Should Seahawks Slide L.J. Collier Inside?

An ankle injury set Collier back substantially in his rookie season and with the Seahawks adding several defensive ends in free agency and the draft, a position change may need to happen to set the former first-round pick up for success.
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Looking to bolster the pass rush and replace the loss of Frank Clark, the Seahawks selected L.J. Collier out of TCU in the first round of the 2019 NFL Draft. 

However, after suffering a rare ankle sprain during a training camp practice, Collier started the season behind the eight-ball, having missed crucial reps in practice and preseason games to ready himself for the speed of NFL games.

That disadvantage came to a head during the season when he was a healthy scratch for nearly half of the games during the 2019 campaign, including both of Seattle's playoff games.

Coming into the 2020 season, the pressure is on for Collier and the coaches to find him a role where he can make significant contributions on the defense to avoid the "bust" label. But with the additions Seattle has made during this offseason, it may be even more challenging for him to earn reps at his current position.

Bruce Irvin and Benson Mayowa were signed by the Seahawks as veteran free agents along the defensive line. Irvin will see snaps at SAM linebacker, Mayowa will likely man the LEO defensive end spot, and Rasheem Green could be the favorite to start at Collier's 5-tech defensive end position.

Seattle also invested two draft picks in Darrell Taylor and Alton Robinson, who each project to be LEO defensive ends but could potentially play either role down the road.

Considering the lack of depth behind starters Jarran Reed and Poona Ford, should the Seahawks explore moving Collier inside to the 3-tech defensive tackle spot as a way to get him more playing time and a better chance to contribute?

As things stand, Mayowa will have the first crack at starting at the LEO spot. The seven-year veteran posted a career-high 7.0 sacks for the Raiders last season and will be given every chance to win the job given his one year deal worth up to $4.05 million.

The 5-tech defensive end position situation also poses a challenge for Collier to make a significant impact in 2020, as the best scenario appears to be splitting reps with Green. While this would be a major improvement from last year, that's still not desirable from a former first-round pick.

However, the Seahawks have yet to make a move to bolster their interior line behind Reed and Ford. There is a large chasm between those two and the reserve defensive tackles such as Demarcus Christmas, Bryan Mone, and undrafted free agents Cedric Lattimore and Josh Avery. 

A free agent signing is still possible at this position, with viable options still on the table in Damon "Snacks" Harrison, Mike Daniels, Brandon Mebane, and a slew of others. The team already has reported interest in Harrison, though no signing appears imminent.

If a signing is not made, the coaches should explore sliding Collier inside for multiple reasons.

Sliding Collier inside would allow Seattle to save money due to not spending on a defensive tackle in free agency. He would also have a chance to find his niche in Pete Carroll and Ken Norton Jr.'s 4-3 base defense in not only a different role but one in that Seattle lacks significant depth. Additionally, Collier is sleeker and more athletic than a typical interior defensive lineman.

For reference, Reed is Seattle's best defensive tackle at this point and he stands at 6-foot-3, 306 pounds and posted a 5.21 40-yard dash time at the combine with a 104-inch broad jump. Ford is a thicker, stockier tackle at 5-foot-11, 310 pounds and ran the 40 at Texas' Pro Day at 4.94 seconds with a broad jump of 112 inches. 

Comparing those two starters to Collier, the 6-foot-2, 291-pound defender ran the 40-yard dash in 4.91 seconds and had a much more explosive broad jump at 118 inches. This suggests he would provide a more athletic, dynamic option at defensive tackle when the situation calls for it, such as a key third down with the team needing pressure on the quarterback.

Such athletic defensive tackles do exist, including a perennial Pro Bowler in Geno Atkins who possesses similar physical traits to Collier.

A two-time First-Team All-Pro, Atkins has been one of the finest defensive tackles in the NFL during 10 seasons with the Bengals. He's racked up 75.5 sacks, including three double-digit sack seasons as an interior defensive lineman.

Coming out of Georgia, Atkins ran the 40-yard dash in 4.85 seconds and did the broad jump at 117 inches, both very similar to Colliers numbers while being an inch shorter and just nine pounds heavier.

Speaking at the combine in February, Seahawks general manager John Schneider shared his optimism about the former 29th overall pick making an impact for this year's team, saying, “He’s a powerful rusher, he’s got great hands, he can rush inside, he can rush outside. He can rush the five [technique], rush the three. We’re excited."

Schneider's inclusion of the phrase "rush the three" here is key. This suggests there is a possibility Collier could be moved inside to the 3-tech defensive tackle position to better use his skills and size to rush the passer.

Coach Gary Patterson demands his players be versatile, and as a result, Collier played multiple spots at TCU, where he collected 14.5 sacks in his last three years for the Horned Frogs.

Considering Seattle's need at defensive tackle and Collier's untapped athleticism for a 290-plus pound defensive lineman, a position change may be the best way for Collier to get a fresh start after a massively disappointing rookie campaign and sculpt a successful tenure in Seattle.