RENTON, WA - Heading into the offseason, led by perennial All-Pro selection Bobby Wagner and chronically underrated standout K.J. Wright, the Seahawks already had one of the most impressive linebacker groups in the NFL.
Starting with free agency in March, Seattle further bolstered its strongest unit, bringing back veteran Bruce Irvin on a one-year deal and then surprising many by using its first round pick on Texas Tech star Jordyn Brooks. Coupled with those additions, the team also welcomed back third-year defender Shaquem Griffin as well as second-year players Cody Barton and Ben Burr-Kirven behind Wagner and Wright.
Through the first three weeks of training camp, the talent and depth amassed at the position has been evident for the Seahawks, leading to a fierce competition not only for starting roles, but roster spots in general.
According to defensive coordinator Ken Norton Jr., Wright still finds himself entrenched in a competition with Brooks for the weakside linebacker job. Though other rookies such as Damien Lewis or DeeJay Dallas have maybe grabbed more headlines to this point, the long-time linebacker coach provided a glowing assessment of the first rounder's progression thus far.
"He looks like a linebacker, he runs like a linebacker, he acts like a guy who’s hungry and wants to play,” Norton stated. “Really pleased with his development so far. If you saw the scrimmage the other day, he really showed up well in the scrimmage. He’s really learning how to play football at our level. He’s really fortunate to be among some of the best in the league in Bobby Wagner and K.J. Wright, who has been a model of consistency in high-level performance over the last nine or 10 years of his career.”
Seattle has been fired up about bringing Brooks into the mix since selecting him No. 27 overall in April's draft. A four-year starter who played inside and outside linebacker during his time with the Red Raiders, he produced over 100 tackles and 20 tackles for loss as a senior and showed off his elite speed running a 4.54 40-yard dash at the scouting combine in February.
Per Norton, that speed has been apparent on the field, but he's been equally pleased with his physicality and instincts. While the rookie has plenty of growing left to do, he also lauded him for shining when the pressure is on during game situations.
“He’s physical and a lot of times you want a guy with speed to play fast and then you want a guy to really be able to show up and think on the run and he’s really good in the mind, really good in carrying what we teach him in the meeting rooms over to the field and he’s a gamer,” Norton continued. “Some guys look good in practice and then the games show up and they kind of get intimidated. Not this kid. Game shows up, lights turn on, he shows up and that’s really good to see at this age.”
Away from Brooks leaving a strong first impression, Norton has also been encouraged by the progress of Barton and Burr-Kirven, who have all taken significant steps forward in their second camp with the Seahawks.
After starting both of Seattle's playoff games at the strongside linebacker spot last January, Barton hasn't been working there during camp due to the presence of Irvin. But he's continued to see snaps as Wagner's backup at middle linebacker as well as weakside linebacker, where his coverage skills as a former safety are best suited.
“Cody’s a really good football player, he plays really hard, really smart,” Norton said. “He’s having a really good camp. Really, really impressed with him, excited about his development. He’s going in the right direction.”
Coming off a rookie season in which he only played a handful of defensive snaps and was limited to special teams duty, Norton sees the "same toughness, same smarts" from Burr-Kirven, who has also been working at middle and weakside linebacker.
Once the nation's leading tackler at Washington, Burr-Kirven's speed and instincts have been on display throughout camp, as he's found his way into the backfield several times to blow up run plays. He's also shown improvements in coverage, making several pass deflections in 1-on-1 drills as well as team sessions.
As for Griffin, Irvin has taken the former UCF star under his wing, as the two have spent a ton of time together working both with linebackers and defensive linemen during camp. During the second half of the 2019 season, they began experimenting with him as a situational rusher and he came on strong in the playoffs, sacking Aaron Rodgers in the Divisional Round.
In a bit of a surprise given Barton's experience playing the SAM role last year, Norton indicated Griffin will be Irvin's main backup there along with continuing to be deployed as a rusher on passing downs and he "likes his emergence" for Seattle.
“Shaquem has been really solid for us, showing up every day,” Norton said. “He’s full of energy and a lot of speed, he is so fast, so we’re really trying to find different ways to utilize his speed. Right now, he’s the backup SAM linebacker with Bruce [Irvin] and he’s using his ability to get around the corner. He also plays third down with his ability to rush like we had last year."
While it's a good problem to have, with so many talented players vying for a finite number of snaps, there's little margin for error. As the regular season closes in, the competition for playing time in the teeth of Seattle's defense will continue to intensify.
As Norton reiterated, every practice and every rep will be critical. This will be particularly true for returning youngsters such as Barton and Burr-Kirven, who still have several veterans in front of them and now have to deal with an upstart rookie in Brooks surging up the depth chart battling for a potential starting role.
"If there's one position on our team that has a lot of depth, it's that linebacker position, so all the guys have their work cut out for them."