The Seahawks have set expectations so high in recent years that a Divisional Round loss to the Panthers was something of a disappointment. It comes in the context of a 10-win season and a fortunate Wild Card victory, secured only by the narrowest of margins after Blair Walsh’s missed chip shot. The Seahawks are not the powerhouse they were of previous seasons, and need to make tough decisions this offseason to take them back to the top. Here are three areas they could use an upgrade.
Competent pass protectors
The problem: Seattle’s pass protection unit finished as the third-worst in the league in 2015. Kawann Short’s immediate interior pressure forced Russell Wilson into a rare error in the divisional playoff, and the Seahawks never fully recovered. The unreliable Russell Okung is by far Seattle’s best pass protector (71.0 grade), but he’s oft-injured and is an unrestricted free agent this offseason.
Justin Britt, the Seahawks’ starting LG, who allowed the knockdown on Wilson’s interception, is not of NFL caliber. He ended the year as our 74th-overall OG, with a measly 37.0 grade in pass protection. In two years, Britt has allowed eight sacks, 14 hits, and 71 pressures for 37.0 pass blocking grade.
Seattle’s other starting guard, J.R. Sweezy, is also a free agent. He’ll likely be allowed to test the market, however, after recording a 47.7 pass protection grade and finishing 66th overall amongst guards.
RT Garry Gilliam might remain a starter in 2016, but only because an overhaul at every position on the line is unrealistic. He finished the year 57th of 59 qualifying tackles in pass blocking efficiency, after allowing 58 combined pressures in just 582 snaps. Patrick Lewis and Drew Nowak were not obviously incompetent, suggesting center is less of a priority.
The solution: The top pass protecting offensive lineman will likely be off the board by the time the Seahawks pick at 26th overall in the first round of the 2016 NFL draft. There are a number of talented, versatile lineman who might fall to the second half of the first day, however. Cody Whitehair of Kansas State is in that conversation. His production in 2015 was outstanding, finishing as our top overall tackle. Whitehair finished this season with a +42.9 cumulative overall grade, including a position-topping +32.9 grade as a run blocker. He’s scheduled to play in Mobile at the Senior Bowl this week, giving him the opportunity to flash the quick feet necessary to play tackle in the pro game.
The problem: Replacing the corner opposite Richard Sherman is seemingly a requirement every year for the Seahawks. Normally Pete Carroll is able to generate maximum production from the right corner position. Players like Byron Maxwell and Brandon Browner played well in Seattle before struggling with their new teams. Unlike previous seasons, however, the Seahawks defense failed to obscure the deficiencies in their secondary. Cary Williams had a particularly tough year, finishing with a coverage grade of just 40.6 (1–100 scale). He allowed a QB rating of 120.6 in 2015, including three TDs and no picks. Replacing Williams with DeShawn Shead in Week 12 barely improved matters. Shead had better coverage numbers, but finished with an only slightly superior 40.9 grade. The Seahawks may decide to promote from within, as they have done previously. Jeremy Lane had a solid overall season, and Marcus Burley stood out in the slot, but it would be a risk to go into 2016 with those two as the Seahawks’ primary options.
The solution: One of the more intriguing prospects in the upcoming draft is University of Houston cornerback William Jackson III. He possesses the kind of size, length, and physicality that the Seahawks look for in their corners. In a draft lacking multiple first-round options in the secondary, Jackson might be a coveted man come May. Level of competition questions aside, Jackson’s production in 2015 was impressive. He finished the year with the second-highest coverage grade (+17.3) in college football, after allowing 46 receptions on 97 targets for 666 yards, two TDs, five picks, and 13 pass deflections. Jackson is a playmaker, but is also willing to attack the run and screen game downhill with aggression. He might be the ideal fit in Seattle’s single-high defensive scheme. Jackson is one to watch at the Senior Bowl, where he’ll be competing with some of the best wideouts in this class.
Dominant defensive tackle
The problem: Seattle’s defense failed to obtain the same level of dominance it achieved in previous years in 2015. Kam Chancellor’s holdout played a part early in the season, but indifferent performances from the Seahawks’ defensive tackles also held back the unit. Not since Brandon Mebane’s 2013 season have the Seahawks had a difference-maker at the position on base downs. Jordan Hill is a solid, but unspectacular, player, ending the year with a 73.9 overall grade. Mebane remains on the roster, and recorded an impressive seven positively-graded games out of eight since Week 12, but is set to become a free agent this offseason. Despite those impressive performances, he still ultimately finished the year with a negative overall grade, suggesting the Seahawks might look for a younger replacement going forward.
Finally, a change of scheme for free agent addition Ahtyba Rubin failed to generate any improvement in performance for the former Brown. Rubin struggled in his 480 snaps, finishing at 79th amongst defensive tackles, with a 68.4 grade. He mustered just three QB knockdowns in 227 pass rush snaps.
The solution: John Schneider and Pete Carroll could go a number of different directions in reinforcing the interior of the Seahawks’ defensive line. They’ve shown a reluctance to target big-money signings in free agency, preferring instead to invest the resources in edge rushers. History suggests a move for a guy like Muhammed Wilkerson is therefore unlikely. Chiefs DE Jaye Howard (83.0 overall grade this season) flashed serious potential in the first half of 2015 before tailing off significantly in the latter part of the year. The Seahawks could be tempted to gamble on his upside.
If the front office chooses to prioritize a defensive tackle who can plug multiple gaps in the run game, a guy like Cedric Thornton (81.1 run defense grade) makes sense. Alternatively, Seattle might have one eye on the Broncos' recent success and commit to a dominant pass-rushing defensive line with the addition of Nick Fairley (81.0 pass rush grade). The Seahawks have had success picking up former Lions in the past, and Fairley is a more natural fit in a four-man front than some of the alternatives.
One final name worth mentioning is Akiem Hicks (76.1) who played well in limited snaps this year for the Patriots.