Needing Depth at Linebacker, Seahawks Could Turn to a Familiar Face

If the Seahawks lose linebacker K.J. Wright to free agency, they won't be able to properly replace him. However, they could find some help from an old friend who's seemingly gotten his career back on the right track.
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From Bruce Irvin and Benson Mayowa to Cassius Marsh and so forth, the Seahawks haven't shied away from reuniting with some of their former players in recent years. 

There is plenty of speculation amongst fans about potential reunions they'd like to see this offseason, whether it be Richard Sherman or Jadeveon Clowney. One name I don't see mentioned, however, is Malcolm Smith.

And look, I get it; Smith has been an average linebacker at best who's dealt with injuries since leaving Seattle in 2015. 

But the Seahawks may lose K.J. Wright to free agency and have a plethora of other needs to address along their roster with little resources to do so. Even if they're able to maximize their cap space flexibility through trades, cuts, restructures, and extensions, they're going to have to cut corners at certain positions and linebacker - a spot they've already heavily invested in - could be one of them. 

Behind Bobby Wagner and Jordyn Brooks, Seattle doesn't have a ton of depth they can rely upon if one of their starters goes down. Now entering their third seasons in the NFL, 2019 draft selections Cody Barton and Ben Burr-Kirven have offered little value outside of special teams. Barton has seen more opportunities to play on defense than Burr-Kirven but has struggled in those instances. 

Now Smith isn't the model of dependability either. He missed the entire 2017 season with a torn pectoral muscle and was nearly out of the league entirely after being cut by the Jaguars in 2019. Later that year, however, he landed with the Cowboys and played well enough to earn an opportunity with the Browns the following season.

Since winning MVP honors in Super Bowl XLVIII, he's graded out at a slightly below-average clip by Pro Football Focus' metrics. Over the past seven years, Smith has an overall PFF grade of 57.8. For reference, 60 is typically considered an "average" NFL player. 

But as the years go by his grades have gone up in the last half-decade. Here's how it all breaks down: 

Malcolm Smith's PFF Grades since 2013

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Watching him in Cleveland this past season, it's clear he feels good again. Appearing in a little over half of the Browns' defensive snaps, Smith, 31, moved around well and was actually pretty impressive in pass coverage. The athleticism is still there and while he still lacks against the ground game, he found ways to be impactful through other means. In the 17 games he played there, including playoffs, Smith had 78 combined tackles with an interception, a forced fumble, and 1.0 sack.

An unrestricted free agent once more, Smith could help maintain a level of continuity within the Seahawks' linebacking corps even if it loses a longtime leader in Wright. The key is Smith's familiarity with the system and the coaches, specifically defensive coordinator Ken Norton Jr. 

Norton had been Smith's position group coach dating back to his freshman year at USC all the way through his rookie contract in Seattle. After that, the two were still inseparable; Norton accepted the defensive coordinator job with the Raiders in 2015 and Smith, a free agent that offseason, followed his coach to Oakland.

There, Smith was one of the few bright spots in Norton's otherwise struggling defenses. Over the two seasons Smith played in the silver and black, he posted 225 combined tackles with two interceptions and five forced fumbles—good enough for an approximate value of 18. 

Given what's happened to his body since then and the role he's assumed over the past few years, he's not that player anymore. But can he play 40-50 percent of a team's defensive snaps and not kill them? I think so. Is that worth the $2 million-ish he'll likely make on the open market? For the Seahawks, it's possible.

If Smith is truly back to full health, reuniting him with Norton is likely to get the most out of him. Looking at the Seahawks' depth, that may be their best - and most affordable - chance to get by without Wright in 2021.