No position was less stable for the Seattle Seahawks in 2018 than weakside linebacker.
K.J. Wright missed most of the season because of a knee injury, which forced a rotating cast of players to take their turns replacing him. It started with Shaquem Griffin and continued with Mychal Kendricks and Austin Calitro. Even Barkevious Mingo at times shifted over from the strong side, meaning five different players saw meaningful action in what has long been Wright's spot next to All-Pro Bobby Wagner.
No position looks more wide open heading into the offseason, either.
Wright is scheduled to become an unrestricted free agent, as is Kendricks, whose future is further complicated by a pending sentencing for insider trading charges. Mingo is under contract for another year but doesn't seem like a slam dunk to be kept.
It's no wonder why Griffin was talking at season's end about factoring in on more than just special teams in 2019. The opportunity could easily be there.
"I think now that he's got his feet wet, he's just got to go out there and make plays," Wagner said when asked what Griffin must do to get on the field more in 2019. "What's going to be great for him is to come in in the offseason and be around myself and hopefully K.J. and learn and get back in the playbook. He has everything -- he runs fast, he's extremely smart, a very humble kid, and I really feel like the sky is the limit for him as long as he puts in the work, and I know he's going to put in the work. He's a hard worker. I love being around him. I love our linebacker group."
Before the Seahawks chose Griffin in the fifth round last year, making him the first player with only one hand to be drafted during the NFL's modern era, a thought among some draft analysts was that he would at least be a strong special-teams player even if he never developed into an impact contributor on defense.
According to Pro Football Reference, Griffin was seventh on the Seahawks with 225 special-teams snaps while playing in all 16 regular-season games. His seven special-teams tackles were tied for fifth most on the team, per ESPN Stats & Information. The NFL presented him with its Game Changer Award during the NFL Honors ceremony on the day before the Super Bowl.
"The message I want to give today is, for those of you who have dreams and aspirations to be great in life, do not let negative dictate who you're going to become." - @ShaquemGriffin— Seattle Seahawks (@Seahawks) February 3, 2019
📺 @NFLonCBS | #NFLHonors pic.twitter.com/sM93ZGD0bZ
Griffin's nine tackles in the Seahawks' preseason opener gave some life to the idea that he could force his way onto the field right away, even if it was in just a sub-package role. But he was up and down for the rest of the preseason and struggled in the team's season-opening loss at Denver while starting in place of Wright, who had hurt his knee two weeks earlier. In coach Pete Carroll's words, Griffin "got fooled on a couple things" and was noticeably out of position on a few plays.
It was a reminder that for as much as Griffin had flashed during the summer -- he also picked off Russell Wilson during one 7-on-7 drill and occasionally ran with the starters -- he was still a rookie fifth-round pick making his NFL debut. And learning a new position no less, going from an on-the-ball strongside linebacker who set the edge and rushed the passer in college to being asked to play more often in space behind the line of scrimmage.
"I feel like the first time through everything, it's moving fast," Griffin said at season's end. "You're trying to get a feel for things, and I feel like throughout the season, that progressed for me to be able to calm down, know what I'm doing and what I need to get done and just play smooth."
But after starting the opener, he played only nine more snaps on defense over the remainder of the season.
"I think he handled it really well," Carroll said of Griffin. "I think the two of them [Shaquem and twin brother Shaquill] gaining strength from each other made their way through it with all of the attention and the focus on the brothers and all of that. They competed great. They were always here, their mentality was great every day. Every day, they were consistent with their attitude and their approach to it. I think [Shaquem] gave himself a chance to be a factor in a lot of ways on the team. He showed up, he played hard, he worked hard, he learned a lot playing his linebacker spot -- he's come miles from where he started. I think he handled it really well, but it's hard to separate them handling it together. They just kind of, they're peas in a pod and I thought it was a very successful year under all of the attention."
It's anyone's guess right now as to who will be starting at weakside linebacker next season.
Wright will be 30 in July and coming off his knee injury. That will work against the Seahawks making it any sort of priority to re-sign him, especially given how they seem to be taking a more selective approach with veteran players after getting burned on third contracts for Michael Bennett, Kam Chancellor and Marshawn Lynch. That's a big reason why they weren't willing to extend Earl Thomas, who's almost certainly going to leave as a free agent.
Kendricks capably filled in for Wright for three games early in the season, missed the next nine weeks while serving a league suspension and then went on injured reserve after hurting his leg and knee in his first game back. Carroll has volunteered more than once that the Seahawks want to re-sign Kendricks, but his availability may not be known until his sentencing. That was recently moved back from late January to April 4, well after the start of free agency.
If Wright leaves and the Seahawks have Kendricks available for the beginning of next season, he would be the favorite to start over Griffin and Calitro. But there are a lot of ifs involved there, and as last season showed, plans and fortunes can change quickly in the NFL.
"I feel like I can come in, go to work, know what I need to work on and know what it's going to take for me to be not only like a special-teams player but a key player on defense," Griffin said. "That's why I've got good guys like Bobby and K.J. to prepare me for that."