It’s been a trend so far in these offseason previews that the Seattle Seahawks tend to have one or two premium players at an individual position with scrubs or unproven players filling out the rest of the depth chart. That is not the case with Seattle’s linebacker group, as there is serious prestige among the players as a whole. The only problem is that the importance of the position has seemed to be in a decline over the last few years in the NFL. Defending the pass has been key and linebackers who can truly excel in coverage have been rare in the league. Teams have been continually dropping at least one linebacker from their primary defense in favor of a more versatile player. Not for Seattle, though, as it has insisted on going against the grain, playing three linebackers on more than 60% of all defensive snaps last season. It’s a strategy that the Seahawks seemed to have doubled down on as they not only spent two picks on linebackers in the 2018 draft but also spent a first-rounder this year as well.
How this collection of talent can make an impact in a league that seems to be phasing out off-ball linebackers is what we’ll be exploring in this article.
Linebackers on roster:
Fun fact, only one player in the Pete Carroll era has received a Most Valuable Player vote. It wasn’t Richard Sherman, who’s play and voice defined a super bowl team. It wasn’t Marshawn Lynch, who was the engine of Seattle’s offense during their most successful years. Not even Russell Wilson, who is now seen as a top-three quarterback in this league.
No, NFL analyst Tony Dungy decided to spend his vote on middle linebacker Bobby Wagner in 2014. While it was somewhat panned, the vote certainly advertised Wagner’s underrated impact during Seattle’s super bowl era.
He’s underrated no more, though. His career accolades to this point include six pro bowls and five all-pros. With the retirement of Luke Kuechly, Bobby Wagner is the most accomplished middle linebacker in the league. While 2019 was a bit of a dip for Wagner, finishing 11th-best in the NFL according to Pro Football Focus (PFF), his production did not slip one bit. He had 159 total tackles, 7 tackles for loss, 3 sacks, 6 passes defensed and an interception. He is a stat monster.
One could argue that the dip in rank could be attributed more to a change in role rather than a decline in abilities. With Seattle playing more base defense (three linebackers, four defensive backs) than anyone else in the league, Wagner was asked to defend in space more than ever before. Throw in one of the worst pass rushes in the league (28 total sacks) and Wagner was forced to not only have to cover in space more than he ever has but was forced to do it for longer. It led to a serious dip in his coverage numbers, allowing 58 receptions on 72 targets for a completion percentage of 80.2% and allowing an opposing QB rating of 108.2. Seattle’s defensive scheme discourages teams from passing deep against them, meaning that Seattle’s defensive backs will usually play softer coverage closer to the line of scrimmage. But, without a good pass rush, quarterbacks can afford to hang onto the ball and wait for holes to appear in the zone that Seattle’s linebackers play in the middle of the field.
So, while Wagner did not do great against the pass, the rest of the defense didn’t exactly put him in good positions either.
This will be a trend for Seattle linebackers as we review going forward.
If Bobby Wagner was underrated during his early years, KJ Wright was damn near forgotten. A consistent presence on the Seattle defense since he was drafted in 2011, the 10-year veteran has been a rock at the outside linebacker position. The Chewbacca to Wagner’s Han Solo, the two together have been the top linebacker duo for nearly a decade. Individually, Wright has a pro bowl to his name and is coming off a season where he put up 132 tackles, 5 for loss, 11 passes defensed and 3 interceptions. Like Wagner, Wright was put in a tough spot by the defense Seattle decided to employ last season, but unlike Wagner he also has probably lost an age-related step on top of it. Pro Football Focus ranked him the 46th best linebacker in the league, due to allowing QB’s to complete 71.1% of passes against him as well as missing 11 tackles on the season. While he signed a new contract in 2019, it was a short-term one with little to no impact on the cap going forward. While it would be sad to see Seattle turn the page on an era, the draft choices they have made the last two seasons indicate that Wright may not have too many seasons after 2020 in a Seahawk uniform.
If Wagner and Wright represent the past and present, the next two names on this list represent the future of the linebacker position for the Seattle Seahawks. Jordyn Brooks was selected in the first round of the 2019 draft after a standout senior season at Texas Tech. An absolute demon, he’s fast (4.54 sec 40 yd dash), quick (1.53 sec 10 yd split) and strong. His major strength is defending the run, where Pro Football Focus gave him an elite grade during his senior season as a Red Raider. He tackles effectively, will smash into oncoming blockers with blatant disregard for his own safety and has shown to be an effective blitzer, producing 44 total pressures on 117 rushes.
There is a slight problem though for Brooks. You may recall earlier in this article a line about how important being able to cover is to the success of a linebacker in the modern NFL. Well, he was also marked by Pro Football Focus for having a poor coverage grade in college and Texas Tech recognized that weakness. He was rarely asked to drop into coverage, only recording 16 targets by opposing QBs during the entire 2019 season. He gave up 11 receptions on those targets and did not once register a pass defense. This is an issue, especially for a linebacker who will be asked to cover in space in Seattle’s defensive system. The zone that they have to play in the middle of the field asks linebackers to be able to read the QB, follow his eyes, while at the same time being aware of where opposing receivers are in his area of the field. It’s a tall order that requires a ton of on-field intelligence. It takes time for that awareness to develop and Brooks was not given much of a chance in college to improve in that area. While his athleticism is not a problem, Brooks’ lack of experience against the pass could seriously restrict his ability to make an impact on the defense early on in his career.
The next one up on this list is Cody Barton, who is coming into his second season as a Seahawk after being drafted in the third round out of the University of Utah. While he only ended up playing 14% of snaps during his rookie year, he did make two starts as an injury replacement. The results were solid, as he seemed to at least do as well as Wright and Wagner when it came to coverage. It’s a small sample size, and it’d be better to project his future impact given what his profile was coming out of college. Which is the inverse of Brooks’ profile, as Barton’s greatest strength was defending the pass. He drew an elite coverage grade from Pro Football Focus, as he allowed less than 10 yards per reception and recorded an interception and five pass breakups in his final season as a Ute. While they marked him as only solid against the run, his abilities against the pass give him a clearer path to NFL success and could mean he is on the field more than the highly drafted Brooks because of it. With the defensive line of Seattle looking rough once again, Seattle cannot afford to put liabilities in the middle of its defense. Barton is certainly not that.
Two rounds after Barton, the Seahawks took Ben Burr-Kirven with the 142nd-overall pick. Local Seattlites would be very familiar with Burr-Kirven for he was a starter and captain for the University of Washington Huskies. While he played only a handful of snaps on the defense during his rookie season, he was a regular on special teams, recording eight tackles and a forced fumble. The reason he fell in the draft was due to the fact that he was a little light in the shorts (6’0, 230 lbs) but his lighter frame helped him excel in coverage during his career at UW. Using his superior speed (4.56 sec 40 yd dash) He recorded 4 interceptions and 10 passes defensed during his final season in purple and gold. Pro Football Focus gave him an elite grade in that department as well as an elite grade in run defense after he recorded 117 tackles during his senior season, but his lighter frame led to concerns about his ability to engage and stand up to blockers. It clearly led to his reduced playing time during his rookie season, but if he is able to gain strength and keep his speed, he could be an underdog in the competition for reps behind Wright and Wagner.
The only other off-ball linebacker on the roster is third-year pro Emmanuel Ellerbee. An undrafted free agent out of Rice, Ellerbee landed on the Seattle practice squad during the 2018 season. He has since been waived and resigned four separate times in that span, showing that while he is someone Seattle has liked having around, he probably doesn’t have the talent to stick in the NFL. He projects to once again be on the practice squad as an emergency option should injuries (or COVID) strike the linebacker room.
This is clearly a position of strength, but the outlook for Seattle playing three linebackers as much as they did last season isn’t strong. Seattle recently acquired versatile safety Jamal Adams, who will be expected to move around the defense regularly, including into that third linebacker spot on certain plays. While Seattle’s cornerback depth is looking spotty once again this season, Pete Carroll has asserted a willingness to play more nickel (three cornerbacks, two linebackers). All this means is that Seattle will be limiting themselves to two linebackers for a lot of snaps this season, making the quality players farther down the roster less important. With KJ Wright and Bobby Wagner still profiling as impact players, recent draftees Cody Barton and Jordyn Brooks will be fighting over limited snaps. Don’t be surprised if for a second season in a row, you start seeing pieces about whether Seattle has taken a bust in the first round. The truth of it is a little more nuanced, as Brooks and Barton represent the future of the position for Seattle and will likely be vying for Wright’s starting spot a year from now. Until then, Seattle fans can rest assure that they’ll be seeing the dynamic duo of Wright and Wagner starting on the field for at least one more season.
Opening Day Projection:
MLB: Bobby Wagner
WLB: KJ Wright
SLB: Cody Barton
Depth: Jordyn Brooks, Ben Burr-Kirven
Practice Squad: Emmanuel Ellerbee