The Seahawks defensive line is arguably the biggest need position at the moment outside of quarterback. Right now, as the roster stands, Kentwan Balmer is the starting 3-tech defensive tackle (undertackle). Balmer played most of his snaps at the 5-tech defensive end position last season and wasn't particularly impressive (though I haven't give up hope he can be a solid contributor). It's a bit unknown how he'd play at the 3-tech if given more snaps, but the point is that we need to upgrade the depth there badly. Brandon Mebane is the obvious choice but given the Seahawks lukewarm review of his play ("steady pro") and apparent indifference to re-signing him (no offer was made pre-lockout), it appears he could be going elsewhere.
At the other defensive tackle position, the nose tackle, there is, similiarly, little depth. Colin Cole is the presumptive starter at the nose tackle position and is backed up there, currently, by Jay Alford. Cole, however, was recently reported to have a boot on his foot following a late-offseason surgery to correct issues from an injury he sustained earlier in the year while playing against the Raiders. This puts his status for the beginning of the season very much in the air. Awesome.
Alford was signed after the season and though once thought of as a great prospect, is attempting to come back from major knee surgery. It's a toss up as to whether he'll make the roster but if he can regain some of his pre-injury form, things could be looking up for him.
Past that, Barrett Moen was signed after the season as well and could compete for a spot. The other guys you can watch for in terms of free agent re-signings are Craig Terrill and Junior Siavii. Just writing this post makes me a little nervous. The depth on the interior defensive line is, well, slim.
So what do we do about this? Let's take a look.
On the Roster:
I really don't know what I think about this whole Brandon Mebane thing. My gut tells me that it'd be best to re-sign him because there are no players behind him ready to step up and play at a high level.. or at least it doesn't appear there are. The argument has been thrown around a lot this offseason and I think there are two sides to the coin. On one hand, 1 sack the entire season from your supposed 'premiere interior pass rusher' is just not getting the job done.
As Derek Stephens of the Blue Bird Herd put it, "In recent months I've heard Mebane described with such expressions of praise as "great", "a disruptive force", a "up and coming star", "Seattle's best defensive player" and more. And I wish I could say that I've only heard such things from partial, bias fans who don't take their football study much further than casual "viewership", but that hasn't necessarily been the case.
Not that Mebane is a bad player, or even sub-starting material. The guy just isn't a good 3 Technique defensive tackle (Left D-Tackle). Unfortunately, for him, that's the position he's played for the last two seasons now, and the results have been less than impressive. In his second NFL season, Mebane totaled 5.5 sacks from the 1 Technique position (now manned by Colin Cole). Since moving to the 3 Technique spot, Mebane has totaled 2.5 sacks in 27 regular season starts. Progress? I think not."
How would Mebane respond to the idea he should switch back to NT due to the low production at undertackle? Well, when asked that question by Eric Williams earlier this year, he responded, "The production hasn't been down. The thinking out there that my production was down is probably because my sacks were down. But the thing you have to look at is who I had next to me. Rocky Bernard is a well-respected player. A lot of people don't realize it takes two people to be on the same page to have good production. Can't one man do it by yourself - it takes two.
I can play both the 3-tech and nose tackle, and there aren't too many guys out there that can play both. I feel like my production has been real good the last four years. I put pressure on the quarterback my third and fourth year."
Now, while it's true that it is important to have a great player next to you to draw double teams, his defense isn't super convincing (not to mention he throws Cole under the bus). Further, if he's going to continue to play the 3-tech next to Cole, should we expect only one more sack in 2011 from that spot? Should we pay Mebane big dollars to go out there and produce near-league-worst sack totals again? I really don't know. From the outside looking in, it doesn't make a ton of sense. Obviously, sack totals are not the best way to look at it - pressures are important too and Mebane does do a good job of getting pressure on the QB. But at the end of the day, it's unclear if he's the answer at that spot and I think that's the reason you see the Seahawks balking at offering up a big contract.
I refer to Derek Stephens' piece again when he offers up this summary: "It's great to get 20 sacks out of two edge rushers (Clemons and Brock), but there is a clear difference between a hit-or-miss speed presence off the edge and a constant, consistent disruptive force from the inside that effects a QBs ability to step up and see the field.
Brandon Mebane is not irreplaceable. Not even close. And he's certainly not worth elite-level money as a 3 Technique lineman. Of course, if you pay big just to move him to the 1 Tech, then you've got a salary problem with both he and Cole getting pretty decent dollar to compete for one spot that isn't as tough to find adequate talent for."
Now that Cole is likely to miss at least part of the season and possibly become an injury settlement type player, the Brandon Mebane re-signing gets more interesting. Stephens' piece is definitely worth a read and sums up the situation with Mebane very well - including league-wide comparison stats and addresses the problems associated with having no interior pressure on the QB, so give it a read.
So what do we do if Mebane walks? Vasilii talked about it a little bit in his Salary Cap post, and I tend to agree with his assessment. We'll either go out and sign a free agent like Barry Cofield of the Giants or Cullen Jenkins of the Packers, or simply rotate in some scrubs and cast-offs and hope someone sticks. I'm not sure how likely it is that the Seahawks will make a big-name FA signing because the front office has stated a desire to build through the draft and get younger. Jenkins doesn't satisfy either of those goals. Cofield is younger, but would be very expensive and comes from a very, very good Giants defensive line where his stats and production could have been inflated a bit.
One player that I am really intrigued with is Alan Branch of the Cardinals. Not only would it be great to poach a player picked 33rd overall by Arizona back in '07, I believe he'd be a great addition to this weak defensive line. He's listed as a nose tackle at 338 pounds, so could rotate with Cole in that position, but didn't show enough there for the Cards so they moved him to defensive end. (This Branch train of thought is a little off-topic because I'll be mentioning him again when we're talking about DEs, but the idea that he could play the nose tackle in a pinch is why I bring him up.) He was better at the defensive end spot, specially against the Seahawks in Week 7 (5 tackles, 2 sacks, 1 FF). He'd be an animal on the edge and I could see him playing in certain situations as a platoon with Red Bryant, or opposite him to create a vortex of manliness that no running back could escape. Simply put, he'd give the 'Hawks some options and depth without costing draft picks or much in cash. He's young, only 26, as well and would most likely come cheapish, as it doesn't appear the Cards want him that badly (he only started 3 games in 2011).
Outside of those FA's though, who would these 'scrubs' be? Most probably a cut/release from other teams during camp, or a group of UDFAs. My guess is the latter. This year's UDFA group is surprisingly good, and actually has some potential roster-making players. The two top players there would be, in my mind, Ian WIlliams of Notre Dame, and Martin Parker of Richmond.
As I wrote earlier this year, Martin Parker is probably the best 3-tech still available after the draft ended. He is a small school guy that flew under the radar until he won the game MVP in the East-West Shrine game in front of pretty much every NFL scout in the nation. He was thought of as a little undersized but weighed in there at 6'2, 303. His senior year at Richmond he put up ridiculous numbers - 96 tackles, 13.5 for a loss, and 5.5 sacks. He's a high-effort guy with quick feet and active, violent hands and gets into the pocket well to disrupt the QB. He's a bit of a project, but has some upside that might be worth a roster spot.
Ian Williams is a nose tackle and 5-tech defensive end prospect. CBSSports lists his strengths: "Two-gap nose tackle has the anchor and lower-body strength to hold up against double-team. Aware of the play in the backfield, works his way off his block to chase plays when run to the other side of the line. Flashes nimble feet through trash inside. Can disengage from linemen with strong hands, occasionally spinning to get free. Capable of popping into his man's jersey to keep from getting moved off the line. Swallows backs with his girth when he closes up a gap, and has the strength to knock down smaller backs with an arm tackle. Chase and hustle are impressive, will help linebackers make stops at the second level and takes deep angles to chase down running backs down the sideline."
These strengths make him an ideal candidate for both the 1-tech and 5-tech position and could provide the Seahawks with some versatility. It was a surprise he went undrafted (he is coming off an injury) so I would be glad to see him brought in for a tryout.
The other UDFAs I noted as an interest earlier are as follows:
DT Ollie Ogbu, Penn State
Another interesting 3-tech prospect that was overlooked in the draft. Ogbu has a good first step and plays with good leverage to get into the pocket and disrupt the QB. He's a bit undersized at 6'0 298 but makes up for it with a good motor and decent repertoire of moves, including a decent swim move. According to scouting reports, his best fit would be as a one-gap 3-technique like the Seahawks' defense utilizes so he could come in as depth there. Sideline Scouting interestingly compared him to Jay Alford (when healthy I assume), who is now a Seahawk.
DT Cedric Thornton, Southern Arkansas
Thornton is an intriguing prospect for the Hawks because he has the versatility to play either the 3-tech as an interior rushing tackle or a 5-tech defensive end. He's 6'3, 310 and has decent athleticism. He's quick off the snap and can get penetration into the backfield. He plays with a mean streak and impressive intensity but is inconsistent. He can hold the edge well and has good range and had 13 tackles behind the line in 2010. The Hawks could be interested in him due to his ability to play multiple positions on the line.
DT Anthony Gray, Southern Mississippi
Gray is 5'11 330 and could provide some depth at the 1-tech spot. He's very aggressive off the snap and has pretty decent numbers, as he racked up 17.5 tackles for a loss, 8.5 sacks, 3 forced fumbles, and one pass broken up in his career at Southern Miss. If he can be coached up on his discipline he could be a factor on the d-line for the Hawks.
Overall, whether I'm a free agent or a rookie undrafted free agent, the Seahawks look really, really attractive to me. I see their roster and I know that I've got a decent shot of, not only making the team, but getting snaps. This should help the Seahawks in the mad dash to sign players because they can offer what a lot of teams can't - playing time.
I can see the Hawks bringing in a few 'unknowns' and letting them duke it out. I'd love to see them bring in Alan Branch, Barry Cofield, or Cullen Jenkins (in that order), but am unsure how big of a splash they'll make in FA. It will be, arguably, the most important thing to watch in the next few weeks (apart from the QB situation of course).