In 2019, rookie Cody Barton joined a Seahawks linebacker group teeming with experience between Bobby Wagner, K.J. Wright, and Mychal Kendricks. Though Barton saw the majority of his snaps on special teams as a rookie, the future appears bright for a player whose skillset is in line with the direction the game is going. Following Kendricks’ departure from Seattle, Barton could be set for greater opportunities on defense in the 2020 season. In the long-term, he could help to make up the foundation of the defense alongside first-round pick Jordyn Brooks.
I spoke with Cody Barton about K.J. Wright and Bobby Wagner’s mentorship, his rookie season, playing linebacker in the modern NFL, and more.
As someone who was a teenager during the Legion of Boom-era and the Seahawks’ Super Bowl victory, what were your expectations coming into Seattle and such a well-known program, and what was it like when you got into the locker room?
Yeah, it was actually funny when I got drafted, it said “Washington” and a 425 area code, so I thought it was going to be Washington. I didn’t realize it was them (the Seahawks) until it actually showed my name on the TV. So many friends and family in my ear, everyone was yelling stuff, so I couldn’t hear anybody I was just saying “Thank you.” Then, I saw on the TV it was actually Seattle, the whole time I thought I was talking to Washington.
Once I was going to Seattle, I knew it was a defensive-minded team, they had a reputation for a good defense and so that made me feel good because, playing in Utah, it was a defensive-minded team. Obviously being a defensive player I was pumped about that.
As far as going in, I kept my expectations pretty open. I didn’t know what to expect, I knew there was a lot of good players there especially in the linebacker room with K.J. and Bobby. I didn’t really know what to expect and I didn’t want to get the wrong idea in my mind or overthink things, so I kept my mind open about it. When I got there, seeing how things were run, how everyone is disciplined, smart, takes it very seriously, and has fun with it at the same time—when I first got there it was very fun joining a team like that.
As a prototypical modern linebacker as far as skillset, who did you model your game after while you were in college, and are there linebackers around the league you still watch and try to mirror?
In college whenever I watched NFL tape, which wasn’t a ton, I liked watching Luke Kuechly and Bobby Wagner. It’s ironic because I ended up going to Seattle and am fortunate to play with him and learn from him. Even in the NFL, I’m still studying Kuechly, Bobby, and K.J.—I study Bobby and K.J. a ton. Not only in person, on tape going through their whole careers.
It’s a different circumstance that I’m in, because coming in with two All-Pro linebackers and learning from them and the experience they have. They’re almost 20 years of combined experience. It’s a unique experience because they have so much experience over the years and the things I can learn from them is second to none.
I can’t imagine a better incubator for a young linebacker to come into.
It’s been amazing. Watching them, they probably don’t know but I study everything they do. How they are on the field, off the field. Every little thing, I’m always just watching them and soaking up like a sponge all the things. Taking mental notes all the time, just little things how they act, how they speak, how they own themselves. Just everything, I’m always watching them. The things they’ve done, they’re both going on 9 and 10 years in the league, the things they’ve been doing have gotten them this far so they’re doing things right. I’m picking up all the things they do.
How do you feel your rookie season was? You played predominantly on special teams but got on the field on defense late in the year and displayed the coverage ability we anticipated from you. Do you feel it was a successful first year?
Yeah, I do, I feel like my first year was a good year. A ton of learning, a ton of learning. Like you said a lot of special teams. Something surprising about the NFL, different from high school and college, how special teams at those levels—even though I was on special teams in high school and college, and you took them seriously—the sense of urgency people have in the NFL. People make careers just on special teams. I noticed that, I could feel the energy of a lot of players, how truly serious special teams is in the NFL.
Like you said, later in the year, I started to see some more action. A ton of learning last year. I feel like I actually learned more in my first rookie season than I have in football my whole life. So looking back on this year, of course, I want to be that guy who is on defense all the time, but that being said, being behind K.J. and Bobby, the things they taught me is second to none.
You mentioned the energy of special teams and the players on it, and speaking to Ugo Amadi earlier this offseason, he talked about the way Neiko Thorpe sets the tone for that group. How does he lead that unit?
He’s the special teams man, he’s the special teams captain and we all look to him for leadership. He’s been around the league for a while and he knows his stuff, he’s smart. Those older guys in the room, you lean towards those guys because they know what’s going on.
Everyone is open to sharing information and helping the young guys out and teach as much as they can. They know this game doesn’t last forever so they want to get the most out of it for themselves, but also for their teammates. That’s something I love about Seattle.
How much did it help to have a fellow linebacker in Ben Burr-Kirven to go through your rookie season with?
It was cool coming in with Ben because I remember at the combine, everything is in alphabetical order. So we were always right next to each other in line, we would always chat and over those days became friends, exchanged phone numbers and said, “Wherever you get picked up, let’s stay in touch.” Then it was ironic we both got drafted to the same team and so, I remember when he got drafted I texted him like, “No way man what are the chances.”
Training camp we roomed together, Ben is very intelligent and playing together, helping each other study, go through the whole year together on special teams and all that kinds of stuff. We built a friendship, I feel very close to him and we’ve been good friends since. It was nice to have another linebacker drafted with me just because I wasn’t just all alone, we could help each other out. Two minds are stronger than one, so it was the biggest thing we just helped each other out throughout the whole year.
As the Legion of Boom has left Seattle, Bobby Wagner has taken on a greater leadership role. At least from the outside, he has always seemed to be a soft-spoken person, so I’m curious what kind of leader is he, whether it’s in a 1-on-1 setting or the defensive group?
I wouldn’t say he is a man of few words, I would say he is a man of precise words.
As far as a leader goes, Bobby is a great leader. He leads by example, he leads vocally, on and off the field. One-on-one, he’s not a man of few words, he’ll speak to you and he’s honest and knows his stuff. I remember there were times where I would be one-on-one with him and he is talking to me, not just about football, tell me all the tricks of the trade and this and that, but just about life. Tell me things he’s gone through, his experiences, and helps me learn as a man.
As a team, I will say he’s not a very crazy outspoken person, as in super talkative to everybody all the time. I think I’m a pretty talkative person, but it’s funny to see that switch turn on when it’s more playing football, how outspoken he becomes. It makes you think of pre-game, the speeches he gives before games, how much energy. It’s cool to see the game bring out different types of people that you normally wouldn’t see.
Do you think there’s something about the Seahawks and Pete Carroll’s program that empowers that? There’s a story about Kam Chancellor, early in his career, basically being forced into giving a speech, and then from there, he grew into an amazing leader. Is it just a part of that building and the people in it that brings it out of guys?
Speaking in front of people can be nerve-wracking, but the culture in Seattle is such a, it really feels like a family unit. Everyone is so close that there’s not really any uncomfortable places to speak, to speak in front of all your brothers. That culture that we have, we’re always saying one heartbeat, it makes it even easier to speak in front of the whole team and be in that leadership role.
You were one of the best coverage linebackers in your draft class and obviously, K.J. Wright has been one of the premier cover linebackers for almost a decade now. How has he helped you as a player adjust to the NFL?
K.J., first of all, is just a very intelligent player. Upcoming 10 years under his belt, he has seen it all, so to see how he conducts himself with preparation for games, he knows how to explain things to me that some people might not be able to do. As far as the pass coverage goes like you said, a very good coverage linebacker and a lot of your pass coverage is done pre-snap when you look at formations and tendencies, you know what’s coming. Like I said being intelligent, he knows when things are coming and how wide to get, how deep to get or not really drop at all. He has just taught me little things and showed me little things that have helped my pass game a ton.
Coming from college to the NFL, in college, the pass game was crazy, all the spread offenses in the Pac-12. You don’t know what you’re going to get week-in, week-out, versus the NFL, things are more similar across the board. You get variations here and there but for the most part, teams are pretty similar and you know what you’re going to get. It’s funny because in college we did a lot of our reads off of keying receivers mainly, and in the NFL you’re more keying on the QB which is actually easier than college. Just the things he showed me to make plays, get interceptions and TDs, have stuck with me and I look forward to showing on the field.
The few games where you did get extended runs on defense, it looked like your depth dropping into coverage was perfect as far as taking everything away that you needed to.
That’s just things I picked up from watching Bobby, watching K.J., studying how they drop, knowing the correct depth, and all that kinds of stuff. It’s really studying those guys, seeing how they play. They don’t know it but I’m taking mental notes 100% of the time when I’m around them.
The coaches in the NFC West, especially Kyle Shanahan and Sean McVay, thrive off of finding and exploiting mismatches. As a linebacker who is kind of matchup-proof because of your coverage ability, are those the kinds of games you look forward to?
When you’re a competitor, you look forward to and accept challenges. That’s just something I look forward to. Like you said, I like playing the pass game and that’s one of my strengths, I take pride in that. As the game leans towards more the pass, I think I’m in a good spot to make more plays, and as the years come prove myself as the best pass coverage linebacker.
After the playoff win against the Eagles, K.J. Wright told reporters it was the “Cody they had been waiting for,” as far as playing free, instinctive, and fast. I would imagine that kind of comes with more time on the field—did you feel that yourself and is it something that will carry into 2020 for you?
Yes, 100%. I remember that game and I did feel very free. It was a different kind of situation because I was playing the SAM linebacker and that’s not my position. The couple games I was SAM before that I felt very out of place, I didn’t feel comfortable and it was just something I had to make do with. As time went along, more reps and more experience, that game was where I really felt comfortable and I was finally able to free myself and make plays. It’s funny K.J. said that, he never said that to me.
I’m not sure if you were on the field for this play or not against Philadelphia, but it was one of my favorite plays of the season so I’m curious if you have any memories of it. Third-and-six from Seattle’s 6-yard line, K.J. Wright is in coverage against Dallas Goedert but passes him off to Bobby Wagner to chase Josh McCown down for the sack before he can scramble for a first.
I remember that play, that is a perfect example of trusting your teammates. He and Bobby have such good chemistry, he didn’t even have to look he knew Bobby was going to be there. As that coverage came across he knew he could just pass it off and saw the quarterback widening out, so he could pass it off, shot his gun, and just went after the quarterback. That’s just a perfect example of the chemistry and the trust in his teammate.
Were you familiar with Jordyn Brooks before he was selected by the Seahawks, or have you come to be familiar with his game? How do you think your respective skillsets will complement one another?
Before the draft, I didn’t know who he was, but that being said I don’t know any other college football players. Since he got drafted they showed his highlights, he looks like a great player. Aggressive, downhill player that’s fast. That’s something we both have, we’re both fast, we both fly around. I think together, in the years to come, we’ll be able to play with some speed, strength and it’s going to be cool to see it play out and see what happens.
Seattle added another player to their linebacker room this offseason in Bruce Irvin, who kind of embodies the Legion of Boom Seahawks in that he is a badass. I’m curious what has been your initial impression of Irvin and what are you looking forward to most about playing with him?
He was up here in Seattle working out with us a few times and so I talked to him a little bit. I liked him off the bat, he was a very friendly guy. He’s a hard worker and he’s funny too, I’m looking forward to getting in the room. What I’ve heard from the other guys too is he’s a great teammate, a good friend, and brings the energy to the room. I’m looking forward to, once we can finally get back whenever that is, and really getting to know him and some of the other new guys who are coming in.
In the offseason, you got the chance to train in Seattle with a number of guys, including Kam Chancellor and Richard Sherman. Different positions, but two people who mastered Pete Carroll’s defense. Did you get a chance to talk to them much?
When we were out there, Kam was talking to the safeties and Richard was talking to the corners, so I didn’t really get a chance to talk to those guys but being a fly on the wall around them and seeing how they conduct themselves and helping the younger guys out with their wisdom, it was cool to see them with the younger guys and the respect they get from those guys, how their word is so powerful to younger people. Even though I didn’t get to talk to them, it was even fun to be around them and have their presence there. You can just feel their knowledge if that makes sense.
How much do you think Marquise Blair is going to benefit from Chancellor’s mentorship?
I think a ton. They both fly around and smack people. Playing with Marquise in college and just knowing him, he’s a very athletic dude, he’s got all the physical tools, he’s a smart kid, and he’s tough. I’m just excited for Marquise’s career to see what he can do in the future because I know personally as a teammate and as a friend what he’s capable of.
Winding down here, I wanted to get your side of the story: Pre-game ahead of the Saints game in Week 3, you hit Pete Carroll in the face with a football.
I knew you were going to bring that up! Nah I’m kidding.
In the big picture, it was no big deal. Pre-game warm ups, my defensive coordinator Ken Norton is throwing me the football, as I threw it back to him, once the ball was in the air, here comes this guy running across through the middle of us and the ball just happened to hit him right in the face. I thought it was no sweat because right as it hit him I went over to say sorry but he just kept jogging so I thought, “Oh he’s good.”
Then I go to the locker room before the game, after warm ups are done, and walk in, he didn’t know who hit him, he’s got a nasty gash on his nose. I was lobbing the football how did it cut his skin like that? I was like, “Hey sorry about your nose,” and he was like “Oh that was you!” But he kind of made a joke and gave me a hard time, but then gave me a hug and said, “No problem I ran in front of it.”
Now I throw the ball and I’m super careful. When I first went up to him to tell him it was me and apologize, I was pretty uncomfortable even though I knew it was an accident. I was still uncomfortable, like I just hit my head coach in the face with a football.
How do you feel the virtual offseason went for you?
Going into the virtual offseason I didn’t know how it was going to go, doing everything over an iPad or a laptop. I didn’t know what to expect, but it honestly felt like we were all there. I learned a ton, everything we did over the iPad it really put you, it really felt like we were all together physically. It was interesting because we would come together as a team and as a defensive unit, break up into linebackers and special teams, and so we would bang it all out and learn a ton.
I felt like it was a big challenge at first as a team, there would be times where there were technical difficulties and this and that, but we all attacked it with the same mindset of, “We’re here to not just go through meetings on some iPads or whatever but to really grow as players,” and that’s what we accomplished.