What are the top needs of the Seattle Seahawks as we head into free agency and on to the draft? In this article, I am going to assume that all unrestricted free agents are not part of this roster and, therefore, their absence has created a weakness that must be addressed. I will also assume that all restricted free agents will be back with the team.
With that being said, here are the most important positions to upgrade prior to the start of training camp, in order of importance:
Right Defensive End (RDE). This is going to come off as a controversial choice, so let me explain. Cliff Avril is currently listed as the starter on the Seahawks depth chart and he is one of its best defensive players. However, let me ask you, how often do you see him lining up at RDE? Not very often. You usually see him at LDE.
In their Super Bowl winning season of 2013, the Seahawks had a dominant defensive line and pass rush, led by the likes of Avril, Michael Bennett, and Chris Clemons. They have not been as good or dominant since in terms of applying consistent pressure on opposing quarterbacks. Anyone who watches the games can see that the 2014 and 2015 teams did not quite have that extra jolt of pass rushing prowess that the team had in 2012-2013 (even with Clemons limited early in ’13 while recovering from ACL surgery).
The reason for this is the fact that Clemons has yet to be effectively replaced at RDE (or Leo or Elephant or whatever you want to call it). It’s time to add this piece back to an already great defense who has led the NFL in scoring defense for four years in a row, yet hasn’t quite been the same in two years.
You may think that a counter argument would be that the defense, as mentioned, has led the NFL in scoring defense for these very four years in a row so there is only a small room for actual improvement, whereas the team has some positions (think offensive line) where it ranks towards the bottom of the NFL. That is a valid argument, but this team would not have had as many fourth quarter collapses this past season if it wasn’t essentially relying so much on Avril and Bennett to get to the quarterback.
As you saw in Super Bowl XLIX, what happens to this defense and pass rush specifically when one of Avril or Bennett gets injured? It’s easy pickings for an opposing quarterback. Granted, Tom Brady isn’t your average quarterback, but a few guys who led fourth quarter comebacks against the Seahawks this past season are. When you’re getting beat in the fourth quarter by the likes of Nick Foles and are blowing double digit leads late in multiple games, you know something is wrong.
Along the defensive line, you need more than four starters to regularly contribute. A strength of the squad in ’13 is evident by the playing time of Bennett and Avril. Bennett played in roughly 57% of defensive snaps in ’13, while Avril participated in about 53% of the time. As Bennett and Avril age into their thirties, they should be getting more of an occasional breather, not having to play more. However, Bennett has been playing in over 80% these past two years and Avril almost played 80% of the time this past season.
Cornerback (CB). You can make an argument that a big part of the reason for some of defensive deficiencies above had more to do with Cary Williams at CB than it did with Bennett and Avril not having a third dominant pass rushing partner. Also, as you project this roster forward, there is reason for optimism that Frank Clark is going to help the defensive line immensely to the point where you can legitimately list CB as the biggest need on the team. Nevertheless, a CB opposite Richard Sherman is of the highest priority this off-season, although I have it slightly below a legitimate replacement for Clemons.
Currently, DeShawn Shead would go into training camp as the starter. On the surface, this isn’t exactly a bad thing. He is a good, solid football player and was definitely an upgrade over Williams. However, if Shead is starting, the depth is severely compromised. Adding a good starting corner is extremely important for the overall benefit of the secondary, defense, and team.
I view Jeremy Lane as the most important impending free agent to resign. When Lane returned from his Super Bowl injuries and was eventually inserted into the starting line-up, it was amazing how much more confidence was had in the overall ability of this defense. If John Schneider is going to overpay for anyone he has drafted and is set for free agency, it should be for Lane.
Left Guard (LG). Aside from pass protection in 2007, the Seahawks offensive has been a liability for a decade now. They went from having the greatest offensive line in team history in 2005 to having one of the worst lines since. The ability of Marshawn Lynch breaking tackles behind the line of scrimmage and the running and scrambling ability of Russell Wilson has made it appear on paper that the line is good in terms of being among the rushing leaders, when the reality is the Seahawks have been winning for years now in spite of its offensive line, not because of it. With that being said, the weakest link of this very unit is left guard, unless JR Sweezy is resigned to play RG and impressive rookie Mark Glowinski takes over at this position (although the Seahawks seem to like more power versus finesse at this guard position).
Left Tackle (LT). The potential departure of Russell Okung opens a gaping hole at this position. Although LT is a “more important” position than LG, the potential roster replacements at LT seem a little better than LG. If the season opened tomorrow, the starter would be Alvin Bailey or Gary Gilliam.
Strangely, Bailey seems like a more capable starting LT, as opposed to LG. He has proven to be a decent replacement for Okung when he has been pressed into service. However, there are times, such as the Dallas game and facing Greg Hardy, when he is simply overmatched in a way you don’t see too often with Okung. The other alternative at LT would be to move Garry Gilliam to protect the blindside of Russell Wilson, although this would open a hole at RT. This hole could be filled by LG Justin Britt, who started all of ’14 at RT. However, if he couldn’t play at a high level at RT in ’14 or LG in ’15, what makes us feel confident he could play at a high level back at RT in ’16?
No matter what, the offensive line, more than any unit on the entire team, is in need of an infusion of talent. Although you hear about how continuity is the most important element for any offensive line, no amount of continuity will mean anything if the talent simply is not there. Some employers take out “Help Wanted” ads, the Seahawks need to change their objective to “Talent Needed.”
Defensive Tackle (DT). The Seahawks ranked first in the NFL in terms of stopping the run in 2015. If the season started tomorrow, there is no way they would finish in the top half of the league in terms of stopping opposing ball carriers.
The two main cogs who stuffed the middle are set to become free agents in Brandon Mebane and Ahtyba Rubin. The only quality replacement on the active roster is the solid, yet often injured, Jordan Hill.
The only reason I don’t have DT higher (either interior position) is because the Seahawks do a remarkable job of finding minimal cost veterans to shore up their run defense such as Alan Branch, Tony McDaniel, Kevin Williams, and Rubin. While you cannot usually find a pass rusher on the cheap like Arizona did with Dwight Freeney or a good CB at minimal cost (think of the Seahawks overpaying for Williams), you can do it with role playing DTs when you have situational pass rushers on the interior like Michael Bennett has been and Frank Clark is developing into.
One side note is that I do know for certain the first priority for Rubin is to come back to the Seahawks. I met his wife (pictured) at the -6 degree playoff game in Minnesota. She was sitting behind me. I did not realize this until Rubin came up to her after the game and gave her the football he recovered (the Kam Chancellor strip of Adrian Peterson that recovered to set up the go ahead field goal). We got to talking and she talked about how much he loves it with the Seahawks. If the Seahawks offer a similar money in comparison to any other NFL team, I get the sense he will easily choose to come back.
Honorable Mention: It’s possible Bruce Irvin will not be back with the team and this will open a hole at strong side linebacker. One of the very criticisms of taking Aaron Curry with the fourth
overall pick in 2009 was that he was “only” a strong side linebacker. Some holes are more important to fill than others. While left guard seems to be one of those “unimportant” positions in comparison to left tackle, pass rusher, and cornerback, it is also a position that could get your $20 million quarterback killed.
Another question revolves around Marshawn Lynch. Whether or not the Seahawks have seen the last of Beast Mode, there is always Thomas Rawls waiting in the wings to ensure the team will have a good starter at the position heading into 2016. If Lynch leaves, the depth will be bare, but this is nothing of importance in comparing the top five needs heading into the off-season.