A.J. Hawk

We’ve never thought much of Green Bay Packers linebacker A.J. Hawk. In fact, we’ve called him a bust in the past.

Then, when both Nick Barnett and Brandon Chillar went down during the 2010 season, Hawk stepped in to have probably his finest season as a pro, racking up 111 tackles, 10 passes defended and three picks. We changed our tune about Hawk at the time, simply because the Packers would have been in big trouble without him.

The team’s depth at inside linebacker — Desmond Bishop also stepped in and became the team’s top performer at the position — helped propel the team to the Super Bowl. Hawk was a big part of that.

In the offseason, the Packers cut Hawk so they wouldn’t have to pay him $10 million in 2011. They re-signed him the next day to a $33.75 million, five-year deal, essentially telling him and everyone else they considered Hawk one of their starting inside linebackers for the next five seasons.

The commitment to Hawk became ever more evident when they released Barnett before training camp. So how did Hawk reward the Packers?

With probably the worst season of his career.

Not only did Hawk have a career-low in tackles with 84, but he intercepted no passes and forced no fumbles. He had only 1.5 sacks and defended only three passes. In short, he pretty much returned to his pre-2010 form — to a guy who is pretty much the opposite of a playmaker. Hawk was weak in coverage, slow-footed, took bad angles on tackles and was pretty much a poor tackler all around.

We’re not the only ones to take notice. The Journal Sentinel’s Bob McGinn wrote a scathing article on Hawk last weekend, questioning whether the Packers could even bring Hawk back next season. It contained statements like this.

Hawk? You’ve got to be kidding. He’s just a guy. His contract is by far the worst contract that Thompson has ever enacted.

It’s beyond me how Thompson can come back with Hawk as the starter next season. There even have been whispers among Hawk’s teammates. They know better than anyone else how little his game has to offer.

And you think we’ve been hard on the guy?

The bottom line is this. Hawk hasn’t played up to his contract at any point in his career, except when he faced adversity and was essentially benched.

D.J. Smith not only played better than Hawk in 2011, but he has more long-term potential. He may not have the prototypical size, but he knows how to make plays, is quick to react and has a nose for the ball. When you add it up — the big contract, lack of production, Smith’s future — it could land Hawk on the street this offseason.

Frankly, after this past season, we’d say it’s about time.