When it came to the future of linebacker Nick Barnett, there were no easy answers for the Green Bay Packers. Ultimately, it appears general manager Ted Thompson decided to sever ties with a player who has been at the team's core since he was their first-round draft pick in 2003. Now the question is whether Barnett will surface with another NFC North team.
As we noted earlier in an ESPN.com news story, Barnett and Thompson talked Tuesday morning at Lambeau Field. Afterwards, Barnett tweeted what appeared to be a farewell message thanking the team for "the great 8 years" and saying he was happy "to be here for the great xlv run."
It's possible the Packers will try to trade Barnett, who has suffered season-ending injuries in two of the past three season but is still relatively young at 30. But there isn't likely to be much of a trade market now that teams know the Packers won't take him to training camp.
To be clear, the Packers could have made an argument to hold on to Barnett for a while, even though their starting inside linebackers are now Desmond Bishop and A.J. Hawk. Defensive coordinator Dom Capers is well known for dramatic changes in his weekly game plan, as well as for finding substantive roles for backup players based on matchups. It's not out of the question that Barnett could have settled into some sort of role while also serving in an expert backup role.
But two factors would have made that situation difficult to manage.
First, it's an NFL rarity for a long-term starter to accept a backup job with his current team. No matter how professional the parties are, feelings get hurt and the situation can be awkward. Also, Barnett was scheduled to earn $5.5 million in base salary this season in addition to a $400,000 roster bonus. Frankly, that's way too much money to pay a backup linebacker in a salary-cap environment.
Second, Barnett's departure will clear valuable salary cap space for the Packers. Releasing or trading him will save more than $4 million for a team that is right up against the $120 million limit.
We've been monitoring this issue since Bishop signed his extension, and frankly no one should be surprised at the outcome. The latter factors outweighed the need for insurance against a possible injury to Bishop or Hawk. And I expect Barnett, who has experience in both the 4-3 and 3-4 schemes, to have more than a few options once he hits the open market. In addition to the Chargers and Bucs, there could be interest from the Chicago Bears and Detroit Lions, who are both in search of starting linebackers.
The Lions have a more flexible situation because they can move middle linebacker DeAndre Levy to the outside if they're comfortable with a player like Barnett in the middle. The Bears, meanwhile, need someone to start at the strongside position opposite Lance Briggs and Brian Urlacher. Some of you will note (with sarcasm) that the Minnesota Vikings have never met an ex-Packers player they didn't want to sign, but if they were going to sign a veteran linebacker, I would think it would be their own free agent, Ben Leber.
I don't think the Lions or Bears will be first in line for Barnett's services, but it will be worth watching regardless. The Packers remain well-stocked behind Hawk and Bishop provided Brandon Chillar returns healthy from shoulder surgery.