Among the keys to the Seattle Seahawks’ improved defense across the second half of last season was solidifying the linebacking corps.
Rookie Jordyn Brooks didn’t enter the lineup full-time until Week 7. But once he did, with K.J. Wright moving to strongside linebacker in the base defense to make room, it led to a cohesion at the linebacking spot that contributed heavily to better team defense.
It’s a group the Seahawks can — and seem to want to — keep together in 2021.
As we continue a review of the Seahawks’ position groups heading into the offseason, let’s look at the linebackers.
Snaps played: 1,142.
Contract situation: Entering the second year of a three-year contract extension that runs through 2022, set to make a base salary of $13.15 million in 2021 with a cap hit of $17.15 million.
Snaps played: 991.
Contract situation: Unrestricted free agent after making $5 million in 2020.
Snaps played: 367.
Contract situation: Will enter the second year of his four-year rookie contract, due to make $1.166 million in 2021.
Snaps played: 114.
Contract situation: Entering the third season of his four-year rookie contract, due to make $850,000 in 2021.
Snaps played: 10.
Contract situation: Entering the third season of his four-year rookie deal, due to make $850,000 in 2021.
Snaps played in regular season: 122.
Contract situation: Unrestricted free agent after making $4.6 million last year on a one-year deal.
Snaps played: 191.
Contract situation: Griffin is a restricted free agent after making $617,647 in 2020. If the Seahawks do not tender him, he would become an unrestricted free agent.
One of the Seahawks’ first big offseason moves was to bring back Irvin as a strongside linebacker in the base defense and rush end in the nickel.
That move made it even more of a surprise when the Seahawks drafted Brooks 27th overall, which led to speculation about the future of Wright (and striking some as curious given the drafting of Barton and Burr-Kirven the year before). What wasn’t known that day was that Wright had undergone shoulder surgery, which led to uncertainty about when he’d be available in 2021 and how well he’d recover.
Wright was fully recovered when camp began, leaving the Seahawks with a logjam when the season started, with Brooks used in a reserve role behind Wright at weakside linebacker.
But Irvin’s season-ending knee injury in Week 2 changed everything. Wright was moved to SLB, opening the door for Brooks at WLB, though his own knee injury caused him to miss two games and delayed those plans (and led to two starts for Barton).
Brooks entered the starting lineup in Week 7 — in some games he wasn’t listed as a starter when the Seahawks began in the nickel.
That gave the Seahawks two of the best run-defending inside linebackers in the NFL, according to Pro Football Focus, with Wagner first and Brooks 11th (Wright was 18th). Wright (sixth) and Wagner (13th) also finished among the top coverage linebackers in the league. (Brooks’ grade was far lower, but he came off the field in the nickel defense with Wright going to the weakside in that scheme.)
Wagner was rated as the second-best linebacker in the NFL, with a No. 1 rating among all LBs in pass rushing. PFF grades are a matter of some subjectivity, and whether Seahawks coaches graded Wagner similarly in private is harder to know. The run defense was obviously an issue in the playoff loss to the Rams.
Barton was a standout on special teams along with being the fourth LB on the depth chart. Griffin played substantially in a few games in special pass-rush packages in the first half of the season, but he played just 19 snaps in the final 10 games and none in the playoff loss.
Burr-Kirven played only in the blowout against the Jets, but like Barton, was a core special-teams player.
Wagner and Brooks are under contract for at least two more years, as are Barton and Burr-Kirven, meaning four of the Seahawks’ top six linebackers at the end of the season should be back.
Wagner has no guaranteed money in his 2021 contract but does have a dead cap hit of $7.5 million. Could the Seahawks do something to shuffle some money around for Wagner to open up some cap space elsewhere? They might be tempted.
That leaves the biggest question: What happens with Wright? He played all 10 years of his career in Seattle and has said he’d like to finish it here. But he also wants to be paid his worth and will consider going elsewhere if need be.
Given the relative unknown of the free-agent market — the cap may be $20-22 million lower than last year and the Seahawks already have little cap space ($2.7 million) — each side could wait to see how things play out. (When Wright was a free agent in 2019, he re-signed one day into the new league year.)
Wright averaged $7 million per season on his previous contract, but OvertheCap.com assessed his value at $10.2 million. If he can get anywhere close to that from another team, it could be a challenge for the Seahawks to keep him.
Griffin’s future also presents a lot of intrigue. His lack of use down the stretch makes it unclear whether the team would place a restricted free-agent tender on him (which would mean a salary of at least $2.2 million in 2021). And unlike Barton and Burr-Kirven, he was not a core special-teams player, playing substantially on special teams only in the final three games due to injuries to other players.
If he’s not tendered, he would become an unrestricted free agent, along with twin brother Shaquill, when the new league year begins March 17. That would further throw into question whether the Seahawks have seen the last of one, or both, of the Griffin twins.