Linebacker shuffle?

There is no doubt that the Green Bay Packers need help in many areas on defense. One of the positions the Packers will try to improve through free agency and next month's NFL Draft is at linebacker where the depth is as thin as ice on a northern Wisconsin lake in early summer.<p>

Middle linebacker Nick Barnett and outside linebacker Na'il Diggs are the only two starters under contract with the Packers. Hannibal Navies is an unrestricted free agent after starting two straight seasons at the strong-side linebacker position ("Buck"). Backup Paris Lenon was tendered an offer as a restricted free agent last month. Outside linebacker Steve Josue is the only other linebacker currently scheduled to return to the Packers.

The Packers have yet to show much interest in re-signing Navies, which leaves open the possibility that there will be at least one new starter. It also is very possible that Barnett and Diggs may be playing different positions in the scheme implemented by new defensive coordinator Jim Bates.

Many feel that Barnett, who has started at middle linebacker the last two seasons, can be more effective as an outside linebacker because of his quickness. Barnett led the Packers in tackles last year with 162 but only had one interception and three sacks. Diggs, who played the "Will" position had just one sack and no interceptions. If the Packers want to get more big plays out of their linebackers, they would be better off with Barnett on the outside.

"That guy in college looked like he could play all three positions," said Bates about Barnett. "We would have drafted him as a ‘Will' linebacker because we had Zach Thomas in the middle. But I didn't see anything in that tape with our 4-3 defense that he couldn't learn any one of the positions where we wanted to put him."

Asked about moving the 6-foot-2, 233-pound Barnett to the outside, coach Mike Sherman said last weekend at Fan Fest in the Lambeau Field Atrium that anything is possible.

"I think it really depends on the final group of linebackers we end up with," said Sherman. "Because Nick has the versatility to play multiple positions - I think he's more suited to 'Will' and 'Mike' in this scheme, he can play 'Buck' as well. He has the most versatility - possibly he and Diggs - that we'll probably mix and match to try to get the best combination we can. So to say he's going to play this or that at this point would be conjecture on my part."

Barnett, who will turn 24 on May 27, will play where the coaches want him, as long as he's starting.

"I'm not opposed to anything if it's going to help us win," Barnett said. "Of course I would love to stay in the middle and play in the middle because that's what I've grown to love around here, but if they want me to move to the outside or wherever they want me to move, I'd have no problem doing so. I'm here to win games, and if that's going to help us win games I have no problem doing that."

The Packers, who do not have a lot of money to spend in free agency, had free agent linebacker Kevin Bentley in for a visit last week, but he signed with the Seattle Seahawks. The former Cleveland Browns veteran received a $150,000 signing bonus as part of the deal.

Look for the Packers to pursue at least one linebacker in the April 23-24 draft, then hope to land a veteran after June 1 when teams further trim their salary cap for the upcoming season.

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