Thompson hung on to Hawk too long
Anyone who questions the old personnel aphorism that a team is better off parting with a player a year early than a year late need only look to the Green Bay Packers and A.J. Hawk.
The Packers released the 31-year-old Hawk on Wednesday afternoon, and for a long while now it's clear they'd have been better off doing it two years ago.
By holding onto Hawk for his eighth and ninth seasons in 2013 and '14, general manager Ted Thompson put off the need to find Hawk's replacement, which contributed to the catastrophe that was inside linebacker for the Packers the first half of last season. Only by moving Clay Matthews there at midseason did they mend the rupture in the middle of their defense, at the expense of removing their best edge pass rusher from the edge.
Hawk leaves highly respected throughout the organization. He was durable and took his craft seriously. In his nine NFL seasons, he missed only two games because of injury, and he was as steady a presence in the locker room as is imaginable.
If he'd been, say, a fourth-round draft pick, he would have been considered a success. But as the No. 5 pick overall in 2006, he also will be remembered for not performing up to his draft status despite his long career.
The thing I always found most perplexing is Hawk never played with the athleticism he showed in testing at the NFL scouting combine.
According to data compiled by Tony Villotti of NationalFootballPost.com from the combine from 1999-2013, Hawk was an excellent athlete compared to his peers, starting with a 4.59-second 40-yard dash that ranked in the top 10 percent of all inside linebackers.
And his vertical jump, short shuttle and three-cone drill were outstanding not just for a linebacker but for the position group that performs best in those tests — cornerbacks. Hawk's 40-inch vertical and 6.82-second three-cone drill ranked in the top 10 percent among cornerbacks, and his 3.96-second short shuttle would have been just barely outside the 4.95-second cutoff for the top 10 percent.
Those are the numbers of an excellent athlete at inside linebacker.
But the scouts going into that draft who were concerned that he'd maxed out at Ohio State proved to be correct. He was constant and assignment-dependable at middle linebacker when the Packers played a 4-3 and inside linebacker when they switched to a 3-4 in 2009, but he wasn't a difference maker in any sense, even the year he went to the Pro Bowl in 2010.
In his nine seasons, Hawk had a total of 19 sacks and was involved in 17 turnovers (nine interceptions, five fumble recoveries and three fumbles forced). You'd have to rate him as a better player than the next inside linebacker selected in his draft, Ernie Sims at No. 9 overall, but not as good Chad Greenway, who was No. 17 overall.
Sims in an eight-year career with Detroit, Philadelphia, Indianapolis and Dallas, had only 51/2 sacks and four turnover plays (one interception, three fumbles recovered). Greenway, who just finished his ninth season with Minnesota, has 151/2 sacks and 28 turnover plays (nine interceptions, eight fumbles forced, 11 fumbles recovered).
In some ways, Hawk was a quintessential Ted Thompson pick, at least in the first round. It was Thompson's second draft with the Packers. At No. 5 overall, his choice basically came down to Hawk or tight end Vernon Davis of Maryland.
Hawk was the safe pick. In his senior season at Ohio State, he had 121 tackles, 161/2 tackles for loss and 91/2 sacks. He tested well at the combine. The main knock was size. At 6-feet-1, he was average height at best for an inside linebacker, where 6-3 to 6-4 is preferred.
Davis, on the other hand, was the ultimate boom-or-bust pick. He was a tight end (6-31/2, 254 pounds) with the athleticism of a premier wide receiver (4.38-second 40, 42-inch vertical). He also was immature coming out after his true junior season and hadn't produced much until his final year of college.
Thompson, conservative by nature, went for the perceived sure thing rather than the risk with the high ceiling.
Hawk, a near consensus top-10 pick going into the draft, ended up being not quite as good as expected even by the scouts who questioned his upside.
"If you plug (Hawk) in and say this guy is our middle linebacker or weak-side linebacker, the guy probably will play 10 years," a scouting director for an AFC team told the Press-Gazette going into that draft. "But is he going to be a difference maker? Probably not. He'll be good. He could be a (Chris Spielman)-type player, who was a really good player and a Pro Bowl-type player. But to say he has a real high ceiling, I'd question that."
Davis, on the other hand, was both a bust and a boom. He did next to nothing his first three seasons. The low point came in 2008, when former 49ers coach Mike Singletary sent him to the locker room in the middle of a game after Davis had been flagged for a personal foul.
At that point, it looked like Davis was going to flame out as NFL player. But he grew from his early failure and for the past six years has been one of the NFL's best big-play tight ends.
If Thompson could do that draft over, he'd presumably take Davis, defensive tackle Haloti Ngata, who went to Baltimore at No. 10 overall, or outside linebacker Tamba Hali, who went to Kansas City at No. 20.
So now Hawk moves on. The guess here is his NFL career is over. His explosiveness and body snap are gone. His durability has left him a beaten-up player. According to a report on ESPN.com, he had surgery this offseason to remove bone spurs from an ankle, which only adds to the tread wear.
The Packers did more than the usual in their news release announcing his departure, with Thompson profusely thanking him for his service to the team. Somewhere down the road, Hawk probably will have his day as an inductee into the Packers Hall of Fame.
But really, this day should have come two years ago, or last year at the latest. Thompson usually is good at moving on from a player when it's time — he did it with the great Charles Woodson — but for some reason he had a blind spot with Hawk. So after not drafting an inside linebacker last year, Thompson almost has to take one in the first two or three rounds this year. Maybe he'll even take another later.
— firstname.lastname@example.org and follow him on Twitter @PeteDougherty.