A.J. Hawk vs. D.J. Smith:
(Michael Buffer voice)
Ladies and gentleman, welcome to tonight’s main event!
In this corner, standing 6-foot-1 and weighing 245 pounds; a six-year starter with 593 career tackles who finally got a haircut, from Ohio St. University: AAAAAAAAA. JAAAAAAAAAAAY. HAAAAAAAAAAAAWK!!!!
In the other corner, 5-foot-11 and a lean, mean 239 pounds, he’s young and hungry, he wants to prove himself, he thinks his future is now, all the way from Appalachian St.: DEEEEEEEEEEE. JAAAAAAAAAAAAY. SMIIIIIIIIIIITH!!!!
Now that Michael Buffer has finished his introductions, this fight can begin. Hawk finished a distant second to Jermichael Finley in our most frustrating Packers player poll, and I’m actually surprised it wasn’t closer. A.J. Hawk makes Packers fans angry.
And it’s genuine anger. Finley gets under fans’ skin because he has a big mouth. We’re not used to big talkers in Green Bay. We prefer our players to keep quiet and not say anything out of the ordinary. Hawk isn’t a big talker, so when people get mad at him, they’re mad because of what he did on the field, or in most cases, what he failed to do.
Smith had a nice little run at inside linebacker when Hawk and Desmond Bishop got hurt late last season. Naturally, many fans thought Smith should’ve remained the starter when Hawk returned. Many of these same fans also think Smith should be the opening day starter in 2012.
Is that a realistic demand? Does Smith really have a shot to take over for Hawk right away? Maybe. Let’s take a look at a few reasons why Hawk will be the starter, and a few reason why Smith will get the nod.
- Experience. Coaches often praise Hawk for his command of the defensive calls and ability to “quarterback” the defense.
- Reliable. Hawk has missed just two games in his six-year career. You know he’ll be on the field every Sunday and you know he’ll line up where he’s supposed to, and help others do the same.
- Attitude. Hawk plays with emotion and never shies away from sticking his nose in the middle of the action, even if he’s a step or two late in getting to wherever the action is occurring.
- Name. He’s A.J. Hawk. He was the fifth overall selection in Ted Thompson’s second draft. He signed a 5-year, $34 million contract last offseason. It’s his job to lose. In order for a highly touted and highly paid player in any sport to lose his job to an unknown backup, the backup has to outperform the starter by a wide margin. Smith would have to blow everyone away in order to usurp Hawk.
- Aberration. The Packers defense was horrible last season. Historically horrible. Fans are clamoring for Mike McCarthy and Dom Capers to make major changes, including replacing Hawk. Perhaps the head coach and defensive coordinator will be cautious and extra careful not to overreact to what they thought was more of an aberration in 2011 than a worrisome downward spiral for both Hawk and the defense.
- Desmond Bishop. The Packers probably waited a little too long to make Bishop a starter, and won’t want to make the same mistake with Smith.
- Popularity. Call it backup quarterback syndrome, but replace quarterback with linebacker in this case. Whenever the starting QB struggles, the backup usually becomes the most popular player on the team. Right now, Smith is a very popular Packer, mostly because of Hawk’s poor play in 2011.
- Youth. If given an option between an expensive veteran or a younger and cheaper newcomer, Thompson and McCarthy will usually go with the younger player and save a few bucks in the process.
- Improvement. For the most part, we know what we’re getting with Hawk. He’s a veteran. He’s probably not going to get any better. Smith is still young and inexperienced. He should progress and improve. If he improves in a few specific areas (awareness and blitzing), the starting job could be his.
- 2011. The Packers defense was horrible last season. Historically horrible. With a few exceptions, McCarthy might go into training camp with the mindset that no starter’s position is safe and Smith could be given more opportunities than usual to prove himself and win the job. McCarthy and Capers might think 2011 was not an aberration and it’s time to make major changes on defense.
I expect Hawk to be the opening day starter. Why keep Hawk around if you’re going to pay him all that money and not start him? I think McCarthy and Capers value Hawk’s experience and will give him an opportunity to prove himself and bounce back.
If Smith is going to take over for Hawk, he’s going to have to have a helluva training camp, and Hawk is going to have continue fading. It wouldn’t surprise me if this happens at some point during the season, but I don’t see it happening by opening day.
Of course, there’s always the third option of drafting somebody. We’re all focused on outside linebackers and defensive linemen as draft targets, but inside linebacker is an under-the-radar position of need. Perhaps the battle for playing time alongside Bishop will turn into a three-way battle involving Hawk, Smith and a yet-to-be-known rookie.——————