Written by Kip Earlywine
Its not exactly a secret that the Seahawks are going to prioritize improving the pass rush this offseason. It’s been talked about so much, and yet there is one funny little detail that always gets left out: Seattle actually has 4 pretty good defensive line starters already.
Red Bryant is perhaps the most unorthodox defensive end in the NFL, but for what he’s asked to do, he’s very effective. He’ll be 28 at the start of next season.
There was a time near the end of the Tim Ruskell administration when a very compelling case could be made that Brandon Mebane was not just Seattle’s best defensive lineman, but the team’s best player period. He’ll be 27 at the start of next season.
I know that some people are skeptical of Pro Football Focus and its metrics, but they loved Alan Branch last season- even naming Branch to their all-pro team at one point. Branch may not create a lot of pressure, but like Bryant, he does a lot of quiet things very well. He’ll be 27 at the start of next season.
Chris Clemons has 22 sacks in 2 seasons since becoming a Seahawk, has stayed healthy, and hasn’t been destroyed against the run as many thought he would be. He’ll be 30 at the start of next season.
Across the board, this is a group of above average players who are in their primes. So what’s the problem? The problem is that the Seahawks only sacked the quarterback 33 times. The Titans had the NFL’s second fewest sacks, and they had 28. So how did this happen? It happened because Seattle is (more or less) running a defense with a 3-4 styled defensive line and a 4-3 styled linebacking group. And since 3-4 defenses rely on linebackers to create pressure and 4-3 defenses rely on the front four for pressure, you end up with the worst of both worlds from a pass rushing standpoint. Out of the current front seven, only one player (Clemons) is counted on to consistently generate pressure. Our pass rush is kind of like the experience of finishing off a loaf of bread to make a sandwich, then remembering that all you have left are the two crappy end pieces that no one ever wants to eat. Even if the bread normally tastes great, its not much fun eating a sandwich made with those two skinny end pieces.
So what should the Seahawks do about it? As I see, it, they have three options. The first is to jettison Red Bryant and then acquire a more traditional 4-3 end. Red Bryant is a free agent, and has 2 sacks- in his career. Its hard to completely punt pass rush at one of the defensive end spots in a 4-3 and still hope to get pass rush results. That said, given that Seattle appeared to sign Alan Branch primarily as 5-tech depth, and given how much Bryant contributes to the defense outside of pass rush, I don’ t think Seattle is going to revert to a more traditional 4-3 any time soon.
The second option is for Seattle to switch to a 3-4 defense. Seattle has the defensive line for it, and is probably looking at overhauling their linebacker group anyway. This isn’t the best draft for making a 3-4 conversion though. There are no obvious Clay Matthews / Shawne Merriman / DeMarcus Ware caliber rush linebackers for Seattle to target if they moved to a 3-4. It also seems unlikely because Pete Carroll is a defensive coach with strong ties to Monte Kiffin and a 4-3 scheme.
The last option is to just stay the course with the Red Bryant defense, but this could be the most challenging option of the three if you actually want results. If the Seahawks want to be comfortably on the above average side of the league in pass rush, they’d need to add about ~10 sacks, and 10 sacks is a lot. If you can’t add those sacks from Red Bryant’s spot (or Mebane’s spot- he’s probably the team’s long term 1 tech), you’d need to add them from the LEO position, the 3 tech position, and the linebackers. Very few linebackers in a 4-3 scheme can be counted on to rack up sacks- so if Seattle wants to add sacks from the linebacking area, they will probably need to get creative about it. One possibility is drafting Courtney Upshaw and playing him as a bit of a hybrid Will linebacker/stand-up end. On pass rush downs you could have Upshaw line up outside of Bryant and create a look very similar to a 3-4 pass rush, while having Upshaw play a more traditional Will position on some other downs. The downside of this is that it would put a lot of extra stress on the other two linebackers, and while Hawthorne is a nice player, he isn’t exactly known for his ability to cover a lot of ground. It could expose Seattle’s defense to a greater risk of allowing a big play.
I suspect the Seahawks will get creative in some such way, but that probably won’t be enough in itself to fix the pass rush, even if Clemons continues to produce or is replaced by someone else (Dexter Davis, etc) who matches that production. There really isn’t much way around it, Seattle needs to upgrade the pressure from its front four. And if they keep Bryant, the only place they can really accomplish that goal is the 3-tech defensive tackle position.
As said before, Seattle isn’t exactly hurting at defensive tackle. Branch was a quality starter. Hargrove and McDonald combined to make for quality depth. If Seattle goes out and acquires a “run of the mill” 3 tech, its unlikely that he’d have much of an impact. The Seahawks have to be careful here- Branch’s contributions should not be overlooked- it really wouldn’t make sense to downgrade the defense as a whole just to add a handful of sacks. If the team is going to replace Branch, they must make sure they are actually upgrading the position, and that means either trading for an elite player, or rolling the dice on a player who could be elite.
Seattle could try to draft a situational 3 tech pass rusher who plays only on pass rush downs, but one problem with that is that substitutions can be problematic against hurry up offenses- so if possible you would prefer your 3 tech pass rusher to be a 3 down lineman. And that’s the problem. Effective pass rushing defensive tackles who can play every down are one of the rarest finds in the NFL- its a big reason why you just about never see a 4-3 defense build a pass rush away from defensive end.
Complicating matters further is that good pass rush defensive tackles are rarely a sure thing. Guys like Ndamukong Suh and Warren Sapp are a rare beast indeed. It goes without saying that you won’t find anything comparable to that in the 2012 draft, and maybe not for many years to come.
Perhaps the best defensive tackle in this class is Michael Brockers, which is kind of funny since Brocker’s 2011 season looked an awful lot like Alan Branch’s. Brockers only registered 2 sacks in 14 games, but made up for it by being an exceptional all-purpose 3 tech. Brockers will not be a high pick this April because of those results though. He’ll be a high pick because of the results he could be posting in 2013 or 2014. Brockers hasn’t quite put it all together yet, but he’s a guy that could easily become an elite pass rushing defensive tackle if enough things break right.
I don’t know if Quinton Coples can safely be classified as a 3 tech- he strikes me more as a Justin Tuck hybrid type. I’ve long been turned off by Coples lack of effort and inconsistency, but his senior bowl performance was illuminating and mind changing. Coples truly does have elite potential. Of that there is no longer any doubt. And for what its worth, Coples’ hype began in the first place from a splash debut as a 10 sack 3 tech in 2010 in relief of the suspended Marvin Austin. It would not shock me at all if Coples is drafted by a team with the intention of playing him at the 3 tech.
Two years ago, Geno Atkins dominated the senior bowl and hoped to elevate his stock. He ended up falling into the 4th round, but today he’s one of the more exciting young defensive tackles in the game. Interestingly enough, Atkins was a player that interested Seattle in the 2nd round of that draft, but they rated Golden Tate higher and never got a second shot at Atkins. While I don’t think anyone takes the senior bowl more seriously than the dozens of real games that preceded it over a prospect’s career, it can help remove doubts about raw ability. This is a game where almost every player is at or near NFL caliber while in a job interview type situation. They want to look their best. With coaches/GMs from every NFL franchise watching, the last thing they want is to have the guy across from them make them look bad. Dominating in that kind of situation should stand out.
Atkins himself was a 4th rounder. Remember Rocky Bernard and his 8.5 sacks in 2005? He was a 5th round pick. Just because Seattle needs to make a splash doesn’t always mean that player has to be an early pick. Whether or not that kind of player can be found later in 2012 is yet to be seen.
My favorite defensive player in this draft is probably Devon Still. And yet, I don’t think I’d draft him. Still could easily be Mebane 2.0- perhaps even better. The reason is because Still doesn’t really offer much hope as an elite pass rusher. He will collapse the pocket. He will occasionally shed blocks. But Alan Branch is already doing that to a lesser degree. Still is a very good player, but he might be redundant on this roster, a luxury pick in a draft where the Seahawks seem determined to avoid making a luxury pick early on. As a pass rusher, Still can’t offer the same raw potential that Coples or Brockers could provide, and for Seattle’s crazy defense that relies on so few areas to create pressure, its key that those areas produce, and produce big.
John Schneider’s drafts so far have been risk averse at the top. In the first round, it doesn’t get much safer than drafting two offensive tackles and a safety. Would this front office be willing to take a chance with a high pick on Brockers or Coples? If addressing the pass rush through defensive tackle is their goal, and they want to make that investment this year, I would say they almost have to. Of course, the team will keep all options open, and I get the feeling they are leaning more towards defensive end than defensive tackle early, but wherever they end up addressing defensive tackle, I’m hoping for a player with as high a ceiling as possible, even if that player is a big risk.