Hawthorne is exception number one on this list, a 16 game starter at weakside linebacker in 2010.
A natural middle linebacker, Hawthorne’s 2011 role remains unclear as the team drafted two linebacker; weakside linebacker Malcolm Smith—an excellent athlete out of USC—and versatile linebacker K.J. Wright.
I previously highlighted Hawthorne's exceeding of expectations when filling in for Lofa Tatupu, who tore his pectoral in Week 7 of 2009. Hawthorne proved his nickname “the heater” was true to form, constantly swarming to the ball and packing a punch; he also showed the ability to cover between the numbers, down field—“the pipe.” Only a second year player, Hawthorne proved he had potential.
In 2010 he continued to play mature as the Seahawks put him in a new position, at weakside linebacker, when Lofa Tatupu returned. Hawthorne doesn’t have ideal range or one on one cover skills to be weakside backer in Carroll’s system—Smith has 4.46 speed, Hawthorne had 4.69-4.8 speed coming out, and is more suited for contain and coverage. Restricted free agent linebacker Will Herring is primarily a weakside linebacker, and could compete for time if still on the roster in 2011.
In my opinion, Hawthorne looked uncomfortable on the weak side at times in 2010 compared to his 2009 play in the middle, but he still played well enough to become noticed as an up and coming linebacker.
Last week I highlighted Tatupu as a Seahawk with something to prove in 2010; his salary, declining performance and deterioration of healthy the past two seasons are reason for concern; Hawthorne made John Clayton’s All Underrated Team released last week.
The Seahawks have Hawthorne signed through 2011 for $900,000 base salary this season, part of a $1.38 million dollar extension he signed last November, the extension preceded by a month of particularly solid play.
The team can’t afford to belabor their decision of what to do with Hawthorne; the undrafted free agent has proven he has abilities well beyond just a backup during his first three seasons in the league.
Tatupu is still the leader of the defense; if Hawthorne keeps improving--especially as an on field communicator and signal caller--and Tatupu fails to fully recover from his dual arthroscopic knee surgeries, Hawthorne may find himself in position to snatch the starting job.