If you told me in 2009 that two years later I'd be writing that headline, I'd think I get to write headlines? No way! I wonder what for. Do I get to write the stuff under the headlines too? I'd also be pretty devastated, thinking that Seattle's #4 overall pick and can't-miss linebacker of the future had suffered a gruesome season-ending injury, leaving the Seahawks scrambling to pick up the pieces. At least Lofa Tatupu will be there to help the group weather the storm.
Nowhere does time move more swiftly than in the world of the NFL. I mean, how long ago does 2009 seem when viewed through that lens? There's no need to spend much time rehashing the lack of luster on Aaron Curry's Seahawks career. I truly wish him the best in Oakland and I hope he can establish an identity there as something other than a bust. Rather, I'm more interested in what the 'Hawks linebacking corps will look like moving forward. The move itself doesn't surprise me, or many of you I'm sure, and it didn't seem to surprise Pete Carroll and John Schneider either, as they used two picks in their last draft on linebackers.
With no more Curry in the cupboard (see what I did there?), let's take a look at what the second line of defense might look like for the 'Hawks.
We've seen what the team has in Leroy Hill and David Hawthorne; namely, two remorseless brigands bent on the annihilation of all opposition and whose considerably destructive tendencies are barely constrained by the schematic assignments they obey. They are known quantities, we need not spend much more time on them.
The intrigue lies in the LB depth, as the absence of Curry presumably bumps everyone that was behind him up a notch. Fourth round draft pick K.J. Wright had already begun to eclipse Curry on the strong side before the trade, and it stands to reason that he'll continue starting there from now on. Wright, as you probably know by now is a gigantic guy, standing 6'4" and weighing nearly 250 pounds, which is large by even the G.I. Joe standard of human being in the NFL.
Wright impressed in camp, logging 13,046 tackles during the preseason and generally playing like someone who should've been drafted much higher. While most of his exhibition looks came as a backup Mike 'Backer, it was pretty clear that Carroll would be finding a way to get him on the field any way he could. It remains to be seen if the hulking rookie has the wherewithal to patrol a defense from the middle, but the beauty of the current situation is that he doesn't have to. While he may lack some of the athleticism that Curry offered, he seems to be more assignment-correct than Aaron and that is something that Seattle desperately needs on the outside.
The benefits of a reliably effective outside linebacker go beyond form tackling and gap-integrity. If Wright can be where he needs to be when he needs to be there, it gives Hill more freedom to pursue, knowing he doesn't have to account for the guy lining up strong-side. Furthermore, it allows Hawthorne to seek-and-destroy, the very thing God put him on this Earth to do. Hawthorne is Seattle's true cowboy on defense and I believe the system suits his nose for the ball, provided that the other two backers are handling their own business. If either of them don't, Heater's eagerness to get to the ball can become a liability instead of the strength it should be.
While Wright may still end up patrolling the middle some day (LB coach Ken Norton Jr was the one who suggested that they try him there), he seems particularly suited for the strong side, what with his Optimus-Prime-in-pads build. He's big enough to take on run blockers and fast enough to stay with a tight end if need be. According to this Danny O'Neil article in September, Defensive Coordinator Gus Bradley saw Wright as a Curry-esque strong-side 'backer when they drafted him.
"Right away, we were thinking he would be more of an outside-type linebacker," Bradley said. "SAM like what Aaron Curry plays."
It is probably too presumptuous to say that he was drafted to replace Curry outright, but fourth round picks for re-building teams aren't ideally drafted to merely provide positional depth. At the very least, he was a highly-regarded insurance policy. It's far too soon to say that Wright will be a star, but I'm definitely comfortable with #50 lining up next to Hawthorne and Hill, and I'm certainly excited about his future prospects after getting significant and meaningful playing time during his rookie year.
Behind Wright, the Seahawks have former Ram David Vobora, whom the metrics bear out as an above-average per-play defender, recent acquisition and former Bengal Stephen Franklin, and seventh-round draftee Malcolm Smith. They used to have utility LB / special-teams darling Matt McCoy, but his season-ending injury left the Seahawks thin at the position even before the Curry trade. Vobora is a guy I'm a fan of, as he strikes me as sort of the Tyler Polumbus of the defense, ie, someone that can fill in at a couple of different positions without too steep of a drop-off (although I'm betting his car is way swaggier than Polumbus'). I know virtually nothing about Franklin, so I won't pretend to here, other than to point out that he bested seven other linebackers that tried out for the roster spot vacated by Curry.
The guy from the group that I'm most fascinated by is the Smith, who joined the Seahawks as their last pick of the draft and has, I believe, the highest ceiling of all reserve LBs. He played for Carroll at USC and enjoyed considerable individual success there, though the unit struggled as a whole. Smith notched 72 tackles as a Junior and 78 more as a Senior, both numbers good for second on the squad despite missing five games between those two years with ankle injuries.
Smith is a different sort of 'backer than Wright, in that he lacks prototypical size (6'0", 226 lbs) and relies on his outstanding athleticism to make plays. Smith consistently ran his 40 in the 4.4s and boasts a 39" vertical, making him a candidate to lead the old-school-1980s-jumping-high-five revival while also indicating that he possesses considerable explosiveness to make up for his relative lack of stature. Smith has notably overcome a rare throat affliction called achalasia, causing him to lose over twenty pounds in college before he trained himself to eat differently in order to accommodate the condition. It's actually a pretty remarkable story.
Smith has spent some time on special teams so far this season, so he was already seeing field time before the trade and stands to benefit from Curry's absence in the form of more time with the defense. Between he and Wright, I think Seattle has two really exciting young linebackers to compliment Hawthorne and Hill and the Curry trade may very well be the gateway through which they emerge.