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Who is Nick Barnett? Why Should Chargers Fans Care?

Yesterday I heard John Clayton from ESPN mention Nick Barnett as someone who was going to be a part of massive NFL cuts as teams try and get to the $120 million payroll figure at which they need to be. He also said he could see Nick eventually landing in San Diego. I was entertained by the notion, but then realized an odd situation.

For those that do not know, Nick Barnett is (or now was) an ILB in the Packers' 3-4 defense. The Chargers seemingly have a need for depth there, but Donald Butler — coming off a rookie season missed due to injury — is still viewed as a future star in the eyes of the Chargers front office. Kevin Burnett, who took over play–calling duties last season from Stephen Cooper, is an unrestricted free agent that the Bolts can nary afford to lose. As a free agent, he will be entitled to a long-term deal and will have first dibs at the starting gig as a long–term starter in the middle of the defense.

If your math is sound, you see the conclusion I just came to. Nick Barnett coming to San Diego might be a step in the right direction for this season, but he'll also be looking for a long-term deal that would guarantee Donald Butler bench–warmer status for a few years, possibly to the end of his rookie contract. Is the short-term gain of signing Barnett worth giving up on Butler? Let's dig deeper.

Despite the fact that Barnett seems young, at least he does to me, he's not. In fact, if the Chargers were to sign Barnett today he'd walk in as the second oldest LB on the team (just two weeks younger than Shaun Phillips). This wouldn't be much of an issue, seeing as how Donnie Edwards and Ray Lewis played well into their 30s, except for the fact that Nick has gone from one the league's most durable players to a slight injury risk in past seasons.

Barnett is certainly talented. He started at least 15 games in each of his first 5 seasons (after starting in 29 games at Oregon State over 4 seasons there), and had at least 100 tackles in every one of those years. He also collected at least 1 interception, 1 sack and 1 fumble recovery in each one. In his fifth season, here were his totals:

131 tackles, 3.5 sacks, 2 interceptions, 4 defended passes, 1 fumble recovery

Those are very-good-bordering-on-great numbers, but when you figure he performed this well year–in and year–out starting with a strong rookie season, it becomes even more impressive. Since those first five years though, here's what he's done:

  • 2008: 9 games, 49 tackles, 2 defended passes, 1 forced fumble (IR'd with torn knee ligament)
  • 2009: 16 games, 105 tackles, 4 sacks, 7 defended passes
  • 2010: 4 games, 24 tackles, 1 defended pass (IR'd with wrist injury)

So, when you see and hear local sports guys (and girls) getting excited about Nick Barnett, feel free to take it with a grain of salt. Nick would be a good fit for a team that needs a starting LB, but depending on where Donald Butler is with his recovery from a torn knee ligament last year, the Chargers might not be that particular team. If they were to sign him, until he proves otherwise, he's kind of "Bob Sanders light": not nearly as scary of an injury history, but still somewhat worrisome if you think his injuries stem from years and years of professional football finally taking it's toll. Not nearly as talented as Sanders — don't forget, Bob Sanders won DPOY when healthy — but still very good and a possible key to a championship–caliber defense.