Photo Credit: Seahawks.com
Throughout the 2011 season, the Seahawks’ defensive line became the strength of the defense with Red Bryant, Brandon Mebane, Alan Branch and Chris Clemons playing stout against the run and taking up multiple offensive linemen, giving the linebackers room to roam free and make tackles. Defensive coordinator Gus Bradley had freedom to bring in multiple defensive backs to defend against the pass without being worried of getting burned by the run.
The story turned out to be a bit different in 2012, as the defensive line regressed in overall production and fell behind the defensive backs – or, the “Legion of Boom” as they rightfully dub themselves – as the leaders of the Seahawks’ fourth ranked defense, only giving up 306 yards per game. The defensive line struggled to put consistent pressure on the opposing quarterback for most of the season and even got gashed a few times on the ground (remember Miami?).
One of the most important issues John Schneider and Pete Carroll will have to address this off-season is what to do with left defensive end Chris Clemons. Clemons just came off his third straight year of double digit sack production, but he is also 31 years old and tore his ACL and meniscus in the playoff game against the Washington Redskins on the absolutely atrocious FedEx Field turf.
It generally takes 12 months to recover from a torn ACL, so the team shouldn’t expect him back next season. So, the Seahawks’ front office have to ask themselves whether or not they want to pay Clemons $8M to sit out the season on the Injured Reserve list, especially if there’s no guarantee Clemons returns to his former production in 2014.
Replacing Chris Clemons would be a dubious task, to say the least, as he has a rare combination of ability to rush the passer while at the same time being able to stand up against the run. Bruce Irvin - at least at this point - would not be a suitable replacement for Clemons, as he has shown flashes of pass rushing ability but is an extreme liability against the run and offensive tackles he can’t run around. As painful as it might seem, Irvin is currently the only other player on the roster that could even think about replacing Clemons, unless you think Red Bryant could drop 60 pounds and play the pass rushing end.
Hey, remember Red Bryant? The 320 lb right defensive end’s position is absolutely crucial to the team’s run defense scheme, so it’s not surprising when Bryant got hurt and his production took a dip the rest of the run defense followed suit. The Seahawks need Bryant to return to his 2011 form when he was a top-5 run stuffing defensive linemen and earned a 5-year, $35M contract with $14.5M guaranteed.
Brandon Mebane has been a model of consistency for the Seahawks at the defensive tackle position since 2008, stuffing the run effectively and so far earning the 5-year, $25M contract given to him in 2011. Alan Branch’s play dropped off compared to 2011, leaving the second defensive tackle position up in the air, as Branch and backup Jason Jones – who fought through chronic knee problems and eventually ended up on IR – are both free agents.
At this point, only two spots on the defensive line are secured (Mebane and Bryant), leaving the other two spots of left end and second defensive tackle up for grabs. Bruce Irvin’s skill set is frankly not built to handle the left end position every single down and my bet is the Seahawks let Jason Jones go. Gregg Scruggs came on late in the year as a possible replacement for Branch, but at this point, picking a veteran up in free agency is absolutely essential to the 2013 Seahawks not having their defensive line be their Achilles’ heel.
Here are a couple free agents options the Seahawks might look at:
DT/DE Richard Seymour
The 12-year veteran likely wants to win now, and would fit in perfectly to what the Seahawks’ needs are. The former New England Patriot is losing some of his quickness and speed, but knows how to compensate with technique and instincts. He can play either at defensive tackle or defensive end depending on down and distance and can be an effective pass rusher from both positions. John Schneider will probably go after Seymour hard, especially if he knows that Chris Clemons won’t be around much longer.
DT/DE Michael Bennett
Bennett, like Seymour, would provide the Seahawks the option playing either defensive end or defensive tackle and being exceptional at both. He would be expensive, being 27-years old and just coming off a 9 sack season as a defensive end, but his versatility and interior pass rushing abilities might be worth it to the Seahawks.
DE Osi Umenyiora
Umenyiora would provide an ideal replacement for Clemons in terms of pass-rushing abilities, but would be a significant drop off in terms of defending the run. The 31-year old falls into the same boat of Seymour in that he likely wants to win now; Seattle and the loud confines of CenturyLink Field might be the perfect place to finish out his career.
The other obvious option for replacing Clemons and/or filling a defensive tackle spot would be through the draft. But, as Bruce Irvin showed us this year, spending a first round draft pick on defensive linemen doesn’t always guarantee immediate production. Don’t expect John Schneider to bank the 2013 defensive line on a draft pick, but maybe look for a third or fourth round selection on a big bodied defensive tackle who has the ability to rival Branch in terms of size.
Really, it all comes back to the Clemons decision. If the Seahawks choose to keep him on for 2013, that’s $8M down the drain and banking on a 32-year old to come back healthy for the 2014 season.
If the Seahawks choose to cut Clemons, they’d be saving $6.5M which they could use to sign a guy like Seymour or Umenyiora to a two year contract. Cutting a guy who has been your top pass rusher for the last three years is painful, but might be necessary if the Seahawks want to win now.
Prediction: The Seahawks cut Clemons, re-sign Branch to an affordable contract, and let Jason Jones go, leaving the left defensive end and second defensive tackle spots open for competition. The team signs Seymour and drafts a defensive tackle in the third round to compete with Branch. Bryant needs to improve upon his mediocre 2012 season in order to keep his firm grasp of his right end spot.
- Nathan Parsons (@nathanparsons98)