Seahawks have a decision to make at linebacker
This year's draft includes some very appealing middle linebackers, from a top-shelf selection like Kuechly to the middle rounds and on through the end.
Seattle Times sports reporter
Best of a deep LB groupThumbnail sketches of some linebackers who might be in the middle of Seattle's defensive plans:
Luke Kuechly, 6-3, 242, Boston College: He turned 21 just this month, has great instincts and is rated the top linebacker available in this draft.
Dont'a Hightower, 6-2, 265, Alabama: Coming from a Crimson Tide team that could have four players chosen in the first round, Hightower may be on the board when Seattle picks in the second round.
Mychal Kendricks, 5-11, 239, California: The most athletic of this year's linebackers, he's a little bit short of ideal size for an NFL middle linebacker.
James-Michael Johnson, 6-1, 241, Nevada: He's got good speed and a reputation as a great tackler. He has played both inside and outside in college.
Keenan Robinson, 6-3, 242, Texas: A three-year starter at middle linebacker, he's a big and strong option though he's not among the fastest prospects at the position and Seattle is looking to get faster on defense.
Boston College linebacker Luke Kuechly has been called one of the safest picks in this year's NFL draft.
That's not going to provide much assurance for Seahawks fans, though, when it comes to the question of whether the team should choose Kuechly on Thursday when Seattle's turn comes up in the first round.
This has nothing to do with Kuechly, a heck of a prospect. He set both school and conference records for career tackles, even more impressive because he did it in three seasons and without the benefit of redshirting. He was the third-fastest linebacker at the NFL scouting combine in February, posted a vertical leap of 38 inches and has the kind of instincts that make a football scout pinch himself in disbelief.
The Seahawks signed veteran Barrett Ruud to fill the middle-linebacker spot David Hawthorne held down last year, but that doesn't eliminate Seattle's long-term need at that position. But any question of Kuechly's suitability occurs in the shadow of what happened three years ago when the team picked Aaron Curry, a linebacker with a similarly sterling scouting report.
"The safest pick in the draft," said Todd McShay, ESPN's draft analyst, back then.
"Arguably the best all-around prospect," echoed Dan Pompei of the Chicago Tribune.
Seattle chose Curry No. 4 overall in 2009, the highest a linebacker had been chosen in any draft since 2000. Three years and many millions of dollars later, Curry is gone after he was traded in the middle of last season to Oakland for two draft picks, one of which is a seventh-rounder this year.
Seattle is hardly the same team it was when Curry was drafted by president Tim Ruskell, so has the overhaul of the franchise combined with the fact that Seattle found starter K.J. Wright in the fourth round last year changed the way it looks at the position? Is there a reluctance to pick a linebacker in the first round?
"No, that's not our philosophy," general manager John Schneider said. "We value that position as highly as all the other positions."
Value is a word that gets tossed around a lot in the lead-up to the annual draft, and it reflects the reality that not all positions are created equal in the NFL. This is about much more than just the preeminence of quarterbacks. Left tackles are paid more and drafted higher than right tackles, elite cornerbacks often trump top-notch safeties, and the big hosses who put their hands in the dirt on defense tend to be picked earlier than the linebackers who make all those tackles.
"A lot of times, there is just higher value placed on defensive linemen," Schneider said.
The reason for that goes far beyond the ability of an individual player and the impact he will have. The gap between that player and the next-best alternative plays a factor as does the total number of viable prospects at that position who will be available in later rounds.
Generally speaking, defensive linemen tend to be more rare. Go back to 2009, the year Seattle took Curry. The Green Bay Packers picked B.J. Raji that year, a defensive tackle from Boston College, which was fortunate considering the Packers wouldn't have considered anyone else at that position until the back half of the draft.
"We didn't have anybody for like four rounds," Schneider said. "So talk about a gap."
So the question isn't just how good the linebackers are in this year's draft, but how many? Plenty, said Schneider.
"It's completely different than it was last year," Schneider said. "There's good numbers up there."
Denver chose Von Miller from Texas A&M with the second pick last year, and San Francisco picked Aldon Smith from Missouri at No. 7, but they were bona fide pass rushers. Same for Ryan Kerrigan, picked 16th overall by Washington. No middle linebackers were picked in the first two rounds last year.
This year, there are a number of top-notch inside-linebacker prospects, starting with Kuechly, Alabama's Dont'a Hightower and California's Mychal Kendricks, the Pac-12 defensive player of the year.
Seattle has an opening in the middle of its defense after letting Hawthorne walk away as a free agent, even though he led the Hawks in tackles the past three seasons.
But he came up against the reality that this year's draft includes some very appealing middle linebackers, from a top-shelf selection like Kuechly to the middle rounds and on through the end.
"This is a year where, for us, there are a number of attractive linebackers," Schneider said.
Danny O'Neil: 206-464-2364 or email@example.com.