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NFL free agency 2013: A closer look at some DT/DE targets

Peter Aiken

Earlier in the week, I put together a moderately extensive look at some of the free agent defensive linemen on the market this offseason but then just prior to publishing it, the internet ate it. Here's take two - it's going to be a little different. I did a little more research, and changed my mind on a few things. That will happen. Let's just get into it, shall we? Before this stupid thing gets erased again?

Seattle's depth, as it currently stands, is, well, terrible.

Nose tackle: Brandon Mebane is the starter at nose tackle, and his back up would probably be starting 3-technique Alan Branch, who is a free agent. Their other backup is probably restricted free agent Clinton McDonald. McDonald will likely be back with the team in 2013, but that's not a given. Past that, Seattle has former UDFA Myles Wade, who has not seen an NFL regular season snap and until just this second, was, I thought, named Wade Myles. I suppose that Red Bryant could play nose tackle. So there's that. Ok, so NT is a position of need, right? Cool.

3-technique: Alan Branch started the vast majority of Seattle's games at 3-tech this season. He's a free agent. It's entirely unclear if Seattle has any interest in re-signing him because I literally don't think anyone has even mentioned him yet this offseason. We'll chalk him up under the 'guys that we're monitoring' as John Schneider might say - regardless, Seattle hasn't made obvious overtures to keep him just yet. Pretty much the same thing could be said about nickel 3-technique Jason Jones. Seattle has said they'll 'keep their eyes on him'. So, we'll see if he gets interest on the open market, in other words.

Greg Scruggs and Jaye Howard are likely replacements - Scruggs is more of a nickel pass rusher on the interior and I believe that Howard was active for two games this season, so the depth at 3-tech is a little thin and untested as well.

5-technique defensive end: Red Bryant, with his injured foot and bulbous belly (and contract), is the starter at the strong side defensive end. I don't think that will change, and I hope Red gets healthy this offseason. I would guess that Scruggs could play a little bit of strongside defensive end, as could McDonald, but there is no true facsimile to Bryant on the roster, as it currently stands. Alan Branch would be his most likely backup. But he's a free agent, remember? So 5-tech is thin.

LEO defensive end: Chris Clemons tore his ACL in early January. Some say an ACL tear takes at least a year to fully heal. Even up to two full years to regain all quickness and explosiveness - two big parts of Clemons' game. So, that sucks. Bruce Irvin is the other LEO on the roster, and Dexter Davis, if he can come back from his injury issues of last season, would be third on the depth chart there, likely. Greg Scruggs, the versatile and athletic human being that he is, could probably play a little bit of weakside defensive end in a pinch. So could Jason Jones, who is an unrestricted free agent.

I'm not going to go so far as to say we should start panicking, but after writing all that, it's painfully clear that Seattle has some work to do on the defensive line and the Draft might not be enough. I do think they'll look to free agency for some patches and/or long-term investments. Here's how I've organized some of these players.

The "Young, talented, super-expensive, probably" guys:

Henry Melton (26) - 6'3, 295
Michael Johnson (26) 6'7, 267
Paul Kruger (27) 6'4, 265
Randy Starks (29) - 6'3, 305
Michael Bennett (27) - 6'4, 274
Cliff Avril (26) - 6'3, 260

As far as I'm concerned, you can get your hopes up about these guys, understandable, but it doesn't seem likely that any of them will be real targets, and here's why I'm more or less taking that stance: Melton will likely get franchised. Melton has been franchised. Johnson will likely get franchised. Johnson has been franchised. Kruger will probably get way too much money, and he'll probably go to a 3-4 team (Colts?). Starks will probably get franchised (if he's not franchised, I could see interest, I'll give you that). Bennett - well I just don't want him because of the principal of it all. Avril said he'd like to get Mario Williams money. So. Yeah.

Now - the next two groups are lumped in together - both are 'interesting' in that the players listed would not likely be looking for break-the-bank deals, and they all fit in in some way or another with the scheme here in Seattle.

The first group of guys I find to be likely targets don't have any obvious connection to this front office or coaching staff, as far as I can tell, so for that reason alone, makes them a tad riskier. That's not to say that they'll be ignored - Jason Jones and Alan Branch were two guys that Seattle has signed over the past couple of years and had no prior connections, so there is certainly precedent.

The "Interesting" group of guys with little or no connections:

Sammie Lee Hill (26) - 6'4, 329

Hill is interesting -- I actually had someone email me last year asking me about the possibility of Seattle trading for Hill so he's been a guy that I've monitored a bit. He has been stuck behind Ndomukung Suh, Nick Fairley and company for the past couple of years, so he doesn't get as many snaps as he deserves - in 2012, he saw 402 defensive snaps for the Lions, or 39%, but from the limited scouting, he makes the most of his time in the rotation. A former 4th round pick by the Lions out of powerhouse Stillman College, he's 26 and at the end of his rookie contract. He can play inside at either of the tackle positions, in theory, and also has some experience as a DE from his college days, so my thinking is that he'd be a possible backup for Red Bryant on the outside as well at 5-tech; Detroit used him mostly at NT and 3tech, from what I could tell from my scouting. Hill actually reminds me a little bit of an Alan Branch - Brandon Mebane mix - shorter and more compact than Branch, but taller and longer than Mebane. Despite Hill's pedestrian sack totals on his career, I do think you'd get a little bit of pass rush out of him if he's used at the 3-tech position.

Anthony Spencer (29) - 6'3, 250

Spencer is a very interesting possibility. After racking up double-digit sacks this season for the Cowboys in 14 games while playing on the Franchise Tag, it doesn't look like Jerry Jones is going to be able to afford the versatile OLB and former first-round pick that just so happens to look like a prime LEO candidate. I like the idea of adding Spencer into the Seahawks' mix because of his positional versatility - you're going to have to give him some money and a few years to convince him to come to Seattle, but even after Chris Clemons returns, he'd potentially remain a major part of the defensive gameplan.

The 29-year old veteran could start at LEO for the Hawks while Chris Clemons is on the mend, and once Clemons is back, move to the Raheem Brock role at strongside defensive end (double LEOs) or even kick out over Bruce Irvin's outside shoulder and play SAM linebacker in a rotation - this would allow K.J. Wright and Bobby Wagner to remain on the field as middle and weakside options and you'd have the possibility of seeing Clemons, Irvin, and Spencer on the field together at the same time, which is intriguing.

The ability to play Spencer at linebacker is an option you don't really have with Clemons, and it's still unclear if you have that with Irvin, but regardless, he's not slow - he was a 4.7 guy coming out of college and I'd assume he hasn't lost too much of that speed considering his numbers from this year, and he's been very durable, only missing three games for the 'Boys in the past four seasons. He adds a very strong element of pass rush to the defense - he had 11.0 sacks and 27 quarterback hurries, but he's also very strong against the run, as he led the Cowboys 95 tackles. He was the only player in the NFL in 2012 with 90+ tackles and 10+ sacks. He also forced 2 fumbles (4 FF in '11 too).

At first glance, it would appear that Spencer is actually the most game-ready, plug and play, non-franchise tag candidate free agent option out there that could replace an injured Chrls Clemons at the LEO position, assuming the team isn't completely sold on Bruce Irvin starting 3-downs in 16 games there this year. He'll be a guy to monitor once free agency starts in March, but of course, he'll be expensive.

Connor Barwin (26) - 6'4, 268

Barwin is a big, athletic freak of nature that could have potential to fit into this defense. Barwin, a former 2nd rounder out of Cincinnati, had 11.5 sacks in 2011 but only had 3.5 in 2012 despite playing in 94% of the Texans' snaps. The Texans are going to make a big push to keep him, according to reports, but he has the athleticism to play LEO and adds a little bit in size at the position - making him an option to kick over to the strongside or even rush from the interior on nickel downs, a la Jason Jones. I'm intrigued with the Barwin option, but he's not at the very top of my list.

Sen'Derrick Marks (26) - 6'2, 294
Vance Walker (25) - 6'2, 304
Terrance Knighton (26) 6'3, 330
Roy Miller (25) - 6'2, 310

I don't know enough about the rest of the list to really add any meaningful analysis, but I do know that there are some young, mid-level free agents out there if the Seahawks are really concerned about depth.

The "Pete Carroll/John Schneider/Tom Cable/Scot McCloughan Connection factor" guys

This coaching staff and front office have the advantage of inside information and player background on a fairly interesting group of free agents this year, and the list, of course, starts with Jason Jones and Alan Branch.

Alan Branch (28) - 6'6, 325

Alan Branch wasn't flashy this season but did finish with 560 defensive snaps - fourth highest among the defensive linemen, so those snaps will need to be replaced. Is Branch the best man for the job? Probably not - he isn't a penetrating gap shooting defensive tackle and he's not going to get much pressure on the quarterback, but he has positional versatility and familiarity with the scheme, so he's a very real option.

It will be interesting to see how much interest he gets on the open market - if Seattle can get him back here on a team-friendly deal, I'm actually all for it. He can back up Mebane at the nose and Red at 5-tech, and theoretically play on 1st and 2nd downs where Seattle's first priority is to defend the run. That is, he'll play on those downs until Seattle has a guy that can rush the passer AND defend the run. Kawann Short, maybe? Sylvester Williams? Just spitballing.

Jason Jones (26) - 6'5, 276

Similarly, I think if Seattle can re-sign Jones, who should get some, but not a ton, of interest out on the open market, that does a lot for their depth and potential pass rush, because Jones offers some versatility. He can play the strongside defensive end spot, the interior 3-technique on nickel downs, and even kick over to the LEO spot if absolutely necessary. Jones seemed to really help boost Seattle's pass rush when he was on the field, even if it didn't lead directly to sacks, so I'm sure he'll be a guy that this front office monitors - if he gets little interest elsewhere, he's a strong candidate to return. Remember, pretty much only St. Louis and Seattle showed interest in Jones prior to this season, and his one-year prove it deal didn't do much to 'prove it.'

Desmond Bryant (27) 6'6, 311

I like Bryant a lot, actually. He may be near the top of my list for free agent signings, in fact. He's another one of those position versatile players with length that the Seahawks tend to love, and has played end and tackle for the Raiders in his career thus far (18 total starts only though). Bryant was signed by Tom Cable as a UDFA out of Harvard after posting some very intriguing speed/power numbers, has gained 20 pounds (he was 288 coming out), and in 2012, gathered 9 sacks, 20 QB hurries, and 11 QB hits. The man can move the pocket, and in the brief scouting I've done, plays with a violent nasty streak that you know Tom Cable loved. The question is - will Cable vouch for him?

Bryant was recently arrested, which could harm his value a bit, but for a guy that used a 4.2 GPA and 1230 SAT to get an academic scholarship to Harvard, you know he's got the smarts to go with his athleticism. If Cable and Bryant have/had a good working relationship, that could help with the Seahawks' pitch. It also helps that Seattle's defense is so good, making the Seahawks an attractive destination for anybody that wants to play around guys that will boost their production.

At this point, I'm not sure that Bryant would be a three down player, but he'd be a big part of the defensive line rotation if he were to be signed.

Ricky Jean-Francois (26) - 6'3, 295

The 49ers backup nose tackle hits the open market on March 12th and should be getting some interest from several teams. The Seahawks may be one of them, as Scot McCloughan, the man who drafted RJF, now sits in the Seahawks' front office. RJF is very strong against the run and could play the 3-technique role next to Brandon Mebane on running downs. He's an interesting free agent to watch.

Mike Patterson (29) 6'1, 300

Patterson sat out of the 2012 season after having brain surgery last January, following a seizure the year before (Patterson played all of 2011 despite that seizure). The former 31st overall pick out of USC is a solid interior lineman with background in Pete Carroll's system. He's an option, and it wouldn't be surprising to see his name connected to Seattle in the coming weeks.

Sedrick Ellis (27) 6'1, 307

Another former first-round defensive tackle out of USC, Ellis has had an underwhelming career thus far. That said, he's still young, Carroll knows him, and he'd possibly offer depth at the DT position for a team that desperately needs it. He's an option I'd keep an eye on.

Fili Moala (27) 6'4, 310

See a pattern yet? Moala is a former USC defensive tackle/defensive end that was selected by the Colts in the 2nd round of the 2009 Draft. After struggling a bit early in his career, Moala had been playing very well in the Colts' new 3-4 in 2012 before tearing his ACL in Week 12.

Moala offers nice length at the defensive tackle position and is very strong against the run - I'd view him as a potential 5-technique option for Seattle with the ability to kick inside. Playing in both a 3-4 and 4-3 in his career thus far, Moala's versatility, in theory, would be attractive. That said, he will not likely be ready by the beginning of the season so if Seattle looks to sign him, he'll likely start the year on the PUP.

Frostee Rucker (29) - 6'3, 280

Another former Trojan. I'm not being lazy in connecting these guys to Seattle, I just feel that an added dimension of knowledge on a player - ie, Pete Carroll coached him up in college - mitigates the risk in bringing 'an outsider' into your locker room. Regardless, Rucker is more of a run-stopping defensive end type that was drafted by the Bengals in the 3rd round, 2006 Rucker could theoretically add depth on the strong side. In 2011, he finished with 44 tackles and 4 sacks, the best stop-to-snap ratio in the NFL, which won him a nice fat contract in Cleveland for 2012. He started 16 games for the Browns this year and had 48 tackles and 4 sacks - reasonable numbers - but was released recently. The former Pete Carroll favorite is a guy to monitor.

Kyle Moore (26) - 6'6, 270

Moore is a rotational type defensive end out of USC. He flashed in 2012 with 3.0 sacks and 24 tackles late in the year in limited playing time, and apparently the Bills want to bring him back. Moore is a former fourth round pick by the Buccaneers.

Matt Shaughnessy (26) 6'5, 270

Shaughnessy is a former third round pick by Tom Cable's Raiders out of Wisconsin. He racked up 7.0 sacks and 2 forced fumbles in 2010 but then missed all but 3 games in 2011. He played in 65% of the Raiders' snaps in 2012 though, gathering 3.5 sacks and 31 tackles.

Cullen Jenkins (32) - 6'2, 305

The only reason I include Jenkins here is that he's a former John Schneider draft pick, then with the Packers. Jenkins is getting up there in age, but still had a pretty strong year with the Eagles in 2012. I'm guessing Jenkins will stay out east, but he's worth keeping an eye on. He offers positional versatility as an end or tackle, after playing in a 3-4 for the past couple of seasons.

Now. Moving on to the secondary market. I could see Seattle pursue one or two of these guys if the primary free agent market goes cold and/or if the Draft doesn't exactly swing their way.

The "I'm old and I want to get a ring" guys:

Richard Seymour (33) - 6'6, 310

Seymour is now 33 but will likely be looking to play for a contender. His former coach, Tom Cable, is now in Seattle.

Dwight Freeney (33) - 6'1, 268

Freeney is worthless against the run but is still a good pass rusher. If he wants to play for a winner at a discount, Seattle would be an attractive option.

Tommy Kelly (32) - 6'6, 325

Kelly is a potential depth guy on the interior.

Osi Umenyiora (31) - 6'3, 255

John Clayton has been on the Osi train for several years now, and this year it actually looks pretty possible. We'll see.

Israel Idonije (32) - 6'6, 275

Played well in the Bears' 4-3 last year and may be looking for a change of scenery.

Isaac Sopoaga (31) - 6'2, 330

Saw much reduced playing time in 2012 for the Niners and may be looking to move north.

Shaun Phillips (31) - 6'3, 250

A potential LEO candidate for the Seahawks, Phillips actually grabbed 9.5 sacks and 2 FF in 2012 so he's a sleeper to keep an eye on. He's similar in some ways to Anthony Spencer, but two years older, obviously.

The 2nd chance new team new system guys:

Glenn Dorsey (27) 6'1, 297:

Dorsey is a former high first round pick that just didn't work at defensive end in Kansas City. Maybe a change of venue would do the guy some good. Seattle's 4-3 under would be a fit.

The "hahahaha just kidding" group:

Lawrence Jackson
Kevin Vickerson