For the first time in Mike McCarthy's tenure as head coach, the Green Bay Packers won't have A.J. Hawk patrolling the middle of the defense next season.
The Packers released the franchise's all-time leading tackler Wednesday, ending a nine-year relationship that started when Hawk was taken fifth overall in the 2006 NFL draft.
For almost a decade, Hawk was a cornerstone of the defense. He played 142 of 144 games over nine seasons, and started 136 of them. His skills declined sharply last season, perhaps the biggest reason outside linebacker Clay Matthews was forced to make a position change to inside linebacker.
Hawk's release frees $3.5 million toward next year's salary cap, giving the Packers roughly $32.4 million in flexibility this offseason based upon the NFL Players Association's cap projection of $143 million.
Hawk addressed his release during a 30-minute podcast with his brother, Ryan, moments after the Packers made the announcement. He said he was informed of his release last week, but the organization agreed to wait to go public until he returned from Ohio State's Cruise for Cancer event.
The phone call didn't come as a shock.
"It's been something that, I could almost feel it in the air throughout the second half of the year," Hawk said. "I didn't know anything for sure, but sometimes you get a hunch, and that's just how it goes and so I've been preparing for it for a while mentally and now it's real."
In tune with the volatile nature of the business, Hawk said he and his wife, Laura, have been renting a house for the past four years. This past week the Packers began cleaning house at inside linebacker, starting with the release of Brad Jones.
The decision to part ways with the two linebackers clears $7.25 million in cap space and reflects McCarthy's desire to improve an inside position that fell into disarray early in the season. Hawk still will count $1.6 million against the 2015 cap.
Hawk made only one Pro Bowl in his nine seasons, but finished as the team's all-time leader with 1,118 tackles, surpassing John Anderson. He exceeded 100-plus tackles in seven of his nine seasons. Five seasons, Hawk led the Packers in tackles, tying linebacker Nick Barnett's record.
Green Bay made the playoffs seven times in Hawk's nine years and he called winning Super Bowl XLV over Pittsburgh "the "pinnacle" of his career and time in Green Bay. Several teammates, including T.J. Lang and Mike Neal, took to Twitter after the announcement to praise Hawk.
General manager Ted Thompson, who drafted Hawk in 2006, did the same in a statement released by the organization.
"A.J. is a consummate Packer and we are grateful for all that he has given and how he represented the organization over the past nine seasons," Thompson said. "He was a durable and consistent contributor to our success, but more importantly, he is a great person and teammate. The Packers are grateful for all that he has done on the field and in the community."
Hawk didn't live up to the expectations of a high first-round pick, but his durability and knowledge of the defense made him a critical part of defensive coordinator Dom Capers' scheme. He was elected to the Pro Bowl as an alternate in 2010 after posting 111 tackles and a career-high three interceptions.
He was released after that season to avoid a hefty roster bonus and signed a five-year, $33.75 million extension a day later. The Packers restructured again in March 2013, but Hawk said he never held any animosity toward the front office for having to take the pay cut.
He reiterated several times during his podcast his admiration for how Thompson and the front office handled his departure, especially the decision to wait until after he returned from the charity cruise to announce the move that saved him from having to explain it to "2,500 Ohio State fans."
"I try to look at it like, hey man, I was lucky enough to get nine years there and win a ring," Hawk said. "I wish we would've won more rings, but yeah, I wish them the best. No ill will towards anybody there, honestly, players coaches, front office. I'm not leaving there bitter at all."
Hawk's final season in Green Bay was undoubtedly his most trying. He started the first 11 games before being pulled from the nickel and dime subpackages in favor of Matthews and second-year linebacker Sam Barrington.
After appearing slow in coverage against Minnesota on Nov. 23, Hawk's playing time diminished considerably over the final two months of the season. He finished the year rotating in the base defense. His 13 starts were the fewest in his career.
Hawk remains adamant to this day that he wasn't injured, though he underwent ankle surgery three weeks ago. Hawk admitted he knew early in the season he'd have to get an MRI once it was over, but didn't feel it was anything he couldn't play through.
He spent time briefly on crutches and in a walking boot after the procedure, but said he should "be full go" in the next couple of weeks. That's why Hawk was listed as having failed his physical when the move came across the transaction wire Wednesday afternoon.
"I didn't consider myself hurt. I wasn't," Hawk said. "I honestly still don't feel that way. It's just things you've got to get taken care of when the season ends. Whether it's considered lying to the people who asked me, I don't look at it even as lying because I wasn't in my mind. I wasn't hurt. It's just one of those deals you've got to get taken care of when your season's over.
"There's some things you can play with and there's something you can't and you've got to get taken care of right away, and this wasn't something that I needed to get taken care of right away."
Hawk's departure leaves the Packers without either of the inside linebackers who started the 2015 season. After relinquishing their two most experienced veterans, the position is expected to be a high priority in the upcoming NFL draft.
The Packers have only three inside linebackers under contract for next season in Barrington, 2014 fourth-round pick Carl Bradford and undrafted free agent Joe Thomas. Barrington is the only one to play in an NFL game, though Matthews could continue to see action inside like he did in the second half of last season.
Hawk, who turned 31 in January, said he intends to keep playing. He credits Packers strength and conditioning coach Mark Lovat for putting him in a position to still be playing. Hawk isn't sure what the future holds, but will look back on his time in Green Bay in a positive light.
"It's something where, yes, perfect scenario you would stay there forever and you'd retire there and everything goes well and you win 15 Super Bowls, but that usually doesn't happen," Hawk said.
"Like anything else, time moves on and I'm ready for some new opportunities. I feel good and hopefully will get a chance somewhere else."
— firstname.lastname@example.org and follow him on Twitter @WesHod.