Seattle Seahawks

Irvin, Okung could have big seasons to prove worth

After not being offered a contract extension in the offseason, Seattle Seahawks linebacker Bruce Irvin added 18 pounds in muscle as he heads into the final year of his contract.
After not being offered a contract extension in the offseason, Seattle Seahawks linebacker Bruce Irvin added 18 pounds in muscle as he heads into the final year of his contract. The Associated Press

Money sends the message.

To those players at the core of what the Seattle Seahawks staff and front office are looking for in the way of effort, attitude and production, contract extensions say: “We love you, we want you, you’re family.”

To those who are allowed to test the free-agent market, middling offers from the Hawks say: “Thanks, but your value to us reaches this threshold. Good luck if can get more.”

But what about those guys, maybe just a hair below, about whom some doubt remains? The absence of an extension says: “Show us. Prove your worth. You’ve had plenty of time, now it’s for real.”

That’s what makes Bruce Irvin and Russell Okung two of most interesting Seahawks to watch in 2015.

Okung, the sixth player taken in 2010 draft, earned a Pro Bowl spot in 2012, and has been solid but missed 21 games to injury in five seasons. His contract is up at the end of this season.

Top left tackles make more than $9 million a season, and the Seahawks seem content to spend their money on places other than the offensive line. How he performs this year could force a tough decision.

Irvin is an even more intriguing case. As the 15th player taken in the 2012 draft, Irvin was seen as a reach by most, but the Seahawks envisioned him as an ideal Leo pass rusher.

He had wicked speed, for one, and also that kind of gritty background that John Schneider and Pete Carroll like, as he’d been a high-school dropout and risen from hardscrabble circumstances.

And when he showed up, his rare athleticism was obvious. He was one of the fastest men on the team.

One time in practice, I saw him race up behind a teammate, put his hands on the man’s shoulder pads like a pommel horse, and launch himself over the teammate’s head. It was ridiculous. Impossible for a man 6-foot-3 and more than 240 pounds.

But the physical promise didn’t always translate to production. He collected eight sacks as a rookie, but he didn’t consistently finish his rushes, and his second season he was moved to strong outside linebacker.

For two years he’s been on the learning curve at that spot, while getting some pass-rush chances, too (6.5 sacks in 2014).

But he also was suspended four games for a PED violation in 2013, and became the first player ever ejected from a Super Bowl for his part in a scrap at the end of the game.

When it came out that the Hawks did not pick up the option for the fifth season (2016) of his rookie contract, he put out a testy tweet, and later commented on the likelihood he’d be in Atlanta next season playing for former Hawks defensive coordinator Dan Quinn.

But then it seemed as if he absorbed the message in the Seahawks’ decision, and used it for motivation. He says he’s added 18 pounds of muscle and showed up at training camp looking, according to Carroll, stronger and fitter than ever.

And while Carroll has praised Irvin’s preparedness, he also has several times commented on the great progress achieved by second-year linebacker Kevin Pierre-Louis, who could be the younger, cheaper player who eventually takes over for Irvin.

One thing working against Irvin as a possible second-contract Seahawk is his timing: Almost everybody on the defense has gotten raises already, gobbling up cap space.

But a big year, nonetheless, is going to earn Irvin money.

In his third season as a linebacker, Irvin looks more comfortable with the position. He still should get enough chances to rush the passer that his sack stats could swell.

And it’s also possible that he’s maturing into his role. Part of his goal in adding good weight, he said, was as proof of how hard he had worked in the offseason.

After Monday’s practice, Irvin was taking his time to show around some players from Roosevelt High School in Portland. “They’re from the ’hood … that’s how we relate,” Irvin said.

Asked of the message he passed along to the kids, he joked, “stay off Twitter.” Good advice, but of more substance, he stressed the value of getting the job done in the classroom. Good job, Bruce.

It’s not unusual for athletes to have the best performances of their careers when they’re trying to earn their next contract.

If the Seahawks get great seasons from both Irvin and Okung, the team will be better for it, regardless what happens to them the following year.

It’s fair to point out that some of the most fierce and contentious competitions in daily drills early in training camp have come when Irvin and Okung meet in one-on-one pass-protection sessions. It looks like playoff intensity.

If that kind of competitive hunger lasts through the season, both will have enhanced their bargaining positions with the Seahawks or anybody else.

Dave Boling: 253-597-8440