RENTON — Bruce Irvin left some big shoes to fill.
But the Seattle Seahawks have several pairs of feet that are trying to step into them.
The Seahawks held the second day of their three-day veteran minicamp Wednesday, and the position that appears to have the greatest competition is strong-side linebacker.
Three different players have seen reps with the first-team defense at strong-side linebacker, also known as the Sam linebacker, through the first two days of minicamp, those being Mike Morgan, Cassius Marsh and Eric Pinkins. As of now the position is up for grabs, with all three having a legitimate shot.
“It’s wide open,” Seahawks coach Pete Carroll said Tuesday. “It’s really wide open and you can’t call it right now, we won’t call that until after we start playing games. We have good competition.”
Irvin held down the Sam position, which has its primary responsibilities on running downs, the previous three seasons. However, the 2012 first-round draft pick moved on during the offseason, signing a four-year, $37 million deal with the Oakland Raiders as a free agent and taking his 38 tackles and 5.5 sacks with him.
Many expected the Seahawks to address the vacancy either through free agency or the draft. However, Seattle neither signed a veteran free agent linebacker, nor selected a linebacker in the draft. Therefore, it’s an unconventional trio the Seahawks have lined up to replace Irvin:
— Morgan is entering his sixth season with the Seahawks, but he’s known more for his contributions on special teams rather than defense. During the previous five seasons he made just three starts, though two of those came last season when Irvin was injured.
— Marsh, heading into his third season, is in the midst of converting from defensive end. He’s never started a game in the NFL, and prior to this offseason his cumulative experience at Sam consisted of one practice during organized team activities last year.
— Pinkins, also entering his third season, played safety in college, was switched to cornerback after being drafted by the Seahawks, was moved back to safety, then switched to Sam last offseason. He spent most of the past two seasons on Seattle’s practice squad, and he has a grand total of six games of NFL experience, all on special teams.
Therefore, the Seahawks have a lot to consider at the position.
“Mike Morgan gives us the stability, he has been in the position for eighteen years now,” Carroll said. “Cassius has done a really nice job picking up the position. Pinkins has done a really good job, gives us a superior athlete at that spot, he’s so fast coming from the DB spot. So we have a nice variety.”
On the surface Morgan would seem to have the inside track. Not only is he the only one of the three who has actually played the position in an NFL game, he has a long history with Carroll. When Carroll was the head coach at USC he recruited Morgan, and Morgan spent four seasons with the Trojans under Carroll.
But Marsh and Pinkins both provide intriguing alternatives.
Marsh is trying to follow in the footsteps of Irvin. Irvin was drafted by the Seahawks as a defensive end, but converted to Sam after one season in the NFL. Marsh, a fourth-round pick in the 2014 draft, was also selected as a defensive end. Last season he saw some snaps at defensive end, but with the likes of Michael Bennett, Cliff Avril and Frank Clark ahead of him on the depth chart he was used primarily on special teams.
Marsh said he was approached about making the position switch during the offseason.
“I was excited, because obviously it’s an opportunity to start rather than sit back,” Marsh said following Wednesday practice. “Cliff is a great player, and Frank is also playing that Leo (weak-side defensive end) position, so it’s better to have all your athletes on the field. It gave me an opportunity to compete to be one of those guys to be out there starting and helping our team. I was really excited for the opportunity.”
As a former defensive end Marsh has plenty of experience with the run-stopping and pass-rushing parts of the Sam’s job. However, dropping back in pass coverage is a different story.
“Setting the edge and rushing the passer have always been something I’ve done for a long time,” Marsh said. “It’s what got me here, so it’s very natural. Obviously the coverage thing is a learning process, but it’s nothing too crazy. They keep it real simple for the Sams, as far as linebacker positions our drops are the simplest. It’s really been smooth. K.J. (Wright), the coaches and Bobby (Wagner) have been really helpful at filling me in and making sure I know what I’m doing, giving me whatever advice they can.”
Pinkins has the opposite problem. The sixth-round draft pick in 2014 was a safety in college at San Diego State, so he’s had to learn how to play closer to the line of scrimmage. However, he said the conversion to Sam has gone well.
“I’d probably say everything is natural because I’m a physical player,” Pinkins said. “Buzz dropping, that’s a little unfamiliar to me because we didn’t do that at San Diego State. But for the most part everything is pretty familiar. It’s just more physical because you’re at the line of scrimmage.”
It would be a steep jump for Pinkins to go from being a bit player to being a starter, but he believes he can do it.
“It means a lot (getting time with the first-team defense) because our defense is the best in the world,” Pinkins said. “So to say I can actually practice with them says a lot.”
How will it all turn out? Carroll doesn’t expect to have an answer anytime soon.
“It’s a real good spot,” Carroll said. “It will be fun to watch in camp, and really the preseason games will be enormous for that.”
Check out Nick Patterson’s Seattle Sidelines blog at http://www.heraldnet.com/seattlesidelines, and follow him on Twitter at @NickHPatterson.