‘Tis the time of year when all is possible and potential overpowers pragmatism. Pete Carroll and his coaching staff mention a new player that stood out, and fans instantly envision Pro Bowl prowess. A recent topic befitting this time of year is whether this Seahawks team is better than the 2013 squad that won it all. It would be completely silly to compare a team that has yet to take the field with one that one the Super Bowl, so let’s do it. I had a whole grading system in mind for every position and sub-package for each of the last three years, but that became insanity piled on top of silliness. I chose, instead, to pick one position group—the defensive line—to start with that was among the most talented on the historically powerful 2013 defense, and try to see how this year’s group might stack up.
Everyone remembers that pass defense of the 2013 squad, but many forget they were pretty darn good at stopping the run as well. They finished 7th in the NFL in rushing yards allowed and in opponent yards per carry (3.9). They were tied for the league lead with only four opponent rushing touchdowns.
Seattle had a healthy Brandon Mebane rotating with Clinton McDonald, as well as a very motivated Tony McDaniel who was getting his first shot at starting after coming over as a free agent from Miami. There was no depth behind them. Jordan Hill was a rookie, but he barely played. When he did play, he was a liability against the run.
The 2015 team appears likely to feature a healthy Mebane and McDaniel again. Both are two years older. In place of McDonald is Ahtyba Rubin, who could be a valuable addition to the rotation. Rubin has generally been less than stellar against the run, so it is unwise to assume he will match McDonald in that category. Hill is more experienced and is coming off a breakout season as a pass rusher. His run defense remains suspect. Guys like Jimmy Staten and D’Anthony Smith are longshots to be rotational players or even make the roster.
EDGE: 2013 Seahawks
Red Bryant gave the team an anchor on the edge for run defense that caused plenty of trouble for opposing tackles. Michael Bennett was able to rotate there as needed, but Bryant got most of the base defense snaps at end. Chris Clemons was the LEO, with Cliff Avril and O’Brien Schofield backing him up. Clemons tended to be a more productive run defender than Avril.
Bennett is the starting 5-technique for the 2015 team, but there is depth there with Frank Clark and possibly even Rubin available to reprise the old Bryant-style defensive end. Greg Scruggs is a longshot, but is talented enough to be worth a mention. Avril is the LEO, but Bennett can play there if needed, as can Clark and Cassius Marsh. Bennett is arguably a better run defender than Bryant, and the addition of young talent like Clark and Marsh make this and intriguing group. It has much of what the 2014 team had, and a little more. That team did better against the run (3rd in the NFL at just 81.5 rushing yards allowed per game) than the 2013 team.
A lot of this will come down to how well Rubin plays in 2015. McDonald was a near starting quality defensive tackle that season. Rubin has been a starting defensive lineman for the Browns, but he is not a starter for Seattle, and would not have started back in 2013 either. There is more depth on the edges that are capable run defenders for this year’s team, but Mebane and McDaniel are a couple years older and health is a legitimate concern. Considering that last year’s team performed better against the run than the 2013 squad, and this year’s team returns all the starters from that line, the edge in run defense goes to this year’s team.
OVERALL DL vs. RUN EDGE: 2015 Seahawks
This is where things get interesting. Seattle is credited with having one of the deepest and most fearsome pass rushing defensive lines in NFL history when they won the Super Bowl. Avril and Bennett came off the bench for gosh sakes. Let’s peel back the onion a bit, though, because this year’s line may possess similar firepower.
Seattle often combined Bennett and McDonald on the inside during their championship season to great effect. The pair combined for 14.0 sacks, which is a massive total for interior pass pressure. Jordan Hill added 1.5 more in his limited action. That was really the Bennett and McDonald show, without a ton of depth behind them. Both players stayed healthy, and got enough rest to play full throttle through the final snap.
The 2015 Seahawks have the potential to be better. Bennett is still around, and now Hill has shown signs of blossoming into a more productive pass rusher than McDonald will ever be. It is not outrageous to think Hill and Bennett could both total more than 8.0 sacks, and that doesn’t even include players like Rubin and Clark. Clark is strong enough and determined enough that he could push for real snaps in this rotation as a rookie. Rubin has had at least 2.0 sacks in four of his past five seasons, with a high of 5.0 sacks in 2011. Becoming a rotational player could unlock his pass rush. Marsh was drafted to play inside and out, but at 255 lbs, he is being targeted more as an edge rusher now where I think he is better suited.
EDGE: 2015 Seahawks
Clemons, Avril, Bruce Irvin, and O’Brien Schofield were the lightning to the Bennett and McDonald’s thunder. It is hard to think back to that season without first thinking about the Super Bowl where Seattle’s edge rushers came in waves after Peyton Manning. They drove Broncos tackles back into Manning’s lap and obscured his throwing lanes. However, if you look at the season in its totality, Clemons only had 4.5 sacks, Irvin and 2.0, and Schofield and 1.0. Avril led the edge rushers with 8.0, but that group had some trouble consistently applying pressure. The team’s total of 44.0 sacks was aided by the linebacker trio of Bobby Wagner, K.J. Wright and Malcolm Smith who combined to sack the quarterback 7.5 times that year. Still, Clemons proved he was not finished by recording 8.0 sacks last year for Jacksonville, which supports the notion that he was at his healthiest and best as the 2013 season came to a triumphant close.
This year’s team will return Avril, but also feature Bennett as a starting edge rusher. That’s a big deal because the 2013 squad was always hampered by starting Bryant as a base end in terms of applying consistent edge pressure. The key here will be Marsh and Clark. Clark, especially, could make a huge impact if he proves worthy of getting heavy snaps at base 5-technique end, which would allow Bennett to play more inside and stay fresher. Marsh has the potential to give Avril similar relief. That does not even include Irvin playing in his contract year after he recorded 6.5 sacks last season.
The ceiling for this year’s group is higher than the championship team, but until Clark and Marsh prove they can be impact players, it would be too speculative to anoint this group just yet.
EDGE: 2013 Seahawks…barely
Overall defensive line pass rush
The 2015 line has the makings of a deep and diverse set of rushers. They enjoy the advantage of having two capable rushers on the field for both base and nickel defenses where the 2013 team started Bryant. A lot will come down to the performance of four players: Clark, Marsh, Hill and Rubin. Hill, by himself, could catapult this pass rush ahead of 2013. But if I had to pick one player who is the biggest wildcard, it would be Clark.
At 274 lbs, Clark is unique in his ability to play inside and out. If he can be effective as an end in the base defense, it will not only mean Seattle has another effective pass rusher, but it will make the Seahawks best rusher (Bennett) better as he will get more rest and more freedom to slide inside. The problem is he has not played a down. Hill has not completed a season healthy or shown that his flash last year was anything more than a good stretch. And Marsh, is only slightly more proven than Clark.
Games are not won with potential. When this line converts their potential into proven performance, it will be a sight to behold. Until then…
OVERALL DL PASS RUSH EDGE: 2013 Seahawks
PICK: 2013 Seahawks DL
Anticipating the possibilities of what could be is one my favorite parts of sports. Young prospects become future stars. Their ascension has ripple effects throughout a roster. There are legitimate prospects on this line that will be given every chance to be impact players this year. Schneider has done a nice job giving the defensive staff a more well-rounded collection of defensive line talent to experiment with.
Still, guys like Clemons, Bryant and McDonald were known quantities. McDonald found himself that season and turned that into a nice free agent contract. It is unfair to compare a group that has not played together yet with one that won a Super Bowl, but the fact that there is reason to even consider it a worthwhile comparison speaks highly of what this line can become.