Wagner’s absence may be to Barton’s advantage for Seahawks

With Seattle’s cornerstone out at Minnesota, a Seahawks’ rookie might get a chance to run the defense.

By Gregg Bell

The News Tribune

Bobby Wagner’s need to rest is Cody Barton’s gain.

Signs are Wagner, the Seahawks’ All-Pro linebacker, will take another preseason game off to rest his treated knee.

That means Barton is about to get his biggest chance of 2019 to lead Seattle’s defense. That is, if this season goes as the Seahawks plan, hope and need.

Barton is the team’s rookie third-round draft choice from Utah who’s been called “special” by his coaches already for his quick learning of the entire defense. Barton appears set to start for Wagner at middle linebacker Sunday night in Seattle’s second preseason game, at Minnesota.

Wagner had platelet-rich plasma injection therapy in his knee two weeks ago. He returned to practice on a limited basis Friday.

He and coach Pete Carroll said they hoped Wagner could play in the Seahawks’ third of four preseason games, next Saturday at the Los Angeles Chargers. That third exhibition is typically the final rehearsal veteran starters have before the games get real early next month.

That means Barton’s time in the middle of the defense calling coordinator Ken Norton Jr.’s plays and arranging teammates before snaps is about to go way down.

As in, disappear.

If Wagner, the All-Pro Seattle signed to a three-year, $54-million contract extension last month to become the highest-paid inside linebacker in the NFL, doesn’t play in every game and just about every play this season, the Seahawks’ season is not going the way they want. And need.

Barton’s been a favorite of the team’s coaches since the days after they sent him a mobile tablet device loaded with the defensive playbook upon Seattle drafting him. By the time Barton flew from Utah to Seahawks rookie minicamp the following weekend, he knew everything the defense does.

“He’s special,” Norton said before the team had a light practice Saturday then flew to Minneapolis. “He’s really smart. You can’t give him enough information. He’s always trying to get more and more. He has this great ability to take all the information and make it work for him on the field at a very young age. Usually rookies have a little slower process of diagnosing and understanding. He’s sharp, he’s quick. He’s going to help us out early.”

Such as Sunday night, and on special teams this season. Barton is playing on all four special-teams units for the Seahawks — kickoff, kickoff return, punt and punt return. He did the same thing at Utah.

“I knew wherever I was going to go (in the NFL), special teams was going to be a huge emphasis,” he said. “I mean, I played all four special teams in college, so I knew it was going to be a big thing going into the league, as well. I love the teams. It’s fun.”

As impressive as Barton has been calling defensive signals, getting teammates in the right spot then making plays in the middle of Seattle’s 4-3 scheme, it would take Wagner being injured again for Barton to start inside this season.

Seattle has its best starting-linebacker corps of Carroll’s 10 years as coach: Wagner flanked by K.J. Wright and Mychal Kendricks. All have started in Super Bowls, and are back on new contracts for 2019.

Wright may take most if not all of Sunday off in Minnesota, too. The 30-year-old is in rest and preservation mode for much of this preseason. He played in only five of 16 regular-season games last year after knee surgery in August. He felt the knee pop in a preseason game at Minnesota this time last summer.

Austin Calitro, Wagner’s backup in the middle last season, is likely to play much if not all of Sunday’s game for Wright.

Barton also played weakside linebacker in Seattle’s practices this spring and some early in training camp, as he did at Utah. So he’s a potential option behind Wright there.

But when Wagner had his knee therapy two weeks ago, Barton began exclusively working at middle linebacker.

Wagner’s decision to have the procedure now and sit out these weeks has further accelerated Barton’s development in the defense.

“Getting those reps is helping me get great experience,” Barton said. “I think the best way to learn something is just by doing it. I think those reps have helped my game a lot.”

He says all that cram-course studying in early May to learn the defense is paying off now.

“I feel like it helped me a lot, just because coming to training camp, hitting the ground running, I wasn’t just learning back from zero again,” Barton said this past week. “I had that knowledge behind me to figure out, not just my job during that play but (to) think about making a play.”

One thing he wasn’t prepared for? How over-amped he’d be in his first NFL game last week.

Barton almost exhausted himself early in the preseason opener against Denver.

“I had so much adrenaline, I was getting really tired,” he said, sounding surprised. “My adrenaline was through the roof. The first play or two, the adrenaline was all in me and it was over my hand. But after that it slowed way down.

“It was just like practice.”

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