"As far as the base (defense) goes, there are definitely a lot of different things I have to get used to out there - playing in more space, on number twos, receivers, and slots, guys who are rockets." - Nick Barnett in June 2012
Every year here at Buffalo Rumblings, we run a summer series in which we talk about the ten most important Buffalo Bills players entering a given season. Where in past seasons we've focused the series on guys that needed to perform if the team was going to succeed, this year's focus will just be on the team's ten players most likely to directly influence the team's successes or failures in 2012.
Next up on the list: linebacker Nick Barnett, who is coming off of an excellent debut season with the Bills in 2011.
When then-free agent linebacker Paul Posluszny signed a six-year, $42 million contract containing $15 million in guarantees with the Jacksonville Jaguars last July, the Bills were out on a young player that they'd been hoping to re-sign. It only took the Bills five days to replace Posluszny, and that perceived loss turned out to be a gain for the organization.
The team signed Barnett, who'd just been released by the Green Bay Packers, to a three-year, $12 million contract containing $6 million in guarantees. They were taking on a player with an injury history, but considering Posluszny's own injury history, that was a wash. They were also taking on a slightly older player; Posluszny was 27 at the time, and Barnett was 30 when he signed. As time would prove, however, the Bills were making a serious upgrade to their linebacking corps, as well.
Barnett finished his first season in Buffalo with 130 tackles, three sacks, three interceptions, a forced fumble and a touchdown (on an interception of Michael Vick in a Week 5 win over Philadelphia). His true value, however, lies well outside of the statistical realm: in an increasingly pass-happy league, Barnett is the increasingly rare linebacker that can stay on the field in any situation, equally capable in coverage as he is defending the run.
With a new role in a new defense (Barnett will be playing the weak side in base sets and the middle in nickel and potentially even dime sets), Barnett is actually returning to the roots of earlier NFL years, when he was a 4-3 linebacker for then-Packers coordinator (and current Bills linebackers coach) Bob Sanders for three seasons. Barnett's role is clear: he's the linebacker that will be trusted to play in the most space on the field, keeping him cleaner against the run and putting him in coverage more often against the pass.
Barnett has proven himself very capable of a high level of performance this role. Even at age 31 (Barnett jokingly admitted earlier this week that he's getting "long in the tooth"), he's an aggressive and instinctual defender capable of making big plays and big hits. In a fundamentally more aggressive defensive system, Barnett will have a chance to shine. His value to the team is through the roof as the only three-down capable linebacker on the roster (for now), and he'll have an opportunity to put up Pro Bowl-caliber play this season.