Pass Rush: The Path Ahead

50 yard line on an american football field

There will be no free agent additions to the Seahawks defensive line that this year that rival what Cliff Avril and Michael Bennett were last year. The younger players with upside like Everson Griffen are long gone. The older stars, like Jared Allen, who can still play like stars are gone. So what is a Super Bowl Champion to do? A variety of options remain.

It is easy to get caught up in the headline-chasing nature of free agency. Talking heads around the league are discussing which team “won” free agency, and most analysts give it to teams that signed the most well known players for the most lucrative deals. The discerning fan has learned to talk themselves down from such nonsense. Moments where popular opinion and factual reality are so divorced are not common. In almost every case, the teams that spend big money on big names are the losers of free agency and the losers during the season. Still, Seattle was a rare exception last year when they got two great players at very club-friendly prices. They have now lost a number of players, and have been unable to add anyone new to the mix.

Identifying Gaps

Names can cloud the picture of what really needs to be replaced. Snap counts can help look at things a little more dispassionately. Chris Clemons was the team’s starting LEO defensive end. He played the second-most snaps on the defensive line, behind Bennett, but that is even a little deceiving. He missed the first two games of the season, and played sparingly in the third. O’Brien Schofield took most of the LEO snaps during that stretch, so for simplicity, add his 144 snaps to Clemons 570. That would be 714 snaps, which is a better representation of the role that needs to be replaced. Clemons played 868 snaps in 2012, to give you some idea of how much that position is on the field for this defense. Although, Dan Quinn does appear to prefer heavy line rotations to limit total snap counts and keep people fresh.

Red Bryant logged 481 snaps last season after seeing 625 in 2012. Clinton McDonald jumped from 287 snaps in 2012 to 530 last year as he emerged in the nickel package as an interior pass rusher.

That means the Seahawks have roughly 700 snaps to replace at LEO, 500 snaps at 5T DE, and 530 at backup NT and nickel 3T. Backup NT is not a serious part of the pass rush, so let’s focus on the other three gaps.

Solutions On The Roster

The immediate reaction when a player exits is that another player has to enter in order to fill the void. That is not the way most general managers hope to manage their roster. Finding solutions within is far better. Seattle has some choices to make about how many of those snaps are gobbled up by guys already on the team.
Bennett played 600 snaps in 2013, but logged 956 with Tampa the year before. It is safe to assume he can play at least 200 more snaps next season, and the team very well may be better off for it. Cliff Avril played 551 snaps last season, but played 684 in Detroit the year prior. 
The ideal situation would have been for the Seahawks to add a known quantity at LEO that was the presumptive starter. That would have allowed Bennett’s to start at 5T where Bryant had been and gobble up most of those snaps. He would have been a dual-threat as a great run stopper and pass rusher at a position where Seattle used to be very one dimensional. The team can still do that, but they may be tempted to slot him into the LEO spot. He played there in the base defense last year when Clemons was out. It is not ideal, but it is an option.
Avril could step in there as well, but he has said he strongly prefers rushing from the left side of the line. Taking your best edge rusher and putting him in less than his best position is also not ideal. 
Benson Mayowa is an unknown on the roster. To say you can pencil him in as the starter there is foolish. That is not to say it won’t happen with a great training camp, but there is no way Schneider can depend on it.
Bruce Irvin played LEO when Clemons went down in 2012, and was not good. Carroll loves to say Irvin’s SAM role and the LEO role are interchangeable, but if you listen to Quinn, he has no intention of moving Irvin back to the line if he can help it. 
Bottom line: Need to bring in additional help

Bennett is the best option here. Carroll has also acknowledged that they believe Tony McDaniel can take on some of what Bryant did. McDaniel played 528 snaps last year, which is likely a career-high for a player who has had durability issues before. He only played 248 snaps in 2012 for Miami. Expecting him to be the base 3T defensive tackle to stuff the run, and add snaps at the 5T seems optimistic at best, and doomed to fail at worst.
Players like Greg Scruggs, Michael Brooks, and Jesse Williams are intriguing options to step forward as part of a rotation at that position. Williams is the closest to Bryant on the roster, but his health is a serious concern.
Bennett still should be the player who takes most of Bryant’s vacated snaps.
Bottom line: No free agents needed here

Nickel 3T
This would have been Henry Melton or Jason Hatcher. Neither signed. Alex Carrington was the last guy in free agency I thought could help here, and he signed with the Rams yesterday. The good news is that the Seahawks have a player on the roster who has already logged 200 snaps in a season as a nickel 3T. His name is Greg Scruggs.
Scruggs played 199 snaps as a rookie and recorded two sacks. That is not enough to breathe a sigh of relief, but that is meaningful playing time and encouraging production. 
I am really high on Brooks. He is a dark horse here. 
Jordan Hill is the most obvious player to gain snaps in this role. He had only 63 as a rookie, but did record a sack, and was disruptive at times. He is a natural for this as a high motor player. The jury is still out on how much upside he has. If he can come to camp stronger than he was as a rookie, his chances to win this spot increase dramatically. 
Bennett is also a natural here, and will fill one of the interior rush positions in the nickel. I am looking at the gap as essentially “the guy next to Bennett inside in nickel situations.”
Bottom line: No free agents needed here, but could add via draft

Options outside the roster

Knowing that LEO is really the spot the team needs a proven player added to the mix, we can focus there. There are no perfect replacements currently on the market, but there are appealing options who can provide some confidence that Seattle can flash some pass rush from that spot without being forced to move Bennett or Avril to a less-than-ideal position.
Shaun Phillips
Phillips has 19.5 sacks in the last two seasons. He will be 33 in May, and played most of his career in San Diego as a 3-4 outside linebacker. He played rush defensive end for Denver last season and held up well. He had 10 sacks and 3 tackles for loss. Curiously, has him at a -7.5 grade as a pass rusher last season, but a +8.4 grade for run defense. He has been consistently graded well defending the run. That is definitely a mark in his favor for Seattle’s needs. He logged 770 snaps last year and has missed only 8 games in 10 seasons. 
Robert Ayers
Ayers was Phillips teammate in Denver. He is younger, at just 29, and bigger at 270+ pounds. Ayers was rotational pass rusher, who got more time once Von Miller went down. He totaled 5.5 sacks in 506 snaps. At that sack/snap rate, he would record around 8 sacks if given the same snaps as Phillips. Ayers was rated extremely well, better than Phillips, against the run by PFF. 
Will Smith
Smith played 986 snaps in 2012, and then was injured all last year. Seattle has already been rumored to have interest. PFF really does not think much of Smith. He was rated an overall -20.3 in 2012 for what was a terrible Saints defense. I happen to like what I have seen in him, and believe he could be a different-maker if healthy on the right defense. 

Anthony Spencer
Spencer is the perfect LEO. He is 6’2″ and 265 lbs. He became such a valuable player the Dallas franchise-tagged him. PFF rated him a remarkable +26.6 in 2012. For comparison sake, Michael Bennett was +24.2 last year. The problem is micro-fracture surgery on his knee. This is the highest risk, highest reward option on the market.

O’Brien Schofield
Schofield is a more known quantity for Seattle since he played here last year. He even played LEO. He was reasonably productive when he got his chance. He had a sack, a quarterback hit and a hurry in his first start, another hurry the following week, and defended the run well. He is just 27, and provides depth at SAM linebacker as well. He was a productive special teams player to boot. The Giants signed him as a week one free agent, but nullified the deal after the physical. There are whispers they were looking for an excuse to exit the agreement after a large backlash from fans who did not like the signing.
Mystery Player
There is always a guy that shakes loose near June roster cuts or during training camp or via trade. Schneider could just choose to wait and see what comes to him.

A Plan

Seattle will definitely be looking for defensive line help in the draft. They have not demonstrated the ability to find DL help there yet. There are players on the roster that can step forward to play important roles next year, and there are some positions, like nickel 3T, that have better options on the roster than off of it. The one position the team really needs to add to the pile at from a pass rush perspective is LEO. 
They can afford to sign two players, if they wish, and still have spent less than a guy like Jared Allen would have cost. A combination of Robert Ayers and O’Brien Schofield is appealing. A guy like Smith would come very cheap, but the injury issues for him and Spencer have to be cause for pause. 
If the team could bring back Schofield, add one of those other options, and have Irvin, Avril, Bennett, Mayowa, and possible draft additions to compete for snaps at LEO, they should be fine. Remember, Clemons was not a world beater last season. He only had 4.5 sacks. This is more about keeping guys like Avril, Bennett, and possibly Irvin in the roles that best suit them.