Thursday, March 22, 2007

Nick Barnett: Three Key Questions

NBAs the free agent frenzy has died down, the mob that is the fan base of the Green Bay Packers are looking at the $20 million dollars still available in salary cap space, the now-real possibility that Randy Moss's salary will not be taking up half that amount, and wondering: when are we going to get Nick Barnett back in the fold?

Barnett, 25, has manned the middle of the linebacking corps since his rookie season, and is now entering his unrestricted free agent contract year. Now, there are always a slough of criticisms to be brought up at times like this.

For one, people haven’t always been sold on Nick Barnett. He’s undergone criticism for overrunning plays, not being the prototypical MLB, and of course, never making a Pro Bowl.

Ted Thompson can also come under a bit of criticism, as he had some of last year’s cap space available to push through to this year. Instead of choosing to lock up Barnett, who was asking to be locked up, Ted let it roll over into this season, and now may be looking at losing a player or grossly overpaying for him.

Criticism aside, all rumors suggest that the Packers and Barnett’s agent are “talking”, but nothing has suggested a deal is close, much less imminent. As Adalius Thomas, the new New England Patriot linebacker, can attest, free agency is probably going to be a lot more profitable for Nick Barnett, especially if he proves himself to finally be a Pro Bowl talent in 2007.

Thomas signed a five-year deal with a $12 million signing bonus, and will pocket $22 million between now and December 2008. Peter King commented that the Patriots have mortgaged the future to win now with Thomas, who, while only counting $3.4 million against the cap in 2007, will have cap numbers of $5.4 million, $6.4 million, $9.4 million, and $10.4 million over the next four years.

Mortgaging the future doesn’t sound like Ted Thompson’s M.O. But, you can be sure that somewhere in the NFL, there is a team that will be willing to throw that kind of money at Nick Barnett next offseason.

And you can be sure that Barnett and his agent are acutely aware of that, too.

Which bring us back to the potentially polarizing topic of Thompson attemting to extend Barnett’s contract. Other than Randy Moss, there is perhaps no topic right now that people are more diversely opinionated on: the value of Nick Barnett. While I have few answers for you today, I will offer three questions that, when answered, will tell us whether or not #56 will be a staple in the Green and Gold for the foreseeable future.

Question Number One: How much value do the Green Bay Packers place on Nick Barnett?

The Packer linebacker will be making a mere $1.9 million base salary this upcoming year, with a pro-rated bonus push that will set his cap space at $3.6 million, ranking tenth on the present Packer roster.

That’s a good deal for a solid linebacker who’s been on the cusp of a Pro Bowl, and has led the team in tackles multiple times. But if you renegotiate, where is the point that it becomes too much coin for the same player?

Interestingly enough, Barnett’s and Adelius Thomas’s 2007 cap figures are pretty similar, but we know the comparison ends there. Is Barnett worth $5.4 million later? $9.4 million later?

And most of all, is he worth keeping on a back-loaded contract that will cost us a mint to trade or cut later on? The logic with all the present space would be, unlike Thomas’s contract, to put the bulk of his money at the front of the contract, and put that $9.4 figure on for this year.

But is that something that Thompson is willing to do? Does he see Nick Barnett as a premier middle linebacking talent worthy of a $12+ million signing bonus? Combined, Al Harris and Charles Woodson won’t cost us $10 million this upcoming season.

Barnett has been a solid player who has played through injury. I don’t think anyone will doubt that he is a solid Packer player who is good for the team. But critics say that if you place any decent player at the MLB position in the Packer scheme, they will rack up the tackles, too. He’s never had more than 3 sacks or interceptions in a season. Put AJ Hawk at middle linebacker, and he’ll do just as well, if not better, the critics say.

Now, Ted Thompson has a much better idea of what he has in Nick Barnett than any of us do. He knows the kind of locker room presence he has, knows the ability he has, and has a pretty good idea of the ceiling that this 25-year old player has.

How he answers this question will be evident in how much he’s willing to spend, because after not locking him up in 2006, the price tag just became much, much higher.

Question Number Two: What is more important to Nick Barnett, team loyalty or a big payday?

This question just became uncomfortably obvious when Thomas signed his contract with the Patriots. As the premier defensive player, and clearly the premier middle linebacker, in the 2006 version of free agency, he benefitted from the dollars being thrown around by teams for whom the pendalum has swung the other way. Teams that got burned in the late 1990’s and early 2000’s by back-loaded contracts and dead salary cap space learned to conserve, and now more and more teams are sitting with surpluses and looking for players to spend it on.

Nick Barnett would already be a top defensive player in 2008, certainly in the caliber of Nate Clements, who also got an ungodly amount of money in free agency. Now, add a year and more cap space to the 2008 totals, and possibly a Pro Bowl season by Barnett, and the cast is set for him to truly strike pay dirt, with signing bonuses exceeding $15 million.

Or, he can stay with the Packers for less.

I don’t think there is any doubt that Ted Thompson is going to try and sign him for less than what he’s going to get on the open market. The question is, would Barnett be willing to settle for it?

Barnett may indeed be getting tired of Green Bay, too. His nightclub docudrama has gone on now for over a year, and the frustration of a young man feeling like he’s being attacked unfairly by the people of the city he’s playing in may be growing old, real fast.

Ted could also place a franchise tag on Barnett after the season. The 2007 linebacker franchise number is around $6.4 million, so add a bit to that, especially with Adalius Thomas’s contract.

While I don’t have a definitive answer for this question, I think there’s a pretty clear direction that any 25 year-old with a limited career lifespan is going to lean towards: payday. While Barnett may take less money to stay in Green Bay, its not going to be a lot less. And while many of us may spit and decry the obscene amounts of money being thrown at these free agents nowadays, who among us can begrudge the players themselves for signing on the dotted line?

Question Number Three: How much faith do the Packers have in Abdul Hodge?

This may end up being Ted Thompson’s ace in the hole, because right now, his hand isn’t looking all that good as it relates to Nick Barnett. Barring injury, Barnett has every motivation to play out this season at the highest level he’s ever played at, and then move on to the highest bidder.

When Thompson picked up Abdul Hodge in the third round of the draft last year, many Packers fans raised an eyebrow. Why would we be drafting a linebacker, a middle linebacker, when we already have a first rounder playing the position? Why would we draft a MLB whose abilities don’t translate well to the strong-side, where we didn’t have a proven or set starter at the time?

As many of us suspected at the time, Thompson may have been planning ahead for this moment. Maybe, answering question number one, he didn’t believe that Barnett was as valuable as many of us thought. Maybe, answering question number two, he didn’t believe that he would be worth as much money as he would be commanding someday.

And so, enter Abdul Hodge, undersized but played at a high level in college. His 2006 season was more obscure than it was proving himself an heir apparent, starting one game at Seattle and garnering 12 tackles, and snagging a mid-air fumble from Matt Hasselback and returning it for a touchdown.

But things went downhill from there. Barnett returned from injury, and Hodge developed his own, a shoulder problem that kept him on the bench during the four-game winning streak.

How Hodge develops will play a big part in how negotiations continue to progress with Nick Barnett. If he ends up being an injury-prone, undersized linebacker, the Packers may be forced to pony up for Barnett or begin searching for his replacement. If Hodge ends up being the force he was at Iowa, Thompson may just find #55 as able to fill the MIKE spot as #56, and save a little coin in the process.

Three questions.

Over the next few months, these three questions will likely get answers, and we will know if Nick Barnett is destined for the Packer Hall of Fame or on to his big payday.

Both offer a lot of “green” and “gold”, though with different defintions. It will depend which is more important to Barnett, and how important it is to Ted Thompson to keep him here.

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