RENTON, Wash. – Seahawks linebacker Cody Barton spent his first summer as a professional football player in about as unglamorous way as possible.
For a few of the five weeks rookies had as vacation in between the offseason program and training camp, Barton returned to his family’s ranch in Duchesne, Utah, to help load hay.
“Just chipping in a little bit,” Barton said.
And where is Duchesne, Utah, you might ask?
“The middle of nowhere,” Barton said of a town listed with an official population of 1,801, located about two hours southeast of Salt Lake City, where he played at the University of Utah.
That’s a stark contrast to where Barton has been since the Seahawks began training camp last Thursday, which is in the middle of just about everything.
A third-round draft choice, Barton spent the first three days playing middle linebacker, getting a ton of work the first two days when Bobby Wagner was still unsigned and sitting out.
Sunday, he turned in maybe the play of training camp, dropping into coverage and laying out with full extension to intercept a pass from Geno Smith near the goal line.
“Just a lot of instincts taking over,” Barton said of the play.
But, as he noted, playing in the pass-happy Pac-12 means he had a lot of opportunity to hone those instincts.
“Unless you are playing Stanford or something,” he said. “But aside from that, a lot of passing, so that (dropping into coverage) is definitely a strength of mine.”
His performance the first three days of practice helped earn him something of a promotion Monday. With starting strongside linebacker Mychal Kendricks out because of an apparently minor injury, Barton worked with the first-team base defense in his place alongside Wagner and K.J. Wright on the inside.
“It was cool,” Barton said of getting a few snaps with the starters. “Just taking all the experiences and learning from them.”
Barton has little experience playing strongside linebacker, having worked solely in the middle for Seattle since the spring and because Utah’s defense didn’t have a strongside linebacker position.
Defensive coordinator Ken Norton Jr. said it was too soon to assess how Barton played at the position but offered a strong endorsement.
“We had to make sure we get all the best guys on the field at the same time,” Norton said.
And Norton had no problem heaping praise on how Barton has played.
“He’s been amazing,” Norton said. “He’s been a really good rookie. I think his ability to come in and soak up the information and be able to take it on the field and make plays is what a good rookie should do.”
Coach Pete Carroll also gushed about Barton following practice Sunday and his interception.
“We’re expecting him to be really an active part in all areas,” Carroll said. “We can’t hold him down.”
Still, with Wagner, Wright and Kendricks all re-signed, the starting three spots are set with proven vets, meaning there’s no clear area for Barton to play this season other than on special teams, where he will likely be a major factor on just about all of them.
But the move Monday and getting Barton some snaps at strongside linebacker indicates the Seahawks see Barton as the next-best linebacker after those three.
Wright and Kendricks suffered knee injuries last season that required surgery, so at the least Barton will provide depth and an insurance policy should an injury sideline either player.
It was an injury to Wright in the preseason that helped lead to a merry-go-round at that spot all year, with Kendricks, Austin Calitro and Shaquem Griffin all starting games at weakside linebacker. And the inconsistency Seattle suffered at that position when Wright was out helped lead to the decisions to draft Barton and Washington’s Ben Burr-Kirven in April.
That Barton spent the offseason program working at middle linebacker also led to the idea he was insurance at that spot in case something went haywire in contract talks with Wagner.
But with Wagner signed through 2022, Barton will play that spot only if there is an injury.
Kendricks, though, has just a one-year contract and is awaiting sentencing on an insider-trading charge (the Seahawks expect him to be available for this season). Although Wright has a two-year contract, the Seahawks could save $6 million against the salary cap in 2020 if he is released, meaning he is hardly guaranteed a spot next season.
The Seahawks also have a number of other intriguing players at linebacker, notably Burr-Kirven and the draft darling of last year, Griffin.
Burr-Kirven is expected to play the weakside spot – he has practiced little after having sports-hernia surgery in the offseason – while Griffin is being used at both WLB and SLB, with the team mostly trying to find ways to make use of his pass-coverage and pass-rushing skills.
Calitro, who started five games last season, also remains.
That the Seahawks are using Barkevious Mingo – the starting strongside linebacker last year – mostly as an edge rusher means there might be room for each of Burr-Kirven, Griffin and Calitro along with Barton behind the starters.
It’s a trio Carroll said might be the best linebacking group he has coached.
There’s a long way to go, of course, but through four days of camp, Barton appears as if he might be worthy of joining them someday, the only questions being where and when.
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