clock menu more-arrow no yes

Filed under:

Seahawks on tape: Cody Barton is the ideal modern inside linebacker

New, comments
BYU v Utah Photo by George Frey/Getty Images

Thank goodness the Seattle Seahawks drafted Cody Barton in round 3 with the 88th selection.

Seattle’s linebacker depth has been thin for a while—’member Brock Coyle? But heading into the 2019 season it’s shaping up to be one of the deepest units in the NFL. K.J. Wright has been extended and is reportedly fully healthy. Shaquem Griffin is in his second-year, pursuit issues hopefully addressed. Mychal Kendricks has been added for another season and might be free. Heck, talented SAM backer Barkevious Mingo might be cut after the cheap addition of Cassius Marsh at the same position.

He tried hard, but Austin Calitro was never the answer at inside linebacker for the Seattle Seahawks. The problem was, Seattle’s defense was asking him to be. Calitro’s play against the smarter offenses was full of doubt. He fell asleep with his keys; he wasn’t helped by his mediocre athleticism; and he got lost in the trash. And yet, following the suspension of Kendricks, the injury to Wright and the rookie troubles of Griffin, Calitro was taking meaningful snaps at weakside ‘backer.

Adding a player of Barton’s caliber should avoid any repeat of the 2018 linebacker woes. It also hints that Griffin may be able to play more of a “rush backer,” pass-rush specialist role this coming year.

I hadn’t watched any Barton tape in the pre-draft process. What I have found since has impressed me massively. He was clearly the linebacker Seattle wanted from the second-tier of prospects. The Colts ended up taking Bobby Okereke; the Seahawks got their guy.

Barton’s ability suggests that he can genuinely push for a starting spot from Day 1. On most NFL defenses he’d be starting immediately. Next offseason, if negotiations with Middle Linebacker Bobby Wagner get nasty or scary-expensive, Barton will act as a nice hedge. What’s more likely is Barton’s talent making Wright expendable, given the 30-year-old has $0 of his salary guaranteed in 2020.

The East-West Shrine attendee made all the calls at Utah last season, leading from the Middle Linebacker role. Barton got the defensive front aligned. “I like being off the ball and being able to diagnose from the middle of the field,” Barton told reporters at his rookie minicamp presser. “Being that the Mike calls the plays and is the focal point in the middle of field, I like being the leader in the middle and just calling things out and talking about what I see.”

The leadership qualities Barton brings to a team weren’t just apparent on the field. “Scott Fitterer [co-director of player personnel] was talking about—Scott was the one who went to the Utah workout—and he talked about how [Barton] had so much juice about him. The players were attracted to him,” revealed Schneider. Barton clearly has leadership qualities that gravitate players towards him. Old and new teammate Marquise Blair called Barton a ‘smart leader.’ Barton’s intelligence is in part reflected by his bachelor’s degree in economics.

Moreover, Barton is a gifted athlete whose Dad, Paul, was drafted by Major League Baseball’s Toronto Blue Jays and Mom, Mikki, played basketball for Utah:

Overall, he fits four of the themes of Seattle’s 2019 draft class:

1) Getting better at stopping the run

2) Adding speed to the front 7

3) Improving special teams: “he’s always been a phenomenal special teams player,” praised Schneider, and “we know that he’s an incredibly gifted special teams player,” gushed Carroll.

4) Smart, tough, reliable: “coming out of a system that means [he’s] well-disciplined,” and “really intense, loves football, he’s got true grit to him,” is how Schneider described it, plus Carroll revealed that “[Barton’s] really smart.”

The modern NFL game requires starting linebackers to do a bit of everything. Barton has this skillset. Observe Carroll’s positive comments post-Day 2:

“He’ll be a great asset to us. We see him being part of a lot of stuff right off the bat. So, we’re really excited about that.”

“He’s gonna be able to play all of the spots eventually. We’ll start him off inside, at the Mike and the Will spots, and just let him learn the system and see where he takes it.”

“He’s fitted size-wise, and speed-wise, and makeup-wise, and background-wise, to be able to do it all.”

And consider Schneider’s harping on versatility:

“Versatility, size, 6 2 and a half, he can play all three spots.”

Let’s get to the tape.

Coverage

Barton’s coverage ability is rare for a linebacker. Like the original Charizard card. Barton benefits from being a converted strong safety, understanding the finer points of pass defense to be a shutdown linebacker. One of the biggest compliments to his talent was that Utah entrusted him with the same coverage assignment as a safety in certain green-zone (inside the 10) situations.

Take him covering running backs in the flat, either in man coverage or as a spy looking for “threat out of the backfield.” He avoids the pick routes designed to delay him and gets out there with speed. He runs to where the running back will be with accurate aiming points.

He even showed ability covering running backs in man coverage split out wide in empty—which is exactly how Seattle deploys their linebacker. Indeed, “the way their man defense here is pretty similar,” commented Barton.

The best example of his ability to cover running backs one-on-one came against Washington State. The crafty Mike Leach loves to sprinkle a running back wheel route in with his mesh concept. When the quarterback sees a linebacker running downfield with the back, the Wazzu sideline gets giddy and the passer’s eyes light up.

Yet Barton perfectly stayed in phase with wheel routes all game against the Cougars. He didn’t overcommit on initial swing routes, instead taking sound angles to gain leverage, come down on the flat or turn upfield with the wheel. Barton shut down James Williams, one of the best receiving backs in college football who ran a 4.58 forty at the NFL combine.

As a hook defender, Barton benefits from his near-constant scanning. He ran well when matching the tricky mesh shallow crossers of Washington State, designed to conflict him. He also got a tackle in the “kill-zone” against Arizona State’s mesh-sit concept (like mesh, with two shallow crossing routes, but the receivers nestle down against zone). This hit was exactly how Seattle wants their linebackers to play, not melting past the checkdown but coming down hard for a compression tackle.

Sure, as Barton admitted, “the zone drop’s a little different,” in Seattle. However, it’s the traits he plays with that are so encouraging. Against deeper quarterback drops, he skillfully adjusted the depth of his shell landmark. Faced with hitch/snag style routes from receivers, Barton basically run the route for the offense. Always looking for work in coverage, he was a suffocating blanket, acting as a terribly difficult, sticky underneath layer for offenses to pass through. His coverage feel and anticipation, moving with the route without needing to look at it, is superb.

There’s a discussion that the Seahawks will continue their theme of going into more “Middle of the Field Open” pass defenses. This has grown louder with the departure of Earl Thomas. It would require a linebacker to be able to play the “high hole” and somewhat close the middle of the field, with the two-high safeties covering deep half shells/matching. Wagner has shown himself to be highly skilled at this assignment. Barton did too in college, taking routes into the high hole away and removing the read for the quarterback.

For Seattle in their more typical Middle of Field Closed, single-high, cover 3 variations, they sometimes require more of one of their inside linebackers. The league has long transitioned from a “pure spot-drop” approach to zone coverage. The Seahawks have their “indicators,” pre- and post-snap, to turn the zones more “match-y.”

The greatest example is the “match F3C.” This tasks a linebacker with trail coverage on the final 3 crosser. It’s generally used against trips as a way of coping with the bind four verts puts the deep, single-high safety in. But it’s a brutally tough assignment that even Wagner has struggled with on occasions. Seattle has additionally assigned “match F3C” to a linebacker as a more aggressive way of somewhat closing the Middle of the Field in two-high pass defense.

Barton, in college, had little difficulty with the assignment—both in two-high and one-high defense. He correctly processed the final 3 crosser, fully displaying his impressive movement skills. By turning his body in such a manner, he maintains sound leverage and walls the inside of the field for the receiver. This also pushes the stem downfield, where he can get underneath the route and run with the deep crosser.

Range and motor

The best off-ball linebackers in the NFL all seem capable of flying from sideline-to-sideline, making plays all over the field and destroying offenses with speed. Range and motor are the key aspects. Barton’s 40-time in the 4.6s doesn’t quite make him continent-covering, but he’s close to that thanks to instant change-of-direction skills and twitch.

Even better, he has a hunger and relentless attitude that makes him a tenacious, aggressive pursuer of the football. He will always look to join the pile and eats up space like Pacman after five double espressos. This suits the requirements Seattle has for their Mike and Will.

Blitzing

Such excellent pursuit traits lead to exciting blitzing opportunities. Ken Norton Jr. will be salivating over the prospect of sending Barton to attack evil quarterbacks. Barton: converts speed-to-power, is violent in contact, reacts quickly as a “green dog,” has bendy-dip around the corner and possesses slippery agility to twist around centers. Furthermore, he is always looking to finish his blitz with a nasty hit. (Yes, that’s first-round left tackle Andre Dillard who Barton ducked around for the pressure) The Seahawks love sending an inside linebacker through the interior gaps. Barton in pre-season against third-string offensive lines feels abusive.

Run Fits

Ahhh. The run game does still exist. Playing in the front 7, an NFL linebacker must be able to stop the run. Particularly in the “nickel is base” NFL world, where Seattle’s front is made up of 4-2 personnel rather than 4-3, Barton must be able to play against rushing attacks.

“A lot of the fits are the same,” Barton illuminated. That makes sense, given the base run fits for the two Seahawks inside linebackers (Mike and Will) are the B-gap and A-gap. (Stack A, and Stack B is what Seattle calls it) On the games studied for this article, Barton was mainly tasked with fitting these gaps too.

When attacking downhill against the inside run, not sitting and reading, Barton takes the “bull-in-a-china shop” metaphor to a whole new level. Imagine the china shop was painted scarlet, sold exclusively crimson china and there was a matador audition out front. (Watch out Arizona and San Francisco!)

Turns out the red thing is a myth but don’t let that spoil the imagery.

When kept clean by a defensive lineman in front of him, Barton thunders downhill with the anger of Zeus. This toughness combines with quick diagnosis for play-breaking potential. Running backs cut away, blockers are spilled, and the offense is broken. The wreckage provides the defense with frequent opportunities. It lends itself to Barton being an excellent proposition as what Seattle calls a “run through” defender from the Mike spot in the run fit.

Barton’s maneuverability also meant that, when reading off a two-gapping 2-technique (head up on guard), he was able to fast flow well with runs away and make tackles.

Occasionally, Barton’s read-and-react technique left him out of shape. He reads the game well, but keying off the steps of offensive tackles put him in poor positions. This is something that can be refined with NFL coaching.

On outside runs to his B-gap, Barton occasionally overruns the play. Utah clearly coached their linebackers to go over the top of blocks and their B-gap inside linebacker to get outside of pullers, taking them on and then setting a new alley.

This suits the “TAN,” turnback assignment that Seattle gives their Will and Strong Safety. Essentially, the TAN player is tasked with fitting their gap first, but then getting outside of any puller, free offensive lineman or fullback.

But Barton, even with excellent puller and cut-block recognition, sometimes overdid it. Rather than coming downhill, he went too sideways and ended up making the o-lineman’s task easy. He ran himself out of the play while massively widening his initial gap.

Ultimately, though, there’s no way that Barton’s dynamism and scent for the football doesn’t translate to the NFL game. Plays designed to halt his flow outside don’t work. He was frequently too quick for OL going outside.

Giving him a clearly defined role in an NFL defense and harnessing more of his attacking traits will see him succeed as a run defender. Getting him downhill quick against the inside run and flowing fast versus outside carriers will accomplish this.

The negatives on tape appear fixable. This extends to the last two.

A lot of Barton’s tackles were arm-based, which is easier for running backs to run through and can result in injuries. The root cause of this was Barton overrunning plays and not staying on the near-hip. A lot of college defenses coach their linebackers to “see ball, get ball”, which has its disruptive advantages but results in tricky tackling angles.

The other issue is Barton taking the “see what you hit” mantra too literally, not throttling down and then leading with his helmet when contacting an opponent.

Seattle literally did the video on shoulder-based, leverage tackling and Barton should be able to adjust to this.

As a Seahawk

This brings us to Barton’s development. Based on the tape, there is no reason why Barton can’t be a fantastic third-round selection and eventual starter on Seattle’s defense. What it all comes down to is whether #57 can learn the Seahawks’ scheme and improve his existing errors.

Barton certainly seems to have the correct approach, having made “tons of notes” on Seattle’s playbook while describing himself as “a guy who works hard and tries to do his 111th for the football team to make the team better.”

Learning under Wagner, Wright and other seasoned veterans in the linebacker room makes it an excellent spot for a rookie too. “He’ll have a chance to learn under tremendously experienced guys,” added Carroll. Again, Barton has the right idea: “I’m gonna stick to [Wagner’s] hip, K.J.’s hip and just see their routine, what works for them and what makes them a great player and just learn as much as I can from those guys.”

Barton may well be vying for the spots of his mentors sooner rather than later. He is a rookie who warrants serious excitement. Thank goodness the Seattle Seahawks drafted Cody Barton in round 3 with the 88th selection.