Seahawks Q&A: Is DC Ken Norton Jr. on the hot seat this season?

Aug 24, 2021, 9:36 AM
Seahawks DC Ken Norton Jr....
Ken Norton Jr. is entering his fourth year as the Seahawks' defensive coordinator. (Getty)

Defense was front of mind for Seahawks fans in today’s Seahawks Q&A. Here’s a sampling of questions collected from 710 ESPN Seattle listeners, courtesy of the “What I Need To Know” segment on Jake and Stacy.

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Is Ken Norton Jr. on the hot seat this season?

He certainly was last season. That was until the Seahawks made a massive turnaround on defense, finishing seventh overall in sacks after posting just nine by their bye week. (Ironically, it was Norton’s counterpart, offensive coordinator Brian Schottenheimer, who found himself on the hot seat and out of a job in January just four months after a hot start.)

Seattle’s defense in the first part of the 2020 season was bad – really, historically bad – and in a tough NFC West they can’t afford to flounder through the first half again in 2021. But where the blame falls if they struggle is a complicated question, and that’s because this is ultimately Pete Carroll’s defense.

That certainly doesn’t mean Norton bears no responsibility for their success. But Pete Carroll has been regularly involved with the development of Seattle’s defense – from drafting to scheme to coaching – and it’s a role that has at times extended to play calls and game planning. So it hardly feels fair to place the blame for struggles solely on the shoulders of Norton.

Personnel can be another reason for struggle, and those problems aren’t fixed by firing the defensive coordinator. Fans could just as easily point to draft misses as a contributing factor to inconsistency on defense. Take the 2017 NFL Draft: Seattle traded back from 26 overall – where both T.J. Watt and Budda Baker remained available – before drafting defensive tackle Malik McDowell. They also drafted four defensive backs and a defensive tackle (three of which were drafted in the third round), none of which remain on the roster.

Seattle still has a talented group in 2021. There’s All-Pro linebacker Bobby Wagner and All-Pro safety Jamal Adams, in addition to key starters Carlos Dunlap, Quandre Diggs, and Poona Ford. So there’s plenty of star power for Norton and Carroll to lean on for a Super Bowl run – and plenty of blame to go around if they falter.

Why isn’t K.J. Wright back and signed with the Hawks?

Frankly, I’m not sure why K.J. Wright isn’t on a roster – but I can understand why the Seahawks haven’t made a move to re-sign him yet.

First things first: Wright can still contribute. He’s an older free agent at 32, but is also coming off two of his most productive seasons. He finished with a career-high 132 tackles and three interceptions in 2019, and in 2020 he recorded 10 passes defended, two sacks, 11 tackles for loss, and an interception. He’s also a well-respected leader in the locker room.

Wright would make the Seahawks’ defense better if he was signed today. But Seattle has a lot of draft capital invested in two other outside linebackers – first-rounder Jordyn Brooks and second-rounder Darrell Taylor – and you can see why they’d want to exhaust a younger, faster, cheaper option before spending money on a vet. That could change depending on the progression and health of Taylor. If his rookie learning curve proves too steep or if he suffers an injury, Seattle could be more willing to dip their toes back into free agency.

Jordyn Brooks was one of the best players on the field Saturday. Is he still being overhyped or not hyped enough?

I still think Brooks isn’t hyped enough, and that probably stems from him being a bit of a surprise pick to Seahawks fans who were expecting a defensive end in the first round of 2019. He’s also playing beside one of the most decorated players in franchise history, and Bobby Wagner tends to cast a large shadow. Overall though, Brooks has looked great in camp and in the preseason so far. If he can stay healthy in 2021, I think he’s a great breakout candidate.

Who do you really think has the advantage for the RB2 spot? I think Alex Collins played really well compared to Penny. It would be crazy to keep Penny only because he’s a first-round pick.

I’ve still got Penny penciled in as the second running back. His ceiling is one of the highest among the group – he finished fifth in Heisman voting after the 2017 season – but his biggest issue is availability. He can’t stay on the field. As a result, it’s never felt quite like he’s gotten into a rhythm in Seattle’s offense, save for a few moments in late 2019. As far as keeping Penny, there’s no huge benefit to cutting him, outside of opening up a roster spot (he has a $3.4 million cap hit and carries $2.05 million in dead cap).

I asked ESPN’s Brady Henderson about Penny’s chances in 2021. (Listen to that conversation here or in the below player.)

“I still think he’s going to be second on the depth chart behind Carson,” Henderson said. “He’s going to be a guy who gets some early down work in there and is kind of that change of pace back. DeeJay Dallas is nipping at his heels; he’s been easily the best player over the first two preseason games. So maybe that’s a good thing for Penny, just to kind of light a fire under him knowing that he’s got a young up-and-coming guy who has really stood out.”

Does his first-round status play a factor in the number of chances he’s getting? Yeah, probably a bit. But there’s also real talent there if he can tap into it. He shed a bit of weight heading into training camp and had a few good moments prior to missing some time. That potential will keep him in that second spot for now, but it’s far from guaranteed, especially if Collins or Dallas keep improving.

What is a splurge you’ve never regretted?

Bought a weighted blanket and haven’t looked back.

Follow Stacy Rost on Twitter.

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Seahawks Q&A: Is DC Ken Norton Jr. on the hot seat this season?