As the Seahawks entered the 2020 regular season, one of the big questions looming over the team was this — did they have enough defensive linemen?
As the NFL offseason hits mid-April, a new question hovers over the Seahawks’ defensive line — how will they fit everyone in?
After a 2020 offseason that began with a futile pursuit of Jadeveon Clowney, the Seahawks opened the regular season at Atlanta with just eight players listed as defensive linemen on their 53-player roster, which included a rookie and a journeymen veteran who had just signed.
After this week’s signing of Aldon Smith and before the draft has even been held, the Seahawks have 11 players listed as defensive linemen who could be viewed as significant contributors in 2021, meaning there could be some tough decisions ahead. The Seahawks typically keep 9-10 defensive linemen on their 53-player roster.
But before delving further into that, let’s compare what the Seahawks had up front entering the 2020 regular season and what they have now.
Here’s how the depth chart looked heading into the 2020 opener at Atlanta.
Defensive end: L.J. Collier/Rasheem Green.
Defensive tackle: Jarran Reed/Bryan Mone.
Nose tackle: Poona Ford.
LEO/rush end: Benson Mayowa/Alton Robinson/Damontre Moore.
That list doesn’t include Bruce Irvin, who was the starting strongside linebacker but dropped down to a rush end spot in the nickel package. Throwing in Irvin, the Seahawks had nine defensive linemen to start last season.
Of those nine, one was a rookie (Robinson), one had been signed just 10 days before the first game (Moore) and two were second-year players who had seen little action as rookies in 2019 (Mone 89 snaps, Collier 152).
And here’s how it looks now.
Defensive end: Kerry Hyder/Collier/Green.
Defensive tackle: Ford/Mone.
Nose tackle: Al Woods.
LEO/rush end: Carlos Dunlap/Benson Mayowa/Aldon Smith/Robinson/Darrell Taylor.
(Also on the roster are tackles Cedrick Lattimore, who spent all of last season on the practice squad but played in the playoff loss to the Rams, and Myles Adams, giving them 13 defensive linemen.)
All 11 players could realistically make the 53-player roster. Also, don’t read that depth chart too literally for position, as most players will play multiple spots. But the above listing is an attempt to show where they may line up most often.
The Seahawks have just four linebackers on the roster — Bobby Wagner, Jordyn Brooks, Cody Barton and Ben Burr-Kirven. They had seven on the roster to open the 2020 season.
The Seahawks will undoubtedly add some linebackers. But maybe they think they can fill some linebacker-type responsibilities with some of their ends (or with some of their safeties), and are willing to go with more linemen and fewer linebackers.
What’s apparent is that the Seahawks did not want to get caught short in pass rushers as they did a year ago.
Part of the reason was the wait for Clowney, to whom the Seahawks gave an offer of roughly $16 million a year and thought he might accept. Clowney dragged his feet — not signing with Tennessee until September — and the Seahawks felt they missed out on some opportunities they might have taken to fill up the line in free agency.
That was something they tried to correct in the draft, taking Taylor in the second round and Robinson in the fifth. But that didn’t go as planned when Taylor didn’t recover from offseason surgery to repair a stress fracture and missed the entire season.
The loss of Taylor helped lead to the midseason trade for Dunlap, whose addition led to a shocking turnaround in production up front. After just nine sacks in the first six games of the season, the Seahawks had 37 the rest of the year, the most in the NFL in that span.
So the Seahawks decided this year to take no chances, and if that leads to a tough call or two down the road, so be it.
In fact, that’s what the Seahawks will hope for, because that would mean, among other things, that Taylor is fully healthy and productive, Smith is fitting in well — it’s worth remembering the team has little invested in him and he’s hardly a lock to make the roster — and Robinson is taking a step forward in Year Two.
The addition of Hyder has led to conjecture about the future of Collier, the team’s first-round pick in 2019, and whether this looms as something of a prove-it season for him (though because he has a $3.9 million dead cap hit after June 1, you can likely forget about him being cut). The thought is Collier may have an even bigger role playing tackle than last season, when he often moved inside in the nickel. Same with Green.
That’s why the Seahawks could be content with just three “true’’ tackles in Ford, Mone and Woods, the latter two who figure to play mostly on run downs (and it’s worth remembering the Seahawks often had just three tackles active on gameday last year).
But what can’t be questioned is that the Seahawks are in far better shape with their pass rush entering the 2021 season than 2020.
Of the team’s eight defensive ends, five had four or more sacks last season. And that doesn’t include the man who led the teams in sacks last season — safety Jamal Adams, with 9 1/2.
While the Seahawks will always want to make as much use of Adams’ pass-rushing ability as they can, they also would like to get more consistent pressure from a four-man rush, something this year’s line may be better-equipped to pull off.
Carroll fondly recalls how the line of the 2013 team — the best defense on the best team in Seahawks history — featured eight defensive linemen who played at least 46% of the snaps, but none who played more than 57% (Michael Bennett, who was officially a backup).
The Seahawks have been searching for that kind of depth and ability to keep everyone fresh and consistently productive ever since.
If they don’t find it this year, it won’t be for lack of trying.