Saturday, February 2, 2013

2013 Seahawks Off-Season Analysis Part II: Defensive Line

Seattle fans have come to expect a bonanza every off-season since Pete Carroll and John Schneider have taken over. A full 19 of the 22 starters on offense and defense for the 2013 Seahawks will have been added since those two took over. But this off-season will be different. Few starting jobs are up for grabs. Rookies will struggle to make the roster. Free agents will have to fight for playing time. I will be dissecting the roster position-by-position in an eight-part series, culminating in a recommended off-season recipe for the Seahawks.

Part I: Wide Receivers & Tight Ends
Part II: Defensive Line
Part III: Secondary
Part IV: Linebackers
Part V: Offensive Line
Part VI: Running Backs & Fullbacks
Part VII: Quarterbacks
Part VIII: Summary & Recommendations


State Of The Position
The Seahawks have had a choice to make on all four of the starting defensive lineman the last two years. First, they re-signed Brandon Mebane when he hit free agency. Then, they re-signed Red Bryant after he became a free agent. This Summer, the team faced their first holdout with Chris Clemons, who was due to become a free agent this year. They chose to extend him before the season started. Alan Branch was in the same situation, but the team let him play out the year, so he will become a free agent. Decisions to re-sign your own players are among the toughest a front office has to make. They know these players inside and out. That can be a double-edged sword. It can become easy to see their flaws and make you eager to find a player who does not have those flaws. It is just as easy to fear the unknown, and settle for what you do.

Mebane has been a solid player the team has to be glad to have on the roster. Bryant and Clemons could become regrettable re-signings depending on how things play out in 2013. Bryant was nowhere near the player the force Seahawks fans had become accustomed to for much of this season. There were injury issues that one can hope were the problem. He definitely did not get fat and happy with his contract. Multiple sources in the organization told me before the season started that Bryant and Mebane had been at the VMAC nearly every day of the off-season pushing each other in workouts. The team needs Bryant to return to form. The position he plays is the foundation of the run defense. The team floundered against the run without him playing well.

Clemons had another good year, but his injury was serious and late. It generally takes twelve months to recover from a torn ACL, so the team should not expect him back next season. Should he make a miraculous recovery, great, but the front office cannot count on it. With Clemons due only $1.5M guaranteed next season, parting ways becomes a real possibility. I am not sure I see the front office paying him $8M to spend the season on IR. Replacing Clemons would be extremely difficult as he has a rare combination of ability to rush the passer and make plays against the run.

Seattle added some fresh talent to the line in the draft with Bruce Irvin, Jaye Howard and Greg Scruggs. Irvin showed flashes of pass rush, but was a major liability against the run. He is also still raw in terms of technique and counter-moves. Scruggs was a pleasant surprise coming out of the seventh round. Coaches bemoaned a lack of consistent effort from Scruggs. Interior pass rush is very hard to find, so expect Scruggs to be given every chance to prove he can be a reliable force. Howard is the victim of insane expectations. Not every rookie becomes a Pro Bowler or sets rookie sack records. Howard was a fourth-round pick who developed nicely in the pre-season. I expect him to take a step forward in 2013, especially after being reunited with his college coordinator in Dan Quinn.

Jason Jones showed fans the importance of a disruptive interior pass rusher. He battled chronic knee problems, and eventually, was placed on the IR.

2012 Seahawks Free Agent Defensive Lineman:

  • DT Alan Branch
  • DT Jason Jones
  • DE Patrick Chukwurah
  • DT Clinton McDonald (Restricted Free Agent)

Seahawks Defensive Lineman Under Contract:

  • DE Red Bryant
  • DE Bruce Irvin
  • DE Chris Clemons
  • DE Dexter Davis
  • DT Brandon Mebane
  • DT Greg Scruggs
  • DT Jaye Howard

Free Agents
Branch was a force in 2011, but did not have the same impact in 2012. He was a very affordable starter at only $4M/year, and should remain an affordable option should the team decide they want him back. Finding a clear upgrade over Branch in free agency will certainly cost more than $4M/year. Jason Jones will likely not be back. His injury is not the type that just gets better. He could be a guy the team looks to re-sign late in free agency at a discount. His talent is undeniable. His durability is the issue.

There are a number of impact free agents alone the line for Seattle to consider. They could go big on a couple of guys, or potentially mix some lower-cost veterans with higher-priced youngsters. Either way, free agency is must for this position group.


DT Desmond Bryant
Bryant is a name you may not know, but he is worth becoming familiar with. He took over as a starter for the Raiders the last eight games after Richard Seymour was injured. He registered a sack in each of the team's final four games, and is only 27-years-old. He finished the season as the top-rated interior lineman on the free agent market according to ProFootballFocus.com. He is more of a pass rusher than a run stuffer, but graded out positively in both areas.

DT Richard Seymour
Bryant's teammate is equally interesting. He is 33, and coming off a hamstring injury that ended his year, but he has been one of the most disruptive interior lineman of his generation. He is a force against the pass and the run, and is a fierce competitor. The chance to join a Super Bowl contender would have to appeal to him. He may end up being the perfect combination of impact, cost and risk for the Seahawks.

DT Henry Melton
Melton is a very good interior pass rusher. He is not a guy that could step in and become a starter. He would take the Jason Jones role. Melton is 26, and will be a pricey free agent. I prefer the idea of adding a guy like Seymour or Bryant that could provide pass rush from the base defense. Melton becomes a more likely addition if the team goes for a veteran on the edge, saving more money for tackle.

DT Randy Starks
Starks is a larger man, so the assumption by some is that he is run stuffer. He is more of an interior rusher. In fact, he graded out negative against the run this year according to PFF. At 29, I don't see him as a great fit for the Seahawks. He will want a long-term deal at a high price. His combination of age and production make that a risk not worth taking.

DT Vance Walker
Walker is an intriguing option. He will not get the rush of attention that some bigger name players will, but he is worthy of an early free agency visit. At just 25, Walker is the perfect age, and his production has not been so great as to make him a premium price. He is big enough, and productive enough against the run and the pass to be an interesting option for replacing Branch.

DT Steve McClendon
McClendon is a poor man's Jason Jones. He is not as lanky, but has received spot playing time as a pass rusher. He is 27, and at just 280 lbs, he is not a candidate to become a starter. However, he could be in the mix as a rotation player, and has upside to produce if given additional snaps than he received in Pittsburgh.

DE/DT Michael Bennett
Bennett could be the ideal addition. He played as interior pass rusher for the first few seasons in the NFL. He was a guy I had rated higher than Jason Jones last season, but he was a restricted free agent and returned to Tampa. He is now 27, and coming off a 9.0 sack season as a defensive end. He is a little bigger than Carroll prefers at the LEO spot, checking in at over 270 lbs, but that has helped him to be a superior run defender on top of being a good pass rusher. On top of all that, he gives the coaches options to slide him inside as an interior rusher as well. If there is one guy you pick to replace Clemons, Bennett would be the guy.

DE Osi Umenyiora
Umenyiora was rumored to Seattle in a trade last season, in part, because he made it known how much he liked the idea of playing in CenturyLink Field eight games per year. This is a guy who wants to complete his legacy. He is 31, has 75.0 career sacks and a whopping 32 career forced fumbles. There may be no better place for him to finish strong and a winner than in Seattle.

DE Cliff Avril
Avril is the right body size for a LEO, the right age at 26, and the right production with over 20 sacks over the last two seasons, but he is a one-trick pony. He is a liability against the run, making him an unacceptable replacement for Clemons. His price will be too high to justify adding another one-dimensional pass rusher. Signing Avril would mean the team was fully dependent on Irvin or Scruggs to take the starting LEO spot, and that is not a wise gamble.

DE Dwight Freeney
Freeney is another legendary pass rusher that will switch teams, but I have less confidence in his ability  to come in and make an impact than a guy like Umenyiora. He is a possibility for depth, but only after a number of the other options have been exhausted.

DE Michael Johnson
Johnson is a great end, who can rush the passer and defend the run, but the Bengals are not going to let him walk, and Johnson has been very clear about his desire to return. Put him in the pipe dream category.

DE Paul Kruger
Kruger, like Johnson, is not leaving his current situation. Don't waste your energy here.

Draft

Any time a pass rusher or stout defensive lineman appears in the draft, you grab him. Seattle needs to be able to have more predictability in improving their pass rush than a draft choice provides. A better bet would be the Seahawks looking to replace the run stuffing prowess of Branch with a wide body after round one, and more likely in round three or later.

Bottom Line
Championships are won and lost on the strength of teams offensive and defensive lines. Seattle's defensive line is in danger of unraveling. Re-loading it with young, reliable talent has to be their top priority this off-season. There is a bonanza of talent of various shapes, sizes and ages to be had.

They will likely mix in veterans like Seymour or Umenyiora to reduce the risk of sinking the team's cap with a bunch of long-term deals. Thankfully, either of those players could be a great addition. They will start with targeting a younger player that could be a core part of the line for a long time.

Bennett remains my top choice, but a guy like Desmond Bryant could get an early look as well. The ideal combination would be Bennett and Seymour. They would wreck opposing lines, especially when teamed with Mebane/Scruggs/Bryant and Irvin in obvious pass situations. They are both high energy guys that are great competitors.

The decision on how to handle the Clemons contract looms large. Letting go of a guy with 30+ sacks the past three seasons that is a leader on the team is tough to swallow. It may also be the right thing for the franchise.

Failure to replace Clemons with a worth starting end that can play the run and the pass could have dire consequences on the team's ability to compete for a Super Bowl. Schneider and Carroll need to do their best work here, and then look to the interior line for a disruptive presence. 

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