Who Stays, Who Goes At Inside Linebacker?

The Packers have four quality players with starting experience under contract for the 2011 season. The Packers didn't give Desmond Bishop a contract extension to put him back on the bench, so the team likely will have to choose between Nick Barnett and A.J. Hawk.

Desmond Bishop was destined for another frustrating season of being relegated to special teams. A.J. Hawk was destined for another frustrating season of being a part-time player.

Then Nick Barnett was struck down with a season-ending wrist injury in Week 4 against Detroit and Brandon Chillar couldn't fight through a shoulder injury that required surgery. Finally, Hawk got his chance to become a full-time player again, and he led the team with 134 tackles. Bishop got his chance and he delivered 121 tackles and a performance so solid that he was rewarded with a contract extension.

"I haven't wanted to go to sleep," Bishop said last week. "I'm afraid that if I go to sleep and wake up, it'll all just be a dream. I'm trying not to sleep and soaking up every single moment."

Whenever training camp begins this coming summer, Barnett and Chillar will be healthy and will join Bishop and Hawk in the same four-man logjam at inside linebacker as the last three training camps.

Considering Bishop's new contract and how well he played on a Super Bowl-winning defense that finished the regular season ranked second in scoring defense, there's every reason to believe he's entrenched in the starting lineup.

Which leads to the obvious question: Who is the starter with Bishop next season?

For months, the on-the-street logic would be that Hawk would be the odd man out with his $10 million contract for 2011 – the final year of his deal. That thinking always has been premature, though.

Hawk has been the consummate team player and defense is all about playing as a team. That defense is about 11 guys running to the ball is a bit of a fallacy. It's about lane integrity and taking out blockers and turning the runner to a teammate who is a "free hitter" based on the concept of the particular play called by coordinator Dom Capers.

That's where Hawk excels. On several occasions this season – the playoff game at Philadelphia, for instance -- he blitzed in tandem with Clay Matthews and took on a blocker or blockers to set Matthews free for a sack. As Bishop got into the flow as the starter, he and Hawk worked tremendously together in setting each other up for tackles

While Hawk isn't as explosively athletic as Barnett, he held up remarkably well in coverage while thrust into an every-down role. He led all NFL linebackers with three interceptions this season and is tied for the lead with five picks over the last two seasons. Plus, in taking over for Barnett as the defense's signal-caller, Hawk's leadership blossomed to such an extent that he was voted one of two defense captains by his teammates.

Not bad for a guy who didn't play a single snap on defense in the opener at Philadelphia and was the subject of trade rumors after running back Ryan Grant went down in that game.

"If they wanted to get me out of here, they would. I couldn't change it," Hawk said in ignoring the speculation. "All I can do is when I go out on the field try to make things happen. I don't like to sit back and think about what could happen. They can decide in two minutes that they don't want me here anymore and I'm out. So, I can't sit back and worry about things like that."

Barnett, whose abbreviated season left him seven tackles short of John Anderson's franchise-record 1,020, wants a shot to recapture his starting position. He's always been productive and plays 100 mph, but there have been times when he's played too reckless and outside the scheme, which has cost the defense.

"I think I'll go to training camp in the best shape of my life and the biggest chip on my shoulder I've ever had," he told a few reporters last week. "We'll let the chips fall where they may. I think it's going to be hard to deny my hunger that I'm going to come into training camp next year. We'll see what happens. I'd love to finish my career out as a Packer. I've got two years on my contract so that's what I plan on doing."

With Bishop under contract through 2014, Chillar through 2013, Barnett through 2012 and Hawk through 2011, it's clear somebody must go. The Chillar-to-outside linebacker experiment in training camp failed, but he's a valuable commodity in coverage and a proven performer on special teams. So, that someone almost certainly will come down to Hawk or Barnett.

Yes, Hawk's $10 million is a hefty price tag but the six-year average of $5.834 million certainly is palatable for a steady leader. A new deal for the 27-year-old would be a win-win.

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Bill Huber is publisher of Packer Report magazine and PackerReport.com and has written for Packer Report since 1997. E-mail him at packwriter2002@yahoo.com, or leave him a question in Packer Report's subscribers-only Packers Pro Club forum. Find Bill on Twitter at twitter.com/packerreport and Facebook under Bill Huber.

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