Free agency preview: OLB

Packers seeking depth at outside positions

The Green Bay Packers may seek an outside linebacker during the free agency period to improve depth at the position this off-season. Both outside positions will be up for grabs in training camp, especially if middle Nick Barnett is kept at middle linebacker.

Veteran Na'il Diggs' future in Green Bay is uncertain. Same with Robert Thomas. Both were the starters last season when they weren't nursing injuries, and both were gradually getting phased out of their starting roles by the end of the season with younger players. Brady Poppinga started late in the season for Thomas, but sustained a season-ending knee injury and is coming off major reconstructive knee surgery which may keep him out early in the season. Roy Manning started a pair of games last season, but played often as a backup at the outside positions. Versatile veteran Paris Lenon is scheduled to become an unrestricted free agent and may opt to sign with a team where he has a chance to start.

The Packers likely will select a linebacker in the upcoming NFL draft, possibly with the fifth overall pick to obtain Ohio State linebacker A.J. Hawk.

In the meantime, breaks down a list of outside linebackers that are scheduled to become unrestricted and restricted free agents later this week:

• Carolina Panthers Will Witherspoon is going to garner a significant amount of interest, if he indeed hits the open market in early March. The Panthers are attempting to get Witherspoon under contract prior to the free agent signing period. If able to entertain free agency, expect the Cleveland Browns, Cincinnati Bengals, Houston Texans, Atlanta Falcons, New York Giants, and the Panthers themselves to come calling quickly.

• San Francisco LB Julian Peterson has twice been made a franchise player, but don't expect the 49ers to tag him again this year. His salary would jump to $8.7 million, and the 49ers appear inclined to allow him to hit the free agent market. It is doubtful they would pay that much in guaranteed money to keep him. Peterson was a disappointment this season, as he didn't seem to grasp the new defense. Also, he did not exhibit the same speed that made him one of the game's premier linebackers. Peterson returned after missing 10 games in '04 with a torn Achilles tendon.

• Indianapolis Colts LB Cato June had a team-leading five interceptions. He also had 109 total tackles despite playing most of the year with a sports hernia. June was named to his first Pro Bowl and the Colts will not let him get away as a restricted free agent.

• Jacksonville Jaguars LB Akin Ayodele, who is an unrestricted free agent, hasn't matured into a dominant player. He capable of playing either strong or weak-side linebacker.

• Minnesota Vikings LB Keith Newman, who took over Napoleon Harris' starting spot after four games before suffering a season-ending knee injury with three games to play, is scheduled to be an unrestricted free agent on March 3. He spoke out after the season about feeling unappreciated and could be headed out of town.

• Baltimore Raves LB Tommy Polley played well at times but still needed to be more physical. He's familiar with Lovie Smith and could be a target in free agency.

• Philadelphia Eagles LB Keith Adams had a disappointing season as a starter. Adams is better suited for a special teams and backup role.

• Dallas Cowboys LB Scott Fujita, who took over as a starter for the injured Al Singleton, is an unrestricted free agent and may not return.

• Washington Redskins LB Warrick Holdman did little while subbing for LaVar Arrington at times this season.

• Oakland Raiders LB Grant Irons was used mostly in short-yardage situations and is neither a defensive end nor an outside linebacker.

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