With Seahawks training camp kicking off later this month, Seahawks.com is taking a look at 10 of the most intriguing storylines, position battles and players heading into the 2021 season. Today we're looking at the competition at strongside linebacker and potentially life after K.J. Wright for Seattle, and Monday we'll focus on running back and the depth behind Chris Carson.
While things could still change between now and Week 1 of the 2021 season, the Seahawks currently are, for the first time in a decade, preparing for an upcoming season without K.J. Wright on the roster.
And with Wright, an all-time great Seahawk, still an unsigned free agent, the Seahawks have an important vacancy to fill at strongside linebacker, and a couple of intriguing options to take over that spot.
Bobby Wagner will obviously start at middle linebacker, his 10th season in what will almost certainly go down as a Hall of Fame career, while 2020 first-round pick Jordyn Brooks will again play weakside linebacker. The difference this year for Brooks is that he now likely becomes an every-down player in his second season after primarily playing only in base packages last year, with Wright moving to weakside linebacker in nickel packages to stay on the field alongside Wagner.
The question then becomes that of who starts at strongside linebacker, again, unless Wright does end up coming back, an option to which the door remains open according to Seahawks coach Pete Carroll. But if the Seahawks defense will indeed be without Wright for the first time in a decade, then the two most likely options to take over at strongside linebacker are Cody Barton, a 2019 third-round pick who has started four games over his first two seasons, and 2020 second-round pick Darrell Taylor, a defensive end who could take on a Bruce Irvin-like hybrid role as a linebacker in base defense and pass-rusher in sub packages.
Barton has the advantage of experience, having not just started a handful of games at strongside linebacker, but also having spent two years learning the defense while also proving his playmaking ability as one of the league's top special teams players. Taylor, meanwhile, is something of a newcomer having missed all of his rookie season due to a leg injury sustained in his final season at Tennessee. One way Taylor tried to make up lost time was by taking part in all of Seattle's offseason workout program, including rookie minicamp, which he was eligible to participate in because he didn't play last year. And while Taylor will need to show he can handle the role in camp and the preseason, he has impressed his coaches this offseason.
"Darrell's a real highlight to this time," Carroll said. "He worked out with the rookies the whole time, which was great for him. He is probably, of the guys coming back, the best-prepared guy on the football team right now, because of all of the time he spent. He's invested in it, he came with a great attitude, work ethic and all of that. He's an exciting football player—his edge-rush ability, his athleticism, he's got a really good burst off the football, the ability to play in space, as well as rush the passer. You can maybe see why we were frustrated last year that we didn't have him, but now we've really seen him. We hadn't really seen him with much to go on, and really he had one of really the brightest camps."
As was evident when the Seahawks used Irvin as a strongside linebacker and a pass-rusher, the Seahawks like having that style of player in the role, but it's also not an easy role to handle, so it's hardly a given Taylor is going to end up winning that strongside role. Regardless of how things shake out with that spot, Taylor should have a prominent role in the pass rush rotation, and if the Seahawks decided they want a more traditional linebacker at the strongside spot, then Barton would give them a great option.
"Cody looks great," Carroll said. "He has come back ready to go, he's battling for playing time, he's battling for starting time. He's going to get a ton of work. This will be the Cody Barton preseason. He's going to get a great shot at it, I've talked to him about it. We love the player, he deserves it."
It would hardly be fair to expect any one player to replace a legend like K.J. Wright, but even if Wright's time in Seattle is indeed over, the Seahawks feel strong about that position group as a whole, from Wagner's All-Pro play to Brooks taking on a bigger role after a promising rookie campaign, to Taylor or Barton stepping into the starting lineup this season, to the quality depth provided by the likes of Ben Burr-Kirven.
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