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What should the Seahawks do at outside linebacker?

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Seattle Seahawks v San Francisco 49ers Photo by Thearon W. Henderson/Getty Images

Headed into the 2018 preseason, there was little reason to think that the Seattle Seahawks were going to have a months-long headache at the linebacker positions next to all-everything Bobby Wagner, but that’s often the nature of football. It’s not always what you plan for, but how you respond to the things you couldn’t plan for.

The Seahawks had Pro Bowler K.J. Wright at outside linebacker and had signed former top-10 pick Barkevious Mingo to a two-year contract. Not that Mingo had ever come close to living up to his draft status, but as the third linebacker who may see the field for only a third of the snaps, that was not a bad proposition. There was also the curiosity and anticipation of seeing what rookie fifth round pick Shaquem Griffin could do in the NFL, now that he was back on the field with his twin brother and college teammate Shaquill.

Then the unplanned for made its planned for appearance.

After the third preseason game, with no notable play or moment that you could pin it on, Wright had arthroscopic knee surgery that sidelined him indefinitely.

“After the game—he didn’t get hit or anything, didn’t have an episode—he just felt that maybe something wasn’t quite right,” Carroll said. “We took a good look at it and we’re going to do a scope job and get him back really quick.”

We didn’t even have the luxury of blaming the injury on a decision by Wright or a dirty play by an opposing lineman, we just had to accept that shit happens. At that same press conference, Pete Carroll didn’t exactly express excitement over the possibility of Griffin starting Week 1 in Denver, but was more along the lines of acceptance.

“At this point today he’s got to be ready, we don’t have any choice but that thought right now until we know more. We’ll see how it goes.”

The game for Griffin either went as well or worse than Carroll anticipated in a tough opening week loss to the Broncos. If Seattle had managed to win by two touchdowns, then maybe their issues at outside linebacker become deafened by the fact that they’re still an overall great team — as was often the case when players like Mike Morgan and Malcolm Smith were getting considerable snaps — but the Seahawks were much closer to the edge of mediocrity for 2018. And that’s when an issue like a weakness at outside linebacker becomes amplified rather than muted.

Luckily, two days after Wright had surgery, the Cleveland Browns released Mychal Kendricks after it was reported that he would be serving time for insider trading. Yes, “luckily” Kendricks committed a white collar felony.

On September 14, Seattle signed Kendricks to a one-year deal, having no idea if he would be immediately suspended or when a punishment from the powers-that-wield-power-randomly-and-without-logic-that-anyone-can-reasonably-follow would be sent down. They felt they had no choice but to take the chance because Wright was simply going to be “improving” for weeks (the clever way to keep hope alive while those who’ve been following this game closely long enough know that he’s not coming back any time soon) and that Griffin was in no position to be starting on an NFL team that wanted to make the playoffs and no longer had their Richard Sherman, Kam Chancellor, Michael Bennett, Cliff Avril core around to mask his weaknesses.

Kendricks started the next three games, recording 15 tackles, four for a loss, three QB hits, and two sacks. The defense was much better. Then the powers-that-be ... be. Kendricks was suspended indefinitely, then it was announced to be an eight-game sit down. That meant that in Week 5, the Seahawks were again without Wright and now Kendricks, but Carroll couldn’t bring himself to start Griffin again. Wagner played 66 snaps, Mingo played 64, and no other linebacker played more than four. Seattle lost to the LA Rams, 33-31.

That shifted a bit in Week 6, when the Seahawks were granted a bye week: they faced the Oakland Raiders in London. In the 27-3 win, Wagner and Mingo got most of the snaps again, but rookies Jacob Martin emerged for 28 snaps and Austin Calitro chipped in 14. Then another bye week, this time a real one, and in Week 8, Wright was finally able to return. For a little while.

Wright played in the next three games, the final of which was a game he started against the Rams but was unable to finish. “He just didn’t feel great once he got going,” said Carroll. He didn’t play again until Week 16 versus the Kansas City Chiefs, a must-win game that thankfully they did. I’m not sure if Wright was ever able to play last season in a way that he is used to, but it certainly seemed like he got closer to that ability at the end of the year when he was furthest removed from his surgery, as one might expect.

In the playoff loss to the Dallas Cowboys, Wright recorded a season-high eight tackles, one for a loss, and had an interception. As for Kendricks, he returned in Week 14, and was placed on injured reserve with a knee injury of his own after only one game back. In games in which the Seahawks had neither Wright or Kendricks (Week 1, Week 5, Week 6, Week 11, Week 12, Week 13, Week 15) the team went 4-3, and that includes the Week 15 loss to the San Francisco 49ers and the Week 5 loss to the Rams. It does not include the second loss to the Rams, the game in which Wright started but immediately felt like something wasn’t right and couldn’t finish the game.

Not to downplay their four wins in those games, which does include critical wins over the Green Bay Packers and Carolina Panthers, but neither of those teams proved to be very good over the course of 16 games and neither did Calitro, the linebacker who played the most replacement snaps in those games, gaining default favor over Griffin and Martin, the latter of whom may be a great prospect but perhaps not specifically for the WILL position.

What this tells me is that K.J. Wright is important and Mychal Kendricks is important. Neither may actually be more important than the other, but this version of Seattle likely needs a player at WILL up to the caliber of Wright or Kendricks. It doesn’t mean that the team needs both — but we’ve also seen how quickly these things change because you can’t plan for a player who is rarely injured (Wright had missed one game in the previous four seasons) and the best plan is to simply start with the best players possible.

That’s where Carroll and John Schneider have some huge decisions ahead at outside linebacker for 2019.

Wright is an unrestricted free agent, completing a four-year, $27 million extension he signed in 2014. There’s the thought that the team will let the 29-year-old test free agency rather than lock him down before then. It could be their best chance to see him go out there, find a lack of long-term offers, and see if he’d just be willing to return on a deal similar to his best offer on the market.

Kendricks has had his sentencing pushed back to April and as our own John Gilbert wrote back in January, it is very unlikely that he will avoid prison. Before you disagree with that notion, please read the entirety of John’s article and instead make it clear that you’re disagreeing with the legal facts. Either way, it doesn’t make any sense that any team would even negotiate with Kendricks until he’s been sentenced. The team clearly does not care about his felony as any sort of red flag (a weird sentence to write in 2019 as it pertains to the NFL) and I even think that all things being equal, they might prefer Kendricks to Wright, but they also aren’t equal.

The team must then weigh the consequences of not re-signing Wright and then finding out that Kendricks will miss the entire 2019 season with a broken moral compass and realize that their options at outside linebacker are even worse than they were in 2018 when they at least had Wright and Kendricks half of the time. There is also the likelihood that Mingo’s two-year pact will soon become one year and “Thanks!”; Mingo played the most snaps on special teams of any player on the team but was less than less than special at linebacker and maybe not even viewed as valuable to the defense as Calitro, which is saying something.

That would leave the other linebackers as Calitro, Griffin, Martin, and dual Emmanuels (Beal and Ellerbe). And again I, like you, love Martin as a prospect, but maybe not as a weakside linebacker. Maybe as an edge rusher. But he seemed to clearly be more talented than Calitro and yet didn’t get the snaps that he did. That’s gotta be for a reason.

Outside linebacker could be a consideration for Seattle’s first pick in the 2019 draft, some have argued that they really blew an opportunity when they passed on Leighton Vander Esch in order to do their annual trade down (I have argued that but not at the time), but it’s also not quite a high-ceiling value position in the Seahawks defense. Not in the way of some other positions of current need like safety, cornerback, and pass rusher. So that could work against Seattle adding a linebacker of note in the 2019 draft.

It’s also hard to see which free agents will fit the mold in terms of what Carroll looks for in a WILL. Looking at the list of expected free agents, many of them will be too expensive (Jadeveon Clowney), or more of a pass rusher than an outside linebacker who covers tight ends and running backs (Dee Ford), or older than Wright (Clay Matthews, Thomas Davis, Terrell Suggs). If looking for a young guy with potential, then you might find a familiar face who never really materialized his potential into something that could stay on the field for 60 snaps and not make you go sign a convicted felon to replace you. (Kevin Pierre-Louis.)

Strangely, as of now, it seems to me that K.J. Wright actually is Seattle’s best option at weakside linebacker in 2019. Wait, that’s not strange. Wright has been the linebacker there since 2011. It’s strange that anyone would find it strange. The truth is that Wright is still under 30 (until July) and he was healthy at the end of the season. He’s 29. I mean, look at Thomas Davis, who played in nine games total from 2009-2011 and them from age 29-34 he played in 93 of a possible 96 games, making the Pro Bowl in each season from 2015-2017.

Davis is an exceptional example, but even half of that from Wright, who is obviously one of the most talented linebackers that the franchise has had, would be reasonable.

When I started writing this article, I simply wanted to lay out the options ahead for the Seahawks at outside linebacker. I had no agenda to say that the team “Should re-sign Wright and it’s actually kind of important.” But that’s why I write articles to begin with. To reach some sort of conclusion based on the evidence that I find through research. So I think the Seahawks should re-sign K.J. Wright.

And it’s actually kind of important.

Poll

Should the Seahawks re-sign K.J. Wright before free agency?

This poll is closed

  • 49%
    Yes, even if it’s a 3-year deal
    (499 votes)
  • 26%
    Yes, but only a 1-year deal with few guarantees
    (264 votes)
  • 22%
    Let him test the market and if he leaves, he leaves
    (232 votes)
  • 1%
    No
    (16 votes)
1011 votes total Vote Now