By Danny O’Neil
Linebacker was the one position most people figured the Seahawks would address at some point in the draft.
Turned out, that was the one position they didn’t address in the draft, a fact that reflects both the confidence in the young talent Seattle has collected at linebacker and the team’s change in approach to that position under coach Pete Carroll and general manager John Schneider.
This used to where linebackers came to get rich, but what had been one of the league’s most expensive groups of linebackers has become one of the youngest over the past three years.
A look at the number of linebackers the Seahawks have kept on their 53-man roster each year since 2002.
That transformation became complete this year as Leroy Hill will not return. He was the last connection to that window when Seattle was one of the league’s big-spenders at that position, signing Julian Peterson in free agency in 2006, retaining Lofa Tatupu and Hill after their rookie contracts were bought out and then choosing Aaron Curry with the fourth overall pick – the highest any linebacker had been taken in 10 years – and committing $34 million to him.
Three years later, Heath Farwell is the only linebacker scheduled to make more than $1 million in base salary this season and he’s a special teams player. Yet despite all the payroll Seattle shaved off at that position, the Seahawks have a group of promising young linebackers who have so much speed that Carroll said one of the reasons the team didn’t draft a linebacker was there weren’t all that many that were fast enough to keep up with this group.
The Seahawks have kept an average of six linebackers under Carroll, down from the previous trend. Seattle kept an average of seven linebackers on its 53-man roster from 2002 to 2009. Here’s a breakdown of the linebackers on the Seahawks’ roster, including the mainstays Seattle is certain to keep, a wild card and then the depth questions.
The mainstays: Bobby Wagner, K.J. Wright and Malcolm Smith. The Seahawks let David Hawthorne walk in free agency last year, losing their leading tackler for three consecutive seasons as he headed to New Orleans. The fact Hawthorne wasn’t missed is a testament to how well Wagner played, leading the team with 130 tackles. That Wagner was runner-up to Carolina’s Luke Kuechly as the league’s Defensive Rookie of the Year speaks to the mainstay he could be for the future.
Wright didn’t take the step forward that everyone expected last season, but a healthy Red Bryant could create space for Wright to make more plays. Smith is a speedy linebacker who played in 16 games last season, defying his reputation for struggling to stay healthy. He will start at weakside linebacker to start the season.
Special consideration: Farwell has been a mainstay of Seattle’s kick and coverage teams since he was signed during the 2011 season.
Danny O’Neil looks at where the Seahawks stand at each position group heading into training camp.
The wild card: Bruce Irvin. Yep, he’s a defensive end. At least he was when Seattle chose him with the 15th overall pick of the 2012 draft. And he led all rookies with eight sacks last season, but even before he was suspended the first four games for violating the league’s policy on performance-enhancing substances, Seattle was experimenting with him at strongside linebacker.
Now, the nature of that position will change some, becoming more akin to the role Clay Matthews filled for Carroll at USC as opposed to Wright’s role last year, and he’ll often be used as a speed rusher off the edge. The trickle-down effect would be to put Wright at weakside linebacker, which would allow him to make a ton of tackles.
Wild card No. 2: Mike Morgan. An undrafted rookie in 2011, he appeared in all 16 games last season, starting one of them. He has been used as the Leo defensive end during minicamp given Seattle’s depth concerns.
Seeking a spot: Korey Toomer was a fifth-round pick out of Idaho last year who was on the practice squad until suffering a shoulder injury that required surgery. He took a major step forward this offseason and will compete for a roster spot. So will Allen Bradford, who entered the league as a running back but made the switch to linebacker in 2011 and is at the point where he’s a consideration, too.
Youth movement: John Lotulelei (UNLV) and Craig Wilkins (Old Dominion) were two undrafted rookies Seattle actually graded as fifth-round picks. The Seahawks used three different seventh-round choices on offensive linemen, believing it could effectively recruit undrafted linebackers by pointing out that there were no linebackers among the team’s 11 draft choices since Ty Powell was drafted with an eye toward playing him at defensive end.
Both Lotulelei and Wilkins showed worthy speed during the offseason, but it’s going to be a battle to make the roster.