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For Seahawks, lack of pass rush is biggest disappointment of 2019

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Minnesota Vikings v Seattle Seahawks Photo by Alika Jenner/Getty Images

The Seattle Seahawks traded for Jadeveon Clowney. They really did. To me, this either feels like really old news, really new news, or like it never happened. For a team ranked 29th in sacks and pressure rate, did it really happen?

To be fair, Clowney has never been an elite pass rusher. This is not something that everybody is ready to admit, but the proof is all there in his history. In nine seasons between college and the NFL, he has exactly one season with double-digit sacks: as a sophomore at South Carolina, Clowney had 13 sacks and 23.5 tackles for a loss. Of those, 4.5 sacks came against Tajh Boyd of Clemson.

He played 12 more college games after that but recorded only three more sacks.

But as the top recruit in the nation in 2011 and as one of the most highly publicized non-quarterback college players of all-time, Clowney was a lock as the top pick in a draft that also included Greg Robinson, Sammy Watkins, Odell Beckham, Jr., Mike Evans, Khalil Mack, and Aaron Donald. Especially after a combine that saw him run a 4.53 in the 40, same as Evans, who was 35 lbs lighter.

Clowney was faster than running backs, receivers, and defensive backs like James White, Devin Street, Lamarcus Joyner, Allen Hurns, Davante Adams, Allen Robinson, Calvin Pryor, and Ha Ha Clinton-Dix. Less impressive, and therefore less publicized, were a 7.27 in the 3-cone and 4.43 in the shuttle. Mack had a higher vertical, longer broad jump, ran a 7.08 in the cone and 4.18 in the shuttle. In fact, Seahawks fourth round pick Kevin Pierre-Louis had a higher vertical, longer broad jump, 6.92 and 4.02, but that’s just more of a fun fact than anything else.

Mack also had consistently impressive pass rushing statistics at Buffalo, albeit against Stony Brook and the other Miami most of the time. He did have 2.5 sacks and a pick-6 against Ohio State and Mack has been an undeniably elite pass rusher in the NFL. How anyone could classify the two as in the same class of pass rusher is beyond me — but hopefully nobody is actually doing that. And if you’re not doing that, then you know that Clowney shouldn’t cost as much in free agency next year.

But that’s looking unlikely.

As a rookie on the Texans dealing with even more injuries than he had during his final season at South Carolina — including concussion-like symptoms in the preseason and a torn meniscus that ended his campaign after only four regular season games — Clowney recorded zero sacks and zero QB hits in 2014. He returned the next year to record 4.5 sacks and eight QB hits over 13 games.

Teammate J.J. Watt had 17.5 sacks and 50 QB hits. Whitney Mercilus had 12 and 16. Houston linebacker John Simon had 5 and 11. Even teammate Jared Crick outpaced Clowney’s QB hits, with nine of his own. Was this all due to Clowney drawing double-teams, as has been claimed in many instances of a career full of lackluster pass rushing statistics as compared to the hype?

With Watt out for most of 2016, Clowney finally assumed his position as ... the second-best pass rusher on the Texans after Mercilus. Analysts who refused to admit that Clowney was not the elite edge rusher that they had predicted he’d become finally felt vindicated as he was named to his first Pro Bowl that season with six sacks and 17 QB hits.

Welcome to the Defensive End Version of Andrew Luck.

It’s not as though I’m discounting Clowney’s presence as an elite run defender — maybe the best in the league — or as a talented defensive end overall but it would be disingenuous to claim that the NFL has rewarded run defenders to the same degree that they reward players who are elite against the pass or at pressuring the quarterback.

Micheal Bennett did make the Pro Bowl in 2016 with only five sacks, but he missed five games and still accumulated 19 QB hits. The previous year he had 10 sacks and 30 QB hits. Bennett had a proven track record on a championship defense, Clowney had more of a track that was painted for him and the league wanted to see him go down it.

Even if they had to push him down it.

Clowney returned to the Pro Bowl in 2017 and 2018, recording 9.5 and 9 sacks respectively. Bennett was the only other edge player in the Pro Bowl without double-digit sacks in 2017, Melvin Ingram and Olivier Vernon (in 11 games) were the only other ones in 2018. Clowney did put up a career-high 21 QB hits in each of those years as well; he ranked tied for 19th in QB hits in 2017 and tied for 15th in 2018.

All of which is to say that when the Seahawks traded for Jadeveon Clowney, they did not acquire an elite pass rusher. This is not something that had been on his actual resume any more than George O’Leary has a masters from Stony Brook. (Coincidence here: I randomly chose Stony Brook as an example off of Mack’s resume and it just so happens that’s also the site of O’Leary’s resume fib.)

The fact of the matter is that a reasonable conclusion based on his college and NFL career is that Seattle traded for a great run defender and a decent pass rusher. What they have gotten is a great run defender and a really underwhelming pass rusher. How you could view it any other way, I’m not sure, and given what we’ve seen through his 12 games, that would make Clowney a disappointment in 2019.

The biggest reason why the acquisition was worth it is not so much what Clowney has done, but that the cost was well worth the shot.

Maybe “Clowney is a great pass rusher” is not something you ever believed because the numbers never really supported it, but as a player who has been on the national radar since he was 17, and who made his biggest noise in college on a run-stuff, then as the number one pick in the draft, Clowney has often been cited as an elite defensive player. Because he plays on the edge of the defense, that usually means that he’s a uniquely gifted pass rusher, but that has not been the case with Clowney on the same level as it has been with players like Aaron Donald, J.J. and T.J. Watt, Myles Garrett, Joey and Nick Bosa, or even Bennett.

In fact, Clowney’s not even the level of pass rusher as Seattle’s best pass rusher of a year ago, Frank Clark. The Seahawks were probably hoping that they were getting a player of Clark’s level when they made the unexpected move of getting to replace him — after trading him to the Chiefs for a first and second round pick — with a former number one pick and fellow franchise tag recipient, but that’s not really the case.

Clark had 32 sacks and 66 QB hits from 2016-2018 compared to 24.5 and 59 for Clowney. Clark was also the number three defensive end after Bennett and Cliff Avril for much of this time.

In virtually the same number of snaps this season, Clark has six sacks compared to three for Clowney. Clark is four months younger than Clowney and has five sacks in his last five games. Clowney has five sacks in his last 18 games.

I’ve read many excuses for Clowney this season from fans on Twitter and I understand all of them. There’s logic to the arguments in general but I don’t see how they apply to Clowney or the Seahawks, at least at this level of mediocrity. I’ll get back to that in a moment.

Overall, I’d have to say that the move to get a first and a second for Clark proves to be a brilliant one. I’d also say that giving up a third, Jacob Martin, and Barkevious Mingo for a run-stopper of Clowney’s ability — and the probability that he brings back a third round compensatory pick anyway — is also a move that John Schneider has to make every time.

But Seattle’s offseason plan to rebuild the defense in a way that would highlight their strengths, mitigate their weaknesses, and do so without losing pass rush or pass defense has clearly been a failure.

Now 13 games into the season, the Seahawks have a three-way tie for the team lead in sacks: Clowney, Mychal Kendricks, and Rasheem Green each have three.

3.

The Miami Dolphins are last in total sacks, but Taco Charlton has 5 in only 9 games.

The Cincinnati Bengals have fewer team sacks than Seattle, but Carlos Dunlap has 5.5, Sam Hubbard has 5, and Geno Atkins has 4.5. Carl Lawson also has 3.

The Atlanta Falcons are tied with Seattle in team sacks at 23, but Vic Beasley has 6, Grady Jarrett has 5.5, Adrian Clayborn has 4, and Takkarist McKinley has 3.5.

The only team in the NFL that doesn’t have a player with more than 3 sacks: the Seattle Seahawks. What went wrong?

And yes, something is wrong.

The Seahawks were led in sacks last season by Clark, who had 13, and they traded him to the Chiefs. In second place was Jarran Reed with 10.5 and he was suspended for the first six games of the year. Reed has returned this year to post 1.5 sacks in seven games. No other player on the team had more than three sacks.

Clowney Excuse #1: “He draws double teams and he has no help”

People seem to believe that if you are an elite player, you still need great players around you in order to produce. Is this true? Does it hold up against logic that every elite pass rusher needs great players around him in order to produce?

Mack played for the Oakland Raiders for four years. As an All-Pro in his second year with 15 sacks, the player second in sacks on the team was ... Malcolm Smith, with 4. Mack famously had no help in Oakland.

Donald had 20.5 sacks for the LA Rams last season, winning Defensive Player of the Year for the second year in a row. Next on the team in sacks was Ndamukong Suh, with 4.5. Did Suh open up all of those sacks for Donald? He certainly didn’t need Suh before that. In 2016, he had 31 QB hits playing next to William Hayes and Ethan Westbrooks.

The leader in sacks in 2019 is Shaquil Barrett of the Bucs, who is playing next to Carl Nassib and, well, Suh. (Maybe the key is Suh!) Are Chandler Jones and Cam Jordan reliant on any players next to them? Because their teammates keep changing and their sack numbers stay the same. If the Seahawks traded for Joey Bosa and he put up 4 sacks per year, and they were bottom-5 in all pass rushing statistics as a team, would you say, “That’s okay, because he’s elite actually”? I don’t think you would, because we’ve come to expect 10-12 sacks and 25-30 QB hits from Bosa.

And is it based on totally on Clowney’s situation? Because as I’ve already noted, Clark had 13 sacks on this same team last year. He had Pete Carroll as a coach, Ken Norton as a coordinator, Jethro Franklin as an assistant defensive line coach, Jarran Reed and Quinton Jefferson and Poona Ford as teammates. If anything, isn’t the situation in 2019 supposed to be better than 2018?

And 2018 wasn’t all that great. Seattle’s attempt to fix their pass rush after trading Clark and knowing that Reed would take six games off was a composite between “serious” and “it’s not that serious.”

They drafted L.J. Collier in the first round, but pass rushing was not his strength and he’s managed just 94 defensive snaps as a rookie.

They signed Ezekiel Ansah, but a) his best season as a pass rusher came in 2015 and b) he was known to have a significant injury history that could have sapped his best years already. Ansah had 12 sacks in 2017 but nine of those sacks came in three games, including three against Brett Hundley starting for the Packers in Week 17. Ansah has played in just a third of the defensive snaps this season and has 2.5 sacks; 1.5 of those came against the Eagles when they went down to their number three right tackle.

Clowney Excuse #2: He’s playing through injuries

First of all, it’s just conjecture. We don’t know what his pain is like and how it impacts him as a player and to draw the conclusion that a “core” injury is sapping most of his production is taking great liberties with what we can imagine as an outside party. Second of all, if a player is injured to this degree in roughly half of his career, then maybe that’s not a player you can rely on long term.

Back to Seattle’s pass rushing problem.

Clowney Excuse #3/The “Hidden Value” of Clowney/Myth: He draws double teams and creates opportunities for other players

They planned to change up the pass rushing gameplan, employing more three-linebacker sets and blitzing with what was expected to be the defense’s strength: Bobby Wagner, K.J. Wright, and Kendricks. Maybe Shaquem Griffin too. Kendricks has been sent on a blitz 58 times, getting three sacks, but only one hurry and five pressures total. Wright has been sent on a blitz 38 times, creating one pressure. Wagner has gone on 66 blitzes, accumulating two sacks and five pressures.

Is that good? It doesn’t seem good.

Other supposed pass rushers include Rasheem Green, who has three sacks on 394 snaps. Quinton Jefferson has 2.5 on 435. Branden Jackson, 2 on 311. Al Woods isn’t in there to create pressure on the quarterback, which I’d feel a lot better about if any other player was creating pressure. Poona, same deal.

So which is it? If elite players create opportunities for others, then how come all these double-teams on Clowney aren’t leading to any sacks or pressures? Why are the Seahawks ranked so low in all of these categories? Reed had 10.5 sacks playing next to Clark and Jefferson and Shamar Stephen, but only 1.5 in seven games with Clowney?

Reed Excuse #1: The suspension “threw him off his rhythm”

Just nonsense. How long would it take me to find examples of players who missed the first 4-8 weeks of a season and came back just as strong? Not long.

Why nothing for Ansah?

Ansah Excuse #1: He’s injured

Well, yeah, that was to be expected. But has he been effective at all in the last four years regardless? They took a one-year, $9 million shot on a former pass rusher and this outcome was always a possibility.

It’s pretty clear now that Seattle has an even tougher path towards improving the pass rush in 2020 than they had in 2019.

Clowney will likely leave via free agency and even if he doesn’t, the Seahawks would be re-signing an elite run defender and at best an above-average pass rusher. One who may not average more than 6-7 sacks per season for the rest of his career. What is that really worth?

Ansah will either leave in free agency or return as a player who is maybe five years removed from his best days.

Reed will either leave in free agency or return as a defensive tackle who may have peaked as a pass rusher in 2018 since we have absolutely no evidence in any of his other three seasons of that being a repeatable campaign.

Jefferson will either leave in free agency or return as an absolutely adequate role player on the defensive line.

Those four free agents represent three-fourths of the starting defensive line and the top backup at end. And that’s for a pass rush that, as I’ve been saying, is already bad. Also free agents: Woods and Kendricks, plus Jackson is a restricted free agent.

On the defensive line, Seattle is only guaranteed to bring back Ford, Collier, and Green, with Nazair Jones and Demarcus Christmas currently on IR and potentially returning but not with high expectations. Overall, it seems like the Seahawks may need to prioritize re-signing Clowney not because of what he has done, but because what other options do they have? The defensive line looks like it’s going to go from bad to even worse and at least Clowney is the devil they know.

How expensive of a risk are they willing to take on the devil they don’t?

The interesting news is that the pass rushing market is expected to be stacked in 2020. (The less interesting news: Carroll has pretty much never spent huge money on an outside free agent, except maybe the deal for Percy Harvin, instead going for the players who he thinks will outplay their next contract a la Bennett and Avril.)

In addition to Clowney, there’s Yannick Ngakoue, Dante Fowler, Robert Quinn, Barrett, Matt Judon, and more. Franchise tags and extensions will be involved, but given what we saw in 2019 it would not be surprising to still see a lot of movement. Clark, Dee Ford, and Clowney all got moved. Seattle will probably end up with over $70 million in cap space after some cap casualties and they don’t have many pass rushers signed, so movement and deals are to be expected.

But are Clowney, Reed, and Ansah going to be the answers? Can they take that chance again? Is the answer bringing them back, but not Norton?

Norton Excuse #1: Just kidding, I don’t think anyone is making excuses for Norton.

As I’ve learned over the years, having said many things about many Seahawks and players on other teams, some players are simply infallible. If Seattle had been the team to draft Clowney first overall however, I wonder if that would still be the case. If you knew that he had been considered the consensus best prospect in the world, but then saw for 5-6 years that he was not at the level of Mack, Donald, or perhaps even T.J. Watt and Clark, would you be so quick to say that Clowney is exempt from criticism?

When the Seahawks already have Clowney and remain arguably the worst — if not at least the most disappointing — pass rush unit in the NFL, does that not warrant some criticism? If Clowney “has no help” then what exactly are you saying about Reed and Ford, two of the most popular players on the defense in 2018? If great players open up opportunities for other players, then why are the Seahawks ranked so low in pressure rate and sacks as a team? Do they need to get rid of every single player in the front-7, including Wagner and Reed, and simply stick with Clowney?

What exactly is the issue, if not personnel? Is it all coaching? Or is Clowney simply an elite run defender and a mediocre pass rusher? If that’s the case, then it’s pretty clear he should be paid in the $8-$10 million range, like Bennett. Since he will likely ask for, and receive, more than double that, Seattle would need to start their search for defensive end help once again.

The previous search was an admirable one. The shots taken, well worth it. They cost very little.

But they returned even less.