On the journey to the first and only Super Bowl victory in franchise history back in 2013, the Seahawks were led by a historically dominant defense that allowed a paltry 14.4 points per game. It marked the first of four consecutive seasons they would finish first in the NFL in scoring defense.
During this period of dominance, Seattle's vaunted "Legion of Boom" secondary received the bulk of the acclaim. The unit featured three All-Pro talents in cornerback Richard Sherman as well as safeties Earl Thomas and Kam Chancellor. The players around these superstars weren't slouches either, as veteran Brandon Browner had been a Pro Bowler only two years earlier and rising young cornerback Byron Maxwell had four interceptions primarily in a reserve role that season.
The Seahawks were also stacked at linebacker, as future Hall of Famer Bobby Wagner played alongside the ever-so-reliable K.J. Wright, former first-round pick Bruce Irvin, and eventual Super Bowl XLVIII MVP Malcolm Smith. Behind them, Heath Farwell and Mike Morgan were outstanding special teams contributors.
But while the group didn't receive near the fanfare that the secondary or linebacker unit did, a vastly underrated defensive line served as the backbone of those elite Seahawk defenses. This was particularly true during the 2013 season when the team boasted incredible depth at defensive end as well as defensive tackle.
During the prior offseason, taking advantage of a favorable free agent market, the Seahawks signed defensive ends Cliff Avril and Michael Bennett to affordable one-year contracts. The duo combined to produce 16.5 sacks in their first seasons with the organization, eventually agreeing to new contracts to stay in Seattle.
Along with the additions of Avril and Bennett, veteran Chris Clemons returned from a torn ACL and though he started 11 games, he largely was used in a rotational role with 4.5 sacks and 10 quarterback hits. At the base end spot, massive run stuffer Red Bryant produced 30 tackles and added 1.5 sacks and four quarterback hits.
In the interior, Brandon Mebane remained an immovable force next to veteran Tony McDaniel, fortifying one of the toughest front lines to run against. Meanwhile, journeyman Clinton McDonald broke out and finished with a career-high 5.0 sacks and 14 quarterback hits despite starting only one game. Rookie Jordan Hill also contributed in limited snaps with 1.5 sacks in just four games.
While it's way, way too early to know how the 2021 Seahawks will stack up against that sensational defensive line group, general manager John Schneider has once again taken advantage of a depressed market to build a front line that gives off legitimate 2013 vibes.
Yes, the Seahawks will take a significant hit by trading or releasing Jarran Reed. The sixth-year defensive tackle tweeted goodbye to fans on March 25, indicating he would be "moving on to the next chapter" soon. After producing at least 6.5 sacks in two of the past three seasons, replacing his production could prove difficult.
But even without Reed, the Seahawks have no shortage of capable players to do the dirty work in the trenches. Already lauded for his run stuffing prowess, Poona Ford recently received a two-year extension and after posting a career-best 28 quarterback pressures in 2020, he could bust out as an interior pass rusher next season. Bryan Mone, a 345-pound behemoth, impressed at nose tackle and will be entering just his third season with a lot of room to improve.
Away from Ford and Mone, who should be the expected starters minus Reed, former first-round pick L.J. Collier played nearly 200 snaps reduced inside last season and could see more action at the 3-tech position after the team signed veteran defensive end Kerry Hyder. Rasheem Green also has the size and length to play inside on passing downs, while the organization has high hopes for second-year player Cedrick Lattimore.
Where Seahawk fans should be most excited, however, lies at the defensive end positions, where Schneider has amassed the most depth and talent the team has had in nearly a decade. A strong argument can be made the group compares favorably to their 2013 predecessors.
First, Schneider brought back twitchy edge rusher Benson Mayowa, who finished last season on a strong note with 4.0 sacks in his final six games. Set to turn 30 years old in August, he'd likely be viewed as a wily rotational LEO defensive end similar to role Clemons played eight years ago. He was signed to an affordable two-year deal worth up to $8.8 million.
Then, Schneider signed the 275-pound Hyder away from the 49ers, adding a versatile Bennett-style player who can play 5-tech defensive end as well as defensive tackle in a pinch. He produced a career-high 8.5 sacks last season and also held up well against the run, making 26 run stops per Pro Football Focus. While his contract included a void year, the deal is essentially a two-year, $6.5 million pact.
Finally, after releasing the ex-Pro Bowler as a cap casualty earlier this month, Schneider reeled in the final piece of the puzzle by striking a two-year, $16.6 million deal with Carlos Dunlap. Though he doesn't offer quite the same skill set as Avril did, he will resume his role as a disruptive playmaker at the LEO position after generating 5.0 sacks and 14 quarterback hits in just eight games after Seattle acquired him from Cincinnati at the trade deadline last October.
As for the price to retain Dunlap? Carrying a $14 million cap charge before being released, his cap hit will be at least $6 million less in 2021 under the term of his new deal. It's yet another win for the savvy Schneider.
Looking at the depth chart as a whole, Dunlap and Hyder should be penciled in as starters at the two end spots. Behind Dunlap, Mayowa, 2020 second-round pick Darrell Taylor, and Alton Robinson provide a trio of athletic edge rushers who can pin their ears back and chase down quarterbacks. Behind Hyder, Collier turned in a solid second season and Green has flashed at times in his three prior seasons, giving the team quality depth with ascending players who offer past starting experience.
As is always the case, this newly-rebuilt defensive line will have to prove it can live up to the hype once Seattle opens training camp in late July/early August. But with only one true newcomer in Hyder - a player who already should have a strong understanding of the scheme after playing in a similar defense in San Francisco - chemistry should already be a strength for a group offering a wide array of skill sets and oozing with talent across the board.
After finishing first in the NFL in sacks following Dunlap's arrival, his return along with the under-the-radar addition of Hyder, much-anticipated debut of Taylor, and emergence of Ford as a top-10 defensive tackle should give the Seahawks one of the deepest, most ferocious front lines in the league. If the unit plays to its potential, given the established talent already on the rest of the defense, the franchise could be set up for a special season.