Drafted fifth overall in 2006, A.J. Hawk has never really been able to shake the expectations that came with his high draft status. When you take a player that high, you expect a certain level of production, and Hawk, while solid, hasn’t produced at a level most would consider to be consistent with being drafted in the top five.
But he hasn’t been terrible, and despite repeated attempts, the Packers haven’t been able to replace him, either. The complaints, however, continue. “He doesn’t make plays.” “He’s boring.” “He has ugly hair.” (Okay, that last one is somewhat made up.)
How bad, though, has he been? Are the complaints justified? Do the “haters” have a case?
For sake of comparison, I’ve compiled a database of the “big play” stats for all the Pro Bowl linebackers over the last four seasons, defined here as sacks, interceptions, passes defensed, fumbles forced, fumbles recovered, and for comparison, tackles. Conveniently, there are 25 examples of Pro Bowl level seasons among the last four seasons. Here are the numbers.
Based on these numbers, the averages at the bottom represent the “average” Pro Bowl middle linebacker over the last four seasons. In the spreadsheet, the cells with a green background represent an area in which a player has performed at a level that exceeds the Pro Bowl average level. The red cells represent a level below the Pro Bowl average.
As you can see, Patrick Willis is an absolute machine, especially his 2009 season. That year might have been the best season a middle linebacker has had in the last four years, followed by Jon Beason‘s similarly excellent 2009 campaign. Pretty outstanding by both players.
A.J. Hawk himself actually makes the list, having made the Pro Bowl as an alternate in 2010. Based on the numbers, Hawk would have been voted in mainly on the strength of his pass coverage.
But one Pro Bowl alternate season does not a legacy make, and it certainly doesn’t live up to his lofty draft status. Expanding Hawk’s numbers to include the full four season window evaluated in the earlier further illustrates his sub-elite performance.
The numbers aren’t bad, per se, but again, Hawk’s continually fighting against his draft pedigree. Had he been taken twenty-fifth overall and not fifth, the Packers would probably be ecstatic at having drafted such a long term starter.
So what do we make of this? Well, oddly enough, I think the hate for A.J. Hawk says more about us than it does about him. Here’s what I mean:
By this point in his career, Hawk is what he is. If he’s not a headhunting, playmaking inside linebacker by now, he’s probably not going to become one. Think back to the highlight video I asked you to watch yesterday. Desmond Bishop shows up a lot bigger than Hawk does, with devastating tackles, big sacks, and a general sense of violence.
Hawk, meanwhile, makes plays because he’s where he’s supposed to be. He’s in the right position, anticipating plays and reading offenses before they move. “Assignment sure” has been used to describe Hawk, and based solely on that video, it fits.
So maybe to hope for a Pro Bowl level of playmaking is a little overly optimistic. That’s not Hawk’s game, and while he might need to be better, we need to adjust our expectations a little bit.
Now, that being said, the Packers still need some big plays from their inside linebacker spots. If it’s not Hawk, who is it going to be?