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Previewing potential position battles on defense following the draft

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NFL: Seattle Seahawks at San Francisco 49ers Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports

On Monday, we previewed potential position battles in preseason on the offensive side of the ball. Now, it’s time to look toward the defense and several crowded position groups.

Just like with the offense, we’ll start by establishing the absolute locks to make the 53-man roster: Bruce Irvin, Rasheem Green, L.J. Collier, Darrell Taylor, Alton Robinson, Benson Mayowa, Poona Ford, Jarran Reed, Cody Barton, Jordyn Brooks, Bobby Wagner, K.J. Wright, Shaquill Griffin, Tre Flowers, Quinton Dunbar*, Ugo Amadi, Bradley McDougald, Marquise Blair, and Quandre Diggs.

*Obviously, Dunbar is far from a lock due to his ongoing legal matters. However, if he is cleared of all charges, he’ll surely be on the team. Either way, his status is not exactly dependent on a roster battle, so he is listed as a lock.

With the roster locks on defense established, let’s take a look at potential camp battles, and the candidates to lead each.

Defensive Tackle

Roles: Backup 1-tech, backup 3-tech

Candidates: Bryan Mone, Demarcus Christmas, Cedrick Lattimore, Josh Avery, yet-to-be-signed veteran

After re-signing Reed in free agency, the Seahawks’ two starting roles are solidified with Reed and Ford. Behind them, however, is the complete unknown.

At 1-tech, behind Ford, Seattle has a bevy of candidates. Mone played 89 snaps as an undrafted rookie, going between the practice squad and the active roster. While he impressed both in the preseason and limited regular season action, he offers little more than space-eating. Similarly, Avery, an undrafted rookie out of Southeast Missouri, is a run-stuffing nose albeit with more lateral ability than Mone.

The final candidate to play behind Ford is Christmas, a sixth-round pick a year ago whose rookie year was lost due to injury. Christmas’s lost rookie year is particularly brutal for him, as he entered the league between positions. A disruptive interior rusher at Florida State, Christmas lacks the explosiveness and technique to continue to produce against the pass in the NFL. Unfortunately, he has also yet to prove to be a reliable run defender, despite showing legitimate power at the point of attack. In order to make the roster in year two, Christmas is going to need to take to a position quickly in preseason.

Lattimore, another UDFA, is the only defensive tackle on the roster behind Reed who figures into the plan at 3-tech. At the moment, that would mean he has a path to the 53-man roster, but another addition here—to replace Al Woods—seems inevitable. Alternatively, the Seahawks could choose to move forward with just three natural defensive tackles, while leaning on Collier, Green and Mayowa’s versatility to provide further interior snaps.

Who makes the cut: Bryan Mone, Cedrick Lattimore

EDGE

Role: Situational rusher

Candidates: Shaquem Griffin, Eli Mencer, Branden Jackson

Even with an addition still likely to be made, be it Jadeveon Clowney or Everson Griffen, Seattle’s group of EDGEs is downright crowded. Five players between two spots are locked in, and after such an impactful end to 2019, Griffin seems more likely than not to stick as well.

Mencer, one of the higher-profile UDFAs signed last month, brings a ton of college production to the Seahawks but his lack of size and athleticism will severely limit him. Any future as a pass rusher in the NFL would be situational, and it’s unlikely he surpasses Griffin in that area—or as a special teamer—before the 2020 season kicks off.

Jackson, retained via an original-round tender as a restricted free agent this year, is headed into his fourth year in Seattle. Playing just under 40 percent of the defensive snaps in 2019, Jackson had some bright moments as he set a career-high with two sacks. While he brings positional flexibility across the line, at a $2.133M cap hit, and with a number of high-ceiling players around him, it’s difficult to envision Jackson sticking on the 53-man roster.

Who makes the cut: Shaquem Griffin

Linebacker

Role: Backup MIKE/SAM

Candidates: Ben Burr-Kirven, Emmanuel Ellerbee

Due to the sheer number of defensive linemen expected to make the roster, the Seahawks may have to get stingy at linebacker and keep only five pure off-ball ‘backers (with Griffin’s flexibility helping them get by). As it stands, Wright and Barton should be locked in at WILL (though a position switch for Wright, back to SAM, has been discussed), Wagner at MIKE and Brooks at SAM.

In this scenario, Burr-Kirven and Ellerbee, the only other two off-ball linebackers currently on the roster, would be competing for the final spot. Though Burr-Kirven played just four snaps on defense as a rookie, he was a core special teamer, playing 66 percent of snaps there, and appeared in all 16 games. The former Husky has upside as a defender, as well, and could develop into a starter in time.

Ellerbee was re-signed as an ERFA in April after missing all of 2019 with an injury. In 2018, he bounced between Seattle’s practice squad and active roster numerous times between October and December, after being waived by the Chargers. Ellerbee’s new deal would indicate he’s healthy again and will be competing for a spot on the 53.

Who makes the cut: Ben Burr-Kirven

Cornerback

Roles: Fourth and fifth cornerback

Candidates: Neiko Thorpe, Ryan Neal, Brian Allen, Gavin Heslop, Debione Renfro

(A note: The following section is written with the assumption Dunbar will be a member of the Seahawks in 2020.)

With three quality cornerbacks in place in Griffin, Dunbar, and Flowers, Seattle has an excellent opportunity to carry one and possibly even two high-ceiling, developmental prospects. Thorpe, the veteran special teams ace, does not fall into that category—but will be competing for the same roster spots. His spot will be earned entirely on the back of his continued starring role in the third phrase.

Neal and Allen returned to the Seahawks after signing their ERFA tenders this spring. Both players spent 2019 on Seattle’s practice squad, with Neal making a brief cameo on the active roster following Thorpe’s season-ending injury. Allen possesses a highly intriguing physical profile at 6-foot-3 and 215 pounds, with 34” arms and high-level explosiveness. Allen made the switch from receiver to cornerback at Utah, and he has the physical tools to succeed in the Seahawks’ system. However, approaching his age-27 season, it’s fair to wonder if Seattle will look towards a younger player to develop.

Heslop and Renfro are the more Seahawk-y cornerbacks among the UDFA class. While Heslop has the requisite size and athleticism, Renfro’s college production and athleticism at the next level leaves something to be desired. Heslop should be favored to pull ahead between the two.

Who makes the cut: Neiko Thorpe, Gavin Heslop

Safety

Role: Backup free safety

Candidates: Lano Hill, Chris Miller

Three of four safeties are locked in, barring an unexpected cut, with Diggs, McDougald, and Blair. With Blair’s best spot being at strong safety, Seattle needs to identify Diggs’ backup.

Amadi, a lock to make the roster, is worth a mention here before getting into the two other candidates. He entered the NFL a do-it-all defensive back with experience at outside corner, nickel, and safety, could absolutely still be the nickelback in 2020. However, with a crowded group of cornerbacks and a thin group of safeties, he could also end up serving as both a nickel and reserve safety.

The most uninspiring choice would be Hill, whose 2019 struggles culminated in a brutal, molasses-slow performance against the 49ers in Week 17. Aiding Hill’s push for the 53 will be his versatility, able to play free and strong, his experience and his special teams ability. With no upside and not much ability when forced into action, the Seahawks should be ready to move on.

For as uninspiring as Hill would be, the opposite could be said about Miller, the Baylor Bear turned UDFA. Though Miller is a touch undersized, he is a solid tackler and plays aggressive when coming up into the box to fill against the run. In centerfield, Miller has the athleticism to play sideline-to-sideline and protect the top of the defense.

Who makes the cut: Chris Miller

Seattle’s defense, while still incomplete, is already crowded. The Seahawks will have a few competitions to see shake out ahead of the regular season, but the foundation has largely been set in their quest to field an improved defense.