On Monday, the Seahawks officially released defensive end Carlos Dunlap, allowing the 11-year veteran the opportunity to test the market with hopes he will eventually return to the Pacific Northwest on a multi-year deal at a more affordable cost.
Jettisoning the two-time Pro Bowler created more than $14 million in instant cap space, but there's no question it's a risky move for general manager John Schneider. Dunlap played a pivotal role in Seattle's second half transformation from one of the NFL's worst defenses into a top 10 unit, producing 5.0 sacks and 14 quarterback hits in just eight games and elevating the play of everyone around him on the defensive line. Choosing to cut him once again leaves the team back at step one trying to build its pass rush from scratch.
Though he's 32 years old and the salary cap plunging to $180-185 million has left teams with minimal spending flexibility, the former Florida star could still generate a favorable market given his strong finish to the 2020 season. There's no guarantee he will return to Seattle, particularly with the team having other significant needs to address in free agency.
While the Seahawks will hold out hope that a saturated market loaded with veteran pass rushers will push Dunlap's price down enough to bring him back, the good news is the team will have other viable options that could be affordable when the new league year kicks off on March 17. Here's a look at five players who could replace Dunlap and bolster the team's pass rush in free agency:
When Ngakoue refused to sign his franchise tag with the Jaguars, the Seahawks were linked to the Pro Bowl pass rusher as a potential trade suitor. But ultimately, the Vikings wound up acquiring him shortly before the start of the regular season and he was traded again before the deadline to the Ravens. Appearing in 15 games for the two teams, his overall pass rushing production paled in comparison to his first four seasons. While he still had 8.0 sacks and 42 combined pressures, he yielded a career-low 11 quarterback hits and Baltimore seemed to have some issues implementing him into its scheme. He also had his share of issues against the run, receiving a dismal 45.8 grade from Pro Football Focus in that department. Nonetheless, Ngakoue is only going to be 26 years old entering the 2021 season and with 45.5 career sacks to his name, he would give Seattle a dynamic playmaker at the LEO defensive end position.
After four disappointing seasons in Chicago, Russell Wilson and the Seahawks became quite familiar with Floyd during his lone season with the Rams. In three games between the NFC West rivals, including the wild card round in the postseason, the ex-Georgia star amassed a remarkable 7.0 sacks and 10 quarterback hits against Wilson, taking full advantage of the attention drawn by Aaron Donald. In large part due to his numbers against Seattle, he set a career high with 10.5 sacks and 19 quarterback hits while also performing well against the run in Brandon Staley's defense. Weighing only 240 pounds, there will be questions about his scheme fit in Seattle, though the team has found success with lighter edge rushers at the LEO spot in the past. The Seahawks should be wary about overspending for a player coming off a career year, but he's certainly worth a close look at the right price.
Entering the league as an undrafted free agent out of Notre Dame, Okwara had one sack and seven quarterback hits in his first two NFL seasons. But he emerged as a legitimate pass rushing threat for the Lions over the past three seasons, including racking up a career-high 10.0 sacks and 18 quarterback hits while earning the 10th-best pass rushing grade (84.5) from Pro Football Focus in 2020. At 6-foot-3, 263 pounds, he has the size to potentially play snaps at both end spots, though his run defense has been suspect at times. Last year, he was charged with 12 missed tackles and received a lackluster 45.0 grade as a run defender, which ranked 57th out of 63 qualified defensive ends. That may be viewed as a reason for any potential buyer to beware, but looking at his long-term track record, Okwara was respectable against the run in his two prior seasons and could be a good fit at a reasonable price for Seattle.
Before Seattle ultimately acquired Dunlap last October, Kerrigan's name also surfaced as a potential trade target, but Washington opted not to deal him despite a diminished role behind Chase Young and Montez Sweat. Though he isn't the same player who averaged 12.0 sacks per game and made three Pro Bowls from 2014 to 2018, he still managed to generate 5.5 sacks and 16 pressures on just 425 defensive snaps last season while primarily rotating into the lineup in obvious passing situations. With increased playing time, the soon-to-be 33-year old veteran still may be good for seven or eight sacks and likely won't command big bucks on the market at this stage of his career. On a one-year deal, he could be a solid short-term stop gap.
When Clowney opted to sign with the Titans after spending close to six months on the free agent market, the odds of him ever playing another game in a Seahawks uniform seemed next to none. But injuries once again hindered the former No. 1 overall pick, as he was limited to just eight games and didn't produce a single sack before landing on season-ending injured reserve. Considering his durability concerns dating back to his rookie year, any team pondering the idea of signing him would be taking on significant risk. Still, he was far more effective as a rusher in Seattle's scheme in 2019 than his 3.0 sacks indicate and has always been an elite run defender. With his value at rock bottom, he could be brought back on a one-year prove it deal with a chance to resurrect his career in a familiar environment.