A.J. Hawk may be polarizing to Green Bay fans, but his lack of injuries makes him important.
By PAUL IMIGFS Wisconsin
Green Bay Packers beat writer Paul Imig will be analyzing the 25 most important players to the Packers' success in the 2013 season. Check back each day to see the latest player on the list.
Note: This is not a list of the team's 25 best players or a series about past success, but rather which of them means the most to how Green Bay will fare this year. Criteria such as depth at that player's position, general expectations and overall importance of that player having a good season are all highly considered.
Hawk may be the most divisive player on the Packers' roster. More than seven years after Green Bay drafted Hawk with the fifth overall selection, he's found a way to stay on the team despite not producing at the level of a top-five pick.
What Hawk does well that is often undervalued is he stays healthy. This has allowed the Packers to count on him being available on game days, as he's only had to miss two games in seven years. Considering how frequently some NFL players are forced to sit out with some type of injury, Hawk -- whether by luck or by smart training -- has been able to remain on the field.
Not only has Hawk been healthy, he's also been a starter. For the fourth time in his career, Hawk started all 16 regular-season games last year. He also played the fifth-most snaps on the defense and the most of any inside linebacker.
Hawk is No. 19 on this list because of his consistency. He's not a great player and, at this point in his career, likely never will be. But when the regular season begins, Green Bay's coaching staff knows what they're going to get from Hawk. No, they won't get a lot of tackles-for-loss or impact-type plays such as sacks and forced fumbles, but the team views Hawk as a leader on defense and one that the Packers continue to have faith in.
Most fans don't seem to agree with the team on Hawk's value, but, for at least one more season, he'll play an important role in whether Green Bay is successful.
EXPECTATIONS FOR 2013
Desmond Bishop suffered a torn hamstring and was released less than one year later. D.J. Smith tore his ACL in 2012 and was cut soon after the season ended. Those were Hawk's main two competitors at inside linebacker heading into training camp a year ago. Hawk is the only one who remains.
This demonstrates the importance of having a relatively clean bill of health in the NFL, especially in Green Bay. General manager Ted Thompson has shown an increased lack of patience this offseason in waiting for injured players to return.
That is likely the biggest reason that Thompson and his front-office staff keep Hawk around year after year. That's also why the expectation on Hawk this season -- and for however many more years he's on the team -- is to stay healthy.
Though the Packers could have used more of Hawk's tackles to be behind the line of scrimmage, he did finish second on the team in tackles in 2012. The argument is often made that Hawk should be expected to have fewer of those tackles be made after a six-yard gain, and while that would certainly be ideal for Green Bay's defense, it would just be a bonus for the team at this point.
Now one of the oldest players on the team, Hawk agreed to restructure his contract this offseason. The Packers didn't choose to do this and bring Hawk back with the expectation that he makes the Pro Bowl or that he even plays every snap any more. But they do need him to be a veteran leader in the locker room who is always healthy and ready to go when it's time for kickoff.
WHAT WOULD THEY DO WITHOUT HIM?
Inside linebacker was a position of depth for Green Bay a few months ago. Under the assumption that Bishop and Smith would eventually return to full health, the Packers didn't have stars at inside linebacker, but they had plenty of quality pieces. It was more a matter of how defensive coordinator Dom Capers would choose to best use the differing talents of Bishop, Smith, Hawk and Brad Jones.
Following the release of Bishop and Smith, Hawk will be counted on more than ever. Green Bay is heavily depending on Jones, but Hawk can't be forgotten in this.
If Hawk struggles (or suffers a significant injury for the first time in his career), it wouldn't harm all of the Packers' defensive packages. After all, it will likely be Jones who's again on the field in nickel and dime situations. But in Green Bay's 3-4 okie defense, without Hawk, the Packers would have to rely on unproven players like Terrell Manning, Jamari Lattimore, Sam Barrington and Robert Francois.