Thursday, July 28, 2011

Lockout Hangover: Seattle's Defensive Free Agents

Continuing a look at Seattle's own free agents waiting to be re-signed, starting with the most important.

Brandon Mebane, DT

Mebane, now a full free agent with the new CBA voiding his earlier third-round tender, is an above-average defensive tackle who exceeds the usual definition of "jack of all trades": he can do everything, but can also do most of them well. He's also the only player that qualifies as anything like a starter at 3-tech defensive tackle; the next best still on the roster is Barrett Moen. Coupled with Mebane's experience with Seattle's schemes, this should theoretically tie Seattle's hands and make him a shoo-in to be resigned.

Alas, that may not be. Inexplicably, the Seahawks have refused for two years now to play Mebane at over tackle, where he has an established record of success in both pass-rushing and run-stuffing. Both were diminished when Seattle moved him over to under tackle and replaced him with Colin Cole, an exclusive run stuffer whose inability to rush the passer continues to hold the defense back. Pete Carroll's gap tweaking did little to alleviate this. With his mis-use clouding his performance, Mebane is made to look less valuable than he is.

The league isn't fooled. You shouldn't be either.

Interestingly, Seattle seems to be getting pushed towards better use of Mebane by circumstances beyond their control. Colin Cole's recent injury leaves Seattle thinner than ever at DT, and since rumors persist that Seattle is close to re-signing Mebane, they've probably been forced to outbid Denver, Chicago, St. Louis, New Orleans, and who knows who else. An expensive but essential player like Mebane would almost have to be played at his most natural and effective position - the 1-tech, where he could still have an elite ceiling - just to generate enough production to justify the cost.

One thing is for certain: the team cannot afford to lose what little interior pass rush they already have. That's what happens if they let him walk.

Urgency Factor (out of 10): 9

Lawyer Milloy, SS

A lot of fans judge Milloy purely on the basis of one bad (and unfortunately fatal) play against Chicago, but he deserves to be remembered for more than that. Like most veterans, he injected awareness, play recognition, and toughness into an increasingly young backfield in 2010. He lost nothing as a tackler and run defender, and his blitzing skills have aged surprisingly well.

Unfortunately, his age cannot be ignored. He was always a thumper-safety rather than a coverage player, even in his prime, but what Seattle needs right now is a little more speed in the backfield. Milloy's protege, Kam Chancellor, combines the advantage of youth with Milloy's awareness and toughness, and should be given the starting nod at this point whether Milloy returns or not. The continued draft additions to the backfield only make Milloy more of an afterthought, and even as a backup, that secondary's already pretty crowded.

Urgency Factor: 3

Kelly Jennings, CB

One of Tim Ruskell's more glaring first-round busts, Jennings found his precocious coverage abilities almost completely nullified by his sub-professional frame and weight and his inability to make plays on the ball. He gets destroyed by blockers, defeated on attempted jams, and lost as a blitzer. An apparent confidence problem didn't help. He might make a decent dime corner, but Seattle is already rich with dime corners hand-picked by Pete Carroll, whose emphasis on physicality at the position doesn't seem to leave much room for the unfortunate Jennings.

Urgency Factor: 2

Leroy Hill, OLB

Remember this guy? With Lofa Tatupu declining and David Hawthorne overrated in some areas, Hill might yet have a role as the reliable "cleanup" linebacker he used to be. Only training camp will reveal whether Hill has stayed in shape through his legal ordeals, or whether Carroll is willing to give the guy a second chance. K.J. Wright might bump him out, but it's looking as if Anthony Heygood will be released.

Urgency Factor: 4

Craig Terrill, DT

Some players just keep turning up. Terrill makes okay depth and offers the occasional thrilling field-goal block, but his pass-rushing is pretty one-dimensional and the defense has a habit of giving up big plays whenever he and Cole are manning the middle together.

Urgency Factor: 4

Jordan Babineaux, S

A more pronounced version of Terrill, Babineaux's big plays are exclamation points in between quarters of mediocre coverage. There's something to be said for such players, but again, Carroll seems to be filling out his backfield rather intentionally. It's hard to say whether Babineaux has a future here, but whatever team that picks him up will, on rare occasion, be happy they did.

Urgency Factor: 4

Closing Shots

In general, Seattle's free-agent stable has three distinct stalls: expendable role-players, expired veterans, and solid players at cornerstone positions whose value is inflated by injury and by the rebuild.

I see Mebane and Spencer as crucial, perhaps not to Seattle's long-term future, but at the very least to its current stability. Sometimes it's wiser to just accept what you have, even when it's not the absolute best, for the sake of minimizing unstable elements while you fill much deeper holes. Losing Rob Sims for the sake of "scheme" turned out to be a lateral move that the team probably regrets now. Lateral moves at defensive tackle and center could turn out much worse. I just don't see any reason to be that aggressive about the rebuild at this point.

It doesn't say a lot about our defense that so many of these guys are scoring low on the urgency factor, that's for sure.

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