AJ Hawk has always been a point of contention for Packers fans. Hawk came in as the team’s first top 5 pick in a very long time and was heralded as the “savior of the defense”. While Hawk has been very durable and one could even say dependable he has not been top 5 pick spectacular. I think what a lot of Packers fans hoped they were getting was their answer to the Bears’ Brian Urlacher. In that respect Hawk hasn’t come close. Splash plays have been few and far between. Hawk has had trouble rushing the passer consistently and causing turnovers has been almost non-existent.
I’ve said on From the Benches and written here a number of times that a player like Hawk can be on a Super Bowl winning defense. He was in 2010. An assignment sure, stable force can be very useful if he’s playing next to a playmaker or a star. Desmond Bishop before his hamstring tear was that player. Brad Jones is not that player. Jones, a converted OLB is a guy that seems like such a great idea. His height (6’3″) makes him a presence in the passing game and his time filling in for Desmond Bishop in 2012 was “adequate” unfortunately Jones is no more than “adequate” either. You can’t have a punishing 3-4 defense if both inside linebackers are average players.
It would be great to replace Hawk and Jones with two studs, of course that would be ideal. What I think is more realistic, however, is for one inside linebacker to be introduced into the competition. I happen to be of the opinion that if there is a 3rd player in the mix and either Jones or Hawk fall to second string there is going to be a transaction associated with it. Hawk will not restructure any more. He will be released. Brad Jones will be re-structured. As I understand it Jones’ contract was put together so if it turned out that he didn’t work out as a starter it could be re-structured if he didn’t want to be released. I think if Jones loses his job to an incoming player he will go back to being a backup, where he is better suited.
I actually want this player to be a draft pick. I’m not as anti- free agency as Ted Thompson is, but I appreciate that linebackers, specifically off the line LBs (any LB in a traditional 4-3 defense and 3-4 ILBs whose primary job is not setting the edge and rushing the passer) are quick studies in the NFL. The list is seemingly endless. Kiko Alonso, Luke Keuchly, Bobby Wagner, Lavonte David, Jerod Mayo, Patrick Willis, etc. Since the year 2000 11 of the last 14 DROY’s have been linebackers. Only 2 of those 11 have been 3-4 OLBs (Suggs, Merriman) and one “Jack”, a 4-3 OLB/DE hybrid (Von Miller). Inside linebacker is a position where youth is served and while Jones and Hawk are by no means long in the tooth it’s time for a splash at the position.
Internal options: Unfortunately my guy, Terrell Manning is no longer on the roster. Boy was I wrong about that. The Packers no longer have much that creates any excitement waiting in the ILB wings. DJ Smith was released, Desmond Bishop was released and Terrell Manning was released. Jamari Lattimore is an interesting prospect, but I believe his best case scenario to be “average starter” and quite frankly we already have two of those. I liked the newly acquired Chase Thomas when he played for Stanford but I’m not so sure the same problem doesn’t apply to him as well. Victor Aiewya doesn’t appear to be any more than special team’s fodder.
Free agents: The problem with this year’s free agent class is that there is only one player left after Donald Butler signed a long term deal with San Diego that is a clear upgrade over Hawk or Jones in our system. Karlos Dansby would be an upgrade at the inside linebacker position, but he is 32 years old. Brandon Spikes is a really nice run defender, but his liability in coverage seems to jive with our other LBs liabilities in coverage. I dont’ really think Jon Beason, Wesley Woodyard, Jameel McClain or Joe Mays is enough of an upgrade over Hawk or Jones to warrant a contract. The only guy that I would have interest in on a 2 or 3 year deal is former Jaguars and Ravens ILB Daryl Smith. Smith is a versatile linebacker that had the unenviable task of replacing Ray Lewis last season for the Ravens and they drafted his replacement, Arthur Brown, in the 2013 NFL draft. The main issue with Smith is that he is 31 years old but on a short team deal he could make plenty of sense for Green Bay.
Draft targets: In my initial off season needs piece, I described Alabama ILB CJ Mosley as “pipe dream”. I’m backing off of that stance now. I believe now that there is a decent chance that he is available. If I had to guess, I would say that he will not be, but there are enough scenarios in which he is that it can’t be classified as a pipe dream. Mosley is an effective blitzer, a solid tackler, and one of the best coverage ILBs that I’ve seen in college. His skill set would make him an ideal partner to Hawk, and improve both the run and pass defense. Mosley is probably #1 on my board for the Packers. If, however, they do miss on Mosley, I’m no longer comfortable making that selection in round one. I’d be excited somewhere in the top 100 picks for B1G products Chris Borland and Ryan Shazier. Borland is a poor man’s Luke Kuechly and Shazier is another coverage LB. I also really appreciate the frame and potential of Flordia State’s Christian Jones.