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Seahawks 2021 Offseason Position Preview: Defensive End

Depending on what happens with Carlos Dunlap, defensive end could be one of the Seahawks' greatest strengths or one of their biggest needs going into the offseason. We preview how things could shake out on the edge for Seattle over the coming months.

Now that we’ve gone through each position along the Seahawks’ offense, it’s time to switch sides of the ball in our offseason position preview series.

Starting at defensive end, Seattle’s group of edge pieces was under a great deal of scrutiny in 2020. After finishing the 2019 season with just 28.0 sacks and the second-to-last Pro Football Focus pass-rush grade of 61.8, the team desperately needed to improve at the spot last offseason.

Although they lost Jadeveon Clowney to the Titans and Quinton Jefferson to the Bills, the Seahawks were able to make themselves a bit deeper on the edge by reuniting with Benson Mayowa and former first-round selection Bruce Irvin, as well as trading up in the draft to take Tennessee pass-rusher Darrell Taylor in the second round. However, none of these players were the elite, game-changing talent the team’s fan base was pounding the table for.

And with Irvin tearing his ACL in Week 2 and Taylor never playing a single snap for the team in 2020, fears of an ineffective pass-rush became reality and the defense as a whole struggled mightily. The lack of a “top dog” in the unit was quite apparent, so the Seahawks went out onto the trade market and got one from the Bengals: Carlos Dunlap.

As the team got healthier and Dunlap became more comfortable in his new situation, Seattle’s historically poor defense righted the ship and looked to be at least average or better in the second half of the season. Not to say their pass-rush necessarily became a strength of theirs down the line, but it was certainly improved and Dunlap’s presence created more opportunities for his teammates. They needed that crutch to lean on and that’s what the 11-year NFL veteran provided.

But the momentum the group built before the Seahawks were unexpectedly bounced from the playoffs early on may come to a crashing halt this offseason. As always, it’s time to look at what we know, what we don’t know, and what to expect with free agency and the like right around the corner.

What We Know

For as much as Dunlap helped the Seahawks in the second half of 2020, he and his $14 million cap hit may be far too rich for a team that’s going to be right up against the salary cap this year. It’s not necessarily a guarantee Dunlap is gone if Seattle can’t find a way to lower that number, and they certainly have other options to free up some space, but they could find themselves in a very similar position to where they were this time last year if they do decide to move on.

The Seahawks have five edge players set to hit free agency next month: Irvin, Mayowa, Branden Jackson, Damontre Moore, and Jonathan Bullard. Irvin has previously stated that if he doesn’t return to the Seahawks this offseason, he’ll retire; Mayowa posted 6.0 sacks and lived up to expectations as a solid rotational pass-rusher; Jackson is a favorite of Seattle’s coaching staff but unfortunately saw his season - and possibly career - abruptly end after suffering a scary head injury with spinal implications in one of the team’s mock games last August; Moore is coming off a season in which he served a six-game suspension for violating the NFL’s performance-enhancing drug policy; and Bullard had little-to-no impact in his six appearances in 2020.

Rasheem Green is entering the final year of his contract and while he’s flashed at times, he’s yet to make the kind of consistent impact coach Pete Carroll and general manager John Schneider believed they would get when they used a third-round selection on him in 2018. Although L.J. Collier had some key moments in 2020 such as stopping Patriots quarterback Cam Newton on a fourth down stand at the goal line to defeat New England in Week 2, he has also fallen well short of the expectations placed upon him as a former first-round pick. Both he and Green have played inside and outside for the Seahawks and while they will likely never be incredibly effective pass-rushers in their careers, the lack of production thus far is concerning.

Right now, second-year man Alton Robinson may be the team’s best pass-rushing option behind Dunlap. In his rookie season, Robinson saw a fluctuating amount of opportunities to contribute and finished the year with just 4.0 sacks despite posting a higher PFF pass-rush grade than Dunlap.

In all, the Seahawks should feel pretty good about the depth they have with the quintet of Dunlap, Robinson, Collier, Green, and a presumably healthy Taylor. But if you take Dunlap out of that equation, things begin to look a lot different.

What We Don’t Know

Again, Dunlap is the big question mark here. If they cut or trade him, the Seahawks would free up all $14 million that’s currently allotted to him. That’ll be rather enticing to them given their current salary cap situation, though it would add yet another hole to fill on their laundry list of objectives this offseason. An extension or some sort of restructure would seem to be the most beneficial outcome from this, especially when trading Dunlap would only net a late-round pick that has an incredibly high chance of turning into virtually nothing of worth.

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If Dunlap departs, where does that leave the Seahawks? What are they going to do with that $14 million in cap space? Will it be put back into their defensive end position or spread around the roster to help fill other needs? Seattle could certainly find a way to emulate Dunlap’s production with a pair of veteran signings on the cheaper side, but that’s far easier said than done.

One thing to consider here is the draft. With just four picks as of now, there seems to be this growing confidence amongst fans and pundits that the Seahakws are going to use their limited capital on more pressing needs such as the offensive line, cornerback, and receiver. But don’t be surprised if one of their higher selections ends up being another pass-rusher, especially if Dunlap is gone by then. All of that also depends on what happens in free agency beforehand, which is impossible to predict when considering how many variables there are to the Seahawks’ current situation.

What to Expect

This is the hardest position to preview of this entire series thus far because it all really hinges on the fate of one player. If Dunlap stays, then that’s their guy at the top whom they’ll build some depth behind. If not, they’ll have another key position on their roster in need of a significant overhaul.

Even if Robinson improves with more game action and Taylor is able to return to full health, that’s a lot to place upon two young edges on a team with Super Bowl aspirations. Of course, the Seahawks would ultimately find a way to get deeper at the position, though they’ve seen first-hand how not having a high-caliber pass-rusher at the top of their depth chart can negatively impact their entire defense and vice-versa.

On one hand, this could be one of the more uneventful positions of the offseason with a couple of smaller moves sprinkled in such as re-signing Mayowa and/or taking another prospect in the draft. On the other, it could become their biggest need of the offseason as it was last year. Personally speaking, they need to find a way to avoid the latter.

Seahawks Offseason Position Previews

Quarterback

Running Back

Wide Receiver

Tight End

Offensive Line

Defensive Tackle

Linebacker