Seahawks Training Camp Primer: Linebackers

Unlike a year ago, Seattle should enter 2019 with excellent depth at all three linebacker spots.

Over the course of the next four weeks, we will be breaking down each of the Seahawks positional groups as we slowly creep towards the start of training camp.

Swinging to the middle of Seattle’s defense, let’s take a closer look at linebacker, a suddenly crowded position group featuring an intriguing blend of experienced veterans and rising young talent.

Projected Starters: Bobby Wagner, K.J. Wright, Mychal Kendricks

Coming off arguably his best season yet, the 29-year old Wagner remains Seattle's most indispensable defender and doesn't look ready to slow down anytime soon. Along with surpassing 130 combined tackles for sixth time in seven seasons, he returned an interception 98 yards for a touchdown against the 49ers, forced two fumbles, and recorded a career-best 11 passes defensed in coverage. Fans shouldn't fret about him sitting out offseason activities while seeking a new contract. As expected, he's in phenomenal physical shape and will be ready for the start of training camp with a new contract in hand or not.

After missing 11 regular season games and being limited to 23 tackles thanks to lingering knee issues, it wasn’t a given Wright would return for a ninth season with the Seahawks. However, a vintage performance with eight tackles and a critical interception in the end zone against the Cowboys in the Wild Card round showed he could still get it done between the lines and Seattle opted to re-sign him on a two-year deal. Back to 100 percent health, he’ll look to bounce back from the worst season of his NFL career and return to form after posting 100 or more tackles four straight years from 2014 to 2017.

The embattled Kendricks dealt with a nightmare of a season after pleading guilty to federal insider trading charges and suffering a season-ending knee injury upon his return from an eight-game suspension. But when he suited up for the Seahawks, he provided a much-needed lift for Ken Norton’s defense. While awaiting a ruling on an appeal, he replaced Wright in the lineup and recorded 15 tackles, four tackles for loss, and 2.0 sacks in three games during September. After playing well in a brief stint with the team last year, Seattle hopes Kendricks can avoid jail time and stay healthy, providing quality insurance behind Bobby Wagner and K.J. Wright at bare minimum.

Reserves: Shaquem Griffin, Barkevious Mingo, Austin Calitro, Cody Barton, Ben Burr-Kirven, Emmanuel Ellerbee, Justin Currie

Believing the Seahawks didn’t do enough to maximize Griffin’s strengths as a rookie, Carroll and his coaching staff have made a concerted effort to take advantage of his speed and pass rushing ability this spring. Along with continuing to be groomed behind Wright at weakside linebacker in nickel packages, the former All-American has also been seeing extensive work at SAM linebacker, putting him back in his comfort zone playing off the edge. He should see some action defensively in sub-packages while also remaining a key cog on special teams.

Signed to a two-year deal in March 2018, Mingo wound up starting 14 games in his first season as a Seahawk, finishing with a career-high 48 tackles and emerging as one of the team’s premier special teams players. But he didn’t provide as much production rushing the quarterback as Seattle hoped, registering only a single sack and two quarterback hits. With Griffin now receiving snaps at SAM linebacker, Carroll indicated the seventh-year veteran has been working with defensive line coach Clint Hurtt and will be seeing more action as a situational pass rusher at defensive end.

Among the biggest surprises on Seattle’s 10-win team from a year ago, Calitro went from being a supposed camp body in June to an important spot starter subbing in for Wright midway through the regular season. After bouncing around with multiple teams during his first year in the league, the former Villanova standout filled in admirably, starting five games total and finishing with 45 tackles and three tackles for loss. He also played nearly 250 snaps on special teams.

Seattle should be in great hands with Wagner manning the middle for years to come, but for the first time in several years, the organization drafted an intriguing prospect to develop behind him in Barton. The ex-Utah standout offers excellent versatility, as he played safety in high school and played all three linebacker spots for the Utes. Equally adept at stopping the run as he is dropping in coverage, he should be a quality special teams player right away and has enough upside to potentially find his way into the lineup in future seasons.

The nation’s leading tackler last year as a senior at Washington, Burr-Kirven may ultimately be the heir apparent for Wright at weakside linebacker after joining the Seahawks as a fifth-round pick. Though undersized by NFL standards, the 6-foot, 230-pound linebacker always seems to find the football, offers elite football IQ, and possesses the athletic traits teams are looking for to combat modern offensive attacks.

Entering the league undrafted out of Rice, the 235-pound Ellerbee spent time with the Falcons, Chargers, and Seahawks as a rookie, dressing for seven games total without recording any statistics. He bounced between Seattle’s practice squad and 53-man roster throughout the season and given the depth around him, practice squad may be his ceiling going into 2019.

As for Currie, the former Western Michigan product has spent time with three different teams, including half of last year on Seattle's practice squad. Entering his fifth year in the league with just three NFL games under his belt with Cleveland back in 2017, the preseason could be his last legitimate shot to make a positive impression.

What to Watch: Seattle may have one of the deepest linebacking groups in the NFL, especially if Kendricks is permitted to play this season. With the abundance of depth, however, Carroll and Norton will face some challenging roster decisions behind Wright and Kendricks. If Griffin isn’t able to make his mark at SAM linebacker, what does that mean for his future? Where does Burr-Kirven fit into plans as a rookie? Does Calitro still have a role with all the talent now around him? Can Mingo truly be an impact player rushing off the edge? All those questions loom and will play a role in determining which players make the team in September.

Stat to Know: As a senior at UCF, Griffin produced the second-highest pressure rate (23.2) among qualified pass rushers according to Pro Football Focus.

X-Factor: Seattle still doesn’t know if Kendricks will be eligible to play, as his sentencing hearing for insider trading charges has been postponed multiple times and his status remains uncertain. This development on its own makes Kendricks the ultimate wild card for the ‘Hawks defense. But while he chose not to dive deep on the topic, coach Pete Carroll sounded optimistic about his chances of playing in 2019. Much like the rest of the league, the Seahawks have been using nickel packages with five defensive backs more frequently, limiting how much they’ve deployed their base 4-3 defense. Regardless, Carroll intends to find ways to play Wagner, Wright, and Kendricks on the field at the same time, potentially creating one of the best linebacker trios in the sport.

Prediction: Seattle didn’t re-sign Wright to be relegated to the sideline, as he and Wagner will work in tandem for an eighth consecutive season. Assuming he’s cleared to play, Kendricks could see some work at SAM linebacker and will receive his share of snaps in specialty packages. As shown by their decision to use him off the edge, the Seahawks aren’t ready to give up on Griffin yet, while Barton and Burr-Kirven will contribute on special teams as they learn behind Wagner and Wright. Mingo and Calitro aren’t guaranteed roster spots, though Mingo’s ability to play LEO defensive end gives him a distinct advantage here with the team desperate for pass rushing help. Unless Kendricks winds up behind bars, Calitro looks to be the odd man out despite his steady performance in a reserve role last year.

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