Seahawks Preview 2015: Linebackers

The starting linebackers of the Seattle Seahawks, K.J. Wright, Bobby Wagner and Bruce Irvin, represent different stages of modern NFL contracts. Their contract statuses are also a prefect microcosm of how the Seahawks go about their business. The Seahawks value team-first players, and even though Pete Carroll is well-known to let his players have the freedom to just go out and play, the organization as a whole does not keep players who seem to value their own skills over the goals of the team. Richard Sherman can be outspoken, but there is no doubt he knows that team-goals come first when on the field. Russell Wilson is the perfect fit at quarterback for the Seahawks because he does not put a higher value on passing for 4000 yards a season than he does in leading the team to wins. Golden Tate was perhaps the Seahawks best receiver in his time in Seattle, but he appeared to want to have receiving numbers at a level that would get him a better contract. He sometimes put his needs above the team. His desire to get better numbers led to him doing just that, albeit while he was playing with the Detroit Lions. He got more yards receiving in Detroit in 2014 while the Seahawks were going back to the Super Bowl, so how one views that depends on how one views the definition of success: individual versus team. How this relates to the linebacking group of the Seahawks is that Seattle 1) trusts that K.J. Wright is definitely team-oriented (he signed an organization-friendly contract extension late last season at $27 million over four years), 2) thinks that Bobby Wagner will understand the importance of team goals and choose to take a team-friendly deal and sign a long-term extension soon and 3) appears to appreciate Irvin’s skills but thinks he will choose to go the way of Golden Tate and sign a big contract for another team next offseason. The simple fact is due to the structure of contracts and the NFL cap, this is most likely the final year Seahawks fans will see these three play together.

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When it comes to the 2015 season, though, Seahawks fans should possibly see even better production from this undervalued yet highly skilled trio. Bruce Irvin should be expected to have a huge season. Last year, according to Pro Football Focus, Irvin was third in the league amongst edge rushers in pressuring opposing quarterbacks. Irvin has already shown the skills to be at times a game changing player. Now that he has the extra motivation of earning his next contract, Irvin could be one of the most dominant players at his position. His versatility – he can play both strong-side outside linebacker and, if needed, defensive end – make him difficult to scheme against. He plays the run nearly as well as the pass, so like Wright and Wagner, there is no need to play him only in certain situations. Someone else will be playing his position for Seattle in 2016, but this year should be a fun one to watch.

K.J. Wright goes about his business with quiet determination. Wright ranked sixth at the position among 25 qualifiers in Run/Stop%, according to Pro Football Focus, and was also tied for fifth among 27 qualifiers in cover snaps per reception. Wright draws the main responsibility of covering top tight ends. Last season, he led the Seahawks in tackles with 107, while also filling in for Wagner at middle linebacker when Wagner missed several games because of injury. This season Wright may have lesser numbers if Wagner stays healthy all season, but the weak-side linebacker could be even more valuable because he returns full time to his other duties. Wright will be a valuable part of Seattle’s defense for years to come.

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Receiving (if possibly not totally deserving) a Most Valuable Player of the league vote last season was Bobby Wagner, who did rightfully earn his first first-team All-Pro selection. Wagner is simply one of the top three linebackers in the NFL. When he returned from injury last year (a return, it should be noted, that also corresponded with the return from injury of safety Kam Chancellor), the Seahawks defense went from very good back to excellent. Wagner, again according to Pro Football Focus, missed only seven tackles last year. He is still young enough (he is only 25) to be at the top of his position for many years to come. He seems to be asking for at least $10 million a year in his current contract extension talks (his current contract expires at the end of the 2015 season), and it seems that the Seahawks would be wise to meet that number. If the team cannot get a contract extension completed soon with Russell Wilson, expect them to turn their total attention towards extending Wagner. As Wagner showed last year, not only is he individually a great player, he elevates the entire defense when he is on the field. Wagner embodies everything that the Seahawks hold valuable in a defensive player: speed, desire and intelligence. Expect him to lead the Seahawks in tackles while being the quarterback of the defense.

As for depth at linebacker, the Seahawks will need to replace Super Bowl XLVIII MVP Malcolm Smith who signed elsewhere this past offseason. Two players who will be counted on to do that will be former defensive back Eric Pinkins and Kevin Pierre-Louis. Pinkins made the switch to strong-side linebacker in the offseason, and he potentially makes the Seahawks more athletic at his new position. Pierre-Louis was injured at the end of last season, but the former fourth-round pick will be expected to become a valuable backup at linebacker and a productive member of the special teams. Pierre-Louis has freakish athletic ability (he ran a 4.51 40 out of college) and appears to be Irvin’s full-time replacement in 2016. Beyond Pinkins and Pierre-Louis are several second-year or rookie free undrafted free agents. The Seahawks have shown that they are not afraid to give UDFAs a chance, however, as Brock Coyle was one last year and played as needed. More will become clear about the depth of this position in two weeks when training camp opens.

As in the last few seasons, the Seahawks linebackers will be a position on strength. This group has not always gotten the praise it deserves, but as with Wagner’s MVP vote last year the deserved recognition appears to be growing. Expect the three starters, Wagner, Wright and Irvin to make a huge impact, and the backups to play better as the season goes on as the Seahawks once again play their way into the playoffs.