Now that the 2022 NFL season is over, it's time to look ahead to an offseason that will help shape the Seahawks' fortunes in 2023 and beyond. With free agency kicking off next month and the draft following in April, Seahawks.com is taking a position-by-position look at where the team stands prior to the start of the new league year. So far we've covered quarterback, safety, running back, cornerback and receiver, and today we focus on linebacker. Check back Wednesday when we turn our attention to tight end.
First off, to clarify, we're focusing on off-ball linebackers today, and will include outside linebackers with our look at the defensive line since those players, while listed as linebackers, still line up on the line of scrimmage with the D-linemen.
And when it came to linebacker, 2022 marked something of a new era for the Seahawks, who opened a season without Bobby Wagner at middle linebacker for the first time in a decade. That meant a move from weakside linebacker to middle linebacker for Jordyn Brooks in his third season, and the former first-round pick earned praise from coaches and teammates for how he handled the leadership that comes with that role.
Of course, Brooks also showed the athleticism and play-making ability that was also on display in 2021 when he set a franchise record with 183 tackles. Brooks might have threatened his own record had he not suffered a season-ending knee injury in Week 17, but despite the unfortunate ending to his season, it was overall an encouraging season for a young player who seems to just be getting better with each passing year.
With Brooks moving to middle linebacker, Cody Barton took over a starting role for the first time in his four year career after previously backing up Wagner and K.J. Wright. Barton's first season starting at weakside linebacker saw him record 136 tackles, four tackles for loss, a pair of sacks, six passes defenses and two interceptions, and his level of play only got better as the season went along.
From a depth standpoint, Tanner Muse saw his most significant playing time in two seasons with the Seahawks, starting the season finale and Seattle's playoff game in place of an injured Brooks. The Seahawks also saw Jon Rhattigan return from a knee injury late in the season, and a healthy offseason should help the former undrafted player who was a special teams standout as a rookie compete for a role in 2023.
Question to answer this offseason: Who are the starters when the 2023 season begins?
While Brooks is no doubt a big part of Seattle's future, the timing of his injury means there is a question, in the short term at least, about who starts at middle linebacker. The Seahawks fully expect Brooks to be a factor for most if not all of next season, but they also will need to go into training camp with enough depth at the position to cover for Brooks if he isn't quite back for the opener.
Adding to the uncertainty is the fact that Barton is set to become a free agent if the Seahawks don't re-sign him before the new league year begins in March. Muse, meanwhile, is set to become a restricted free agent while Rhattigan is an exclusive rights free agent, and Alexander Johnson, who saw playing time late last season as a practice squad call-up, is also a free agent.
In other words, the Seahawks could look much like they did in 2022 when the 2023 season begins, but there are also a lot of variables in place that could lead to some significant changes at linebacker, particularly early on if Brooks isn't back from his injury.
"We are going to count on him to be ready to go, but I am saying that in all optimism because they haven't gone in and taken a look at what it looks like yet," Seahawks coach Pete Carroll said before Brooks had his surgery last month. "It's a long recovery, it's late in the year, it's a hard race against time for him to make it, but he's such a well-conditioned guy, he's such a good worker, his mentality is so strong, so I think he will get as much out of it as he can. He's a really big factor and he needed the time as we changed principles with the stuff that he did. He needed the time to grow with it. He was making a bunch of tackles, but he will be better, he will be much improved also. He will grow somewhat like the first-year guys, schematically. Hopefully, we can get him back and we will be fitting it together. We have some issues, we have some business issues this time of the year as you know, so we have to get things settled, get guys back on the roster, and who comes back to us and who doesn't? That's what we have to figure out. Who do we attract from the outside in, it's all of that stuff."
Biggest reason for optimism in 2023: When he is back, Jordyn Brooks should be even better in Year 2 of a new-look defense.
While in the short term there is some concern about when Brooks will return, the Seahawks feel really good about the player he is becoming and what that means for both his future and that of the defense. The athletic ability that made Brooks a first-round pick has been evident from the start of his rookie season, but he has continued to grow as an overall player over each of the past three seasons, and in what was both his first year calling plays in the huddle for the Seahawks, and also his first year in a new-look defense, Brooks' growth was evident.
"Jordyn, really, he's a centerpiece," Carroll said. "He's such a good player and we will continue to lean on him in that way. Fingers crossed and we hope for the best that he will make it back and be ready to go for the season."