The Buffalo Bills spent the majority of the offseason trying to retool their leaky defense, and they added another piece on Sunday with the signing of free agent inside linebacker Nick Barnett.
Barnett, who played 107 games in eight years with the Green Bay Packers, reportedly agreed to terms on a three-year deal worth $12 million with $6 million guaranteed.
"I felt like I was out of work forever," Barnett said. "They called me up for a visit and I was skeptical because I had been here before but I have a buddy here, Dwan Edwards, who told me it was a pretty good place. The coaching staff is great, the players are great and everyone seems like a family here."
Barnett visited the Bills' training camp at St. John Fisher on Sunday during the team's morning walk through. He spent the majority of his time chatting with Dave Wannstedt, the Bills assistant head coach/inside linebackers coach, and outside linebacker coach Bob Sanders, his defensive coordinator in Green Bay.
"We feel like he was a good fit for our team in a lot of ways, not just ability but the type of person he is, the type of leader that he is and the winner that he is," Bills coach Chan Gailey said. "You always like to bring in people who understand winning and what it takes from a practice standpoint and work ethic."
Barnett was reportedly scheduled to visit Detroit on Sunday but the Lions instead signed Tennessee free agent linebacker Stephen Tulloch. The Cleveland Browns reportedly also had an interest in Barnett.
The Bills were in the market for an inside linebacker following the departure of free agent Paul Posluszny, who signed last week with Jacksonville. The loss of Posluszny appeared to be a significant blow for a defense that ranked 24th overall in 2010. At least, that is, until they signed Barnett.
"I haven't given Poz much thought since he left," Bills GM Buddy Nix said. "Don't look back, they might be gaining on you."
The addition of Barnett gives Buffalo some options at inside linebacker. Barnett can play alongside Kelvin Sheppard, the team's third-round pick from LSU, or the Bills can ease Sheppard into the starting lineup and allow him to develop behind veterans Reggie Torbor and Andra Davis until he's ready. The Bills also have second-year linebacker Arthur Moats and rookie Chris White on the inside.
A solid tackler who hovers around the line of scrimmage, Barnett has good cover ability and has been consistent when he's healthy. He's also an underrated pass rusher and the last season and a half Packers defensive coordinator Dom Capers used him as a cross blitzer inside and off the edge.
During the first five seasons of his career, the 6-foot-2, 236-pound Oregon State product averaged 121 tackles a season, posting a career best 138 in 2005. In a 34-7 Packers win over the Bills last season, Barnett recorded nine tackles, seven solos.
Barnett has 15 1/2 sacks, nine interceptions and seven fumble recoveries in his career.
"How could you not want a guy like that on your team?" Sheppard said.
Barnett was released by Green Bay late last week primarily because of age (30) and to create cap room ($5.9 million in base salary alone). Injuries have been an issue recently and he's undersized for an inside linebacker.
After being selected in the first round with the No. 29 pick overall in 2003, Barnett missed only two games his first five seasons. But in 2008, he suffered a knee injury during the ninth game and was sidelined for the remainder of the season. Last year, Barnett broke his wrist in Week Four and was placed on injured reserve.
"He's healthy," Nix said. "Probably as healthy as he's been the last few years."
Barnett's days in Green Bay were probably numbered when the Packers signed backup Desmond Bishop to a four-year contract extension near the end of the regular season. Then after the Super Bowl, Green Bay signed linebacker A.J. Hawk to a long-term deal.
Barnett and the Bills other free agent signings won't be able to participate in training camp until Thursday.
"I like where this team is headed," Barnett said. "You have a lot of potential out there on that defense and a lot of good players and the schematics are very similar to what we did in Green Bay so I thought it was a perfect fit for me."