Super Bowl champion Seahawks built NFL's best defense at a bargain price

'Legion of Boom' corners Byron Maxwell, Richard Sherman were part of Seahawks' 2011 draft class

Denver Broncos' Demaryius Thomas, left, fumbles the ball as he his hit by Seattle Seahawks' Byron Maxwell during the second half of the NFL Super Bowl XLVIII football game Sunday, Feb. 2, 2014, in East Rutherford, N.J. Maxwell finished the game with four solo tackles and a caused fumble. (AP Photo/Ben Margot)

Denver Broncos' Demaryius Thomas, left, fumbles the ball as he his hit by Seattle Seahawks' Byron Maxwell during the second half of the NFL Super Bowl XLVIII football game Sunday, Feb. 2, 2014, in East Rutherford, N.J. Maxwell finished the game with four solo tackles and a caused fumble. (AP Photo/Ben Margot)

Peyton Manning counts $17.5 million against the Denver Broncos' salary cap this season. For less than double that, the Seahawks pay for their entire starting defense.

With some expert drafting and a few selective forays into free agency, Seattle built a dominant unit that's also inexpensive, with the starting 11 costing under $34 million.

It's a young defense, too, and that's a major reason it's so affordable. Of the 18 players who have started at least one game this season, six were drafted by the Seahawks in 2011 or later, which means they're still on their very reasonable rookie contracts.

Where Seattle has spent money is on the defensive line, because depth there is a major priority. Cliff Avril and Michael Bennett were signed as free agents during the offseason for an $8.5 million tab; neither started in the Super Bowl, but both are key parts of the rotation.

"The nice part about working here is we have a real style about how we want to play," defensive coordinator Dan Quinn said. "They know how to bring the players in."

After coach Pete Carroll and general manager John Schneider were hired in early 2010, one of their first big moves was to trade for Chris Clemons. They wanted him for the "LEO" defensive end position in their hybrid 4-3 defensive scheme, the weakside rusher who sometimes plays with his hand off the ground.

Their style has allowed the Seahawks to find great value with players who might not fit into many other teams' systems. Length and speed are attributes Quinn covets at all positions, confident the coaching staff can develop guys with raw skills into productive starters.

Never was this truer than the 2011 draft. The Seahawks had seven picks in the final three rounds and used all but one on defensive players.

"Overall, I think we were able to really improve the athleticism and speed of our team and then we were able to do some things up front from a strength and toughness standpoint," Schneider said that day.

He would prove to be right.

Seattle got its two current starting cornerbacks in the fifth (Richard Sherman) and sixth (Byron Maxwell) rounds. The Seahawks also added two linebackers who have started this season: K.J. Wright in the fourth and Malcolm Smith in the seventh.

For all the late-round success, Seattle also hasn't whiffed when taking defensive players at the start of the draft. The Seahawks' two defensive first-round picks in the last five years are both starters: linebacker Bruce Irvin (2012) and safety Earl Thomas (2010).

But what's been crucial, Quinn said, is a franchise philosophy to give players an equal chance no matter how much they're paid.

"Let's not worry about where they were drafted or how they got here," he said. "How far can we take them?"

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