You’d be forgiven for thinking the Seahawks’ release of Aldon Smith is of small consequence to their defense. Financially, this is true. The 31-year old Smith signed with Seattle on a small one-year, $990,000 contract close to the vet minimum. And, while the departure of the troubled Smith is immensely sad on a human level, the harsh realities of NFL business show the Seahawks still have plenty of defensive line options for 2021. However, Smith—a former first-team All-Pro with 52.5 career sacks in 75 games—brought a truly unique element to Seattle’s roster.
There is no player like Smith left on the Seahawks.
The obvious area that the 2011 first-round pick was contributing to was in the SAM linebacker competition. Defensive coordinator Ken Norton Jr. had worked with Smith when he was in Oakland. Large parts of the LEO defensive end and SAM linebacker coaching appear to have been bucketed together under "edge" instruction. Now with Smith gone, a big opportunity has arisen for Darrell Taylor, Alton Robinson or Benson Mayowa to grab the perimeter spot opposite the presumed starter at LEO, Carlos Dunlap.
Seattle’s coaching staff had much greater plans for Smith than merely playing SAM, though. This past Sunday's mock game at Lumen Field revealed the Seahawks’ pure pass situation front featured Smith as a 3-technique besides Kerry Hyder Jr.
Last year, this "even" front (end, 3-technique, 3-technique, end) had an interior made up of Jarran Reed and Rasheem Green. Green is currently on the roster bubble while Reed was cut in the offseason after a cap dispute between player and team.
Smith weighed 287 pounds in 2020. In training camp this year, he admitted he was “kinda fat last year,” and reduced his weight to the 260s-270s. However, for this season he still had the mass, experience and skill-set required to rush from the interior in certain situations.
There is a chance that defensive tackle Poona Ford will continue his upwards trajectory in rushing the passer and earn more opportunities in these scenarios. There are also the big ends of Robert Nkemdiche, L.J. Collier and Hyder.
What the players listed above cannot do is the spinner type role that Smith was also working at this offseason. According to Seahawk Maven’s Corbin Smith, Aldon Smith was mugging gaps and standing up in a two-point stance near the line of scrimmage.
This is something that the Seahawks tried with Bruce Irvin during his first stint with the team. As a more exotic pass rushing front, Seattle deploys nickel, odd front packages on clear passing downs that move what is technically the LEO in the defense to an off-the-ball, standing around look.
This spinner deployment of one player goes as far as having the LEO align late into an even front, called “even up," where they play the rush 3-technique in what Carroll has previously termed a “NASCAR” look.
Darrell Taylor could very well be used in an off-ball funky role. In the mock game, Seattle had Taylor line up as a middle linebacker and drop to the weak hook underneath zone of cover 3. This is experience that will serve him well if deployed as a spinner LEO, because in order for the odd front packages to be a success, the LEO is sometimes required to drop into zone and fire zone coverage that can present similar challenges to the weak hook of a middle linebacker. For instance: hot to 3 coverage taking the No. 3 receiver up just like the weak hook being alert for the banana/special route of No. 3.
Taylor has little experience lining up as a hand-in-the-dirt 3-tech, though. His skillset also seems ill-suited for this role. Seattle has experimented with Benson Mayowa rushing from the inside too, but once more this feels like a poor fit and it is no coincidence that the mock game’s first-string, "even front" line up was constituted of Hyder and Smith.
In 2020, Norton tried some odd front packages which looked 3-3-5 in presentation and utilized Bobby Wagner, K.J. Wright and Jordyn Brooks. Again, these players are not in the rush-a-guard-down-at-the-line-of-scrimmage style.
By cutting Smith, Seattle has not only lost someone who looked like a Week 1 starter. No, the team has also lost a ton of on-field multiplicity. Smith could have comfortably played in the base 4-3 defenses as a LEO or a SAM. The Seahawks could have then gotten into various pass-rushing fronts with Smith staying on the field, like their vanilla "even" front or their exotic "odd" and "NASCAR" packages. There would have been no personnel tell for the Seattle defense and a lot of adaptable options for Norton as a play-caller. No man left on the roster has Smith's type of talent.
The Seahawks’ plan for replacing Reed, an every-down 3-technique defensive tackle, appeared to be signing multiple bodies to play different roles. Seattle does still have its run-stuffing option in Al Woods. And Hyder can rush from the inside.
Geno Atkins remains unsigned. However, as we approach the preseason action, Smith was the kind of defensive multi-tool that would have alleviated the the pass rush skill gap Reed has left.
Let’s hope the support group that has helped Smith through his battles with sobriety can help him—the person first—deal with whatever he is going through now.
“That’s the tough thing,” he told reporters August 1. “When you’re used to going through a lot of adversity, you get comfortable with adversity, and you don’t know how to enjoy good things when they happen.”