RENTON, Wash. -- Past watched present at Seattle Seahawks practice on Thursday.
K.J. Wright was in attendance for their fifth organized team activity, albeit merely as a visitor. The longtime Seahawks linebacker and current free agent is interested in playing in 2022, but only if an opportunity arises in Seattle. He doesn't want to be away from his family again like he was last year during his lone season with the Las Vegas Raiders. The Seahawks and Wright have discussed a possible return, but as general manager John Schneider has said, that would probably be in a non-playing role.
Wright is one of the most important players from the most successful era in franchise history, but the Seahawks are starting a new chapter at linebacker. And they're more eager to see fourth-year pro Cody Barton join Jordyn Brooks in the starting lineup than you might realize.
After primarily spending his first three seasons as a special teams player and backup behind Wright and Bobby Wagner, Barton is finally getting his shot with both franchise cornerstones gone.
"I think people are going to be surprised at how well he plays," said one Seahawks talent evaluator.
Barton has five spot starts since the Seahawks drafted him in the third round in 2019 out of Utah. He made 18 combined tackles in place of an injured Wagner during the final two games of last season.
It was indeed an audition for the starting job that came open when the Seahawks released Wagner in March. The only inside linebacker they signed in free agency was Joel Iyiegbuniwe, who got a minimum-salary deal to be a backup and play on special teams. They didn't draft a linebacker with any of their nine picks.
"Really good in the pass game," said new defensive coordinator Clint Hurtt of Barton. "He's always had a great awareness for that. He's got a background being a safety growing up, and then obviously working his way down into the box so you see some of those things with his awareness and picking up pass routes and the communication with guys on the back end. ... The effort, the attention to detail for Cody has always been a part of it, but now he has a great opportunity, and he's had a really nice spring so far."
While Barton was filling in for Wagner over the final two games, Brooks was closing out one of the most productive seasons of any NFL linebacker. The 2020 first-round pick finished with 184 tackles, finishing second in the league and breaking the single-season Seahawks mark. That total was partly because of how much time Seattle's defense spent on the field -- it led the league in snaps by a wide margin -- but also the strides Brooks made from his rookie season.
Not that Year 2 was perfect. But even with the occasional difficulty Brooks had in recognizing screen passes -- at one point prompting mild public criticism from coach Pete Carroll -- he looked like a Pro Bowler in the making.
With Wagner gone, Brooks will take over as Seattle's defensive signal-caller.
"He had an unbelievable season last year and he's just continually gotten better, and you can see just the raw talent that he has," said linebacker/fullback Nick Bellore. "... He took the pieces, I think, from Bobby and K.J. that [they] kind of taught him along the way, and I think he's just taken it and run with it. I think a guy that can run like that and cover like he does and hit like he does, I think the sky is the limit for him."
The transition away from Wagner and Wright might have happened earlier if not for Ken Norton Jr., their former position coach and one of their biggest advocates. Well before he was fired as defensive coordinator earlier this offseason, Norton developed a reputation within the organization for being reluctant to play young players, curiously so in several cases.
In 2019, for instance, he favored a base-heavy defense that regularly kept a third linebacker on the field -- veteran Mychal Kendricks and not Barton -- instead of inserting a fifth defensive back in rookie Ugo Amadi. It baffled some inside team headquarters when rookie second-round pick Marquise Blair, despite making plays in three earlier fill-in starts, didn't start late that season while Quandre Diggs was sidelined. Brooks played sparingly at the start of his 2020 rookie season even though Seattle had just drafted him 27th overall. It took an injury to veteran Bruce Irvin to get him into the starting lineup.
"We're going to play young guys," Hurtt said. "They're going to get on the field. We got to get them ready. They're the future. But at the same time, we got to make sure that the best players are out there."
Whether or not Wright ends up back with the Seahawks in some capacity, he and Wagner will both end up in the team's ring of honor. They're third and first, respectively, on the franchise's all-time tackles list. In the meantime, Wagner is still adding to his Hall of Fame résumé with the Los Angeles Rams.
"It's a game where someone has to step in and kind of fill those roles," Bellore said. "I think we obviously have the guys to do it. They're big shoes to fill."