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Senior Bowl preview: Defensive linemen to watch for the Seahawks

NCAA Football: Senior Bowl-South Practice Glenn Andrews-USA TODAY Sports

The 2018 offseason could be one of transition for the Seattle Seahawks’ defensive line, with elder statesmen Michael Bennett and Cliff Avril’s futures with the team unclear. Avril could be forced to retire, despite saying differently, and Bennett could be released, and saying exactly that. So while Frank Clark continues to develop into an every-down edge defender, the Seahawks may be left searching for a premier pass rusher to replace Avril.

On the inside, it’s just as hazy. Sheldon Richardson is a free agent and could leave with a large price tag. Malik McDowell may or may not play football again. Nazair Jones was a terrific surprise contributor in 2017, but he too ended the season on injured reserve. So with just Jones, Jarran Reed, Frank Clark and perhaps Dion Jordan as nailed down contributors for 2018, look for Seattle to add players both on the inside and outside along the defensive line. As usual, the most compelling prospects at the Senior Bowl are up-front, and there are a few intriguing names for the Seahawks.

Andrew Brown (DT, Virginia)

Height: 6034

Weight: 294

Primarily a defensive end in Virginia’s 3-4 defense, Andrew Brown has the potential to be an incredibly dynamic 3-technique in a 4-3 defense. At 6-3 and a half and 294 pounds, Brown has good size for an interior rusher. He possesses the short-area quickness that great interior rushers need, able to shoot through gaps and make plays. In the run game, he has good lateral agility, able to move down the line and make the play.

As a pass rusher, Brown is at his best darting through gaps, where his agility is no match for interior linemen. He showed some juice rushing from the edge at Virginia as well, and he would be a good fit with Seattle, running stunts and looping outside. Lined up more in-tight inside, he is able to generate some power, but is at his best when his quickness can be used. His technical game will need refining if he’s going to be an impact player in the NFL, though. He struggles to disengage at times and too often plays 100 miles per hour without actually attempting to use his hands.

While Brown’s similarly raw against the run, there are a couple things to love. He plays with good leverage and does a good job striking low into linemen’s chest. He plays with a wide base, and can do a solid job of two-gapping as a result. He is tempted to freelance and shoot gaps - something that doesn’t fly with Pete Carroll - but the tools are all there for Andrew Brown.

Ogbonnia Okoronkwo (EDGE, Oklahoma)

Height: 6013

Weight: 243

Playing on the edge at Oklahoma, the majority of Ogbonnia Okoronkwo’s pass rushing experience came from an upright position, not a three-point stance like a 4-3 edge defender. However, as far as it concerns the Seahawks, he has a natural pass rushing ability that should calm any concerns over a potential switch to a 4-3, and rushing with his hand in the dirt.

Okoronkwo could fill a role Seattle has failed to fill - or haven’t tried to fill - since Bruce Irvin departed in free agency. Okoronkwo played off the ball with the Sooners, and looks comfortable playing in space. At 6-1, 243 pounds with 34 1/2” arms, Okoronkwo isn’t too different physically from Irvin coming out of West Virginia (6-3, 245 pounds with 33 3/8” arms). With a natural feel for rushing the passer, and the ability to play in space, Okoronkwo could fit into a 4-3 defense as an off-ball linebacker on early downs before coming down to the line of scrimmage and rushing from the edge on passing downs.

Playing at the line of scrimmage as an edge defender, Okoronkwo defended the run and pass. As a pass rusher, he came from both sides of the defense effectively, registering 20 sacks and 33 tackles for loss in four seasons. He’s got good bend coming around the edge, able to turn the corner on much larger tackles, and has an effective inside move. As a run defender, he’s impressively strong for 243 pounds, holding the edge against offensive linemen.

Off the ball in space, Okoronkwo is versatile. More often than not, he was playing zone coverage over the middle of the field, similar to the hook/curl zone that Bobby Wagner and K.J. Wright are responsible for in the Seahawks’ defense. He also played man coverage, carrying receivers downfield and looking surprisingly fluid opening his hips and moving up-field with them. As an off-ball linebacker in Seattle’s defense, his coverage responsibilities would almost exclusively be either the hook/curl zone or the covering the flats.

Marcus Davenport (DE, UTSA)

Height: 6057

Weight: 259

Expected to be one of the big risers leave Mobile, it hasn’t been a positive sounding Senior Bowl week for Marcus Davenport through three days. He’s failed to make the step up expected of him, getting physically dominated in drills and not appearing to be a particularly clean (on field) prospect. There’s still a couple days of practice and a game on the docket, so Davenport still has time to be the riser he was expected to be. (The importance of this week as it pertains to a prospect’s draft stock is a whole different conversation.)

As a pass rusher, Davenport was incredibly versatile at UTSA, rushing from the left and right sides from an up-right position or in a three-point stance, as well as rushing from the interior. With a long (34”) reach, he had the strength to bull rush tackles into their quarterback’s lap. He was consistently the best player at the line of scrimmage, holding off offensive linemen with one tree branch/arm while making the play with the other. Rarely did Davenport have to bend around the corner or try to go speed-to-power; he was so dominant against his competition, his raw power was enough.

At nearly 6-6 and 259 pounds, Davenport’s frame is completely filled out heading into the NFL. His game, however, remains incomplete. A team’s ability to mold him into a more well rounded pass rusher will sink or swim his ability to contribute on every down.

Jalyn Holmes (DE, Ohio State)

Height: 6046

Weight: 279

Much like Marcus Davenport, Jalyn Holmes begins his pre-draft process as a prospect with terrific height and weight for a defensive end. A tad below 6-5 and 279 pounds, Holmes is big enough to play both inside and outside, and fluid enough to bend around the corner when rushing the passer. Pure 4-3 defensive ends are few and far between in Mobile, but Holmes fits the bill. However, similar to Davenport, Holmes’ game will need developing to be an every down edge defender. His arsenal of pass rushing moves is incomplete, and playing on a stacked Buckeye team, he wasn’t a consistent starter.

There isn’t much to concretely describe Holmes’ pass rushing with. During his time at Ohio State there was no move he leaned on consistently, like Davenport’s bull rush. He rushed from the interior - a move that was his choice - and the edge, but heading into the draft, Holmes is a raw pass rusher in an outstanding frame.

A talented defensive end, with ideal size for the position, Holmes would be a worthwhile project for any number of teams. Serving as a captain for Urban Meyer, it’s safe to think he’s a coachable prospect, and one with good off-field traits. His athletic profile and raw ability may end up getting him selected in the first three rounds of the draft. He fits what the Seahawks need along the defensive line, but a day two pick may be too rich for a pass rush needy team.

Chad Thomas (DE, Miami)

Height: 6050

Weight: 277

Much like Brett Toth from Army, Chad Thomas is likely an appealing prospect to the Seahawks (off the field) because of the competitiveness he showed by making the step from the East-West Shrine Game to the Senior Bowl. Justin Senior made a similar move last year and it resulted in his selection by Seattle, despite being one of the least athletic linemen drafted by the Seahawks during Carroll’s time. The willingness to make the jump to Mobile without a longstanding invitation won’t go unnoticed by the head coach and franchise who preaches competition at every turn.

At the Shrine Game, Thomas was one of the more noticable defensive linemen, getting after the quarterback on numerous occasions. It was the week of practice, however, that likely got him the invitation to Mobile. He was one of the standout players from day one, and clearly personnel from both NFL teams and the Senior Bowl took notice.

On the field, there’s a lot to like about his game. Thomas has ideal height and weight for a defensive end in a 4-3, and with 34” arms, he will have a good chance at winning against even the most lean tackles. While he has the physical traits, he is yet to fully put it together on the field and only registered 10 sacks in his college career (he did, however, post 23.5 tackles for loss in his final two seasons). He has the size and ability to play both inside and outside, the kind of versatility Seattle has shown to love in their pass rushers, with Bennett, Clark and Jordan all playing inside in pass rushing situations in the past.

Thomas doesn’t have the on-field production or play to get up into the draft’s first two days, but with his size, potential and willingness to compete, he is an extremely attractive prospect on day three.

Honorable Mentions

Nathan Shepherd, a small school prospect from Fort Hays State, was impressing in Mobile by playing the same way he played during his college career: Like a bat out of hell. He’s a non-stop player on the inside of the defensive line, with the size and strength to win with power, and the ability to slash through gaps. He broke his hand on Wednesday afternoon and has been replaced on the roster, a massive disappointment for any small school prospect.

Derrick Nnadi, after accepting an invitation, wasn’t on the roster prior to the start of the week. He was then a late addition, arriving in Mobile on Wednesday morning. At just a hair below 6-1 and 310 pounds, Nnadi is a squatty, athletic defensive tackle. He has tremendous hustle and chases plays 10 yards downfield, something Carroll values in his defensive linemen. He has the strength and body to hold up the entire interior line, but also possesses the quick feet and athletic ability to show up in the backfield from time to time.