As the new league year approaches, linebacker may be a bigger need for the Seahawks than some think.
After 10 incredible years in Seattle, longtime starter K.J. Wright is heading into unrestricted free agency in a little under a month, and it’s beginning to look doubtful he’ll make a return.
Bobby Wagner, 30, is entering the second-to-last year of his lucrative contract, and it’s unclear whether he’ll keep playing or if the Seahawks will have any interest in re-signing him in 2023. That is, if they don’t cut or trade him before then.
Following a strong finish to his rookie campaign, 2020 first-round selection Jordyn Brooks is the only linebacker that seems to have a future in Seattle beyond 2022. After that, there’s very little to bank on; Cody Barton and Ben Burr-Kirven - the two other true linebackers currently on the roster - have impressed on special teams but have yet to make an impact in limited defensive opportunities.
If the Seahawks do, in fact, lose Wright next month, any potential free agent move they could make to replace him would likely result in a significant downgrade; there aren’t many linebackers better than Wright in this free agent pool, if any. I think it’s clear the best path for them to take in addressing the position is through the draft.
Earlier today, I wrote about five players the Seahawks could target if they’re unable to trade out of their first selection in the 2021 NFL Draft at No. 56 overall. In that piece, I talked about how sticking and picking a linebacker, a year after dipping into the position with their first pick last year, would be a controversial - yet smart - decision for a multitude of reasons. With just four picks in the upcoming draft, it would come as quite the surprise to many if the Seahawks used their limited resources to once again make a significant investment in a position that already boasts a first-rounder and a player set to take up $17.1 million in cap space this season.
Although I named LSU’s Jabril Cox as the example linebacker in that exercise, the player I’ve really gravitated to at the position is Baron Browning out of Ohio State. Browning may be gone by the late 30s in this draft, but if he falls to No. 56 the Seahawks need to seriously consider pulling the trigger on the former five-star recruit.
Measuring in at 6-foot-3, 241 pounds with 33-inch arms at the Senior Bowl, Browning is a stud who can play everywhere in the linebacking corps. Often lining up as the strong-side (SAM) backer for the Buckeyes, the Fort Worth, Texas native showed he has the range and speed to keep pace from one sideline to the other, as well as the physicality to make plays at - or behind - the line of scrimmage.
With mid 4.5 speed, Browning accelerates well and gets to the point of attack early and often. He’s an efficient tackler who hits hard and displays sound fundamentals in his ability to wrap-up, leaving little doubt he’ll make a play if he gets to his spot.
His athleticism makes for an ideal matchup in pass coverage against tight ends and running backs. In 2020, he made progress in his ability to hang with bigger bodies one-on-one and utilize his above-average wingspan to break up passes.
A playmaker at heart, Browning occasionally gets a bit too overzealous when looking to make his presence felt. He’s prone to being baited into hitting the incorrect gaps in the run game, making him a hair or two late as the ball-carrier bounces outside. At times, his high motor gets the best of him to the point it appears he’s mentally outrunning the flow of the game.
While he’s taken steps in the right direction in coverage, there’s still plenty of room to improve. He’ll be asked to play a good amount of zone in Seattle and that was perhaps the biggest weakness of his in college, often failing to recognize his responsibilities in those moments. He’ll need to better use his elite speed in order to refine his man-to-man skills against smaller, shiftier receivers in the slot for base packages.
In 2019, he logged 5.0 sacks but has otherwise been fairly ineffective in pass-rush situations. It doesn’t need to be a huge part of his game, but he has the profile to win by blitzing off the edge; it would be nice to see that become a more consistent part of his game.
Fit in Seattle
With Wright likely on his way out of the Pacific Northwest, the Seahawks will need a new SAM to put alongside Wagner and Brooks. Browning has some things to work on, just like every other prospect in this draft, but he may be the most NFL-ready player Seattle has a realistic opportunity to get in April.
The hope here is that Browning, like Brooks last year, eases his way into life in the NFL with a limited role and shows out over the course of the season as playing time increases. Ideally, that would lead to an established long-term duo of Brooks and Browning for years to come as Seattle transitions into a new era.