There’s been a lot of talk about Seattle’s propensity to use base defense this year. In 2018 Justin Coleman played 67.81% of the defensive snaps. Lano Hill played 32.29% — not all as a starter. He was occasionally used as a ‘third safety’ or big nickel.
This year it’s all change. Bobby Wagner has played 100% of the defensive snaps. K.J. Wright has played 93.56%. Mychal Kendricks has played 74.62%. Jamar Taylor, the starting nickel, has played just 26.70% of the snaps since re-signing in week two.
I would highly recommend listening to Mark Schlereth on the Brock & Salk Podcast this week (fast forward to 41:38). Schlereth does a fantastic job breaking down why the switch to base is impacting Seattle’s pass rush. I can’t recommend the interview enough — it’s a must listen.
A lot of fans have been asking why they’ve made this switch. I think it’s pretty understandable, even if the benefits are not obvious at the moment:
1. The personnel
Seattle lost Justin Coleman in free agency because the Detroit Lions offered him an excellent contract. At the time it seemed expensive but Coleman has had a terrific start in Detroit. Hindsight is a wonderful thing though and not many people were saying the Seahawks should’ve matched the deal at the time.
It was always expected that Kendricks would return. Most expected that he would replace Wright, who appeared destined to leave for big money. That didn’t materialise for K.J. and an opportunity emerged to bring him back to Seattle.
Putting a roster together isn’t an exact science. Sometimes you have to take the chances that are presented to you. Seattle lost Coleman but had an opportunity to keep Wright and Kendricks. That’s the way it was. Few questioned it at the time.
With Wagner, Wright and Kendricks all signed — it’s not a surprise the Seahawks have tried to find a way to get all three on the field. If the key is to put your best 11 players out there, that would include the trio of linebackers. The plan made sense even if the execution so far is questionable.
2. Improve the run defense
The Seahawks actually did a pretty good job rushing the passer in 2018. Frank Clark and Jarran Reed both had excellent production. Other players chipped in. They needed more in 2019 but overall, it wasn’t a negative.
The run defense, however, got gradually worse as the season went on. They went from limiting the likes of Ezekiel Elliott, Todd Gurley and Marshawn Lynch to giving up big gains too frequently. It was surely an off-season priority.
Playing base could’ve been an idea to try and solve this problem. You keep a bigger body on the field (Kendricks) instead of a nickel corner. Pete Carroll has talked-up Kendricks in coverage and we saw some of that with his interception in Atlanta. Again the plan makes sense even if the execution is suspect. You have a dynamic, athletic linebacker on the field instead of a nickel. You give up some coverage ability to be bigger in the front seven and hope you see a positive balance. It seems they were hoping Kendricks could replace Coleman.
Schlereth points out why this is impacting the pass rush based on the technique’s they’re using up front, how opponents can double team the end on one side and why they aren’t creating pressure. The Seahawks will already know all of this, of course. I suspect they thought that with Jadeveon Clowney on one side and Ziggy Ansah on the other, they’d be able to rush with four consistently. That hasn’t been the case because Ansah has looked like a busted flush and Clowney has been completely isolated — essentially operating as a one-man-band as a pass rusher.
In the glory days of the LOB Seattle could rush with four thanks to Michael Bennett and Cliff Avril. They also had the speed and talent elsewhere to give teams almost no time to pick apart the defense. Everything had to be quick because Seattle’s defense was even quicker. The pass rush, the coverage, the hitting. You had no time.
It’s the total opposite now. They’re not creating pressure, teams have time to develop routes to expose flaws at the second level. Only since Marquise Blair has been starting have they had any big hits.
Is this a problem due to being in base or is it a personnel problem? It’s probably a bit of both. With their existing personnel Schlereth identifies some of the problems they’re having because they can’t pressure with four rushers. At the same time — they’re unlikely to fair any better with this group if you simply play Kendricks at WILL instead of Wright and put Jamar Taylor on the field for 75% of the snaps.
Unfortunately the Seahawks are more or less stuck with this until the end of the year.
We might see Kendricks and Wright move on in the off-season. Ansah and Clowney are both free agents (and we can safely assume Ansah, at least, won’t return). There could be a completely new plan.
Whatever happens they need more speed up front. They’re utilising big bodies at defensive tackle, big bodies at defensive end and based on what we’ve seen so far — Wagner and Wright aren’t as quick as they once were.
An absolute priority in the off-season has to be speed on defense.
The Seahawks will improve immensely once they’re able to rush with speed, create more pressure and can fly around at the second level.
Everything will be boosted by more speed. If they’re starting Quandre Diggs and Blair at safety and Tre Flowers and Shaquille Griffin in the secondary, they’ll have speed (and hitting). At linebacker they might be able to get their speed and quickness from Cody Barton and Ben Burr-Kirven. The pass rush needs more though. They need to go out and find that dynamic EDGE who can play some LEO, play some SAM and really threaten with speed.
They’ve always had quickness off the edge. Avril complimented Bennett. Bruce Irvin complimented Chris Clemons. Frank Clark had speed and incredible explosive physicality.
Now the pass rush is just big — Clowney, Ansah, L.J. Collier and Rasheem Green. None of them are known for speed. They need more.
It’s hard to see where it’ll come from though. The early signs are this won’t be a good draft for speed rushers. Chase Young is likely going to go in the top-five. Yetur Gross-Matos is more about hand-use and quickness than pure speed. Curtis Weaver used to weigh 300lbs. It’ll be interesting to see how Julian Okwara tests but he was a non-factor in Notre Dame’s two biggest games — both losses — to Georgia and Michigan. Jabari Zuniga is more of a base-end. Terrell Lewis is intriguing but look at his injury record. The Seahawks pay a lot of attention to durability with high picks and Lewis would be a serious gamble.
Other names could emerge. We need to see the Senior Bowl and the combine to get a full picture of what is available. With a fair amount of cap space available, they could also look to free agency.
It shouldn’t just stop at the pass rush either. They need to be faster and more intense across the defense as a whole. They need to be able to impact games as a unit. Russell Wilson and the offense need and deserve a compliment. The 2019 season was essentially stage two of a reset but we might look back on it as a great year from Wilson somewhat wasted because the defense was so poor.
We’re half-way through the regular season already so it’s fair game to assess overall needs for the off-season.
Improving the pass rush and speed on defense is going to be pretty hard to top between now and January. There are some other positions to consider too.
The Seahawks will only have Will Dissly contracted at tight end for next season. There’s no way they’re going to pay Ed Dickson $4,266,668 in 2020. He’s basically played half a season in 2018 and 2019. He’ll be 33 in July.
Dissly has suffered two serious injuries in the space of little over a year. They need some insurance. It’s also a position they’ve taken very seriously over the years when you consider the Jimmy Graham trade and the mega-contract (for the time) that they gave Zach Miller.
Whether they sign a veteran free agent, make a trade or use a draft pick — they have to add at least one prominent tight end. It’s a sure-thing.
There could be some holes on the offensive line. Germain Ifedi, Mike Iupati and George Fant are all free agents. Considering Fant’s ability to play numerous roles, it’d be a bit of a surprise if they don’t work hard to keep him. Iupati is likely a one-year rental and the drafting of Phil Haynes felt like an ‘heir-apparent’ project. Jamarco Jones equally could replace Ifedi at right tackle or even D.J. Fluker at right guard.
There will also be a question about Justin Britt now. His cap hit is $11,666,668 for 2020 and he’ll be coming off a serious knee injury. With a dead cap hit of only $2,916,668, they might prefer to move on and see if they can make a saving there. Britt has been an excellent starter for Seattle but the injury is a game-changer in a cap-tight league. The rest of the year will be an audition for Joey Hunt to make the role his own. If not, they might look elsewhere.
They seem to have adopted a new philosophy on the O-line since Mike Solari replaced Tom Cable. They’ve consistently signed veteran starters and then drafted players in the mid-to-late rounds as development prospects. They’ve sought to acquire quality depth and competition.
There’s little reason to change that approach now. The O-line isn’t perfect but it has improved. College offensive linemen frequently struggle to make the transition to the pro’s. There are a lot more early-round busts than people perhaps realise.
If they lose Ifedi and don’t see Jones as a ready-made replacement, they might prefer to sign a veteran starter. If Hunt doesn’t win the center job and if they cut Britt, they might make a move for Alex Mack (who might also be a cap casualty in Atlanta).
That doesn’t stop them from drafting an O-liner in the early rounds, of course. They just might be more inclined to wait as they did with Jones and Haynes. The 2020 draft does have some intriguing offensive line options though.
At center, personally I think Washington’s Nick Harris is the best prospect. He’s a little undersized but incredibly tenacious and physical. He can get to the second level or execute a screen downfield. He’s a terrific looking prospect with first round potential. Wisconsin’s Tyler Biadasz is the bigger name but I think he’s more of a top-50 type than a sure-fire first rounder. He leans too much and defenders often jump back so he loses balance. When he locks on he can control linemen and he succeeds.
In terms of offensive tackles — there are question marks across the board. Stanford’s Walker Little is out for the season with a knee injury. TCU’s Lucas Niang is out for the rest of the year with a torn labrum. Tristan Wirfs is said to be seriously considering returning to Iowa for next season. Washington’s Trey Adams has battled a number of injury issues.
There are positives too. Georgia’s Andrew Thomas looks like a top-10 lock at left tackle. His team mate Isaiah Wilson is enormously underrated and has been superb this year. He’s a massive right tackle but could easily find a home in the top-20 himself. Auburn’s Prince Tega Wanogho is equally well-sized and has some good tape. It’s debatable that any of the trio would last into range for Seattle — thus meaning they might have to take a chance on an injury.
This seems unlikely with a high pick, even if the plan is to draft-and-develop. They’ve never spent a first round pick on a player they knew wouldn’t feature in year one. It has happened for various reasons. L.J. Collier for example hurt his ankle in camp, limiting his development. They’ve not deliberately red-shirted a first round pick however within seconds of calling the pick.
Pass rush and speed on defense, tight end and offensive line (if players depart) feel like the biggest needs at the moment. However, one more position warrants a mention.
The 2020 draft seems set to be loaded at receiver. It’s strong at cornerback too — but that’s a position the Seahawks are yet to draft earlier than the late third round. When there’s been a clear strength in a draft class, Seattle has often tapped into it.
This year it was a great draft for defensive linemen and they drafted L.J. Collier. In 2018 it was the year of the running back — they selected Rashaad Penny. In 2017 it was a deep draft for cornerbacks and they took one (Shaquille Griffin) earlier than they had done previously in the Pete Carroll era. In 2016 it was a good class of offensive linemen and they took Germain Ifedi. They traded their top pick in 2015 for Jimmy Graham but in 2014 it was a top-drawer class of receivers and they selected Paul Richardson.
Every year, consistently, they’ve looked for the strong areas positionally within the class. The 2020 draft is gearing up to be excellent at receiver.
Here are some of the names eligible to declare:
Jerry Jeudy (Alabama)
Ceedee Lamb (Oklahoma)
Henry Ruggs (Alabama)
DeVonta Smith (Alabama)
Laviska Shenault Jr. (Colorado)
Jalen Raegor (TCU)
K.J. Hamler (Penn State)
Tee Higgins (Clemson)
This is just a handful of names with first round potential. There’s depth too — with Minnesota’s Tyler Johnson, LSU’s Justin Jefferson, USC’s Michael Pittman Jr, UCF’s Gabriel Davis, Ohio State’s K.J. Hill and Binjimen Victor and Arizona State’s Brandon Aiyuk warranting a mention. Tony Pauline has also recently been talking up Liberty’s Antonio Gandy-Golden.
Yet it’s the names on the initial list that really stand out. Suddenness and quickness wins in the modern NFL. Jeudy and Lamb will probably be gone by Seattle’s pick (maybe Shenault too). The idea of upgrading Jaron Brown for Ruggs, Smith, Raegor or Hamler, however, could be extremely appealing.
Taking a receiver with the first pick wouldn’t be most people’s first choice. You can’t fight a draft though. This is a clear strength in 2020 and while the Seahawks do need to improve the defense dramatically — they also need to do everything they can to support Russell Wilson.
A trio of Tyler Lockett, D.K. Metcalf and the speed of a Ruggs, Raegor, Smith or Hamler is a mouth-watering proposition — especially if they can secure the long term future of the O-line and improve the tight end situation.
It’s also worth noting that when they traded up to draft Lockett in 2015, that was only a year removed from drafting Paul Richardson and came shortly after they’d traded for Jimmy Graham. Clearly this is a team never afraid to add another weapon.
You can now support Seahawks Draft Blog via Patreon by clicking the tab below.