Training Camp Preview: Linebackers

Barring an unexpected return, Bobby Wagner and the Seahawks will open training camp without K.J. Wright on the roster for the first time in a decade. But even without him, with a rising young star ready to step in his place, linebacker should remain a position of strength for the defending NFC West champions.
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Following a long offseason - okay, compared to the nightmare that was 2020, the past several months have been a breeze - the Seahawks will officially usher in the 2021 season by reporting to training camp on July 27.

Continuing our camp preview series, here's a close look at the state of the linebacker position, including the depth chart, a key question that must be answered, and a bold prediction for the upcoming season.

2020 In Review

Showing no signs of slowing down after turning 30 years old, Wagner earned his sixth consecutive First-Team All-Pro selection after amassing 138 tackles, 3.0 sacks, and eight passes defensed in 16 games. Though he wasn't thrilled about the move initially, Wright made a remarkable transition to strongside linebacker replacing an injured Bruce Irvin and turned in arguably the best season of his career, finishing as the only defender in the league with 10-plus tackles for loss and passes defensed. Overcoming a sluggish start to his rookie season, Jordyn Brooks came on strong in the second half of the year at weakside linebacker alongside Wagner and produced 30 tackles in Seattle's final five games.

What's New?

The decision not to re-sign Wright stands out as the biggest change for Seattle's linebacker corps. But the team also opted not to tender Shaquem Griffin, allowing the former UCF star to become an unrestricted free agent. With those two players departing, the Seahawks signed undrafted rookie Jon Rhattigan as well as another former UCF standout in Nate Evans this spring. The team also was allocated athletic German linebacker Aaron Donkor through the International Player Pathway Program.

Depth Chart

Starters: Bobby Wagner, Jordyn Brooks, Darrell Taylor

Heading into his 10th season, Wagner remains the crown jewel of NFL inside linebackers, as the tackling machine further solidified his Hall of Fame candidacy with another All-Pro selection manning the middle of Seattle's defense. He remains a stout run defender and rebounded from a challenging 2019 campaign in coverage, registering eight passes defensed while tacking on 3.0 sacks and 23 quarterback pressures as a blitzer. While he doesn't have the same burst he did earlier in his career, he still moves well for his position and his instincts should help offset athletic limitations as his career progresses.

Stuck behind Wright and Irvin on the depth chart, Brooks didn't do much during his first two months with the Seahawks. He mostly played special teams in the first two games before Irvin went down and then missed two games after suffering his own knee injury in Week 3. But once he returned healthy in Week 7, the former Texas Tech star found his groove playing extensive snaps in Seattle's base 4-3 defense, yielding 56 tackles and a pair of tackles for loss over the last nine regular season games. He also made notable improvements in coverage in the second half, setting the stage for him to take over for Wright as the team's full-time weakside linebacker in 2021.

After trading up to select him in the second round of the 2020 NFL Draft, Taylor unfortunately never saw the field for the Seahawks as a rookie due to multiple setbacks returning from leg surgery. Now fully healthy, he participated in the team's entire offseason program and received work as both a defensive end and linebacker. Offering similar athleticism, size, and football skills to Irvin, the ex-Tennessee standout should have every opportunity to win the SAM linebacker job as Wright's replacement while seeing occasional snaps as a LEO defensive end on passing downs.

Reserves: Cody Barton, Ben Burr-Kirven, Jon Rhattigan, Aaron Donkor, Nate Evans

After starting four games late in his rookie season replacing an injured Mychal Kendricks, Barton found himself largely relegated to special teams duty in his sophomore campaign thanks to the arrival of Brooks. The 2019 third-round pick out of Utah made two starts when Brooks was sidelined, producing a whopping 17 tackles in those games. While Taylor will enter camp as the favorite to win the job, he should be in the mix to start at strongside linebacker.

The undersized Burr-Kirven has yet to see much action on defense in his first two seasons either and that likely won't change in 2021, as he will be vying to keep a backup job behind Wagner and remain a key cog on special teams. He will have to fend off Rhattigan, an undrafted rookie out of Army, who impressed during the team's offseason program and was a surprise All-American selection as a senior. Donkor and Evans will also take part in the competition and may be potential practice squad options if they perform well in camp and the preseason.

Key Question

Does Wright eventually return? And if he doesn't, will the team regret choosing not to re-sign him?

More than three months after the new league year started in mid-March, Wright shockingly remains unsigned less than two weeks before the start of training camp. While he didn't produce near as many tackles (86) as he did in 2019, he proved he still has plenty left in the tank by stuffing the stat sheet with a pair of sacks, an interception, 11 tackles for loss, and 10 passes defensed. But his advancing age - he will turn 32 years old later this week - coupled with a plummeting salary cap clearly impacted interest in his services across the league. Teams simply didn't want to overpay for an aging off-ball linebacker.

Coach Pete Carroll and general manager John Schneider have publicly stated Wright could still come back and as long as he's a free agent, nothing should be ruled out. But for now, the Seahawks seem pleased with their current group of linebackers and understandably want to have Brooks and Taylor on the field. If those two players perform up to expectations, the difficult decision to not bring back Wright will look like a savvy move. But there's always risk turning the keys over to young players, especially one such as Taylor who has yet to play an NFL snap. If he struggles and Wright winds up playing well somewhere else, the front office may look back wishing they had a mulligan.

Bold Prediction

Flying all over the field in pursuit, Brooks will rack up at least 110 tackles, while Taylor will start all 17 games at strongside linebacker and produce 6.5 sacks.

As long as Wagner stands in the middle of Seattle's defense, he will be the favorite to lead the team in tackles. But as he prepares for his first season as an every-down linebacker in the league, Brooks has the talent and physical tools to give No. 54 a run for his money in 2021. Resembling a younger version of Wagner in many ways, Brooks possesses elite speed for the position and as he showcased chasing down speedy Cardinals quarterback Kyler Murray for a tackle for loss last season, he has an uncanny ability to pursue ball carriers sideline to sideline. He also displays a high football IQ and as a rookie, he learned quickly from his mistakes, particularly in coverage. After producing nearly 60 tackles while playing only 32 percent of the Seahawks' defensive snaps, it would be a disappointment if he doesn't reach triple digits stepping into Wright's prior role alongside Wagner.

As for Taylor, he's a far greater unknown heading into a new season coming off a severe injury. But like Brooks, he possesses the obvious athletic traits and football skills to be an impact player for the Seahawks right away. After leading the SEC in sacks during his final two seasons with the Volunteers, he should be an immediate upgrade from a pass rushing standpoint over Wright, who has never been known for his blitzing chops. While he will be dropping back into coverage a fair amount and his ability to set the edge as a run defender will be put to the test in the rugged NFC West, his ability to pin his ears back and turn up the pressure on quarterbacks could be a real difference maker for Carroll's defense.