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Senior Bowl preview: Linebackers to watch for the Seahawks

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NCAA Football: Peach Bowl-Auburn vs Central Florida Brett Davis-USA TODAY Sports

Of all the positions that have taken a hit to their depth since the Seattle Seahawks’ won Super Bowl XLVIII, no group has failed to re-stock quite like the linebackers. Bobby Wagner and K.J. Wright remain; Malcolm Smith and Bruce Irvin left in free agency; Kevin Pierre-Louis didn’t develop into any sort of contributor; and Seattle was stuck with veteran, replacement level players at the position in 2017.

In 2017, Wagner played 93-percent of the defensive snaps despite missing chunks of games with a hamstring injury, while Wright logged 87-percent despite missing an entire game. 2016 was even worse: Wagner played 99.4-percent while Wright played 97.4-percent of snaps. Getting contributors who can spell Wagner and Wright throughout games is crucial if the duo are to remain fresh and get closer to their 2013 workload (83 and 71-percent respectively). Half of the linebacker group that seemed to fall into the Seahawks’ mold for the position dropped out with injury, so there’s just two to watch at the Senior Bowl:

Shaquem Griffin (LB, UCF)

Height: 6002

Weight: 222

I mean, come on. Of course Shaquem Griffin is going to be on Seattle’s radar come draft time. He exemplifies everything Pete Carroll loves in a competitor; relentless, grit, unwavering belief in his ability. To boot, he flies around the field and is a helluva linebacker, being named the 2016 AAC Defensive Player of the Year. Shaquill Griffin’s twin brother, Shaquem has been everywhere during Senior Bowl week, practicing as an edge defender, as a single-high safety, and with the off-ball linebackers — likely where he belongs in the pros.

Playing off the line of scrimmage as a traditional linebacker, Griffin has the speed to play sideline-to-sideline, making tackles all over the field. He’s at his best in space, arriving at the ball and finishing plays. He will struggle playing in the mix around the line of scrimmage, slightly undersized and not adept at disengaging once a bigger offensive linemen engages him. As an athlete, he’s explosive and fluid, and should have no problem funneling receivers downfield and playing in zones off the ball.

Playing in a 4-3 defense at the next level, Griffin won’t get a great opportunity to display his pass rushing ability. His frame isn’t conducive to rushing through the A-gap, and 4-3 LBs don’t rush from the edge all that often. Regardless, Griffin is an impressive, explosive pass rusher. He registered 18.5 sacks over his final two seasons at UCF, flying off the edge and into the backfield untouched on numerous occasions.

A great story, an even better football player, and incredibly versatile. Griffin represents Pete Carroll football on and off the field, and will almost certainly be someone they target on day three.

Darius Leonard (LB, South Carolina State)

Height: 6020

Weight: 229

Earning his second consecutive MEAC Defensive Player of the Year award in 2017, Darius Leonard is as rangey as linebackers get among the group in Mobile. His draft stock will likely come down to how he tests at the Combine; if he doesn’t test towards the top of his position, he’s a day three prospect. He has great size for the position, with the ability to go sideline-to-sideline making tackles and playing in coverage.

Similar to Griffin, Leonard struggles around the line of scrimmage when he has to sift through the trash to find the ball carrier. However unlike Griffin, Leonard has the build and length to be an excellent blitzer up the middle. In Kris Richard’s first season as defensive coordinator, double A-gap blitzes were called effectively throughout the year. That went away during the remainder of Richard’s time, but both Wagner and Wright have a great ability to time blitzes and get to the quarterback, and Leonard’s similar ability could make him an attractive proposition for the Seahawks.

In 2011, Seattle made an exception for their linebacker measurements when they selected Wright — likely because John Schneider (among other traits) fell in love with Wright’s insane 34 ⅞” arm length. While not quite as long, Leonard’s reach is 34 ⅛” and he uses his length well when rushing the passer. His build resembles that of a Seahawks linebacker, and if he’s available during the first couple rounds on day three, could be an excellent fit with Seattle as they look to replenish their depth at the linebacker position.

Honorable Mentions

Two outstanding linebackers at the University of Alabama dropped out of the Senior Bowl, with both Rashaan Evans and Shaun Dion Hamilton not ending up on rosters after previously accepting invitations.

Evans will likely be gone long before the Seahawks are in the market for a linebacker; despite his injury, he should be selected before day two’s conclusion. He is essentially everything expected from a ‘Bama linebacker at this point of Nick Saban’s reign: Explosive, athletic, physical, and complete. Evans can cover, rush the passer, and make plays all over the field.

Hamilton, like Evans, is a physically dominant linebacker for the Crimson Tide. He isn’t as complete, or as dynamic as some of his predecessors, but he could develop into a reliable linebacker at the next level. Dropping into zones, Hamilton is steady in coverage, keeping plays in front of him and able to make the tackle with little yards after the catch. If Seattle looks to add a linebacker early on day three, either Hamilton or Leonard could make a lot of sense.