RENTON, Wash. — Past looked present at practice for the Seattle Seahawks on Thursday.
KJ Wright was present for their fifth organized team activity, albeit only as a visitor. The longtime Seahawks linebacker and current free agent is interested in playing in 2022, but only if an opportunity arises in Seattle. He doesn’t want to be away from his family anymore like he was last year in his only season with the Las Vegas Raiders. The Seahawks and Wright have discussed a possible return, but as general manager John Schneider said, it would likely be in a non-playing role.
Wright is one of the most important players in the most successful era in franchise history, but the Seahawks are starting a new chapter at linebacker. And they’re more eager to see fourth-year pro Cody Barton join Jordyn Brooks in the starting lineup than you might think.
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After mostly spending his first three seasons as a special teams player and backup behind Wright and Bobby Wagner, Barton is finally getting his chance with the two missing franchise cornerstones.
“I think people are going to be surprised how well he’s playing,” a Seahawks talent evaluator said.
Barton has five starts since the Seahawks drafted him in the third round in 2019 out of Utah. He had 18 combined tackles in place of an injured Wagner in the final two games of last season.
It was indeed a audition for the starting job that opened up when the Seahawks released Wagner in March. The only inside linebacker they signed in free agency was Joel Iyiegbuniwe, who earned minimum wage to fill in and play on special teams. They didn’t draft a linebacker with any of their nine picks.
“Really good at the passing game,” Barton’s new defensive coordinator Clint Hurtt said. “He’s always had a great awareness of that. He has safety training growing up and then obviously worked his way through the box, so you see some of those things with his awareness and picking up the passing routes and the communication with the guys at the back. … The effort, the attention to detail for Cody has always been a part of that, but now he has a great opportunity, and he’s had a really great spring so far. here.
As Barton replaced Wagner in the final two games, Brooks was capping off one of the most productive seasons of any NFL linebacker. The 2020 first-round pick finished with 184 tackles, finishing second in the league and beating the Seahawks mark in a single season. That total was in part due to the time Seattle’s defense spent on the field — it led the league by a wide margin — but also to the progress Brooks has made since his rookie season.
Not that Year 2 was perfect. But even with the occasional difficulty Brooks had on-screen pass recognition — at one point prompting mild public criticism from coach Pete Carroll — he looked like a Pro Bowler in the making.
With Wagner’s departure, Brooks will take over as Seattle’s defensive signalman.
“He had an amazing season last year and he just keeps getting better, and you can see the raw talent he has,” linebacker/back Nick Bellore said. “…He took the pieces, I think, of Bobby and KJ that [they] kind of taught him along the way, and I think he just took it and ran with it. I think a guy who can run like that and cover like he does and hit like he does, I think the sky’s the limit for him.”
The transition away from Wagner and Wright could have happened sooner if not for Ken Norton Jr., their former position coach and one of their biggest defenders. Long before he was fired as defensive coordinator earlier this offseason, Norton developed a reputation within the organization for being reluctant to play young players, oddly enough in several cases.
In 2019, for example, he favored a heavyweight defense that routinely kept a third linebacker on the field — veteran Mychal Kendricks, not Barton — instead of inserting a fifth defensive back in rookie Ugo Amadi. It baffled some inside team headquarters when second-round rookie Marquise Blair, despite games in three previous substitute starts, didn’t start late this season as Quandre Diggs was laid off. ‘difference. Brooks played sparingly early in his 2020 rookie season even though Seattle had just drafted him 27th overall. It took an injury to veteran Bruce Irvin to get him into the starting lineup.
“We’re going to be playing youngsters,” Hurtt said. “They will come onto the pitch. We have to prepare them. They are the future. But at the same time, we have to make sure the best players are there.”
Whether or not Wright returns with the Seahawks in some capacity, he and Wagner will both find themselves in the team’s main ring. They are third and first on the franchise’s all-time tackles list, respectively. In the meantime, Wagner continues to add to his Hall of Fame resume with the Los Angeles Rams.
“It’s a game where someone has to step in and fill those roles,” Bellore said. “I think we obviously have the guys to do it. Those are big shoes to fill.”