The Seattle Seahawks made their first big move of the 2021 offseason on Monday, releasing edge rusher Carlos Dunlap to free up $14 million in cap space. While a reunion at a lower price remains a possibility, Dunlap should have an active market for his services. His departure once again leaves Seattle without a clear go-to pass rusher, a familiar predicament over the last few seasons. Luckily, this year’s free agent market is full of players who could fill that hole.
Most of Seattle’s newfound cap space will (hopefully) be earmarked for a premier offensive lineman, meaning elite free agent edge rushers like Shaquill Barrett or Yannick Ngakoue aren’t realistic options. However, there are still plenty of talented edge rushers after the first tier who could potentially out-produce those big names. Below, I’ll profile three of the best cost-effective candidates to take over Dunlap’s LEO position in the Seahawks’ defense.
Carlos Dunlap Free Agency Replacements at Edge Rusher
Carl Lawson, Bengals
Who better to replace Carlos Dunlap than the player who made him expendable in Cincinnati? Lawson’s 5.5 sacks last year may not look all that impressive, but that still led the team by a wide margin. No other defender had more than 2.0 as the Bengals finished with the league’s worst sack total. Lawson also posted 44 total pressures, tied for fourth-best in the league and only one less than Defensive Player of the Year Aaron Donald.
Like Dunlap, Lawson played both defensive end and 3-4 outside linebacker in the Bengals’ scheme, making him a great fit for Seattle’s LEO position. His pass rushing prowess should translate easily, but he also would occasionally have to drop into coverage in that role. He’s struggled in his limited experience in that area, allowing 10 completions on 12 targets over the last two seasons. He makes up for it with excellent tackling skills, missing on just two of his 38 tackle attempts last year.
Lawson does come with some injury concerns, as he missed most of 2018 with a torn ACL. However, he played all 16 games last year and has his best football ahead of him at 26 years old. If he can improve his coverage skills and turn a few more of his knockdowns into sacks, he could become a Pro Bowl-caliber player with the Seahawks. Despite this, he’s often overlooked among the top free agent pass rushers. After they address the offensive line, Lawson should be at the top of Seattle’s shopping list.
Romeo Okwara, Lions
Romeo Okwara had nearly double Lawson’s sack total last season with 10.0, but Lawson’s complementary stats give him the edge. That’s not to say Okwara wouldn’t be a great pickup for Seattle. His 31 pressures tied for 22nd in the league, equal to players like Khalil Mack, DeForest Buckner and Cameron Heyward. On top of that, he added 11 tackles for loss, three forced fumbles and also contributed on special teams.
Okwara lined up outside the tackle in Detroit’s nickel defense, but in their 3-4 sets he often slid inside to the three-technique rather than dropping into coverage. As a result, he has even less experience than Lawson in that area, having been targeted just twice last season. Given that, he may seem like a more natural replacement for L.J. Collier than Carlos Dunlap. While he could take snaps from Collier as well, at 260 pounds he’d be undersized for that position. The LEO role would take better advantage of his quickness off the edge.
Okwara will also be 26 next season and hasn’t had any major injury concerns over the past three years. What could be a concern is his lack of consistent production, as he has just one other season with over 1.5 sacks. While his pass rushing skills are too polished for 2020 to be considered a fluke, Seattle certainly shouldn’t break the bank for him. If his asking price falls below his $10.1 million market value, he could headline the Seahawks’ pass rush next season.
Tyus Bowser, Ravens
It may seem odd to include a rotational 3-4 outside linebacker with just two career starts in this list, but Tyus Bowser has the potential to be much greater than his stats would indicate. For context, let’s look at some measurements from the 2017 NFL Combine:
|HT||WT||40yd Dash||Vertical Jump||Broad Jump||3-Cone Drill||Bench|
Player A is Bowser. Player B is 2020 NFL sack leader T.J. Watt. While the two have had wildly different careers since being taken 17 picks apart in the 2017 draft, it’s easy to see why they were valued similarly coming out of college. Bowser may never reach Watt’s level, but he has the speed, quickness and versatility to be a quality replacement for Carlos Dunlap.
Bowser’s 2.0 sacks last season aren’t much to write home about, but his 22 pressures trailed only fellow free agent Matt Judon for the team lead. While those numbers still lags behind Lawson’s and Okwara’s by a comfortable margin, Bowser’s proficiency in coverage is miles ahead. He tied for the league lead among linebackers with three interceptions last year, adding five passes defensed. His opposing passer rating of 42.2 would’ve led all defenders if he were targeted enough to qualify.
Bowser does need to improve his tackling if he is to step into an every-down role. He had missed just one tackle over the two previous seasons, but with increased playing time last year he missed on 11-of-45 tackle attempts. The resulting 24.4% missed tackle percentage ranked fourth-worst in the league. Seattle could mitigate this by subbing him in on obvious passing downs as the Ravens did, but giving sizeable free agent contracts to situational players is generally not a wise investment.
Given Bowser’s relative lack of production and name recognition among the top pass rushers (although he does have possibly the best name in the NFL), he could still be looking for a team after the initial… ahem… flurry of free agent signings. If that happens, a one year “prove it” deal with the Seahawks could appeal to both parties. Even if the 26-year-old doesn’t develop into an every-down player, his presence would allow Seattle to work in redshirt rookie Darrell Taylor slowly rather than depending on him to produce right away. Meanwhile, Bowser would get a chance to showcase his skills in the LEO role and could take another crack at free agency the next year. If the Seahawks miss out on the first two names on this list, Bowser should be on their radar.