RENTON, WA - Upon his arrival in a midseason trade from the Bengals last October, Carlos Dunlap played the starring role in transforming the Seahawks' dormant pass rush into a formidable unit overnight, helping a historically bad defense turn the corner in route to winning an eventual NFC West title.
The scary thing? With a new contract in tow, most of the team's key contributors off the edge returning, and a stronger supporting cast around him, Dunlap believes he's never been around a more experienced, talented defensive end group than the one Seattle has assembled heading into the 2021 season.
"I think we've got the most experienced depth at our position," Dunlap told reporters following Wednesday's first training camp practice. "Normally, it's young players who are aspiring to be starters. But no, we have starters who are coming in and taking on roles, so it's going to be interesting. Day one was a good start."
Before Dunlap put on his No. 43 jersey for the first time last November, the Seahawks ranked 22nd in the NFL with just 12.0 sacks. This number was also a bit misleading assessing the team's putrid pass rush, as safety Jamal Adams and linebacker Bobby Wagner were tied for the team lead with a pair of sacks apiece, illustrating their reliance on blitzing to help compensate for a struggling defensive line. Further magnifying their issues, Adams had missed the previous four games with a groin injury.
But once Dunlap broke into the lineup in Buffalo in Week 8 and provided a quality No. 1 edge rushing option, everything changed. Though the Seahawks allowed 44 points - the most ever in a single game during coach Pete Carroll's 11 seasons at the helm - they sacked Josh Allen seven times, nearly equaling their prior season total. With the rest of the line stepping up their respective games harassing quarterbacks and Adams returning to wreak havoc, they led the league with a whopping 34 sacks during the final nine games.
For a brief while, despite his obvious game-changing impact to close out the season, Dunlap coming back to Seattle was far from guaranteed. Desperate for salary cap space, the team released him in early March to save more than $13 million, allowing the two-time Pro Bowler to hit the market.
At the time, Dunlap wasn't necessarily thrilled about the circumstances. A barrage of text messages from friends and family didn't help matters. But he understood Seattle's business decision and respected the front office for being up front with him about everything.
"That's one of the things I love here, it's very clear communication," Dunlap said. "What we're doing, what they expect of you. They try to get to know you as a person and how they can help you get better as man because they know making you a better man makes you a better player. It's an all-encompassing approach."
Sure enough, after exploring other possibilities, the market shaped up favorably for the Seahawks to be able to re-sign Dunlap with other teams tending to avoid paying older pass rushers with the depressed salary cap. Thrilled to stay in the Pacific Northwest with an organization and fan base that welcomed him with open arms last fall, he agreed to terms on new two-year deal, and he wasn't the only veteran pass rusher set to return for the upcoming season.
Along with locking up Dunlap, Seattle also retained athletic rusher Benson Mayowa, who produced 4.0 sacks in six games to close out the season, to a two-year deal of his own. The team then promptly signed veterans Kerry Hyder and Aldon Smith to two and one-year deals respectively, further bolstering their edge rush with experienced, versatile talent.
Even in the interior, despite losing Jarran Reed to the Chiefs, the Seahawks also have plenty of intriguing rushing options. Poona Ford contributed a career-high 28 quarterback pressures last season, while Dunlap highlighted Robert Nkemdiche as a reclamation project who could help fill the void left by Reed's departure if he can "reel it in" after being out of the league in 2020.
"I've never had an experienced group like this with this many sacks under their belt," Dunlap remarked. "Typically, I've been the lead dog, but playing with a guy like Aldon [Smith] who has led the league [in sacks] multiple times, having a guy like Kerry [Hyder], having young Poona [Ford] who's hot. We've got a lot of young players and a good mix from a variety of positions and a lot of depth."
The Seahawks also expect Darrell Taylor, their 2020 second-round draft choice who missed all of last season recovering from surgery to repair a stress fracture, to be in the mix for snaps rushing off the edge. During the team's offseason program, he saw action both at strongside linebacker and defensive end and could play a Bruce Irvin-type hybrid role.
While he admitted he has much to learn after not being able to play as a rookie, Dunlap has been blown away by what he's seen from a healthy Taylor thus far and expects him to make a splash, adding to Seattle's surplus of rushing talent.
"Wow, that guy is very explosive," Dunlap commented. "I think he came in in really good shape, he looks like he's excited to explode off the tape. I just want to polish the things he don't know because he's clearly intangibles and attributes to play in this league. Football is 90 percent mental, so I'm trying to give him all the mental information I can to help him speed up the curve from missing last year."
Looking at the group as a whole, the Seahawks may have the best depth and versatility they have had at the defensive end position since Michael Bennett and Cliff Avril were leading the way from 2013 to 2017.
At the base end spot, Hyder, L.J. Collier,. and Rasheem Green provide Seattle with three big-bodied ends capable of stuffing the run while offering rushing ability lined up at multiple spots along the defensive line. The trio of players have all drawn comparisons to Bennett as players who can reduce inside and do damage at the 3-tech position.
As for the LEO spot, Dunlap will resume his role as a starter, but he shouldn't have to worry about shouldering the load in his 12th NFL season. With Mayowa, Alton Robinson, Taylor, and Smith all vying for snaps at the position, Seattle has a treasure chest of talent to rotate in and out of the lineup, which should allow everyone to stay fresh late into games. If anything, trying to keep everyone happy may be the biggest challenge.
With so many capable rushers, especially if Smith remains eligible to play as he awaits his arraignment for alleged second degree battery charges in Louisiana and Taylor works his way into the rotation, the coaching staff may even face a dilemma deciding which players to keep on the 53-man roster. Keeping eight defensive ends on the roster may not be a tenable situation come final cut day.
But considering the struggles the Seahawks endured pressuring quarterbacks in recent years, it's a good problem to have. With Dunlap headlining a vast array of rushers offering different skill sets and a unique blend of experience and upside, what was once the team's most glaring flaw may now be one of their greatest strengths, which could be bad news for the rest of the NFC.