60 with Maurice Jones-Drew. But suggesting Thompson should have picked Jones-Drew at #5 is absurd. He’d taken Greg Jennings at #52 and that, too, was a great pick.
Brandon Marshall went at #119 and it would have been nice to see him snatching passes at Lambeau for us for a change, but somehow I don’t think he has the mental make-up to be a Packer. After Marshall, this draft really dries up. Scrolling through it, I’m not sure there’s a HOF player in the whole thing. If you look at the complete list of Packers’ picks in 2006, they got some good contributors based on what was available.
A.J. Hawk seems to suffer in the minds of Packer fans through some unfair comparisons, but I think it’s time he’s remembered with fondness. This is a guy who played hard, never caused any trouble and had a tremendous career with the Packers. In five or 10 years when Hawk is trotted out at Lambeau to salute the crowd at halftime at an alumni celebration, does the crowd erupt in grateful cheers, or do they just politely clap? When you look at Hawk’s body of work, the guy’s got everything but a defining moment. There’s no Rodgers-to-Rodgers Hail Mary pass in Detroit, there’s no B.J. Raji interception return for a TD, there’s no Nick Collins Super Bowl TD return. Imagine if there had been for Hawk? How would he be remembered differently with one signature play to define a career?
Maybe it’s even more remarkable that he doesn’t have that play. Here’s a guy who put on his hard hat and picked up his lunchbox and came to work for nine years. Here’s a guy who did the dirty work in the trenches and left a hole when he left that has yet to be filled. Here’s a guy who set the record for tackles for the most storied franchise in the NFL. If all that doesn’t add up to greatness, I’m not sure how much closer you can get.
About the author:
Walter Rhein is the author of Perseid Press release “Reckless Traveler,” a travelogue about the 10 years he spent living in Lima, Peru. He’s also the author of “Beyond Birkie Fever,” the definitive novel about the American Birkebeiner.