At first glance, the Seahawks seem set as can be at linebacker with Bobby Wagner and K.J. Wright back in 2020 to man the two inside spots and Cody Barton — and maybe Bruce Irvin at times — penciled in on the outside.
But then you consider that Wright has one year left on his contract, Irvin’s contract is reported to be for a year (he has not signed yet), and Barton — as well as fellow young players Ben Burr-Kirven and Shaquem Griffin — remains unproven.
So should a linebacker the Seahawks like fall into their path during next week’s NFL draft, you never know.
And especially if one is also a player who can be used as an edge rusher — like Irvin, who during his previous Seahawks tenure filled roles at linebacker and rush end.
As we continue our pre-draft review of Seahawks position groups, here is a look at the linebackers:
Projected starters: Middle linebacker Bobby Wagner, weakside linebacker K.J. Wright, strongside linebacker Bruce Irvin/Cody Barton.
Key backups: MLB/WLB Ben Burr-Kirven, WLB/SLB Shaquem Griffin, Emmanuel Ellerbee.
Key offseason losses: Mychal Kendricks remains an unsigned free agent, and at this point it’s unclear if he will be back in 2020.
The middle of Seattle’s defense again will revolve around Wagner, whose three-year contract extension signed last summer officially kicks in this season when he carries a $14.75 million salary cap number. (If you are looking down the road, Wagner has just $3.75 million in dead money in 2022 with possible cap savings of $16.6 million, meaning that season is far from guaranteed.)
Wagner will turn 30 in July, but there’s no reason to think he won’t remain at the top of his game for some time.
Wright will turn 31 in July, and is entering the final season of a two-year deal signed in March 2019. The drafting of Barton in the third round last year seemed a hedge against Wright’s contract, which this year carries a $10 million cap hit.
But Wright’s deal included a $1 million roster bonus if he was still on the team five days after the start of the new league year in March, and the passing of that deadline guaranteed Wright will be back in 2020 to again man the weakside spot.
Kendricks was the strongside linebacker last year before suffering an ACL injury in the regular-season finale against the 49ers, making it unclear when he can play this year. Kendricks is a free agent and unsigned, and the Seahawks appear ready to go with Barton there in 2020 or mix in Irvin, who played strongside linebacker during his first run with the Seahawks from 2012-15.
The Seahawks also likely will play more nickel defense in 2020, which mitigates the use of the SLB spot. When Irvin played that role in past years he would then move to a rush-end spot in passing downs, and he again could have a similar role this year, though he also figures to often be on the field with Barton, depending on the scheme.
Burr-Kirven is back to serve as depth behind Wagner and Wright, though if one of those two were seriously injured Barton would likely be the first to go to one of those spots.
Griffin is also in the mix for backup spots, but his main use going forward figures to be in specialty pass-rush packages, something Seattle did increasingly at the end of the 2019 season.
Draft need (on scale of 1-10): 5.
Potential draft fits
Before taking Barton and Burr-Kirven last year, the Seahawks had taken only two linebackers in the previous six drafts (Jacob Martin in 2018 and Kevin Pierre-Louis in 2014), being able to basically rest on the work they’d done after getting Wright, Wagner and Irvin in 2011 and 2012.
But as noted earlier, increasing age and contract situations mean it shouldn’t be ruled out that Seattle could address the linebacker spot this season despite taking two a year ago.
Here are a few candidates:
Zack Baun, Wisconsin: The 6-foot-2, 240-pounder projects as a good jack-of-all-trades type who the Seahawks could use immediately as an edge rusher but also groom as a potential weakside linebacker. Baun has been projected as a potential first-round pick, and if the Seahawks take him that high they would be viewing him as an immediate contributor to the pass rush. Baun this week informed the NFL that he tested positive for a diluted sample at the NFL combine, saying it was due to drinking significant amounts of water before his weigh-in, and that could impact his draft status and maybe put him in range of Seattle’s two second-round picks at 59 and 64.
Evan Weaver, Cal: If the Seahawks view the former Gonzaga Prep standout as simply a middle linebacker, then he probably wouldn’t be an option, especially in the first few rounds. But Weaver did play defensive end early in his career at Cal, and maybe the Seahawks could view him being used on the perimeter and as a rusher, especially if he were to fall to the third day of the draft. He led the nation in tackles last year with 182, playing inside linebacker in a 3-4 scheme.
Logan Wilson, Wyoming: The Seahawks attended Wyoming’s pro day before the NFL limited travel, and the Seahawks surely had their eyes on Wilson, who was a receiver and defensive back in high school before growing into a linebacker. He could be viewed as a successor at WLB, especially if the Seahawks decide they like Barton more as a strongside linebacker long term. Or, just stockpile guys to increase competition and find ways to use them on defense and special teams for now.
Josh Uche, Michigan: The Seahawks always seem to have their eye on Michigan players, and the 6-1, 241-pounder is intriguing, often described as a “movable chess piece” for his ability to handle a lot of roles. Uche could be a WLB or SLB and rush off the edge — he had 15.5 sacks the past two seasons.
Next up: Defensive backs.