When the league year began earlier this month, linebacker was potentially a question mark for the Seahawks in 2019.
Yes, the Seahawks still had Bobby Wagner when free agency began, and an All-Pro middle linebacker is an awfully good starting point when forming a linebacking corps, but K.J. Wright, a starter since his rookie year in 2011, became a free agent at the start of the league year, as did Mychal Kendricks, who played very well in limited action last year.
With the re-signing of Wright and Kendricks earlier this month, however, linebacker is no longer a question mark, but rather one of the position groups that Seahawks coach Pete Carroll is most excited about heading into the year.
"It's one of the aspects of our team I'm most excited about coming back to camp," Carroll said of his team's talent at linebacker during the NFL annual meetings in Phoenix. "It's because of the depth of experience and awareness those guys have, we go right back to really having a solid group. I think these guys can be the best we've ever had."
And Carroll made it clear that he is so excited about that group because he plans on getting all three of those players on the field together in 2019. Last season, Kendricks was signed while Wright was injured and took over at weakside linebacker, Wright's usual spot, then Kendricks was suspended when Wright came back midway through the season. When Kendricks came back from suspension late in the year, Wright was again sidelined by a knee injury, then Kendricks landed on IR with a knee injury right before Wright came back. In other words, the Seahawks never played with both Wright and Kendricks available at the same time last season, and while they played the same spot last year, the plan is to find a way to get them both on the field along with Wagner.
Asked specifically about those three playing together, Carroll said. "Absolutely. They're going to play together." Though for now he isn't giving away the specifics.
"I don't think we've ever been better (at linebacker)," Carroll said. "When that all comes together—we've got all kinds of ideas and things we want to do with those guys to use their strengths. Mychal Kendricks did a nice job when he played for us last year. Very aggressive, showed how instinctive he was, really fast, loves the game, smart about the game… The expectations are really high and those guys are going to be really good."
Even if the Seahawks are still working out the details of what it could look like, the reason Carroll is confident that trio can work well together is the versatility both Wright and Kendricks have shown in their careers. Wright, a fourth-round pick in 2011, began his career starting at middle linebacker, then moved to strongside linebacker later that season. He spent 2012 and 2013 at strongside linebacker, then in 2014 transitioned to weakside linebacker when Bruce Irvin was moved from end to strongside linebacker.
Kendricks, who the Eagles selected in the second round of the 2012 draft, one pick before Seattle drafted Wagner, began his career as a strongside linebacker, moved to inside linebacker when the Eagles switched to a 3-4 defense, then moved to weakside linebacker in 2016 when they went back to a 4-3 front.
When he joined the Seahawks last fall, Kendricks said he's comfortable playing any linebacker spot.
"Wherever they need me is the position I'll learn, and I'll do my best," he said.
"He has been all over the place," Carroll said of Kendricks. "Mike can do everything; K.J. as well. That flexibility is going to give an added dimension to us, we'll be able to move those guys around. The plan is absolutely to play them at the same time."
In addition to being loaded in terms of front-line talent, the Seahawks also have some very good depth on their roster, including Barkevious Mingo, last year's starter at strongside linebacker, Austin Calitro, who made starts at both middle and weakside linebacker last year, and Shaquem Griffin, who started the opener in place of Wright at weakside linebacker. And speaking of Griffin, even if the re-signings of Wright and Kendricks might make it harder for him to climb the depth chart, Carroll still wants to find ways to get the 2018 fifth-round pick on the field to rush the passer. As an undersized edge-rusher at UCF, Griffin recorded 18.5 sacks and 33.5 tackles for loss in his final two seasons after converting from defensive back, and while his size (6-foot, 227-pounds) isn't ideal for an NFL pass-rusher, Carroll thinks the Seahawks can find a way to get Griffin involved.
"We need to show him more there," Carroll said of Griffin as a pass-rusher. "We need to see more. He didn't get enough opportunities even in practice as we look back. Just because he had a knack for it, we need to uncover that, make sure we know what we've got."
Carroll said that initially that would mean trying to find ways to involve Griffin as a blitzing linebacker, but if anyone could succeed as an undersized rusher at the line of scrimmage, Carroll said Griffin has what it takes.
"He's going to have to be really unusual because he's 228 pounds," Carroll said. "Not very many guys can rush the passer on offensive tackles at that size. I'm not going to put it past him. There's nothing he can't challenge. So we'll see what happens with that."
Take a look back at some of team photographer Rod Mar's best behind-the-scenes moments from the 2018 season.