Throughout the first half of the 2020 season, the Seahawks struggled to generate consistent pressure on opposing quarterbacks without sending extra defenders on the blitz. Through the first six games of the season, they had only nine sacks as a team, which ranked 23rd in the NFL at the time, and safety Jamal Adams remained tied for the team lead despite missing the previous three games due to injury.
These issues came to a head during a 37-34 loss to Arizona at State Farm Stadium in Week 7, as the defense didn't register a single quarterback hit against Kyler Murray in four-plus quarters of play. The inability to make the young signal caller uncomfortable played a key role in Seattle eventually choking away a 10-point lead late in regulation and losing during the extra period.
Coming out of that disappointing divisional defeat, general manager John Schneider knew he needed to make a move. Veteran Bruce Irvin had been lost for the season to an ACL tear in Week 2, second-round pick Darrell Taylor wasn't anywhere close to making his debut as he continued his lengthy recovery from leg surgery, and starter Benson Mayowa was now nursing a high ankle sprain that would likely sideline him for several weeks. Reinforcements weren't coming from in-house for the Seahawks.
Once again proving why his name belongs among the best in the business, Schneider stole disgruntled defensive end Carlos Dunlap, who had seen diminished playing time in his 11th season, from the rebuilding Bengals for a seventh-round pick and backup center B.J. Finney.
Two weeks later, Dunlap made his Seattle debut in Orchard Park, and while the defense surrendered 44 points in a loss to Buffalo, the veteran's presence brought a once-dormant pass rush to life. The Seahawks amassed seven sacks on Josh Allen, including one from Dunlap him, tying for the second-most sacks in a game during the Pete Carroll era.
Over the final six games of the season, with Dunlap playing a starring role generating four of them on his own accord, only the Cardinals produced more sacks as a team than the Seahawks. As a result of the much-improved rush, the team finished in the top six in passing yards allowed, opposing quarterback rating, and passing touchdowns allowed as the team finished 5-1 down the stretch to capture an NFC West title.
While the Dunlap trade helped Seattle's entire defensive line as a whole, nobody reaped the rewards from his arrival more than Jarran Reed. Prior to the deal, the veteran defensive tackle had produced only one sack and two quarterback hits through the first seven games of the season.
But Reed immediately elevated his pass rushing game once Dunlap entered the lineup, starting with a two-sack performance against the Bills. Over the final nine games, he racked up 5.5 sacks, 12 quarterback hits, and 26 quarterback pressures, re-emerging as the player who broke out with 10.5 sacks tag-teaming with edge rusher Frank Clark during the 2018 season.
Between the two of them, functioning as the new "Batman and Robin" in the Pacific Northwest, Dunlap and Reed amassed 10.5 sacks, 26 quarterback hits, and 57 combined pressures over the final nine weeks of the season. In a full 16-game season, both players would have been on pace for double digit sacks and more than 50 quarterback hits.
With the offseason now in full force, however, it's worth wondering if the Seahawks will actually be able to see Dunlap and Reed play an entire season together.
Like the rest of the league, as a direct consequence of minimal fan attendance during the 2020 season, the Seahawks find themselves in a very difficult financial predicament. Currently, the franchise has barely over a million dollars in effective cap space to spend heading into free agency. Making matters worse, they have only four draft picks to help supplement the roster with young, inexpensive talent.
Tough decisions aplenty await Schneider in coming weeks, including deciding whether or not Dunlap and/or Reed will be part of future plans. Both players have one year left under contract and carry expensive cap hits hovering around $14 million, price points the organization most certainly can't afford right now.
If Seattle wants to keep both players, Schneider does have avenues he can take to make it happen. He could negotiate extensions with each player that ultimately lower cap hits for 2020, providing financial relief in the present while ensuring they will be on the roster next season at minimum. This would push larger cap hits into future years added by the extension.
There's also the possibility Schneider could extend Dunlap or Reed and keep the other on his current contract, though retaining either player at his current salary would not be ideal.
While it's plausible Dunlap and Reed could both be extended, given the Seahawks needs at other positional groups and limited cap space, it seems more likely that they will be forced to choose between the two of them.
If Seattle can only keep Dunlap or Reed, which one makes the most sense to let walk? Such a choice may be the toughest call Schneider has to make this offseason, as both players were critical contributors to the team's defensive revival last season.
Though he's a couple years older than Reed and will turn 32 later this month, Dunlap plays a more prioritized position in today's NFL rushing off the edge. Offering great size, length, and a relentless motor, he has the tools to continue playing at a high level well into his 30s. Considering his performance in eight games for the Seahawks and his presence as a catalyst for awakening the team's pass rush, retaining him would seem like a no-brainer.
But if there's a reason why Schneider may opt to move on from Dunlap, it boils down to financials more than anything. He doesn't have any guaranteed money on the final year of his contract and releasing or trading him would instantly create $14 million in cap relief without a dead cap hit. If he didn't receive other substantial offers, he could be re-signed on a more team-friendly deal.
The Seahawks also hope to have Taylor back healthy along with Alton Robinson, giving the team two young budding pass rushers to build around at the LEO defensive end spot. At a cheaper price than Dunlap, Mayowa could be re-signed as well to ensure the team still has a veteran presence at the position.
As for Reed, who just turned 28 in December, removing his contract from Seattle's books would not be quite as beneficial for the team. While jettisoning him would open up more than $8 million in cap space, the team would also absorb a $5 million dead cap hit if he's cut or traded to another team. It's possible he would be the more affordable option to extend given his position and with fellow starter Poona Ford approaching free agency himself, there would be some risk moving on from him.
However, an argument can be made Reed's pass rushing value is more reliant on the talent around him than Dunlap. When he has had players such as Dunlap and Clark wreaking havoc off the edge next to him, it has created better opportunities for him to collapse the pocket and record sacks and quarterback hits. When he didn't have either player to complement him in 2019, while other factors such as a suspension contributed to his poor season, he only had a pair of sacks in 10 games.
It's also worth noting that defensive line coach Clint Hurtt has excelled at developing defensive tackles in recent years. Ford and Bryan Mone both have taken on significant roles after entering the league as undrafted free agents and after impressing in his NFL debut against the Rams in the postseason, Cedrick Lattimore could be the next undrafted player to make an impact in the trenches. This depth coupled with quality coaching could make Reed expendable.
Schneider will have to weigh all of these factors when determining who he plans to retain and who he plans to let walk. In a perfect world, he would be able to lock up Dunlap and Reed for the foreseeable future to solidify a defensive line that has been a chronic problem for the Seahawks, particularly from a pass rushing perspective.
Nonetheless, in large part due to the wide-reaching consequences of the pandemic, this is far from the perfect time to be in charge of building an NFL roster and managing a salary cap. When it's all said and done, it wouldn't be a surprise at all to see one of these star players sporting another uniform in 2021. The million dollar question is: which one will it be?