A.J. Hawk vs D.J. Smith: The Brewing Battle at Inside Linebacker

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When Packers fans take a break from criticizing Jermichael Finley, they usually direct their ire toward A.J. Hawk.

By now you know the drill:

  • Hawk bashers say he hasn’t come close to meeting the expectations of a No. 5 overall draft choice and that he’s undeserving of his five-year, $33.75 million contract.
  • Hawk supporters say the linebacker is a steady presence on a sometimes chaotic defense and that his value shouldn’t be judged by raw statistics or the number of SportsCenter highlight-worthy plays he makes.

Both Hawk and Desmond Bishop got hurt on Thanksgiving. D.J. Smith and Robert Francois have filled in admirably and the Packers remain undefeated. Smith has played so well that there has to be some discussions among the Packers coaching staff about Hawk’s role when he returns.

Hawk has 39 solo tackles in 11 games this season, about 3.5 per game. Since taking over for Hawk, Smith has 18 solo tackles in about three games, an average of six per game.

Smith was all over the field on Sunday against the Raiders. He picked off Carson Palmer and made the sort of tackles that get you noticed by the television cameras. In other words, Smith made plays and did things Hawk hasn’t been able to do (unless you consider flicking off your own bench getting noticed).

Smith’s play has fired up the Packers fan base — so much so that many are calling for Hawk’s role to be reduced (see the comments sections here and here).

So what’s the right answer? Should Hawk or Smith get the nod at inside linebacker down the stretch? Only Mike McCarthy and Dom Capers know.

I don’t mean to sit on the fence on this issue. I wish I saw things clearly enough to boldly proclaim that Smith should play, or that Hawk shouldn’t be relegated to backup duty quite yet. But I really think this is another instance where Packers fans need to trust McCarthy and Capers to read their team and do what’s right.

Ted Thompson gave Hawk a lot of money this offseason. The Packers don’t hand out huge contracts to just anybody. They clearly felt that Hawk could play and this defense needed him. I don’t think they’re ready to just replace him with a sixth-round draft pick during one of the most important stretches in franchise history.

On the other hand, the Packers have a high batting average when it comes to moving on from veterans and giving a talented younger player a chance. It’s entirely possible that the coaches see something special in Smith and Hawk’s playing time could be limited once he and Bishop are healthy.

I do think Hawk will get the nod once he returns and I also think McCarthy won’t hesitate to give Smith some snaps, too. Instead of asking whether Hawk or Smith should play, I think we should be asking which version of A.J. Hawk the Packers will be getting back?

Will it be the cool, calm and collected Hawk: The captain of the defense who might not make a ton of plays but knows where everyone should be on the field?

Or the pissed off and out-to-prove-something Hawk: The established veteran that picks up his play because he doesn’t want to lose his spot on an undefeated team to some rookie.

Hopefully it’s a combination of both. If not, D.J. Smith might find himself right back on the field.


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 .


28 thoughts on “A.J. Hawk vs D.J. Smith: The Brewing Battle at Inside Linebacker

  1. Interesting dilema for Capers Adam. I’m sure the “you don’t lose your job because of injury rule” will be invoked. That said, they now know there is a tackling machine sitting in the wings. I would advise Hawk to start piciking up his game and proving his value or, like last Sunday, he’ll be active but not playing. The onus is on Hawk. And, the Packers win in either case.

  2. This is truly an AND situation, not a polemic OR situation. Keep them both, use them to fire each other up (much like Zombo and Walden) and have the security of knowing that either way, that position will be in good hands.

  3. anyone know how much of hawk’s money is guaranteed? and not just smith, but francois just makes plays. bishop is secure but i see rotating three in and out of hawk’s position.

  4. I have always liked the blue collar, no nonsense approach by Hawk, and his even-keeled leadership down the stretch last year was invaluable. BUT, there is no question Smith is a tackling machine, and his presence has seemed to improve that aspect of the entire “D”. IMHO the tackling has improved over the past few weeks, nobody wants to be outdone by the rookie. In the Raiders game I saw some of the best sure tackles (and hits) I’ve seen all season. That said, I feel Hawk should get his job back, nobody needs to tell him what’s going on, he sees the same things we see. He needs to step it up, or…………..

  5. I’m actually surprised, I haven’t noticed anything from Smith that is far superior to Hawk. Hawk is actually a pretty darn good tackler. Smith is obviously faster in space than Hawk (he’s tiny comparatively).

    Hawk is also very good at getting people in the correct run gaps; managing the run defense. He’s a smart player.

    That all said, I’d need to see another 3-4 games of superior play before I handed everything over to a rookie. Rookies are known for being inconsistent or having holes in their game – it’s just how it is. Once there’s enough tape on him and teams are able to attack his inconsistencies, his level of play might drop, or it might not. Either way it’s too early.

    1. I tend to agree with you, Elle. But I can’t decide if it’s just my conservative nature, or if I overrate Hawk.

      1. Yeah good point. Either way I think Smith will be an eventual starter, the question is if now is the time.

        1. Smith is actually slower than Hawk running straight line, no doubt about it. That being said, Smith is the #1 linebacker by a far margin in one area: He doesn’t waste any steps in diagnosing and moving to the ball carrier and he attacks downhill, in the hole. Hawk waits for the ball carrier, doesn’t flow downhill. Hawk is a better athlete, just doesn’t diagnose post snap play like he does pre-snap (hence the love from the coaching staff).

          Bishop is instinctive, but he’s still a guesser. He will guess direction and sometimes get caught in the wash.

          Smith isn’t the athlete either Bishop or Hawk are, but he’s the best I’ve seen at diagnosing, flowing towards the line of scrimmage and wasting no steps in his movement. That’s why he looks fast, he just has no wasted movement towards the ball.

          1. right on the mark. As I watched the Raiders’ game, I remarked to myself how Smith is always where the ball is. As you stated, great reaction to the ball off the snap…

    2. Hawk is so slow I cringe every time they run at him. Every time you see Hawk moving sideline to sideline to chase down a RB he is always a step behind. This season 2 steps behind! Ive said since he was drafted that he was MOST overrated LB to come out since The Boz, Brian Bosworth. Not the Packers fault, everybody said he was a can’t miss LB. Problem is he misses all the time because he runs like my Grandmother!!

  6. Great post and comments. I have been disappointed in Hawk for some time. He struggles in coverage and while he may know where everyone needs to be on the field, he often isn’t there himself. It seems he is always the 2nd or 3rd guy in on the tackle. I like the steady, sure-handed “idea” of Hawk, but I just haven’t seen it play out on the field. Remember when Hawk was benched last year. I do think the coaches are aware of Hawk’s ability, they just haven’t had a good alternative until now. Let’s be honest, our defense isn’t that stellar, and having a tackling machine will add some much needed fire.

  7. The defense has been atrocious with hawk in the game for the most part this year. The defense has been up and down with Smith. Last week was a good week for the D. The run D was the best it has been all year for sure. It sounds like Bishop is going to be out for another week, so Smith should see some more playing time this week. It will give Dom and MM a little more time to evaluate his play.

  8. I hope the coaches keep one more thing in mind. PLAY THE HOT PLAYER, WHOEVER. Smith appears to me to be the hot player right now, not only that, Smith is fresher. Maybe Hawk needs a little rest and not playing will remind him, he has to produce to keep his staarting job. Not trying to be hard, it’s just the way it is.

  9. Would it not be fair to examine the teams and the offenses of them each has faced.

    The defense has been beaten,made the fool,collapsed at times in games,and each part(DL,DB,LB) plays a factor in each ones individual play.
    Smith has ability and does things that Hawk doesn’t or cannot do but to make a judgement based on a game against Oak when the defense as a whole played great in comparison to the previous games as yet is premature IMO.Hawk may lose his starting job but I wouldn’t count him out yet.

    “The defense has been atrocious with Hawk in the game for the most part this year”.

    So,that means it’s mostly his fault.GEEZ

  10. It’s not that I know Smith will be a 10 time pro-bowler or that Hawk is all that bad, but when I compare the two, in a very small sample, Smith has looked dynamic versus what is approaching a six-year period for Hawk – meh! Dynamic vs meh.

      1. Be careful Tarynfor when you use the word always. Like I said I don’t know how Smith will play out, but I have a nearly six year sample with Hawk and the best I can do is feign indifference.

  11. stats will lie. if you are looking for the better player, look at tape. its hard for spectators to fully understand what is going on, but still… we drafted smith because he has excellent instincts, not cuz of his athleticism. the good thing is that hes translating it to the pros

  12. IMO, Smith will be your starter once he gets more game experience. I wish we had this same problem of a having a excellent back-up at the safety position when Nick Collins went down.

  13. Maybe Hawk can move to rush LB and take Walden’s spot. Hawk has always looked slow and poor in pass coverage anyway, so why not move him to the line and open up the spot for Smith??

  14. What we saw last week was Smith with the communication helmet on getting calls from Capers, not really an indication of what Smith can or can’t do right on his own now since he’s only played a game and half. Come playoffs, Capers will go with the experience unless injuries occur. Wouldn’t put too much into this story until training camp next year, that will be the test for which is the starter.

  15. Isn’t it nice to have both Hawk and D.J. Smith on the team? I mean, who can complain about putting a backup in who plays at about the same level as the starter. Kudos to TT for the depth on our roster, right down to the practice squad. I love both Hawk and Smith.

  16. Lets hope the Packers are not on the hook for whole contract. Look at the stats in his 11 starts vs the 3 starts from D.J. Smith. 36 tackles for hawk to 18 for smith!!!! Common man!!!!! I would love to see Bishop and Smith out there together and see how that works. BTW…. Can you say London Fletcher????

  17. A.J. Hawk sucks!!! Worst T.T. has made since he came here in giving him a 5 year deal. No way can I take watching this slow, tackle missing, day late and dollar short!!

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