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Seahawks defense clearly shifting it’s focus from back to front

NFL: Indianapolis Colts at Seattle Seahawks Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports

For the Seattle Seahawks defense to return to dominance, it may not require them to rebuild their legendary secondary, like the focus has mostly been on since the realization that at least two, if not all three of their Hall of Fame mentionable defensive backs won’t be playing for them ever again. There is no rule that says that if you want to have a great pass defense you need to have great corners and safeties. But some would say that these days it’s even more important for your strength to be at the defensive line than it is to have it in the secondary.

The Philadelphia Eagles and Jacksonville Jaguars could attest to this.

The Eagles had good players in the secondary last season, like safety Malcolm Jenkins and cornerback Patrick Robinson, but their Super Bowl defense would be defined by a line that featured Fletcher Cox, Brandon Graham, Chris Long, Vinny Curry, Derek Barnett, and Timmy Jernigan. Similarly, the Jaguars have arguably the game’s best corner in Jalen Ramsey, but we know that the strength of that side of the ball revolves around Calais Campbell, Yannick Ngakoue, Malik Jackson, Dante Fowler, Jr, and Marcel Dareus.

And how did those teams respond in the offseason? By addressing the secondary? Nope. Philly traded for Michael Bennett and signed Haloti Ngata, while Jacksonville drafted Taven Bryan with their first round pick. After the Seahawks won the Super Bowl, we saw a major uptick in cornerback and safety value — the first round of the 2014 NFL Draft featured nine defensive backs, and 53 DBs were drafted overall, the most of any position group.

It’s not as though teams forgot that pass rushers are often more valuable than defensive backs — it remains a more lucrative position than cornerback and most anything besides quarterback — but the focus did shift for awhile to finding “the next Richard Sherman, Kam Chancellor, and Earl Thomas” for many NFL teams; I mean, John Elway saw his team get their asses kicked in the Super Bowl by that secondary and immediately responded by adding Aqib Talib, T.J. Ward, and Bradley Roby, then winning their own title two years later.

Still, secondaries remain less important — and I say this just based on how NFL teams have shown what they value in early draft picks and contract figures — than pass rushers. Whether that’s at outside linebacker, where Von Miller makes the most per year for anyone who is not a quarterback; or interior rusher, where Aaron Donald aims to be the highest-paid non-QB in league history; or defensive end, where names like Myles Garrett, Joey Bosa, Bradley Chubb, Solomon Thomas, Dante Fowler can get consistently chosen in the top few picks of the draft, much more common than other positions besides QB.

So Seattle too would like an improved pass rush. With the way their roster churn is going, it may in fact be time to turn nearly all of their attention onto building the league’s best defensive line.

The Seahawks best player on defense is linebacker Bobby Wagner and at age 28, there’s an above-average chance that he’ll be able to continuing play at this level for the relevant future (3-4 years). The next best player, or at least the player who you’d be most likely to build the defense around, is Frank Clark.

Clark, 25, has racked up 19 sacks in the last two seasons despite playing third-fiddle most of the time behind Michael Bennett and Cliff Avril. With both of those players now gone, Clark steps into the spotlight as the key player and veteran leader of the defensive line, likely leading him to a contract extension by December. Seattle didn’t hesitate to draft Clark in the second round despite a background involving domestic violence, so I don’t see why they’d stop three years later with no off-field issues added to his record.

I also don’t see how the Seahawks couldn’t look at their future salary cap numbers and not justify allocating ~$16-17 million to Clark, making him their second-highest paid player behind Wilson. The team currently has $54 million in space for 2019, per, and they’ll save another $8 million when they release Chancellor, plus $3 million with Jon Ryan off the books. That’s $65 million in space, and what’s space for if not to keep around your best players?

While Bennett and Avril could (and often did) argue they were underpaid, Clark won’t have the same issue. Remember, we are still living in an era where Seattle values their secondary as much as anyone — the Seahawks are paying more to their safeties than any other team in the NFL and there’s a chance that neither of their top two will play for them this season — but that’s going to change soon.

Since 2015, the Seahawks have spent at least one day two pick on a defensive lineman (Clark, Jarran Reed, Malik McDowell, Nazair Jones, Rasheem Green) compared to just two third round picks on defensive backs (Shaquill Griffin, Delano Hill) over that same period of time. The hope for Seattle now is that they’ve done enough to secure a solid base on defensive line to build around, while making the final touches in 2019’s free agency and draft period with one more big hit. That would be roughly what the Jags and Eagles did to build the units they have today.

The next-most important piece to that plan is Green and he’s showing enough as a rookie to give Seahawks fans hope that Seattle can have the defensive line they need by 2019. So far, Green looks about as disruptive in his first preseason as Clark did in 2015, when he was nearly unstoppable for backup (but still pro) linemen.

Clark didn’t do much during his rookie season, and Green may not either (though he’ll likely have much more opportunity), but the focus here is still on 2019 and beyond. If Clark is extended and Green is as good in his second season as Clark was in his, then Seattle has two really good pass rushers on the edge. They also have hope on the inside.

Reed has not been a great pass rusher over his first two seasons, but he’s clearly been valuable and he could still develop that part of his game with better pass rushers around him. That could certainly involve playing alongside Jones, if he can just stay healthy. Jones had two sacks in just 11 games as a rookie and has flashed the potential to be a 5-6 sack player in the middle, which is basically what you’d expect from a Cox, Dareus, Malik, or Jernigan most of the time. Can Jones play up to that level? We’ll see, but he definitely looks like a third round steal already.

That gives the Seahawks four defensive linemen to potentially build their defense around (with Wagner, K.J. Wright, and Shaquill Griffin also playing key parts of course) and as we’ve seen, that’s still not enough. Who else could be a part of Seattle’s transition from a “Legion of Boom” defense to “Some Other Moniker That Represents The Defensive Line”?

It’s hard to deny the talent of Dion Jordan displayed in 2017, but it is hard to imagine him playing in 16 games. Jordan seems unlikely to be ready for Week 1 and given his long history of missing games for one reason or another, the Seahawks shouldn’t be blamed for not counting on him in their long-term plans. However, if Jordan does finish the year healthy, productive, and out of trouble, then I’m sure the team would want to work on a contract that keeps him in Seattle for at least another year. And then Jordan could become a vital fifth member of that unit.

Two others worth consideration are Branden Jackson and Quinton Jefferson. While neither has had much of an impact over their first two seasons, both look like they’ll make the final 53 and have had strong camps. Tom Johnson (nearly 34) seems a bit too old for long-term consideration but he may also become a part of the 2019 plan, while Shamar Stephen (27) figures to make himself a known commodity for Seattle as well.

I would expect then that the Seahawks 2019 defense really centers itself around Frank Clark, Rasheem Green, Nazair Jones, Jarran Reed, Quinton Jefferson, and Branden Jackson, with the wild card being Dion Jordan. I would also expect them to spend one of their first two picks on a defensive lineman and likely to pursue a big name lineman in free agency or trade, leaning towards that player being a defensive tackle.

This may sound like an article that may as well be titled “I expect the Seahawks to try and win games” because it seems so obvious, but I think it’s important to note the differences between how Seattle’s defense operated from 2012-2017 and how it should be expected to operate from 2018-who knows. This may also help put into context why the Seahawks are not willing to negotiate an extension with Earl Thomas despite the fact that he is only 29 and has just one year left on his deal; Seattle would not be setting any new precedent by extending a player with one year left on his deal, but it could be that they’re now fine with a secondary that lacks an elite safety so long as it gives them more resources to build the defensive line in 2019.

The free agent market will not include all of these players, especially not Donald, but among those set to become free agents are: Aaron Donald, Khalil Mack, Sheldon Richardson, Muhammad Wilkerson, Geno Atkins, Malcom Brown, Ndamukong Suh, Danny Shelton, Carlos Dunlap, Derrick Morgan, Brandon Graham, Demarcus Lawrence, Dante Fowler, Cam Wake, Jadeveon Clowney, Dee Ford, Trey Flowers, Ezekiel Ansah, Markus Golden, and Obum Gwachum. Among others who I overlooked or who haven’t shown out quite yet but will.

The Seahawks are making a shift. That shift from the back of the defense to the front of the defense may seem both subtle because Michael Bennett and Cliff Avril were great players, and so they need to be replaced, but I think it’s more than that. Clark could be better than both and could find himself among the top five pass rushers in the game someday. Green looks like he could put in quality work way ahead of schedule. Reed and Jones seem the best young duo at defensive tackle that Pete Carroll has ever had. And the secondary looks to potentially get by with Bradley McDougald, Shaquill Griffin, Tedric Thompson, Byron Maxwell, Justin Coleman, and Tre Flowers.

Times seemed to change very quickly for the Seahawks defense, but in reality this has been a few years in the making. There’s still probably at least one more year left to complete it, if they do, and the early returns are promising.