Though they haven’t quite injected high-level talent into the holes they entered the offseason with, the Seahawks have gone about filling needs since free agency opened. The offensive line, EDGE, cornerback, wide receiver, and tight end have all been added to, with varying degrees of talent.
One spot that remains unfilled, however, is one of the more unique spots on the roster—SAM linebacker. It’s unique because, in Seattle, that player has to also act as a pseudo EDGE, exemplifying what Pete Carroll once described his defense as, “A 4-3 personnel system that plays 3-4 looks.” Previously, it has been filled by Bruce Irvin, Barkevious Mingo, and, most recently, Mychal Kendricks. (Mike Morgan, too, started as the team’s SAM, but in a more traditional sense.)
Among the aforementioned trio who were able to play both facets of the position in the Seahawks’ system, Irvin was the one who truly offered a complete skill set. A free safety in junior college and a defensive end at West Virginia, Irvin was comfortable dropping into space in coverage as well as rushing the passer. His diverse skill set has yet to be properly replicated. (Irvin will be back in Seattle for 2020, but should not be asked to replicate the role he previously played. When Irvin first transitioned to an EDGE/LB hybrid, he was a spry 250 pounds—since then, he has bulked up considerably and is a true defensive end.) Mingo and Morgan didn’t offer much rushing the passer, while Kendricks struggled in space and as a pass rusher.
The Seahawks have added depth to their defensive end spots in free agency, so while the pass rush remains a question mark, they may try to further aid it with a nickel rusher—a player who can also serve as the starting SAM linebacker.
The best candidate in this year’s draft to play both roles in Seattle’s defense is Wisconsin’s Zack Baun, who has enjoyed a (mostly) positive pre-draft process. Baun went to the Senior Bowl and impressed both as a pass rusher and a stand-up linebacker—with his speed showing up in a major way at both spots. Between the Scouting Combine and the Badgers’ pro day, Baun tested in the 95th and 83rd percentile among EDGEs for the short shuttle and three cone respectively—two tests that are key in the Seahawks’ evaluation of rushers.
As a pass rusher, Baun is as electric off the edge as any sack artist in the draft’s second tier. Combing a lightning-fast first step with dynamic flexibility, Baun was able to turn the corner on tackles consistently as a senior, when he totaled 13 sacks, 12 QB hits, and 28 hurries, per Pro Football Focus. Baun’s burst and flexibility are at a level where, even if he does not develop further as a rusher, he’ll find success through those elite traits alone. When engaged, Baun is relentless with his hands, but it is more frenetic than refined. Further development with his technique could further elevate Baun’s ceiling as a rusher.
While Baun’s fluidity and comfort in space enable him to play off-ball linebacker in addition to EDGE, it’s also something that’s a necessity because of his size—a slight 238 pounds. As a full-time EDGE, Baun would find himself at the point of attack consistently and be a liability. Taking on pulling linemen in space, Baun puts up a fight and can defeat blocks. On the edge, he can be overwhelmed. As a senior, Baun was credited with a stop on just 12.3 percent of his snaps against the run.
The team that selects Baun can minimize that negative by continuing to deploy him as an off-ball LB in base packages. Baun consistently and comfortably dropped into coverage at Wisconsin. During his junior and senior seasons, Baun dropped into coverage on 195 snaps, while allowing just 112 yards and coming away with two interceptions and three pass breakups, per PFF. In zone, Baun has the quickness to drop and to react and close on underneath routes; in man coverage, Baun is able to flip his hips to open up and carry a tight end or running back downfield.
There are a few other prospects, available on days one and two of the draft, who could potentially fill a similar role to Baun in the pros. Michigan’s Josh Uche saw time both off-ball and as an EDGE in 2019, but his lack of testing and inability to get on the field with any regularity when healthy is concerning—he is likely better off as a pure pass rusher. Notre Dame’s Julian Okwara may be forced off-ball due to his dreadful run defense and one-dimensional pass rush skill set, but he did not drop into coverage at all for the Fighting Irish. Penn State’s Cameron Brown could draw interest, too, but he is even slighter than Baun and scarcely rushed the passer in college.
Among the prospects in this year’s draft who have upside both as a pass rusher and as an off-ball linebacker, Baun would bring the highest ceiling in both areas. With college production and a highly positive pre-draft process, Baun should get his name called in the range of Seattle’s first pick.
The role of a SAM linebacker in Carroll’s defense is a unique one, and it just so happens Baun is a unique prospect.