The Green Bay Packers signed Desmond Bishop to a four-year extension worth $19 million on Tuesday, so we now know the identity of one of the starting inside linebackers in 2011. But who’ll be lining up next to the former Cal standout is still a question – a question that will almost certainly be answered before the first day of the 2011 league year (the exact date will be determined once a new CBA is reached). That’s when A.J. Hawk’s $10 million base salary becomes guaranteed.
The strong hunch here is that GM Ted Thompson prefers Hawk over Nick Barnett. He’s three years younger and a lot more durable. But he’s not worth a base salary of $10 million – with or without a salary cap. So look for Thompson to try to renegotiate Hawk’s deal prior to the first day of the 2011 league year. If the two sides can agree to a long-term contract extension that reduces the amount of money to be paid next season by a few million dollars, we would expect the former Ohio State star to be back with the Packers for a sixth season. If a new deal can’t be reached, we would expect Hawk to be released.
So what are the odds of Hawk agreeing to a long-term deal? Probably no better than 50-50. While he seems to like playing in Green Bay, his agent agreed to a sixth year in 2005 for a reason. He wanted his client to either earn $10 million with the Packers in 2011 or have the opportunity to make more than that on the open market. Agreeing to a deal that reduces Hawk’s salary next season – even by a single dollar – would make very little sense. That’s because there’s going to be a team or teams champing at the bit to sign a productive 27-year-old linebacker. Players like that rarely make it to free agency.
If Hawk winds up staying, Barnett would almost certainly be traded prior to the opening of training camp. The Packers simply can’t afford to go into next season with so many high-priced players at one position (and we haven’t even mentioned Brandon Chillar, who signed a $22 million deal in December 2009). But it’s not just about money. Bishop, Hawk and Barnett are all starting-caliber inside linebackers and none of the three would be happy in a backup role. So dealing Barnett would nip any potential problems in the bud, and at the same time, add another draft pick to the team’s coffers.
We wrote a story on the inside linebackers a week ago. At that time, we predicted Bishop and Barnett would be the starters next season. Our reasoning was that Bishop has a higher ceiling than Hawk, and more importantly, he’d be a lot less expensive to sign (although we expected him to command a lot more than $19 million). We’re now 1 for 1, but that was the easier part of the equation. The harder part will play out over the course of the next few months. Fortunately, the defense will be just fine either way.