Editor’s note: Bob Condotta of the Seattle Times periodically answers readers’ questions in an online format he calls “Seahawks Mailbag.” Following are excerpts from his answer to a question recently submitted by Seattle Times follower Blake Long:
Q. In regards to L.J. Collier, DK Metcalf and Shaquem Griffin: What is the team’s goal for these three players to work up to during training camp and/or season for Week 1 of the regular season?
A: If you literally mean every-down players then, no, that won’t probably won’t happen for any of the three.
But in terms of being regulars at their position – playing significantly in their rotational roles – then Collier and Metcalf will be given every opportunity.
As for Griffin, he will be, too. But he has some stiff competition ahead of him to earn regular playing time, and logically it’s not easy to see that happening unless there are injuries to veterans ahead of him.
Let’s look at each player’s possible role.
The basic plan for Collier, Seattle’s first-round pick in the 2019 draft, is to play what the team calls the “five-technique’’ defensive end position in the base defense (or when there are four linemen, three linebackers and four defensive backs on the field) and then move inside in the nickel (two linebackers, five DBs) and/or dime (six DBs) packages.
The five-technique end is the player who lines up on the strong side of the defense, meaning with the strong-side linebacker typically lined up to his right.
That’s opposite of the team’s LEO, or rush end, spot, who lines up on the weak side of the defense, or with no linebacker to that side.
Frank Clark was the team’s primary LEO, or rush end, last season, and the plan is for him to be replaced primarily by free-agent signee Ziggy Ansah, but with other players such as Cassius Marsh, Jacob Martin and maybe Barkevious Mingo also filling in there.
The team’s main five-technique ends heading into camp are Collier, Rasheem Green, Quinton Jefferson and Branden Jackson.
Jefferson, in fact, emerged as the primary player at that spot last season, playing 56% of the snaps, third most of any of the defensive linemen behind Jarran Reed’s 78% and Clark’s 73.46% (numbers from Pro Football Reference).
The snap counts for Reed and Clark were on the upper end of what Seattle prefers for its defensive linemen.
What Seattle coach Pete Carroll really wants, rather than having to depend on a few players for the majority of snaps, is a solid seven- to eight-man rotation where there is little drop-off when going from one player to the next.
That’s what Seattle had in the Super Bowl season of 2013 when no one on the line played more than 57.39% of the snaps. That’s how many Michael Bennett, technically a backup that year, played, which led all of the defensive linemen.
But seven others (Cliff Avril, Red Bryant, Brandon Mebane, Clinton McDonald, Bruce Irvin, Chris Clemons and Tony McDaniel) played from 46 to 53% of the snaps that season, meaning Seattle could always put fresh/rested players on their line who could also play effectively, something that coaches felt was as vital to the team’s success as a lot of other things that may have gotten more attention.
That’s the Carroll template, and what they are hoping to build again.
As for Collier, I think if he’s around the 50% snap count range this year then that’s probably the ideal. They obviously are hoping he can develop quickly into a player who can help them significantly.
But more than a number of snaps, what will be the key for Collier is becoming an effective player on what they hope is a deeper – and hence, better – defensive line.
As the offseason program ended, Seattle’s typical starters in three-receiver sets – which the Seahawks used 66% of the time last season, according to sharpfootballstats.com – were Tyler Lockett, David Moore and Jaron Brown.
Carroll and others raved about the offseason being had by Moore and Brown, who each had some moments of flashy productivity last year – especially Moore – but also went fairly long periods of not producing much at all.
Who knows? Maybe the comments about Moore and Brown were designed in part to defuse some of the hype and resulting expectations that came Metcalf’s way following the draft and rookie minicamp.
But if the season began today, the Lockett-Moore-Brown trio is what I’d expect to see starting.
That would leave Metcalf working his way in as the fourth receiver, which I think the team would be just fine with to start out. That would allow the Seahawks to buy some time for Metcalf to get fully comfortable with the offense while also finding spots to use him early on where he can be most effective.
Sports tends to be a “judge everything immediately’’ world these days, but I think the Seahawks will be more than content if they ease Metcalf in some to start out to allow him to get some success and build some confidence, and then let his play – and that of others – dictate how many snaps he gets instead of going in with a preconceived idea of how much they want to use him.
But the Seahawks also won’t rule out anything.
If Metcalf has an otherworldly preseason and shows he’s ready to be in the regular three-receiver rotation ahead of Brown or Moore – and it’s one of those two he’d have to beat out – then I don’t think they’d have any issue making that call.
But their comments and the way the receivers were used in the offseason program indicates to me that they plan to start out with the three vets (which, given the youth of this receiving corps, Moore is at this point) and ease in the young players.
The drafting of two inside linebackers – Cody Barton and Ben Burr-Kirven – and trying to make the most use of his skill set compelled the Seahawks to give Griffin a new role this offseason.
Specifically, after spending last year playing solely at weak-side linebacker, he spent OTAs and minicamp used as a weak-side linebacker in the nickel defense and a strong-side linebacker in the base defense – roles he feels are more akin to what he did in college – while also hinting they’ll put in some specialty packages when he could also be used as a rusher.
But earning regular playing time in those linebacker roles won’t be easy.
Carroll has never really rotated linebackers situationally, with one of the strengths of Seattle’s defense through the years being that players such as Bobby Wagner and K.J. Wright were so adept at everything that they never needed to come off the field, equally proficient against the run and pass.
Wright re-signed to again play the weak-side spot and has made it clear he has no intention of being used situationally (not that that is ultimately his call, but it is his goal). Seattle also re-signed Mychal Kendricks, who filled in for Wright at WLB when Wright was injured last season, and also returns Austin Calitro, who also played WLB at times last season when both Wright and Kendricks were out, and was ahead of Griffin on the depth chart at that spot when the season ended.
Seattle, though, wants to use Wright and Kendricks together this year, if it can. And assuming Kendricks is available – which Carroll said the team expects – then he appears poised to be the starting strong-side linebacker, a spot he has played before during his career with the Eagles, creating a likely starting LB trio of Wagner, Wright and Kendricks. Recall that Carroll said in March that using those three together could make the linebacking trio “the best we’ve ever had.”
Mingo, last year’s starter at SLB, also returns. And while his contract makes Mingo a potential cap casualty (Seattle could save $4.1 million releasing him), the Seahawks appear to be giving every chance for him to stick around, with Carroll saying they plan to use him more as a pass rusher this season.
Mingo was one of the team’s best special teams players last year – his 373 special teams snaps were 94 more than anyone else – and Carroll said at the end of minicamp his special teams roles means Seattle would like to carve out enough of a defensive presence for Mingo to keep him around.
“We want to make sure we get a good role for him so he can help us on defense,’’ Carroll said.
If Mingo stays, then he’s likely the backup SLB behind Kendricks. Martin, though, can play there, too – he remains officially listed as a linebacker.
So in essence, to earn any regular playing time as a linebacker, Griffin has to beat out Wright, Kendricks, Burr-Kirven and Calitro as a WLB in nickel situations, and Kendricks, Mingo and Martin as an SLB in passing downs (Barton was used solely as an MLB throughout the offseason program).
And that means that the first question that has to be answered about Griffin is simply whether he makes the team.
It could ultimately turn out to be a two-man battle between Mingo and Griffin, and that’s where the salary cap could play a huge role.
Kendricks also is on a one-year deal and Wright signed a two-year contract, so Seattle will also have to keep the long-term future of its linebacking corps in mind when it makes roster decisions.
All of which makes the battles for the final spots on the roster at linebacking among the many intriguing ones to follow when training camp begins July 25.
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