Intrigue surrounds Seahawks’ defense

RENTON — Now that the last — and most significant — part of offseason roster building is complete for the Seattle Seahawks, we have a better idea of just what the 2013 version of the team will look like.

And aside from general manager John Schneider and head coach Pete Carroll’s ability to baffle everyone with picks that will probably work out pretty darn well in the long run, nothing about the weekend was more interesting that the implications the draft, when combined with moves made in free agency, will have on Seattle’s defense.

Yes, there are plenty of reasons to look forward to watching the Seahawks offense this season. Quarterback Russell Wilson will be better and the addition of receiver Percy Harvin gives Seattle a home run threat it hasn’t had in the past.

But what’s really fascinating, what will be incredibly intriguing to watch throughout training camp, is how the moves Seattle has made will impact the defensive line and front seven as a whole.

The Seahawks bolstered their pass rush by adding defensive ends Cliff Avril and Michael Bennett in free agency. They then added a pair of defensive tackles in the draft — Jesse Williams, who should push Tony McDaniel for the starting role vacated by Alan Branch, and Jordan Hill, who figures to be more off a rotational tackle used to bolster the interior pass rush. Those players join a line of returning starters Brandon Mebane, Red Bryant, and Chris Clemons (though he may not be back for the start of the season), as well as last year’s first-round pick Bruce Irvin. And Greg Scruggs, Jaye Howard and Clint McDonald figure to battle for roles the rotation as well.

So how the heck is that all going to shake out? How will Carroll find enough snaps for all those new players he added as well as the ones coming back? And who exactly is going to play where?

“This is a very good group, this should be the most competitive group we have, we have a lot of versatility and we have to figure out how it fits together,” Carroll said. “But this is not something we worry about, this is something we can’t wait to see how it unfolds. Hopefully we can keep a big rotation going, keep guys healthy and keep them fast and playing at a high level. If we’re doing that then we’re on the right track. There is a variety of guys, and we love that. So we’ll fit them together as we move forward.”

From hearing Carroll talk about his line, it sounds like he has plenty of ideas, but until he gets everyone on the practice field, he doesn’t know exactly how this will all shake out. What is pretty apparent, however, is that any uncertainty about the line is a good thing, not a problem.

“It’s just, let it kind of unfold as the competition occurs and see who takes to the frontline of it,” Carroll said. “How much can Michael Bennett affect what’s going on? How much do we need to play him in early downs because of his pass-rush ability? We know we’re going to play him in nickel and third-down situations. We’re counting on Red and Mebane to give us the consistency we’ve had to build around. And now with Cliff and his play off the edge, and Bruce and Clem, that variety we can mix in, it just gives us a lot of good shots to do good things. … We just need to get a sense of how guys are taking to it and how it all fits together. It should be really exciting.”

The reality of the NFL is that injuries will at some point be a factor, so roles may be defined by default if that happens, but what might this defense look if everyone is healthy and playing well?

The line in Seattle’s base defense figures to still be Bryant at one end spot and Clemons at the other — though Avril or Irvin may start the season there if Clemons isn’t recovered from knee surgery — and Brandon Mebane at one tackle spot with Williams and McDaniel battling for the other. As Carroll mentioned, Bennett will be a factor on passing downs, and may force his way onto the field more often depending on how he plays. Jordan Hill should also see more playing time in those passing situations, and Irvin will again come in as a situation pass rusher.

And not only is the line rotation going to be interesting to watch, so too is the effect that has on what Seattle does at linebacker. Leroy Hill, Seattle’s longtime starting weakside linebacker, is a free agent and very unlikely to come back at this point. But despite that vacancy, Seattle did not make that position a priority in the draft. Carroll said part of that has to do with the confidence they have in Malcolm Smith, who started three games last year. But also because the flexibility of players like Avril and Irvin means we may see those players going between linebacker and end in order to get more pass rushers on the field. Carroll has mentioned a few times that his defense has flexibility between the strongside linebacker position (K.J. Wright) and the “leo” end spot (Clemons). So with so many good pass rushers now available, the Seahawks will at times get another pass rusher like Avril or Irvin on the field at strongside linebacker. Wright could move to weakside linebacker, or come off the field if the Seahawks like Smith better in that role.

“We’ve always done it,” Carroll said of the strongside/leo flexibility. “With the guys that we have, we see that there’s reason to accent some of the stuff that we’re doing with those guys. Cliff is a very versatile football player, Bruce is a very versatile football player, Clem is. So those guys give us an ability to mix a little bit more. … It’s nothing new for us, but we think now, Cliff really brings a great element of rushing the passer, and we know Bruce does too, and Clem. By the time Clem gets healthy, we should be in pretty good swing with how it’s fitting together, but we’re excited about it.”

Oh, and if all of that doesn’t make the defense hard enough to figure out, consider that the addition of nickel cornerback Antoine Winfield, a very strong run defender, could tempt Carroll and company to play with five defensive backs on the field more often, especially considering that Kam Chancellor plays the run like a linebacker.

So what exactly will this defense, and the front seven in particular, look like in 2013? That’s really tough to say right now, but following free agency and the draft, we do know it’s going to be very intriguing to watch it all play out.

Herald Writer John Boyle:

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