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Seahawks 2023 Training Camp: 5 major questions on defense

Plenty of interesting competition across multiple positions on the Seahawks defense.

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The Seattle Seahawks defense has had a hard time reaching the great heights of the Legion of Boom. Since 2019 they have been a bottom-half defense by DVOA, and there have been consistent issues with coverage breakdowns and other mishaps to start regular seasons. And yet, there are several young, promising pieces on this roster who could be the foundation of the turnaround towards being a top unit once more.

Earlier this month I did training camp position battles on offense, which you can read by clicking here. For the defense, we’ll change things up a bit and pose these less as “battles” and more as questions.

How will the outside cornerback depth shape itself?

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It’s safe to assume Riq Woolen’s starting job isn’t in jeopardy, and rookie Devon Witherspoon is pretty much a lock to be the other outside cornerback. The question becomes, “But what about the others?”

Why yes, Mike Jackson Sr was a solid starter alongside Woolen last season, but the addition of Witherspoon pretty much puts him back into a reserve role when he’s starting caliber right now. Is that going to be leverage for a trade, or is there something more to Seattle testing Witherspoon in the slot during camp, paving the way for extra snaps for the non-starters?

Then there’s Tre Brown, the 2021 fourth-round pick out of Oklahoma whose rookie season ended prematurely due to a serious knee injury. Brown wasn’t even activated to the 53-man roster until after the midway point of last season. From the little he’s shown, he’s impressed, but time moves fast and he’s in Year 3 with 276 defensive snaps to his name. Brown has never played a snap of nickel/slot corner at Oklahoma or in his brief time in Seattle, so being Coby Bryant’s backup is likely not happening. Perhaps his direct competition is actually Mike Jackson.

Artie Burns is the veteran of the group but more likely a camp body given he sparsely played last year and dealt with his own injury. The rest of the depth chart includes UDFAs like Lance Boykin, Montrae Braswell, and Benjie Franklin (among others), all of whom are in for a tough battle for a roster spot.

Which of the young outside linebackers will emerge, and which ones are on the roster bubble?

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You might have read some stories recently that the Seahawks weren’t generating a lot of pressure from their pass rushers. Then you realized it’s been the same story for several reasons running. Sure, they finished top-10 in sacks last year but their pressure rate was among the worst.

Uchenna Nwosu and Darrell Taylor figure to be the two main outside linebackers—yes, even with Taylor’s struggles against the run at times, he’s still been productive over the past two seasons. That leaves you with a backlog of young talent like rookie Derick Hall, second-year players Boye Mafe and Tyreke Smith, and fourth-year player Alton Robinson. Smith was on IR for the whole of his rookie campaign and has been so oft-injured dating back to college that he’s pretty much a roster bubble candidate by default. Robinson similarly missed all of 2022 and was pretty much out of the rotation in 2021, so he may also find himself on the outside looking in.

As Corbin K. Smith notes, Mafe may have had just two sacks and an uninspiring pressure rate but he did fare quite well against the run. Alas, he’s going to have to improve his pass rushing repertoire and I suspect the reason Hall was drafted was to challenge not Taylor, but Boye. Hall had 6.5 sacks in his final season at Auburn, and was top-30 in the country in quarterback pressures.

There’s a lot of upside here but if the Seahawks are going to field anything resembling a competent defense, this can’t be another developmental year.

Where is the off-ball linebacker depth?

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This is an area of major concern for Seattle. Jordyn Brooks’ timetable for his return from ACL surgery is uncertain, leaving you with Bobby Wagner as the only dependable player on the depth chart who is definitely on track to play Week 1.

Devin Bush Jr is trying to turn his career around after a disappointing last couple of seasons with the Pittsburgh Steelers. Lest we forget Bush had his own ACL tear in 2020 and that has seemingly affected his performance, so he’s a bit of a reclamation project.

After Wagner and Bush? There is close to zero regular season experience at middle linebacker on the depth chart. Jon Rhattigan has as many regular season defensive snaps as I do. Vi Jones made some nice plays in preseason as a UDFA rookie, but his regular season playing time was limited exclusively to special teams. Nick Bellore played nine defensive snaps last year, his first since 2017 when he was a Detroit Lion. Cam Bright and Patrick O’Connell round out the group as UDFA rookies.

If Brooks is ahead of schedule and ready by September, then maybe this isn’t a big problem. You do wonder if the goal is to go heavy on extra DBs in nickel and dime packages. Jamal Adams may also be used in a hybrid safety/linebacker role depending on his health. In other words, injury to Wagner or a setback for Brooks creates one big “uh oh” scenario.

Will the Defensive End makeover actually work?

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Welcome to Extreme Makeover: Defensive Line edition!

Shelby Harris (for now) is off the team, as is Quinton Jefferson, Poona Ford, and L.J. Collier. Under the 3-4 hybrid scheme, they are all defensive ends, and obviously in Ford’s case he was very much miscast in his role.

Seattle’s big splash in free agency was to bring in Dre’Mont Jones from the Denver Broncos on a three-year, $51 million contract. They also reunited with Jarran Reed, whose last stop was with the Green Bay Packers, and his two-year contract suggests he’s a definite part of their plans for 2023. Nine-year veteran Mario Edwards Jr joined the fold in May, albeit on a contract so inexpensive that he’s not a lock to make the 53-man roster.

The interesting NFL Draft move was taking Michigan’s Mike Morris in the fifth round. Morris was an edge rusher with the Wolverines, but he revealed shortly after his selection that he put on weight with the plan to move to 3-tech interior defender.

Reed is a known quantity but it remains to be seen whether he’s still in his prime. Jones is a rising star and is the only new DL player with a high likelihood of being a long-term fixture in the defense. I think Morris is the one to watch throughout camp and preseason to see if this position switch suits him best, and if he can be a positive contributor right away.

Who will be the Seahawks’ starting nose tackle?

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This is an offshoot from the previous question, but it’s still a major topic! Bryan Mone’s ACL tear was a blow to the Seahawks defensive line, and it happened so late in the season that it’s doubtful he’ll be available to start this season. Seattle didn’t take a potential nose tackle until the fourth-round of this year’s NFL Draft, Mississippi State’s Cameron Young. San Diego State UDFA Jonah Tavai has been one of the standouts at minicamp, replacing Poona Ford in the role of “undersized interior lineman” at just 5’10 and 283 lbs.

It’s hard to ignore that Seattle has opted to slim down, if you will. Take out Mone for injury reasons and only Cameron Young is north of 300 pounds on the defensive line, and that will hold true should Seattle bring back Shelby Harris. The Seahawks were bullied pretty badly against the run on numerous occasions last year, so history has a chance of repeating itself just in terms of being physically overpowered at the point of attack.

Nose tackle won’t make or break the entire defense, but it’s an area where training camp and preseason will give us a glimpse into whether it’s still a need that requires another acquisition before the regular season begins.

You may notice that I left out safety in the camp battles. Assuming Jamal Adams will be playing this season (which has to be a big assumption, at this rate), it’ll be him, Quandre Diggs, and Julian Love as the top three safeties. There should be an honorable mention to sixth-round rookie Jerrick Reed II, Jonathan Sutherland, and Joey Blount (among others) who will undoubtedly be jostling for position as extra depth and a role on special teams.

What’s caught your attention on the Seahawks defense as training camp approaches? Let us know in the comments!