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NFC West mounting up to be difficult division to win without a strong offensive line

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Frank Clark is the Seattle Seahawks top priority, but with Pete Carroll already saying several times that Clark isn’t going anywhere — meaning that they’ll franchise tag him if need be — he almost becomes a de facto non-priority. The Clark situation, for now, is all but settled and they’ll tag him when the opportunity comes up in a week to when the deadline hits on March 5. Therefore, the second priority kind of becomes the first priority, so what is the second priority for the Seahawks?

Outside of getting another pass rusher to play alongside Clark and Jarran Reed, it’s pretty clear that Seattle needs to respond to all the variables that led to Russell Wilson getting sacked a career-high 51 times.

The players we can safely assume will return to the offensive line are left tackle Duane Brown, right tackle Germain Ifedi, and center Justin Britt. There’s also restricted free agent George Fant, who could challenge Ifedi for the job at right tackle or potentially move one of them inside to guard, and we may see Ethan Pocic or Joey Hunt compete for time at center or guard. Jordan Simmons is also likely to return. But the only starting position that to me looks absolutely defined for next season is left tackle and the others probably need further evaluation.

Both guard positions, as of now, are un-manned as starters J.R. Sweezy and D.J. Fluker are set to become free agents again just as they were a year ago. I’d say the majority of fans, from my perspective, would place Fluker as one of the top priorities for the Seahawks this offseason, and many more would at least like to entertain another year of Sweezy if he’s coming at a low cost again. For me, I stand in what I think is the minority opinion, that Seattle needs to find two different starting guards for next season, or at least to not commit “starting money” to either. They both cost $1.5 million in 2018 and I don’t see substantial evidence for a raise.

Even if you liked Fluker as a player and teammate, he has still missed considerable time with injury over each of the last two seasons. Even if you liked Sweezy, he still draws stupid penalties and gets beat on an occasion a little too often to really feel comfortable with him in fourth quarter situations. This whole line, outside of Brown, was abysmal in fourth quarter situations last season, and that was against last season’s competition.

What about next season?

The LA Rams won the NFC West and did so with the best offensive line in football: Andrew Whitworth, Rodger Saffold, John Sullivan, Austin Blythe, and Rob Havenstein. Jared Goff was sacked 33 times and he threw almost 150 more passes than Wilson did; his sack% was half that of Wilson’s. Against the Arizona Cardinals, Goff was sacked four times in two games, whereas Wilson was sacked eight times. Against the San Francisco 49ers, Goff was sacked one time, whereas Wilson was sacked six times. Goff was sacked three times against the Seahawks and Wilson was sacked six times against the Rams.

This is a division fairly loaded with pass rushers, and it’s only going to get more difficult to protect Wilson next season.

LA only has one premier pass rusher, but he’s also the best defensive player in the NFL and maybe the most unique pass rusher to defend against since Lawrence Taylor. Michael Brockers and Ndamukong Suh are both good at this stage in their careers, though Suh is a free agent and Brockers could become a cap casualty. They also have interesting young players in first-time Pro Bowl linebacker Cory Littleton (four sacks) and Samson Ebukam, the star of their 54-51 win over the Kansas City Chiefs. The Rams might also be the most attractive free agent destination in the league this year and with a potentially-loaded free agent group of defensive linemen coming, it wouldn’t be hard to see someone like Ezekiel Ansah or Cameron Wake say, “I’d like to play here no matter what.” Trade acquisition Dante Fowler Jr is also a free agent but LA might be his first priority.

Every team in the NFC West has to think about Aaron Donald except for the Rams. That’s an advantage, but the other three teams are also in a position to get better.

The Cardinals finished with the worst record in the NFL but still got 13 sacks from Chandler Jones, who turns 29 later this month. Jones’ 53.5 sacks since 2015 ranks first in the NFL, three ahead of second-place Donald. (Donald’s 136 QB hits in that time is 31 more than second-place Von Miller.) Nobody else on Arizona had 5+ sacks, but there’s still hope for former first round picks Robert Nkemdiche and Haason Reddick, both of whom are only 24. The Cards also have plenty of cap space to woo a big name free agent on that side of the ball, but the big card they’re holding is of course the first overall pick in a draft class that could potentially rival any in history along the defensive line. Arizona could stay put and take Nick Bosa, the most universally-praised prospect in 2019, or they could even trade down, add a pick or more, and still get a highly-regarded defensive lineman like Quinnen Williams, Josh Allen, or any one of at least a half-dozen players at that position who could be of help to them.

In the most likely scenario, Nick Bosa is joining the Arizona Cardinals and pairing with the most prolific sack-getter in the league over the last four seasons.

Finally, the 49ers had a bad team from almost any angle you look at it (other than if you’re looking at their win over Seattle) but did get 12 sacks from another first-time Pro Bowler: DeForest Buckner. Turning 25 in March, Buckner has seemingly developed into one of the top pass-rushing interior linemen in the league, which also happens to be a space occupied by Donald and Reed. You could argue that three of the top five interior linemen that you’d like to have next season reside in the NFC West, and that’s with the possibility that a team like the 49ers or Cardinals also drafts Alabama’s Quinnen Williams, a potential top-three pick. San Francisco is picking second overall and they could get lucky and have Bosa slide down a spot if a team moves up for a quarterback. They could stay where they are and take Williams or Allen. They could move down, add a pick, and still get a very good prospect like Rashan Gary, Ed Oliver, Clelin Ferrell, or so on. The 49ers also have former second overall pick Solomon Thomas, former 17th overall pick Arik Armstead, and on the down-low also got 5.5 sacks each from 26-year-olds Ronald Blair and Cassius Marsh. The NFC teams with the most cap space: San Francisco and Arizona, followed closely by Seattle and the Dallas Cowboys.

Against the likes of Donald, Jones, and Buckner, the Seahawks allowed 51 sacks last season. They also faced Von, Khalil Mack, DeMarcus Lawrence, Melvin Ingram, Chris Jones, and we can’t expect that to slow down. Next year they’re still expected to face Donald, Jones, and Buckner, but those six divisional games are almost certain to raise the level of difficulty in protecting Wilson because of the likely addition of prospects at the level of Bosa, Williams, or Allen, and free agent money to retain key guys and bring in new ones. So do I feel comfortable with Seattle repeating an offensive line and/or offensive philosophy that gets Wilson sacked 51 times? Or that draws bad penalties and allows negative plays towards the end of games?

No, the rest of the division is getting better at rushing the quarterback and so I think the Seahawks in turn need to focus on how they can get better — not maintain status quo — at stopping the rush.