Nearly one year ago, the Seahawks made the choice to place the franchise tag on star defensive end Frank Clark with hopes of eventually signing him to a long-term deal.
Unfortunately, discussions between Seattle and Clark’s representatives went nowhere. With the player choosing not to sign his tender and the organization hurting draft capital-wise, general manager John Schneider traded him to Kansas City for a first-round pick and a future second-round pick in April.
Dealing away Clark brought the Seahawks much-needed draft picks, but the decision also created a huge void for the team to fill defensively. The former second-round pick led the team with 13.0 sacks and somehow, his production needed to be replaced.
Using the No. 29 overall selection acquired in the trade with the Chiefs, Schneider tried to fill the gap to an extent by picking TCU defensive end Authentic L.J. Collier Jersey, who had jumped on the team’s radar with a fantastic week at the Senior Bowl in Mobile, Alabama in January.
Though not known as an elite pass rusher, the 283-pound Collier produced 6.0 sacks and 11 tackles for loss in his final season with the Horned Frogs. He displayed excellent versatility rushing from the edge as well as reduced inside on passing downs, something Seattle prefers from its base defensive end spot.
After impressing during the Seahawks’ offseason program, Collier looked poised to play extensive snaps as a rookie. But then, he crumpled to the turf near the end of the team’s third training camp practice during a scrimmage and had to be carted off the field.
“We were lucky that we had him. We thought we were going to lose him for the season that day,” Schneider said. “We’re lucky that we didn’t have to place him on I.R.”
As coach Pete Carroll described it back in August, this wasn’t the typical garden variety high or low ankle sprain. Collier had suffered a significant, rare injury that put his rookie season in doubt, and initially, injured reserve seemed probable.
But as training camp progressed, Collier progressed from his “funky” ankle sprain faster than originally anticipated. By the end of the preseason, he was running sprints and slowly starting to work back into change of direction drills, a positive sign he’d be able to return to the field soon.
Still, the damage had been done. Even with Collier bouncing back in time to make his Seahawk debut in Week 2 against the Steelers, the first-round pick struggled to overcome missing crucial reps in training camp and exhibition play.
“He had that terrible injury right at the wrong time to get us started,” Carroll commented at the NFL Scouting Combine. “And he had to battle his way back from it.”
Having missed the entire preseason, Collier found himself trying to play catch-up throughout his rookie campaign. Unable to move up the depth chart, he battled a numbers game all year long and was a healthy scratch six times, including both of Seattle’s playoff games.
Collier wrapped up his disappointing first season with just three tackles and a single quarterback pressure in 11 games, playing a grand total of 152 defensive snaps. That equates to less than 15 percent of the Seahawks defensive snaps.
“Obviously, we would have liked to have seen him make a little bit more of a dent,” Schneider said while reflecting on Collier’s season. “But his checkout meeting was awesome. He’s really excited about next year and what that brings.”
While some fans have been quick to already label Collier as a bust, the Seahawks still believe he has the talent to rebound next season. With Jadeveon Clowney, Quinton Jefferson, and Jarran Reed all hitting free agency, the organization will be counting on him to contribute at multiple positions.
When Seattle’s offseason program kicks off next month, Carroll indicated Collier will compete against Rasheem Green and possibly Jefferson, if re-signed, for the starting base defensive end spot. He will also have a chance to carve out a role as an interior rusher on passing downs.
After drawing comparisons to former Pro Bowl defensive end Michael Bennett last summer, Schneider hasn’t backed down from that stance. Despite the lack of production as a rookie, Collier is eager to take advantage of a clean slate in year two and expectations remain high within the organization.
“He’s a powerful rusher, he’s got great hands, he can rush inside, he can rush outside. He can rush the five [technique], rush the three. We’re excited.”
With the Seahawks desperate for pass rush help, a stellar second season from Collier could work wonders for the NFL’s 26th ranked defense. Even if he doesn’t live up to the Bennett comparisons, emerging as a rotational defender who excels stopping the run and can help pressure opposing quarterbacks would be monumental for his development and the team.