Hot Read: Barnett right man for the job

Admit it. When Green Bay selected Oregon State linebacker Nick Barnett in last April's draft, your reaction – like most Packer fans – could be summed up in two words: Nick who? You knew all about Boss Bailey, the athletic marvel out of Georgia. You were well versed on E.J. Henderson, the big run-stuffer out of Maryland. You might have even known something about Terry Pierce from Kansas State. But Barnett? Even coiffed-hair draft guru Mel Kiper Jr. wasn't saying much about him.<p>

Fast forward six months and Barnett's name is on the lips of every one in Titletown. From fans, coaches and teammates, the praise has been pouring in for a player most thought would last until the second or third round. Barnett has a team leading 53 stops, including 37 solo tackles, plus he is tied for the team lead with two sacks and two interceptions. He routinely flashes the speed and range at middle linebacker that was sorely missed last year when the once great Hardy Nickerson practically needed a walker to chase down the ball. And with time spent playing safety in college along with linebacker, Barnett looks as comfortable dropping into coverage as he does wrapping up running backs.

He's still a rookie, so it goes without saying that there's some things he needs to work on. But based on early returns, there's no doubt the Packers made the right call on which linebacker to draft. Against Detroit, Barnett had 14 tackles and an interception and was named NFL Rookie of the Week. He followed that up with 15 stops and another pick against the Cardinals, notched his first sack in a Monday night victory over the Bears and boned up against Mike Holmgren and the Seahawks with a team high 12 tackles and another sack.

Only five games into his professional career, the 6-foot-2, 240 pound Barnett is clearly on his way to becoming the player coach Mike Sherman envisioned when he surprised all the experts and tabbed him with the 29th overall pick.

"Nick makes plays," Sherman said. "He makes them in practice; he makes them in games. He's a playmaker. He makes mistakes, too, but the great thing about Nick Barnett is he never makes the same mistake twice. I think his energy and passion brings a certain charisma to our defense that will just continue as he matures and becomes more comfortable in his role. I think that will just blossom even more."

So how are those other rookie linebackers doing? Bailey went in the second round, No. 34 overall to the Detroit Lions. A starter on the strong side, Bailey has notched 30 tackles, including 13 solo but has zero sacks or interceptions. There was plenty to like about him coming out of college, but the Packers medical staff had concerns about a player who had torn the anterior cruciate ligament in both knees – one in high school and the other at the start of the 2000 season. They also thought that despite his speed and athleticism, he missed too many tackles. They already had a linebacker like that named Nate Wayne who they unloaded in the off season.

Henderson was the 40th overall pick by the Minnesota Vikings. He is currently backing up middle linebacker Greg Biekert but most conversations about rookies in Viking-land revolve around their third round pick, running back Onterrio Smith. At the time of the draft, Green Bay had concerns over Henderson's long-term health after he played all of last season following surgery for a fractured lumbar vertebra. Henderson was also deemed too one-dimensional by the Packers, as was Pierce, who was also taken in the second round and backs up Al Wilson at middle linebacker in Denver.

Not only has Barnett proven to be the creme of the rookie linebacking crop so far, he's become one of the most exciting players on the Packer defense. He's even been compared to a young Ray Lewis. While that kind of comparison is premature, at times he's made wrapping up a running back or plucking a pass out of the air look easier than it should be for a 22-year old playing in the NFL.

"I don't think I'm making it look easy, but I'm just going out there and playing," Barnett said. "Just running around trying to get to the ball and trying to make plays. I work hard in practice and it pays off on the field."

As one of the elder statesman on the Packer defense and a playmaker in his own right, safety Darren Sharper has been impressed with Barnett, too. Playing behind him on defense, he's had an up close view of the rookie in action.

"Nick has been playing extremely well," Sharper said. "And the thing about him is that if at anytime he's out of position, he's able to make up for it with hustle. Whenever you can do that and fly around the football, it's going to allow you to make plays."

And for those big plays, Barnett has even come up with his own celebration – the Samurai. Barnett pulls an imaginary sword from behind his back, chops up, well, whatever it is you chop with an imaginary sword, bows and then puts the sword back. It's a pleasant change up from the 'Sharper Shake,' but just like Barnett's game, it promises to be even better with a little refinement.

Fortunately for the Packers, Barnett should have plenty of opportunities to work on it this season.

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