In Tim Ruskell’s half-decade with the Seattle Seahawks, he spent more in draft value and coin on linebacker than at any other position. Ruskell reacted to the loss of Steve Hutchinson with the signing of former San Francisco 49ers linebacker Julian Peterson; struck early gold in his first draft with the team with Lofa Tatupu and Leroy Hill; and went big on Aaron Curry in his last Seattle draft. Tatupu and Hill received lucrative extensions and Curry is still trying to live up to his status as 2009’s fourth-overall draft pick. Millions of dollars and a great deal of focus later, what was Pete Carroll left with when he and John Schneider took over the team in January of 2010? A still-undefined linebacker corps in which an undrafted afterthought may have been the most valuable member of the group.
It’s a long way from being ranked as the 80th best linebacker in your draft class by NFLDraftScout.com to leading your NFL team in tackles at two different positions in two different seasons, but that’s the journey taken by Hawthorne, the undrafted free agent who signed with the Seahawks in 2008 and couldn’t wait to make an impact by any means necessary. When Tatupu missed 11 games in 2009, Hawthorne took over and was one of the bright spots in a dismal season.
And in 2010, when Hill was hurt and eventually placed on injured reserve, Hawthorne kicked over to the weak side and player very well. The Seahawks signed Hawthorne to a one-year, $1.38 million extension in November of 2010, and any more excellence should have the team thinking more long-term. It’s rare that you see a linebacker with this kind of versatility who can play at a starting level. With all the high-priced guys at his position, Hawthorne has been the Seahawks’ most valuable linebacker on more gamedays than anybody expected when he was picked up off the scrap heap.
Curry was an athletic freak at Wake Forest – he was able to do everything in college. Whether he was asked to clamp down on the run, rush the passer, or even drop back into coverage at 6-foot-2 and 250 pounds, he was able to do it. It wasn’t a surprise that the Seahawks took him with the fourth overall pick in 2009; there were those who counted Curry as the best player in his draft class at any position. What’s been a surprise is that for a man of his sheer athletic gifts and on-field acumen in college, Curry’s struggled to make his way at the NFL level.
By selecting Curry so high – he was the highest linebacker taken since Penn State’s LaVar Arrington a decade ago – the Seahawks put themselves in a financial pickle. In a move now made famous in the book, “Scorecasting”, the contract given to Curry (six years, $60 million, $34 million guaranteed) cost the Seahawks more in guaranteed scratch than the Houston Texans and Green Bay Packers paid in a guaranteed first-contract sense for Brian Cushing and Clay Matthews … combined.
With that in mind, it may be impossible for Curry to ever live up to what the Seahawks paid for him. The question now, as it was for Peterson, is where best to put him. One of the first things Carroll did after taking over was to get cut-ups of Curry and see how he could be used as a pure pass-rusher. But Curry doesn’t possess the edge speed you see from other guys in his size class like Pittsburgh’s James Harrison, and that makes him more of an inside defender, reliant more on reading the action in front of him. Carroll has said that he sees Curry as a potentially dominant player on the strong side – especially closer to the line of scrimmage – but as long as Curry’s still a work in progress, he’ll be seen as anything from a slight disappointment to an outright bust, depending on where your opinion lies.
The epicenter of Seattle’s defense since he showed a prodigal ability to read defenses in his first minicamp, Tatupu had a bit of a rebound year behind the multiple fronts set by Carroll and defensive coordinator Gus Bradley. He played the run better than he did the pass in 2010, and that’s a trend that has been pretty clearly established in recent years. When he came into the league, Tatupu was able to drop back as well as any Tampa-2 linebacker you could name, But as he bilked up a bit, and injuries started to take their toll, Tatupu didn’t flash quite the same athleticism in space.
Always reliant on a big man at the line, Tatupu flourished in the first half of the 2010 season when Red Bryant and Colin Cole set the edge and tied up blockers in the middle. Tatupu is at his best when he’s able to read and flow through gaps to make plays and create stops. But when Cole and Bryant were hurt mid-season, the same thing happened to Tatupu that happened when Marcus Tubbs started his sad injury slide out of the league – Tatupu was relatively lost in a sea of bigger blockers he couldn’t overpower.
Tatupu underwent arthroscopic surgery on both his knees after the season; it’s hoped that he’ll continue to benefit from a Carroll defense as he did at USC. He had a good season in 2010, but the questions linger, and his name as a defender doesn’t hold the same cache it used to.
Hill started the 2010 season by re-negotiating his contract (or, we should say, it was re-negotiated for him), and ended it soon after by going on injured reserve in October with an injury to his Achilles’ tendon. Adding his repeated troubles with the law, and NFL suspensions – not to mention how well Hawthorne played when he took Hill’s spot – it’s tough to imagine Hill wearing a Seahawks uniform ever again. Whatever Hill gave the Ruskell administration, all Carroll and Schneider inherited was trouble.
With Hill out of the picture, Herring became the backup ‘backer, playing particularly well against the run. According to Football Outsiders’ data, of the nine running plays that went his way in the 2010 regular season, all nine were stops – in other words, plays in which the estimated average yards toward a first down are not gained. Herring is an excellent backup who should be retained.
Matt McCoy and Dexter Davis flash potential, but there is a pretty big drop between the starters and the depth in this linebacker corps. The Seahawks may look to fortify that depth in the later rounds, but with so many other needs to be filled if this team is to return to the playoffs, Carroll and Schneider may be better off hoping that all the money spent in previous years pays off well enough as the rest of the team is built around that group.