DJ Smith Needs to Tackle His Way into Starting ILB Job

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Green Bay Packers linebacker D.J. Smith
D.J. Smith needs to show he's a better tackler than A.J. Hawk to win the starting job.

I had a 900-word post drafted about what D.J. Smith has to do to overtake A.J. Hawk as the Packers starting ILB alongside Desmond Bishop, but I scrapped most of it.

Why? Because what Smith has to do to win the job is simple.

He needs to tackle.

If I’m D.J. Smith, I wouldn’t even wait until tackling drills in training camp to start tackling people. If Smith is standing on the field waiting to stretch and an undrafted free agent RB is walking by with a ball, Smith should tackle him.

If the equipment manager is moving a bag of footballs from one part of the field to another, Smith should run him down, wrap him up and take him to the ground.

If Smith’s best friend is walking to the fridge to eat the leftovers from dinner, Smith should light him up.

Only starters and immediately family members should be off-limits. Otherwise, Smith needs to tackle anybody that comes into his line of vision between now and the start of the regular season. Player or non-player. Big or small. Male or female. If they have a football, Smith is tackling them.

It’s not going to be anything fancy that helps Smith overtake Hawk. All he has to do is prove that he’s a vastly superior tackler.

We’re all tired of watching Hawk bouncing off ballcarriers or getting dragged for extra yards whenever he does make a tackle. I’m sure the coaches are tired of it too. It’s time that the job went to the player who can make the greatest impact through the most basic and fundamental part of football — tackling.

The general consensus is that Hawk is favored because of his leadership, intelligence, and familiarity with the Packers defense. That’s all fine and good, but Smith didn’t exactly look like a deer in the headlights when forced into action last season. He also seems smart and more than capable of becoming familiar with the defense.

What’s wrong with getting some production and playmaking ability to go along with leadership and intelligence?

Obviously, Smith is far from a sure thing. He shouldn’t be penciled in as an automatic replacement for Hawk.

All I’m saying is that the competition in training camp and the preseason should be more about tackling and less about intangibles like leadership and intelligence.

Linebackers that tackle anything that moves lead by example and are usually pretty damn smart.

The Packers didn’t draft Smith because he was super big, strong or fast. They drafted him because he was a tackling machine at Applacian St. (525 tackles in four seasons). If he shows signs of being a similar player at the pro level, it’s time to make the move.

The Packers waited too long to insert Desmond Bishop into the starting lineup. If the team thinks Smith can improve the defense’s tackling, they better not make the same mistake with him.

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Adam Czech is a freelance reporter and a Packers fan living in the Twin Cities. Follow Adam on Twitter. Read more of Adam\\\'s writing on the Packers here.

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  • http://yardbarker.com nick perry

    Awesome article! I couldn’t agree more. I’ve never been a huge Hawk fan but I understand why the Packers drafted him. He was the sure thing. The next great middle linebacker. Clearly he hasn’t quite lived up to that but other than last year he has been steady, that I’ll give him. Last year I can’t think of another Packer I yelled at my T.V. more than Hawk. Well Peparah comes to mind but lets keep to front seven. Hawk has always seemed to be a step behind, just a inch from a making the tackle, or as mentioned, getting dragged a extra 3 yards. Smith filled in just fine last year. He was able to make the calls and function just fine. If Hawk is to win the job I hope it’s because he was actually the better man, not because Ted made a mistake and signed him to a ton of money. T.T. has built this team to win for years to come. There’s a younger guy at every position to take a job from a older player if he proves he’s worthy. In this case I think D.J. Smith will be lining up next to Bishop by week 8!

  • SchenySchen

    Hawk will get cut next offseason after DJ Smith takes his job mid-season. TT won’t continue to pay Hawk that money. GoPack!

  • http://None Bearmeat

    I don’t think Bishop was made to wait too long. Remember how many assignments he blew when he did have chances before 2009?

    It makes sense to let Hawk play as long as he’s at least servicable. Meaning:
    1. He can cover RB/TE’s that aren’t exceptional
    2. He can shed blocks and get to the ballcarrier at least half the time.
    3. He tackles people and they go down quickly.

    Maybe this is too much to ask. But Hawk should be given the chance to accomplish this for the first part of 2012. If it doesn’t happen, then you bench Hawk, insert Smith, and Trade Hawk for whatever you can get for him in the offseason. Or maybe cut him.

    Don’t forget Smith still has plenty of time left on his Rookie deal.

    • Adam Czech

      If Hawk plays like he did last season, or really any season besides 2010, the Packers will not be able to trade him.

      • http://None Bearmeat

        Not true Adam. Hawk is a better 4/3 Will LB than he is a 3/4 cover ILB. If his deal could be reworked, his 4/3 ability would be attractive to teams for a reason.

        Look at his tackle totals his first three years in the league. They are pretty good.

        When Dom and the 3/4 was brought in before’09 – that is the year where Hawk started descending in productivity. ’10 he was good – because the DL kept him clean. If the DL is good in ’12, (which we have every reason to suspect it will be) then why can Hawk not be productive again, even as a 3/4?

        Plus, Hawk’s salary cap figure this year makes it really hard to cut him – and no one can seriously suggest that he’d take riding the pine full time well for the whole year. Next year, his salary cap hit would be different.

        He’ll never live up to his draft position, but the dude got drafted that high for a reason. He has the physical tools to play well, if the situation is right.

        Let’s wait until at least halfway through the season before we call for Hawk to be replaced with a 2nd year player that still has plenty of time left on his contract and plenty of room to grow on the field too.

        • Adam Czech

          Well, re-working his deal makes him more tradeable, but I still don’t see it happening. If he improves, the Packers will keep him anyway. If he plays like he did last season, why trade for him when you can get him after the Packers cut him?

          I’m not calling for Hawk to be benched. I just want the better football player on the field. I don’t want the job to go to Hawk because he’s a “team leader” or makes all the calls on defense.

          • http://None Bearmeat

            Agreed. The best player should play. I would just remind people that the entire defense was terrible last year. Only Pickett and Bishop played consistently well, and they were hurt for significant portions of the year.

            Yes, Hawk was bad. But don’t blame the badness just on him. Smith is a 2nd year player with a lot of growing left to do. He was a 6th round pick for a reason.

            Patience is the better vice here than judgement. Let Hawk play – if he sucks again for a large stretch of the season, then handle that problem when it surfaces.

            At this point, Smith is a back up plan.

  • James david Marsh

    If as I hope, DJ overtakes Hawk and starts, hawk will need to be traded as his “dead Money” will be too high for TT to cut him. Also somebody needs to show that GB has a very good backup at this position because you cannot expect the starters to play all of the time. Also one needs to be able to blitz the QB at certain times, cover, and tackle near the line instead of “only downfield”.

    • Adam Czech

      If TT is able to trade Hawk for an acutal living, breathing person instead of cutting him during camp, he’s a better GM that any of us realize.

      I actually wouldn’t mind seeing Hawk blitz a little more. He can get after it sometimes when he blitzes.

      • FourEyesBrewing

        What about a draft pick? What would you value him at? 4th round?

        • JimR_in_DC

          6th

  • BubbaOne

    I agree it should be “…less about intangibles like leadership and intelligence” but tackling is behind poor blitzing, poor coverage ability, and lack of big plays in Hawk’s deficiencies.

  • Lucas

    I may be wrong, but AJ was only charged with 5 missed tackles last year. Talk about a misleading statistic. You know how RBs have yards after contact? I’m suggesting we add that to AJ. I’m tired of him meeting a RB in the hole to see 2nd and 5. DJ needs to show he can put a guy down at the point of contact.

  • John Zoul

    We all know how easy it is to criticize the defense that was the worst in Green Bay Packers history last season! They sucked! So, though it is easy to pile on AJH and much of the defense, let us see how H plays with an upgraded defensive line and a new stud OLB (Perry). Until then, I will withold judgment…

    • Adam Czech

      Very true, John. My main point is this: I want the better player to be on the field. Forget all this stuff about leadership or knowing the defense.

      If Smith looks like the better player, he should play. I’m sure he can develop into a strong leader if called upon to do so.

      If Hawk looks revitalized, then by all means he should get the nod. As long as the decision is based on football ability and not intangibles, I’m fine with it.

      • FourEyesBrewing

        I’m not sure I agree that being the better player is independent of leadership, intelligence, and knowing the defense. Nick Collins knew what everyone’s assignment was and helped direct the secondary – all before the ball was even snapped. I understand the sentiment, but let’s not throw out the baby with the bath water.

        • Adam Czech

          Eyes:

          It’s not. But I feel like people are assuming Smith can’t also be a leader, intelligent and know the defense. I think he can, so that’s why I’d rather have the competition based mostly on tackling and more measurable skills.

      • Ron LC

        Better player plays – I like that idea.

    • http://None Bearmeat

      Thank you John. Well said.

  • Lou

    Smith should get every opportunity to win the job, on a purely pay vs performance analysis Hawk was the most overpaid LB in the NFL last year. Bishop hits for keeps and drives the runners backwards, Hawk just holds on. In addition Bishop gets home on the blitzes, he was neck and neck with Mathews on sacks before being injured and was leading the NFL in tackles. Bishop’s pass defense was only adequate because he was called on to do it so often because of Hawk’s inability in this area too (prior years Hawk was removed for Brandon Chiller). This role will be key for Smith getting on the field as well in 2012. Ted Thompson has made more positive player personnel moves than any GM but the drafting of Harrell and Hawk in the first round are mistakes.

  • FireMMNow

    If you believe Hawk only had five missed tackles last year, I have a sweet double decker bridge on the moon to sell you. I am not sure how that stat is determined. Does the defender have to make contact with the ball carrier and fail to bring the carrier to the ground? I do not think it counts if the player just gets juked out of his shorts, or takes a bad angle and flies by the ball carrier. There were numerous times when Hawk should have been in position to make a tackle and he failed to even make contact.

    I am not saying DJ Smith is better than Hawk, it was a small sample, but he sure has better numbers in that small sample. 3-4 ILBs should be playing down hill. They should be knifing through occupied blockers. Smith has that ability, Hawk has never really shown the aptitude to play down hill.

    Also, Desmond Bishop did sit too long. Did he blow assignments? Yeah, but that is what happens when you feel like you never get a shot and when you step on the field you feel like you HAVE to make a play. He killed everyone in the preseasons and then he would rot on the bench. It is 20/20 hindsight, but Bishop has been the Packers best ILB since he started his first game. He is a pro bowl caliber player. He should have started a year earlier than he did.

  • Tarynfor12

    Like Bearmeat said above,’Hawk was drafted as a 4-3 ILB’and has done whatever to adjust.Sure the outcome could be better but it isn’t disasterous.
    Kampman was a drafted 4-3 DE and couldn’t or wouldn’t make the adjustmet to even give a worthy go at 3-4 OLB and yet,many,many a person wanted to keep him with hope of trying harder.
    Give Hawk his due if only for being the DQB which again isn’t something everyone can do or is willing to learn to do.The green dotted helmet doesn’t come one size fits all.
    We’ll know and have a better picture of Hawk and Smith in camp…don’t be surprised at the outcome and start screaming that TT is only playing the ‘paid’guy.

    • ThomasMagnumPI

      Who cares what he was drafted to do? What matters is what he brings to the field on gameday in 2012 for GB, not what he was drafted to do. To be honest, he was drafted to produce, something which he is not doing currently. What he is doing, is drawing a large salary and tying up a roster spot that could be used on another player, at another position if need be.

      He had better put out, or it’s just a massive waste of cap room and roster space when GB can get similar, or better, production out of another, cheaper guy. We’ll see how it shakes out . . .

      • FireMMNow

        also, correct me if i am wrong, but he was drafted to be a 4-3 WLB right?

        • CSS

          If they viewed that as his strength when they drafted him shouldn’t Hawk excel in the Packers Sub-Packages? Considering they played so little in base many of his responsibilities in sub are comparable to the skill set you expect of a 4-3 WLB, isn’t it?

  • Mojo

    Now if D.J. Smith tackled and injured A.J. Hawk that would help his cause.

  • Trubled

    Pro Football Focus has Hawk credited 8 Missed Tackles on the year. 5 against the run, 3 on passing plays.

    They also have an interesting read on this subject. Check out the tackling efficiency comparisons. This looks at the number of missed tackles versus made tackles:

    http://www.profootballfocus.com/blog/2012/06/12/secret-superstar-d-j-smith-lb-green-bay-packers/

  • Rick

    AJ Hawk is a solid MLB. He runs side to side well and gets in good position. His weakness is straight ahead tackling just like Urlacher.

    With a weak Dline he gets exposed as the runners are coming straight at him. In Nickel he is a little slow as a speed rusher but can get there. However you see when there is a delay blitz CMIII gets most of his takles from what would be ILB spot.

    DJ Smith has less side to side speed but is a better straight ahead tackler. So in a 2-4-5 Pyscho I see DJ looking good just like he did last year.

    In 3-4 or 4-3 under schemes AJ is the better player for the system.

    Since we are not going to telegraph a defense scheme based on the QB of the defense(MLB) ; AJ has a real strong case to be in on most schemes and plays since he is better in most of them.

    • CSS

      I said it last year after his second start, DJ Smith rarely wastes steps. Hawk takes false steps, which delays his point of contact with the ballcarrier, hence the tackles further away from the line of scrimmage. Even Bishop gets caught being a guesser from time to time.

      It was shocking to me that a rookie, coming from a sub-division program was/is so instinctive. His understanding of the professional game is behind Hawk and Bishop but he:

      1) Plays downhill
      2) Rarely takes false steps
      3) His diagnosis isn’t just uncanny, it’s highly instinctive and can’t be taught.

      Combine all three and the kid makes contact at or behind the line of scrimmage. I’m not a Hawk hater by any stretch, but he will never be that type of linebacker. He’s a pursue and drag tackler that needs to be covered up.

      • PackersRS

        Instinctive is the best word to describe DJ Smith. All the great MLBs have that and he does it too.

        If not this year, next year we’ll have one of the best LB corps in the NFL with Matthews, Bishop, Smith and Perry. All under 30.

  • Turophile

    I remember watching Hawk in his rookie year and thinking we got a good player. He looked much faster then. After that, he looked thicker around the shoulders and slower, distinctly slower. Anyone else remember it like that ?

  • Turophile

    Another thing that will help D.J.Smith is getting to the ballcarrier a hair earlier (than Hawk does). Not quite up there with rock solid tackling, but important.

    • CSS

      Can you clarify this part:

      “Not quite up there with rock solid tackling, but important.”

      Are you saying Smith isn’t quite the tackler Hawk is?

      • Turophile

        No, I don’t mean that. I mean being a little bit quicker to close and tackle (than Hawk)is one thing that will help D.J force his way to get more playing time.

  • FireMMNow

    does anyone know what the cap hit would be if hawk was cut this year and/or next year?

    with CM3, jennings and rodgers all needing new contracts soon, that has to be part of the though process. if the packers can take the hit this year when they have some room it may be necessary to cut him sooner rather than later.

    • Ed

      Per JS online HAwks deal included an $8 million signing bonus. That gets prorated over 5 years, so if they cut him this year the pro-rated amount is $6.4 million.

      However, his base salary would be removed from the cap. Thats $4.4 million in 2012 (I’m assuming the roster and workout bonuses were already earned for this season), so the total ‘hit to the cap would be $2 million.

      In 2013, the prorated bonus remaining is 4.8 million and the base salary 4.9, effectively a break even move.

      In 2014 or 2015, cutting Hawk improves the Packers’ salary cap position, because the prorated amount of the signing bonus continues to get smaller, but he annual salary stays in the $5 million range.

      Since Hawk turns 30 in 2014, my guess he stays a packer no longer than March of that year (end of the 2013 league year). 2014 is also the year Rodger’, Woodson, Tramon Williams and Jordy Nelson have contracts due. While some of those players will have new contracts sooner (and Woodson will likely retire), it seems 2014 is the year TT has sceduled to re-do his overall cap position.

  • Ed

    I’d be happy if DJ Smith winds up being a better player than Hawk this year, but I’d like even better if the Packers had 3 starting quality ILB that they count rotate trhoughout the game. So I’m not looking for Hawk to go away this season.

    We fans are disappointed in Hawk because his big-play performance does not match his draft position, but frankly that was a weak year overall and especially at LB. Hawk is arguably the best ILB drafted that year (check the *numbers*) and has been a perfectly servicable starting quality linebacker until 2011, when the whole defense imploded. He deserves a chance to keep his job until somebody plays well enough to take it away — which is all Adam was calling for.

    It’s a bit over the top to call for cuting Hawk until Smith (or somebody) actuall *shows* that they are better on a consistent basis. Tackling is only part of the job — mastery of scheme, strength, and conditioning are also part of that equation. Smith seems to have the instincts to play well, he needs to show he can play well inside the teams’ concept on every play (not doing that is what held Bishop back), all game and alls eason long. Smith has taken steps to demonstrate that, he will have an opportunity to demonstrate more in Training camp. Fans like us need to keep our pants on.

  • Wagszilla

    It’d be nice if we could get an ILB who could somewhat competently cover.

    Bishop is typically the Spy, right?

    I just (mis?)remember people attacking Walden a lot and the ILBs having to come in for support too often.

    Can’t see Perry in coverage much.

  • Zeman

    Really a great post going on here… Good and intelligent comments. Fact: when Hawk was out for those 2-3 games last year; NO BODY missed him! You can even say Smith was an improvement. Hawk needs to go! Way too much money, way too little out put! I’m sick of him.

  • DaveinTX

    I am not sure if the rules on this were changed or not in the new CBA. Under the old rules if Hawk is cut after June 1st, only the pro-rated portion of his signing bonus ($1.6M) for 2012 would need to be counted. The remaining $4.8M could then be counted in 2013. Of course if he is paid his $320K? Roster bonus before being cut, that would count as well. At least that is the way it has worked in the past. And if that is still the way the signing bonus is counted, I think he should be cut shortly. And I am not talking about his hair. ;-)