Middle of the Pack

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This Sunday, the Packers will play linebackers Jamari Lattimore, Nate Palmer, Sam Barrington and Andy Mulumba in relief of several of their injured starters. Together, these four have combined for a grand total of 47 snaps played on defense this season.

A.J. Hawk has played 214 alone.

Even when you factor in the other starting linebacker, Nick Perry, the group barely surpasses Hawk in total snaps played with 228. And yet, people still call for Hawk to be run out of town on an almost weekly basis.

He’s too slow. He’s too indecisive. He’s too… ordinary. That last part is really the crux of people’s disdain for Hawk. The Packers have certainly had their fair share of ho-hum players. But the difference is, those players weren’t the 5th overall selection in the draft.

And while you can argue Hawk has been ordinary in his play, his durability has been nothing short of remarkable. In eight years he’s missed a grand total of two games. That’s almost Favre-ian when you consider the position Hawk plays. But that’s the thing. People don’t associate games played with productivity. Which is weird because football is an inherently violent sport. You’d think most would see that in a game where so many injuries occur, that durability has value all its own. After all, you can’t produce if you can’t play. And all A. J. Hawk does is play.

Of course, simply playing doesn’t make SportsCenter Top 10 lists, or get its own title like, “The Hit” or generate its own hashtag. If A.J. Hawk were a quarterback, he’d be Eli Manning (the pre-2013 version anyway). Never as good as his most staunch supporters would suggest. Yet never as bad as his biggest detractors would say.

Just…good.

In the ‘Embrace Debate’ sports culture we live in, it’s a difficult concept to grasp. People want HOT TAKES and strong opinions and in that context, A.J. Hawk becomes incredibly divisive. He’s either a supremely underrated leader whose stats don’t tell the whole story, or a gigantic bust. Never anything in between. It’s ironic because that’s exactly what A.J. Hawk is. He’s right in the middle. On a scale of 1-10, Hawk is a comfortable 5. But yet, it’s that number that creates the biggest issue with him.

The 5th pick in the draft.

Usually we associate high draft picks with superstars and saviors of franchises. The Calvin Johnson’s. The Andrew Luck’s. The Adrian Peterson’s. But the truth is, those players are more the exception than the rule. For every top prospect that turns All-Pro, there are five Vince Young’s and Vernon Gholston’s.  As we know, A.J. Hawk was neither a homerun nor a strikeout. But again, when there are what Ted Thompson calls, “exaggerated expectations” a ground-rule double just doesn’t cut it.

So here’s a question – would A.J. Hawk’s legacy be any different if he were, say, a 4th round draft pick? It’s an interesting question to think about, but it also highlights the luck-of-the-draw nature of the draft itself. To me, that’s the most important thing to keep in mind when you talk about A.J. Hawk.

Sure it would have been great to draft Haloti Ngata in his place or even Vernon Davis. But something tells me a shitload of teams wish they would have drafted Clay Matthews or Aaron Rodgers 20-some spots earlier as well. Now those two guys were homeruns. And yet, that’s still not enough for some people. Here are just some of the words I’ve read about Hawk since the season started:

“Horrible”

“Sucks”

“He’s a turd”

Fine, that last one’s kinda funny, but still. Even when weighted against his lofty draft status, those things aren’t entirely true. And when you factor in Hawk’s near ironman durability, they mean even less. Hawk will never be a star, but he’s far from a bum (or a turd). He’s just a guy. And when removed from the standards of the Draft Value Board, Hawk’s just a guy who happens to be like a lot of other guys in the league. Solid, fungible players who add value to a team in ways that don’t earn them shoe deals or FatHead endorsements.

Hawk may forever be remembered as a guy who underachieved because of his draft position. But he shouldn’t. The draft is just too unpredictable to categorize players based on little more than game film versus other amateurs and a GM’s hunch. Years from now, people won’t remember Tom Brady as a tremendous value, but as simply one of the best quarterbacks of his generation. For me, I won’t remember A.J. Hawk as the 5th pick in the draft who flopped. Instead, I’ll say Hawk was a tough, smart and reliable linebacker. And that all he did, was play.

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