Wednesday, February 6, 2013

2013 Seahawks Off-Season Analysis Part IV: Linebackers

Seattle fans have come to expect a bonanza every off-season since Pete Carroll and John Schneider have taken over. A full 19 of the 22 starters on offense and defense for the 2013 Seahawks will have been added since those two took over. But this off-season will be different. Few starting jobs are up for grabs. Rookies will struggle to make the roster. Free agents will have to fight for playing time. I will be dissecting the roster position-by-position in an eight-part series, culminating in a recommended off-season recipe for the Seahawks.

Part I: Wide Receivers & Tight Ends
Part II: Defensive Line
Part III: Secondary
Part IV: Linebackers
Part V: Offensive Line
Part VI: Running Backs & Fullbacks
Part VII: Quarterbacks
Part VIII: Summary & Recommendations


State Of The Position
Lofa Tatupu, Aaron Curry and Leroy Hill were the starting linebackers when Pete Carroll and John Schneider arrived in 2010. Two of those players were gone before the 2012 season started, and the third will be replaced by the time 2013 starts. In their place is youth, speed and talent.

Bobby Wagner was the latest addition, and finished second in the voting for NFL Defensive Rookie of the Year. He broke the Seahawks rookie tackle record with 140, had 2.0 sacks, 3 interceptions and an impressive 6 tackles for loss. By comparison, Tatupu never had more than 123 tackles in a season, only had more than 1.5 sacks his rookie season, and only had more than 5 tackles for loss once. The numbers were nice for Wagner, but he is not yet a dominant force on the field. It was telling that the coaching staff failed to enthusiastically support him for rookie of the year, often mentioning that he still has some things to learn.

The indication was that Wagner was filling up the stat sheet, but was hurting the team at times by being out of position or blowing a coverage. Wagner is a gifted athlete and is as down-to-Earth as pro players get. It is a safe bet that he will take his off-season seriously, and come back even better. Having a player with his speed going sideline-to-sideline gives the Seahawks a rare commodity when facing a quarterback like Colin Kaepernick twice each season. Wagner comes in at #7 on my latest roster rankings, and is a CORE player that should be around for a number of years.

His lanky partner in crime, K.J. Wright, was the only player on the team to have more tackles for loss (7) than Wagner and came in as #10 in my roster rankings. Wright looked like a man possessed in training camp. He was bigger, stronger and playing with a speed fueled by confidence. He knew the defense, and he knew his role. I expected an impact season. He started strong, with 65 tackles and 5 TFL in his first eight games. He finished the regular season with a whimper, collecting only 33 tackles and 2 TFL over his final seven games. His game elevated in the playoffs some, and he had a decent showing against the Falcons with 2 TFL.

Wright is not a speed merchant. He is long, smart, and aggressive. His wingspan is insane, reminding me a little of Julian Peterson, which can make throwing windows even tighter for opposing quarterbacks. His long arms also help shed blockers and reach running backs. This is a guy who led the team in tackles for loss during his rookie season despite only starting part of the year. It should have been a breakout year in 2012, but it was not. He needs to come back with the same purpose he entered training camp with this past season. The 2013 season will go a long way toward determining Wright's ceiling. Is he a future Pro Bowl candidate, or just an above average starting linebacker?

Hill began the season as the starting WILL linebacker, and ended the season splitting time with second-year linebacker Malcolm Smith (#26 on the roster rankings). Hill took the role of thumper versus the run, but it was obvious that he no longer can stay with younger players in coverage. Smith brings elite speed to the linebacker position, but has had some challenges with durability due to lack of size. He showed more discipline than most young linebackers, staying home on misdirection plays and forcing runners back inside. His coverage skills are above average. Smith will get a shot at the starting role heading into 2013, but he will certainly have some competition from additional linebackers added to the roster.

There are two sleepers on the roster to keep an eye on. Allen Bradford is a 5'11" 235 lb wrecking ball. Bradford made some memorable hits during training camp and especially in his final pre-season game. He never saw game-time, which is why is all the way down at #50 on the roster rankings, and is still in transition from playing running back, but do not be surprised to see him force his way into the linebacker equation for 2013.

Korey Toomer was the team's fifth-round pick this year, but was released before the season started. He had a lot of trouble defending the run, but showed some promise as a pass rusher. The team thought enough of him to sign him back to a Futures contract a couple weeks ago. Toomer was a project of linebackers coach Ken Norton Jr, so he could make a big step forward in his second season.

Mike Morgan got some snaps this past season, but he struggled with gap discipline and tackling at times. His roster spot will be challenged in 2013. He needs to take this off-season very seriously.

2012 Seahawks Free Agents Linebackers:

  • Leroy Hill

Seahawks Linebackers Under Contract:

  • Bobby Wagner
  • K.J. Wright
  • Malcolm Smith
  • Mike Morgan
  • Heath Farwell
  • Allen Bradford
  • Mike Morgan
  • Korey Toomer
  • Kyle Knox

Free Agents
Hill was not going to be back before his latest run-in with the law, but that may have forced him into a slightly early retirement.

Linebacker is a spot that can be filled cheaply and immediately via the draft. It is a position that does not require a lot of transition time from college to the NFL. Teams will generally know if they hit on a linebacker prospect in the first season, and certainly by the second. Spending free agent dollars on a position like that makes less sense. That said, it can make sense to add some depth, which the Seahawks have done in recent years with players like Barrett Ruud, or a stop-gap starter like they did with Hill. Expensive long-term deals are most likely out of the question, and this is a very thin free agent class.


Dannell Ellerbe
Ellerbe has already got some attention on local sports radio, but he will be too costly for Seattle.

Larry Grant
Grant is a guy who filled in for a injured Patrick Willis last season and played quite well. At 250 lbs, he is not a candidate for the Hill vacancy, but could be a good depth addition that could backup Wagner and possibly push Wright at the SAM. He will be looking for a starting job somewhere, so this is not a likely marriage.


Draft

Seattle will add at least one, and possibly two, additional linebackers in the draft. It is important that they find a viable backup middle linebacker. The current plan involves Wright shifting to the middle, which is not ideal. Expect them to draft a starter at the WIL spot, or at least a player that will challenge for that position.

Bottom Line
The Seahawks young defense is about to get younger when Hill is swapped out for either a rookie or a player like Smith or Bradford. Hill was reliable and a leader in his own way. He also was no longer an impact player. The front office has to look at his vacancy as a chance to upgrade the play-making ability on a defense that needs better pass rush and more turnovers. The weakside linebacker is key in Carroll's hybrid 4-3/3-4 scheme as teams are tempted to run their direction, away from Red Bryant and Wright. Finding a player that can hold up against the run is priority number one. Ideally, that player would also be fast enough to offer options as an occasional blitzer and competent in coverage.

Smith could be the guy, but there is no way the team can rely on that given his durability questions. Bradford is a guy to watch. He is certainly durable, and has the speed and physical nature that would be well-suited to the role. Only the team knows how well he developed over the course of the season. He may be lost in pass coverage or undisciplined in run defense. All I have seen so far is his physical skills, and they are enough to pique my interest.

It would not be shocking to see the team go linebacker with one of their first three picks. They nearly got the rookie of the year in the second round. Another strong addition would give this unit the chance to among the youngest and most talented starting linebacker corps in the NFL. 

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