By Danny O’Neil
Seattle’s defensive line was the team’s biggest concern when last season ended, and it is the biggest mystery heading into training camp.
It’s the position group that underwent the most significant change this offseason, and the one where the team will face the toughest time as it pares down the roster and determines playing rotations.
On the one hand, Seattle signed defensive linemen Michael Bennett and Cliff Avril, who were considered two of the top three pass rushers available in free agency. They were added to a team that already had a pretty formidable pair of pass rushers in Chris Clemons and Bruce Irvin. On the other hand, Irvin will miss the first four games because of a league suspension while Clemons is recovering from a torn knee ligament and there’s no guarantee he’ll be ready when the regular season begins.
Those are just some of the moving parts Seattle will be dealing with as it determines just who is going to make this team up front.
Seattle drafted two defensive tackles, choosing Jordan Hill out of Penn State in the third round and Jesse Williams of Alabama in the fifth. Throw in veteran Tony McDaniel to a group that lost only Alan Branch from last season, and Seattle is facing a numbers crunch since it has carried only nine defensive linemen into the season under coach Pete Carroll. That’s a drop from president Tim Ruskell’s five years in charge of the roster when the team kept an average of 9.8 defensive linemen.
A look at the number of D-linemen Seattle has kept on its 53-man roster each year since 2002.
Locks to make the roster: Red Bryant, Brandon Mebane, Hill, Avril, Bennett.
Mebane is now the longest-tenured Seahawk after six seasons, as consistent a player as Seattle has had on this defense over the previous three seasons.
Bryant played a full season for the second consecutive year, but that doesn’t mean he stayed healthy. He was bothered by a foot injury, which may have been the single biggest reason Seattle’s run defense eroded over the second half of the season right on up to the playoff loss in Atlanta where a Falcons team that had one of the league’s worst rushing offenses in the regular season ran roughshod over the Seahawks. Seattle needs Bryant back to run-stuffing ways.
On solid footing: Williams, McDaniel.
Branch was solid enough to start for Seattle the past two seasons, but wasn’t effective enough for the Seahawks to give him a raise on the two-year, $7 million deal he received in 2011. The fact Branch took a one-year deal in Buffalo this offseason spoke to Seattle’s interest in finding an upgrade, and the Seahawks believe McDaniel is a better player at one-third the cost.
Williams might turn out to have the biggest impact of any rookie this season. That might be a surprise considering he was a fifth-round pick, but that draft position was largely dictated by concerns about career longevity considering the health of his knee. He’s expected to be a big part of the Seahawks’ early-down defense this season.
Availability issues: Irvin, Clemons, Greg Scruggs.
Irvin is suspended for the first four games so he won’t count against the regular-season roster limit until Week 5. Also, he’s going to play some strongside linebacker this season so the team won’t have to decide exactly where he fits on the 53-man puzzle.
Danny O’Neil looks at where the Seahawks stand at each position group heading into training camp.
Clemons is a different situation. He’s recovering from a torn knee ligament suffered in the playoff victory at Washington, and while the team hasn’t ruled out the possibility Clemons will be ready for the regular season, it’s also possible he could begin the year on Physically Unable to Perform (PUP) list. If that’s the case, he wouldn’t count against the 53-man roster limit, but he wouldn’t be eligible to begin practicing with the team until after the sixth game.
Scruggs, who had a promising rookie season, suffered a torn knee ligament in the offseason, and is not expected to play this year.
On the bubble: Jaye Howard, Clinton McDonald.
Howard drafted in the fourth round out of Florida in 2012 but never played his way into a role. He appeared in only two games, but he figures to benefit from the arrival of Dan Quinn as defensive coordinator. Quinn was Florida’s defensive coordinator during Howard’s senior year, and got the most out of him.
McDonald has been a solid backup since he was acquired from Cincinnati in 2011, used often as a nose tackle in Seattle’s nickel pass-rush package. Whether he’s in that role again is a question after the additions of Hill and Bennett, both of whom are expected to provide interior pass rush.
Wild cards: Mike Morgan, Benson Mayowa, Ty Powell.
It wasn’t all that long ago the Seahawks had so much depth at the pass-rushing defensive end referred to as the Leo that it prompted them to look at Irvin as a linebacker. Well, Irvin’s suspension and the uncertainty of Clemons’ recovery has Seattle scrambling a little bit to find depth behind Avril.
Morgan played linebacker his first two seasons in Seattle, but he worked at defensive end over the offseason while Mayowa is an undrafted rookie from Idaho whose quickness impressed Seattle enough to sign him after a three-day tryout at the rookie minicamp. Powell, a seventh-round pick, is a linebacker who will also get some opportunities to rush the passer.
Undrafted rookies Michael Brooks and Kenneth Boatright round out the defensive linemen currently on the roster.