2012 Seahawks Off-Season Analysis Part IV: Linebackers

This series will examine seven position groups on the Seahawks, reviewing their 2011 performance, the impending free agents, and the potential for free agent or draft additions. The final part of the series will summarize the recommended plan of attack across the entire team.

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

State Of The Position
No position group will play a larger role in setting the ceiling or floor of this defense than the linebackers. The secondary is already great, and should make some improvement. The defensive line is very good, and has the potential for some improvement. The most likely scenario has the 2012 defensive line and secondary manned by exactly the same starters as the 2011 team. That means that if the defense is to improve things like the pass rush, the linebacker position is where there is the most play. Sure, the team may add a stud pass rushing defensive end, but he won’t start ahead of Red Bryant or Chris Clemons. The coaching staff will not always be able to predict when a team will be in a passing situation, and needs to find pass rush in their base defense. Pete Carroll talked about getting faster on defense a number of times in his post-season interviews. Linebacker is the obvious position to do that.

David Hawthorne produced one of his best statistical seasons, nearing his career highs in tackles, interceptions, and tackles for loss in 15 games. He did all this at the age of 26, and on what was essentially one leg. He battled a knee problem all year, but gutted it out. His injury robbed him of the explosiveness and range that defines his game, and may have cost him a future in Seattle. He is now an unrestricted free agent, and could be the player fans are most surprised to see the front office let go. Rookie K.J. Wright had a strong enough rookie season to allow the Seahawks to move on from Aaron Curry at the strong-side linebacker spot. The coaches love him at the middle linebacker spot that Hawthorne played. They probably love him at either SAM or MIKE, but moving him to MIKE gives them a chance to add another impact outside linebacker while enjoying the benefits of a 6’4″ player dropping into the middle zone against seam routes and crossing patterns.

Wright started flashing some pass rush potential as the season wore on, and began making other impact plays with six tackles for loss in his final seven games. He is long, smart, and shows promise in zone coverage where he gets some of the deepest drops I have seen from a linebacker. His man coverage skills are questionable, but he appears to have all the physical and mental skills necessary to improve on that over time. There is some question whether he will ever be the playmaker Hawthorne is. He looks more like a guy who will be assignment-correct and tackle reliably, which is nothing to scoff at.

Leroy Hill is 29-years-old, but it feels like he should be 35. He has been around for six years, but this was the first season he managed to play all 16 games. He nearly has a career-high in tackles (89), and had his highest sack total (4.0) since his rookie season in 2005. He remains a very talented player, but speed is no longer his calling card. Expect Malcolm Smith, the 2011 7th round pick, to get a chance to challenge for the starting WILL position in camp. Smith is all about speed, and could be an intriguing addition to the defense. Smith was hurt a fair amount of his rookie season, and will need to spend some time in the weight room this off-season, but could have a Kam Chancellor-like second year if things fall into place.

Matt McCoy was becoming a surprise contributor to the nickel package before he was injured. He is a blur on the field, and would be a great player to keep around for depth if some other team does not swoop in.

2012 Seahawks Free Agent Linebackers:

  • Heath Farwell
  • David Hawthorne
  • Leroy Hill
  • Matt McCoy
  • David Vobora
Seahawks Linebackers Under Contract:
  • K.J. Wright
  • Malcolm Smith
  • Mike Morgan
  • Adrian Moten
  • Allen Bradford (Practice Squad)
Don’t expect the Seahawks to rush out and re-sign either Hawthorne or Hill. Both played a big role in the 2011 defensive success, so letting them go would be a risk, but it is a risk the team needs to take. Linebackers do not need years of time to develop the way a quarterback, lineman or receiver does. If the Seahawks can find an impact linebacker in the draft, he will make a difference immediately. Look no further than Wright, who was drafted in the 4th round. Hill is the more likely of the two starters to return, but he would be a late signing, and would not enter camp as the expected starter. Carroll and John Schneider may want to let him walk, a la Lawyer Milloy, to make room for a younger player to emerge.

Farwell was a great special teams player, and could be back. McCoy would be a good get, and has reason to come back if he thinks there may be more playing time. Vobora will not be back. The team will be looking for faster players with more upside, even in the back-up roles.

Free Agents
The draft is a much more likely place to add talent at linebacker, but there are some free agent names worth watching. These are not the names that will top most free agent linebacker lists. They could make sense, though, in Seattle.

Joe Mays
Mays is a little undersized at 5’11” 250 lbs, but hits like a freight train, and is only 26. He played in all 16 games last season for the Broncos and had 75 tackles (64 solo) and 8 tackles for loss. He would be a guy who could allow Wright to stay at the outside spot, or could be in the mix with Smith at the WILL.

Larry Grant
Grant, 26, stepped in for Patrick Willis while he was injured and did not show a big dropoff in play. He is 6’1″ 251 lbs, and plays with a mean streak. He could be a possibility at any of the LB positions.

Ahmad Brooks
Brooks, 27, checks in at 6’3″ 259 lbs, and is a more proven pass rusher than either Grant or Mays. He has 20.0 career sacks, including 7.0 last season. He could draw interest as a SAM.

Don’t be surprised if the Seahawks spend their first-round pick on a linebacker. If they can find someone they believe can be a Pro Bowl player with pass rush ability, it might be the most prudent way to spend the pick. Expect at least two linebackers added in the draft, with an emphasis on speed. 
Bottom Line
The Seahawks could do a lot worse than just returning the same group they left with last season. Hawthorne is a borderline Pro Bowl player when healthy, and will flourish wherever he ends up next season. Hill is still a starting caliber linebacker, but just may not be what this defense needs. This is the position group that holds the key to turning what has been a very good defense, into a dominating defense. Wright is the only sure thing. If they can add elite range, with some pass rush ability behind a stout defensive line and in front of a lights-out secondary, watch out.