The loss of Nick Barnett to season-ending injury after Week 4 revealed the Packers' uncommon depth at inside linebacker. It'll cost the Packers $6.05 million to keep Barnett in 2011. / Evan Siegle/Press-Gazette
The Green Bay Packers needed every bit of their uncommonly good depth at inside linebacker this year.
Not many NFL teams could have lost Nick Barnett for the season after four games and Brandon Chillar to injured reserve after 11 games, and, basically, been no worse off. Thatís one argument for holding onto depth rather than trading it.
But that depth will take a hit this offseason because of costs. Desmond Bishop and A.J. Hawk in effect will be free agents ó Bishop literally so, assuming the next collective bargaining agreement returns the eligibility minimum for free agency to four years. Hawk is scheduled to make $10 million in 2011, but that obviously isnít going to happen, so heíll either reach agreement on a new deal or know heíll be cut and free to sign with any team.
Barnett, 29, is scheduled to make $6.05 million in salary and bonus in 2011, and Chillar, 28, will make $2.6 million. Bishop and Hawk likely will cost in the $4 million range. Thereís no way the Packers will pay four inside linebackers startersí money. At least one will have to go.
Chillar is the closest to a lock because heís the cheapest and the best in pass coverage, a specialized skill thatís valuable to a team that plays nickel a majority of its defensive snaps.
After that, any two of three could be back, depending on costs.
Barnett is the most dynamic and accomplished player in the group, but heís played a lot of NFL football as an every-down linebacker (113 games, playoffs included) with an abandon that has to have taken a toll on his 6-feet-2 and 236-pound frame, which is on the small side for his position. Maybe missing the final 12 games this year because of a broken wrist will do his health some good for next year, but thatís something the Packers will have to look at hard this offseason.
At his salary and age, itís no guarantee heís back. Itís all about bang for the buck, and the costs for Bishop and Hawk will be a factor there.
Hawk never became the playmaker the Packers projected when they drafted him at No. 5 overall in 2006, but heís shown more redeeming qualities this year. He hasnít missed a game in his five years and in the second half of this season has played his most sound football. If the Packers offered him $3 million to $4 million a year, would he take it or think he could do better on the open market?
Regardless, Bishop has been the better player of the two. Since becoming a starter in Week 5, heís been the teamís leading tackler (74 tackles to Hawkís 63) and for most of that time has played in the base and nickel defenses ó Chillarís shoulder problems cut into his playing time in the several weeks before he landed on IR.
After three long years waiting for his chance, Bishop has proven heís a starting-caliber NFL player, a guy you can win with, a productive starter for a defense that ranks No. 2 in the NFL in scoring and No. 9 in yards allowed.
The Packers started negotiations with his agent in November, and while thereís no indication the sides have reached a deal yet, the interest clearly is there. The Packers want him back, but at what cost?
Bishop doesnít have quite the leverage he would have in past years because of the uncertainty of free agency rules. Chances are he will be a free agent this offseason, but thatís not for sure. Thereís also something to be said for getting money in hand now, because thereís a chance there wonít be a new CBA until this summer or fall. Plus thereís the injury risk in the playoffs, assuming the Packers qualify. That could add up to a discount for the Packers.
Regardless, itís hard to see the Packers paying Bishop at the level they paid Barnett. Barnettís contract, signed in April 2007, paid him $11.5 million in the first year and averages $6 million a season. At the time he signed, he was one of the Packersí best defensive players and at age 25 had just finished his fifth NFL season, all as a starter.
But to get Bishop to forego his likely free agency, the Packers surely will have to pay him at least what they gave Chillar, if not more. In December 2009, Chillar signed a new five-year contract that averages from $3.8 million to $4.2 million a year, depending on the escalators he reaches. The deal included about $7 million in guaranteed money.
If the Packers pony up for Bishop, as their interest late this season suggests theyíre inclined to do, then itís down to Barnett or Hawk. Thereís also the chance theyíd go without either, draft an inside linebacker and go from there. But as this season showed, depth makes a difference. So the smart money says keep three to help weather any storms.
Pete Dougherty covers the Packers for the Press-Gazette. E-mail him at email@example.com.