As the Seattle Seahawks entered the 2020 regular season, one of the big questions looming over the team was this – did they have enough defensive linemen?
Now, as the NFL offseason has yet to reach the end of April, a new question hovers over Seattle’s defensive line – how will the Seahawks fit everyone in?
After a 2020 offseason that began with an ultimately futile pursuit of Jadeveon Clowney, the Seahawks opened the regular season at Atlanta with just eight players listed as defensive linemen on their 53-player roster, which included a rookie and a journeymen veteran who had just signed.
Now, after this week’s signing of Aldon Smith and before the draft has even been held, Seattle has 11 players listed as defensive linemen who could be viewed as potentially significant contributors in 2021, meaning there could be some tough decisions ahead – the Seahawks typically keep 9-10 listed defensive linemen on their 53-player roster.
But before delving further into that, let’s compare what the Seahawks had up front entering the 2020 regular season and what they have now.
Here’s how the depth chart looked heading into the 2020 opener at Atlanta.
Defensive end: L.J. Collier/Rasheem Green.
Defensive tackle: Jarran Reed/Bryan Mone.
Nose tackle: Poona Ford.
LEO/rush end: Benson Mayowa/Alton Robinson/Damontre Moore.
That list doesn’t include Bruce Irvin, who was officially the starting strongside linebacker but dropped down to a rush end spot in the nickel package. Throwing in Irvin, then Seattle could have been viewed as having nine defensive linemen to start last season.
Still, of those nine, one was a rookie (Robinson), one had been signed just 10 days before the first game (Moore) and two others were second-year players who had seen little action as rookies in 2019 (Mone 89 snaps, Collier 152).
And here’s how it looks now.
Defensive end: Kerry Hyder/Collier/Green.
Defensive tackle: Ford/Mone.
Nose tackle: Al Woods.
LEO/rush end: Carlos Dunlap/Benson Mayowa/Aldon Smith/Robinson/Darrell Taylor.
(Also on the roster are tackles Cedrick Lattimore, who spent all of last season on the practice squad but played in the playoff loss to the Rams, and Myles Adams, giving Seattle 13 total defensive linemen.)
Of the above depth chart, all 11 are players who could realistically be expected to make the 53-player roster – and also, don’t read that depth chart too literally for position, as most players can and will play multiple spots. But the above listing is an attempt to show where they may line up most often.
Conversely, Seattle at the moment has just four linebackers on its roster – Bobby Wagner, Jordyn Brooks, Cody Barton and Ben Burr-Kirven. Seattle had seven on the roster for the Atlanta game to open the 2020 season.
Seattle will undoubtedly add some linebackers at some point. But maybe the Seahawks think they can fill some linebacker-type responsibilities and snaps with some of their ends (or with some of their safeties), and are willing to go with more linemen and fewer linebackers.
What’s apparent is that the Seahawks did not want to get caught short in pass rushers as they did a year ago.
Part of the reason was the wait for Clowney, to whom Seattle gave an offer of roughly $16 million a year and thought he might accept. Clowney dragged his feet – ultimately not signing with Tennessee until September – and the Seahawks felt in hindsight they missed out on some opportunities they might have taken otherwise to fill up the line in free agency.
That was something they tried to correct in the draft, taking Taylor in the second round and Robinson in the fifth.
But that didn’t go quite to plan when Taylor didn’t recovered from offseason surgery to repair a stress fracture and missed the entire season.
The loss of Taylor helped lead to the midseason trade for Dunlap, whose addition led to an almost shocking turnaround in production up front – after just nine sacks in the first six games of the season Seattle had 37 the rest of the year, the most in the NFL in that span.
So the Seahawks decided this year to take no chances, and if that leads to a tough call or two down the road, so be it.
In fact, that’s what the Seahawks will hope for, because that would mean, among other things, that Taylor is fully healthy and productive, Smith is fitting in well – it’s worth remembering the team has little invested in him and he’s hardly a lock to make the roster – and Robinson is taking a step forward in Year Two.
The addition of Hyder has led to conjecture about the future of Collier, the team’s first-round pick in 2019, and whether this now looms as something of a prove-it season for him (though because he has a $3.9 million dead cap hit after June 1, you can likely forget about him being cut). But the thought is Collier may have an even bigger role playing tackle than last season, when he often moved inside in the nickel. Same with Green.
That’s why Seattle could well be content with just three “true’’ tackles in Ford, Mone and Woods, the latter two who figure to play mostly on run downs (and it’s worth remembering the Seahawks often had just three tackles active on gameday last year, as well).
But what can’t be questioned is that the Seahawks are in far better shape with their pass rush entering the 2021 season than 2020.
Of the team’s eight defensive ends, five had four or more sacks last season. And that doesn’t include the man who led Seattle in sacks last season – safety Jamal Adams, with 9 1/2.
While the Seahawks will always want to make as much use of Adams’ pass rushing ability as they can, Seattle also would like to get more consistent pressure out of just a four-man rush, something this year’s line may be better-equipped to pull off.
Carroll also fondly recalls how the line of the 2013 team – the best defense on the best team in Seahawks history – featured eight defensive linemen who played at least 46% of the snaps, but none who played more than 57% (Michael Bennett, who was officially a backup).
The Seahawks have been searching for that kind of depth and ability to keep everyone fresh and consistently productive ever since.
If they don’t find it this year, it won’t be for lack of trying.
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