Sunday, March 18, 2012

Will Packers Target Hawk's Replacement in the Draft?

Packers GM Ted Thompson does most, nearly all, of his personnel work through the draft. Rarely a serious player in free agency, Thompson prepares to fill holes on his roster a year or two before they become issues. 

In each of the past two college drafts, Thompson has used early picks to select players that fill holes that hadn't been holes yet.

Thompson could let A.J. Hawk walk
Last year, Green Bay selected Mississippi State's OT Derek Sherrod with the 32nd overall pick. Despite being passed on the depth chart by 2010 fifth-round pick Marshall Newhouse, Sherrod certainly fits in the team's future plans on the Offensive Line. 

With question marks surrounding the health and overall ability of Chad Clifton, it looks as if Thompson's selection of Sherrod was in preparation for the possibility that Clifton would be released this offseason. The Packers can save $5.7 million by cutting Clifton, and that seems like a likely scenario with how many key players they'll need to resign soon.

Having already addressed the questionable future of his Offensive Line with his first selection, Thompson added to Green Bay's stellar wide receiving corps in the second round by selecting Kentucky WR Randall Cobb. Cobb was an instant upgrade in the return game, and he looks like a perfect replacement for veteran Donald Driver.

In the 2010 draft, Thompson used his first round pick on OT Bryan Bulaga. In the midst of his rookie season, Bulaga was forced into the starting lineup when right tackle Mark Tauscher went down to injury. The 2010 season would end up being the last of Tauscher's career in Green Bay, and Bulaga has been the team's starter ever since.

With his second selection, Thompson filled another hole a year before it became an urgent need when he selected Purdue's Mike Neal in the second round. Neal's career in Green Bay has been flooded with injuries, but he was drafted to replace Cullen Jenkins who left after the 2010 season to join the Philadelphia Eagles.

Looking ahead to the 2013 offseason, the Packers face several question marks. It's seems quite unlikely that Thompson would let his top receiver and top free agent, Greg Jennings, walk away from the team despite what will likely be a high price tag. Other than Jennings, offensive lineman T.J. Lang may be the team's next priority, but he doesn't figure to demand an overly expensive price tag.

What could be interesting, however, is what direction the team decides to go with linebacker A.J. Hawk. After signing a five year contract worth $33.75 million last March, Hawk's future in Green Bay looks cloudy at best. Since being selected fifth overall in the 2006 NFL Draft, Hawk has failed to be anything more than average as a starting linebacker.

The way Hawk's contract is structured, it would make no sense to cut him this offseason because it would require the Packers to take a massive cap hit. However, next offseason cutting Hawk could be a realistic option for Green Bay.

This from ProFootballTalk after Hawk signed his extension: "Hawk could be vulnerable to being released after 2013 depending on his play.  His cap number that year will be $7.55 million, and the team would only take a $3.2 cap hit to release him."

While it'd be a bit premature to say 2012 fifth round pick D.J. Smith is a potential starter, he filled in admirably for starter Desmond Bishop when he missed time to injury. Outside of Smith, the Packers depth behind Hawk and Bishop is very shaky - to the point where head coach Mike McCarthy has mentioned reserve outside linebackers Jamari Lattimore and Brad Jones possibly seeing some time at inside linebacker.

While outside linebacker is a more glaring need, it's a distinct possibility that Thompson could follow his pattern of filling holes a year early by addressing the inside linebacker position in the early rounds.

Dont'a Hightower and Courtney Upshaw
This year, there are only two inside linebackers that have a chance to go in the first round. Boston College's Luke Kuechley is the top linebacker in the draft, and he figures to be selected in the top half of the first round. Alabama's Dont'a Hightower is a thumper with some ability as an outside pass rusher; he figures to come off the board somewhere between 24th to Pittsburgh and the early second round.

For the Packers, Dont'a Hightower is a really interesting possibility to me. On ESPN's First Draft podcast, my email was answered by hosts Mel Kiper and Todd McShay. I was curious as to what they thought about Hightower as an outside linebacker in a 3-4 since he played defensive end in high school and Alabama coach Nick Saban used him as a pass rusher on third downs this past season.

Kiper wasn't so sure, although he raved about Hightower's measurables and athleticism, "I think he'll be drafted by the Pittsburgh Steelers, I think he could be a Sam (linebacker) as well ... At 265 pounds, you show athleticism and you show speed and overall talent that is unheard of, so I think Dont'a Hightower, a couple years removed from the knee surgery, all the sudden now is a lock first round pick. I don't think he gets past the Pittsburgh Steelers ... I think he'd be a good fit for the Pittsburgh Steelers at 24."

McShay had pointed out Hightower's ability to rush the passer in the previous week's podcast, but he spoke more highly of him playing inside opposed to outside. "He just has a Steeler mentality and a way about him that I really like."

If the slipper doesn't fit for Hightower in Pittsburgh, I believe the Packers could be the beneficiary.  If McCarthy is considering Brad Jones and Jamari Lattimore as candidates to play inside despite having never played the position before, I think the coaching staff would explore playing Hightower outside at times if it meant getting the team's best four linebackers on the field at once.

Hightower and Alabama HC Nick Saban
Hightower had 9.5 tackles for loss and three sacks this past season at Alabama, less than stellar numbers from a potential 3-4 outside linebacker; however, he was only asked to rush the passer in certain situations. On third downs, Saban put Hightower's hand in the ground and had him rush the passer along with fellow stud linebacker Courtney Upshaw - also a sure first round pick.

Upshaw figures to be drafted between #10 to Buffalo and #18 to San Diego, but if the Hightower fell to the Packers at #28, theoretically they could start him outside as a rookie on the opposite side of Clay Matthews. Hightower and Matthews would be the edge rushers, along with Hawk and Bishop again being the men in the middle.

If Thompson ultimately decides to cut ties with A.J. Hawk following the 2012-2013 season, Hightower could move to the inside to play alongside Desmond Bishop. History suggests Thompson is always looking forwards in regards to roster holes and the subpar play of A.J. Hawk could result in Dont'a Hightower wearing green and gold in 2012.

(Hightower's game against Arkansas highlights perfectly the versatility that I'm talking about. He lined up inside as a run stuffer and outside on the edge, and he handed out some "wow" hits in the process.)

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