Bobby Wagner and K.J. Wright were key contributors to the Seahawks’ success in 2012. But the defense’s top tacklers from a season ago have shown this offseason that they’re just getting started.
Bobby Wagner’s rookie season was a series of pleasant surprises.
The Seahawks selected the Utah State middle linebacker in the second round of the NFL Draft with the idea that he could replace three-time leading tackler David Hawthorne, who was allowed to sign elsewhere in free agency. But just in case, veteran Barrett Ruud was signed in free agency.
Once Wagner beat out Ruud, who was traded to the New Orleans Saints in late August, the coaches didn’t want to overload the rookie by having him call the plays in the huddle and remain on the field in the nickel defense. It took Wagner all of a couple of regular-season games to show he could indeed shoulder the full load.
Before he was done, Wagner had registered 140 tackles – the most by a Seahawks player since 2000 and the fifth-highest total in franchise history behind Terry Beeson (153 in 1978), Chad Brown (150 in 1998), Anthony Simmons (147 in 2000) and Michael Jackson (141 in 1981). Wagner also intercepted three passes, collected two sacks and finished second in voting for NFL Defensive Rookie of the Year.
So what does Wagner do for an encore? Even more, and even better.
“The guy who’s had a really good offseason is Wagner – in terms of the approach and that kind of stuff,” said first-year defensive coordinator Dan Quinn, who counted Wagner among his best players this spring along with All-Pro free safety Earl Thomas and linebacker K.J. Wright.
“One of the things that kind of fires you up about a guy like him is his approach, like, ‘OK, what are some things I need to do better?’ He’s totally trying to get his game to a spot that he aspires to go to, which is a cool thing.”
And Wagner’s aspirations are admirable. He wants to be recognized as one of the best players on one of the best teams in the league.
“That’s why you play this game at this level, isn’t it?” Wagner asked, shrugging his shoulders and smiling.
Aside from Wagner and Wright, however, Quinn and linebackers coach Ken Norton are eagerly awaiting the start of training camp practices in late July so an assortment of players who are long on athletic ability but even shorter on experience can stake their claims to roster spots and even the starting berth on the outside opposite Wright.
Wright finished second behind Wagner with 96 tackles last season, when he played on the strong side. This spring, the coaches have utilized Wright’s 6-foot-4 frame and long limps on the weak side – where veteran Leroy Hill was the starter the past two seasons.
“You don’t realize how long K.J. is until you stand next to him,” Quinn said. “Then you’re like, ‘Wow, that’s one big dude.’ So Bobby and K.J. have totally impressed me.”
Malcolm Smith started three games last season for Hill, an unrestricted free agent. And it was Smith who got most of the work on the strong side with the No. 1 unit this spring. A seventh-round draft choice in 2011, Smith brings elements that coach Pete Carroll covets most in a defensive player – speed and athleticism; speed and aggressiveness; speed and tenaciousness.
Also in the hunt for roster spots, and playing time, are Mike Morgan, who had six tackles while starting a game for Wright last season; Korey Toomer, a fifth-round draft choice last year who missed his rookie season after having shoulder surgery; Allen Bradford, a running back at USC under Carroll who transitioned to linebacker while on the practice squad last season; Kyle Knox, who also was on the practice squad last year; and veteran Heath Farwell, the leading special-teams tackler in each of his first two seasons with the Seahawks.
“The developmental part is OK from the young guys who haven’t played a lot,” Quinn said. “But of those players, who’s going to step up and grab it? That, to me, is one of the really cool questions going into (training) camp.
“There’s Bradford and there’s Knox and there’s Toomer. It will an important time for them over the five weeks (in the break between the minicamp and training camp). They know the system now after having been through the OTAs and minicamp. Now it’s, ‘How well do I have the details down; can they put me in and know I’m going to get the job done?’”
With Seahawks linebackers, it all starts with the W’s.