The thought from this perch in ice cold Green Bay is that the Packers should do everything they can to sign Barnett to a contract extension. The sooner, the better.
Barnett signed off on a six-year contract as the team's top draft pick in 2003, though, the deal was really for five years and worth $6 million because the final year was voided based on his playing time. It included a $3.21 million signing bonus, which is prorated over the life of the contract. Barnett had a base salary of $651,000 in 2006 and is scheduled to receive a base salary of $741,000 in 2007.
That's peanuts compared to the top 10 highest paid linebackers in the National Football League who earned an average of $6.14 million last season, according to the NFL Players Association. Though Barnett has yet to reach Pro Bowl status, he is closer to the upper echelon of linebackers than the lower end, and is entering the prime years of his career. He finished his fourth straight season as a starter, finishing second on the team with 141 tackles. He also had two sacks and nine passes defensed.
Barnett had started 46 straight games before he missed Green Bay's Nov. 27 game at Seattle with a broken right hand that he sustained Nov. 19 against New England. He played with a large cast for the team's final five games and was still named as a Pro Bowl alternate.
Barnett has been one of the most durable players on the Packers, missing just two games in the past four seasons due to injury. He missed one game in his rookie season with an ankle injury, and one game last season.
The Packers and Barnett's agent, Chuck Price, have had some preliminary contract conversations, but no numbers have been exchanged, according to Price.
"We feel pretty comfortable that something will get done," Price told PackerReport.com on Tuesday. "We're very optimistic. We've had good conversations. It's more of a timing thing with free agency starting in March. … More importantly, we're cautiously moving along."
Price said that Barnett, who is spending some time in Los Angeles to work out and also to pursue his side career as a deejay and mixing music, plans to attend the team's off-season workout program that begins on March 19. If Barnett and the Packers are unable to come to terms of a contract extension, Price said the middle linebacker will play out the 2007 season and test the waters in free agency next season.
"Here's the thing, Nick played four years at Oregon State and four years at Green Bay," Price said. "With a broken hand, he missed (one) game (in 2006). This is what he does. Will the money he makes next year be less than what he should make? Yes, but there will be a light at the end of the rainbow."
Chicago's Brian Urlacher, who finished his seventh season, is scheduled to earn a base salary of close to $4 million in 2007. Baltimore's Bart Scott, who will be entering his sixth season, will have a base salary of $2.6 million. Antonio Pierce of the New York Giants, finished his sixth season and is scheduled to earn a base salary of $3.25 million in 2007. All will be in the Pro Bowl on Saturday, with the exception of Urlacher who is being replaced by Pierce because of a toe injury.
The Minnesota Vikings are not expected to re-sign Napoleon Harris, who finished his fifth NFL season as middle linebacker for the Minnesota Vikings. Harris earned $1.2 million last year, but the Vikings are likely to plug in E.J. Henderson, who signed an extension in December, in the middle and part ways with Harris.
Based on what other top-end linebackers are earning, look for Barnett to seek a contract worth about $3 million a season. Barnett has a great ability to cover the field from sideline to sideline, and has led the team in tackles in three of the last four seasons.
Of course, the Packers can go with Plan B, and that's insert Abdul Hodge in place of Barnett, beginning in 2008. But Hodge is still an unknown. Though he had a solid preseason, Hodge missed eight games last season because of knee and shoulder injuries, which raises concerns about his durability. Also, in Hodge's only start – Nov. 27 at Seattle – he returned a fumble for a touchdown, but the Seahawks also piled up 235 yards rushing in a 34-24 win over the Packers.
"Our preliminary conversations with them have been, one, Nick would like to be a Packer till the end, and they want him to be a Packer till the end," Price said. "That's a great common ground."
With about $28 million under the projected $109 million salary cap, the Packers should re-invest some of that money into Barnett, a true ‘football player' that general manager Ted Thompson and head coach Mike McCarthy prefer to have on the team.
Todd Korth is managing editor of PackerReport.com and Packer Report. E-mail him at email@example.com.