Saturday Spotlight - The Linebackers

With the Seahawks' linebacking unit in a serious state of flux, who might the team turn to in the draft? Ryan Rigmaiden, .NET's college expert, reviews the best of the future NFL prospects.

Seattle’s 2004 linebacker corps was thought to be a strength heading into the season. Overall talent and depth had never been better, giving fans unprecedented optimism about their ‘Hawk defense.

But OLB Chad Brown’s injury started an avalanche of misfortune for the unit. After Brown broke his leg, putting him on the sidelines for over two months, top backup D.D. Lewis was placed on injured reserve, ending his season before it even began. Then Brown’s counterpart, OLB Anthony Simmons, required shoulder surgery, forcing him to miss three games. What was once a unit with Pro Bowl potential had now become the trio of Tracey White, Orlando Huff, and Isaiah Kacyvenski. But even Kacyvenski couldn’t shake the injury curse and missed snaps due to an injured ankle. White is out for now and questionable for next week with a hamstring injury.

After their snake-bitten starts, Brown is out for at least the regular season and Simmons is gone for the rest of the sear with a wrist injury. Huff hasn’t shown anything worthy of true starting material and it seems more and more clear that rookie MLB Niko Koutouvides will be starting in his place.

While this season is still up for grabs, Seattle’s front office will have to make some key decisions about this unit in 2005.

First and foremost, they’ll have to decide if Chad Brown’s coming back. Despite constant changes in defensive schemes, players and a new head coach, Brown remained a constant force on the outside, making an impact from his typical OLB position, but also as a nickel pass rusher. But after two seasons marred with injury, the Seahawks, and Brown himself, have to wonder how much his 34 year-old body can take. There’s no doubt that Brown won’t be they type of player that keeps playing despite his obvious declining talent. Instead, Brown will probably choose to leave the game gracefully and not tarnish the career he’s fought so hard for. That, in turn, will mean the ‘Hawks will be looking for a new starting strong-side linebacker for the first time in seven years. Time has shown that it won’t be easy.

Second, GM Bob Ferguson will have to settle on a MLB, whether it’s Niko Koutouvides or someone else. Depth will also be a concern. While D.D. Lewis, Tracey White and Isaiah Kacyvenski have proven themselves valuable, both as starters and on special teams, Orlando Huff and Solomon Bates have shown little. It’s quite possible that the ‘Hawks will need to add three new LB’s to their 2005 roster.

2005 NCAA Linebacker Prospects

Derrick Johnson, OLB Texas
6'3" 230

NFL Comparison- Keith Bulluck, Tennessee

The definition of playmaker, Johnson has proved his worth for the past three seasons at Texas. Johnson thought about leaving for the NFL last year when scouts informed him that he could go higher than Jonathan Vilma, 2004's first LB taken, but he returned to Austin for his Senior year. His speed and quickness are elite, giving him the opportunity to make plays all over the field. Johnson’s also comfortable in coverage, using his good hands to grab INT’s and take them to the house. He’s also known for making plays behind the line of scrimmage. Johnson is one of the best linebacker prospects to come out in quite some time and has legitimate Pro Bowl potential.

Draft Projection- Top-10

Roster impact for Seattle- Johnson would be a much better weak-side linebacker, but he definitely has the talent to start at strong-side ‘backer should Chad Brown retire.

Barrett Ruud, ILB Nebraska
6'1" 235

NFL Comparison- Mark Simoneaux

Nebraska’s instinctive MLB has been one of the few bright spots on a poor team. Ruud isn’t flashy or a great athlete, but he has the speed and ability to drag down ball carriers all over the field. He scrapes down the line of scrimmage with the best of them and is a solid tackler.

Draft Projection- Late Round 1 or early Round 2

Roster impact for Seattle- Ruud has the talent to start at MLB for the ‘Hawks, but that would only be the case if the front office decides that Koutouvides isn’t the guy. Otherwise, Ruud would be a solid depth player with the opportunity to start later.

Kevin Burnett, OLB Tennessee
6'3" 233

NFL Comparison- D.J. Williams, Denver

Burnett’s an amazing athlete and a very solid prospect, but after tearing an ACL two years ago, Burnett hasn’t played the same. Scouts say he’s hesitant and it’s hurting his overall production. Burnett’s solid in coverage, is an explosive tackler and is said to have a great work ethic. If he can shake his injury concerns and pass his medical exams, Burnett should go in Round 1. But until then, most scouts will be hesitant to project him any higher.

Draft Projection- Late Round 1 or early Round 2

Roster impact for Seattle- Has the talent to start at either OLB position.

Lance Mitchell, ILB Oklahoma
6'2" 240

NFL Comparison- E.J. Henderson, Minnesota

Mitchell was well on his way to be a Round 1 selection last year, but an ACL tear cost him his 2003 season. He returned in 2004 to squash all doubts about his knee and is doing a solid job thus far. He isn’t making as many impact plays yet, but his tremendous athleticism and solid speed have most scouts talking. If Mitchell can prove he’s healthy and have success at All Star games, he could sneak into Round 1, but more likely early Round 2.

Draft Projection- Early Round 2

Roster impact for Seattle- Mitchell is a much better fit at MLB than Koutouvides, but his health will be the determining factor.

Others to keep your eye on . . .

Daryl Blackstock, OLB Virginia
Kirk Morrison, ILB San Diego State
Michael Boley, OLB Souther Mississippi
Ryan Claridge, OLB UNLV (OLB project)

Ryan Rigmaiden write about college football and draft prospects for Seahawks.NET. Feel free to contact him at Top Stories