Before training camp begins on Friday, here’s my continuing look (by position) at how the Seattle Seahawks stack up going in and whether the team is improved or not as good as it was a year ago.
The defensive line was Tuesday. Now let’s look at the linebackers.
Outside linebackers -- Better.
These are all the same guys as a year ago, along with the addition of Kevin Pierre-Louis, a speedy fourth-round draft choice from Boston College.
Malcolm Smith took a major step forward last season in the playoffs, earning MVP honors in the Super Bowl after his interception at the end of the NFC Championship Game (off Richard Sherman's tip) sealed the victory over the 49ers.
And K.J. Wright had a strong year with 80 tackles, despite missing the final three regular-season games with an injury. Wright also filled in well at middle linebacker, starting two games inside when Bobby Wagner had a sprained ankle.
The question now is who’s the odd man out among Wright, Smith and Bruce Irvin? Wright’s spot is secure. He is becoming one of the best outside linebackers in the NFL and could be headed toward a Pro Bowl season. He can play either side, but is at his best on the weak side.
And the truth is the Seahawks don’t run a lot of plays with three linebackers on the field. With so many teams throwing more, the Seahawks' defense often uses its nickel package with five defensive backs.
However, when the Seahawks have two outside linebackers on the field, it should be Wright and Smith most of the time. A lot of this depends on how you classify Irvin. He was a defensive end as a rookie and played more as an outside linebacker last season, but his strength is rushing the quarterback off the edge.
How this sorts out also will defend on Irvin’s health. He had hip surgery before minicamp, and we’ll have to wait and see when he’s ready to get back on the field. Smith also is coming off ankle surgery, but it expected to practice when camp begins.
Pierre-Louis also is expected to contribute. He is the fastest player of the bunch, but probably will see most of his action on special team this season.
The man who’s going to surprise a lot of people is Korey Toomer, who finally is healthy and has been sensational in offseason workouts. The Seahawks also have veterans Mike Morgan and O’Brien Schofield, another “tweener” who can play linebacker or defensive end.
All in all, this is a solid bunch with great quickness and solid instincts for being in the right place at the right time.
Middle linebacker -- Better.
Possibly the most underrated player on the team is middle linebacker Bobby Wagner. He entered the league two years ago at the same time as Carolina's Luke Kuechly, the NFL Defensive Player of the Year last season, and Wagner has sort of been in Kuechly’s shadow for national recognition.
That’s a shame because Wagner deserves to rank among the top-five middle linebackers in the league, and he’s going to continue to get better. Wagner is the glue in the middle of the Seattle defense. He led the team in tackles last season with 120, including five sacks, despite missing two games with an ankle injury.
Veteran Heath Farwell is a solid backup, although Farwell is a team captain because of his special teams plays. Wright likely would move inside if Wagner was out. Toomer also can play inside.