End Of Season Position Analysis, Part Three: Linebackers

by: William P. Tomisser

Seattle has had one of the best corps of linebackers in the league the last two years since we signed Julian Peterson, not counting the season just concluded. Lofa Tatupu made the pro bowl his first three years in the league and Peterson made the pro bowl his first two years with Seattle. Even with those two making the annual trip to Hawaii, it was the third linebacker Leroy Hill who has been called Seattle’s best linebacker by the other two who have gotten the most recognition.

In the 2008 season, Seattle’s defense inexplicably had a down year and failed to live up to the expectations from the rebuilding process that had been in progress the last two seasons. None of the Seattle linebackers were invited to the pro bowl this year.

Niko Koutouvides and Kevin Bentley were both lost to free agency in the 2008 free agent period, which hurt Seattle’s depth and special teams play. Fortunately, we picked up D. D. Lewis, a former Seattle starter who was able to come in and provide quality backup.

Here’s how the Seahawk’s linebacker roster looked as the 2008 season ended:

Outside Linebackers

  • David Hawthorne
  • Will Herring
  • Leroy Hill
  • Julian Peterson
  • Lance Laury
  • D. D. Lewis
  • Wesly Mallard (injured reserve)

Middle Linebacker

  • Lofa Tatupu

Although Seattle only lists Tatupu as a middle linebacker on its depth chart, D. D. Lewis and David Hawthorne are listed as the reserve middle linebackers.

Leroy Hill is Seattle’s most significant free agent in 2009. He will probably command a hefty salary, although he has been injured part of every season since being drafted in 2005 as one of Tim Ruskell’s initial draftees. He played 15 games in 2005 and 2006, 14 games in 2007, and 12 games in 2008. He was also playing hurt at times when he was in the game and as such wasn’t playing to his full ability. Whether that will hurt him in free agency remains to be seen.

The other issue with the Seahawks’ linebackers is that Julian Peterson looked as if he may have lost a step this season and didn’t make the pro bowl for the first time since being signed by Seattle. Some might say that it was Seattle’s overall defensive performance that caused him not to be selected, but the stats tell a different story.

His tackles and assists were in the ballpark when compared to the last two years; however, although he had sack totals of 10 in 2006 and 9.5 in 2007, he only registered 5 sacks this season. Also, he had an interception in 2006 and two in 2007 but none in 2008. He just didn’t have the numbers that separate the elite linebackers from the above average ones this season, which is what caused him to be overlooked.

The real concern with Julian Peterson is that his salary escalates from a base salary of 3.5 million in 2008 to 6.5 million in 2009. He was paid a base salary of 1 million in 2006 and 2 million in 2007, which then jumped to 3.5 million this year. When his signing bonus (11.5 million spread over 5 years) is added in, his cap number for next year becomes 8.8 million. Walter Jones will make the most next year at 9.8 million and Peterson will be second. Hass would be third at 8.75 million.

The question is, can we afford to pay Peterson the second highest salary on the team if he’s not the elite impact player he was the first two years for us? The team needs to determine if he is capable of turning it around next season and returning to the form he displayed in 2006 and 2007.

Secondly, they have to determine if they can afford to pay Hill a similar or higher salary by franchising him. Lofa Tatupu will come in a somewhat distant third in those sweepstakes, but the total cap hit from the linebackers could be 20-25% of the team’s entire cap. Does Ruskell’s value chart show that linebackers are worth that much of the team’s cap?

On the other hand, signing Hill could make more sense than continuing to pay an aging linebacker like Peterson whose cap value goes up another million in 2010, which could make him the Seahawk’s highest paid player under the cap by then or at the very least equal to Jones. I think that something will have to be done with Peterson this off-season. I would like to find a way to keep this trio of linebackers intact for another season, but the only way I see that happening is to ask Peterson to restructure and hope that Hill doesn’t get an over-the-top offer from another team which Ruskell can’t afford to match.

In an earlier post, I brought up the possibility of losing both Peterson and Hill because of Peterson’s high salary and Hill getting a huge offer from another team. While not likely to happen because of the problems it would cause the team in addition to all the other areas that need attention, I don’t think you can ignore the possibility it could happen and leave us with two big spots to fill. D. D. Lewis could man one of the spots, but it could cause us to look at drafting a linebacker to fill the other spot and we’d certainly be scrambling to acquire backup linebackers and maybe special teams players again.

Lofa Tatupu is still a solid middle linebacker and effectively locked up by Seattle for the rest of his career. That’s a relief when you think about all the years Holmgren searched to find us a middle linebacker and all the players we went through before we got Lofa.

The future of the Seahawks’ linebacking corps is pretty well defined if we can re-sign Leroy Hill and manage to persuade Julian Peterson to take a bit of a salary cut. We have good backups in D. D. Lewis, who should be resigned, as well as Herring and Mallard, both of whom should be back to compete for a position on the roster in 2009. It wouldn’t surprise me to see us draft a linebacker somewhere in the lower rounds and maybe even acquire one as a second tier free agent to bolster our depth and round out our special teams.

Of course, if we lose either Hill or Peterson, we’re going to have to get more aggressive in our search for a replacement by maybe drafting a linebacker higher and/or maybe looking at a first tier free agent.

Aaron Curry from Wake Forest is considered the nation’s top outside linebacker, with Clint Sintim from Virginia and Sean Weatherspoon from Missouri also projected to go in the first round. Rey Maualuga from USC is considered the top inside linebacker, and James Laurinaitis of Ohio State and Brandon Spikes from Florida also figure to be picked somewhere in the first. Given that we sign Hill and reach an accord with Peterson, I doubt that we’ll be looking at a linebacker until at least the 5th round.

Right now, Seattle’s linebackers are probably their strongest unit. If we can manage to keep them intact, that’s one area of the team we can set aside when we’re plugging holes and trying to upgrade other parts of the team. If we have bad luck with retaining our outside linebackers, it could become one of the most vital areas to fix. It’s certainly an area to keep an eye on from now until the free agency period starts and on into the draft.