It took almost two years, but it looks like John Schneider finally found Seattle’s next star pass rusher. And he had better plan to keep him beyond 2021.
In three short games, veteran star Carlos Dunlap has proven to be everything we expected — a grand steal of a deal from the Bengals – and he clearly should be in Seattle’s plans next year and beyond.
After finishing off Arizona with his second sack of Kyler Murray in Seattle’s 28-21 win last Thursday, Dunlap now has 3.5 sacks, seven QB hits and five tackles for loss in three games.
Dunlap is what the Hawks have needed ever since Schneider traded Frank Clark in April 2019 – or, truth be told, ever since Cliff Avril’s career ended in 2017. The GM tried out Jadeveon Clowney on a rental last season, and the former No. 1 overall pick was an effective pass rusher when healthy. Schneider actually ponied up a nice offer ($16 million), but the Seahawks probably were lucky he turned it down as he has had another injury-plagued year since signing with Tennessee.
Bruce Irvin and Benson Mayowa were underwhelming patchwork signings who were never going to be as good as Avril or Clark (injuries have assured that). And second-round pick Darrell Taylor may not show us his game until 2021. With Schneider’s top three new pass rushers non-factors all season, the defense got off to a historically horrendous start. Schneider knew he had to make up for his offseason whiff by somehow finding a legit pass rusher to bail out this unit.
Dunlap’s impact has been obvious. The defense had just 12 sacks through the first seven games but has 13 in three games since he joined the lineup. After foes averaged 30.4 points in the first eight games, the Hawks have held the Rams to 23 and the Cards to 21. This crew is getting better, and Dunlap is a major reason.
“This team is very exciting. I’m happy to be a part of it,” said Dunlap, the Bengals’ all-time sack leader after 10 years in Cincy. “It’s refreshing. I feel lighter. I’m rejuvenated. I’m excited to continue to go to work. They brought me here to do one job, and I’m happy to be able to say I was able to get it done (against Arizona).
“This is just the start,” the 31-year-old Dunlap said. “I’ve still got a full story to write. I’ve still got to prove a point and show up when called upon. This is something that I personally still see myself being able to do for years to come.”
Dunlap should have at least two or three good years left after this one – like many of the top pass rushers in NFL history did in their 30s.
The Seahawks should sign him to an extension – a la Duane Brown, who arrived via trade in 2017 at age 32, signed a new deal in 2018 and is having one of his best seasons in 2020 at age 35.
When Dunlap was acquired three weeks ago, he accepted a deferred $3 million bonus to help the team fit him under a snug 2020 salary cap. With that March roster bonus, he is scheduled to count $14.1 million in 2021, which would be third on the Seahawks behind Russell Wilson and Bobby Wagner. He looks to be worth every bit of that.
Dunlap is one of several Hawks who should be under consideration for new deals after this season, along with Jamal Adams, Tyler Lockett and Michael Dickson. All but Dickson have high cap hits, so new deals would create room, which Seattle (like most teams) may sorely need in 2021.
If the salary cap shrinks by over $20 million, as NFL teams expect, the Seahawks are projected to have just enough money to fill out the roster with rookies (plus the usual set-asides for practice squad, rookie bonuses, injuries).
Seattle’s top seven players would account for 64% of a projected $175 million cap, so Schneider would have to extend or restructure some guys in order to have space to keep Poona Ford, Ethan Pocic and maybe K.J. Wright, Chris Carson or Shaquill Griffin.
Seattle should be able to keep Ford and surprising breakout player Pocic at decent prices. Ford is an RFA who should be tendered at the second-round level ($3.4 million). If Schneider wants to keep Pocic, it shouldn’t cost more than $5 million a year (i.e., $2 million cap hit in 2021). If he finds a better offer elsewhere, he should take it.
After those deals and some ERFA tenders, the Hawks still would need to create $6 million more in space (per OTC) just to cover the basics. Extending Dunlap, Adams and Lockett could do that and give Seattle as much as $10 million to sign other guys.
Even though Adams has been injured and has looked like a one-dimensional safety, he is in line for a major extension. Schneider would not have given up so much for him if he were not planning to re-sign him. It figures to cost around $15 million a year, which would make him the top-paid safety in football. Schneider already should have had a preliminary conversation with Adams’ agent before the trade; it would have been stupid not to when giving up two firsts and a third for a guy.
The Hawks also should extend Lockett again; he’s worth $15 million a year (top 15 in the NFL). DK Metcalf also will be eligible for an extension in 2022 and could look for top dollar (over $20 million). If Schneider doesn’t think he wants to pay that, he will need to make sure to at least keep Lockett. He could afford both, but odds are he won’t pay both.
If Schneider for some reason doesn’t want to extend anyone in 2021, he will have to restructure Russell Wilson’s contract. The cap-frugal Schneider and Matt Thomas do not like doing that because it pushes more money into the future, but they could add $12 million in cap space via the simple conversion of Wilson’s 2021 salary (kicking $6 million to bigger caps in 2022 and 2023).
The only other option to create cap space would be removing some good players – perhaps trading Jarran Reed and/or Quandre Diggs and cutting Jason Myers. Those three would net over $16 million in cap space, but they then would need to be replaced, too. Reed and Diggs also could be extension candidates, but Schneider might not like their prices (Reed is playing for something north of $15 million). If the Hawks don’t plan to keep either beyond 2021, they should look to deal one or both before the draft.
Ford and Pocic seem like the easiest starters to keep. Among the seven others who will be free agents, none seem likely to be back unless it is at Seattle’s bargain prices.
Assuming a $175 million cap, the market would be down for free agents, because only 6-8 teams would have extra cap space to add outside free agents. So, with a depressed market, Wright could come back at under $7 million (maybe count $4 million in 2021 on a two-year deal). Carson may have to settle for a one-year deal (maybe an incentive-heavy $5 million) to try to prove one more time he can stay healthy and get some team to pay him in 2022. Griffin, who plays a more premium position, seems the most likely to find a team willing to pay him (despite his injury issues this season).
One thing Schneider will be conscious of, as always, is the future. The 2022 cap is equally unknown: Would it go up just a little or jump back to normal growth after the depressed 2021? The 2023 ceiling is expected to balloon, with new TV deals coming. There has been talk of borrowing cap space from those future TV years to prevent 2021 from turning into a watered-down season in which many veterans are underpaid or squeezed out. Schneider and Thomas, like all NFL executives, surely are eager to find out how that all is going to work. They should know before the 2021 league year starts in March.
As for Seattle’s other veterans in 2021: Irvin, Mayowa, Greg Olsen, Mike Iupati, Quinton Dunbar and Carlos Hyde are not expected back. The Hawks have replacements for the older guys — Dunlap at LEO, Will Dissly and Colby Parkinson at tight end as Olsen retires, Jordan Simmons or Phil Haynes at guard.
Corner will be Seattle’s top need, by far – especially if Griffin and Dunbar both leave. Hopefully Tre Flowers plays well enough in the second half to make it so they need only one starting corner in 2021. D.J. Reed could be an option, too, but the draft will be a natural place to look.
After the trades for Adams, Dunbar and Dunlap, Schneider doesn’t have many 2021 picks left (2, 4, 5, 7), which is why trading Reed and/or Diggs might end up on the table. Schneider, who will be hungry for more picks, probably could get at least a third-rounder for each.
Of course, Schneider also might prefer to get the most out of those players in their contract years (assuming no holdouts).
Now that Schneider has fixed his pass-rush problem — and thus the defense — with Dunlap, the Seahawks have a chance to contend this season. Then Schneider will need to make sure he keeps Dunlap and makes the necessary moves for 2021 and beyond.