A.J. Hawk knows the score. In the National Football League, roster turnover is part of the business. Teams change and evolve every season due to the draft and free agency.
The 2011 Green Bay Packers are no different.
After winning their fourth Super Bowl title in February, the Packers were forced to cut ties with several contributors from that championship team, including defensive end Cullen Jenkins and linebacker Nick Barnett.
In their place, the Packers are turning to two players—one who has proven he can play and the other who has failed to show he can stay on the field in his short NFL career. Of course, we’re talking about Desmond Bishop and Mike Neal.
When I talked to Packers linebacker A.J. Hawk on the phone last week, he said the team has high expectations for their defense despite the losses.
However, he did express that it might be difficult to replace Jenkins in the Packers defense.
“The thing about Cullen Jenkins is that you just can’t replace a guy like him,” Hawk said. “He’s a special player. He’s one of the best interior pass rushers I’ve ever seen. Just super quick, with good moves and a knack at getting to the quarterback.”
An unrestricted free agent this offseason, Jenkins signed a five-year, $25 million deal with the Philadelphia Eagles a week or so after the lockout was lifted. When asked if he thought the team would bring back Jenkins, Hawk seemed a touch surprised but also cognizant of the NFL’s business landscape.
“Yeah, I was hoping we were going to find a way to bring him back, but I understand there’s a business side to this,” Hawk said. “It hurts us, but I know those kind of things don’t always happen, especially this offseason with the lockout. We only had a short time to negotiate with him, which I’m sure made it tough on both sides.”
The Packers never did get serious in bringing back Jenkins, either because of the perceived cost it would take or the confidence the organization had in the players behind him. Being 30 years old and having an injury history likely also led to the Packers’ failure to offer any deal that Jenkins would have accepted.
But don’t discount the Packers’ confidence in the players below Jenkins on last year’s depth chart. Neal missed most of the season due to a shoulder injury, but he showed flashes of being the same kind of impact pass rusher that Jenkins was. And while he hurt his knee last week in a non-contact drill, the Packers organization seems to have a lot of confidence in him.
“We have big expectations for Mike and it was unfortunate last year that he had the shoulder injury and had to go on the injured reserve,” Hawk said. “But this year we have super high expectations for Mike and I think he does too. He just does everything right. He came in and fit in from day one. The guy just fits with our team and meshed well with everyone. He works really hard, and he’s a big strong guy with a ton of skill.”
If Neal continues to fight injuries, the Packers will be forced to turn to the likes of Jarius Wynn and C.J. Wilson at defensive end. They weren’t high draft picks like Neal (Wynn in the sixth round, 2009; Wilson in the seventh round, ’10), but each has grown leaps and bounds since joining the team. Even if Neal is healthy, the Packers will count on them to play important snaps all season.
“The thing about the Packers is that we’re always drafting and trying to grow from within. I think we have a lot of young guys right now who can step in and play and they’ve looked good in camp already. We feel really confident in them to help offset that loss.”
The Packers are also dealing with the loss of Barnett, a former team leader and an eight-year linebacker for the team that drafted him back in 2003.
The Packers defensive unit played well, or arguably better, without Barnett last season after he was lost with a wrist injury, but Hawk said it was still tough to see a player who helped him so much at the start of his NFL career.
“Again, the longer I’ve stayed in the NFL, the more I see that you lose friends,” Hawk said. “They get traded, released, or things like that and you just have to find a way to deal with it and move on.”
Barnett signed with the Buffalo Bills after being let go by the Packers before training camp.
“Nick was great the entire time he was here. I have a ton of respect for Nick and everything he’s done here as a Packer. He’s been a great linebacker here for a long time and he’s going to continue to be a great one in Buffalo. But me and Nick always got along really well. We actually live about 10 houses down from each other here in Green By. I feel we always played well together when we were in there.”
Bishop was a standout in Barnett’s absence and rightfully earned himself a contract extension in January. In 12 starts, Bishop tallied over 100 tackles and three sacks plus an interception return for a touchdown against the Minnesota Vikings.
His four-year, $19 million deal helped open the door for Barnett’s potential release, which the Packers eventually carried out on July 29.
Hawk believes, as do many people both within and outside the Packers organization, that he and Bishop make a good combination in the middle of the Packers defense. They’ve been playing with each other at various points of different seasons, which helped the transition last season after Barnett went down.
The camaraderie that existed between Hawk and Barnett is just as evident between these two.
“Me and Des work great, too,” Hawk said. “He got here one year after I did, so he’s into his fifth year. But I do think me and Desmond play really well together. We’ve had great chemistry all along been playing together in practice in short spurts here and there and games the past couple of years.”
Bishop had been a fill-in at linebacker in the past, like in ’08 when Barnett was lost for the season to an ACL injury. The two had the experience prior to last season’s breakout performance, but it’s the Packers hope now that these two will be manning the middle of the defense for the foreseeable future.
“It’s a full-time thing now,” Hawk said. “We feel really good about where we’re at. We communicate really well. I think we play off each other’s strengths and weaknesses. It’s a good combination.”
While Barnett was the linebacker the Packers ultimately released, there was talk during the offseason that it could be Hawk on the outside looking in. He was owed a lot of money in the final year of his rookie contract, and the Packers simply weren’t going to pay it. When it came down to it, the Packers did release Hawk—but only for roughly 12 hours. He re-signed the next day on a five-year, $33.75 million deal.
Unlike some, there was never any anxiety for Hawk regarding his future in Green Bay.
“I always wanted to be with the Packers. I never had any doubt. At least in my mind, if they wanted me back I definitely wasn’t going to be exploring other options. Of course, they had to cut me—I was released for about 12 hours officially—but we knew the whole time that we’d be in contact for a new deal. After I was released, they told me not to freak out if it went public, but we agreed on a new deal maybe three or four hours after it all. There was never any question about me going anywhere else.”
With a new deal in hand and a Super Bowl ring on his finger, some might worry about complacency with Hawk and the Packers. Not on this team, he says. The guys coming back from injured reserve have sucked all that talk out of camp.
The team is aware of the “Super Bowl hangover,” but the mindset of this Packers team changed in a hurry following their win in Dallas back in February.
“Yeah, we won the Super Bowl and we’ll cherish that for life,” Hawk said. “But I think all winning the Super Bowl did was make us hungry to get back there and win it again. I think after we won and we all celebrated, the first thing we all talked about that same night was how we were going to come back here next year and do it all again. That’s our hope. That’s what all 32 teams in this league hope for. So, for us, complacency shouldn’t be an issue.”
In the end, Hawk knows the target has been placed squarely on the Packers back. It’s where every team wants to be in training camp—the defending Super Bowl champions that every NFL team wants to knock off. But while expectations are high for the team to repeat, Hawk has played the same type of expectations on his play individually.
If all goes to plan, he’ll once again be a big cog in a Packers machine that makes some noise this season.
“I have really high expectations for myself and this team. We are the Packers—one of the greatest organizations ever—so expectations are always high. For me, I feel like I should be coming into my prime and I feel really good right now mentally. I have been in the game for a little bit now—not forever, this will be just my sixth year—but hopefully I will have a good year.”
“And hopefully if I have a good year that’ll help the Packers get where we are trying to go—back to the Super Bowl.”——————
Zach Kruse is a 23-year-old sports journalist with a passion for the Green Bay Packers. He currently lives in Wisconsin and is working on his journalism degree, while also covering prep sports for The Dunn Co. News.
You can read more of Zach's Packers articles on AllGreenBayPackers.com.Follow @zachkruse2