For linebacker Desmond Bishop, the 2007 NFL draft marked the beginning of a long and tedious march from his role as a little-used backup to becoming a Pro Bowl alternate for the Packers. He spent most of his initial three-plus seasons as a reserve, notching just 53 total tackles and three forced fumbles over that span.
When Nick Barnett was lost in week four of 2010 with a season-ending injury, Bishop was ordained the starter – and he exceeded all expectations by registering 103 tackles and 3 sacks. He followed up that breakout performance in 2011 by starting all 16 games while logging 121 tackles and five sacks. Subsequently, Green Bay rewarded him with a 4-year contract worth up to $19 million.
Unfortunately, last August Bishop’s season was cut prematurely short during a meaningless preseason game against the San Diego Chargers when he tore his hamstring. It was a substantial injury and the prognosis from the team’s medical staff was that he would face an extremely difficult road back. He spent the last year rehabilitating and recently proclaimed himself 100 percent healthy and ready for action.
However, the team held him out of all offseason team activities despite Bishop’s declaration that his goal for the upcoming 2013 season was to become the NFL’s Defensive MVP. For Packer fans, this confidence and his return to health was something to be excited about. Bishop plays with passion and is a fiery leader and extremely aggressive tackler. Coincidentally, the linebacker unit has lacked punch and been soft in his absence.
Understandably, then, there is some confusion among the fanbase over the decision by Green Bay to release the promising linebacker. However, we need only look back at Nick Barnett – Bishop’s predecessor – to understand why Thompson made the move.
Over ex-Packer linebacker Barnett’s first five seasons in Green Bay he registered 609 total tackles, 11.5 sacks, nine interceptions, seven fumble recoveries and 78 starts out of a possible 80 games. Those kind of numbers – and that rock solid consistency – are what inspired Green Bay to offer him a significant 6-year $34.85 million contract in the spring of 2007. Ted Thompson’s plan at the time was to solidify the linebacker corps while watching Barnett build on that upper-echelon level of production for the back-half of his first decade with the team.
However, just eight months after he signed that deal, in week nine of 2008 against the Vikings, Barnett’s knee was shredded. And so was Thompson’s plan. Ultimately, Barnett would return from that injury to start all 16 games in 2009, turning in another solid year (105 total tackles with 4 sacks) and deferring Thompson’s fears that he may have overspent for his services. Following 2009 there was a glimmer of hope that Barnett could return to form – and perhaps resurrect the plan.
As I touched on earlier, in week four of 2010, Barnett was lost yet again to a season-ending wrist injury. It’s significant because it marked the second time in a span of three years that the standout run stopper was shelved due to injury. For Thompson, witnessing Barnett suit up in just 29 out of a possible 48 games during that period, it was increasingly evident that the return on Green Bay’s investment certainly wasn’t being met.
Compounding matters was Bishop’s excellent performance during the season in his absence and throughout the run to the Super Bowl XLV championship. Barnett had always played with a certain level of showmanship, perhaps some would argue a level or two above the acceptable standards in Green Bay, so when he foolishly made a mockery of himself on Twitter during the preparation for the Super Bowl and then pouting about possibly being left out of Green Bay’s team picture after the victory, his fate was all but sealed. The team released Barnett later that summer after they couldn’t identify a trade partner and he signed with the Buffalo Bills.
The news today that Desmond Bishop’s time in Green Bay has officially come to an end simply confirms what management has known all along. In hindsight, the writing was on the wall since last summer when he was injured. The Packers learned their lesson with the pricey and oft-injured Barnett. There really was no way, barring Bishop being willing to drastically restructure his contract, that the Packers were going to let him become Nick Barnett 2.0.
Green Bay’s recent extension with linebacker Brad Jones (who is a more than capable replacement as a starter in his own right) and the restructured A.J. Hawk deal were simply the final two pieces to the puzzle that ultimately left Bishop as the odd man out. Remember that the team also parted ways with unheralded linebacker D.J Smith, who was himself a late-round draft choice out of Division I-AA Appalachian State. Smith had 74 total tackles in his two years with the team but he failed a physical and was released. He recently signed a contract with the San Diego Chargers.
So, how do the Packers move on from this situation? The thought around Titletown is that second year players Terrell Manning and Jamari Lattimore are ready to step up and fill the void within the unit. Both saw limited action in 2012. However, both possess tantalizing physical tools and loads of potential. Lattimore is a former undrafted free agent, so he may have had the inside track all along given Thompson’s affinity (and own personal experience) for a player with nothing to lose. That kind of chip-on-your-shoulder attitude is exactly what the defense needs.
There are several other possible free agents who may be a fit, should Green Bay choose to pursue their services in the short term while the younger players on the roster mature, or in the event of another injury. Will Witherspoon (who has played with Carolina, St. Louis and Tennessee) is available but with 11 seasons of wear and tear, it’s uncertain if Thompson would be interested. Bart Scott (previously of the Jets) is also available. Barrett Ruud (formerly of Tampa Bay) and, ironically, ex-Packer and ex-Bill Nick Barnett are also unsigned.
Is there a chance Thompson brings back the onetime standout Barnett as a camp body or do the Packers stay young at the position? No matter which direction they go from here at linebacker, Bishop will always have a special place in the hearts of Packers fans.