Analysis: Free agent linebackers

With the return of 37-year old Hardy Nickerson unlikely and Torrance Marshall's career direction still uncertain, the Packers could be searching the pool of available free agents to fill their starting middle linebacker spot next season.<p>

Though much activity can occur between now and the start of training camp, the Packers may not be able to find a starting-caliber middle linebacker in this year's draft. If that is indeed the case, they will have to choose from the free agent market.

The following notable linebackers are scheduled to become unrestricted free agents on March 1 (Note: top free agent linebacker Takeo Spikes of the Bengals was designated as a franchise player on Feb. 11): Chris Claiborne (Lions), Shawn Barber (Eagles), Cornell Brown (Ravens), Glenn Cadrez (Chiefs), Rosevelt Colvin (Bears), Bryan Cox (Saints), James Darling (Jets), Rob Fredrickson (Cardinals), Darren Hambrick (Browns), Levon Kirkland (Eagles), Clint Kriewaldt (Lions), Mike Maslowski (Chiefs), Mike Peterson (Colts), and Shelton Quarles (Buccaneers).

Not all of the above players are true middle linebackers, and the Packers must find one that fits defensive coordinator Ed Donatell's system and the team's tight financial budget. Claiborne is probably the top remaining linebacker who is versatile enough to play the middle, but he is a candidate to be franchise-tagged by Feb. 20 or may demand too large a salary.

The Packers did not sign Nickerson until June 14 last year and could end up doing the same with a mid-level free agent linebacker this off-season. Several veteran linebackers currently under contract may become salary-cap casualties at a later date. Players like the Browns' Earl Holmes and the Patriots' Ted Johnson could be released for financial reasons.

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