2012 Seahawks Off-Season Analysis Part II: Defensive Line

This series will examine seven position groups on the Seahawks, reviewing their 2011 performance, the impending free agents, and the potential for free agent or draft additions. The final part of the series will summarize the recommended plan of attack across the entire team.

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

State Of The Position
There may not be a more perplexing group on the Seahawks roster than the defensive line. Seattle signed two starters, Brandon Mebane and Alan Branch, last year that should be quality anchors for a long time. The two defensive ends get the most notoriety, but each have cloudy futures. Chris Clemons has been an absolute steal after coming to the Seahawks in 2010 for Darryl Tapp. He piled up 22.0 sacks in two seasons, and complimented his pass rush with a great year against the run in 2011. Clemons will turn 31 in October, though, and is in the last year of his deal. Depending on him beyond 2012 would be unwise, and that’s a ton of production to make up for. Red Bryant is the other end, and is an unrestricted free agent. He may have a greater impact on the defense than any other single player outside of Earl Thomas. The assumption is that Bryant will be back, but it is not as certain as many would believe. He helped to convince Carroll that a player of his size can play end in this scheme, but it is debatable how much of Bryant’s effectiveness is unique to him. Junior Siavii subbed for Bryant during one game in 2010, and the defense against the run almost immediately returned to the level it had been when Bryant was in the lineup. It is possible that a variety of stout defensive tackles could take that spot in a pinch. Even Branch was originally signed as a hedge against Bryant’s health in addition to his value at DT.

Neither Mebane and Branch will provide much pass rush inside. Bryant, or his replacement, will not provide much pass rush at one end. Clemons could hold-out, and if he plays, his performance is more likely to slow down than speed up. This unit was the healthiest of any on the roster. Only Branch missed any time. They were among the best lines in football against the run earlier in the year, but their effectiveness eroded as they were left on the field a lot before the offense found a running game late in the season. The best case scenario for this group is to maintain their excellence against the run, and maintain their mediocre-to-below-average pass rush. That would be great within the overall scheme of the defense.

There were not many high potential back-ups on the roster. Clinton McDonald did a nice job at DT, but is not going to be the interior pass rusher the team needs. Anthony Hargrove was solid role player, but will not be any better next season than he was last. Pep Levingston has upside that he needs to find by working his tail off during the off-season. Dexter Davis and Jimmy Wilkerson offer some unknowns. Davis gets a lot of praise from Carroll, and could fit behind Clemons or take Raheem Brock’s situational rusher role. Wilkerson is going to be 32, but flashed some pass rush inside and out before being injured in the pre-season. Pierre Allen is a promising player on the practice squad that could surprise next year, but not someone a team can count on yet when building out a roster.

2012 Seahawks Free Agent Lineman:

  • DL Red Bryant
  • DL Anthony Hargrove
  • DE Raheem Brock
  • DE Jimmy Wilkerson
Seahawks Lineman Under Contract:
  • DT Alan Branch
  • DT Brandon Mebane
  • DE Chris Clemons
  • DT Clinton McDonald
  • DL Pep Levingston
  • DE Dexter Davis
  • DE Pierre Allen (Practice Squad)
Bryant is probably worth more the Seahawks than any other team based on the role he plays in what is unique system in the NFL. He wants to be back, and probably will be. It probably would not be cataclysmic if they cannot come to agreement. Hargrove will be 29, and will be a late signing (think Brock), if the team cannot find a younger replacement with more potential. Brock will not be back, and Wilkerson probably will not be either (although, Carroll loves him). Davis, Allen and Levingston could be players that grow enough in the off-season that the team gets a boost, but none of them are clearly on the rise right now. That means the organization will have to look seriously at the draft, and possibly free agency to bolster the ranks and produce meaningful competition.
Free Agents
There are a number of intriguing free agent defensive lineman. Seattle could choose to bring in another tackle and slide Branch over to Bryant’s end spot, or take the more predictable approach and look for pass rush help at both DT and DE. Spending premium dollars on rotation players can be a questionable way to go, so the draft might be a more likely place to invest in this position group. Here are a few free agent lineman to be aware of:

DE Robert Mathis
Mathis is going to be 31, but has produced at least 9.5 sacks in every season since 2004, except for 2007 when he had 7.0. Mathis probably goes to a contender who needs an impact player, and is too expensive for the Seahawks. Signing aging pass rushers is something Seattle should know is a bad idea in almost every case.

DE Calais Campbell
Campbell is an interesting one. He’s only 25, and at 6’8″, 300 lbs, he has swing ability. His impact numbers have grown, and he had 7 tackles for loss, 10 deflections and 8.0 sacks last season. Arizona probably keeps him, and Seattle would have to be sold on him as the replacement for Clemons long-term in order to spend the money needed to sign a 25-year-old free agent defensive end with upside.

DE Cliff Avril
Avril is also 25, and is more likely to be a lower priority for his current team (Detroit). Avril went from 8.5 sacks in 2010 to 11.0 in 2011. He also forced six fumbles. At 6’3″, 260 lbs, he is more clearly matched up to Clemons LEO role, and could spend this season filling the Brock situational pass rusher opposite Clemons. Avril would be a great get, but the Seahawks would not be alone in pursuing him.

DE Mario Williams
Williams missed much of last season with a torn pectoral muscle, but is a proven pass rusher. He was asked to become a stand-up outside linebacker in Wade Phillips 3-4 defense, but at 6’6″ 283 lbs, he is plenty big to play defensive end in the 4-3. He will be 28 next season, and is talented enough to require a big contract. Season-ending injury, nearing 30-year-old pass rusher, requires a big contract…danger, John Schneider, danger! Then again, he might be the most talented lineman available, and could be an impact addition for 2-4 years.

DT Jason Jones/Michael Bennett
Jones is an unrestricted free agent, and Bennett is a restricted free agent. Both a disruptive interior pass rushers that would be great fits in Seattle. Seahawks fans will painfully remember that Bennett made a big impression in Seattle during pre-season a few years back before getting waived and signed by Tampa Bay. Jones is going to be high on the Titans priority list to re-sign. Neither are likely to move, but should be discussed nonetheless.

If Seattle does not get the player(s) they need in free agency, which appears likely, there will be a heavy emphasis on defensive line in the draft. Even if the team decides to find pass rush help via the linebacker spot, they cannot ignore the potential hole they have ahead of them with Clemons impending free agency and slowdown due to age. Davis could be part of the solution, but the team needs to upgrade the talent at DE overall.
Bottom Line
This is a solid part of the team, that could fracture if the wrong steps are taken. How the team handles Clemons will be a key part of the off-season. He may have been the best player on that line last season, and it was not a weak group. They need to add speed and disruption to the heft they already have. That should come in the form of a player like Bennett (even if it is not Bennett), and a player like Avril (even if it is not Avril). Getting Avril could set them up nicely to play the hand they are dealt in the draft instead of searching for a need. The front office has shown they will spend on free agents, as long as they are 26 or under. The biggest addition to this unit may be an offense that can hold onto the ball for more than half the game. They should wear down less, and may be able to dominate more.