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Free agency could create holes, but also fill them

Posted Mar 12, 2013

When NFL free agency begins Tuesday, the Seahawks could lose some players from their No. 4-ranked defense. But the process also will allow them the opportunity to fill some holes, if the players’ skills are unique.

(The opinions and analysis contained in this feature are those of the author and others credited and do not necessarily represent the thoughts and opinions of the Seahawks’ coaching staff and personnel department)

When it comes to the Seahawks’ defense, only the uniquely talented need apply.

The NFL free-agency period begins on Tuesday, which could create holes in the unit that led the NFL in average points allowed and finished a best-in-franchise-history No. 4 in average yards allowed during the 2012 season because linebacker Leroy Hill and tackles Alan Branch and Jason Jones are scheduled to hit the open market.

But just because they might have a need or two doesn’t render the Seahawks’ defense and new coordinator Dan Quinn needy. That’s because it takes unique skills to play in the defense coach Pete Carroll brought with him when he was hired in January 2010.

Just look at the way he and general manager John Schneider have put this unit together.

Their first three drafts have delivered the All-Pro duo of free safety Earl Thomas and cornerback Richard Sherman, as well as middle linebacker and leading tackler Bobby Wagner, strong safety Kam Chancellor, linebacker K.J. Wright and rush-end Bruce Irvin. And only Thomas (2010) and Irvin (last year) were first-round picks, while Wagner was selected in the second round (last year) and Sherman (2011), Chancellor (2010) and Wright (2011) were third-day picks.

Run-stuffing end Red Bryant and nose tackle Brandon Mebane were drafted by the Seahawks before Schneider and Carroll arrived, but they have blossomed since being move to new positions in Carroll’s defense.

Leo end Chris Clemons, the unit’s sack leader in each of his first three seasons with the team, was acquired in a 2010 trade with the Philadelphia Eagles. Cornerback Brandon Browner was signed to a future contract last January after playing four seasons in the CFL.

Put it all together, and the whole of these uniquely talented defenders has become better than a first glance at the individual parts would indicate it could be.  

Here’s a look at the defensive players who could be available in free agency, with position rankings and comment by NFL.com:

Pass rushers

Best of the bunch: 1, Michael Johnson, Cincinnati Bengals; 2, Cliff Avril, Detroit Lions; 3, Anthony Spencer, Dallas Cowboys; 4, Paul Kruger, Baltimore Ravens; 5, Michael Bennett, Tampa Bay Buccaneers.

Comment (by Chris Wesseling): The most well-rounded of the young pass rushers, Johnson was strong against the run while compiling 11.5 sacks last season. (But he and Spencer also were assigned franchise tags). Was it a coincidence that he finally put it all together in a contract year? Avril is soft against the run and was on the field for fewer snaps per game than any player in the top two tiers. On the positive side, he’s the most naturally gifted pass rusher among those still in their prime.

Seahawks situation: Carroll wants another player, or two, to improve a pass rush that improved marginally last season (36 sacks, compared to 33 in 2011). Clemons has been a near-perfect fit at the Leo end spot after being acquired the trade with the Eagles, producing 11, 11 and 11.5 sacks in his first three seasons with the Seahawks. But he’s coming off surgery to repair the ligament he tore in his left knee during the wild-card playoff win over the Washington Redskins in January. Irvin led all NFL rookies with eight sacks. He and Clemons need help, however.

Interior linemen

Best of the bunch: 1, Richard Seymour, Oakland Raiders; 2, Desmond Bryant, Oakland Raiders; 3, Jason Jones, Seattle Seahawks; 4, Mike DeVito.

Comment (by Marc Sessler): 1, I struggle to rank Seymour (this high). He’s months away from turning 34, but was arguably a top-15 interior lineman before missing the second half of the season with a hamstring injury. He had missed only four games since 2007 prior to the injury, but the Raiders aren’t about to re-sign him. Oakland also is prepared to lose Bryant, who … is an attractive player at age 27. At 6-foot-6, 311-pounds, Bryant graded well against the run and pass last season. He might blossom in the right situation.

Seahawks situation: The fact that Jones is listed at No. 3 might say it all about the interior linemen available in free agency this offseason. The Seahawks signed him a year ago, but only to a one-year contract. He then produced three sacks at the three-technique tackle in the nickel line, but his impact was greater than his sack total. The Seahawks need help here and Schneider said at the Combine that would “keep an eye on” the D-tackles in free agency.

Linebackers

Best of the bunch: 1, Dannell Ellerbe, Baltimore Ravens.

Comment (by Gregg Rosenthal): Ellerbe picked the perfect time for free agency. His versatile skill was just highlighted during a Super Bowl run, and it’s a tough year to be looking for a free-agent linebacker (as evidenced by Rosenthal listing only one, with the tagline “best of a bad lot”). Ellerbe is our only player on this position list ranked in our top-85 overall free agents. He can rush the passer, stop the run and cover when asked. It won’t be cheap for the Ravens to keep him.

Seahawks situation: With Hill scheduled to become an unrestricted free agent, and coming off his eighth season after being a third-round draft choice in 2005, there may be a hole on the weak side opposite Wright and next to Wagner. Malcolm Smith started three games for Hill last season and the coaches liked the speed he brought to the unit. But even if Smith is the answer to replace Hill in the starting lineup, depth always is needed here.

Secondary

Best of the bunch: Cornerbacks – 1, Brent Grimes, Atlanta Falcons; 2, Sean Smith, Miami Dolphins; 3, Aqib Talib, New England Patriots; 4, Chris Houston, Detroit Lions; 5, Keenan Lewis, Pittsburgh Steelers. Safeties – 1, Jarius Byrd, Buffalo Bills; 2, Glover Quin, Houston Texans; 3, Dashon Goldson, San Francisco 49ers.

Comments (by Marc Sessler and Chris Wessling): Let’s start with Smith. He’s been widely touted as the top corner on the market, but I can’t get past his inconsistent play. Smith is big and physical and will draw interest, but whatever team lands him must find a way to pull (steadier) week-to-week play out of the fourth-year pro. Grimes was lost to an Achilles’ injury in the season opener, but Falcons coach Mike Smith said his recovery has been “outstanding.” … The Bills assigned the franchise tag to Byrd. Entering his age-27 season with special coverage ability, instincts and ball skills, the two-time Pro Bowler may have blown past Eric Weddle’s contract had he been allowed to test the market.

Seahawks situation: The Seahawks already have what other teams are trying to find – two large, long corners with coverage ability in Sherman and Browner. The Seahawks already have what other teams are trying to find, Part II – a large, physical strong safety in Chancellor and a fast free safety capable of making plays all over the field in Thomas. But again, they can always use some depth behind their Legion of Boom starters.