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Releasing Dwight Freeney was completely logical

NFL: Seattle Seahawks at Arizona Cardinals
Dwight Freeney in the middle of a spin move against Arizona
Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports

Many fans of the Seattle Seahawks have been greatly disappointed by the release this week of veteran defensive end Dwight Freeney, who brought his veteran swagger and patented spin move to the northwest and promptly recorded three sacks in his first two games with the team. The release has left fans asking why he was released, and what the team was thinking in releasing him, but the move seems to make sense once all the pieces are put together.

The first, and most obvious piece, is that the team was heavy on defensive linemen and light offensive players. The Seahawks currently have a roster comprised of 26 defensive players and 24 offensive players, and that is after they released Freeney and replaced him with wide receiver David Moore. That means the split prior to the transaction was 27/23, and the team traditionally keeps a more balanced split of 26/24 or 25/25. Further, the team still has ten defensive linemen on the roster even after the release, which is the normal number the team carries. Thus, while the team still had Freeney, they had more defensive linemen than normal. That makes the most sensible cut to replace Moore a defensive lineman.

Taking a look at the eleven defensive linemen on the roster prior to Freeney’s release will shed even more light on why Freeney was chosen, so here is a complete list.

Seattle defensive linemen prior to releasing Freeney

Player Position
Player Position
Michael Bennett DE
Frank Clark DE
Branden Jackson DE
Quinton Jefferson DE
Dion Jordan DE
Marcus Smith DE
Dwight Freeney DE
Nazair Jones DT
Jarran Reed DT
Sheldon Richardson DT
Garrison Smith DT

The 7/4 split between defensive ends and defensive tackles is stark, and so it would make sense that in deciding to release a defensive lineman, it would look to release one of the defensive ends. Yes, there are players, such as Dion Jordan and Michael Bennett who are able to play both based on their skills and size, but that’s another story for another paragraph.

Next, taking a look at those seven players classified as defensive ends, their contract status is obviously important to evaluate when choosing a player to release. Thus, here are the seven defensive ends with a quick overview contractually in terms of the year through which they are signed, the year through which they are under team control if that applies and the dead money that would count against the cap in 2017 and 2018 if they were cut.

Seattle defensive ends with contract, team control and dead money

Player Position Signed Through Team Control Through Dead Money
Player Position Signed Through Team Control Through Dead Money
Michael Bennett DE 2020 N/A $14.94M
Frank Clark DE 2018 N/A $487k
Branden Jackson DE 2017 (ERFA) 2020 $0
Quinton Jefferson DE 2017 (ERFA) 2019 $0
Dion Jordan DE 2017 (RFA) 2018 $0
Marcus Smith DE 2017 (UFA) 2017 $300k
Dwight Freeney DE 2017 (UFA) 2017 $0

Without even looking at those numbers, it was already apparent to any fan that neither Bennett nor Frank Clark would be released based on their skills and performance as members of the Seahawks. Further, with Freeney already 37 and set to turn 38 in February, he has far less upside and future potential than Branden Jackson or Quinton Jefferson.

Jefferson, having spent most of 2016 on IR following a knee injury is a second year player with two years of team control left after 2017. Similarly, Jackson, due to the fact that he spent only five games on the 53-man roster of the Oakland Raiders in 2016 is technically a rookie in 2017 and has three more years of team control after this season. Thus, with three and two years of team control left, respectively, it wouldn’t make a lot of sense to choose to retain Freeney for a matter of weeks, when doing so would cost the team the ability to retain a couple of young players who have the potential to be contributors for multiple seasons. So, eliminating Jackson and Jefferson from the decision leaves just Dion Jordan, Dwight Freeney and Marcus Smith.

There are multiple differentiators between these three, but perhaps the most important is the contractual status of each. Jordan is slated to be a restricted free agent, while both Freeney and Smith will be unrestricted free agents after 2017. Following his 2016 campaign Freeney was at home unemployed through early October when the Seahawks originally reached out to him, and so it would not seem to be a stretch to expect him to go unsigned through the end of the free agency period for which free agent signings count in the compensatory free agent calculations. In addition, regardless of how well he might have played for Seattle down the stretch, it is extremely unlikely any team would offer him a large, multi-year contract that would qualify the team for a comp pick. Possible, but extremely unlikely.

The same cannot be said for Marcus Smith, however. As a former first round pick (1.26 by Philadelphia in 2014) who will be just 26 for the 2018 season, it would not be unreasonable to see a team offer him a modest contract. It’s unlikely a team is going to break the bank to sign Smith, but he has recorded 1.5 sacks and 8 tackles (5 solo) in just 146 snaps this season, and if nothing else could be retained by Seattle as a quality role player for the future. Smith has also been willing to contribute on special teams, and it is no secret that Pete loves his special teamers.

Meanwhile, Jordan is slated to be a restricted free agent after this season, and his play through two games since coming off the PUP list has easily warranted a restricted free agent tender to return in 2018, should it continue at the level it has been. In the two games he has played this season, he has recorded 5 tackles (3 solo), a sack and three quarterback hits. If Jordan continues to play as he has, considering the market for free agent defensive linemen, it is entirely possible Jordan could sign a RFA offer sheet with another team that would net the Hawks draft pick compensation in return to expand on the 8 selections the team currently holds in the 2018 draft. Thus, both Marcus Smith and Dion Jordan could help the team in terms of not only potentially playing for the team for multiple seasons going forward, they could also help the team replenish their draft pick stores even if they leave.

With Jordan emerging as he has as a pass rushing threat, then it would be necessary for Freeney to continue to play at high level in order to justify his continued roster spot. Unfortunately for both Freeney and the Seahawks, after bursting onto the scene in his first two games, Freeney did little in weeks ten and eleven. Against the Atlanta Falcons Freeney did so little on the field that his name does not even appear in the box score. He recorded no sacks, no tackles and no quarterback hits on his seventeen defensive snaps.

Going back another week, against Arizona Freeney played forty-one defensive snaps recording zero sacks, zero tackles and a lone quarterback hit. That’s not enough production for Seattle to warrant keeping Freeney, especially when considering the drop in production that the team sees when forcing Frank Clark to flip sides to accommodate Dwight Freeney playing exclusively on the right side.

According to PFF Signature Stats, in the six games prior to Freeney signing with Seattle, Clark was lining up predominantly at right defensive end, with nearly 90% of his pass rushing coming from that right end spot. In those six games Clark recorded two and a half sacks. In the four games since signing Freeney, Clark has lined up at the left end position roughly twice as often as he has lined up on the right side, but has only recorded two sacks, one while rushing from each side of the left and right side. Thus, Clark has three and a half times as many sacks this season when rushing from the right side in spite of only having twice as many pass rushing opportunities from the right side.

While there are obviously several factors that are involved, it appears as though Clark may be more proficient in getting to the passer from the right side than the left side. In particular, rushing from the right side he had this memorable play late in the game against Los Angeles against Pro Bowl left tackle Andrew Whitworth.

Clark stated afterwards that the move he used on that play had been set up over the course of the game with the other moves he had used throughout, and that Whitworth bit just as Clark hoped he would. If having Freeney on the field causes Clark to rush nearly exclusively from the right side and to set up a tackle for a play such as the one from the Rams game, then it is not hard to argue that Clark might have been able to make a difference on the last drive of the Washington game where the Seattle pass rush was unable to take down Cousins. Washington ran three passing plays on that drive, with Clark rushing from the left side and Freeney coming from the right side on all three. Maybe Clark being on the right side on that final drive would have made a difference in the outcome of the game and maybe it wouldn’t have; that’s something that cannot be known.

What can be known, however, is that in such a situation moving forward the team will not be relying on a 37 year old defensive end to apply pressure from the right end spot. It remains to be seen whether that will work out better for the team.