Lockout'11: The future of A.J. Hawk

As we noted Monday morning, we're getting ready to embark on an unprecedented week in NFL history.

By Friday, it's possible we will have seen the decertification of the NFL Players Association and a counteraction by NFL owners. Or we could see the owners lock out the union if it remains intact. There could be an extension of the current collective bargaining agreement (CBA). Mass hysteria is also a possibility.

(Hopefully Chip Diller has an easier time this go around.)

Between now and Friday, however, NFC North teams might have some more traditional questions to answer. Teams often release and/or re-sign players before the start of free agency, the news of which would normally dominate this week. Free agency won't begin until the new league year starts, and the new league year won't start until a new CBA is reached.

But we've already touched on a few of the biggest issues that would normally be facing NFC North teams this week, and could be forced to deal with at some point soon based on developments. We've noted that Chicago Bears coach Lovie Smith wants to re-sign center Olin Kreutz, and we know that Minnesota Vikings receiver Sidney Rice won't re-sign with the team until he tests his value on the future free-agent market.

Because we don't know how this will all play out, let's look at one more pending issue: The Green Bay Packers' situation at inside linebacker.

As we discussed as recently as Saturday, the Packers have a glut of players at the position. They finished the 2010 season with A.J. Hawk and Desmond Bishop as their starters. Two other veterans, Nick Barnett and Brandon Chillar, were on injured reserve. Bishop signed a four-year contract extension last fall and isn't going anywhere.

So what will the Packers do? Both Barnett and Hawk are candidates to be released, albeit for different reasons. Barnett will turn 30 in May and has suffered season-ending injuries in two of the past three seasons. Meanwhile, Hawk's contract calls for him to have a $10 million base salary in 2011. The deal includes an escalator that will push that figure to the franchise number for inside linebackers if it is higher, according to information I've seen, and the cash will be guaranteed if Hawk is on the Packers' roster at the start of the league year.

Under normal circumstances, the Packers would need to resolve the issue before Friday. But the expiring CBA could relax that deadline because the league year won't start Friday without an agreement. The Packers at some point must act on Hawk's contract to avoid guaranteeing him an eight-figure salary for 2011, be it a release or an agreement to extend the deal and spread out the cash payout.

Speaking Friday at the NFL scouting combine, Packers coach Mike McCarthy made clear he wants Hawk back.

"A.J. Hawk is a Green Bay Packer as far as I'm concerned," McCarthy said. "I'm not going to get into business situations. You just hope they'll work out. ... A.J. as a football player and a person, he's exactly what you're looking for. There is a business side of this. You want all your players back. That's how coaches always view these types of situations. A.J. grew tremendously, not only as a player, but as a leader in our locker room this year. Thought he had a heck of a year. Hopefully everything works out."

We'll find out soon enough. Unless we don't. My only advice: Remain calm!