NFL Draft Countdown: Packers by Position

Today: Linebackers. Next: defensive backs<p> If the season started today …in the case of the Packer linebacking corps, let's just be glad it doesn't. The ranks are definitely thin, and the draft may be the perfect place to start building this once strong facet of the defense.<p>

With the departure of Hardy Nickerson and Nate Wayne, only starter Na'il Diggs returns from last season. While Wayne's move to Philadelphia may come as a surprise, Nickerson's doesn't. He wasn't nearly as effective as the Packers had hoped last season. Diggs return is also a bit of a surprise, after a near brush with departure to Detroit. During the maneuverings, Diggs was quoted as saying he wanted to leave Green Bay. Egos aside, Diggs becomes the veteran leader of the linebackers. His returning group includes Torrance Marshall, Paris Lenon and Marcus Wilkins. Also on the current roster are '03 free agent signees Hannibal Navies (Carolina), Tony Donald, Isaac Keys, Jermaine Petty and Billy Silva.

Currently, the Packers are angling for a trade for Miami linebacker Derrick Rodgers He became expendable in Miami when the Dolphins traded for linebacker Junior Seau. Rodgers, a starter since 1997, had 91 tackles and two interceptions last year. He has incentives in his contract that could earn him an additional $1.4 million, which might make his current deal too rich for the Packers' blood. IF that doesn't come to pass, linebacker becomes the No. 1 draft priority. Even if Rodgers becomes a Packer, the corps is so thin that they may still be looking, although won't be as likely to spend a top pick.

Unfortunately, the draft's linebacker class is about as deep as the Packers. Don't look for an Urlacher this year, but there are enough top-notch players to make just a few of the linebacker-hungry teams happy. That means that if the Packers want to shore up their linebacking corps in the draft, they're going to have to do it early.

The top OLB prospect is Boss Bailey, borther of Redskins cornerback Champ Bailey. The younger Bailey has rare athletic ability and has been considered the best OLB in the draft since the speculating began, and it isn't likely to change enough to bump him out of his top-10 spot down toward Green Bay's pick.

Also in Bailey's favor is the fact that he is also being looked at as a safety.

According to one team's personnel director: "He may become a Steve Atwater as a safety, but faster, or Derrick Brooks as a linebacker, but bigger. The closer we get to the draft, the more teams will realize they have one of the draft gems in Bailey."

At ILB, E.J. Henderson has received the hype and is likely to be a top 10 pick as well.

It has been rumored that Henderson's stock has dropped due to a back injury. Still, it would be unlikely for him to fall as far as No. 30. Green Bay has heavy competition for LBs with teams like St. Louis at NO. 12 and the Jets at NO. 13. Another needy team is Philly, but they are stuck a pick behind GB at No. 30.

The Packers, Patriots, Seahawks, Saints and Rams are spending extra time making sure they know everything they can about Henderson. For now, it looks like the Saints may be handing a black and gold jersey to Henderson next weekend.

That leads the Packers to Terry Pierce of Kansas State. A consistent producer for the Wildcats, he would probably be a high second-round pick in another year, but the dearth of available linebackers boosted his stock. Also to be considered is Nick Barnett of Oregon State.

The late second and third rounds appear to be where a run on linebackers could take place. If the Packers do land their trade for Rodgers, they may use a third round pick on another linebacker. Fast risers include Pisa Tinoisamoa (Hawaii), Gerald Hayes (Pittsburgh) and Clifton Smith (Syracuse). Also gaining momentum as the draft approaches are Victor Hobson (Michigan) and Bradie James (LSU).

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