The Seahawks’ biggest need of the offseason was obvious: rushing the passer. Finding effective quarterback hunters was the absolute necessity. This was true even before the Jadeveon Clowney free agency saga, which remains without a conclusion.
Simply put, the Seahawks have to be better at affecting quarterbacks in 2020 and second-round draft pick Darrell Taylor must be a big part of this.
My apologies for reminding you of last season’s grim defensive numbers. These figures demonstrate Seattle’s inability to heat up quarterbacks: the Seahawks placed 16th in ESPN's pass rush win rate and Sports Info Solutions had Seattle 31st in team sack percentage and 31st in pressure rate, via Steven Ruiz' USA Today article. On a defense that plays a small variety of pass coverage on the back-end, getting pressure with four is essential.
Seattle could still add Clowney or the also unsigned Everson Griffen, but their free agency additions currently look lackluster. Benson Mayowa and Bruce Irvin are solid pass rusher No. 3 and No. 4 candidates, but they are not the serious boost Seattle needed.
Therefore, when heading into the 2020 NFL draft, the importance of adding quarterback hunters somehow grew. Drafting rushers was already vital but the free agency struggles further ramped this up.
Drafting well is an inexact science, a dangerous lottery that is particularly troubling given the Seahawks entered the draft needing a hit at a particular position. To reduce the risk of error, teams utilize all sorts of data to ensure they don’t miss. Darrell Taylor being their EDGE rusher pick, the man they had to come away with, suggests strong confidence from Seattle.
When it comes to pass rushers, we know that the Seahawks look at pressure percentages. It’s a favored metric of theirs. They have spoken about these figures on numerous occasions, but Pete Carroll’s comments after taking Jacob Martin in the sixth-round of the 2018 NFL Draft were most revealing.
“We’re just looking for activity and problem-makers,” Carroll said in March 2018 on the John Clayton 710 ESPN Seattle show.
“Usually you can look to that pressure percentage; how many times when they rush do they affect the quarterback?"
Thanks to Sports Info Solutions and their “The SIS Football Rookie Handbook 2020,” we can see the 2019 pressure percentages of the EDGEs that came out this year - a more effective evaluative tool than looking at the total number of pressures. SIS defines a pressure as a play “in which there is a quarterback hurry, hit, knockdown or sack.” The pressure percentage figure is just the “percentage of pass rushes that resulted in a pressure.”
1st: Josh Uche, Michigan, 25% pressure percentage
2nd: Terrell Lewis, Alabama, 20% pressure percentage
2nd: Chase Young, Ohio State, 20% pressure percentage
4th: Carter Coughlin, Minnesota, 19% pressure percentage
5th: Zack Baun, Wisconsin, 18% pressure percentage
6th: Anfernee Jennings, Alabama, 17% pressure percentage
6th: Curtis Weaver, Boise State, 17% pressure percentage
6th: Darrell Taylor, Tennessee, 17% pressure percentage
9th: Jonathan Greenard, Florida, 16% pressure percentage
10th: Jabari Zuniga, Florida, 15% pressure percentage
(Manocherian, M., ed.SIS Football Rookie Handbook 2020 (ACTA Sports, 2020) p.345)
That’s an interesting list that reassuringly features Taylor. We can immediately remove Chase Young (tied 2nd) from the conversation. The consensus best non-quarterback of the draft was never going to end up in Seattle. Snagging him would have meant the Seahawks behaving like utter maniacs, trading their entire future to get up to No. 2 overall for Young. No thanks.
Before considering the other names, first recognize the types of rusher Seattle features in their defense. The two main ones are the “5-tech” and the “LEO.”
Pete Carroll aligns his defense based on two sides of the offense: the solid side and the flex side. The tight end side is the solid side. The flex side is opposite, where the split end/X receiver (receiver on the line of scrimmage) aligns. If there is more than one tight end, Seattle designates a “Y” to one of the tight ends and considers his side the solid side.
The 5-tech is the defensive end aligning to the solid side. They are far more likely to be double-teamed, taking on tight ends. The 5-tech is therefore a bigger body - big end Red Bryant is the most extreme example to date. They can play a variety of techniques, spending early downs in 6, 5, or 4i techniques and then getting into wide 9s or moving inside to 3-tech defensive tackle when rushing the passer. Think 275 pounds or more, like Quinton Jefferson.
The LEO (drawn with an L symbol in the playbooks) is the defensive end aligning to the flex side. The LEO is traditionally lighter, containing 3-4 outside linebacker elements to his game - indeed the origins of the idea is from Carroll’s days coaching a 3-4 defense in San Francisco. The LEO’s skill set is supposed to benefit from typically playing in more space and only facing a tackle. Because of this, it’s regularly said that the best pass rusher gets this role. Against the run, they often are the force defender. Pure LEOs spend most of their time in 7-tech or wide 9. Think a weight closer to 250 pounds, such as Cliff Avril.
A massive issue with Seattle’s pass rush last year was the lack of a speed rusher who could play defensive end whatever the situation. Trading Jacob Martin and Barkevious Mingo was obviously smart, but it left them without a LEO-type on the roster. In September 2019, I wrote:
“Seattle’s roster is now in a weird place, lacking a pure speed-rusher or finesse type...The only possible man is the total project of Jachai Polite, currently on the practice squad. Indeed, the Seahawks listed Clowney at defensive end not LEO. That’s because Clowney is absolutely perfect for the 5-technique role in Seattle, the big end.”
Banged-up Ezekiel Ansah could not do it. He was washed.
Asked after day two of the NFL Draft whether Taylor was more of a typical LEO, Carroll answered, “Yeah he’s exactly that, he’s right in that mold. The height weight speed thing is there. His aggressiveness is there. His flexibility, his savvy for turning the corner, and doing the things that that position calls for. The power he has to finish. He’s got some speed-to-power moves and there’s enough ability there for him to do some dropping a few times. We do that when we mix our looks and all.”
It’s huge the Seahawks managed to add a high pressure percentage LEO who they felt strong enough about to trade up for. They felt they had to give up a third round pick in the draft to make this move. As Carroll told Taylor on the phone, “we were waiting for you the whole way through, we’ve been sweating it out.” Seattle managed to get their two top possible guys in Jordyn Brooks and Taylor. As soon as Brooks was taken, the Seahawks were working hard to figure out how to snag their coveted pass rusher.
“The next shot was to try to get Taylor,” revealed Carroll.
“He was in consideration last night [Day 1],” confirmed Schneider. “Our guys did a great job of working their tails off to try keep getting to try to acquire him, and it was pretty hot. We view him as one of the very, very top pass rushers in this league.”
Josh Uche, Carter Coughlin, and Zack Baun all were attainable options for Seattle. Uche went late in the second round to New England, Coughlin went in the seventh round to the New York Giants, and Baun went to New Orleans in the third round.
All three could do elements of the LEO role. Yet the trio, to differing degrees, are questionable every-down LEOs. Uche weighed 245 punds at the combine. Though he was tough enough to set the edge, he is still more of a rush SAM whose pass rush plan is raw. Coughlin was 236 pounds and Baun was a diluted-sample generated 238 pounds.
Seattle already has Shaquem Griffin as their light speed sub-package speed rusher. Uche, Coughlin, and Baun would all have had to earn early action as SAM linebackers, a position where they could be trusted more to play the run. Given Seattle took linebacker Jordyn Brooks in the first round, one of these picks was never going to happen, especially as early as Uche and Baun went. The Seahawks wanted a proper defensive end. At 6-foot-4, 267 pounds, Taylor is that.
“He’s a real EDGE player,” Carroll described post-day two.
Terrell Lewis was a realistic LEO candidate, but he played in just 26 college games despite a five-year college career after multiple injuries. Given he did not visit with Seattle for a medical checkup, taking Lewis would have been riskier than they would have liked. It would have represented a luxury the Seahawks can ill-afford at the position. Indeed, despite impressive production and tape, Lewis fell to the third round and the Los Angeles Rams.
John Schneider consistently spoke about the importance of knowing and meeting with prospects prior to the draft, something that COVID-19 has dramatically impacted. Lewis was at the combine and the Senior Bowl, but he did not travel for a visit to Seattle prior to the shutdown.
Taylor was at the Senior Bowl and NFL combine. Additionally, Taylor also came to the VMAC - one of only two or three in-house interviews. It was there that the Seahawks could get to properly know him and also check out the stress-fractured left fibula he underwent surgery on after his redshirt senior season.
“[Seattle’s] doctors feel good about him,” said Schneider. “We had a great visit with him.”
The men who tied with Taylor for sixth place in pressure percentage were taken after him: Anfernee Jennings went in the third round to the Patriots and Curtis Weaver went in the fifth round to the Dolphins. I did a pre-draft report on Jennings that liked him in the mid-to-late rounds but felt he was a lightweight, 5-tech conversion project. Meanwhile, Daniel Jeremiah described Weaver as having a “dad bod.” Weaver was short-armed at the combine.
Plus, in college, there was not the same level of competition for Weaver that the Seahawks praised regarding Taylor. Taylor managed to achieve his 17 percent pressure percentage number against mostly NFL tackles on a terrible defense and team.
Beneath Taylor to finish the top 10 is the Florida duet of Jonathan Greenard and Jabari Zuniga. Both are more 5-tech than LEO. Schneider loves talking about ledges of talent and both were in a lower tier to that of Taylor. Greenard went at pick No. 90 to the Texans an Zuniga went at pick No. 79 to the New York Jets. Further, the Seahawks did not have a pick in this range after getting Taylor.
You’ll also notice that both Penn State’s Yetur Gross-Matos and Iowa’s A.J. Epenesa did not make the SIS list. The pair of pass rushers were highly coveted by a lot of Seahawks fans. Asides from both not making that pressure percentage top 10, both were more 5-tech types. Fifth round Seattle pick Alton Robinson had a 13 percent pressure percentage in 2019, higher than Gross-Matos’ 12 percent and Epenesa’s 11 percent.
(Manocherian, M., ed.SIS Football Rookie Handbook 2020 (ACTA Sports, 2020) p.376)
(Manocherian, M., ed.SIS Football Rookie Handbook 2020 (ACTA Sports, 2020) p.350)
(Manocherian, M., ed.SIS Football Rookie Handbook 2020 (ACTA Sports, 2020) p.354)
So it's fair to say that in Taylor, the Seahawks added the best possible every-down, NFL-ready LEO option in terms of pressure percentage. Our own Corbin Smith will have a full film breakdown out soon, but the traits are obvious: Taylor has genuine bend, ankle flexion, and speed-to-power. He dips, rips, and long-arm stabs. Most importantly, he can rush the passer, getting 8.5 sacks despite injury.
And Seattle got this 17 percent pressure percentage player in the second round. That’s a massively exciting steal that Schneider himself recognized in the aftermath: “Who knows if he’s healthy this year where we’re talking about drafting him.” The Seahawks got their guy.
Permission to use the Sports Info Solutions data was granted by the SIS Vice President of Football & Research Matt Manocherian on April 21st 2020. You can purchase “The SIS Football Rookie Handbook 2020” here. It’s a fantastic read full of data, articles and NFL-level scouting reports. ACTA Sports is offering a 50% discount at the time of writing. Follow SIS on twitter here and Matt here.