The question was raised: Can the Seahawks be a top-10 defensive unit again? They finished ranked No. 9 overall, and hovered around the top half most of the season, providing a show of consistency. I think more impressive was their rating in “scoring defense” – No. 7 at 19.7 points per game.
From that starting unit, they lost only middle linebacker David Hawthorne, a crucial cog, of course. But Hawthorne was slowed by injuries much of the season.
I think the raw stats from the whole season, then, are misleading, and projections for this season are more valid when we look at the second half – even though they faced only two playoff-bound teams (Baltimore and San Francisco). Over the second half of the season, their points-against average dropped to 16.25 a game.
Four key players were in their first season as starters: Kam Chancellor, Brandon Browner, K.J. Wright and Richard Sherman. And Allan Branch was in his first season with the team. All those players are returning with a full off-season to further settle into their roles. Browner, particularly, struggled to find a balance between coverage that was physical and coverage that drew flags. We may assume that will be less a problem.
A few question marks exist. How to replace Hawthorne? The Hawks drafted Utah State’s Bobby Wagner and signed free agent Barrett Ruud. Wagner showed a smooth athleticism in off-season workouts, and must be a quick-learner, too. It was initially suggested that Wright would be relied upon to call the defensive signals, but Wagner soon took over that role. The return of Leroy Hill (in fit condition) and Wright could help stabilize Wagner in the middle. Korey Toomer, a rookie from Idaho, also showed flashes in OTAs. The added effect of the speed and athleticism of these young linebackers will be felt on every special-teams unit, as well.
The other prime question is the status of Chris Clemons, who has been a no-show as he lobbies for a contract upgrade. He has 22 sacks the past two seasons, but he’ll also turn 31 during the season. I don’t think the drafting of Bruce Irvin in the first round makes Clemons expendable. Irvin would make Clemons more valuable, and vice versa. They added Jason Jones (15 sacks in four seasons with the Titans) to add interior pass pressure. Jones is long-armed guy with a quick get-off who would be even more threatening with Clemons on one end and Irvin on the other.
So … top 10 in the fall? Sure. Maybe better.