Like every other rookie entering the NFL at this time a year ago, Seahawks linebacker Jordyn Brooks found himself at a great disadvantage as he tried to prepare for his first training camp.
Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, NFL teams did not conduct traditional offseason programs. With most states implementing stay-at-home regulations to mitigate the spread of the virus, organized team activities and minicamps were canceled. Instead, virtual workouts and meetings were conducted via Zoom.
This put first-year players such as Brooks behind the eight-ball before ever stepping foot on the practice field. While many veterans view "voluntary" offseason workouts as burdensome, they are critical for rookies and young players trying to learn a new playbook and get acclimated to the highest level of football.
Thankfully, Brooks didn't have to worry about similar issues this offseason. While the pandemic isn't over, an increased vaccination rate opened the door for teams to safely hold OTAs and minicamps in May and June, allowing players and coaches to return to the field for meaningful practice sessions.
"Last year with no offseason and then jumping right into training camp, it was kind of a little bit fast for me," Brooks told reporters following an OTA practice last month. "So now we're out here in June, a bit of an early start, so going to training camp I'll feel lot more comfortable, a lot more at ease with the playbook, with the guys that I'm playing with."
Viewed as a surprise selection by many draft analysts given their depth at linebacker, Brooks joined the Seahawks as a first-round pick in the 2020 NFL Draft. Impacted by an abbreviated first offseason, including the cancellation of preseason games in August, the former Texas Tech standout's first year in the Pacific Northwest got off to a slower start than he would have preferred.
With future Hall of Famer Bobby Wagner and K.J. Wright entrenched in the starting lineup and Bruce Irvin returning to play the strongside linebacker role, Brooks opened the season as a backup primarily playing special teams. When it looked like he would take on an expanded role after Irvin suffered a torn ACL in Week 2, the young defender exited with a knee injury of his own the ensuing week and didn't return to action until after Seattle's bye in Week 6.
Upon his return, however, the light switch came on for Brooks. He earned his first career start against the Cardinals and made several spectacular plays in prime time, including using his elite speed to chase down quarterback Kyler Murray for a tackle for loss near the sideline during an impressive goal line stand by the Seahawks' defense. He finished the evening with seven tackles, easily the most of his career to that point.
Over the final 11 games, though Brooks only saw the field when the Seahawks were in their base 4-3 defense and was replaced by Wright in nickel and dime packages, he registered 56 tackles, two tackles for loss, and two passes defensed. He played especially well during the final month of the season, amassing 30 tackles in the last five regular season games and making eight stops in a wild card loss to the Rams.
"I think the rookie year went okay," Brooks said. "It was a rough start having the injury. Then getting back in the second half of the season, I thought that I finished pretty strong. And so now I've got some momentum coming into Year No. 2. I feel good going in, and we'll just seeing where we can go from here."
With camp set to open at the VMAC in less than three weeks, Brooks looks primed to take on an expanded role in Seattle's defense moving forward. With Wright still remaining unsigned, all signs point to the young linebacker becoming an every-down player alongside Wagner.
Filling in for an icon such as Wright won't be an easy task for Brooks. He will be inserted into the lineup for a beloved player who has spent his entire 10-year career with the Seahawks, ranks third in franchise history for tackles behind only Wagner and safety Eugene Robinson, and helped guide them to their first Super Bowl victory. Wright is also coming off arguably the best season of his career, which puts even more pressure on the youngster as his successor.
But while he admitted Wright's absence leaves a significant void on and off the field, Brooks isn't stressing about succeeding in his stead. He isn't going to try to replace the legend, instead trusting in his preparation and unique set of skills to put his own stamp on the weakside linebacker position and make an impact for his team.
"It's definitely shoes to fill. K.J. had an outstanding career here, he set the bar high for sure. There's definitely no slack here, I'm just ready to get in and prove that I can do this."
Set to play 90 percent or more of Seattle's defensive snaps, Brooks has already proven himself to be an outstanding tackler, displayed excellent instincts playing against the run, and flashed glimpses of his rare sideline-to-sideline pursuit skills. This shouldn't come as a surprise given his prodigious tackle numbers at the college level, as he produced 360 tackles and 32 tackles for loss while starring for the Red Raiders.
But in order to take a major step forward and truly fulfill his potential, Brooks will need to show marked improvements in coverage, an area of his game that was panned by many scouts evaluating him in college. Based on how he progressed as his rookie season unfolded and his elite athleticism, the team should feel confident in his ability to evolve into a quality cover linebacker in time.
With an increased workload, defensive coordinator Ken Norton Jr. will likely try to get Brooks involved more as a blitzer to take advantage of his speed. He produced 5.5 sacks in his final two college seasons in Lubbock, but the Seahawks only sent him on the blitz eight times on 367 defensive snaps. That percentage should see a slight uptick with him in the starting lineup, creating chances for him to turn up the heat on quarterbacks.
After whiffing on several high draft picks in recent years, Brooks' stellar play late last year suggests general manager John Schneider and his scouting staff may have finally hit on a first rounder, and if he improves in the two aforementioned areas, the sky looks to be the limit for him. With Wright's chances of returning dwindling by day, the Seahawks need him to emerge as a star and his development will be critical to the team's Super Bowl odds this season.
For his part, Brooks welcomes the lofty expectations and he's taking them in stride. Thanks to an altered diet, he arrived at OTAs in better shape and spent the entire offseason working vigorously to improve every facet of his game. As a result, he has no doubts he will elevate his play to a whole other level this upcoming season, which could be a big difference maker in Seattle's quest for a second Lombardi Trophy.
"My goal is just to be the best version of me, be the best football player I can possibly be, and then everything else will take care of itself. I spent all offseason working on everything, every aspect of my game trying to get better. That's what I've been doing, continue to do. I'm ready to go into Year 2 strong."