Tuesday, February 11, 2014

2014 SEAHAWKS OFF-SEASON ANALYSIS PART I: DEFENSIVE LINE

The Seahawks are Super Bowl Champs. The best team in football. Players want to be with them, teams want to be like them. So starts the Dynasty Off-Season for one of the youngest teams to ever win the Lombardi Trophy. This series will dig into each position group, look at who we have, who might be available, and what the team may do in each area. It will end with a projected off-season plan. You can check out last season's analysis here. They have been largely accurate, so if you want to know what Seattle will do before they do it, look no further.

Part I: Defensive Line
Part II: Wide Receivers & Tight Ends
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
No position group improved more this year than the defensive line. Depth and production were just above average in 2012, and the front office made it a priority to change that. Boy, did they. To think that the Seahawks defensive line was better than the 49ers defensive line last season is a dizzying statement, but true. I did not believe that kind of jump was possible, and truthfully, it should not have been. That Cliff Avril and Michael Bennett were available for affordable free agent deals was a shock. John Schneider then hit on another key free agent starter in Tony McDaniel on the cheap. Bennett played at an All-Pro level much of the year and Avril finished the season at that level. The team enjoyed more fortune at the position when Clinton McDonald was released after the pre-season, sat idle for a week, and then came back as almost a completely new player the rest of they way. A player who had never recorded a sack in his career, finished with 5.5, which is an outstanding total for an interior rusher. Seattle did not have a player on the roster that could rush the passer from the inside like that in 2012, except when Jason Jones was healthy. The combination of McDonald and Bennett in the middle formed one of the most ferocious interior rush packages in the NFL.

The Seahawks needed all those free agents to hit because they struck out in the draft. Jordan Hill was injured much of the year, and just not as talented as the guys in front of him. Jesse Williams spent the year on IR, and there are legitimate questions about whether he will ever get better with a degenerative knee condition. Promising 2012 rookie Greg Scruggs also missed the season with an injury. The team has been cultivating other players to watch at defensive tackle in Michael Brooks and defensive end in Benson Mayowa. Those three young men could all play key roles for the team next year depending on how the off-season plays out.

2014 Seahawks Free Agent Defensive Lineman:

  • DT Tony McDaniel
  • DT Clinton McDonald
  • DE/DT Michael Bennett
  • DE Michael Morgan (Restricted free agent, listed as a DE on the roster)

Seahawks DL Under Contract:

  • DE Red Bryant
  • DT Brandon Mebane
  • DT Jordan Hill
  • DT Jesse Williams
  • DE Benson Mayowa
  • DT Greg Scruggs
  • DE Cliff Avril
  • DE Chris Clemons
  • DT Dewayne Cherrington (futures contract)
  • DT D'Anthony Smith (futures contract)
  • DT Michael Brooks (futures contract)

2014 Positional Spending
These numbers are provided by OverTheCap.com, and represent what the Seahawks currently have on the books to spend at the position in 2014, as well as where that ranks in the NFL. Being ranked #1 means the team is spending more at that position than any other team, and #32 would mean they are spending the least.

DE: $30,883,706 (#1)
DT: $9,820,368 (#9)

It is worth noting that the next closest team to Seattle in DE spending is the Rams, a full $7M behind the Seahawks. Clemons is scheduled to make $7.5M. The math is pretty obvious.

Free Agents
The Seahawks are not a championship team without an interior pass rush that at least is within sight of what they ran on the field last season. They will likely also look for another affordable 3-technique defensive tackle to stuff the run. There is a TON of depth at defensive end and defensive tackle this year. I will list some players below that are worth discussing.

Michael Bennett
No player is more important for the Seahawks to sign this off-season. They could land Bennett and lose out on everyone else, and it would be worth it. He can continue his interior wrecking ball act, while also taking a more prominent role as either a starting LEO or, more likely, supplanting Red Bryant at 5-technique defensive end. He will command a hefty multi-year contract. Pay the man.

Clinton McDonald
McDonald made $630K last season. This is his big shot, and he should find a solid contract on the market. Seattle will need to hope one of their cheaper internal options or a draft choice can fill in for McDonald. They cannot afford to pay him what he deserves to get.

Tony McDaniel
McDaniel could be a guy the Seahawks bring back. He was exactly what they needed at that position, and was affordable. Durability was his question mark going into the year. A full healthy year on a Super Bowl team could land him a deal above what the Seahawks would pay him. If his price does not rise, he might be back. The team has preferred "prove it" deals at this 3-technique position, and had a bad experience when Alan Branch had a big drop-off after proving it his first year. I worry a bit about McDaniel putting forth the same effort on another 1-year deal.

DE Jared Allen
It is highly unlikely that Seattle would add another spendy defensive end, but there is a legitimate question mark at the LEO position, assuming Clemons moves on. Allen has been rumored to Seattle before and wants a trophy. I would have never predicted Bennett signing a 1-year deal for under $5M heading into last season, so there is some (very small) chance Allen and the Seahawks find a workable number.

DE Michael Johnson
Johnson is too young, too good, and too expensive. No chance he comes to Seattle. Zero.

DE Justin Tuck
Tuck is 30 and had 11.0 sacks last year. He will be too expensive.

DE Lamarr Houston
A very nice LEO prospect at just 26, but will be too expensive.

DE Shaun Phillips
Now here is one to watch. Phillips will be 33 next season, and made $1M last year to record 10.0 sacks for the Broncos. He could be a great veteran option to replace Clemons if the price does not go higher than what he signed for last year.

DE Greg Hardy
He is 25 and had 15.0 sacks last year. Those players don't leave, and obviously are too expensive for Seattle.

DE Everson Griffen
Griffen just turned 26, is 6'3" 270+ lbs and runs a 4.46 40-yard dash. He had 5.5 sacks last year for the Vikings. He would be a perfect guy for Seattle in past years, but someone will give him a nice multi-year deal.

DT Henry Melton
Melton missed all last season with an injury after being franchised by the Bears. He would be a guy the team could go after if Bennett ends up being out of their price range. Melton is a disruptive interior rusher when right and is just 27.

DT Paul Soliai
A run-stuffing 3-technique option who is 30, and will not command the $5M he made last year. He could be a late veteran signing depending on how things work out in other areas.

DT Vance Walker
I really like Walker. He is an under-rated interior rusher, and is just 26. He made $2M for the Raiders last year. He would be on the list if Bennett does not work out.

DT Jason Hatcher
Hatcher will be 32 next year, but made himself some cash with an outstanding 11.0 sack season as an interior rusher. Those are Warren Sapp sack numbers for a DT. Another option if Bennett does not work out on a deal of no more than two years.

DT Ropati Pitoitua
Pitoitua will be 29 next season, is 6'8" and a disruptive 300 lbs. He had 4.0 sacks for the Titans last year playing as a defensive end, but I could see him at 3-technique. He played college ball at Washington State. 

DT Alex Carrington
Carrington was coming into his own in 2012 before he suffered a season-ending quad injury in 2013. He will be 27 next year, is 6'5" and 301 lbs. ProFootballFocus.com had him at +9.6 in the pass rush in 2012. Who knows what he will get on the open market, but if his injury scares away the larger deals, he could be a perfect 1-year deal candidate for Schneider. One to watch.

DT Earl Mitchell
Mitchell played NT in the Texans 3-4. He is small for a nose tackle, weighing just 300 lbs. He will turn 27 before the 2014 season and is not likely to command a ton in the open market. His ability to play both NT and base 3-technique could draw some interest from Seattle.

DT Al Woods
He just turned 26, and played NT for the Steelers. He is bigger than Mitchell, and would be a swing NT/3T for the Seahawks. He should be affordable, especially on a short-term deal late in free agency.


Draft
The team has to continue to make drafting young and affordable defensive lineman a priority. If there is one they believe can make a difference at any position along the line, they will take him. It would be wise to take at least two more defensive lineman in the draft this year. Edge pass rushers are the ones they could most benefit from finding as Avril is on the last year of his deal, and buying them on the market is not where you want to be once Russell Wilson, Earl Thomas, Bennett, and Richard Sherman are all getting paid.

Bottom Line
There is more defensive line talent on the free agent market than I remember in any year from recent memory. Seahawks fans can breathe a bit knowing that the world will not end if their favorite familiar players do not re-sign. Few players, though, fulfill team needs better than Bennett.

I expect him to take over for Bryant at 5T end, which will improve early down pass rush and still allow him to swing inside for nickel. Bruce Irvin will return to the defensive end role next season, which plays a part in this, but more on that when we get to linebackers. I am high on Scruggs, Brooks and Mayowa. Scruggs had 2.5 sacks playing on the inside as a rookie. There is upside there, and he can play 5T end as well. He could replace a lot of the production from McDonald. Brooks is a guy who flashed a lot in training camp and played well in his one game in Atlanta. I was shocked nobody signed him off the Seahawks practice squad after that performance. Mayowa is a guy the team believes in enough to have let a ton of other talent walk (John Lotulelei, Stephen Williams, Allan Bradford) in order to stow him away on the roster all year. He will get a shot at LEO for sure.

Brandon Mebane was one of the best players on the best defense in football last year. Nose tackles start to wear down, and Mebane needs some depth behind him that can really hold the point against the run. Everyone loves to talk about pass rush, but it was the improvement stoning the run that made the Seahawks a historic defense.

I am not sold on either Hill or Williams. Hill is a try-hard player who will make some plays, but will rarely beat someone with physical talent versus effort. Technique and effort make you a worthwhile player, but offer little in the way of upside. Seattle needs to be grooming starting caliber defensive lineman. Williams could be that if he was somehow healthy, but I don't see his knee all-of-a-sudden improving.

Seattle could bring back Clemons at a lower-priced deal after he tests free agency, but both parties would be better off if he moved on. The team needs to find a new LEO option, and for those thinking it is Avril, think again. Avril is purely a strongside rusher (the side with the tight end). He is not nearly as effective when going against left tackles. Mayowa, O'Brien Schofield (if re-signed), and others will get a shot there. Finding a prove it player on a 1-year deal is real possibility at that spot. Seattle is really just biding time until they can draft someone who can do the job on a rookie contract.

How the front office handles the defensive line this off-season will go a long way towards determining the team's chances to repeat.

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