How the Seahawks' new draft picks fit Mike Macdonald's vision on defense (2024)

John Schneider’s job is mostly done. The Seattle Seahawks’ general manager hired a new coach, reshuffled the roster in free agency and just finished assembling his 15th draft class. Now he’ll pass the baton to that coach, Mike Macdonald, whose primary job in Year 1 is to fix Seattle’s defense.

The roster on that side is basically set. Schneider will sign a handful of rookie free agents and maybe a couple of inexpensive veterans, but it’s unlikely anyone acquired after this weekend would be guaranteed a spot on the 53-man roster. Pending the completion of rookie free agency, Seattle’s roster has 37 defensive players. Assuming all four draftees make the team, let’s project how the depth chart might look and where the rookies fit.

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At defensive tackle, Seattle is looking at a starting lineup of Jarran Reed, Leonard Williams and Dre’Mont Jones, with a second-string rotation featuring some combination of Johnathan Hankins, Cameron Young, Mike Morris and rookie Byron Murphy II. The outside linebacker rotation should be the same as at the start of last season: Uchenna Nwosu, Boye Mafe, Darrell Taylor and Derick Hall.


The inside linebacker room will probably only have one returning member from last season between Jon Rhattigan, Patrick O’Connell and Drake Thomas, who suffered a season-ending leg injury against the Ravens last year. One of them will join Tyrel Dodson, Jerome Baker and fourth-round rookie Tyrice Knight.

Schneider said the decision not to draft a safety this weekend was influenced in part by how the team feels about its current players at that position. Julian Love and Rayshawn Jenkins should be the starters, with K’Von Wallace and Coby Bryant competing for playing time. Jerrick Reed II should be in the mix as well when he recovers from the knee injury he suffered in November.

Seattle’s top three cornerbacks are Devon Witherspoon, Riq Woolen and Tre Brown. Artie Burns, Mike Jackson and Lance Boykin are on the roster as well, but they could end up on the outside looking in because of the two draft picks, DJ James and Nehemiah Pritchett.

Explaining his vision for the defense, Macdonald expressed a desire for versatility while also saying he plans to accentuate what his players do well. If a player has an elite trait, versatility isn’t as important as trying to get everything out of that one high-level skill. But, Macdonald said, if players have multiple elite traits, “Now all of a sudden we can present the same looks and do multiple things out of those looks and create matchups.”

Watch live as Mike Macdonald and John Schneider recap the final day of the NFL Draft.

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“It’s this one big moving puzzle,” Macdonald added. “If you have more options, you can get to more stuff more easily and now you’re creating better matchups for your guys, and ultimately you’re in a better spot to win each situation that’s given.”

Macdonald said forcing players into multiple positions can be counterproductive if the best version of a given player means being great at one thing. Development can be hampered if a player is a jack of all trades but a master of none.

“You want smart football players that can adapt and adjust, but (if) we’ve moved guys and they’re playing 17 positions, and I come up here and brag to you about how our guys are moving around, it’s like, well, is that best for the player?” he said. “Is he going to be able to play his best football if he’s playing 17 positions? I don’t think that’s the right answer for you. But if he’s playing a couple things that he can play really well but it’s complementary, I think we’re in our wheelhouse.

“When we say versatile, it’s not like they’re doing a thousand things. It’s just a complementary menu where you can kind of keep it moving and keep the offense off balance.”

So, how do the rookies fit into that vision?

Murphy’s fit is straightforward. His skill set is similar to that of Williams, who is strong enough to handle double teams as a nose tackle, quick enough to penetrate as a one-gapper from other alignments and powerful and explosive enough to rush the passer from the interior. He might not play next to Williams very often, but his presence should ensure there’s not a drop-off up front when Williams needs a breather.

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Pritchett’s special trait is his speed. At the scouting combine, he ran 4.36 in the 40-yard dash, which was actually slower than he expected to run. Pritchett said he once ran 4.28 during training. Schneider just happened to be in the media room during Pritchett’s conference call, overheard that claim and quipped, “Is that good?” It’s not only good, but it’s also in line with what we’ve seen from Seattle’s successful cornerbacks in the past couple of years.

Woolen ran 4.26, and his recovery speed is at a different level than any of Seattle’s other defensive backs. Woolen struggled as a tackler last season, but he still had 11 pass breakups and finished in the top 25 among cornerbacks in passer rating allowed, according to Next Gen Stats. Witherspoon recovered from a hamstring injury and ran 4.43 at his pro day last spring. His speed is a weapon whether he’s blitzing, defending deep passes or returning an interception for a touchdown. Woolen and Witherspoon are the last two Pro Bowlers Schneider has drafted, at any position.


Long speed isn’t everything, but Pritchett combines it with patient feet. If Witherspoon continues to play outside cornerback in base packages and then move inside in nickel and dime, Pritchett will compete with Brown and Jackson for that other spot on the outside. Brown and Jackson have the benefit of experience and familiarity with defensive backs coach Karl Scott, so the rookie has his work cut out for him.

Burns moved to nickel at the end of the preseason last year, but nothing is guaranteed for a 29-year-old cornerback on a $1.1 million deal. James is 5-foot-11, 175 pounds and isn’t the same athlete as Pritchett, but he was more productive on the ball, totaling 21 passes defensed and three interceptions in two seasons at Auburn. James is an example of a guy who might not have one elite skill but can do a few different things well, like play the ball well in man coverage from multiple alignments. He might end up as Witherspoon’s backup.

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“I’m ready to play whatever position they need me to play,” James said. “If that’s nickel, if that’s outside corner, I can play them both.”

Schneider referred to Macdonald as the “linebacker guru,” which might explain why he gushed about Knight on Saturday, talking up the former UTEP linebacker’s processing speed, quick trigger and tackling skills. Last season, Knight had 140 tackles (15.5 for loss), 4.5 sacks and seven passes defensed. He was able to be so productive, Macdonald said, because he was “moving where the ball is going kind of before everybody else.”

“The first thing that pops out on the tape is he sees the game quickly,” Macdonald said. “He stays square. I think he brings some thump at the point of attack. … Linebackers are paid to make tackles. He makes a lot of tackles, so that’s a good thing.”

Linebackers are also paid to cover, which, according to Dane Brugler of The Athletic, wasn’t Knight’s strength. Brugler wrote that Knight played with panicky steps in man coverage that led to issues in space, and he needs to work on recognizing routes. Macdonald views Knight as a project in coverage but also sees the necessary tools to develop that part of his game. Knight was a Mike linebacker in college but will likely start his pro career at Will.

“You got to be able to go through us and not around us, so we’re going to ask our inside ‘backers to play anything from out of the backfield,” Macdonald said, adding that covering inside receivers to the weak side of the field will be key as well. “We’ll see how well he does that. But I think staying square and being able to play the middle of defense is important. You’ve got to be in a position to break and handle checkdowns and press into routes and live in worlds that we’re going to live in.

“He hasn’t done all the things we’re going to ask him to do schematically, but nobody ever does (in college), so you’re looking at how he moves and how he thinks and try to project it the best you can.”

(Photo of Byron Murphy II: Maria Lysaker / USA Today)

How the Seahawks' new draft picks fit Mike Macdonald's vision on defense (2024)


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