This is the seventh part of a guest-post series written by Curtis Allen
#7 defensive line
Players under contract for 2021: Carlos Dunlap, Rasheem Green, LJ Collier, Alton Robinson, Darrell Taylor, Jarran Reed
Players under contract for 2022: LJ Collier, Darrell Taylor, Alton Robinson
Restricted Free Agents: Poona Ford
Unrestricted Free Agents: Benson Mayowa, Damontre Moore, Brendan Jackson
Exclusive Rights Free Agents: Bryan Mone
Players Signed to Futures Contracts: Cedric Lattimore
Salary Cap Notes
2021 Cap Commitment: $34.6 million (19.4% of $178m cap)
Carlos Dunlap’s entire salary of $14.1m non-guaranteed
Jarran Reed’s $8.475m salary non-guaranteed ($5m cap hit if cut or traded)
Available Free Agents
2020 Season Overview
The defensive line provided a decidedly uneven performance in 2020.
In the interior, Jarran Reed again proved he is in the ‘good but not great’ group of defensive linemen. Early in the season, he had a strip sack against Dallas to give the Seahawks some easy points and a dominant half against the Vikings. Absent those highlights his first few games were uninspiring. He struggled to elevate his teammates. However, his play blossomed in the second half of the season.
Poona Ford took another step forward. The Seahawks moved him around the line a bit and he provided some nice interior pass rushing. He is an easy choice to tender and may even garner an extension if the front office feels he has more room to grow and wants to get him locked into a contract before he takes another step in 2021.
Brian Mone rewarded the team’s faith in him with some fine play. He was stout at the point of attack but added some occasional pass rush quickness for such a huge man, which was a bonus. The team felt good enough about him that they chose him over Snacks Harrison late in the season. He has a spot locked down for 2021.
Snacks Harrison spent more time on the practice squad getting into shape than on the field and did not contribute very much.
On the outside, Benson Mayowa was acquired to help but with early season injuries and some strange game day roster choices, he was forced to play a high volume of snaps and faltered trying to take on that much work after a career of being a part time player. He returned to his normal standard of play when relieved of the bulk of the snaps by Dunlap.
Alton Robinson contributed four sacks and did some nice things in the run game at times in his rookie season. He displayed a knack for sacking the quarterback in key situations, which is a confidence-builder for anyone, let alone a rookie player.
Most of his plays were cleanup type sacks, coming off his blocker after the downfield coverage has caused the quarterback to hold the ball. He needs to develop into more of a ‘pressure creator’ but the start is encouraging.
Darrell Taylor was a disappointment, not seeing the field for a single snap due to his health. He did get on the practice field at the very end of the season and was praised by his coach for looking like he belongs, for what that is worth.
L.J. Collier and Rasheem Green had the occasional notable play at the 5-Tech position but overall did not do enough to inspire much confidence. The position was a real weak spot for the unit in 2020.
Damontre Moore showed some decent play in spots but had his season derailed with a suspension.
Carlos Dunlap was manna from heaven. He recorded five sacks and 18 pressures in eight games and lifted the entire unit. Particularly enjoyable was watching him terrorize Kyler Murray in the Week 11 Arizona game with six pressures and two sacks. He sacked him to finish the game the week after Murray had pulled off a last-second miracle against Buffalo.
A big picture look at the season totals from this defensive line group show some superior numbers over the prior season:
– An increase in sacks, from 19.5 to 30.5 in 2020
– An increase in pressures, from 99 to 124 in 2020
– Team rushing defense dropped a full yard per carry, from 4.9 to 3.9 in 2020
But if there were ever a need for context to understand the numbers, it would be this season for this position group. Because the truth is this group had an extremely difficult 2020.
A good chunk of these numbers did not necessarily come from better play. They were rather a direct result of the opposition exploiting the Seahawks’ poor offseason in constructing this unit and their weakness in the defensive backfield.
How did this come about?
Early in the season, the Seahawks’ offense was blazing and applying some serious pressure on opposing offenses. Struggling to keep up, they took to the air. The result was they often were able to score just as easily and at times even more quickly than the Seahawks could. No lead was safe. This exposed the defensive line and the backfield and modelled a plan of attack for the rest of the league’s offensive coordinators to tee off on.
Across the entire season, offenses called a remarkably high rate of passes on this defense. Even run heavy teams were abandoning their scripts and chucking the ball downfield as much as possible.
The opposition threw the ball an incredible 63% of plays. For some perspective, even in the pass-happy NFL, few offenses called for passes at a higher clip than what the Seahawks defense faced.
As a result, the running game was shoved into the background and opportunities for pressures and sacks dramatically increased.
What does a closer look reveal about how the defensive line performed in these two areas?
The defensive line faced the seventh fewest number of rushing attempts and yielded the fifth fewest yards per rush last season.
But were they truly successful? It was a real mixed bag this year.
There were some fantastic run stops at times on defense:
– Week 2 vs the Patriots. The goal-line stand to win the game.
– Week 5 vs the Vikings. Stopping a two-point conversion and a key stop on fourth down to give the offense the ball back. Both plays were the difference in the game as the offense drove the field to win it.
– Week 11 vs the Cardinals. Holding them to only 57 yards on the ground in a right-the-ship win.
But for every successful performance, the run defense experienced a critical failure:
– Week 5 vs the Vikings. The Special Teams unit twice pinned the Vikings’ offense inside their own five. Is the defense able to keep them pinned and win the field position game? They are not. Both drives feature the Vikings bludgeoning their way out of trouble with their running game and driving down the field to score. Alexander Mattison filled in for the injured Dalvin Cook and proceeded to run just as well on this defense. Rushing yards allowed on those two drives alone — 91. Unacceptable.
– Week 7 vs the Cardinals. The defense has held the Cardinals to 109 rushing yards in regulation. Not bad. In overtime, the Seahawks’ offense is stymied and punts. The Cardinal offense comes out and runs for 47 yards on three rushes to get into field goal range for the winning attempt.
– Week 13 vs the Giants. In the third quarter, Seahawks are behind 8-5. The offense attempts to convert a 4th and 1 that fails at about midfield. The Giants take possession and gain 42 yards on four rushes and score the winning touchdown.
– The playoff game vs the Rams. Los Angeles comes in starting a backup quarterback with Jared Goff behind him with a busted thumb. Clearly the Rams were going to rely heavily on their running game. The defensive line had no answers as the Rams gashed them for 164 yards on the ground.
While this unit had some success this season, the fact that they were fifth in the NFL in yards per rush should not be pointed to by anyone to prove that this was a top unit. They had some good overall numbers and some important stops. But they also had some aggravating collapses in key moments.
So, were they good or bad? The truth lies somewhere in the middle.
How well did this unit rush the passer in 2020?
The defensive line’s pass rush performance this season is best compartmentalized into 2 sections:
Games 1-7 Before Dunlap (BD) and games 8-16 After Dunlap (AD)
– Average blitzes per game BD: 26.57
– Average blitzes per game AD: 23.00
– Average defensive line sacks per game BD: 1.14
– Average defensive line sacks per game AD: 2.45
– Average defensive line pressure rate BD: 14.0% pressure rate
– Average defensive line pressure rate AD: 22.1% pressure rate
– Average team sacks per game BD: 1.71
– Average team sacks per game AD: 3.70
To summarize, after acquiring Dunlap they cut back their blitzing 10% across the board, doubled their defensive line sacks, the defensive line was 50% more effective in getting pressures and they doubled their overall team sacks. That is some serious in-season improvement.
While we may not be able to chalk every single increase in pass rush success to Carlos Dunlap’s arrival, the line of delineation is so clear it is obvious that he had a significant impact on the defensive line’s ability to create problems for the quarterback.
Jarran Reed in particular came to life:
– BD: 1 sack / 7 pressures in seven games
– AD: 5.5 sacks / 15 pressures in nine games
He also added two sacks and three pressures in the playoff game vs LA.
Poona Ford likewise put up dramatically better numbers.
Again, there were more factors than just Dunlap. The defensive backs getting healthy and getting a jolt from D.J. Reed, a defensive accountability meeting that seemed to energize the unit and playing some teams with passing offenses that are not world class in the second half of the season were all contributing factors.
There is no doubt though — having a real live force at pass rusher unlocked all kinds of channels and allowed the other players to not constantly have to face double teams they cannot handle.
Offseason Questions to Address
1. How will the team attack the passer in 2021?
The Seahawks blitzed an incredible 403 times in 2020. The defensive line frequently relied on outside sources Jamal Adams, Bobby Wagner and KJ Wright to provide pressure.
After acquiring Dunlap, the Seahawks reeled back Wagner’s blitzing to more normal levels. Let us not kid ourselves though. They still blitzed at a higher clip with Dunlap then they have in recent years. They continued to send Adams just as much as they did before.
Was blitzing this much an intended use of their linebackers and safeties? Or was it a product of necessity after being unable to secure talent on the defensive line that can get push without regular assistance?
All three of their blitzers in 2020 will have their futures with the Seahawks considered this offseason. Wright is a free agent. Wagner has a major cap hit in 2021. Adams will want a huge contract extension.
If the Seahawks are considering moving on from any or all of them, where is the pass rush going to come from?
From their replacements continuing to blitz?
From the improvement of the defensive linemen already on the roster?
Or from bolstering the defensive line with new acquisitions?
Likely it is some combination of all these things.
Who stays and who goes? Who provides production at the best value?
This is a critical determination that needs to be made. It could plot the entire course of the offseason.
2. Will the front office finally change its offseason mode of operation for addressing the defensive line?
After witnessing the defensive line be such a team liability in 2019, it was particularly encouraging to hear from the Seahawks leadership that they intended to address the issue as a priority in the offseason.
Hope slowly and agonizingly turned to despair with the realization that the defensive line moves they made strongly resembled the moves they made the previous offseason and foreshadowed another dreadful performance from the group:
– They did not return their best pass rusher from the prior season (2019: Frank Clark / 2020: Jadeveon Clowney)
– They overpaid a past-his-prime speed rusher who had little effect and spent most of the year hurt (19: Ziggy Ansah / 20:Bruce Irvin)
– They banked on young players making a real contribution and were left wanting (19: L.J. Collier and Rasheem Green / 20: L.J. Collier and Rasheem Green)
– The team reached for a lineman on a high draft pick due to need and counted on him contributing right away. Unfortunately, he was severely limited by injury and ended the season as an unknown for the following season (19: L.J. Collier / 20: Darrell Taylor)
– They scrambled to fill their roster at the position and resorted to bringing in replacement-level players (19: Branden Jackson / 20: Branden Jackson, Damontre Moore)
The Seahawks began the season with one of the NFL’s worst position group units, after fielding one of its worst the prior season.
Legitimate questions asked by the press about this group were met with unsatisfactory answers:
– Lower tier free agents were given healthy raises. The sack numbers they recorded for other teams in the prior year as rotational players were half-heartedly pointed to as proof they could be centerpieces of the pass rush effort
– Young unproven players were being discussed as real contributors
– Excitement about the Jamal Adams trade was proffered as evidence the aggressive attacking energy was back in the building
Then the season started.
The results were predictable, just as they were in 2019.
In the first seven games the defensive line was able to produce only eight sacks on 328 passing attempts for a miniscule 2.4% sack rate. Teams were burning this defense at an all-time record pace.
Even teams with poor offensive lines were emboldened to drop their quarterback and have him regularly throw downfield. A banged up defensive backfield was powerless to provide adequate coverage. The talented linebacker group was trying to hold the defense together with both hands. They had no counter.
Every bit of joy generated by the offense’s brilliance was automatically tempered with dread that the defense would quickly concede just as many points.
A bold gambit to trade two prime draft assets to acquire Darrell Taylor generated excitement that the team was making a serious investment in the pass rush. It slow burned into frustration as his injury recovery dragged into the season and felt like sandpaper rubbing an already sore pass rush spot raw.
Coaches were conducting therapy sessions in broad daylight, assuring reporters, fans and probably themselves that the defense could not possibly be this bad.
It was a ticking bomb that threatened to implode the season.
Then one of the most fortunate bounces of the prior season bounced the Seahawks’ way again in 2020.
They were bailed out of a disaster of their own making by the grace of a star player falling out with his team. Carlos Dunlap became the 2020 version of Jadeveon Clowney.
Once again, the Seahawks were able to take advantage of a team desperate to unload an impact player and willing to settle for less.
One area where the seasons differed though? The Dunlap trade did not come until after the Seahawks had already played seven games. In some ways the Seahawks would spend the rest of the season trying to recover and rebalance the team after a disastrous defensive start.
The Seahawks cannot count on this kind of luck three seasons in a row. They must act more decisively to address such a critical unit this offseason.
They must restore balance to the defense.
A fortunate bounce like this should be the thing that sends this team on the path to a top seed and a Super Bowl. Not the path to minimum acceptable adequacy.
3. What will they do at the 5-tech position?
Rasheem Green and L.J. Collier were penciled in as a rotation at the spot and were counted on to hold down that side of the defensive line.
Their combined numbers in 2020: Five sacks, 29 pressures and 32 tackles. Nothing to write home about.
Their versatility to be able to slide inside and play the 3-tech position on passing downs was frequently pointed to but neither of them were able to take advantage of the newfound effectiveness of their line mates in the second half of the season to really put a stamp on their roles.
Rasheem Green is a free agent in 2022. He endured a neck injury that appeared to be very serious and lost six games. After recovering, he slowly but surely was given more snaps than Collier but lacked a real signature moment or any kind of flair to show that he was going to regularly be a factor on the defense. Will he ever be able to reach the potential the team saw in him when they drafted him?
L.J. Collier had some notable moments early but as the season wore on and Green got healthy, his role started to be reduced in the lineup. Are the Seahawks considering 2020 his ‘rookie season’? Can they honestly expect a big leap in 2021? Collier has yet to show that he will ever provide first-round production on the field.
What do the Seahawks do at this position? Do they bank on these two players for the third year in a row? Or do they commit more resources there?
Would the team consider having Carlos Dunlap or Alton Robinson spend some time on that side?
Will the Seahawks make an investment in the draft or free agency?
Whatever route they decide to take, the 5-Tech position must be better in 2021.
4. What does the future hold for Carlos Dunlap and Jarran Reed?
Both players have large 2021 cap hits and are out of contract in 2022.
It might make sense to look at these two players as a matched pair. The options then are keeping both (maybe even extending both) and making some adjustments to the other spots on the line or jettisoning them and rebuilding the whole unit from scratch.
There will be a strong pull to stay with the familiar and for good reason. A complete tear down would be too much to bite off for one offseason and these two cannot be easily replaced. But nothing should be off the table.
Carlos Dunlap clearly had a major impact on the defense. It will be very intriguing to see what he can do with a full offseason and a full season with the team in 2021. There are a greater number of potential positive outcomes with Dunlap on the team in 2021 than with him not.
His entire salary in 2021 is not guaranteed, which gives the Seahawks all kinds of options. Given their minimal outlay to acquire him (a 7th round pick and $1m of dead money from BJ Finney’s contract) the Seahawks could entertain every possibility:
– They could release him and save the entire $14m salary (unlikely)
– They could pay him his full salary, see how Robinson and Taylor develop and decide in 2022 how much to offer or let him go
– They could extend him now, reasoning he has been very durable, has had a fantastic effect on the team and fits what they are trying to do in Seattle
– There is a fourth option. They could see what Dunlap could fetch in the trade market. Given their lack of cap room and draft capital, it might be wise to listen to offers and see what is available to them. $14m of cap room freed up and some added draft stock could provide the Seahawks more flexibility.
Would he generate much of a return in trade? The odds are not strong they could land enough to consider it.
If you trade him you are back to depleting your most needy unit again. It would be a risk for sure. However, if the right deal comes along, in this climate the Seahawks would be foolish not to listen to what is out there. It does not cost anything to explore a little.
What about Reed? He is the 18th highest paid interior defensive lineman in per-year average.
It would appear he does not have the skill and profile to consistently create disruption on his own. However, he can regularly take advantage when he is lined up next to other players who demand attention and that is not inconsiderable.
The Seahawks clearly love his leadership and the way he carries himself.
It also needs to be factored that Reed eats snaps for breakfast. He can consistently take 75% of the team’s snaps. That is not an ability you can just get anywhere. A potential replacement like Poona Ford has only handled 58% of the snaps at the most in his career. The gap between 58% and 75% is bigger than it appears. If they part with Reed, they will likely need two players to share the workload he provides.
Is that worth the $13.475m cap hit that he is on the books for in 2021? The Seahawks need to create some cap room and $8.475m of his salary is not guaranteed.
Do they consider trading Reed and eating the $5m cap hit? Would they get a strong enough return to offset losing a big piece of their interior?
Or do they look at keeping him, reasoning a full year with Dunlap and improvement from the other young players can elevate him back to a 10-sack season?
5. How much can they count on Darrell Taylor in 2021?
This question will linger all offseason. We will very likely hear plenty of positive news emanating from VMAC about his recovery and progress off and on all summer. Do not let yourself get sucked in and develop oversized expectations for the upcoming season.
The Seahawks were not able to get a single look at him in game action in 2020. Two or three practices are better than nothing but it does not give the team a solid basis for hope that he can have an impact next season.
Even if he is physically ready to play, he will still have to go through all the rookie adjustments and prove he can handle the rigors of playing in the NFL. Just like any rookie he will have to justify his high draft standing.
It is possible no single thing would help the Seahawks more in 2021 than Taylor breaking through and terrorizing the edges.
It would complement the interior rush and help the defensive backs. It would also reduce their dependence on blitzing.
It would enable them to be aggressive in the 2022 offseason building their roster.
Taylor rewarding the investment the team has made and the patience the fans have displayed would be a fantastic success story for next season.
But given what they know of Taylor, right here and now, is it not the course of wisdom to prepare for him to not have a major role in 2021? Or to anticipate that there might need to be some managing of his snaps for the first half of the season to assure he is fully healthy?
It may be worthwhile to have Benson Mayowa’s phone number saved. Bringing a part time player like that back in adds depth and takes some pressure off the situation. If he comes back at a reasonable price, he may be a worthwhile hedge against the young talent on the roster.
Rob’s thoughts on the draft class and potential targets
At defensive tackle, the numbers have been depleted with several big names opting not to declare for the 2021 draft. That said, some intriguing options remain.
Alim McNeill is an outstanding athlete with the ability to play nose or three technique. He has star potential and a personality to match — as evidenced in my interview with him.
Frankly, whoever lands McNeill will be counting their lucky stars.
Levi Onwuzurike will likely go in the top-40 as a penetrating three-technique with a great motor. Daviyon Nixon is a master disruptor who racked up TFL’s for Iowa.
Christian Barmore had a hot and cold spell at Alabama but ended strongly enough to give his stock a boost ahead of the draft. Jalen Twyman and Jay Tufele are forgotten men in this draft after opting out of the 2020 season. Tommy Togiai, who I’m due to interview this week, is an incredibly powerful, dynamic interior presence with great energy and effort. Darius Stills, who I’ve already interviewed, could be a mid-round gem.
There’s a chance to find value within this group. Some good players could last well into day two. Seattle’s lack of picks, however, makes for a frustrating outlook.
Milton Williams, who I also interviewed recently, is a nice inside/out project.
In terms of defensive end and EDGE talent, expect Azeez Olujari, Jaelen Phillips and Kwity Paye to leave the board quickly. Gregory Rousseau opting out has hampered his stock slightly, while Carlos Basham’s lack of length and strange use at Wake Forest tempers some of his obvious talent and athletic potential. Joe Tryon also didn’t play in 2020 but possesses a fantastic frame, knows how to win with his hands, power and speed and he should also be a top-45 pick.
All of that group would be appealing if the Seahawks were picking in round one. While it’s true that a lack of testing is creating a great unknown, the athletic potential of all five players is unquestioned. There’s no mystery there. Phillips was once one of the most coveted High School recruits in recent history, Paye and Basham were on Bruce Feldman’s freak list, Rousseau just looks the part, Olujari’s play is reminiscent of Cliff Avril and just look at Tryon during our interview, published yesterday.
Pairing one of these players with Carlos Dunlap would’ve created quite an exciting prospect for 2021. Alas, it isn’t to be.
In terms of options later on — sadly Patrick Jones’ poor Senior Bowl and short arms make him a less attractive option even though he was excellent at Pittsburgh.
Notre Dame’s Adetokunbo Ogundeji might be appealing. He’s 6-4 3/8 and 256lbs with 35 1/4 inch arms and an 85 3/8 inch wingspan. He ran a 4.21 short shuttle at SPARQ.
Janarius Robinson made headlines during Senior Bowl measurements with an insane 87 inch wingspan. He’s 6-5, 266lbs and also has 35 3/4 inch arms. He ran a 4.27 short shuttle at SPARQ. However, he’s so raw he’s a steak tartare.
This feels like a pass rush class where taking a player early would be the wise thing to do for any team in the market. With Seattle’s desperately low number of picks, it’s perhaps more likely they will focus on the offensive line with their first selection, then look at the deep receiver and cornerback class after that on day three — with running back another option.
And while it’s a very valid point that this draft is highly unusual with no combine and limited interaction with prospects, there’s still a long list of players I’d want to take a chance on who could go a long way to provide the Seahawks with young, cheap talent — which is what they need with so many holes and very little cap space.
If you missed my interview with Joe Tryon yesterday, check it out below…
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