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.)