The Seahawks defensive backfield gets a lot of love, both locally and nationally, after sending three out of four starters to the Pro Bowl in 2011. A lot of people believe that Kam Chancellor and Earl Thomas are the best starting safety duo in the NFL and if they're not at the top for some, they will be in the next year or two for the rest. Similarly, many look at the Seahawks' starting corner duo of Richard Sherman and Brandon Browner as one of the leagues better units - I saw recently that Adam Caplan ranked the Seahawks third in the NFL for that positional group and though I probably wouldn't put them that high, it was interesting to see. Still, though the secondary is surely talented, I'm actually really looking forward to seeing what the front seven can do for this team, because I think the talent has been significantly upgraded over the past couple seasons.
Now, going back to what I said yesterday about the modern defense, it's pretty pointless to predict and spend too much time talking about 'starters', because in the sub-package era, players will be rotating in so often during any given game that a 'starter' and 'backup' might even get similar numbers of snaps.
Similarly, it's tough to really project a 'depth chart' when you've got players like Jason Jones, Brandon Mebane, Alan Branch and several other guys that can play two, three or even four spots on the line. Jones can play the 3-tech, the LEO end if asked, the counter-LEO, and I think I actually even heard him say something lately that in a pinch the Seahawks could throw him in at nose. Now, they're not going to do that very often, but you might see the issue with talking too much about the depth chart at any given position because Brandon Mebane could play the 3-tech if Branch went down, or likewise Clint McDonald, or Jaye Howard at both the nose and the under tackle. Guys like Pierre Allen, Pep Levingston, and Greg Scruggs don't even really have a defined position, because they can play the 5-tech or on the inside. That's not only good for the Seahawks and their versatility, but it can give offenses issues when coming out of the huddle and setting protections at the line.
Regardless, we're gonna talk about depth charts, because it should help give us a better idea of who to watch tonight.Defensive Tackle (3-tech)
Alan Branch grabbed four sacks from the 3-tech position last season and I thought he really picked things up later in the year to get more penetration and pressure from the interior. I heard him talking on the radio recently that he aims to surprise this year with his pass rush abilities and a new repertoire of moves, and and if he can live up to that it will be very beneficial to the Hawks on first and second down, where he should probably get a lot of his snaps. He's mainly known as being a run stopping force on the interior and will likely platoon a bit with Jason Jones in 2012 on passing downs, but the obvious fact remains that teams do pass in 'run downs' too. Watch for Branch's development there.
Jason Jones has been one of the most talked about additions for the Seahawks this offseason and Pete Carroll noted recently that Jones has been so impressive in camp that they now have had to adjust their thinking for this year and now plan to play him more than they had originally thought they would. His ability to play several spots on the line, including at defensive end, makes him one guy to really key in on tonight to get a glimpse of how Gus Bradley plans to use him.
Past that, Jaye Howard has gotten some praise in camp but remains a big unknown as a rookie. I keep hearing Pierre Allen's name in camp reports, and the former Nebraska defensive end has that potential to kick inside on passing downs. His versatility just may earn him a spot on the roster, if he can beat out guys like Greg Scruggs and Pep Levingston.
Clint McDonald backed up Mebane last year at the nose tackle spot and was really pretty effective. This year, I assume he'll retain that spot and he is now getting looks as a part of the nickel pass rushing unit - along with, I assume, Bruce Irvin, Chris Clemons, and Jason Jones. Todd Wash told Clare Farnsworth recently that he's also looking at using Mebane, Red Bryant, or Alan Branch there. See what I mean about the depth chart?
Defensive End (LEO)
The two players to watch here, obviously apart from rookie Bruce Irvin, are the two guys that are looking to break onto the final roster as backups - Dexter Davis and Cordarro Law. I've heard good things about both Davis and Law during camp, but the buzz building around Law can't be ignored. I'm really going to key in on how the Seahawks use the rookie out of Southern Miss tonight because if he can be a little more versatile - able to play as a SAM linebacker up on the line and running in coverage with tight ends or running backs, he might actually have a shot to make the team. As you probably know, finding a final 53 is a very tight numbers game, and if you could use Law as a backup LEO and a backup SAM, he's that much more valuable to John Schneider as he's making his cuts.
Still, I have been very intrigued with Davis, and am hoping he can really show up in the preseason. He's a natural pass rusher that was on the I.R. last year after getting some good snaps as a rookie. He's undersized as a defensive end, shocking, I know, for this Seahawks team, and if he can contribute strongly on special teams, show some versatility, it will help him hold off Cordarro Law. I really don't think that there is room for both on the final roster.
Defensive End (5-tech)
Obviously, Bryant is the incumbent and starter. Watch for Scruggs and Pep on the strong side defensive end spot during running downs because the team will likely look to keep one of the two as a backup/developmental and rotational lineman. You could probably include Pierre Allen with this group too.
On to the linebackers.
The obvious competition here is between Bobby Wagner and Barrett Ruud, and if either one of those guys shows enough talent and ability in the middle, it makes Pete Carroll and Gus Bradley's job that much easier. They want to keep K.J. Wright on the outside, but if both flounder, they may feel the need to put Wright in the middle. The obvious hope is that Wagner picks it up and rolls with it, so I'd recommend really keying in on Wagner tonight. Ruud is a veteran and said on the radio the other day that he's feeling mostly healthy, so he'll be Wagner's main competition.
Past that, I kind of just threw Knox, McCoy and Bradford into the mix. To be honest, I'm not sure where they've been using Kyle Knox mostly during training camp, but he has similar measureables to Wagner, minus top-end speed. Really though, I could see him getting time on the outside too, and because of this, he is a darkhorse to stick as a backup. Matt McCoy was a savvy contributor last year before tearing up his knee, and it will be interesting to watch if he has his speed and change of direction back at this point. Allen Bradford was drafted as a running back by the Buccaneers but the Seahawks picked him up off of waivers and converted him to a linebacker. My guess is that he'll have to stand out on special teams to stick.
As for the two outside spots, it's important to note that these depth charts are pretty fluid -- in the over front looks this defense features, the SAM/WILL spots are thrown out the window and it simply becomes left OLB and right OLB. So, don't look too deeply into the SAM/WILL designations at this point as they're bound to overlap quite a bit. You know how this team loves multi-spot versatility.
Danny O'Neil recently mentioned that Mike Morgan was taking some of Korey Toomer's snaps during practice so that's a really interesting preseason battle to watch. Morgan is a former USC linebacker with some really interesting athleticism. At 6'4, 225 - he ran in the 4.4's coming out so you know the Seahawks like his length and speed. Korey Toomer seems to be of similar ilk as an athletic project. Watch for these two tonight.
Hill is the presumptive starter and Malcolm Smith should be his backup, if he can stay healthy. It will be interesting to see how things shake out if Bobby Wagner isn't able to immediately start in the middle, and he could instead see time as a weakside linebacker. I just randomly threw Konz and Farwell in at this spot but those guys are more likely special teams contributors.
Ok, enough waiting. Seahawks football tonight.