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Quiet guy Shamar Stephen makes interesting case for re-signing

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Kansas City Chiefs v Seattle Seahawks Photo by Otto Greule Jr/Getty Images

Pete Carroll has an interesting history with defensive tackles and Shamar Stephen could become the latest short-term signing who turns into a long-term commitment. Did the 27-year-old do enough on his one-year pact to warrant a new deal with the Seattle Seahawks? First, a look at that history I’m referring to.

In 2010, the Seahawks added Raheem Brock and Junior Siavii to a team that already had Colin Cole, Craig Terrill, and Brandon Mebane. Carroll also traded for Kentwan Balmer. By 2011, Cole, Terrill, Siavii, and Balmer were gone, while Brock stuck around through 2011 and Mebane through 2015 as the team’s best defensive tackle.

That 2011 season, Carroll added Anthony Hargrove, who lasted just one season, but also signed Alan Branch, who’d spent four years with the Arizona Cardinals, and traded Kelly Jennings for Clinton McDonald, a seventh round pick of the Cincinnati Bengals in 2009. Branch started 31 of a possible 32 games over his two-year tenure with Seattle, while McDonald was a mainstay in the rotation for three years. In 2013, McDonald had 5.5 sacks from the defensive tackle position and helped the Seahawks win the Super Bowl.

It was that season that Seattle also signed Tony McDaniel, a 6’7 d-tackle who’d been undrafted, caught on with the Jacksonville Jaguars in 2006, was traded to the Miami Dolphins in 2009 for a seventh rounder, then started 29 games for the Seahawks from 2013-2014, making the Super Bowl in both of those years.

The 2013-2014 defensive line is perhaps the most underrated aspect of those teams. While the focus has always been on the secondary, the line included Cliff Avril, Michael Bennett, Red Bryant, Chris Clemons, McDonald, McDaniel, Jordan Hill, and Kevin Williams, the veteran who was added in 2014 free agency.

In 2015, the Seahawks signed Ahtyba Rubin, who lasted through two seasons. 2016 was arguably the low-point for the Seattle defensive tackle group, as it included a late-addition McDaniel, Rubin, and a rookie Jarran Reed. That’s pretty much it and we never really discuss how ... unimpressive much of the defense was that season. Steven Terrell started five games at free safety, Mebane left via free agency, Kelcie McCray started four games at strong safety, Bennett missed five games, DeShawn Shead was not the massive breakout success that Byron Maxwell and Brandon Browner had been at corner, Brock Coyle and Mike Morgan both started three games at linebacker, highlighting a post-Bruce Irvin weakness in that unit.

And the defensive tackle group was just plain not good. Somehow Seattle still made the playoffs and beat the Detroit Lions in the wild card that year. The attempt to infuse talent back into the defense (I refuse to use the word “rebuild” since, as I always say, those do not truly exist in the NFL) began in 2017 really with the additions of Sheldon Richardson, Bradley McDougald, Shaquill Griffin, and Justin Coleman into the starting rotations, plus the later signing of Maxwell. The defensive tackle position was theoretically stronger with Richardson and rookie Nazair Jones, but it was still a weakness, I’d say.

That changed a bit in 2018 thanks to the explosion in talent we saw from Reed, who put up a career-high 10.5 sacks and seems poised to become a household name at the position. Did Stephen have a lot to do with that and should Seattle prioritize him when retaining their free agents?

A seventh round pick by the Minnesota Vikings in 2014, Stephen played in all 16 games as a rookie, then went on injured reserve after just five games in 2015 with a toe injury. He returned to start all 16 games in 2016, recording 39 tackles, but in 2017, with his team boasting arguably the best defense in the NFL, he was “demoted” behind Linval Joseph and Tom Johnson. He suffered a knee injury in the Vikings’ incredible playoff win over the New Orleans Saints, exiting after four snaps. He didn’t play in the NFC Championship loss to the Philadelphia Eagles.

Next, he became an unrestricted free agent and about 10 days had passed before he finally signed a one-year, $2.1 million deal with the Seahawks. His addition was pretty much an afterthought to Seattle signing Tom Johnson, his former teammate with a more notable resume; but the Seahawks released Johnson after Week 1, hoping to pull some transactional magic without losing a player they wanted, and unfortunately Johnson returned to Minnesota instead. Why’d they risk Johnson and not, say, Stephen?

For one, Stephen is about seven years younger than Johnson. Long term considerations certainly were not ignored. Stephen responded by starting 14 of the next 15 games, only sitting out the season finale vs the Cardinals. He recorded 25 tackles, two sacks, and three QB hits. It’s a stretch to say that Stephen ever looked “necessary” to the defense and I can’t immediately find examples of the coaches showering him with praise. Some of the defensive tackles of the past who I have noted had bigger impacts while with the team, at least as far as “indisputable impacts” go.

That being said, McDonald had zero sacks in his first two seasons with the team, then 5.5 in year three. Hill was an impact player for a short stretch of his career, then never again. Stephen feels a bit more like Rubin, but having a “Rubin” serves a purpose. The team already has the elite defensive tackle that they’ve been seeking in Reed, but they’ll need at least three more defensive tackles around him to sustain a level of success like what they had in their 2013-2014 seasons.

Poona Ford should fill one of those voids. Naz Jones is still on the team and perhaps he’ll look more like his 2017 self than the 2018 version that barely played. Quinton Jefferson could still slide into the interior of the line if the team re-signs him and brings in a better edge player. And I’m positive that once again they’ll be scouring that second and third wave of free agency for DT help, as it seems to be one of Carroll’s favorite hobbies. The question is whether or not they feel like they need to spend more money on Stephen or if they feel like they’ve seen enough to know he’s not worth a longer pact.

Perhaps they’ll let him go and he’ll find that no long-term pacts are on the market for him. Then maybe he’ll return on a similar deal to the one he had before. That may be ideal. The Seahawks did see excellent production from two of their defensive linemen with Stephen on the field. Or maybe they’ll decide that they can do even better.

What did you see from Shamar Stephen this year, positively or otherwise?