Seahawks 2012: Linebackers

Posted Jul 11, 2012

Ken Norton is in only his third season as the Seahawks’ linebackers coach, but his still-under-construction unit continues to get infusions of the young and the not-as-young.

Ask Ken Norton about his latest collection of linebackers and the first thing the former Pro Bowl linebacker mentions is the hole in the middle.

And the Seahawks’ third-year linebackers coach isn’t talking about the competition between rookie Bobby Wagner and free-agent addition Barrett Ruud for the starting job at middle linebacker. But this youth versus experience situation at the one spot on the defense where there isn’t a returning starter plays directly into the point Norton stresses.

“I have both extremes,” he said. “I have the older guys with Leroy (Hill) and Barrett Ruud and Matt McCoy and Heath Farwell. And I’ve got all these younger guys with K.J. (Wright) and Bobby Wagner and Korey Toomer and Mike Morgan.

“So it’s both extremes. Which is really good because I have the older guys who are able to help the younger guys come along. And the younger guys have so much energy and juice, and they’re so eager, they’re showing the older guys, ‘Hey, there’s a lot of youth and enthusiasm still.’ ”

On a team that has been in a constant change since coach Pete Carroll and general manager John Schneider took over 30 months ago, the linebacking crew has undergone one of the most major transformations under Norton.

The last linebacker standing from the team’s glory days of winning the NFC Championship in 2005 is Hill, who continues to be the starter on the weakside. David Hawthorne took over in the middle for Lofa Tatupu in 2010, but with the team’s leading tackler the past three seasons now with the New Orleans Saints, Hawthorne will be replaced by either the youthful enthusiasm of Wagner or the productive experience of Ruud. On the strong side, Wright played so well as a rookie last season that the club traded former first-round draft choice Aaron Curry to the Oakland Raiders.

Morgan and Malcolm Smith were in the same rookie class with Wright, but have yet to produce the same impact. Toomer came in the draft this year, along with Wagner. The flipside to all this youth is the experience of McCoy, who was added in free agency two years ago; and Farwell, who was signed last season – at midseason.

This seemingly mismatched collection of linebackers creates an interesting blend of skills and talents that should allow Carroll and coordinator Gus Bradley to play the way they want to, and need to – fast, physical, aggressive and smart – in matching the efforts of the Pro Bowl-laced secondary and line.

“It’s a lot of teaching I’ll have to do,” Norton said. “But I’m using the older guys to help with the younger guys, so it’s really exciting to see.”

There is the competition, as 12 linebackers will return for training camp looking to secure one of the six or seven spots on the 53-man roster.

“Which is really good, because competition always has been the theme of our program,” said Norton, who played in three Pro Bowls and on three Super Bowl-winning teams during his career with the Dallas Cowboys and San Francisco 49ers.

“We’re really trying to upgrade the speed and trying to find guys in our profile of size-and-speed combination. Then they have to be really smart.”

So they can help leave the opposition smarting.

“We like big linebackers who can run; who have a little nastiness about them,” Norton said. “Then they have to be smart, because it’s a very smart league and you have to out-execute everybody because everybody else is big and fast.

“So, can you be big, strong and combine that with your smarts? The guy who can have all three phases covered is the guy who’s going to last the longest.”

Norton then cracks the slightest of smiles before adding, “I’m really excited about my group.”

With that said, here’s a closer look at the unit:

Linebackers on the 90-man roster: 12

Linebackers carried on the 53-man roster: six last season, five in 2010

Incumbent starters: OLB Leroy Hill, OLB K.J. Wright

Incumbent backups: MLB Heath Farwell, OLB Malcolm Smith, OLB Mike Morgan, MLB Matt McCoy

On injured reserve last season: OLB Jameson Konz

On the practice squad last season: OLB Allen Bradford

Veteran signed in free agency: MLB Barrett Ruud

Draft picks: MLB Bobby Wagner, OLB Korey Toomer

Rookie free agents: OLB Kyle Knox

Outlook: Former Seahawks’ coach Chuck Knox always said he liked his linebackers mobile, agile and hostile. So he would like this group. While Hill and Ruud provide a needed dash or two of experience, the splashes of speed and aggressiveness are supplied by Wright, and Wagner, and Toomer, and Morgan. While Farwell and McCoy can help in situational roles, their primary impact will be felt on special teams – literally, as Farwell led the league in coverage tackles last season with 21 and McCoy led the team in 2010 with 19.