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 end position, including the depth chart, a key question that must be answered, and a bold prediction for the upcoming season.
2020 In Review
Out of the gate, the Seahawks lacked much of a punch rushing the passer off the edge. Veteran Benson Mayowa was the only defensive end with multiple sacks in the first seven games of the season, leaving safety Jamal Adams as the team leader despite missing four games with groin injury. But after getting just one hit on Kyler Murray in a Week 7 loss to the Cardinals, the team acquired Carlos Dunlap from the Bengals and his presence immediately transformed one of the NFL's most anemic pass rushes into a formidable one. After he made his debut, Seattle finished with more sacks than any other team in the league over the final nine regular season games, which played a vital role in the defense's remarkable second half revival.
Choosing not to rest on their laurels after a strong finish, the Seahawks didn't stop at simply re-signing Dunlap and Mayowa in free agency. To further bolster their edge rush and run defense, the team invested a two-year contract in former 49ers starter Kerry Hyder and also took a one-year flier on veteran Aldon Smith, who they tried to trade for last October. The two players combined for 13.5 sacks in 2020 and offer the versatility to play multiple positions.
Starters: Carlos Dunlap, L.J. Collier
With teams league-wide bypassing older veterans for the most part in free agency due to a lowered salary-cap, the 32-year old Dunlap returned to Seattle on a more team-friendly two-year deal and he will be looking to pick up where he left off. Galvanizing the Seahawks defensive line as a whole, he produced 5.0 sacks and 14 quarterback hits in eight regular season games. A foot injury slowed him down a bit late in the season, but he should be 100 percent healthy when camp opens and ready to resume his role as the team's premier edge defender.
After an ankle injury set him back tremendously during his rookie season, Collier quietly had a solid second year while starting all 16 games, recording 22 tackles, 3.0 sacks, and seven quarterback hits while coming through with several clutch plays in the process. The former first-round pick will have to fend off new competition this year to retain his starting role, however, as Kerry Hyder's arrival from San Francisco should create an intriguing training camp battle to start at the base end spot. Regardless of whether retains the job or not, he should get significant snaps playing at the 3-tech role inside.
Reserves: Kerry Hyder, Benson Mayowa, Alton Robinson, Rasheem Green, Aldon Smith
A versatile veteran who can play multiple spots along the defensive line, including reducing inside to defensive tackle, Hyder stepped up when injuries struck for the 49ers last season, pitching in 8.5 sacks while starting a career-high 14 games. At 270 pounds, he offsets average athletic ability with stellar hand technique and a relentless motor, using those traits to find his way into the backfield to harass opposing quarterbacks. He will push Collier for a starting role and even if he's a rotational reserve, he should be a major factor for Seattle's front line and will see plenty of action.
Returning to Seattle after several seasons in Dallas, Oakland, and Arizona, Mayowa opened the 2020 season as a starter at the LEO defensive end spot but struggled playing more than 60 percent of the snaps. Once he reverted to a rotational role behind Dunlap, he turned in a fine second half, racking up 4.0 sacks in the Seahawks final six games. The twitchy edge rusher will compete against Robinson, who surprised with 4.0 sacks as a rookie, for the backup LEO job during camp. Darrell Taylor may also factor into playing time at the position, but he's expected to be the favorite to win the strongside linebacker gig.
Still just 24 years old, Green remains a potential breakout player capable of playing both end positions and reducing inside. Injuries and inconsistent play have dogged him in his first three years, however, and he has much left to prove to earn a bigger role in the team's line rotation. After making a stunning comeback with the Cowboys in 2020, Smith remains a wild card as he has yet to be arraigned following an April arrest in Louisiana and his eligibility for the season is unknown.
With so much depth amassed at the position, which talented player could wind up being the odd man out?
The Seahawks will open camp with the most depth and talent they have had at the defensive end position since Michael Bennett, Cliff Avril, and a young Frank Clark were still together in 2017. While that's a good problem to have, it will make it difficult to keep seven or eight players at the position group, depending on whether or not Smith receives clearance to play. As a result, even considering their youth and upside, Green and Robinson stand out as the candidates most likely in jeopardy of losing their roster spot.
While Green has flashed at times and enjoyed a solid second season leading the team in sacks, he has not been able to stay healthy and injuries have stalled his progress. When he was healthy last year, aside from a few decent games in December, he was a relative non-factor. Now in the final year of his contract, the 2018 third-round pick out of USC has plenty of pressure on him to prove his worth and if he doesn't turn in a stellar training camp and preseason, he could be on the outside looking in.
With three years left on his contract at an affordable rate as a fifth-round selection, the Seahawks may be more inclined to keep Robinson, who produced as many sacks as a rookie as Green has in any of his three seasons. He also performed well against the run in limited action and at 270 pounds, he has the versatility to play both end spots. But like Green, he will have to earn his spot and nothing will be guaranteed, especially if Smith reports to camp and performs well.
Splitting reps at base end and playing significant snaps at defensive tackle on passing downs, Collier and Hyde will combine to produce at least 12.0 sacks.
On the surface, this may not seem like a "bold" prediction, as the two players combined to produce 11.5 sacks last season. But after playing a career-high 721 snaps in 2020, Hyder figures to see a reduction in overall playing given the depth around him, which could limit his chances to generate sacks. If he only sees the field for around 450 snaps, replicating his production from a year ago will be a major challenge. On the flip side, Collier should see a similar workload to a year ago when he generated 17 pressures and a trio of sacks. It's not out of the question he could turn a few more of those pressures into sacks, especially if he's mostly playing inside where his athleticism serves as a greater advantage working against guards. With Dunlap, Taylor, Mayowa, and others turning up the heat on the outside, the opportunities should be there for both players to make their share of plays as rushers and a dozen sacks should be an attainable goal collectively.