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Hill comes full circle
Leroy Hill knew he was heading into an offseason of uncertainty.
A starting linebacker for the Seahawks since midway through his rookie season in 2005, free agency was calling – and Hill was intending to at least listen.
This is the seventh in a series of eight articles sizing up the Seahawks by units for the upcoming season.
That’s when things took a couple of unexpected turns before eventually coming full circle.
The Seahawks used their franchise tag on Hill to impede his mobility in free agency. He was, after all, the team’s leading tackler last season before a neck injury forced him to miss the final four games – and most of a fifth. Hill still finished third on the team with 81 tackles, the second-highest total of his four-year career.
Then, after trading Pro Bowl linebacker Julian Peterson in March and acquiring linebacker Aaron Curry with the fourth pick in April’s NFL draft, the club removed the franchise tag from Hill – only to sign him to a six-year contract a few days later.
“My one free-agent offseason and I had the craziest offseason ever,” Hill said. “I’m just glad it’s over. I’m where I wanted to be.”
Which is, right back where he belongs, and the Seahawks need him – on the weak side, next to Pro Bowl middle linebacker Lofa Tatupu and opposite Curry, who takes over for Peterson on the strong side.
The Seahawks’ starting linebacker trio has been the strength of the defense since Peterson was signed in free agency in 2006 to join Hill and Tatupu. But it could be – no, should be – even better this season. The coaches are determined to find more aggressive and innovative ways to use Hill and Curry as pass rushers, and Curry is among a handful of new players who bring a needed element of toughness to the defensive mix.
“It’s going to be a fun season,” Hill said. “If I play up to my potential, it could be the ceiling for me. I’m excited. I’m going to work hard to try to reach that ceiling.”
Make that a very high ceiling, because the role the coaches envision for Hill is similar to the one Derrick Brooks used to fill with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers and Lance Briggs plays for the Chicago Bears. Each was voted to the Pro Bowl last season – Brooks for the 11th time and Briggs the fourth.
“I feel pretty good that they feel I can play that position,” Hill said, unable to contain a large smile. “It’s a playmaker’s position and I definitely feel like I can fill it.”
When the franchise tag was removed from Hill, the national perception was that the team was giving up on him and would allow Hill to sign elsewhere – despite club president Tim Ruskell’s comments to the contrary.
“The tag was put on originally to try and get a long-term deal done, and that didn’t happened,” Ruskell said at the time. “I’m confident that this will probably hasten it, whereas the tag did not.”
Hill understood, even if others did not.
“I wasn’t even listening to the media reports, because I knew what was going on,” he said. “I know a lot of people said, ‘Oh, they dropped him’ and ‘Oh, they don’t really want him.’ But that wasn’t the case.
|Seahawks 2009 Linebacker|
A look at the unit as the team takes a break before the start of training camp practices on July 31:
Weak-side linebacker: Leroy Hill, Will Herring, David Philistin
Middle linebacker: Lofa Tatupu, David Hawthorne, Tony Taylor
Strong-side linebacker: Aaron Curry, D.D. Lewis, Lance Laury
The word: While Hill, Tatupu and Curry are as good as any starting group in the league, Lewis remains a vital component because of his experience and ability to not only play but start at any of the three spots. This is a big summer for Herring, as the former fifth-round draft choice must, in order, stay healthy, contribute on special teams and continue to develop his skills so he can step in if needed. Laury and Hawthorne – who made the team as rookie free agents in 2006 and 2008, just as Lewis did in 2002 – were among the leading special teams tacklers last season. But, like Herring, they lack experience playing their positions at this level.
“As long as I knew what was going on, and the team knew what was going on, it didn’t matter what anyone else said or thought. I knew it was all business. It was business from my side, and business from their side, too. I’m just glad we came to an understanding.”
Like Hill, Tatupu arrived in the 2005 draft, as a second-round pick. All he’s done is lead the club in tackles for four consecutive seasons – the first player in franchise history to do so – and play in three Pro Bowls.
So Curry is now the new kid, just as Hill was when the Seahawks selected him in the third round of the draft. Hill got his chance to start when injuries sidelined veteran Jamie Sharper, and he produced 7½ sacks. Curry stepped into the starting lineup – not to mention some very productive shoes – during his first minicamp practice with the Seahawks.
“Julian was a great player,” Curry said. “A lot of people look at it as me walking in his shoes. But I watch film on him all the time, just to see how he did it and learn from him.”
So far, Curry’s learning curve was been more linear than looping.
“It’s a little different working with a new guy, just because we were with J.P. for three years,” Hill said. “But Aaron is fitting right in. It’s been an adjustment. But once we put on the pads, I think he’ll fit right in.”
On that topic, there is no uncertainty.