Key Seahawks free agents: Leonard Williams, Jordyn Brooks

RENTON, Wash. -- The Seattle Seahawks' first-team defense against the Pittsburgh Steelers in Week 17 included three players who made last month's Pro Bowl on the initial ballot: Devon Witherspoon, Julian Love and Bobby Wagner.

Two others, Quandre Diggs and Riq Woolen, were coming off Pro Bowl seasons from 2022. Two more, Leonard Williams and Dre'Mont Jones, were playing on contracts averaging $21 million and $17.2 million, respectively. Three of the remaining four -- Darrell Taylor, Jarran Reed and Boye Mafe -- were former second-round picks.

So how in the names of Pete Carroll and Clint Hurtt did Seattle allow the third-most yards and the fifth-most points to opposing offenses in 2023? That included 468 yards in the 27-20 loss to Pittsburgh that cost the Seahawks control of their playoff destiny -- and contributed to Carroll and Hurtt losing their jobs.

"We underachieved in my opinion -- greatly," linebacker Jordyn Brooks said heading into Week 18. "We underachieved from top to bottom, I feel like ... we put ourselves in this position. I'm a part of that."

Free agency will soon bring another reminder of how badly Seattle's defense underperformed in 2023. That was despite strong individual seasons from Williams and Brooks, who top the list of 14 Seahawks who are headed towards the open market, both with a big payday awaiting.

And with the Seahawks strapped for cap space, general manager John Schneider and new coach Mike Macdonald may be able to keep only Williams or Brooks, assuming both don't become too pricey for Seattle's budget. OverTheCap (OTC) has the Seahawks at around $5 million over the 2024 spending limit before they create room via cuts and restructures of some of their bloated cap numbers.

Williams, who turns 30 in June, was the Seahawks' best defensive lineman after they acquired him at the trade deadline from the New York Giants. He recorded four sacks, 11 QB hits and nine tackles for loss in 10 games with Seattle. He ranked 18th in pass rush win rate (9.2%) as an interior defender in that span.

"It's really been a joy having him," Carroll said in December. "He's a great kid. He brings a lot of juice. He wants to play every day. It killed him when he had to sit out of practice. He's just got all of the good, positive stuff that you hope a guy could have. You can see him settling in and he's becoming a real factor."

ESPN's Matt Bowen put Williams 16th in his ranking of the top 50 players in this year's free agent class. With 43.5 career sacks and a Pro Bowl on his resume, Williams is a more accomplished player than Jones. He out-produced and out-snapped Jones in their 10 games together, which means Williams will likely be looking to out-earn him on any deal he might sign with Seattle. That would make Jones' $17.2 million average the floor for Williams -- unless he gets to free agency and doesn't have that kind of market.

Joel Corry, a former NFL agent, thinks that unless Williams is determined to stay in Seattle, he likely won't be looking for anything less than the $21 million average of his expiring contract. And one contract analyst from a prominent agency pegged Williams' market in that same territory, predicting he gets something similar to the $21 million average that Javon Hargrave got last March from the San Francisco 49ers at age 30.

Seattle gave up a 2024 second-round pick as well as a 2025 fifth-rounder for Williams, with the Giants paying most of his $10 million in remaining salary. The Seahawks would be in line for as high as a third-round compensatory pick in '25 if they lose him in free agency, but the second-round pick they've parted with -- and the difficulty they've had finding game-wrecking interior players like him over the years -- means there's plenty of incentive to try to keep Williams in the fold.

They won't have the franchise tag to help them. Because Williams has already been tagged twice in his career, the cost for the Seahawks to tag him a third time would be around $36 million, making that a non-starter.

OTC projects the linebacker tag to cost nearly $22 million, making that a prohibitive option with Brooks as well. The contract analyst pegged Brooks' market at around $9-10 million per year, which would put him near the bottom end of the top 10 for inside linebackers in terms of per-year average.

The 27th pick of the 2020 draft, Brooks remarkably made it back for the opener after tearing his ACL in Week 17 of the 2022 season. He played in 16 games, missing the Pittsburgh loss with an ankle injury that slowed him over the final six weeks of the season. And while Brooks finished with 50 fewer tackles than he had in 2022, he recorded 4.5 sacks (after totaling two over his first three seasons) and returned his first career interception for a touchdown.

"I didn't feel like last year was my best for a lot of reasons," Brooks said of 2022, "but I kind of wanted to redeem myself from last year as far as making more impact plays, just overall game. That was kind of my biggest thing coming into this year ... I feel like I've done that."

Joining Williams and Brooks, here's a look at four of the Seahawks' other top soon-to-be free agents:

ILB Bobby Wagner

The future Hall of Famer clearly has plenty left at 33 years old after leading the NFL in tackles last season (183), but the coaching change may work against another return to Seattle. Macdonald doesn't have the same connection to Wagner as Carroll, who never wanted to release him in 2022 and was the driving force behind bringing him back in '23.

Wagner has been the gold standard not only for middle linebacker play over the past decade-plus but also for players serving as their own agents, as he has done on his past three contracts. The last two were free agent deals that Wagner signed in late March, so expect him to again be patient as he looks for the right opportunity.

QB Drew Lock

Schneider has long had an affinity for the quarterback he acquired in the Russell Wilson trade, and Macdonald has gone out of his way to mention Lock by name on separate occasions, seemingly an indication that the Seahawks want him to remain in their QB mix. Seattle re-signed Lock last March to a one-year, $4 million deal on the heels of a 2022 season in which he didn't play a single snap after Smith beat him out for the starting job.

This time, he heads towards free agency with some solid film from 2023, including extensive action in the preseason and four fill-in appearances in the regular season. He went 1-1 in his two starts, including a Monday night win over the Eagles in December that may have earned him some more believers.

TE Noah Fant

Colby Parkinson is also a free agent, and Will Dissly has a $7 million price tag that puts his roster spot in jeopardy. It's unlikely the Seahawks keep all three tight ends, and they may be able to bring back only one of them.

Fant was more productive in 2022 (486 receiving yards, four touchdowns) after Seattle acquired him in the Wilson trade than he was in 2023 (414, 0 TDs), and his receiving yards in both seasons were down from his three years in Denver. The Seahawks have to determine how much of that dip was a product of a scheme and/or a quarterback who doesn't favor throws over the middle of the field. Fant is only 26 years old and didn't miss a game in his two seasons in Seattle.

LG Damien Lewis

Center Evan Brown and right guard Phil Haynes are also free agents, meaning there will likely be a significant shakeup in the interior of what was an underperforming offensive line last season. Lewis has been a solid starter in his four NFL seasons, plenty good to justify his third-round draft selection but not good enough to make a Pro Bowl. He ranked 41st among all guards (left or right) last season in pass block win rate (90.8%) and 32nd (91.9%) over the past four seasons.

For a team that's in a financial pinch and needs to improve its O-line, paying a significant chunk of money to bring Lewis back may not make sense. The Seahawks also need to upgrade their depth at right tackle in the event that Abraham Lucas' balky right knee continues to give him problems.

Complete list of Seattle's unrestricted free agents: LB Jordyn Brooks, C Evan Brown, CB Artie Burns, LB Devin Bush, RB DeeJay Dallas, DE Mario Edwards Jr., TE Noah Fant, G Phil Haynes, G Damien Lewis, QB Drew Lock, TE Colby Parkinson, T Jason Peters, LB Bobby Wagner, DE Leonard Williams