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Why Seahawks see no need for more competition at linebacker

Seattle Seahawks v Buffalo Bills Photo by Timothy T Ludwig/Getty Images

Minicamp has barely finished, the Seattle Seahawks don’t report for training camp for more than a month, but the calls for the team to add competition at the linebacker spot are strong from several fans and observers. In particular, there has been a steady chorus of calls for the team to bring back K.J. Wright, and while that remains a possibility, it’s almost July and that not only hasn’t happened yet, it seems unlikely.

That, of course, leads to the question of why, and the simple answer is that there are a whole lot fewer question marks at the linebacker spot than there are elsewhere on the roster. Specifically, here are the players currently on the roster at the position.

  • LB1: Bobby Wagner
  • LB2: Jordyn Brooks
  • LB3: Darrell Taylor
  • LB4: Cody Barton
  • LB5: Ben Burr-Kirven
  • LB6T: Aaron Donkor
  • LB6T: Nate Evans
  • LB6T: Jon Rhattigan

In short, that’s six-time, first team All Pro as the unquestioned starter at middle linebacker, a 2020 first round pick with 367 career snaps who is all but locked in as the starter at WILL and a 2020 second round pick with the inside track on the SAM spot. Some have been quick to wonder how the team could be so readily confident in the ability of Taylor to learn the responsibilities of the position and perform at a level that does not negatively impact the team. The answer to that question requires looking at two separate matters.

The first of these matters is the number of snaps linebackers play on defense for the Seahawks, so here are what those numbers look like for the nine seasons the league has published snap counts.

LB snaps per season for Seahawks under Pete Carroll

Season LB Snaps Defensive Snaps LBs per snap
Season LB Snaps Defensive Snaps LBs per snap
2012 2414 1002 2.41
2013 2221 1042 2.13
2014 2312 979 2.36
2015 2525 996 2.54
2016 2361 1080 2.19
2017 2528 1098 2.30
2018 2421 991 2.44
2019 2951 1072 2.75
2020 2741 1152 2.38
Average 2497 1046 2.39

Basically, the point of that table is to demonstrate that the Hawks on average have somewhere around 2,400 to 2,500 snaps from their linebackers over the course of the regular season. Yes, the last two seasons have seen those numbers be somewhat higher, which is not surprising given the question mark at the nickel corner spot in 2020 following the Jamar Taylor experience in 2019. In any case, hopefully the defense doesn’t suck as bad in 2021 and can actually get off the field during the first half of the season, which should lead to fewer overall snaps, relatively speaking given that there are 17 games to endure play this season.

Now, before digging deeper into that, here is a look at the snap counts played by the top two linebackers for the Seahawks by season during this timeframe.

Defensive snaps by top two LBs for Seahawks since 2012

Season LB1 Snaps LB2 Snaps Combined
Season LB1 Snaps LB2 Snaps Combined
2012 865 850 1715
2013 860 739 1599
2014 918 659 1577
2015 968 905 1873
2016 1073 1052 2125
2017 1022 956 1978
2018 925 517 1442
2019 1054 997 2051
2020 1142 991 2133
Average 981 852 1833

Putting this together with the numbers from the first table, it’s clear that there are probably somewhere in the neighborhood of 500 defensive snaps for a linebacker not named Brooks or Wagner on the roster.

Assuming Darrell Taylor plays all of those roughly 500 snaps at SAM, is that something Seahawks fans truly need to worry about for a player seeing his first action at the position?

To answer that question, the logical next step seems to be to look at the responsibilities of the SAM in Pete Carroll’s defense. To do that it’s possible to dig deep into the Field Gulls archives to find this 2011 piece from some guy name Danny Kelly titled, The 4-3 Under Defense, Part I: An Introduction. Reading up on the primary responsibilities off the SAM in Carroll’s defense, Kelly writes,

[I]n a basic 4-3 Under, the SAM linebacker is lined up to the outside shoulder of the tight end off the line of scrimmage a yard or two and is responsible for the D gap (to the outside of the tight end). He’s also responsible for running in pass coverage from time to time.

...

The SAM linebacker needs to be athletic and rangy; great against the run but able to run with tight ends and running backs in pass coverage.

In short, the primary focus of the SAM linebacker is basically being good against the run, with an occasional need to drop into coverage. Now, Taylor will certainly need to learn the intricacies of the linebacker position and the details of his responsibilities against various opponent formations, because he played defensive end in college he should understand the basics of holding up against the run as the last guy on the line of scrimmage.

Add in that with Wagner and Brooks locked in to the top two spots, the Seahawks can sub Taylor out when they go to nickel looks in passing situations, and the Hawks can work to limit the amount of times he’s forced to drop into coverage. Basically, his usage on down and distances where the opponent is more likely to run will limit his exposure in coverage, while maximizing the amount of his job which is stopping the run. Basically, Taylor won’t likely be asked to do a whole lot at SAM that he didn’t do at defensive end in college, at least in 2021.

Lastly, getting back to the 500 or so snaps that will be expected of Taylor, that’s a ballpark. However, assuming the Seahawks are good this season and handily defeat some of their weaker opponents, like the Jacksonville Jaguars, the Houston Texans, Detroit Lions and the San Francisco 49ers, there should be some garbage time snaps available to Barton and BBK. Those two have combined for 155 and 124 defensive snaps in their two seasons in the league, so assuming they can come in somewhere in that area again, it would leave just 350 to 375 snaps at the linebacker needed from Taylor.

The interesting part about that number is that here are the number of snaps that defensive front seven defenders have played in their rookie season in recent years.

  • 2015: Frank Clark - 323
  • 2016: Jarran Reed - 477
  • 2017: Malik McDowell - 0
  • 2019: L.J. Collier - 152
  • 2020: Jordyn Brooks - 367

With the exception of the less than phenomenal return on the McDowell selection in 2017, an expectation for Taylor to be on the field for 350 to 400 defensive snaps at SAM, primarily as a run defender, doesn’t seem all that unreasonable.

And makes the seeming lack of competition at linebacker completely reasonable.