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June 3, 2014 at 5:32 PM

Wagner optimistic for breakthrough year from linebackers

wagnerlok

The focus of the coverage after Monday’s OTA was understandably on the linebackers who weren’t there.

But assuming that the injuries are all as initially advertised, the bigger picture of the Seattle linebacking corps is of one that could be on the verge of a breakthrough season.

That may sound a little strange on the surface, given that the linebackers played a key role in last season’s run to the Super Bowl, none moreso in the ultimate game itself than Malcolm Smith, who was named the MVP.

But for much of the season, the linebacking corps was often more seen than talked about, in part due to what was a little bit of a revolving door due to injuries and suspensions. The opening day starting trio of middle linebacker Bobby Wagner (above in a John Lok photo), weakside linebacker K.J. Wright and strongside linebacker Bruce Irvin started just seven regular season games together.

Irvin missed the first four games due to a suspension for PEDs. Wagner missed two games at mid-season due to a sprained ankle. And Wright missed the final three regular season games with a foot injury.

Those injuries, though, created the positive byproduct of Smith essentially becoming another starter, while never technically listed as one when everyone was healthy. He ended up starting eight games in 2013, three in place of Irvin, two in the shuffling created by Wagner’s injury and three more in place of Wright.

And that means Seattle now has four linebackers with extensive starting experience after entering last year with just two — recall that this time a year ago there was more-than-ample consternation about the Seahawks linebacking corps, specifically in replacing the experience and production of Leroy Hill.

Now, Seattle has a two-year starter in the middle in Wagner, whose return-to-health down the stretch was a key for the Seahawks, particularly in their improved play against the run.

Seattle also now has a three-year starter in Wright, who appears entrenched at the weakside linebacker spot, having proven to be one of the better coverage linebackers in the NFL a season ago.

And then Smith and Irvin, now with a least a half-season of starting games at linebacker under their belts, to apparently battle it out at the strongside spot, though with Irvin also slated for a healthy dose of rush end (LEO) duty in passing situations, there figures to be lots of snaps to go around for both.

Seattle also is high on the potential of fourth-round pick Kevin Pierre-Louis, drafted initially to play weakside linebacker (and who looked to be pretty active in Tuesday’s OTAs judging by his prominence in a few pictures from the photo gallery on the team’s official site).

Also still in the mix are veteran MLB backup Heath Farwell, also a special teams captain last year, Mike Morgan and O’Brien Schofield.

That could lead to some tough decisions down the road for the final roster spot or two.

The key, though, is the first four of Wagner, Wright, Irvin and Smith, a quartet that on paper has the potential to rank among the best in the NFL.

Wagner, speaking to the media after Monday’s OTA, said in answer to a question of whether linebacking corps has a nickname yet that he understands why media attention a year ago went primarily to the Legion of Boom secondary when discussing Seattle’s defense.

“I feel like we’ve got to earn a nickname,” he said. “Those guys (in the secondary) are Pro Bowlers and All-Pros. We’ve got to earn some stuff first. But I feel like that’s going to happen this year.”

Given their experience and prior accomplishments, Wagner and Wright might be first in line for earning “some stuff.”

Monday, Wagner basically put that expectation on himself.

“I really want to stand out as a middle linebacker,” he said. “I feel like you’ve got to be the leader of this defense. I know the secondary does a great job. But I really want to stand out as a middle linebacker and make a lot more plays and be a lot more vocal and really just stand out.”

Asked if there’s an area of his game he needs to improve to make that happen, Wagner said “man coverage. I feel like I could do a better job in that. And just being more precise in run fits and stuff like that.”

Overhanging the linebacking corps is that each of the top four will  become unrestricted free agents over the next two seasons — Wright and Smith following the 2014 season and Irvin and Wagner following 2015 (and who knows if the Seahawks might make a pre-emptive strike to take care of a Wright or a Smith now, as they did with Earl Thomas and Richard Sherman?)

The contract situations will undoubtedly create some tough decisions down the road. For now, Wagner says he and the linebackers are keeping their eye on the immediate prize.

“I think we are really focusing on making sure we are running to the ball,” he said. “Really showing our effort right now to try to perfect everything and pick up where we left off last season.”

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