Every day between now and the start of Seahawks training camp, Seahawks.com will take a look at some of the team's most intriguing storylines, position battles and players heading into the 2017 season. Today, we continue the Top 10 list by focusing on the competition at strongside linebacker. The list continues Saturday with a look at what figures to be one of the deeper and more competitive position groups in camp.
For the second straight year, the Seahawks head into training camp with two of the league's best linebackers set to start at two of the three spots—Bobby Wagner in the middle and K.J. Wright on the weakside—and with uncertainty at strongside linebacker. Last year, Bruce Irvin's departure in free agency left an opening in the starting lineup, and this year, Mike Morgan, who won the job in camp last year, remains unsigned as a free agent, meaning once again there will be a competition for the starting job at strongside, or SAM, linebacker.
With offenses becoming increasingly pass-happy and with defenses playing more nickel defense in response, strongside linebacker is not an every-down position in today's NFL, but that doesn't mean it isn't still an important position. When the Seahawks do play base defense, the strongside linebacker needs to be a sturdy enough player to set the edge in the running game, but also athletic and instinctual enough to cover tight ends and running backs in the passing game. So while whoever replaces Morgan in the lineup won't play every snap, he will be an important part of Seattle's defense.
As for who could end up with that job, the two names Carroll has mentioned thus far are a pair of free-agent signings, Michael Wilhoite and Terence Garvin. Wilhoite has significant starting experience, though as a middle linebacker in San Francisco's 3-4 scheme, starting 34 games over the past three seasons. Garvin, meanwhile, has less experience, making one start in 59 career games, but he did have the advantage of being healthy in offseason workouts while Wilhoite missed time with a quadriceps injury. The players already on the roster along with Wilhoite, Garvin and fellow free-agent addition Arthur Brown have Seahawks coach Pete Carroll excited about linebacker as a whole.
"The linebacker spot is the most competitive it has been," Carroll said earlier this offseason. "Michael Wilhoite coming in, he's an experienced player who can play for us. He can play Mike, Will or Sam, that's a really big boost to us. Terence Garvin has looked really good at the Sam position. He was a DB coming out of college, so he's got good coverage skills that we're looking for in that position, as well as enough size and strength to play on the edge. He's battling it out with Mike Wilhoite right now there, that's a really good competitive spot."
And when it comes to building a championship-caliber roster in the NFL top-flight talent is a must, but so too is quality depth, which is why on a team that already features two Pro Bowl starters at linebacker, Carroll still mentioned linebacker as a position he'd like to see his team improve following the 2016 season. It's not so much that the Seahawks need players who can push Bobby Wagner and K.J. Wright for their jobs—though it'd be a nice problem to have if they did find such players—it's that they need solid depth behind them that could fill in should an injury occur, and at linebacker in particular, they also need backups who can be key contributors on special teams.
"All three guys are all-around players," Carroll said Wilhoite, Garvin and Brown. "They've all been behind the line of scrimmage primarily, not outside guys although they look to be able to help us there possibly. I think it's the most experienced group of guys that we'll start a season with in terms of special teams background, so we'll still have young guys come in to complement, but I think it's really an important place for us to upgrade the overall value to our team in terms of (special) teams. It will be very competitive throughout. All those guys have something special.
"It's going to be a very strong group. I don't feel like I could say that over the last couple years. I feel like we've been piecemealing with young guys and free agent guys coming off the wire. We've had to work hard at that and I think this is a more experienced group coming in."
Seahawks defensive end Michael Bennett and other NFL players including Seattle's Nazair Jones work out in Hawaii.