Despite entering the 2021 season with championship aspirations, the Seahawks lost five of their first eight games and never fully recovered, finishing in last place in the NFC West with a 7-10 record.
While many position groups underwhelmed during a disappointing season in the Pacific Northwest, Seattle once again received stellar play from its linebackers, particularly against the run. Jordyn Brooks and Bobby Wagner each finished in the top five in the NFL in tackles, while Cody Barton impressed in limited action on defense and played at a Pro Bowl level on special teams.
Looking back at the season in retrospect, how did Seattle's linebacker corps perform as a whole in 2021? And what does the future look like at the position?
2021 Stats: 170 tackles, one interception, three tackles for loss
Overall Season Grade: B (84.5)
What Went Right: In his 10th season in the NFL, Wagner continued to rack up tackles in bunches, further padding a franchise record that may not be touchable once he hangs up his cleats. He produced 10 or more tackles in 10 games for the Seahawks, including tying his own single-game team record with 20 stops against the Titans in Week 2. He surpassed 100 tackles for the 10th consecutive season, becoming just the sixth player in NFL history to reach the century mark in that category 10 or more seasons. While Seattle didn't blitz Wagner as much as it did in 2020, he remained effective with his opportunities, recording 10 pressures and a sack on 50 pass rushing attempts per Pro Football Focus. He added an interception and two pass breakups while allowing only one touchdown in coverage, helping him earn his eighth Pro Bowl selection and Second-Team All-Pro distinction.
What Went Wrong: Although Wagner deserves praise for his consistent tackle production, the veteran linebacker didn't make as many game-changing plays as he has in the past. He finished with just three tackles for loss, the second-lowest total of his career, while being limited to a career-low three quarterback hits. According to PFF, he left more tackles on the field than fans are accustomed to seeing, finishing with 14 missed tackles, the second-highest total of his career. In coverage, Wagner showed signs of decline from an athleticism standpoint defending underneath passes and screens and opposing quarterbacks exploited him at times with deep digs and crossing routes. He allowed 73 receptions on 87 targets for 679 yards and 437 yards after the catch while rarely getting his hands on the football.
Closing Thoughts: Statistically, Wagner had an impressive yet uneven 2021 season by his standards. Playing on a defense that played nearly 200 more snaps than any other team in the NFL inflated his tackle numbers to an extent and while he wasn't bad in coverage, he didn't have one of his better campaigns in that aspect either and diminishing athleticism will make it tougher for him to excel against the pass in coming years. With a cap hit exceeding $20 million in 2022, the Seahawks have a decision to make on the future Hall of Famer's future and while coach Pete Carroll indicated he wants him back, it's not a guarantee he will return for an 11th season.
2021 Stats: 184 tackles, 10 tackles for loss, four pass breakups
Overall Season Grade: B (83.0)
What Went Right: Entrenched in the starting lineup full-time after a strong finish to his rookie season, Brooks picked up where he left off emulating Wagner as a bonafide tackling machine. The former Texas Tech star tied his veteran counterpart with 10 games of 10 or more tackles, matched his single-game mark with 20 tackles in a win over the Cardinals in Week 18, and ultimately set a new single-season franchise record with a league-best 184 tackles. Disruptive against the run sideline-to-sideline and as a blitzer in limited chances, he led the team with 10 tackles behind the line of scrimmage and registered nine pressures and a sack on 56 pass rush attempts. As the season progressed, Brooks showed substantial progress reacting to and diagnosing screens along with improving in coverage, producing three pass breakups in the final five games.
What Went Wrong: Like Wagner, Brooks' overall tackle numbers were buoyed by playing more snaps than any other linebacker in the NFL by a wide margin. PFF also charged him with 14 missed tackles, though his missed tackle rate actually went down compared to his rookie season. While statistics don't necessarily paint an accurate picture on his coverage skills and he often found himself in good position only to be beaten by even better throws, the 2020 first-round selection yielded 92 receptions for 1,010 yards and seven touchdowns, the most allowed by a linebacker in the league.
Closing Thoughts: Coverage remains Brooks' most glaring flaw, but his numbers don't truly encapsulate how much he improved that area of his game in his sophomore season. Slowly beginning to take the torch from Wagner in the heart of Seattle's defense and growing into one of the best young linebackers in the sport, he received the first of what should be many All-Pro votes in the future after leading the NFL in tackles and looks poised to leap into star territory in 2022.
2021 Stats: 37 tackles, two quarterback hits, one pass breakup
Overall Season Grade: B- (81.0)
What Went Right: Continuing to thrive as a kick and punt coverage specialist for the Seahawks, Barton finished second on the team behind Nick Bellore with 12 combined tackles and tied for eighth in the NFL in solo tackles on special teams. When thrust into action to replace an injured Wagner in the final two games of the season, the ex-Utah standout played the best football of his career to this point, recording 18 tackles, a tackle for loss, a pass breakup, and a quarterback hit in his first action at MIKE linebacker. Remaining a reliable tackler, he finished with just two missed tackles while playing 190 defensive snaps and 304 special teams snaps.
What Went Wrong: While Barton played well overall logging 138 snaps in Seattle's victories over Detroit and Arizona to close out the season, he still endured issues getting off blocks in the run game and questions about his lack of play strength persist after three NFL seasons. In coverage, the Cardinals took advantage of him a bit, completing seven passes for 81 yards against him in the finale.
Closing Thoughts: Finally playing meaningful snaps at his natural position, Barton flashed as a run defender and coverage linebacker for the Seahawks to close out the season, suggesting he might be ready for a more expanded role. But as he enters the final year of his rookie contract, it's debatable whether or not he has showcased enough talent in limited action on defense to be a viable replacement option for Wagner if the team opts to move on from him and his hefty contract this offseason. At worst, he will be back as one of the team's core special teams stars and it's possible he could start alongside Brooks.
2021 Stats: 10 tackles, one fumble recovery
Overall Season Grade: B- (80.0)
What Went Right: Promoted from the practice squad after playing well in Seattle's regular season opener as a practice squad callup, Rhattigan wound up playing 250 special teams snaps in 14 games, emerging as a reliable asset on kick and punt coverage units. He finished tied for third on the team behind Bellore and Barton with 10 combined tackles, including nine solo tackles, while also recovering a fumble in a Week 4 road win over the 49ers.
What Went Wrong: Rhattigan missed most of training camp with a hamstring injury, which prevented him from winning a roster spot out of the gate. Bringing a strong rookie season to a disappointing end, he suffered a torn ACL while covering a kickoff in a Week 15 loss to the Rams and landed on injured reserve.
Closing Thoughts: Despite dealing with injuries in camp and the preseason, Rhattigan impressed the coaching staff during OTAs and minicamps with his high football IQ and work ethic. The former Army standout has a long road back to the field after reconstructive knee surgery and may not be ready to return for the start of camp in July, but once he's back in action, expect him to resume competing for playing time on special teams and battle against Ben Burr-Kirven for a roster spot.
Seahawks 2021 Positional Report Cards
Receiver - Coming 1/20/22
Tight End - Coming 1/22/22
Offensive Tackle - Coming 1/24/22
Guard/Center - Coming 1/27/22
Cornerback - Coming 1/23/22
Safety - Coming 1/26/22
Specialists - Coming 1/28/22