Defensive Depth — Who Gets Cut?

The other day I took my son to the park and noticed that the leaves were starting to turn from bright green to an ever-so-slight yellow.  The smell of autumn is in the air.  As I drive around town running errands, I see football practices going on at every junior high and high school I pass by, the fathers lounging in lawn chairs with beers in their hands as they watch their kids practice.  It makes me long to slam a helmet on my three year old’s head and tell him to walk off some injury.  My wife tells me that I’m not allowed to let him play until he’s at least potty-trained.  (Well, that and there aren’t any football leagues for three year olds.)

I don’t know about you guys, but I’m starting to get seriously excited about what our front office is doing with this Seahawks team.  Yes, the roster churn is annoying to keep up with, and it’s sad to see longtime players like Hass and Lofa no longer playing for the Hawks, but you have to admit this front office is making things better.  For one, they haven’t been shy about trimming the fat on big contracts that don’t make sense because the player wasn’t playing up to the money he was being paid.

I understand that a lot of people assume that since there’s a contract in place and the player has been with the team for a long time that the team should leave it be and show some loyalty to the player.  To a certain extent I agree; Hasselbeck and Tatupu leaving sucks, but in the end the Hawks didn’t kick them out the door, they chose to leave.  Lofa was asked to take a paycut because he wasn’t delivering like he had in the past (remember, Trufant was asked the same question and chose to stay), and Hass wanted a large contract with more years on it than the Seahawks were willing to give him.

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This offseason the defense has gotten a lot bigger, especially in the secondary.  We now have 6’3”, 232 lbs safety Kam “Bam-Bam” Chancellor patrolling the back end, and a potential new starting cornerback in 6’4”, 221 lbs Brandon Browner.  Those are rare sizes to see in defensive backs, and Chancellor especially loves to use his bulk to bring the hammer (hence the nickname).

On the d-line, the addition of Alan Branch and Jimmy Wilkerson and the re-signing of Mebane and Brock have given the team added depth, which is something they lacked last year.  Remember how things fell apart last year when Mebane, Cole, and Bryant went down and the team had to rely on the backups?  Should anything like that happen again this season, the drop-off won’t be nearly as severe.  Speaking of depth, I really like the addition of ex-Ram David Vobora to the linebacking corps.  He’s a quality backup with starting experience (16 games in three seasons with St. Louis), and at this point I think it’s safe to say that he’s no longer Mr. Irrelevant.    I’m also hoping he brings plenty of knowledge about the Rams’ defense that we can exploit [much like the Rams did to Seattle when they signed Isaiah Kacyvenski back in ’06 – turnaround is fair play, after all. -Ed.].

Here’s the current players on the defense:

Leo End: Chris Clemons, Raheem Brock, Dexter Davis, Jameson Konz, Maurice Fountain
1-Tech DT: Brandon Mebane, Junior Siavii, Colin Cole
3-Tech DT: Alan Branch, Ryan Sims, Clinton McDonald (?)
5-Tech DE: Red Bryant, Jimmy Wilkerson, Pep Levingston, Pierre Allen
WLB: Leroy Hill, David Vobora, Malcolm Smith
MLB: David Hawthorne, KJ Wright, Michael Johnson
SLB: Aaron Curry, Matt McCoy, Mike Morgan
LCB: Marcus Trufant, Richard Sherman, Byron Maxwell, Brett Johnson
FS: Earl Thomas, Mark LeGree
SS: Kam Chancellor, Atari Bigby, Josh Pinkard, Jeron Johnson
RCB: Walter Thurmond, Kelly Jennings, Brandon Browner, Kennard Cox

Leo End

There were a lot of people who assumed that the Seahawks would draft a Leo pass-rushing specialist early in the draft this year.  But I thought (and still do) that would’ve been a luxury pick; the team had too many other holes to fill to afford to use one on a Leo end, especially after Chris Clemons exceeded everyone’s expectations in the role last year.  I don’t expect him to put up career sack numbers again for the second season in a row, but I wouldn’t be surprised if he comes close.  The Leo position plays to his strengths as a speed rusher, which is something he wasn’t able to do before at other stops in his career.

After injuries ravaged the d-line last season, the coaches were forced to switch out their 4-3 Leo scheme for a more traditional 4-3 front with Raheem Brock rushing from the left defensive end position, and he excelled there as a pas rusher.  This year, Brock will be able to slide back over into a more natural backup position behind Clemons, which means the team will have two quality Leo DEs that can be rotated without there being a noticeable drop-off in talent.  Talk about a good deal!  Nothing looks worse than seeing your d-line sitting on the sidelines sucking oxygen after allowing a 99-yard TD drive, and keeping your defensive linemen fresh via rotation helps prevent that from happening.

Dexter Davis was a sack machine in college, but hasn’t been able to put it together at the NFL level so far.  I’m hoping for more from him this year, as this could be his last chance to show the Seahawks what he can do.  Maurice Fountain has looked decent so far, but he’s essentially a 28 year old whose playing experience has mostly come in the Arena League and Arena League 2, so I don’t expect him to stick around.  As for Jameson Konz, most people assumed that he was drafted last year to be a TE/WR, but he played more defense in college than he did offense so it isn’t too surprising to see him getting a look on defense.  He’s an amazing athletic talent.  However, I think this is the year we say goodbye to either Davis or Konz (or both), and between the two of them I think Konz is more likely to get cut.

My prediction?  Chris Clemons, Raheem Brock, and Dexter Davis, for a total of 3 Leo DEs.

1-Tech DT

I think that just about every Seahawks blogger erupted in cheers when it was announced that Mebane would be returning to his original role as a 1-tech defensive tackle.  This move alone should make the Seahawks that much better on defense, but that’s highly dependent on how well the starting 3-tech DT complements Mebane. 

Colin Cole, who was the starting 1-tech last season, was a one-trick pony: good against the run, but never seemed to get any push on passing downs.  That in and of itself isn’t horrible if the other defensive tackle is good at bringing the pass rush, but no one’s been able to bring that kind of heat to the 3-tech spot.  Now that Cole is no longer the starting 1-tech, he can be used as a situational player who specializes in stuffing the run like a Thanksgiving turkey.  He’s still nursing an ankle injury though, so he’ll most likely begin the year on the PUP list, which makes him unavailable until week six of the regular season.  In the meantime, the team can use his roster spot to take an even longer look at a fringe/developmental player.

My prediction?  Brandon Mebane and Junior Siavii for a total of two 1-techs, with Colin Cole on PUP.

3-Tech DT

I’m not totally sold on Alan Branch being the starting 3-tech.  He seems a little too tall (6’6”) for an interior d-lineman to me.  Usually you see a shorter guy in the middle of the line because their lower center of gravity makes it easier for them to win the leverage battle against o-linemen.  When he was signed I expected him to be added depth behind Red Bryant at the 5-tech position, and I think he’ll still be the primary choice to man the 5-tech if Red gets hurt.  Either way, Branch does allow for us to have some serious flexibility along the line.

I was surprised to see Kentwan Balmer get cut, given the lack of depth at the 3-tech position.  Clinton McDonald may pan out as the primary backup to Branch, but the Hawks may still make a move or two before the season starts to address their need here.

My prediction?  Alan Branch plus one other player still to be determined for a total of two 3-techs.

5-Tech DE

The rumors are that Red Bryant is back and ready for action.  After he got injured last season, our run defense took a shot to the nads.  No one else was able to set the edge as well as Bryant, which allowed offenses to set their RBs free up that side of the field.  Having a weakness like that puts a great deal of strain on the linebackers and defensive backs, who end up having to work overtime to make up the difference.

As I said before, I think Branch is the best choice to replace Bryant at the 5-tech if Red gets hurt, in large part because I can’t see Jimmy Wilkerson doing well as a starter there.  I think Wilkerson will do fine on a rotational basis to give Bryant a breather here and there, but he’s better as a pass-rusher than he is against the run, so he could end up spelling Red mainly on obvious passing downs.  (On the whole, the Seahawks seem to be gravitating toward specialists over jack-of-all-trades guys.)  I have a feeling that Pep Levingston will end up on the practice squad to start the season.

My prediction?  Red Bryant and Jimmy Wilkerson for a total of two 5-techs.

Weakside Linebacker

Leroy Hill has looked really good this preseason, but he should look good — he hasn’t had any meaningful playing time for almost a full year.  To top it off, he knows that his NFL career is perilously close to being over thanks to his off-the-field issues (pot and domestic violence).  Just a few years removed from being Seattle’s franchise player, Hill is playing on a one year contract for the veteran minimum, so you have to figure that he’ll be out to prove to the NFL that he’s worth a much bigger contract.  That’s good news for the 12th Man, because now we’ve got two starting outside linebackers who are going to be very motivated to prove their worth (Aaron Curry being the other one).

The Seahawks are no longer a team who will pay for a name.  They want production in return for the money they pay their players, not media visibility.  If Hill has any more issues on the field or off, we have a backup plan in the form of David Vobora.  Vobora’s starting experience may have come on some pretty bad Rams defenses, but it’s starting experience all the same and that’s scarce on the current defensive roster.  Malcolm Smith has also shown enough to stick on the roster, at least until week six when players start to return from the PUP list, after which he could find himself on the practice squad.

My prediction?  Leroy Hill and David Vobora for a total of 2 WLBs (3 if Smith is kept).

Middle Linebacker

David “The Heater” Hawthorne was given the keys to the defense this offseason.  He’s shown his talent over the last two years, and he’s very deserving of getting a shot as the starting MLB.  Granted, he’s got some big shoes to fill now that Lofa Tatupu is gone, but I believe that Heater is up to the challenge.  He may not be able to lead in the same manner as Lofa, but he has more athletic talent than Tatupu did.  This front office is always on the lookout for athletic freaks, and they’re willing to take them over the smaller, try-hard types that Tim Ruskell liked to bring in.

I don’t think anyone was expecting the Hawks to use KJ Wright at middle linebacker.  During the draft, Carroll and Schneider talked about him being a good fit at strongside linebacker or as a pass-rush specialist.   Linebackers coach Ken Norton, Jr. had the idea of trying Wright out in the middle, and he’s looked very promising in that role this preseason.  He tallied eight tackles against the Chargers, and he seems to be getting better every day in practice.  Wright could end up becoming a starting-caliber MLB someday.  (For more reading on Wright, here’s a good article on him.)

My prediction?  David Hawthorne and KJ Wright, for a total of 2 MLBs.

[Note: Because of the length of this article, I decided to split it up into two parts.  Look for part two to go up sometime tomorrow.  -Ed.]