The Seattle Seahawks’ defensive line in 2019 was… ugh… sorry, my writing is getting blocked easier than a failed Rasheem Green spin move. My typing is getting pushed back easier than Branden Jackson at the point of attack. My thought process is coming out slower than Ezekiel Ansah fully decked out in his body armor of protective braces and pads. The defensive line was so horrid last year that these jokes are too easy!
All puns aside, the defensive line was easily one of the weakest spots on the team last year. The Seahawks as a whole only produced 28 sacks, pressured opposing quarterbacks on a lowly 19.3% of drop backs and allowed running backs to gash them for 4.9 yards per attempt. There were stretches of the season where quarterbacks were allowed to practically take naps in the pocket and running backs were able to saunter through gaping holes in Seattle’s defense. It is difficult to accomplish anything on that side of the ball if you cannot control the trenches.
This week we’ll specifically be looking at the players coming off the edge, the defensive ends and linebackers responsible for containment. The utter ruinous 2019 season in this department looks doomed to repeat, as Seattle’s best player on the line, Jadaveon Clowney, does not look likely to be making a return. Instead, the Seahawks will rely on the mettle of unproven youth and veteran cast-offs in the attempt to strike fear in the hearts of offensive play callers. We’ll go through each one, speculate how they will perform and test the validity of such a plan.
Players on Roster:
There is no surefire leader in this group, so we’ll start by taking a look at Seattle’s leading sack artist from 2019. While Jadaveon Clowney technically was Seattle’s best pass rusher last season, it was actually Rasheem Green who led the Seahawks in quarterback takedowns with a whopping four total sacks. Beyond those numbers, he also collected 15 pressures on the QB as well as three tackles for loss while only playing on 51% of Seattle’s total defensive snaps. His modest production should be seen in a positive light, however, when considering his youth. He is 23 years old, having been drafted after his sophomore season at USC. To put that into perspective, he is the same age as rookie second-round pick Darrell Taylor. This should allay some of the concerns that a quick glance at his underlying numbers might cause as well, as he ranked 90th out of 103 qualifying edge defenders, according to Pro Football Focus. Young players tend to get better, so there is hope that with another full season under his belt Rasheem Green can transform from plucky upstart to consistent contributor during this upcoming season.
On the opposite spectrum of the young Green, Bruce Irvin has made his veteran return to the Seahawks this offseason. He spent his first four seasons in rave green and blue, playing as an effective third linebacker as well as posting 22 sacks as a partial pass rusher. Unable to pay him what he was worth due to the overflow of talent on the Seattle defense in 2016, Seattle let Irvin walk. He spent the next four seasons bouncing between different teams, averaging 7.5 sacks per year. Bruce Irvin is what he is at this point in his career. He is an above average platoon pass rusher who has some versatility in playing both the run and pass. That is a very useful player, but he might not be able to play that role considering he is at this moment the most accomplished sack artist on roster. Meaning, he is best when overwhelming inferior athletes on the offensive line 1-on-1 and creating pressure on the quarterback. He won’t get many chances to do that when offensive coordinators are keying in on him and neutralizing him through scheme. His Pro Football Focus ranking backs this up, placing him 70th among all edge defenders and being rated as an average pass rusher. The pair of him and Green manning the edges of our defense on a crucial third down isn’t a very reassuring thought.
Now, let’s discuss the curious case of L.J. Collier. Bruce Irvin, who we have just discussed, is the last successful first round pick the Seahawks have made. That was way back in 2012. That’s not good news for L.J. Collier, who was drafted 29th overall last year. His rookie season proved to be a colossal disappointment. Viewed as a pro-ready prospect who could come in and contribute immediately, he instead played a grand total of 152 snaps and made three total tackles.
How did this happen you may ask? Well for one, he picked up an injury during the offseason that made him miss the entire preseason and the first few games of 2019. For a rookie, those first couple months are crucial for both picking up the playbook and getting one’s feet wet against NFL competition. The other is that he isn’t a nuclear athlete, posting average measurables at the combine. Rookies who tend to make immediate impacts are the ones who come into the league at a level where they can physically overwhelm those that they match up with. Collier instead relied on strength and guile in college to affect both the run and pass. When you put the two together, Collier just couldn’t make up the time to be able to be a factor on the defense. Should he stay healthy in 2020, he should be a regular part of the rotation. But the fact that he struggled to force his way onto the field as a rookie should give pause to those hoping he turns into a significant force.
Collier was a first-round pick, Irvin was a first-round pick and Green was a third-round pick. The next person on the list is a little less heralded, as Benson Mayowa was an undrafted free agent out of the University of Idaho. What he does have in common with those other names is that he spent his rookie season with the Seattle Seahawks, fighting his way onto a roster that won the 2013 super bowl. While he only appeared in two games, he had shown enough to earn a chance with the Oakland Raiders after the Seahawks cut him where he once again defied the odds and forced them to keep him on roster. This same occurrence would happen to him over and over, where he would land with a team, be an effective rusher, get released and then once again land on another roster where he would be productive. This time, though, is a little different, as Seattle has brought him back to be a significant factor in their pass rush group this season. Coming off his most productive year where he posted seven sacks and 15 quarterback pressures, the Seahawks are hoping he can replicate that production in a limited role. For that’s what he is, asking him to be anything more than someone who is brought in on obvious passing downs would be asking him to be someone he is not. While Pro Football Focus viewed him as an above-average pass rusher, he’s been poor against the run. He played 300 snaps last season rushing the passer and only 39 snaps where he was asked to defend the run. Expect Seattle to try and replicate those numbers for him.
The most hyped player this offseason is rookie Darrell Taylor. A monster at the University of Tennessee, Taylor spearheaded the Volunteer pass rush on his way to posting 8.5 sacks and 44 pressures in his final collegiate season. Pro Football Focus gave him an elite pass rush grade, noting his high mark of a 19% pass-rush win rate against opposing offensive tackles. His main issue is with the other responsibility of the position, defending the run. Pro Football Focus only gave him an average grade in that area of the game, mainly noting his lack of top end athleticism. It’s an issue because more nimble offensive linemen can get the better of him and he has trouble getting high end running backs to the ground. His high pedigree may give some the notion that he could come in and be a starter right away, but it is fairer to expect him to be more of a regular on obvious passing downs given his draft profile.
Taylor’s fellow draftee Alton Robinson has shown some serious pass rushing upside as well. Which is fortunate for a player who had a rocky start to his college career, where he was charged with a felony in 2016 and was released from scholarship by Texas A&M during his freshman year. After a year junior college football, Robinson signed with the Syracuse Orange and generated 143 pressures over his next three seasons in Division I. Pro Football Focus gave him elite grades his last two years on his pass rushing skills alone but raised concerns over his tendency to trail off late in the season and allowing elite tackles to erase him in big games. Still, he shows promise and his above average marks against the run are encouraging as well. With the questionable rotation Seattle has at the defensive end position, it wouldn’t be all too surprising to see someone of Alton Robinson’s abilities leap some players ahead of him in the pecking order.
The biggest wild card out of anyone though is Shaquem Griffin. The feel-good story of Seattle’s defense, Shaquill’s twin has carved himself out a spot on the roster both on special teams and on defense in 2019. After having a rough rookie season, more due to his lighter build than his single handedness, Seattle decided to move him from his previous position of off-ball linebacker to be a pass-rush specialist. It took an adjustment, as he didn’t start seeing the field until week 11. But once he did, he secured his spot, never seeing less than 13% of the snaps on defense for the rest of the season. In those snaps, he produced seven tackles, one for loss, four QB pressures and one very special sack he shared with his twin on Aaron Rodgers in the divisional round. While those numbers aren’t overly impressive, it’s a base that he can work off of going forward. His insane speed (4.38 40 yard dash) and his experience could give him an edge for a roster spot in this wacky COVID-19 preseason.
Competing for a final roster spot or a place on the practice squad is the last two names on the list, Branden Jackson and Eli Mencer. Out of those names, Jackson is the most accomplished and experienced. Entering his fifth season in the league and his fourth for the Seahawks, Jackson has continually defied expectations and found himself on the active roster. Coming off his most successful season with 2.0 sacks and playing 39% of snaps for the defense, Jackson is primed to push some of the younger members on this roster. Eli Mencer was picked up as an undrafted free agent after spending his four collegiate years in the FCS, including a dominant senior season where he picked up an impressive 14.5 sacks. Even though it is a huge step up to the NFL from Division II football, Mencer could easily be fighting for the final spot on this roster or a place on the practice squad should he flash during the preseason.
The one thing that could be said about this group as a whole is that it is deep. Draft picks and productive veterans dot the roster, but there is one glaring hole in this group. There is no surefire number one pass rusher for these players to coalesce around.
Irvin and Mayowa are the veterans of the group, but Irvin is expected to split his snaps between the edge and linebacker while Mayowa has never been asked to be anything more than a specialist. Green, Collier and Griffin are interesting young players, but all need to take a significant step forward to even be considered productive starters let alone names to fear. Taylor and Robinson have immense potential, but edge defense typically isn’t a position that rookies come in and dominate at. It is usually more of a slow progression.
Which leads Seattle to two options if it truly wants this group to make a greater impact than in 2019. The first would be to blitz more, which we’ll cover in the full offseason round-up in a couple weeks. The other is to bring in another name to finish this group. Jadaveon Clowney is still on the market, but the seas seem to change one way or the other whether he or Seattle would even be interested in a reunion. Other names of note are Cameron Wake, Jabaal Sheard, Clay Matthews and Terrell Suggs. While Clowney would be the only one that could truly be a top pass rusher, all those other names are veterans in this league that have played thousands of snaps at the position as a starter. Any could come in and bolster the depth while helping the younger names find a firm footing in this league.
While there are interesting names in the edge room as a whole, there is no guarantee that Seattle’s pass rush will be better than its putrid 2019 version.
Opening Day Roster:
LDE: Rasheem Green
RDE: L.J. Collier
Rotational Players: Benson Mayowa, Darrell Taylor, Alton Robinson, Branden Jackson, Bruce Irvin
Practice Squad: Eli Mencer
Cut: Shaquem Griffin