SAM Linebacker Is Seahawks’ Biggest Draft, Free Agency Need

Remember when the Seahawks shocked the nation and spent a first-round pick on linebacker Jordyn Brooks? In Pete Carroll's mind you can never have enough linebackers, especially when K.J. Wright might not return to Seattle. In true Goofy-meme style, John Schneider may just "do it again" and add another linebacker.
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In the 2020 NFL Draft, the Seahawks didn’t trade back or out of the first round. Instead, general manager John Schneider uncharacteristically handed in the card right at the team's originally slotted pick at No. 27. The choice led to the collective meltdown of Seahawks fans. Rather than taking an area of greater need (pass rusher) or excitement (wide receiver), Seattle opted for first-round linebacker Jordyn Brooks out of Texas Tech. This was despite the fact the team added Bruce Irvin to a fairly lucrative one-year contract in free agency while already featuring the legendary - and expensive - duo of Bobby Wagner and K.J. Wright atop their corps.

Even coming from a team notorious for first-round shocks, this ‐ as I tweeted at the time ‐ was “beyond a bit.” The Seahawks were more concerned about Wright’s shoulder surgery than we had originally thought, likely influenced by the injuries which shortened his 2018 campaign. Brooks’ collegiate body of work showed him not to be a worthy first round pick, mock drafters be damned. 

But Irvin suffered a season‐ending knee injury early; Wright flourished in a different role; and Brooks ended the season in spectacular fashion. Ultimately, the immediate surprise at the Brooks addition ended up being a wild overreaction.

Fast-forward to the 2021 offseason, a time where all fans should prepare for similar shock potential. Channeling his inner Goofy meme, Schneider may just "do it again."

Goofy: I'LL DO IT AGAIN

Goofy: I'LL DO IT AGAIN

Linebacker is a bigger need of Seattle's than it was last year—not that the Seahawks act beholden to necessity when drafting. However, we are also on the brink of free agency, where Seattle is likely to address the position. The fun officially commences March 17th.

The crucial piece to this is K.J. Wright. The 10‐year Seahawks veteran is entering unrestricted free agency. His February comments on CBS Sports Radio ruled out any kind of home‐town deduction.

"I do way too much on the football field to take a discount," Wright told The Jim Rome Show. "It makes absolutely no sense. If you want to win all these championships and look good on Sundays, you've got to compensate your guys that are making plays... I have a family and I'm trying to set up long, long-term success for my family."

In 2020, Wright was Seattle’s best linebacker. Nothing makes a bigger mockery of the Pro Bowl voting process than Wright not receiving the nomination he should have. Heck, him failing to get All-Pro consideration should have led to reforms over EDGE rushers being separated from linebackers. Wright winning the Male Sports Star of the Year Award at the 86th annual Seattle Sports Star of the Year Awards was the least he deserved.

You could make the argument for 2019 as well, where Wright set several career-highs. 

When the Seahawks were in their base 4‐3 personnel, 2020 Wright played the SAM linebacker role. Once the defense substituted from three linebackers to two, getting into nickel (4‐2‐5), Wright shifted back to his old spot of WILL.

Wright finished 2020 with 86 tackles, an interception, 2.0 sacks, and 11 tackles for loss. He was the only defender in the NFL with double‐digit passes defensed (10) and tackles for loss (11). His Mensa‐level of football intelligence has him expertly key plays, which suggests that the 31‐year‐old can continue to play at a high level despite his advancing years.

Wright is the domino. While it would be fantastic to see him end his career in the Pacific Northwest, the NFL is a business. Therefore, it feels likelier that another franchise will be able to pay Wright greater money—he has more than earned it. There are a number of teams running similar defensive schemes to the Seahawks who would surely love for Wright to be a part of that (Check out my article on Schneider’s most difficult offseason).

The particularly interested teams would be the ones in the first year of a Pete Carroll-style defense: the Jets, who have tons of cap space; the Raiders; and the Cowboys. Who better to set the system’s standard than the versatile, exemplary Wright? 

If Wright does indeed sign elsewhere—get your money, king!—then Seattle’s linebacker room must be replenished. 2019 third‐round pick Cody Barton is more comfortable off‐the‐ball at weakside linebacker. When asked to play down at the line‐of‐scrimmage as the strongside linebacker, Barton has struggled physically. Rather than forcing the ball back inside, Barton has ended up looking more like he is getting washed out of the play. There is still hope for him at WILL; less so at SAM.

Ben Burr‐Kirven is a special teams player‐only, which happens to be where Barton has played his best ball too. The two clear starters, Bobby Wagner and Jordyn Brooks, look league‐leading. Stay cautious, though.

Wagner is 30 years old and has been through multiple knee clean‐ups. Unlike Wright, Wagner’s age and injuries have visibly impacted his level of play. But don’t get it twisted—Wagner remains a fantastic player. It’s just that his lateral agility is dwindling and he has been a step late to certain stuff. This is uncharacteristic compared to his peak. 2021 is the penultimate year of Wagner’s contract, where he carries a cap hit of over $17 million. That number feels too high and a deal which ends in 2023 feels at least one year too long.

Brooks played down at the line of scrimmage at Texas Tech and was initially thought of as a SAM ‘backer when Seattle drafted him. His full skillset feels somewhat wasted as an edge‐setter, although he could do what Wright did in ’20, where Wright was able to do a bit of everything—off‐ball and on.

The heavy usage of bear fronts placed Wright on the perimeter of the defense at the edge. In base, Seattle has a five-down, bear look of SAM-Big end, Nose, 3-tech, LEO. This defense is called “Stick.” Then in Nickel, the Seahawks bench the SAM for the Nickel defensive back, placing the WILL as the fifth guy at the line of scrimmage: WILL, Big end, Nose, 3-tech, LEO. They name the Nickel bear front “Falcon" (The 3T and BE in 2020 seemed interchangeable).

Crucially, in Nickel, the Seahawks must be able to check into a four-down look versus certain formations, creating the B-Gap bubble again and shading the Nose tackle. This moves the WILL linebacker back from the line-of-scrimmage into an off-ball role. Brooks could do this, with Barton playing in the base 4-3 defense as the weakside linebacker and Brooks as the SAM.

When Wright was the SAM, he lacked the speed to threaten the edge as a pass rusher and it didn't have the best rush angles for his game. Obviously, in Week 1 of 2020 Seattle planned for Bruce Irvin to be rushing from this alignment with Benson Mayowa manning the opposite edge.

Brooks would bring better pass-rushing to the SAM role than Wright did, but the idea of getting a pure SAM is an exciting one. Combined with what will presumably be a lighter LEO defensive end who operates more from a two-point stance, Darrell Taylor, this would mean far greater disguise when Seattle is in their base bear look. Is the LEO dropping into coverage? Is the SAM dropping into coverage? Are they both rushing?

Faced with this defensive look and more potent threat, offenses are almost guaranteed to get into big-on-big or full-slide protection. The pass protection becomes very predictable. At that point you can blitz Jamal Adams, Jordyn Brooks, Bobby Wagner from different locations and have them blow-up the running back or get clean through.

When Carroll was at USC, Brian Cushing started off as a SAM linebacker and then became a LEO or "elephant" as Carroll termed it then. Bruce Irvin was originally considered a LEO in Seattle before transitioning to the SAM spot. A player in the 250-pound region who is a twitchy rusher, can buzz zone drop to the numbers, and also set an edge, is what is required at SAM. Presumably the Seahawks’ high usage of bear will continue, which means the lines between the LEO and the SAM will ideally get as close as possible.

So signing or drafting a SAM is likelier than you may have initially thought. Irvin may well return to Seattle on a cheap one-year deal after recovering from his injury. The Seahawks could also look at someone like Kyle Van Noy, recently cut by the Dolphins, if the market plays out right. Seahawk Maven’s Ty Gonzalez has theorized Seattle could take a linebacker: potentially Ohio State prospect Baron Browning or LSU’s Jabril Cox.

However Schneider gets it done, the addition of a more rush-comfortable linebacker would propel the defense into being more versatile, disguised, and effective.