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Taking the next step: Defense

Which three players are going to elevate their game in 2016 on the defensive side of the ball?

Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports

**This is the second part of a two-part series.  You can find part one, on the offense, here.**

This past offseason saw a couple of big names on the defensive side of the ball depart.  There was Brandon Mebane, one of two players remaining from the previous regime, leaving for San Diego on a well paying three-year deal.  Then there was Bruce Irvin, the last player the team selected in the first round prior to this year's draft, signing for big money in Oakland.  While both left sizable holes (one very sizeable) on the defensive side, one of those is much easier to fill then the other.  In the case of Mebane's departure, the replacement was brought in during the draft in the form of former Alabama defensive tackle Jarran Reed.  Irvin's spot, much like his role on the team, wasn't so simple to fill.  Instead of selecting a SAM linebacker that can also come down onto the line and rush the passer in nickel, it appears the Seahawks will be taking a committee approach to replacing Irvin, starting with the first player on this list.

Frank Clark

Expectations for the Seahawks first selection from 2015 were high following last year's preseason.  For many stretches of those four weeks, Clark looked downright unblockable, albeit against second/third/fourth stringers.  He picked up a couple of sacks and forced fumbles, bringing some to even wonder if Clark could be a dark horse for defensive rookie of the year.  But then, the regular season hit and Clark didn't record his first tackle until week three.  There were simply too many bodies ahead of him.  When he did get a chance to be a heavy part of the rotation, the ability once again flashed.  A first career sack against Pittsburgh was followed up by a two-sack performance against the Vikings.  Now, with Bruce Irvin gone, Clark can be a regular in obvious passing downs both coming off the edge and rushing from the inside.  In 2015, just two Seahawks defensive lineman played more then 50% of the snaps: Cliff Avril and Michael Bennett.  With his role to expand in 2016, I would expect Clark's number to raise from the 33.5% he played in last season and hover closer to the 50% mark and with it, a larger sack total.

Jeremy Lane

Before the season kicks off in September, Jeremy Lane will have hit 19 months since he tore his ACL during Super Bowl XLIX.  As displayed by Tyrann Mathieu, among others, the second year back after an injury like Lane's is when players return to form.  Helping a depleted secondary admirably down the stretch last season, I think we are in for a big 2016 from Lane.  There is no Byron Maxwell, Brandon Browner or Cary Williams standing in his way this time around; the starting cornerback spot opposite Richard Sherman is his for the taking.  On the heels of Pete Carroll's comments of the secondary being more matchup based in 2016, it makes me believe Lane will have more freedom to stick on the outside.  The returning Brandon Browner can come down into the slot against tight ends and bigger receivers, DeShawn Shead can play inside against shiftier slot receivers and, if needed, Lane can come inside with Tharold Simon or Shead moving outside.  With depth returning to the Seahawks secondary, Lane could have a big 2016 and finally carve himself a place on the outside.

Tharold Simon

Finally free of the foot injuries that have plagued him, Simon will enter Seahawks training camp looking to make up lost time from last season.  If he can put together a healthy 2016, it will be the first time Seahawks fans will see the real Simon.  With less traffic in front of him then ever at the position, there is a role waiting for Simon if he can earn it.  With Jeremy Lane presumably starting outside week one, a healthy Tharold Simon would free up Lane to shift into the slot when needed, with Simon moving outside.  Beyond that, Simon would provide depth at a position that time and time again has proved invaluable.  Entering his fourth season in Seattle, 2016 isn't just a year for Simon to take the next step, it's very much ‘make or break'.

Bonus Impact Rookie: Quinton Jefferson

Don't get me wrong, Jarran Reed is going to come into Seattle and start week one, helping the defensive line not miss a beat following Mebane's departure.  Jefferson, however, does have an interesting season ahead of him.  Touted as very raw by many draft experts, I think Pete Carroll and the Seahawks defensive coaches will carve out a good role for Jefferson in 2016.  The quick defensive tackle will be played to his strengths, which I imagine means he'll see the field in just passing downs.  Jefferson will get a chance to get after the passer when players like Jordan Hill, Bennett, Clark and Chris Clemons need rotating.  Jefferson will also provide a good hedge in case of another injury riddled season for Jordan Hill, a spot that Rob Staton underlined the value of during the pre-draft process.  In 2016, I see a campaign similar to the one former Seahawk Greg Scruggs put together in his rookie season; a couple of sacks and a couple more TFL's, only really seeing the field when the Seahawks are beating Arizona by fifty points.

Any other defensive players you see taking a big step in 2016?  Any listed here that you disagree with?  Let us know in the comments!