John Schneider says Seahawks’ defensive rebuild ‘coming along’ but not done

PHOENIX — Almost a month ago, Seahawks general manager John Schneider stood before media at the NFL combine in Indianapolis and offered a frank assessment of a defense that ranked 25th in the league in points allowed in 2022.

“We need to be better up front,” Schneider said. “I think it was pretty evident. … We know what the issues are, and we’re ready to attack them and fix them.”

On Tuesday, two weeks into the free-agent signing period, Schneider met the media here at the annual league meetings, having spearheaded several moves to fix the defensive issues.

How does Schneider think the team has done?

“It’s coming along,” Schneider said. “It’s definitely coming along. We definitely need three or four more guys that we need to help out on that side. But the quality of guys we’ve added, I’m really happy about it.”

Indeed, the team’s free-agency splurge made clear Seattle’s intent.

Of the Seahawks’ six external free agents signed, five are on defense — linemen Dre’Mont Jones and Jarran Reed, linebackers Bobby Wagner and Devin Bush and safety Julian Love.

Jones represents the biggest financial investment, with a three-year contract worth up to just over $51 million.

Wagner represents the biggest emotional investment, with the Seahawks bringing back one of their most legendary and beloved players after a year in Los Angeles.

“It’s awesome,” Schneider said of Wagner returning. “He is and forever will be an icon. Arguably the greatest defensive player in team history.”

But Wagner is also 33 and will be entering his 12th season.

Schneider intriguingly hinted that Wagner, who has played at least 93% of the snaps every season since his rookie year in 2012, may not be expected to be an every-down player next season.

“I think [coach] Pete [Carroll] and [defensive coordinator] Clint [Hurtt] have a really cool plan in terms of he doesn’t have to be out there 1,000 plays,” Schneider said of Wagner, who has played 1,054 or more each of the past four years. “They’ll be able to see how he does and be able to manage the situations and especially with the new guys coming in, with Julian and Bush, like how they are going to rotate all those guys. It will be cool.”

That could mean Wagner playing on early downs and maybe helping the Seahawks with their biggest weakness a year ago, defending the run — they were 26th in the league last year in yards allowed per carry — and possibly coming off the field on obvious passing downs, when the Seahawks could use three, or even four, safeties at once.

Schneider also hinted that Seattle’s biggest attraction to Bush was his run defense. 

Bush will essentially replace weakside linebacker Cody Barton, who signed with Washington, with Wagner and Brooks playing middle linebacker.

Schneider said Bush is an “explosive” player who will “come downhill when a guard is pulling and just strike that dude. He’s heavier than Cody. Cody’s more like run and hit. But this guy is, like, he just feels heavier at the point of attack.”

Seattle’s signing of Love to a two-year contract worth up to $12 million, meanwhile, caught some by surprise given that the team’s starting safeties — Jamal Adams and Quandre Diggs — represent its two biggest salary-cap hits. Adams has an $18.11 million cap hit in 2023 and Diggs $18.10 million. 

Seattle also placed a right-of-first-refusal tender to hopefully keep restricted free-agent safety Ryan Neal.

But Schneider reiterated what Carroll said during his half-hour session with reporters early Tuesday as part of the league meetings’ traditional coach’s breakfast. Carroll said signing Love did not indicate the team is contemplating any move with Adams but was too good of a player to pass up. 

Love also serves as a hedge in case Adams isn’t ready for the start of the season. Adams is recovering from a knee injury suffered in the season opener last season. Schneider said Love could play the nickel and either safety spot.

“The Julian thing had nothing to do with Jamal,” Schneider said. “It’s great if Jamal can’t go right away [that] we’ve got a guy. Damn good player. But, yeah, that wasn’t [a statement on Adams].”

But the Seahawks made a statement in signing Jones, a 26-year-old who spent the past four years with the Broncos and was regarded as one of the best defensive linemen available.

The Seahawks have not been known for making big moves early in free agency during most of the Schneider/Carroll era. But the needs up front and Jones’ availability made them change course.

The Seahawks also were known to have pursued Arizona end Zach Allen. But he agreed to a three-year deal with the Broncos worth up to $45.75 million at roughly the same time Seattle agreed with Jones on first day of the free-agent negotiating period.

Though Schneider didn’t say it, his comments seemed to hint that the moves might have been related, saying the deal with Jones came together as another deal the team was working on fell apart.

“I didn’t think we’d have a chance at him,” Schneider said. “We thought his market would be even stronger than it ended up being and, quite honestly, we got in later on in the day. It just kind of happened. We had been in contact early in the day and had been working on something else that kind of led to that.”

The Seahawks envision Jones playing a role similar to Michael Bennett, as a defensive end able to move inside on passing downs.

Seattle then quickly brought back Reed, a second-round draft pick in 2016 who spent last year with Green Bay and 2021 with the Chiefs after being released when he refused to redo his Seahawks contract.

But a two-year deal worth up to $9 million and a promise of a starting role, with Shelby Harris and Quinton Jefferson released, helped mend fences.

Schneider noted that Reed last season played in a 3-4 system in Green Bay, similar to what the Seahawks have evolved to under Hurtt. 

“He’ll be an end and a nose if we need it,” Schneider said.

That last part is critical, as the Seahawks have an uncertain nose-tackle situation, having cut Al Woods and with Bryan Mone recovering from an ACL injury. Schneider said Mone may not be back until the second half of the 2023 season and added that nose tackle “is an issue for us that we’ve got to figure it out.”

One problem, though, is that the Seahawks have little salary-cap space left, meaning it’s either sign players to cheap deals or wait until the draft — in which Seattle has 10 picks — to fill its needs.

“We are pretty tapped out,” Schneider said. “So we have to be very careful how we proceed.”

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