With Seahawks training camp kicking off later this month, Seahawks.com is taking a look at some of the team's most intriguing storylines, position battles and players heading into the 2019 season. Today we look at linebacker, a deep and talented position group. On Monday we'll continue with the offensive line, a unit which, thanks to continuity and improvements shown last season, has high expectations for itself in 2019.
Thanks to the presence of Bobby Wagner and K.J. Wright, the Seahawks have been really good at linebacker for a long time, so it's no small thing that Pete Carroll said earlier this offseason that he thinks this year's group of linebackers "can be the best group we've ever had."
And that statement came a month before the Seahawks added two more talented linebackers via the draft, selecting Cody Barton in the third round and Ben Burr-Kirven in the fifth round.
The reason for Carroll's optimism obviously starts with Wagner, a four-time first-team All-Pro, and Wright, a Pro-Bowler who is looking to bounce back after being limited by a knee injury last season. But the reason the Seahawks coach is particularly excited about this year's crop of linebackers, in addition to the overall depth, is that they plan to use those two at the same time as Mychal Kendricks, who played in place of Wright at times last season before landing on injured reserve late in the year with a leg injury.
"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 March. "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.
"I don't think we've ever been better (at linebacker). 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."
While Wright and Kendricks played the same position last season, both have played multiple linebacker spots during their careers, and when asked if they and Wagner would all be used together, Carroll answered, "Absolutely. They're going to play together."
Yet it's not just that formidable trio that has the Seahawks excited about their prospects at linebacker. Barton and Burr-Kirven came into rookie minicamp and offseason workouts and made an immediate impression on coaches and teammates alike with their ability to command the defense. And even before adding those two, the Seahawks had a number of talented options to provide depth at linebacker, including Barkevious Mingo, last year's starter at strongside linebacker, and Austin Calitro and Shaquem Griffin, who both started games last season.
If you're counting, that's already eight linebackers mentioned in this story—the Seahawks also have Justin Currie and Emmanuel Ellerbee battling for spots—which means some difficult decisions will have to be made before the start of the regular season unless the Seahawks are going to carry an unusually high number of linebackers on the 53-man roster—Seattle opened last season with six linebackers on the roster, and that included Jacob Martin, who is now listed as a defensive end.
One way the Seahawks might be able to find room for more linebackers, who also tend to be big special teams contributors, is to get more out of that group when it comes to rushing the passer, and Carroll has already mentioned expanded pass-rush roles for two linebackers, Mingo and Griffin.
Mingo, who has edge-rushing experience in his past, spent most of his time playing strongside linebacker last year and wasn't utilized much as a rusher, but the Seahawks hope to see that change.
"He still is a Sam backer for us, and can do that, but we're also going to continue to work him—if you watched in this camp, he worked a lot with (defensive line coach) Clint (Hurtt) in the pass rush stuff," Carroll said during minicamp last month. "We want to really accentuate that for him and not divide his focus. Last year it was Sam backer and a little bit of pass-rush stuff, and he never really got to dig in. He can make problems for the opponent because he's so fast and so long, so we will really try to accentuate that, and we'll do that again through camp. We want to really specialize him as a rusher knowing he can play the 'backer spot."
Griffin, meanwhile, was used strictly at weakside linebacker last year, but the Seahawks want to see what he can do rushing the passer considering how much success he had in that role at UCF.
Griffin said last month that he feels "so comfortable" getting back to his pass-rushing roots, and Carroll said that expanding Griffin's role "has been really a good deal for him. We see how much background he has on the edge. He's played safety and outside linebacker for the most part in his career. He's just more comfortable out there. That doesn't mean that he can't play behind the line of scrimmage. He's gained a lot there, but you can see him on the edge, in space and coming off the edge and pressures and stuff like that, that it's a good spot for him. So he has had a very, very good offseason with us."
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