Why Can’t The Seahawks’ Pass Rush Be Improved Without Clowney?

I’ve been on here pretty regularly lamenting the state of the Seahawks’ pass rush as we head into the 2020 season. I’ve also been hoping that the Seahawks could find a way to bring Jadeveon Clowney back under the salary cap, at a reasonable number (either in a 1-year or preferably a multi-year deal) that accounts for the injury risk he’s pretty clearly proven to be throughout his career, dating to his college days.

Look, we all know he’s one of the most talented defensive linemen alive, of that there’s no debate. And while the number of missed games isn’t TOO alarming – particularly after his rookie season that was cut short to only four games – in his professional career he’s only made it through a full 16-game season one time. And, I would argue – based on the fact he’s never had a double-digit sack campaign – that his effectiveness is DRASTICALLY reduced when he’s forced to play through injuries. While it remains to be seen – and likely could never be proven – in general one would assume a player on his rookie deal is most likely to try to play through injuries (as opposed to someone on his second or third deal), to show his value and better earn that mega-second contract. You can damn me all you want for putting as much emphasis in the sack statistic – as opposed to more advanced metrics that show the overall value of a pass rusher’s productivity (QB hurries and hits and whatnot) – when you think of the game’s best pass rushers, you always think of guys with lots and lots of sacks. That’s just the way it is. So, if I’m granting you the fact that Clowney is one of the best defensive linemen in the game of football – and the mark of a great defensive lineman is how well he performs in passing situations (since, by and large, passing is the most effective way to move the ball down the field for opposing offenses) – then it would stand to reason that nagging injuries (that he has, for the most part, played through; credit where it’s due) have severely limited him. A mostly-healthy Clowney through his career would have – CONSERVATIVELY – at least twice as many career sacks as he has now (32 over six seasons).

Ergo, the injury risk is real, NFL teams believe this pretty much across the board, and any team that signs him to a multi-year deal is invariably going to have to account for this at one time or another through the duration of the guaranteed portion of his contract (if not moreso, because again – I would assume – guys on a second contract are probably not as likely to want to play through injury). If that were false, then he would’ve been signed by now, because as I said, he’s one of the best in the game today.

So, it doesn’t make sense – and really, it NEVER made sense – for the Seahawks to commit max money to keep him around. It would be NICE to have him around, but clearly that doesn’t appear to be our inevitability. Seahawks fans have come to understand this and are lamenting it accordingly. The rationale being: if we had one of the least-effective pass rushing units in the entire league in 2019 WITH Clowney, how much worse is it going to get WITHOUT him?

To which I ask: why does it have to be worse?

What we have to do is take a look at the whole pass rushing stew the Seahawks have to offer as compared to what we had in 2019. It’s idiotic to simply point to Bruce Irvin & Benson Mayowa vs. Clowney and call it a day. I don’t know if either of them are necessarily playing the same particular position that Clowney played, so it’s apples and oranges anyway.

Let’s start with Quinton Jefferson, who a laughably-large portion of Seahawks fans are listing as one of our key defectors. He was OKAY, but some fans talk about him like we just lost Michael Bennett in his prime or something! Quite frankly, he’s not a starting defensive end in this league, but he was playing a starter’s portion of snaps last year out of necessity. They’re criticizing the team for keeping Branden Jackson when BASICALLY they’re both the same player, only Jackson is significantly cheaper (he’s also not necessarily guaranteed a spot on this roster, so maybe calm down a little bit). I’m as down on L.J. Collier as anyone around these parts, but if he can stay healthy through Training Camp and the pre-season, I don’t see why he couldn’t give you everything we had from Jefferson this very minute; with, I might add, a considerable upside to be significantly better (and conditions don’t even have to be perfect for this to be true).

Next, let’s look at Mychal Kendricks, our former strong-side linebacker. He had a 2-sack game in Arizona in September last year and I think we all got a little too excited; he ended up with one more sack the rest of the way. Bruce Irvin is his direct replacement and I have to believe that’s an upgrade for a number of reasons. For starters, I don’t think the Seahawks will be in as much Base Defense as last year (again, out of necessity). Our nickel corner spot should be vastly improved, meaning we won’t need Irvin to play out in coverage nearly as much. I would expect him to be, effectively, a fifth pass rusher on a lot of downs (at least, a lot more than Kendricks ever was).

It’s unfair to consider Mayowa as Clowney’s de facto replacement – though their measurables match up fairly well, sizewise – as Clowney obviously does a lot more than the Seahawks would ask of Mayowa. They’re not going to ask Mayowa to play along the interior of the line, for instance, which Clowney was more than capable of doing at times. I would argue that less-is-more with Mayowa, so limiting him strictly to obvious pass rushing situations is likely to keep him fresh and more effective than he would be if he played every down like Clowney. As such, it wouldn’t surprise me to see Mayowa with more sacks in 2020 than Clowney (he had four more than Clowney in 2019, while playing in only two more games).

As a quick interlude, I would be remiss if I didn’t talk about the BIGGEST “addition by subraction” candidate, which would be Ziggy Ansah. Given our cap situation last year, the Seahawks had a lot of eggs in the Ansah basket on his 1-year prove-it deal, and all he managed to prove was that he’s finished as a viable NFL player. Giving his number of snaps to ANYONE who isn’t a corpse is bound to be a vast improvement, and indeed probably the single biggest upgrade on the entire roster from 2019 to 2020!

Moving inside, I will be VERY interested in what the defensive tackles bring to the table in 2020. One of the strangest contracts in recent memory is Jarran Reed’s 2-year, $23 million deal. The Seahawks appeared to get very little savings on a short-term basis (for a player who was suspended for six games in 2019 for a domestic violence charge), nor any savings under a longer-term contract (with it being only two years). Were the Seahawks swindled worse than when they dealt for Percy Harvin and gave him all that loot? Or is this a “crazy like a fox” situation? I’m probably focused on motivation more than I should be, but here we have a player heading into his age-27 season, who was drafted by the Seahawks and knows our scheme well, and who already has a double-digit sack season under his belt. You can argue there’s a risk of him landing in more hot water, but I doubt it (and, if he does get in trouble again, it’s not a prohibitive cost to cut him after 2020). I believe very strongly that him missing so many games last year set him back in a way that he’d never recover from. It’s essentially like having your pre-season taken away from you, then being thrown to the wolves mid-stream; that’ll hamper anyone, even a 4-year vet. At that point, either you believe his 2018 season was a fluke, or it’s more in line with who he is as a player. If the latter is true, then the Seahawks could be VERY happy the next two years. Getting back to motivation, he’ll be heading into his age-29 season as a free agent. If he kills it these next two years, then he’ll have set himself up for a mega-deal, so he has every reason to try his very best.

In keeping with our defensive tackles, Poona Ford is heading into his third year as a pro. You might poo-poo him as a pass-rushing threat, with just half a sack to his name; but Jarran Reed was a MUCH higher-rated lineman coming out of college, and he only had three combined sacks in his first two years before blowing up (and he played MANY more snaps in his first two seasons by comparison). Could we see a similar spike from Poona? Maybe not double digits, but in the 5-6 sack range? And, speaking of third-year pros, we haven’t even mentioned the Seahawks’ sack-leader in 2019, Rasheem Green. I know four sacks is nothing to write home about, but Green is also only 23 years old. If ANYONE is poised to make a big jump, it’s Green. I would argue this season largely hinges on him and Collier, but mostly Green. Figure he’ll play a lot of defensive end in base, then slide inside to rush the passer on third downs; I, for one, am excited to see what he can do, and if he can put it all together. He won’t be what Clowney can be at full health, but even if he’s 75% Clowney, that’s still better than most of what we had going for us last year!

Then, that brings us to our two wild cards: rookie Darrell Taylor, and likely bubble candidate Shaquem Griffin. We traded up (at a hefty cost, I might add) to select Taylor in the second round, which means he figures to get a considerable look at earning some playing time as a rookie. I’ll never put much confidence in a rookie, but it’s okay to hope a LITTLE bit. The Seahawks seem to know what they’re doing when they go to the trouble of trading up in the draft to get someone. My (safe) hunch is, Taylor will be a better pro in future seasons, but it’s not outside the realm of possibility for him to bring something worthwhile to the table as a rookie. As for Griffin, he had his first career sack as a pro in the playoffs against Green Bay in the fourth quarter (that very nearly helped us come back and win that game). It took us a while, but we finally got him in on some sub-packages late in 2019, and he figures to have a similar role as we head into 2020. If he balls out in the pre-season and earns a job on the roster, I think it’s safe to assume he’ll be moderately effective in his third year as a pro. Every little bit helps!

And this doesn’t even get into the likelihood that the Seahawks will go out and sign another free agent or two. None of them will be Clowney, but taken as a whole, I don’t see why this pass rushing unit can’t improve over 2019! For starters, that seems like a low bar to clear. Secondly, it won’t be on any one man’s shoulders. That means a lot of guys will have to step up – to either have career years, or perpetuate their recent career years – but I think that’s a healthier way to go about it, over trying to find some savior to come in and grace your team with his dominance.

The real question is: can this pass-rushing unit be even middle-of-the-road? It’s one thing to go from 29th in the league to 25th; but can the Seahawks get into the teens? That might make all the difference in the world! With a solid linebacking unit, and what appears to be a vastly improved secondary, that could be the difference between the Seahawks eking in as a Wild Card team vs. winning the NFC West or – lord help us – snatching the NFC’s #1 seed.