Seahawks Position Preview: Defensive Ends
Prior to the start of the 2019 season, Seahawks general manager John Schneider made one of his patented "splash" trades, sending a third-round pick and two reserve linebackers to the Texans for former No. 1 overall pick Jadeveon Clowney.
With the addition of Clowney as well as the signing of former Pro Bowler Ziggy Ansah, Seattle expected to maintain a strong pass rush even after trading away Frank Clark prior to the 2019 NFL Draft. Once Jarran Reed returned from a suspension in Week 7, the front line would be even better pressuring opposing quarterbacks.
Unfortunately, while Clowney proved to be far more disruptive than his meager sack numbers suggest, neither he or Ansah provided the pass rushing help the Seahawks hoped they would. With both players battling injuries, the duo of veteran edge defenders combined to produce 5.5 sacks. Meanwhile, Reed struggled to rediscover his 2018 form upon his return, finishing with just a pair of sacks in 10 games.
As a result of the underwhelming production by all three players, Seattle finished next-to-last in the NFL in sacks. After Rasheem Green led the team with just 4.0 sacks, the organization was expected to take an aggressive approach this offseason, including re-signing Clowney.
But five months after the start of free agency, Clowney remains unsigned. Several other quality rushers were swept off the market quickly. Instead, the Seahawks brought back veterans Bruce Irvin and Benson Mayowa on affordable one-year deals and used two draft choices on Darrell Taylor and Alton Robinson in April, forming a group coach Pete Carroll has far more confidence in than most experts and fans do.
Even without Clowney, could Seattle's defensive end group improve with better depth? Let's take a look at the expected group for the regular season, a potential wild card to watch, best/worst case scenarios, and projections.
Without Clowney and Ansah, Mayowa and Irvin will likely compete for the starting LEO defensive end spot, while Green and Collier will vie for snaps at the base defensive end spot replacing departed starter Quinton Jefferson. Taylor and Robinson both project as athletic LEO prospects with eventual starting potential and returning veteran Branden Jackson will provide much-needed depth at the 5-tech position after recently being re-signed by the Seahawks. In obvious passing situations, speedy linebacker Shaquem Griffin could also see snaps rushing off the edge as he did during the second half of the 2019 season.
It's strange to put first-round pick and "wild card" in the same sentence, but coming off a disappointing season with just three tackles, Collier fits the bill for Seattle along the defensive line. Though he lacks elite athletic tools for an NFL defensive end, at 290-plus pounds, he's a sound run defender setting anchor at the edge and has a surprisingly effective array of counter moves at his disposal as a rusher. He wasn't able to display that refined hand technique often last year while seeing less than 200 defensive snaps, but assuming he avoids injury this time around, he will have an excellent chance to play significant snaps both at the 5-tech position and reduced inside to defensive tackle on passing downs.
Entering his prime at 28 years of age, Mayowa emerges as a legitimate starting NFL defensive end, posting double-digit sacks for the first time in his career while starring in the LEO role. On the opposite side, Green busts out after a promising second season and pushes for a Pro Bowl nod. Behind him, Collier makes major strides in a reserve gig, giving Seattle two promising base defensive ends to compliment one another defending the run and the pass. Splitting time between SAM linebacker and LEO, Irvin generates a handful of sacks and forces several fumbles, while Taylor earns more snaps as the season progresses. The second-round pick becomes a key component of the pass rush heading towards the playoffs, setting himself up to be a long-term starter for the Seahawks in 2021 and beyond.
Somehow, the Seahawks are even less productive and efficient chasing down opposing quarterbacks compared to 2019, as neither Mayowa or Irvin come close to matching their career-highs in sacks from a year ago. Green's development stalls from a year ago and Collier again fails to impress in limited opportunities despite being healthy, further solidifying his status as a first-round "bust." Without OTAs, minicamps, or preseason games to receive invaluable playing time prior to the regular season, Taylor and Robinson struggle to find the field throughout their rookie seasons and combine to play less than 450 total defensive snaps. Meanwhile, Clowney signs with the Titans in training camp, produces a career-high in sacks for the AFC South champion, and helps guide them to a surprise Super Bowl run, immediately making the Seahawks regret their decision not to re-sign him.
Without Clowney or adding another quality veteran such as Everson Griffen or Clay Matthews, the Seahawks lack star power at the defensive end position. However, production-wise, the decision to re-sign Irvin and Mayowa should automatically boost the team's sack and pressure numbers. There may not be one player on the roster capable of posting 10 or more sacks this season, but Irvin has surpassed 8.0 sacks three times, while Mayowa posted 7.0 sacks in less than 30 percent of Oakland's snaps a year ago. It's not unrealistic to expect both players to be in the same ballpark in 2020. If a couple of youngsters such as Taylor, Green, or Collier can make a sizable leap forward to produce five or six sacks and the veterans perform as anticipated, a more athletic unit with improved depth should have no trouble improving to the middle of the pack in the NFL and surpassing the 28-sack mark of a year ago.