GAINESVILLE, FL - OCTOBER 01: Dont'a Hightower #30 of the Alabama Crimson Tide attempts to tackle Chris Rainey #1 of the Florida Gators during a game at Ben Hill Griffin Stadium on October 1, 2011 in Gainesville, Florida. (Photo by Sam Greenwood/Getty Images)
A look at the Seahawks situation at linebacker, and what they might do in the draft to address their needs there.
The Seahawks defense is certainly solid, maybe even on the verge of elite. The secondary is loaded with playmakers and the defensive line is stocked with serious strength and bulk. However, the linebackers are the limiting factor in the Seahawks defensive equation.
Last year in the draft, the Seahawks selected K.J. Wright in the fourth round. To be honest, when the Seahawks selected Wright in the 4th round, I assumed he was just another body that would eventually get cut from the Seahawks revolving door roster, much like their 2010 4th round selection, defensive end E.J. Wilson from North Carolina. Wilson did not even last a full season with Seattle. The 2011 fourth round draft pick, K.J. Wright, on the other hand, was a pleasant surprise.
K.J. Wright became the surprise starter last season and he proved to be an instinctive player. With the ability to play inside or outside (usually on the weakside), Wright played well enough to allow the Seahawks to effectively dispose of Aaron Curry and ship him off to the Oakland Raiders.
Leroy Hill has resigned with the Hawks and he figures to be the starter somewhere at linebacker. Hill can play either on the inside or the outside. New free agent acquisition Barrett Ruud, from Tennessee, will mostly play MLB, but he likely will not play on 3rd downs or other passing situations. It's too early to prognosticate on what exactly Ruud will bring to the table. Ruud used to be a top-notch run defender, but has never done well in pass coverage. Plus, last year Ruud was placed on injured reserve with a groin injury- so his health and durability will be a concern.
The Seahawks can look for serious speed at the outside linebacker position, or they can look for elite size at the middle linebacker position. I know Pete Carroll has a crush on players with versatility, but at some point the Seahawks need to get elite talent and special skill at the linebacker position.
It's obvious that in the secondary Pete generally prefers size over speed (Kam Chancellor, Brandon Browner, Richard Sherman) with the exception of ball-hawking Earl Thomas. So far at linebacker, the most valued quality in a Pete Carroll linebacker has been instinct. Outside of Aaron Curry, the Seahawks have not had incredibly huge or super speedy linebackers. The PC regime of Seahawks linebackers have been guys with decent size, average speed, but innate instincts. Without ignoring valuable instincts, this could be the draft where the Seahawks land LB's with superior speed at OLB or freakish size at MLB.
Both Leroy Hill and K.J. Wright have the ability to play inside or outside. This flexibility opens up a multitude of options for the Seahawks linebackers in the draft. They could take a monster-sized middle linebacker or they could go with a lightning quick outside 'backer.
With the versatility the current Seattle linebackers possess, the Seahawks have vast flexibility with the upcoming NFL draft. Next week should prove to be a significant draft for the future of the Seahawks linebacker position. Here are some possible MLB and OLB targets for the Seahawks in the draft:
Possible Seahawks Middle Linebacker Selections:
Dont'a Hightower, Alabama, 6'2", 265 lbs:
Hightower is projected to be a late first round pick. I wouldn't be shocked if the Hawks took him at 12, but it would be surprising. Hightower would be the ideal selection if the Hawks trade out of the 12th pick, then select later in the first round. His extreme size at 265 pounds for an inside linebacker gives him a terrifying ability to attack the ball-carrier. With the Seahawks behemoth defensive line in front of Hightower, he would often find himself free to roam the middle of the field and annihilate opposing running backs at will. There is also a rare chance that Hightower might still be available when the Hawks pick in the second round, at 43 overall.
Audie Cole, North Carolina State, 6'4", 246 lbs:
For a possible Pete Carroll linebacker, Audie Cole is a perfect fit. His instincts and intangibles are through the roof. He originally played outside linebacker at NC State before moving to inside linebacker before last season. He has the versatility that Pete Carroll covets and he could be the next K.J. Wright. Cole is projected to be selected anywhere from the 4th round to the 6th round. He does not have elite athleticism, but he has a nose for the football and I would not be surprised in the slightest if Cole ends up being selected by the Seahawks at the right value.
James-Michael Johnson, Nevada, 6'1", 241 lbs:
A four-year starter and a two-year team captain, Johnson is another player I bet the Seahawks have targeted on their draft board. Similar to Audie Cole, Johnson has instincts and rare durability. He played in every game at Nevada for four straight seasons. Also, Johnson is projected to be taken from the 4th round to the 6th round. He fits the Seahawks mold at linebacker, and Johnson belongs somewhere on the Seahawks draft board. Compared to Audie Cole, Johnson has better speed, with Cole getting the nod in overall size.
Possible Seahawks Outside Linebacker Selections:
Levante David, Nebraska, 6'1", 231:
David is a true sideline to sideline football player. He also might be the best NFL draft linebacker prospect when it comes to coverage. He excels in man coverage and is smart in zone coverage. The Seahawks LB's were disappointing in coverage last season, and bringing in David could help shore up this area of the defense. It would also take away some pressure from the Seahawks secondary to have an OLB that can be trusted in coverage. David is projected to be a 2nd to 3rd round pick, and he fits what the Seahawks are looking for.
Zach Brown, North Carolina, 6'1", 244:
Brown ran the fastest 40-yard dash of any OLB at the NFL combine at 4.50 seconds. He has elite athleticism and he is almost certain to be a second round selection. The good news here is that he should be available with the Seahawks 43rd overall pick. Brown possesses rare speed and is a superb tackler. While his athleticism is intriguing, Brown does have a slight red flag: lack of instincts. The Seahawks need an upgrade of speed at the linebacker position, and Brown can provide that. If the Seahawks do not have to reach for him, then Brown could turn out to be a selection with upside.
Sean Spence, Miami, 5'11", 231:
Although a tad undersized, Spence has everything else that Pete Carroll looks for in an OLB. Spence has an excellent ability to recognize the play and get to the football. He also has excelled in pass coverage throughout his career at Miami. He has phenomenal awareness on the football field. Because of his football IQ, speed and lack of size, he is projected to go anywhere from as early in the 3rd round to as late as the 6th round. Depending on how the Seahawks draft in the early rounds, Spence could be a target for the Seahawks in the late rounds.
For more on the Seahawks, make sure you head to Field Gulls and join in on the discussion.