RENTON — Is there anyone on the Seahawk roster who enters training camp with a more daunting task than Ben Burr-Kirven?
For the third straight year, Burr-Kirven — who was the 2018 Pac-12 Defensive Player of the Year as a senior at Washington when he led the nation with 176 tackles — is ticketed as a backup to middle linebacker Bobby Wagner.
The only player on the team whose starting role might be more certain than Wagner’s is quarterback Russell Wilson.
At least Wilson’s backup, Geno Smith, gets to stand comfortably on the sidelines during games and occasionally bask in the glory of overtime coin tosses.
Burr-Kirven, meanwhile, gets the thankless duty asked of any backup linebacker in the NFL — to throw his body down the field multiple times a game on punt and kickoff coverage and return teams.
While Burr-Kirven has played just 14 defensive snaps in two seasons (10 in mop-up duty of the blowout of the Jets last year), he has 599 on special teams, second in that span only to fellow third-year linebacker Cody Barton.
Not that Burr-Kirven is complaining.
A fourth-round pick in 2019 who’d watched the Seahawks closely, he knew what he was getting into joining a team that had one of the most stable inside linebacking corps in the NFL in Wagner and weakside linebacker K.J. Wright, a group then bolstered by the addition of first-round pick Jordyn Brooks in 2020. Brooks will take over for Wright, leaving Burr-Kirven and Barton fighting for any other scraps of possible playing time at the two inside spots.
“I think you still approach it like you are going to be a starter,’’ Burr-Kirven said last week. “And that’s what everybody has to do because the reality of the game we play is you’re always one play away from being in the game. I think that’s the only way to do it. If you have that mindset that, ‘Oh, I’m a backup,’ then you are not going to prepare the way you need to.
“We’ve seen it the last couple years, there is always an injury here or there and somebody has to get thrust (into the lineup). Last year, Ryan Neal suddenly has to play (when Jamal Adams was injured), and he played great because of how he prepared. I think that’s the mindset we all take.’’
It helps that Wagner and Burr-Kirven are in something of a mutual admiration society.
Burr-Kirven said the past two years watching and listening to Wagner and Wright has taught him more about football than he knew he needed to know.
“When I got here, every day you drive in and there is always Bobby’s car,’’ Burr-Kirven said. “He is here first. He is here last. It’s the little things he does that no one else sees that really sets him apart. The way he takes care of his body.
“… Everybody knows how to play football if you make it this far. You know how to study tape and all that. But there is so much from the recovery aspect, time management. Having Bobby and K.J. when I came in kind of opened my eyes to know there is so much more to being a football player than coming out and practicing hard and watching film.’’
Wagner, meanwhile, appreciates what a quick study Burr-Kirven has been with the defense — and how quick he is on the field. Burr-Kirven was clocked at 11.2 in the 100 and 22.6 in the 200 when he ran track as a senior at Sacred Heart Prep in Menlo Park, California.
“He’s really, really fast,” Wagner said. “That’s the thing. A lot of the time, offensive linemen have trouble catching him. Where I’ve seen him improve the most is his strength. You see him throwing guys off and getting off of running backs and tight ends and things like that. I think that’s just all a part of the process. He’s definitely been impressive.”
The Seahawks made something of a subtle show of faith in Barton and Burr-Kirven this offseason in the moves that were made — and not made. The Seahawks didn’t re-sign Wright (which was mostly done to allow Brooks to take over at WLB and Darrell Taylor at SLB) and also allowed Shaquem Griffin to leave in free agency.
Seattle added free agents Aaron Donkor (through the International Pathway program) and rookie Jon Rhattigan, and claimed Nate Evans off waivers to fill out the linebacker depth.
But heading into camp, Barton and Burr-Kirven appear slotted again to be the backups on the inside.
And, just as important, to again spearhead special teams units that were among the best in the NFL a year ago.
The Seahawks made special teams a priority in its 2019 draft class, and not only Burr-Kirven and Barton but others such as Ugo Amadi, Marquise Blair and Travis Homer helped greatly transform the coverage teams the past two years.
Football Outsiders metrics ranked Seattle as having the third best overall special teams in the NFL in 2020 after they had been 20th in 2019.
Burr-Kirven played decreasingly on special teams at UW as his defensive responsibilities increased.
But after being drafted by the Seahawks, he almost immediately had sports hernia surgery in spring 2019, which caused him to sit out OTAs and minicamp and re-evaluate his immediate goals.
“I came in as a rookie and had surgery and missed a lot of stuff,’’ Burr-Kirven said. “So I said, ‘All right, I’m going to make special teams my thing this year, and that’s how I’m going to make this team.’’’
Burr-Kirven’s 306 special teams snaps and eight special teams tackles were second on the team as a rookie.
“Running down on kickoff team, there is nothing else in football that simulates that,’’ Burr-Kirven said. “It’s definitely a unique thing. It’s why you see guys who make their career doing special teams because it’s hard.’’
Given Seattle’s linebacking depth chart and Wagner’s durability — he’s missed only two games the past six years — special teams might be Burr-Kirven’s most significant role again n 2021.
But Burr-Kirven said there is no feeling of resignation if running down on kickoffs and punts is again his primary responsibility even if he said he does compete like he wants to play defense.
“For us who play most of our snaps on special teams, that’s our offense or defense,” Burr-Kirven said. “So when you see a defensive back celebrating an interception, it’s like when one of us makes a big play (on special teams) — that’s our big play. So there is no feeling of like, ‘Oh, I’m a special teamer.’ It’s, ‘I get to be a special teamer.’ I wouldn’t want to be off those units for anything.’’