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Seahawks must focus on adding pass rush help in the offseason

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Seattle Seahawks v Green Bay Packers Photo by Dylan Buell/Getty Images

One of the interesting things I noticed about this year’s playoffs was the fact that three Patriots tied three other players for the most sacks in the postseason: Deatrich Wise, Jr., Adam Butler, and Geneo Grissom each had two, tied with Marcell Dareus and Dante Fowler of the Jaguars and Takkarist McKinley of the Falcons.

Now most people have never even heard of these New England defensive linemen, especially Butler and Grissom, and for good reason. They were perhaps just as anonymous after the playoffs as they were before them and even playing for the Patriots, they were quite anonymous. Butler was an undrafted free agent out of Vanderbilt who made the team out of training camp and had two sacks on the season over 16 games, six starts. He found himself taking down Marcus Mariota and Blake Bortles in the postseason, one time each.

Grissom was a third round pick in 2015, but he had just one career sack over 34 games, zero starts. He’s been a disappointment for a third rounder, but he sacked Mariota twice in the divisional round. The most well-known player would be Wise, who had five sacks in the regular season as a fourth round rookie, and he had two more sacks in the postseason on, yep, Marcus Mariota.

Now maybe out of these six combined sacks, five were on Mariota and the other was on Bortles, but nonetheless, New England got some production out of the backend of their defensive line behind Trey Flowers, their best pass rusher. Flowers, a third-year pro out of Arkansas who had 6.5 sacks on the season (the Patriots in general don’t have a big name pass rusher like they did with Chandler Jones, but did finish with more sacks than the Seahawks, tied for seventh overall) had one sack in the playoffs — on Nick Foles.

Just kidding, it was on Mariota.

New England also got a postseason sack out of Marquis Flowers, a former Bengals linebacker who had 3.5 sacks in the regular season; Lawrence Guy, a former seventh rounder who bounced around with the Colts, Chargers, and Ravens before landing as a starter with the Patriots; Ricky Jean-Francois, a vet who they signed late during the season; and Kyle Van Noy, a low-cost trade acquisition who had 5.5 sacks during the regular season.

Now, sacks are not an end-all, be-all measurement for pass rushers, and neither are QB pressures (which vary quite wildly source-to-source), but it’s a reasonable place to start. And we have to start somewhere because forcing pressure on the quarterback, hitting him while he throws, pushing him out of the pocket, making him get rid of it quicker than he wants to, directing him into inaccurate throws, and sacking him are all key elements of a good defense.

I used the Patriots as my lead example because they are a team that has almost no discernible stardom in their front seven but did harass Mariota (Seattle sacked Mariota zero times in their loss to Tennessee) and generate 42 sacks on the season. However, the Eagles’ defensive line still serves as a utopian model for many franchises, including that of the Seahawks.

Philadelphia had five players generate at least 20 QB pressures, per FootballOutsiders: Chris Long (35), Vinny Curry (28.5), Fletcher Cox (28.5), Brandon Graham (27), and Derek Barnett (20.5). Most teams have two. The Titans had five. Washington had four. The Vikings had four. The Jaguars had four. The Falcons had four.

Of those six teams, one missed the playoffs, two made the divisional round of the playoffs, two made the conference championship game, and one won the Super Bowl.

And while Jacksonville’s defensive line was notable because they signed Calais Campbell and Malik Jackson to huge free agent contracts, and drafted Dante Fowler, Jr third overall, most of these teams built their defensive line in reasonable, repeatable, doable ways. I mean, it takes some savvy and luck too, but these are not teams made up of extremely high-profile guys, and that even kind of includes the Eagles, though Graham, Cox, and Barnett were all mid-first round picks.

It would take awhile for the Seahawks to build their defensive line that way.

Seattle had two players generate at least 20 pressures in 2017: Michael Bennett at 39.5 and Frank Clark at 31.5. (Again, I must emphasize that these are from FootballOutsiders and another site may have much different results.) Just under that mark were Jarran Reed at 18 and Sheldon Richardson at 16. What exactly do the Seahawks have in their near-term and long-term future at pass rush?

Clark is under contract for 2018 but that is the final year of his rookie deal. Since he was not a first round pick, Clark has no fifth-year option, meaning that unless Seattle extends him this year or comes to an agreement with him during the negotiating period next year, he will become a free agent. What’s the difference between Clark and, say, Olivier Vernon, who signed an $85 million deal with the Giants two years ago?

Maybe just that Clark could be better now than Vernon was then. Clark carries the same off-field risks that he did during the draft in 2015, but for three years has yet to even get involved with much Seahawks drama, let alone any legal issues. If he keeps it that way for another 13 months, Clark could land a deal that pays him $14m+ per season; his 22 sacks through three seasons ranks tied for 79th all-time, which is pretty good, but also more than Cameron Jordan (21.5) and Olivier Vernon (21.5) had at those points in their careers.

He’s on the right path, football-wise, to end up next to those guys, along with Ryan Kerrigan, Chandler Jones, Preston Smith, Danielle Hunter, or Vic Beasley, who all also had around 22 sacks through three seasons.

That’s Seattle’s main pass rushing priority, but they must decide how much they want to commit to Clark, if it’s enough to re-sign him, and there’s a chance that they won’t. If they don’t, the prospects for the Seahawks’ future at the position look even bleaker.

Bennett is already in trade/release talks for some, despite signing a three-year extension in 2017.

He isn’t set to be a huge cap hit next season though ($7.4m) and the biggest concern should just be his age (32) and the general issues he has with offsides; Bennett is a great player to complement another great player, like when Cliff Avril was around, but a front-seven probably suffers a bit when he’s the best lineman on your defense. (I think he was still ahead of Clark last season, though that could change in 2018.)

Avril led the team with 37.5 pressures in 2016, but of course he missed most of last season and is questionable to ever play again. He is almost surely a cap casualty, even if he declares himself ready to return.

At this point we’ve talked about Seattle’s top three pass rushers, one of whom is almost certainly not coming back, one of whom is not certain to come back or to have a future with the Seahawks past 2018, and one of whom is about to either become a free agent or take up a huge chunk of your cap space. Then what?

Sheldon Richardson is a free agent, and while the two sides appear hopeful to remain together, it seems a difficult proposition given Richardson’s probable demands and Seattle’s shrinking lack of resources. Also, Richardson may not have been all that great of a fit for the Seahawks — though that could potentially change under Ken Norton, Jr and we know that Richardson is still a unique talent. Can the Seahawks re-sign Richardson and still extend Clark?

Reed is perhaps the sleeper-best asset on Seattle’s defensive line, having gained two years of experience as an elite run-stopper with two years of rookie contract control left. That’s just one piece though, and he’s not Geno Atkins or Kawann Short. As of yet, he’s not proven to be a huge asset in pass rushing, which was perhaps the only knock on him coming out of Alabama in 2016 and a reason he fell out of the first round.

Marcus Smith II could have significant upside left to grow into, but as of 2017 he was a pass rusher who in 14 games had 2.5 sacks, three pressures, and two forced fumbles. He’s not someone who you just depend on for next season as anything more than a rotational hope. Not even a rotational asset, but hope that he could become Trey Flowers or Deatrich Wise.

Dion Jordan sparked all of Seahawks nation into believing he’s the second coming of Chris Clemons and given some people the belief that even if Seattle loses Avril, they can just slide Jordan right on in. Jordan played in five games. They were his first five games in three years. He had four sacks and three pressures. I get the excitement, I get the hope, but there is not much substance here yet. The Seahawks can’t actually hope to just re-sign Jordan (restricted free agent, so they’re likely to) and have him become the player that the Miami Dolphins hoped he’d become in 2013. I doubt it’ll work that easily but even if it does, Seattle must hedge their bets with a player who has a lot more reliability than Jordan currently has.

Let Jordan be your “Chris Long” defensive lineman who carries upside to lead the team in pressures but doesn’t carry the pressure of being your number one defensive lineman.

Nazair Jones is seen by some as a defensive tackle with even more promise than Reed, having had two sacks, one interception, and five pressures in 11 games. Hopefully he doesn’t have lingering injury issues like the one that landed him on injured reserve. Malik McDowell of course has yet to play and may not ever do so.

Branden Jackson (8.5 pressures, .5 sacks), Quinton Jefferson (6 pressures, 1 sack), and Garrison Smith (3 pressures, 0 sacks) round out the other notable returning d-linemen.

An early look at the Seahawks 2018 defensive line seems to then be: Bennett, Reed, Jones, and Clark as the starting four, with Jordan, Jefferson, Jackson, and maybe the two Smiths as competition for the rotation. Does that feel like one of the six teams I mentioned earlier that had four or five players with at least 20 QB pressures? That doesn’t even feel close to it, to me.

Clark is your easiest bet to get there, maybe even to crack 40 pressures, but what about Bennett? Even if he’s still there, who would be the next-most likely? Jordan? Maybe Jones? An unexpected boost from McDowell?

That leads to the question of re-signing Richardson and whether that’s a good idea or bad idea. Logically it makes sense because Seattle needs to add a high-quality player to their defensive line and Richardson is one of those. It’s why they traded a second round pick for him before the season. But also logically it makes little sense, because it would only give the Seahawks a repeat of the defensive line they had last year: Bennett, Clark, Richardson, and Reed.

As per the basis of this article, Seattle’s defensive line fell short of expectations last season. To not only repeat it — but to invest more into repeating it — seems illogical. The bar has to be set higher than the 2017 performance by the defensive line.

I’m not really getting into whether or not the Seahawks should re-sign Richardson, read our other article for that, but just throwing it out there as an option.

Another option will be how to use the 18th overall pick in the draft. It’s Seattle’s highest selection since 2012 and by that measure alone “their best chance to add a Barnett or Graham-quality player” for next season, but the Seahawks have also traded down or out of the first round in each of the last five years. They also don’t have their second or third round picks, so acquiring more picks seems like a bigger priority than staying at 18 for this front office.

The “next Brandon Graham” may also not be available in this draft class.

Bradley Chubb from NC State seems like the only defensive lineman who is a lock for the top-10, out of Seattle’s range entirely. Next would be Washington’s Vita Vea (DT), UTSA’s Marcus Davenport (DE/OLB), Michigan’s Maurice Hurst (DT), Alabama’s Da’Ron Payne (DT), Virginia Tech’s Tremaine Edmunds (DE/OLB), Florida’s Taven Bryan (DT), or Virginia Tech’s Tim Settle (DT). (Using a combination of mocks from Rob Staton, Lance Zierlein, and Todd McShay.)

You can already see the lack of edge rushing talent, with only Chubb, Davenport, and Edmunds getting consistent mention for the first round. If the position group is that weak, it could push all three into the top 10 as teams will know that it only drops off significantly from there. This puts the Seahawks in a really precarious position:

They are at 18. It will be difficult to imagine them acquiring any of the top three edge rushers without trading up. They don’t have their day two picks, making them unlikely to even be able to trade up, and more likely to trade down. So Seattle should already be aware, as of early February, that drafting an edge rusher early will be tricky. The combine and other events could push more to the forefront in the coming weeks, but even if someone explodes out as a freak in Indianapolis it’ll probably only push them ahead of where the Seahawks will eventually end up picking.

This makes free agency and the trade market even more vital for Seattle when it comes to adding pass rush help.

A preview of what the Seahawks could do in free agency to help bolster their front-seven is next time.