The USC backup crew

March 11th, 2013 | Written by Kip Earlywine

Might Mike Morgan be the Jeron Johnson of the linebacker corps?

During an interview at the Scouting Combine Pete Carroll talked about the team’s needs, and one of the things that struck me was his seeming ease about the linebacker situation.  He joked about Seattle’s current linebacker situation at weakside linebacker, referring to his “USC backup crew” with a tone of affection.  While upfront about upgrading many areas of the team, Carroll implied that he was only going to seek “someone to compete” with this trio of players.

That group of linebackers- Malcolm Smith, Mike Morgan, and Allen Bradford- all played for Carroll at USC and all ran good forty times.  Bradford had a 4.56 (at 242 pounds), Morgan a 4.46 (pro-day), and Smith a 4.44.  Both Morgan and Smith tilt the scales under 230 pounds, often considered a “cutoff point” for most evaluators.  Bradford was a running back at USC and outside of his time on the practice squad last season, he hasn’t played linebacker since high school.  Factor in Korey Toomer (4.53), a 5th round pick from last season that spent some time on the practice squad, and we have four fast linebackers that can play the weak side already.

We already have a ton of fast linebacker prospects.  Granted, each and every one of them has an issue to deal with.  Mike Morgan is undersized.  Malcolm Smith is undersized and was highly injury prone at USC.  Allen Bradford is learning the ropes again at linebacker.  Korey Toomer was more of an athlete than linebacker last preseason- a player that struggled badly in everything other than his surprisingly potent pass rush ability.

If Seattle acquires another linebacker, and it sounds like they probably will, that player will have to compete with four other players for the final linebacker starting job.  Or maybe Seattle can’t make up their mind and ends up platooning multiple linebackers at the weakside- just like they did last season for Moffitt/Sweezy at guard and Johnson/Guy at big nickle safety.

It wasn’t long ago that I presented the case that Seattle might have to draft a fast linebacker early, because this draft class is thin in that area relative to previous years.  After hearing Pete Carroll’s comments and realizing how athletic our current backup linebackers are, I’m starting to think the opposite might true- Seattle might add a linebacker in the back half of the draft- barring a draft coup at linebacker falling to them in the 3rd or 4th round.  Seattle has the depth and talent to survive a season with a “backup crew” manning the weakside linebacker spot- arguably the least valuable position on our defense- a position where “adequate” is the norm for most 4-3 defenses.

Morgan went undrafted and Bradford was a late round pick by Tampa Bay as a running back that was quickly released that same year.  Seattle signed Bradford off waivers, placed him on the practice squad, and in late December of last year, finally promoted him to the active roster.  Bradford missed most of the 2012 preseason but I personally thought he impressed in his lone performance against Oakland.  His speed and size were plainly evident.  He could lay a hit and played with more instincts than I would have expected.  Toomer was a 5th round pick last year and Smith was a 7th round pick in 2011.  The combined draft expense of these four linebackers was the same as the price the Jets paid Seattle to move down four spots in the second round last year.

As you can see, Seattle is in the business of hunting value at linebacker.  Why does it feel like we’ve seen this before?  It’s because Seattle has used the same scatter shot approach to cornerback and big nickle safety.  Seattle has drafted or acquired via undrafted free agency a corner and a safety in every offseason to date.  That tactic netted us a megastar in Richard Sherman, a pro-bowler in Kam Chancellor, and several quality backups and special teams contributors.

It would appear that so far Seattle is using the same tactic at weak side linebacker.  Malcolm Smith had two touchdowns last season on special teams, and has been no stranger to quality play even though he rarely sees the field.  Mike Morgan filled in for both Bobby Wagner and KJ Wright at times and was a minor star during the 2012 preseason.  He’s a lot like our big nickle safety Jeron Johnson but at linebacker.  Both are players with strong preseason performances and have shown themselves to be adequate or better in real games.  Morgan plays bigger than his 226 pound size and Johnson also plays above his size and speed limitations.  Johnson is a fringe starter (in nickle packages), but a quality one just the same.  Might Mike Morgan be our fringe starter at weakside linebacker in 2013?

If Bradford can build on his good showing in the preseason finale last year, Seattle might already have a fairly robust competition underway for the final starting linebacker job.  And all are fast enough to offer Seattle a fast starter at that position.

Then you factor Korey Toomer’s athletic upside, and you can see why Pete doesn’t seem terribly stressed about weakside linebacker.  He’d still like to add one more, but I no longer think that indicates a priority.  It indicates that he’s in the habit of spending late round picks on scatter shot choices to increase depth and competition, and to perhaps find a diamond in the rough while doing it if he’s lucky.

It’s also possible that Pete Carroll and John Schneider just don’t like this linebacker class very much, and could be holding off for a future offseason which boasts a stronger group, as they did at receiver during the 2012 draft.  I wouldn’t rule that out, especially since this draft isn’t all that great in my opinion for fast linebackers.

With this in mind, I’m going to very quickly post some thoughts on the all the fast linebackers or potential fast linebackers that performed at the combine.  Of course, you will always have non-combine players to watch for (one example being former USC athlete/linebacker Jordan Campbell), so this list won’t be 100% comprehensive, but it should cover all the options that clocked around 4.65 or under (or didn’t run but would be expected to be that fast).  The fastest linebackers run in the mid 4.4s, and the slowest run in the mid 4.8s, so I think 4.65 is a good median to work with.  Remember, these aren’t scouting reports, just quick hits of what I think of each player in a few sentences after watching each of them during the past few weeks:

Zaviar Gooden (4.47): Gooden is the only linebacker this year with clear 4.4s type speed in this draft.  On tape, he is a slight framed looking player but the speed really shows.  I think his instincts are just fine- but he is so aggressive that he often overshoots and misses tackles.  Obviously, with speed like that, Gooden’s upside in coverage is pretty good.  Hands down the fastest linebacker in this draft, but funny enough, he’d only be our 4th fastest linebacker on our team if the Seahawks draft him.  Mid round projection.

Arthur Brown (estimated speed:  4.45 to 4.55 range): Brown did not run at the combine.  Brown has speed and impressive burst, but like Alec Ogletree he is more of an athlete than a linebacker.  Pete Carroll raved about Brown coming out of high school though, calling him the best linebacker he’d seen in many years.  And coming from a guy that ran linebacker U, that’s saying something.  Brown struggled for most of his college career before finally posting a solid season in 2012 for Kansas State.  I don’t think Seattle would draft Brown early, but if he slipped to round three I could see the temptation being there.

Jelani Jenkins (estimated speed: 4.50 to 4.60 range): Jenkins didn’t run at the combine, but you can see on tape that he can cover ground in a hurry.  That’s about the only thing I like about him, though.  He utterly lacks physicality- it’s like watching Kelly Jennings the linebacker.  John Schneider said he thought the underclassman linebacker group was intriguing.  Jenkins is the only underclassman linebacker to possess above average speed (Alec Ogletree ran in the 4.7s).  I’d hate this pick, but it bears watching.  Funny enough, by sheer coincidence both Brown and Jenkins will have their pro days tomorrow (March 12th), so we should get a more scientific idea of their speed by then.  Mid round projection.

Cornelius Washington (4.55): Washington was more of a defensive end for Georgia, but he’s so underdeveloped that it’s not a stretch to draft him as a linebacker/end hybrid and see where he ends up.  His combination of size, speed, strength and athleticism is highly reminiscent of Aaron Curry, which is actually a good thing for a potential late round pick.  Pete Carroll was a huge fan of Curry’s potential before arriving in Seattle and discovering the horrible truth.  Washington could be a player to watch as a high upside project at either outside linebacker or LEO.  Mid to late round projection.

Trevardo Willams (4.57): Standing just 6’1″ with 32″ arms, Williams will not see his game translate as a defensive end in the pros.  However, his build, speed, and diagnosis ability paint a promising picture as a linebacker convert.  If viewed as a linebacker, Williams would be one of the fastest linebackers in this draft despite also weighing 241 pounds.

Jonathan Bostic (4.61): Bostic has just okay speed, basically on the good side of average.  His tape leaves a lot to be desired.  He wears concrete shoes in zone coverage, hardly even tries to get off blocks and reads the run poorly.  If Seattle did draft him, I would be shocked if he made the roster.  Played middle linebacker.  Mid round projection.

Ty Powell (4.64): Powell is a rare player capable of playing at all three levels of a defense.  He played safety for a junior college, but has the size to play defensive end and the speed to play linebacker or safety.  Powell played at the lowest level possible, so it’s hard to judge speed fairly, but he looked fast and there’s a little Bobby Boucher in him as a hitter.  Powell could be a player to keep an eye on in the very late rounds as Seattle likes versatile players with physicality.

Jamie Collins (4.64): Collins made a name for himself at the combine with a towering 41.5″ vertical jump and a combine best broad jump.  Collins played mostly standup end and when he wasn’t doing that he was a 3-point stance end.  He plays the position like a linebacker though, which is why he is often listed as one.  Collins doesn’t handle blocks well and plays mentally slow.  He did have good production, but he played in a small conference and his tape hardly wows.  In a lot of ways, Collins reminds me of a slower Korey Toomer.  Mid to late round projection.

Sio Moore (4.65): Moore is a one of the better linebackers in this draft and boasts one of the most compete packages of skills.  He is worth respecting as a LEO type pass rusher, he’s quick to diagnose, he reads a quarterback’s eyes in zone coverage while trying to hide his presence by staying low, and he’s a good tackler.  If only he had Gooden’s speed, he’d be a star.  Unfortunately, Moore’s speed on tape looks as average as his combine number indicates.  I personally don’t think he’s fast enough for Pete (same goes for Khaseem Green who ran a 4.71), but we’ll see.  Round two or three projection.

AJ Klein (4.66): Though average on the track, Klein is sneaky fast and explosive in short areas.  Klein rarely ventures behind enemy lines and makes his living on damage reducing tackles downfield.  Klein takes on blockers willingly without losing himself to them, and has excellent instincts and reaction speed.  He has the short area burst to be an effective zone coverage player.  Klein’s upside is fairly grounded, but he’s a natural linebacker and you might even say he’s a bargain bin version of Luke Kuechly with less speed and less upside.  Played middle linebacker.  Mid round projection.

Now, compare those times to what Seattle already has.  Smith a 4.44.  Wagner a 4.45.  Morgan a 4.46.  Toomer a 4.53.  Bradford a 4.56.  Wright a 4.75.  Seattle doesn’t need another slow run enforcer like Wright (Mike Morgan did a great job in that role during the preseason despite his size, and Bradford has the size and power to be a natural SAM).  The fastest linebacker in this whole draft might not even crack Seattle’s lineup.  Even the undeveloped athletes at linebacker would be less athletic than many of the options we already have.  That says to me that Seattle probably won’t invest big at linebacker this year, instead opting for a late round or undrafted prospect to bring in for competition.  I could potentially see Seattle showing interest in Arthur Brown if he slides.  A selection of Alec Ogletree, Khaseem Greene, or Sio Moore in the earlier rounds would surprise me.  Gooden, Washington, Williams, Powell and Collins strike me as the most realistic options as they will probably be selected in the rounds 4-7 range of the draft.

*(Interestingly, Malcolm Smith is the brother of Steve Smith the lesser (the one who had 1200+ yards with the Giants in 2009).  Steve Smith was a member of the St. Louis Rams last season.  Another linebacker with a famous brother, Arthur Brown is the brother of the Eagles breakout running back Bryce Brown.)

34 Responses to “The USC backup crew”

  1. xo 1 says:

    Thought-provoking piece. I suspect you’re right and that – unless there is a screaming value – there are certain positions that the Seahawks will not spend first round draft capital on. I’d guess running back, outside linebacker, strong safety, tight end, and perhaps corner back. In fact, as the team moves toward being able to implement a true best-player approach, I’d guess JS would like to add offensive line, wide receiver, and defensive line to the list.

    So long as JS can continue to draft effectively, there are only a couple of positions – quarterback and left tackle, foremost – where churn may not be able to get it done. Maybe number one wide receiver falls into that category as well, although it looks like this year will be an exception to the general challenge of getting a game changer outside the top half of the first round.

    I can foresee Seattle synthesizing the approach of Baltimore and Green Bay going forward. In fact, if Seattle can ink a defensive tackle in free agency (either before the draft or become confident that at least one of the DTs on the market will be available to them at a price they’re willing to pay), I would argue that Seattle is position to go best player available this year. That is, the lineup has reached the point where you are drafting for depth and development rather than a starter. (If so, let’s hope we don’t end up like SF, where we get no contribution from the draft in year one – I suspect PCJS are savvy enough to be able to target weapons who can contribute first year even if they don’t start.)

  2. Lou Thompson says:

    Zavier Gooden is overrated. Jamie Collins is underrated.

    Either way, OLB isn’t and hasn’t been a top priority and guys like K Greene or Arthur Brown will never be selected because they’re 2nd round selections.

    The only guy worthwhile is A Ogletree, who has speed like a DB and can tackle, but poor off the field decision making would likely be off PC/JS board and he’s 1st round material. Og stays clean and shows maturity, he’ll be an impact NFL baller.

    I can see us adding OLB competition in round 5 as a special teams player with potential to start but at this juncture, that’s all I can see through PC/JS’s eyes and drafting strategy for a 4-3 defense.

  3. Richard says:

    Kip your banging. You lay these guys out in a short effective way that makes it easy to sort out their value. Thanks

  4. Steeeve says:

    Excellent piece, Kip. I have been saying for a while that the WLB spot is the least important spot in the base defense. Not to denigrate Rob’s work (you’re both awesome), but I can’t see them taking Khaseem Greene or even Ogeltree there if he fell. We have some good athletes for that spot and they only really need to be average. It’s not like Leroy Hill was a world beater. If we were going to take a player who will be on the field less than half the time, I’d rather we take Trufant or another situational pass-rusher who will be a bigger net upgrade to what we have now. PCJS seem comfortable with what we have and I’d be truly shocked if they selected a linebacker before day 3.

    • DJ says:

      I’ve read this assertion a lot but I’ve never heard a schematic explanation. Can you say why that role is the least valuable?

      • WLB plays away from the strong side of the formation and is typically subbed out in nickle packages. WLBs, especially in our defense last year, play a lot of zone coverage and weakside run defense, which means a lot of standing around doing nothing. Nickle corners and big nickle safeties matter less, but they aren’t “starter” positions.

        This is why it’s pretty rare to see 4-3 teams playing premiere talents at 4-3 WLB. It’s among the least valued positions in free agency and the draft too.

  5. Sam Jaffe says:

    I think the move that makes the most sense for the Seahawks is to try another shot at the Dexter Davis project. They took him in the 6th round and then asked him to be a LEO and a backup WLB. We never saw how well it worked out because he kept getting injured. But there are a number of these players who would make sense for that role: Collins, Williams, Moore. It kills two birds with one stone and also creates the most value with one guy. It also frees up two early draft picks that would otherwise have to be spent on a backup LEO and a starting WLB.

  6. John says:

    Please God tell me this Percy Harvin stuff is a lie. I have heard TERRIBLE things about Harvin’s attitude. I am super nervous about this information.

  7. Colin says:

    Not to change the topic, but Adam Schefter just tweeted out that Seahawks are favorite to land Percy Harvin in a trade. Interesting to see this unfold.

  8. Ed says:

    As long as we don’t give him $10 million when his contract expires, I think it would be a good move. We need weapons for Wilson. Harvin in young, dynamic and plays a position in need (Rice – always hurt/Tate -inconsistent (but looks like him and Wilson have chemistry/Baldwin – always hurt). In the next year, all three could be gone.

  9. Colin says:

    Done deal. Percy Harvin is a Seahawk.

    • Colin says:

      Our 2013 1st round draft choice. Wow. Pete and John are not impressed with the 1st round this year.

      • Cameron says:

        Why would they? They just got a transcendent young talent. Not often you find those at the back of the 1st round.

        • Eric says:

          He’s only transcendent if he’s healthy (both physical and mental). I understand that this is contingent on Harvin passing a physical, but still I think the price is awfully high.

          • Barry says:

            I’m not sure what i make of this deal. Harvin is looking for Calvin Johnson money. For a player that hasn’t really show to be a difference maker on the field and has heath concerns.

            Talent can be found anywhere in the draft and is every year. Pete and John aren’t going to play the lesser, they tend to beat the rush and get ahead of the other teams. I imagine they see this as a good value deep draft like so many. So they grab a talent like Harvin and play from the back with options to move around and not be predictable.

      • I think it has a lot more to do with how they view Harvin. They could have signed guys like Mike Wallace in free agency for less money and no picks, but still chose Harvin. Harvin is the ultimate running WR in the NFL, and is the prototype for a John Schneider WR, as he’s shown a clear preference for quicker YAC types. Seattle just spent BIG. I think the spent so much because they believe Harvin will be their version of Wes Welker, while also adding value on rushing plays, read option, and kick returns.

  10. Cysco says:

    Crazy! Well they wanted to get a play maker for Wilson. Boom!

    Also sounds like the Hawks are finalizing a new contract for Harvin. Anything less than $8mm a year is a good deal IMO

  11. Ely says:

    Well receiver is covered. Trade up for Sheldon Richardson is the next move!

  12. Cysco says:

    If it’s just our first, that’s a steal! IMO.

    I wonder if Leon is gone.

    • peter says:

      1st, 7th, and a mid rounder next year……I hope this trade works.

    • Michael says:

      I would have to think that what was Leon’s money is now part of Harvin’s money… As far as cost goes, it is being reported on 710AM as our 1st and a 7th this year and a conditional mid-rounder next year.

      Here is the way I’m gonna look at it: This is about what it would have cost to move up from #25 into the 19-22 range. Percy Harvin is far better than any player you’re gonna get in the 19-22 range. The only downside for me is the money we are gonna have to pay him. Some of that will be offset by cutting Leon, and perhaps more can be saved by restructuring Miller or Rice’s contract this year or next.

      This will certainly put a damper on the build up to the draft. Hopefully they can swing a Matt Flynn trade and move up in the second round to get into that 35-45 range and bring back some of the draft day excitement.

      • Eric says:

        That may well be what’s in the works (Flynn trade). JSPC usually have multiple tricks up their sleeve. At least one can hope.

        Still getting used to this, but the more I think about it, we’re getting an elite receiver with versatility who would be a top 10 pick in this draft. My only concerns are his knee and attitude. In JSPC we trust, right?!?

  13. John says:

    Wow… I am so anxious about this deal. Gonna try hard to trust Pete and John. But I’m nervous about it.

  14. Turp says:

    Seahawks acquired WR Percy Harvin from the Vikings in exchange for a 2013 first-round pick, 2013 seventh-rounder, and a middle-round pick in 2014.

  15. Eric says:

    Excellent piece Kip. I sincerely appreciate the detailed info on prospects about whom I knew precious little.

    On a different topic – since this article was strictly on mid- late rd prospects – I fear JSPC just spent waaaay to much on Harvin. I recognize his talent (a top 15 pick in most drafts – even higher for this draft), and his versatility. I just worry about his knee and his attitude. No doubt they interviewed him very carefully regarding the latter, and an intensive physical will either confirm or deny the former.

  16. Leonard says:

    I think a good mid to late round option to add to the competition is Jon Major from Colorado. One of the few bright spots on the team. His pro day will be telling but he is estimated at 6-2, 240 lbs. and a 4.55 40yd. Every time I have seen him on tape he looks very fast so the time could be legit. His game film is some of the most impressive I have seen from LB’s this year. Unfortunately that isn’t saying a lot. He has played all 3 spots at Colorado and special teams.
    He gets through traffic well and explodes to top speed as soon as he sees a crease to the ball carrier. When he gets there he is a violent tackler who actually wraps up when going for the big hit. He is also a very effective blitzer who gets to top speed quickly. I haven’t seen a lot of him in coverage but what I have seen was good enough. Looked good recognizing the screen and swing passes to RB’s. When he did drop he wasn’t great but didn’t look out of place either. Speed and aggressiveness seemed to make up for a lack of insticts and DB hips to a decent extent.
    I don’t know how to add links but try doing a search for Jon Major at premierscoutservices.com . They do a very in depth break down of him. They were so high on him, I wouldn’t be shocked if they represented him somehow. I think he has some film up on YouTube now too.

  17. Scott says:

    At last, the right focus on assessing draft prospects against our own roster instead of against other draft prospects! Great piece…

    I’d love seeing an article with the same approach but for our DT/DE group. One player in particular is Clinton McDonald. Compare his measurables against any in this draft, and then tell me how this draft gives us any upgrade from what we already have?

  18. dave crockett says:

    “Zaviar Gooden (4.47): Gooden is the only linebacker this year with clear 4.4s type speed in this draft. [...] but funny enough, he’d only be our 4th fastest linebacker on our team if the Seahawks draft him. Mid round projection.”

    Gooden is *probably* a tad faster than the 4.47 time. He’s still making it all the way back from a hamstring injury, and since he ran the fastest time for LBs at the combine he didn’t run at his pro day.

  19. Stuart says:

    Is it true that the new DC called DT Jaye Howard a poor mans DT Shariff? Seeing how he coached both players, he would know more than anybody. It has been posted here before about the new DC calling for more blitzing and be more creative in putting pressure on the QB, sounds awesome to me.

    • Rob Staton says:

      When watching tape of two together, I have to say there was a light year gap between Floyd and Howard in 2011. At least that’s the impression I had when I went back to the Howard tape a couple of months ago.