Hawks again need to build a defense to match the 49ers

The 49ers have what the Seahawks need: The division title and the defense required to attain it.

Led by Nick Bosa, the 49ers have the best defense in the league – one that reminds some of the Legion of Boom that led Seattle to three division titles and two Super Bowls.

“They look just like us,” former LOBer K.J. Wright said on Seattle Sports Radio after the 49ers swept the Seahawks for the first time since 2011.

“They’re nasty. They’re aggressive. They’re mean,” Wright said. “They’re getting the ball. They quite frankly don’t give a you-know-what when they step on the football field. … I admire what they do on the football field. … And they’re so sound. It’s so sound and it’s so aggressive and it’s so physical. It’s a beautiful thing to watch. … This is the best defense in the NFL.”

Like the old LOB, the 49ers are tops in both yards and scoring. They have been top five in yards the past four years – like Jim Harbaugh’s 2011-14 defense that gave the Seahawks so many gritty battles and led the way to three straight NFC title games.

The 49ers fell on hard times after that stretch, which is how they ended up with a star-studded line that once included Arik Armstead (17th overall in 2015), DeForest Buckner (No. 7 in 2016), Solomon Thomas (No. 3 in 2017) and Bosa (No. 2 in 2019) and still features Bosa, Armstead and Javon Kinlaw (No. 14 in 2020, via a trade of Buckner).

Meanwhile, during that 2015-21 stretch, the Seahawks never drafted higher than 27th. John Schneider used trades to try to make up for the low draft position that was the byproduct of winning.

The first-round picks in those years netted (via trades and picks) Jimmy Graham (2015); Germain Ifedi and Nick Vannett (2016); Malik McDowell, Lano Hill, Tedric Thompson, Mike Tyson and Chris Carson (2017); Rashaad Penny, Rasheem Green and Alex McGough (2018); L.J. Collier, DK Metcalf, Marquise Blair, Ugo Amadi, Ben Burr-Kirven, Gary Jennings and Travis Homer (2019); Jordyn Brooks (27th overall in 2020); Jamal Adams (2021 first-rounder traded for him).

That’s 20 players from seven first-rounders, trying to use quantity to make up for the quality the 49ers were getting via their high picks. (Thomas was the only one not to work out for San Fran, although late first-rounders Josh Garnett and Reuben Foster were busts as well. But the 49ers also added mid-round linebackers Fred Warner and Dre Greenlaw, who finish off a fantastic front seven.)

Of the Seahawks’ 20 players from first-rounders across seven drafts, Metcalf has been the only one to emerge as a star. Graham and Carson were good when healthy. Ifedi was below average (the Seahawks didn’t even want him back for cheap). Vannett and Green were decent role players (Green had injury issues). McDowell, Penny, Collier and Blair all were busts in the late first or second round.

Now Schneider and the Hawks are back in the top half of the draft, thanks to the Russell Wilson trade. And Schneider has shown he can play it by the book when he is picking up top.

In 2010, he used No. 6 and 14 on Russell Okung and Earl Thomas – foundations of the Super Bowl units. In 2012, Schneider moved down from 12 to 15 to take Bruce Irvin. This year, he drafted Charles Cross with the first Wilson pick, ninth overall.

Next year, Schneider is looking at a top-five pick from Denver, so he should have his shot at getting his own Bosa — Alabama’s Will Anderson Jr. or Georgia’s Jalen Carter — and then some other front-seven players with Seattle’s first-rounder and two second-rounders.

Pete Carroll said this week that he plans to stay with the 3-4 base. But the Hawks clearly have to upgrade the talent up front.

As Ray Roberts recently tweeted (edited), “At this point, it ain’t about scheme & formations. It’s about individual performance. They can run 4-3, 3-4, 5-2, 3-3-5 — hell, 11 in the box — and you still have to win 1:1 battles or eat up double-teams to free up LBs — and they have to fill and make tackles. Those individual wins are not happening consistently or enough.”

In the offseason, Seattle needs to add two stud linemen and a thumper at inside linebacker. Can they get all three in the draft (while also adding interior offensive linemen)? Will they venture into free agency to replace Poona Ford, Shelby Harris and Quinton Jefferson?

The top-five pick – and the later pick (which right now is No. 15) – probably won’t be enough. Instead of bringing back Ford at $8 million and Harris at $9 million, they should pay a more impactful lineman – maybe Washington’s Daron Payne or Philadelphia’s Javon Hargrave.

Here’s one scenario: The Hawks sign Hargrave, draft Carter (6-3, 311) in the top five then make sure to get Oregon linebacker Noah Sewell (6-3, 251). Add Baylor nose tackle Siaki Ika (6-4, 351) in the second round.

That would set up this seemingly promising lineup:

CarterIka/WoodsHargrave 
NwosuSewellBrooksMafe

Of course, they probably won’t want to pay Payne or Hargrave; they more likely will hope either Harris (at a lower salary) or Ford (a free agent) benefits from Carter and the new nose tackle (whether it’s Ika, another stout rookie or a veteran).

Some think the Hawks are two offseasons away from rebuilding their defense (some think Carroll already has proven since 2018 that he can’t do it at all).

But the secondary is already in place, and the Hawks have the draft capital and cap flexibility to upgrade their entire front seven.

If they can do it in 2023, they might just repeat what happened a decade ago, when they supplanted the 49ers as the NFC’s top team.

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