The Silent Sack Battle

I wrote back in July how the departure of Bruce Irvin after this season may not be as certain as everyone assumed. They key premise was that the team could choose shift money from Cliff Avril to Irvin based on the structure of Avril’s contract, the fact that he is older, and the reality that Irvin recorded more sacks in 2014. This season is seven games old, and both players are off to very strong starts that include identical 3.5 sack totals that have them on pace for 8.0 on the year. They are both making strong cases if Seattle can truly only choose one of these players to keep beyond this season.

Avril dominating

The Seahawks LEO rush end is responsible for rushing the passer on every pass play, and is expected to lead the team in sacks most years. Avril nearly did that in his first season with Seattle when he played as a situational pass rusher opposite Chris Clemons. His 8.0 sacks were a half-sack short of Michael Bennett’s team-leading 8.5 total. He was asked to move over to the right side and take over the LEO spot once Clemons was let go last year. The sack numbers were not great. 
Avril finished with just 5.0 sacks, his lowest total since his rookie season in 2008. He also saw his forced fumbles drop from 5 in 2013 to 1 last season. His pass rush productivity, a stat tracked by, was still 5th best among 4-3 defensive ends. At age 29, though, there had to be at least some question about whether Avril was starting a downward slide.
He has responded with a vengeance this season. He is the top-rated 4-3 defensive end in the NFL, per PFF. He is ahead of players like Robert Quinn, Carlos Dunlap, and Cameron Wake. He is second in pass rush productivity among 4-3 defensive ends, behind only his teammate Bennett.   
Perhaps, most impressively, Avril has become a significantly better run defender this season. He forced a fumble this week by stripping Carlos Hyde, and second among 4-3 DEs in run stop percentage, according to PFF. He was 32nd last season. 
His energy and leadership has been apparent and consistent in each game. No player on Seattle’s defense has brought it every week the way Avril has, not even Bennett. 

Irvin steps up

Seattle asks different things of Irvin than they do of Avril. As a strongside linebacker, Irvin’s chief responsibility is to set the edge against the run. The Seahawks have been asking Irvin to do more in coverage, though, this year than in past years. He did an excellent job shadowing Anquan Boldin at least a couple of times on Thursday, and has been deployed on other wide receivers in other games.

The amount of athletes capable of covering a receiver thirty yards downfield when weighing 260 lbs are few in number. That Irvin is then capable of turning around and rushing the passer effectively is almost unheard of.
His 3.5 sacks are misleading. There have been at least two or three times that Bennett or Avril got to the QB a split second before Irvin. Avril has also had 60 more pass rush snaps on the year than Irvin. He would have 1.5 more sacks at his current sack rate if he had the same number of pass rush opportunities that Avril has had thus far.

If you can only have one…

Avril counts $6.5M against the salary cap next year. He can be cut or traded and the team would get $5M of that back in cap space. Irvin will probably command $6M+ per year. My gut tells me the Seahawks will stick with Avril, who is having an outstanding season. A few things give me pause.
Irvin is two years younger. Pass rushers are often late bloomers. Only Jeff Bryant and Cortez Kennedy have had more sacks in their first three seasons as Seahawks than Irvin’s 16.5. He has also been money in the playoffs, getting at least one postseason sack in each of the three seasons he has played.
The biggest thing working against Irvin is that the Seahawks have a better plan to replace him than they do to replace Avril. Cassius Marsh is currently the backup LEO. They could move Irvin back to LEO, but that was not a great fit for him as a rookie. Kevin Pierre-Louis would rise to starter should Irvin leave, and K.J. Wright would shift back to strongside linebacker. Avril also has great pass rush chemistry with Bennett.
It is truly a painful choice, and one that John Schneider and Pete Carroll may agonize over. It is a credit to both players that they are making it this difficult. Both will certainly get rewarded one way or another.

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