With Seahawks training camp set to kick off later this month, Seahawks.com is taking a look at 12 of the team's most intriguing storylines, position battles and players heading into the 2020 season. Today we look at a pass rush hoping to take a big step forward in 2020, and tomorrow we wrap things up with a look at the secondary, and in particular at what the Seahawks might do with their nickel defense and how much they'll use it.
The Seahawks know that to be better in 2020, one of the keys will be improving a defense that didn't live up to expectations last season.
And while Seahawks coach Pete Carroll would be quick to point out that improvement needs to come from everywhere, from coaching to players at all three levels of the defense, one of the most obvious areas that needs improvement is a pass rush that recorded only 28 sacks last season, tied for the second fewest in the NFL.
Neither of last year's starting defensive ends, Jadeveon Clowney and Quinton Jefferson, are on the roster, though Clowney remains a free agent an both Carroll and general manager John Schneider as well as Clowney have left the door open to him returning. But even with some players headed out, the Seahawks feel like they have made moves this offseason that will improve their pass rush, and with that their entire defense.
In free agency, the Seahawks added former first-round pick Bruce Irvin, who is coming off of a career-best 8.5-sack season with the Carolina Panthers, as well as Benson Mayowa, who had 7.0 sacks with the Raiders last year. The Seahawks also added a pair of defensive ends in the draft, trading up in the second round to take Darrell Taylor out of Tennessee, and selecting Alton Robinson out of Syracuse in the fifth.
And it isn't only those newcomers who will be expected to add to last year's sack total. Carroll noted that they're looking for defensive tackle Jarran Reed, who had 10.5 sacks two years ago, to bounce back to his 2018 form after struggling to get going last year following a six-game suspension to start the year. Last year's first-round pick, L.J. Collier, was injured throughout training camp and the preseason and nearly was placed on injured reserve, and while he was able to get healthy enough to avoid a redshirt year, he struggled to get on the field. This year both he and the Seahawks are expecting a much bigger impact from the defensive end out of TCU, who should compete for the starting 5-technique end spot held by Jefferson last year. And it's also realistic to expect continued improvement from 2018 third-round pick Rasheem Green, who had a team-high 4.0 sacks and three forced fumbles after a quiet rookie season, and who will still be only 23 years old this season.
"What happens in the third down situations, when we move guys around some, you'll see Rasheem and L.J. will work inside, along with (Jarran) Reed, we think we have a nice mix in that regard," Carroll said after the 2020 draft. "Those guys are developing pass rushers, and they're learning their way, and both have a lot of ability and a lot of upside to them. So, we can have some real fresh players coming in, with rotation. We have enough depth right now, to move it around. But you have to look at the guys that play the 5-technique for us, the defensive ends, they are also considered inside rushers for us. We'll have at least four guys to move in and out of there to keep a rotation going. We'll see how we do. It's important that J-Reed comes back to the kind of production he had a couple years ago. If he can have any type of production close to that, with what we're doing outside, it's going to be a nice mix. We should be really better than we've been. We're real positive about that. That doesn't mean we're done working, either. John's going to keep going, keep digging around and see if there's a guy that might spark us in there, like we always do. Pretty fired up about it, really. We're really pleased with what we've done.
"If you look at all the four guys that we've added that rush the passer (Mayowa, Irvin, Taylor and Robinson), I think that's about eight or nine sacks apiece (in 2019). So, if you put them all together, that would be great. If those guys can come up and create something like 36-40 sacks combined, shoot, we'll really have hit the mark."
And it's entirely possible the Seahawks aren't done adding to their pass rush. As mentioned earlier, Clowney is still a possibility, and there are other quality veteran free agents who remain unsigned. There will also be players who become available via roster cuts, and as was evident with the Clowney acquisition last year, you can never rule out a trade before the start of the season. But even if the Seahawks go into the season, Irvin, who was part of a very productive Carolina pass rush last season, is confident in the group he joined this offseason.
"Pass rushing is very difficult in this league," Irvin said earlier this offseason. "People just think you can line up out there and the team go get 50 sacks a season. I was in Carolina and we worked our asses off last year to get 54 sacks; it's a grind. With this group, it's a young group. Benson, he produced last year, but I don't think Benson has ever been in a major starting role as a premier rusher, but I have complete 100 percent faith he can do that. We've got a young group, and we've got to work. I couldn't predict how many sacks we're going to get right now, but I think we've got a young, talented group, and I'm going to work my ass off to lead these boys. Whoever comes in, we'll welcome with open arms, and they better be ready to work. I think we've got a talented group. I think we're going to be better than a lot of people think we are."
Check out photos of Seahawks defensive end Michael Bennett from throughout his five seasons with the Seahawks. Bennett announced his retirement from the NFL on July 21, 2020.