Tough choices ahead at linebacker

Bishop is one of three starting-caliber inside linebackers

It isn’t exactly Sophie’s Choice, but general manager Ted Thompson will have an extremely difficult decision of his own to make in a few months. Green Bay has three starting-caliber inside linebackers on the current roster, but in all likelihood, room for only two of them in 2011. Nick Barnett, who played in four games before undergoing wrist surgery in October, is under contract for two more years. He’s scheduled to earn $12.6 million over that time. A.J. Hawk, who is currently enjoying the finest season of his career, is on the books for $10 million in 2011 – the final year of his contract. And Desmond Bishop, who has played extremely well in place of Barnett, will be a free agent in March. Whether he’s restricted or unrestricted will be determined once a new collective bargaining agreement is reached. So who’ll be the odd man out? That’s a really tough call – and exactly why Thompson is paid the big bucks. But just for the heck of it, here’s how we analyze the pros and cons when it comes to bringing each player back:

Barnett

Pros: He played at a Pro Bowl-level in 2009, recording 105 tackles, 4 sacks and 7 pass deflections. He’s one of the few vocal leaders on the defensive side of the ball. His salary is more than reasonable for the next two years (remember, backup inside linebacker Brandon Chillar will make an average of $5.6 million through 2013). He’s a very good athlete who plays in space better than either Bishop or Hawk.

Cons: He’ll be 30 in May. That makes him 38 months older than Bishop and 32 months older than Hawk. He’s missed 19 games in the past three seasons due to surgeries to his knee and wrist. Is that simply bad luck or the beginning of a trend? He’s not a prototypical inside linebacker. He’s aggressive, but at 235 pounds, lacks the strength to consistently take on blockers at the line of scrimmage.

Bishop

Pros: He has the most upside. He started for the first time in 2010 and has gotten better every week. At 26, he’s the youngest of the three. He’s the most physical inside linebacker on the team. He’s made quite a few big plays this season (3 sacks, 2 forced fumbles and an interception return for a TD in only 11 starts). He’s a punishing hitter who adds much-needed toughness and meanness to the defense.

Cons: If he’s eligible for unrestricted free agency, it’s going to cost a lot of money to keep him. He could be paid as much in 2011 as Barnett will make in the next two years. He doesn’t run very well. Dom Capers has done a great job of playing to his strengths, but with an offseason to study film, offensive coordinators will work hard to find ways to exploit this weakness – both against the run and the pass.

Hawk

Pros: He’s currently enjoying his best season. He seemed to thrive when handed the play calling responsibilities after Barnett’s injury. He’ll turn 27 in a few weeks, so he’s just now entering the prime of his career. He hasn’t missed a single game since being drafted by the Packers in 2005. He’s improved in coverage. He’ll never look pretty in space, but he hasn’t been much of a liability in 2010.

Cons: Like Bishop, he’s going to be very expensive to keep. Whether the Packers honor his current deal (unlikely) or attempt to work out a long-term extension, he’s going to be paid eight figures in 2011. He doesn’t make many big plays. He has only 8.5 sacks and 2 forced fumbles in 79 games. His ceiling is limited. His speed and functional football strength are marginal at best for a 3-4 inside linebacker.

As you can see, choosing between the three players isn’t going to be easy. The guess here is that Barnett is safe and ultimately the decision will be between Bishop and Hawk. It’s hard to imagine Thompson paying out over $20M in 2011 to keep both. The guess here – notice the trend – is that Hawk will demand more money as part of a long-term contract. That, along with Bishop’s higher ceiling, could be the difference. A trio of Barnett, Bishop and Chillar would be fine for the next two years, and in the meantime, Thompson will be able to draft a player to replace Barnett in 2013. Anyway, that’s how we see it as of now. How Thompson sees it won’t be known for a few more months.

About the author

Packer Update is the creation of a longtime fan. My name is Michael Rodney and I was a sportswriter in the early 1990s. I worked full-time for a newspaper in South Jersey, but I still managed to get quite a few articles about the Packers published during that time. I hope you enjoy reading this blog as much as I enjoy writing about the most storied franchise in all of pro sports.