A.J. Hawk vs. D.J. Smith: Who Starts for the Packers in 2012?

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A.J. Hawk
Packers LB A.J. Hawk

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.

A.J. Hawk

  • 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.

D.J. Smith

  • 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.

Final Word

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.


Adam Czech is a a freelance sports reporter living in the Twin Cities and a proud supporter of American corn farmers. When not working, Adam is usually writing about, thinking about or worrying about the Packers. Follow Adam on Twitter. Twitter .


  • JimR_in_DC

    I’m ready to see the Packers find a new home for Hawk. I’ve been ready for years. Unfortunately, his cap numbers are: $6.5 million in ’12, $7.05 million in ’13, $7.55 million in ’14 and $8.05 million in ’15 (credit JS Online). Who’s going to trade for that? Oh well.

    I’m hoping that Smith either beats out Hawk, or puts enough competitive pressure on Hawk to get him playing at an acceptable level. Of course, I’m not betting the farm on either of these wishes coming true.

    • marpag

      You’re right that no one will ever trade for Hawk under his current contract. In a strange, twisted sort of way, however, that’s not necessarily a bad thing. It can actually be a point in the Packers favor… *IF* they’d like to keep him. And let’s face it. I think we all believe that Ted DOES want to keep him.

      The Packers might try to rework his contract… again, even though they just did. (Don’t laugh!) Yeah, this would be tantamount to admitting their mistake. But I’m almost certain that all of the guaranteed money is already gone from Hawk’s contract, cutting him is not a massive blow to the Packers cap, and Hawk must surely know that no other team will give him a contract like this last one if he gets cut.

      So the Packers get to the end of training camp and say, “Look AJ, we like you, but if we can’t lower this number then we’re going with DJ Smith.”

      The problem, of course, is that you’d still end up with the same player, albeit at a better price.

  • Zack

    Agree with your assessment that hawk won’t get replaced for starting day. He’s like a bad poker bet… When you invest that much of your stack into a hand it is so tempting to play it out and see what happens even if the smart thing to do is to fold and even if anyone looking on objectively will tell you that you should fold it’s just not something you’re gonna do. Unfortunately I think TT is betting on an 9 2 off suit and we’ve seen the flop… it’s all royalty.

  • Agree with Adam that Hawk will be the opening day starter, but Smith will take over at some point. Especially if the defense struggles like it did last year.
    Hawk may be assignment sure, but so much more about him is not so sure, not to mention the salary that he is set to earn is absurd for the production he gives.

    Smith could be the next Bishop-a starter in the making, stuck on the bench behind a vet. If Hawk struggles at any time in 2012, you could do worse than to let Smith get some playing time to prove if he is starter caliber.

  • wim

    That TT inexplicably sunk all those costs in resigning Hawk is NO reason to play him if he is not playing at least as well as his backup. You cut your losses. Hawk is by far the most frustrating player on D, given the cost to yield ratio. I finally gave up keeping track of how man yards a ball carrier got after Hawk made his first hit, 4 yards down the field and brought him down, 6 or 7.

    • Adam Czech

      It’s not, and if it’s clear that Smith is better than Hawk, Smith will play more.

      But I don’t see that distinction becoming clear until the season gets underway, so I’m thinking Hawk remains the starter on opening day.

  • BubbaOne

    A coach at the Senior Bowl who was also at OSU when Hawk was there said he’s playing too big. Rex Ryan told his team after the season to slim down and get quicker…I hope Hawk could here Rex all the way from NY.
    Regardless, would like to see DJ get some reps each game in sub pckg’s.

    • JimR_in_DC

      He should be a lot lighter with the new haircut. 😉

    • Oppy

      Funny thing about Hawk, people always complain about how slow and un-athletic he is… Yet, he absolutely killed it at the combine.

      He set some marks that haven’t been touched in quite a awhile.

  • PackerBacker

    What about situational. Thinking they tried this a few years ago. Have Hawk in on early downs and Stick Smith in on later downs. It also is going to depend on which defense they are in and who they are playing. Not a big fan of Hawk, but not sure he would accept the back-up roll. You cannot afford to only have Smith and Bishop, you have to have a 3rd decent linebacker that you can count on. Injuries will happen!

  • Zack

    6mil is a hell of a lot for a situational back…

    • Did you ever hear of London Fletcher you dumb A$$??? D.J. Smith has something A.J. Hawk has none of and knows nothing bout, HEART!!!

      • JimR_in_DC

        Nick, aren’t you being a bit harsh on Zack?

      • Zack

        Did I miss something? O.o First off I’d like to say I think you intended this response for a different person. Secondly, whether you intended this for me (btw makes no sense if aimed at me) or someone else I’ll say this: I’d recommend not cursing at people and calling names it’s not really going to get you much credibility on this site. People will look at you more and more like a joke than anything if you can’t make an argument without reverting to grade school playground bully tactics of intimidation…. you can post your insults they’re not even well thought. if you’re going to be insulting I’d at least reccomend doing it well.
        ‘dumb ass’ seriously? thats the best you’ve got? beyond this I’m not responding to anything else you say until you show me that you’re worth talking to… I’m done here.

  • Ron

    Hawk will start your a bunch of arm chair linebackers,he missed two games in 5 years D.J. smith is two small,I didn’t hear any complaing about hawk when we won the super bowl and he was a pro-bowl selection,the whole defense stunk up the place. He will be the starter all year he will play better! count on it! all back hawk!!! stop hating get over it. GO PACK AND GO HAWK!

  • John Zoul

    I could not understand why Hawk wasn’t allowed to go via free agency a year ago. He’s a slow inside LB who is poor in pass coverage and a below average tackler. Release him…

  • Ron LC

    Watching Hawk play last year was frustrating. He rarely, if ever, penetrated the first line of the opponents’ defense. When he blitzed he would go directly at a blocker and when he engaged, that was it he just stopped and held.

    I kept asking myself why? After awhile it became a real dilema. Was he being coached to do exactly what he was doing? I’m not so sure he wasn’t. As Adam says, the whole defense “Sucked” last year. No change was made from the begining of the year through the playoff loss. With a few rare exceptions they kept doing the same things over and over again.

    I’m not ready to give AJ any slack here, but coaching has to be questioned in any attempt to fix that crappy 2011 defense.

  • JimR_in_DC

    I see a bunch of newly added “Dislikes” to the posts here. Either Hawk or one of his homies is an AllGreenBayPackers.Com reader. Way to go, Al! 😀

    • Chad Toporski

      Very interesting…

  • ThomasMagnumPI

    Can someone explain to me why D.J. is not a candidate to play early downs at ROLB? He is a hair “undersized” for a 3-4 ROLB, but isn’t he also considered a bit “undersized” to be an ILB as well? I don’t buy the argument that since he is 7-10 pounds lighter and 2″ shorter than “ideal” that he cannot be effective.

    Pair him with Bruce Irvin and that would seem to be a position of strength all of a sudden, not to mention that both players would stay fresh. Hell, if he plays well enough, why couldn’t he then kick inside in nickel packages and get hawk off the field if he really excels?

    • Oppy

      DJ Smith was horrible when asked to rush the passer last year.. no pass rush ability to be found in his game. That’s why he’s probably not being considered at ROLB at this point.

      Perhaps if he develops some moves and shows the ability to pressure the QB, they could think about it.

      • ThomasMagnumPI

        Thanks, I was not aware that he had already been tried at ROLB. It would be nice to get him on the field more often somehow though, maybe only on early downs at LOLB, flipping Mathews to the weak side?

        • Oppy


          To clarify- DJ Smith has not been used at OLB to the best of my knowledge by the Packers-

          However, when he has been called on to rush the passer from the inside, he has been flat-out stonewalled. He just doesn’t seem to be a natural pass rusher, and that is probably why he hasn’t be used at OLB.

          • ThomasMagnumPI

            Ah, thanks again. I think he was a 4-3 OLB in college, so maybe he could be tried there, on the strong side, on early downs and platooned with a rush specialist in passing downs. Mathews could then flip to the strong side on passing downs perhaps. Of course, this would be a change in the defense, with Mathews moving around the field, but maybe that wouldn’t be so bad either, as it would be tougher to locate and shift blocking to his side.

            Just a thought.

    • kidflash

      Smith is listed at 5’11” and 239lbs, and I here he’s even smaller than that. The ideal OLB should be about 6’3″ and 260lbs, because he will need to take on OTs and TEs on a regular basis. That leaves Smith about 4 or 5 inches to short and 20 lbs ti light.

      • Tell that to Sam Mills.

        • Ron

          Sam mills is great so is London Fletcher there smaller linebackers,But there the rarity not the Rule!!! Most inside linebackers our in the 250lb range D.j. smith wont beat out hawk in training camp either will Fransico.But if they do all eat my words…Take care

  • Ron

    Don capers to much prevent defense; also stunk it up what about walden?? he should be gone watch the film kids they ran to his side not the side covered bye Clay and hawk,Oh yeah hawk also has been first or second every year in tackles!! you can say all you want about hawk he is and will be the starter!! so they the defense had an off year look at tramon he had a bad year and you not calling for him to be replaced give me a break!! A.J. is already working hard to get better i.e he’s already in the weight room!!! Wear are the real packer fans at??? Like I said when we won the Superbowl and he was an all pro selection you weren’t saying anything!!! Give me a break I’m looking forward to A.J Hawk making you eat your words!! Which you will when he’s knocking the hell out of running backs next year GO PACK GO AND GO HAWK!!

    • JimR_in_DC

      A little early in the day to be hitting the bottle, eh, Ron?

      Hawk’s shortcomings have been discussed ad nauseum all over the internet. He’s reliably too late, and he gets dragged for yards while trying to make a tackle. He gets paid like a star, but he’s anything but. I’ve been ready for the Packers to part ways with Hawk for years. Unfortunately, I don’t expect it to happen.

      • Ron

        Funny someone disagrees with you now I’m drunk!! Teehee you funny man!! I love haters like you That’s why he was voted bye the the team the last Two years as a defense of captain with Charles woodson…Hmmm Sounds like he was voted bye his peers people who can actually play the game!!! Oh Yeah that’s for the playoffs as well they vote for that too wake up!!! When You know something about the team talk to me are you even a packers fans! D.J. smith is a good player but at 5’11 and 230 too small!!! He had one interception in one game and now he’s the man…Give me a break Kid!!! But real packers fans Know What’s up stop hating on the team it’s over!!! where gonna be back and A.J. Hawk will start !! so Stop crying Go packers and Go Hawk!!!

        • PackersRS

          No, it’s not because you disagree with him, it’s because most of your writings are pratically unreadable.

          Punctuate, at least.

          • Steve Cheez

            I’ll take a Scotch and Blog, please…

          • Ron

            I didn’t think it was to hard to read.There was punctuation!Calling me a drunk yeah that’s real cool what are we in eighth grade again. The dude is a douche bag enough Said…..

            • JimR_in_DC

              I’m sorry Ron, but, to me, your post was all over the place, dragging in Capers, Walden, Woodson, and Williams. And taking shots at us about not being “real Packers’ fans?” I don’t know about you, but I’ve been a rabid Packer fan for over 50 years. I don’t particularly care to hear people spout off about who’s a fan or not. Finally, punctuation, capitalization, and spelling made your post harder to read, although having spent a minute reading it, I want my minute back.

              • Ron

                Well I’m not an English major,Sorry to have wasted your time,All I said is hawk was voted bye his team mates as co-captain with woodson.I never said anything bad about woodson he’s the man!!! I never said you weren’t a fan take care GO PACKERS!!! WALDEN IS A WIFE BEATER HE SHOULD BE GONE!!!

              • Ron


    • You from Ohio or something Ron? A.J. Hawk could be in the weight room, working with a track coach, tackling dummies and learning how to wrap up, and he’d still couldn’t get off a block. He’d still be 3 steps behind and he still wouldn’t knock the hell out of anyone! He can’t catch em you dumb a$$!! Start following the Browns Ron, they’re just like you. Not to sharp.

      • you were fine until dumbass. No need for insults.

      • Ron

        Yeah okay sounds pretty good!!!It don’t matter what you say coz hawks gonna start unless you want to bet on it!!! if D.J. smith comes in training camp and out performs hawk!! which I doubt very much then give him the job,and all eat crow but he’s to small to take the pounding of a 16 game season.Guess you don’t know the packers that well he’s been first or second every year in tackles!!! Hmmm must of been hitting something out there! open the competition if your second coming..lol beats out hawk so be it enough said he won’t…p.s. I’m not from Ohio but take care packers fan’s enough said GO packers Go HAWK!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

      • Ron

        Yeah that’s why he’s been first or second every year in tackles!!! Like I said before when you know something about the team talk to me. I love haters like you.When someone disagrees with you you can’t take it like a real man you have to call them names like a little kid!!

    • Zack

      Just because someone isn’t a Hawk fan doesn’t mean that they’re not a Packers fan. Most of the regulars on this site have been cheering the cheese since the NFL was founded or since they were in diapers. In fact I’d say the opposite of what you’re saying. Blind loyalty to a player means that you are less of a fan of the organization and more of a fan of the player. I respect you for trying to stick up for Hawk I think your heart is in the right place but your head is somewhere else bro. I have to say I really hope you’re right though. I hope Hawk reads this blog and gets super pissed and bitter toward packers fans and develops a little fire in his belly and busts out next year just to prove us wrong. I just don’t think it’s going to happen. In fact I’m next to positive… the guy just doesn’t have the ability. Like I said I hope you’re right.

      • Ron

        I can respect what you say but hawks not the scapegoat for the defense.. the whole defense stunk up the place last year!! Will see Brother Take care thanks for at least being cool and respectful.Thanks Go packers Go hawk!!!

  • Jim R

    Hope TT drafts Tank Carder–had a great game against UW vs TCU. Good size, great tackler. Would be formidable inside paired with DJ.

  • marpag

    Chalk it up as 90% likely: Hawk opens the season in the middle for the same reasons that Jeff Saturday starts in the middle on the other side of the ball. Neither one is going to the Pro Bowl. Neither one is the future. Both are pricier than you want. But they’ll line up and play and generally do what they’re supposed to do. They’ll get other guys lined up too. You can win with them, even while you are looking for their replacements.

    Look, Hawk is certainly not Vince Almighty, but he’s not the prince of darkness, either. He’s maybe an average middle backer.

    There is one slight possibility of Hawk not starting, and his name is Dont’a Hightower. I doubt the Packers will be in position to draft him, and I’m not saying that Hightower’s the next great thing, but if they do get him then Hawk gets cut. Either Hawk starts or he’s not on the team. No way he sticks as a backup.

    But the REAL problem here is the defensive line… at least, it seems obvious to me. 3-4 down linemen are first and foremost supposed to be immovable objects. But we’ve got Pick, who was never much better than average, Raji, who CLEARLY regressed (a lot!) together with Mike Neal… and no one is really sure is Mike Neal even truly exists. Will any backer look good behind that line?

    Ask yourself this: Suppose your a NFL linebacker. Do you want to line up and be looking at… CJ Wilson’s butt??

    • ThomasMagnumPI

      What about Kuchley, if he falls like some are predicting to pick 28? I don’t know that he helps out team tons, but it would be somewhat similar to what TT did when he drafted Rodgers.

      Better production at ILB and jettison Hawk’s salary sounds appealing at least…

      • marpag

        Sure, you could substitute a different high draft pick, or a mid-level FA, but I still think that they will be ineffective playing behind that bad defensive line. And that’s what it is… bad.

        I’m just looking for honest opinions here. Do people think that an aging Pickett + BJ “the Giants are a little soft” Raji + Neal/Winn/Wilson is an acceptable 34 D-line? In my opinion, it’s not even close to that.

        Compare what the Packers had on the D-line to PIT (Hood, Hampton, Keisel) or BAL (Redding, Cody, Ngata). Those guys are clearly way, way better than GB.

        PIT was first in total defense. BAL was third.

        If you could swap lines, would you prefer Pickett, Raji, Neal or…. SAN – McDonald, Sopoaga & Justin Smith? I sure as heck would take SF’s line. SAN was ranked fourth in total defense.

        What about… MIA – Lanford, Soliai, Starks? Yeah, I like Miami better too. MIA was sixth in Points allowed.

        How about HOU – Antonio Smith, Shaun Cody and JJ Watt? HOU was fourth in points allowed and second in total defense.

        Does the GB line seem equal to ANY OF THESE OTHERS?

        Is it really surprising that Ted Thompson is clearly going after D-linemen in free agency?

  • gman

    A.J. has a great attitude and a great work ethic, and also is assignment sure.
    The problem is that doesn’t even translate into an average NFL middle linebacker, making the problen worse, his salary cap number compared to his production (His high salary could prevent us from signing someone in the near future).

    A.J. being assignment sure is great, but he needs to make some plays instead of just making some tackles.

    D.J. vs A.J. …. Smith plays downhill and attacks the line of scrimmage, knifing into the backfield to make or change the play. Hawk lets the play come to him and then does what he does.

    With Hawk he is what he is as a 6 yr vet probably not goin to get better. Smith whould only improve as he gets more playing time. As far as Smith being small
    230 lbs on his frame makes him thicker than most and give him a low center of gravity, why people drop like they are shot in my opinion.

  • Shavager

    Ah, too many overlook the KC game that ended the undefeated record, when a 3rd down stop was needed at end of the game to give Packers back the ball for an opportunity to win, DJ Smith was out of position on KC’s runs. He was trapped inside instead of holding the end of the line on consecutive runs–it was Hawk who had to run the ballcarrier down from his ILB position–both runs were successful 1st downs. In games Smith played in, he replaced Bishop in the lineup, not Hawk–the two games Hawk missed Packers used Robert Francois as Hawk’s replacement. The problem for GB’s defense last season was no pressure from the D-line without Jenkins, allowing QB’s more time in pocket and secondary simply did NOT play to its ’10 level even with Collins in lineup. TWilliams looked a shadow of former self after injury in the first game at Saints and defense avoided playing bump and run rest of season after injuries to Collins and Williams. Too little pressure, too much space in coverage, too much time for QB’s to pick apart the holes in defense. Rarely saw Capers using Hawk to blitz, it was Bishop or Walden used for it but Hawk’s tackling was a weakness just as it was many on the defense, especially Shields.

    • Ron

      Your right that’s why neither of them will replace the HAWK!!!

  • Ron


  • mike

    hawk is not guaranteed after this year which means he’s gone after this year.