Following a long offseason - okay, compared to the nightmare that was 2020, the past several months have been a breeze - the Seahawks will officially usher in the 2021 season by reporting to training camp on July 27.
Continuing our camp preview series, here's a close look at the state of the defensive tackle position, including the depth chart, a key question that must be answered, and a bold prediction for the upcoming season.
2020 In Review
Like the rest of Seattle's defensive line, the duo of Reed and Ford started slow in the pass rushing department. During the first eight games, the pair generated only one sack and four quarterback hits combined. But both players were stout against the run, helping the Seahawks boast a top-five rushing defense throughout the course of the season. Massive defensive tackle Bryan Mone also pitched in to the effort, holding serve at the nose tackle position. Following the arrival of defensive end Carlos Dunlap, Reed and Ford found their respective grooves harassing quarterbacks as well, with the former producing 7.5 sacks in the final nine games and the latter producing most of his career-high 28 pressures during that span.
Seattle hoped to reach a contract resolution with Reed, offering him a restructured deal with a void year tacked onto his contract to lower his cap hit for 2021. Unfortunately, he wanted a long-term extension and rebuffed the offer, eventually leading to his release. He subsequently signed with the Chiefs and the team worked swiftly to re-sign veteran Al Woods as a replacement while also taking a flier on former Cardinals first-round pick Robert Nkemdiche.
Starters: Poona Ford, Bryan Mone
During his first two NFL seasons, Ford rightfully earned a reputation as one of the league's best run defending tackles starring alongside Reed. But heading into 2020, he had yet to show much as a pass rusher with 0.5 sacks and five quarterback hits to his name. With more reps at the 3-tech position last year, however, he turned the corner in that aspect of his game and set new career-highs in sacks, quarterback hits, and quarterback pressures. Replacing Reed as the starting 3-tech moving forward, he should continue to emerge as a viable interior rusher for Seattle.
After playing in only four games as a rookie, Mone took on a far more significant role in his sophomore season, setting the stage for him to vault into the starting lineup in 2021. The 345-pound nose tackle made several big plays early in the season, including stuffing Cowboys star running back Ezekiel Elliott in the end zone for a safety in Week 3. A high ankle sprain cost him six games on injured reserve, but he returned late in the regular season to provide the team with a boost in the middle, finishing the year with nine tackles, 0.5 sacks, and a pair of quarterback hits.
Reserves: Al Woods, Robert Nkemdiche, Cedrick Lattimore, Jarrod Hewitt, Myles Adams
Though Woods hasn't played for the Seahawks since 2019, he actually played his last NFL snap for the team. As one of a handful of veterans who opted out of the 2020 season due to the pandemic, he never logged a single snap for the Jaguars after signing a one-year contract. Seattle will be hoping the 34-year old veteran still has something left in the tank and can come close to replicating his 2019 production when he contributed 32 tackles, three tackles for loss, and a pair of fumble recoveries in 14 games.
Signed off the free agent scrap heap after not playing at all in 2020, Nkemdiche impressed during OTAs and mandatory minicamp. The former first-round selection out of Ole Miss has always possessed elite athletic traits at 300 pounds, but injuries and work ethic concerns have prevented him from reaching his potential. With last year being a wake-up call for him, this could be his last shot to make it in the league and the Seahawks will be banking on his strong offseason program translating to camp and the preseason.
Filling out the depth chart, the 6-foot-3, 300-pound Lattimore impressed in his NFL debut last January, posting six tackles in a wild card loss to the Rams. The former Iowa standout will battle against Nkemdiche, Adams, and Hewitt, an undrafted rookie out of Virginia Tech, for a reserve 3-tech spot behind Ford.
Aside from Ford, which other players will help fill the void created by Reed's exit?
Signed to a new two-year extension in March, Ford has been a popular pick to make his first Pro Bowl in 2021 and expectations couldn't be higher for the former Texas standout. But even if he makes a big jump in the pass rushing department, the Seahawks will need other players to help make up for Reed's departure.
In terms of intrigue, Nkemdiche offers the most upside of any player on the depth chart. He ran a sub-4.90 second 40-yard dash coming out of Ole Miss at nearly 300 pounds and has the quickness to create major problems for guards as a pass rusher. Those traits haven't translated to production in the NFL, however, so any contributions from him should be viewed as icing on the cake.
Though lacking the elite traits of Nkemdiche, Lattimore previously starred on the hardwood as a basketball player and isn't an athletic slouch either. The organization remains high on him after he spent his whole rookie season on the practice squad and if he takes a significant step forward as a rusher, he could have the inside track to a reserve 3-tech role rotating in behind Ford.
Out of all the candidates vying for a roster spot, Hewitt may be the biggest sleeper of the bunch. While undersized at 290 pounds, he racked up 9.5 sacks in his final two seasons with the Hokies and he offers surprising quickness shooting and penetrating gaps. If he's able to create consistent pressure in camp and preseason games, he will be squarely in the mix for one of the final spots on the depth chart.
Finally hitting his stride, Nkemdiche will surprise with 5.0 sacks and double-digit quarterback hits rotating in with Ford.
Given his prior track record, jumping on the Nkemdiche hype train has proven to be a disaster in the past and there's no guarantee his offseason success will translate to actual training camp practices. The train could definitely fly off the rails again. But he's still only 26 years old and his physical tools remain just as tantalizing as they did when he first broke into the NFL in 2016. Defensive line coach Clint Hurtt has been instrumental in the development of undrafted players such as Ford and Mone since joining the staff in 2017 and if he's able to reach an uber-talented player of Nkemdiche's caliber, the potential is there for him to be a legitimate difference maker rushing from inside for the Seahawks.