By John Boyle Herald Writer
RENTON — The 2013 Seattle Seahawks will return almost all of their starters from last year’s playoff team, one of the many reason why they are expected to be one of the best teams in the NFL this fall.
One starter who is currently unsigned, and unlikely to come back, is longtime weakside linebacker Leroy Hill. Just how much of a need the Seahawks have at that position heading into this week’s draft, however, depends on what head coach Pete Carroll and his defensive coaching staff are planning.
Carroll is a defensive coach, so he has a vision of his ideal defense to be sure, but what Carroll is not is a stubborn coach who demands players fit into his system. Instead, Carroll has had success in the college ranks, and has built one of the NFL’s best defenses because he is willing to tweak and tinker with his scheme to get the most out of the talent on his roster. Did Carroll’s previous defenses employ a 330-pound end without much pass rushing ability on one side of his line? No, but he saw a role that would get the most out of Red Bryant, and make Seattle’s run defense stronger, so Bryant was moved from tackle to end and into the starting lineup in 2010. Every player in Seattle’s vaunted secondary has a trait or two that makes them different from the NFL “ideal” at that position. Richard Sherman and Brandon Browner don’t have the sub-4.4 speed most NFL teams like in cornerbacks. Free safety Earl Thomas is a little undersized, and strong safety Kam Chancellor doesn’t have the elite cover skills of a smaller safety — yet put together they make up the best back four in the league.
Which brings us back to the vacancy at weakside linebacker. The Seahawks have Malcolm Smith, who started three games last year. Korey Toomer, who spent last season on the practice squad, is a player the Seahawks hope can develop. And there are certainly options in the draft if the Seahawks want to address that position this week. On a conference call, NFL Network analyst Mike Mayock brought up Connecticut’s Sio Moore as a possibility for the Seahawks at pick No. 56. And as the picks of K.J. Wright (fourth round) and Smith (seventh round) showed in 2011, the Seahawks can find linebackers on the final day of the draft. So finding a starter is possible even in the final few rounds. Perhaps defensive coordinator Dan Quinn, who spent the last two years running the University of Florida defense, convinces Carroll to use a third-day pick on a former Gator like Jelani Jenkins or Lerentee McCray.
But another possibility is that Carroll and company just decide to tweak things if it means getting their best personnel on the field as often as possible. The signings of Cliff Avril and Michael Bennett gives Seattle a ton of depth at defensive end once Chris Clemons is healthy, and Avril has experience playing linebacker.
“I think that is something that the coaching staff continues to work through as they try to figure out how they’re going to implement a guy and accentuate their strengths,” Seahawks general manager John Schneider said when asked about the versatility of his defensive ends.
Avril might not be as good in coverage as Smith, but if putting Avril at linebacker, at least part time, gets the Seahawks another double-digit sack player on the field more often, you better believe Carroll is considering that as an option.
“He’s a guy over the last couple of years that has had 20 sacks, been very productive as an edge player so we’re really excited to add him in,” Carroll said after the Seahawks signed Avril. “He’s got definite pass-rush ability as a featured rusher. He’s also played linebacker in his past and done a lot of dropping over the years so he gives us a real flexible athlete that we can fit in in a number of different ways. … We went way back even to his college days — there’s plenty of film, even in ‘09, when he’s done a lot of stuff when he’s been in space dropping and all that so we’ve had the chance to evaluate all that.”
And here’s another thing to consider when it comes to linebacker — when the Seahawks go to their five-defensive-back nickel package, only two linebackers are on the field. If newly-signed cornerback Antoine Winfield is anything close to the player he was last year, it will be tempting for the Seahawks to play more nickel in this pass-happy era. Especially when you consider that Winfield is very strong against the run, which helps negate the lack of a third linebacker on the field.
None of this is to say that the Seahawks will ignore linebacker in the draft. Even with the possibilities of playing Avril at linebacker or playing more nickel, the Seahawks will likely draft a linebacker or two, perhaps to find a starter, or maybe just for depth or special teams help. But the addition of two marquee players, despite the fact that they aren’t linebackers, along with Carroll’s flexibility, does mean the Seahawks won’t feel like they have a glaring need to address.