Now that all the regular season is finally here, it’s time to take a look at the final roster – and yes, this roster really isfinal. Back in 2010, John Schneider earned himself an unfair reputation as an inveterate tinkerer for his 200+ personnel transactions. The talent-starved team that he and Pete Carroll inherited desperately needed that kind of high-volume roster churn to repair the damage done by five years of Tim Ruskell’s personnel screwups.
Two years later, all those long hours Schneider spent burning up the phone lines have paid off. The incredible playoff game against the Saints notwithstanding, the 2010 Seahawks were lucky as hell to win as many games as they did; this season, it’s the Seahawks’ opponents who are going to need a heavy dose of luck to pull off a win against them. The defense is a top ten unit, possibly even top five with an improved pass rush; the offense looks to be on the verge of adding a solid passing attack to its already strong run game; and the special teams unit boasts a strong-legged kicker, a punter who led the NFL last season in punts placed inside the twenty, a seventh year return man who’s already near the top of the all-time lists, and the league’s top special teams ace.
In short, 2012 looks to be a damned fine year to be a Seahawks fan. Grab yourself a sandwich and a fresh cup of coffee, ‘cause this is going to be a long one.
* * *
Starting lineup: LT Russell Okung, LG Paul McQuistan, C Max Unger, RG ? (John Moffitt or J.R. Sweezy), RT Breno Giacomini
Backups: T/G Frank Omiyale, T/G John Carpenter, C/G Lemuel Jeanpierre
Suspended: T Allen Barbre (4 games)
Tom Cable has worked some industrial-strength miracles since he joined up as the Seahawks’ offensive line coach. With all the injuries the o-line suffered last year, we should have been in for a truly painful season on offense – like 2009 “what’s the worst that could happen if we replace Walter Jones with Sean Locklear” painful. Instead, the o-line’s blocking actually improved as the season wore on. When’s the last time you can remember seeing that happen?
The current starting lineup is a testament to Pete Carroll’s always compete mantra: the guy who plays the best gets the job, regardless of draft position. On most teams, a career backup like McQuistan would be thought of as a mere placeholder for 2011 first-round pick Carpenter, but in Seattle he can play secure in the knowledge that he’ll get a legitimate shot at keeping his starting job once Carpenter is healthy enough to return. Okung and Unger have never been in danger of losing their jobs under Carroll, but that’s because no other lineman has even come close to matching their on-field performance. Giacomini was a practice squad afterthought in Green Bay who took advantage of Carpenter’s injury last year to supplant him on the depth chart at right tackle. And Moffitt, a third round pick last year, will have to outplay rookie seventh rounder Sweezy if he wants to start at right guard.
Omiyale is a better tackle than he is a guard, but he’s good enough to fill in for either Okung or Giacomini without giving the fans indigestion. Jeanpierre can play all three interior o-line positions, but if there’s an injury at guard the team may choose to play someone else rather than risk injuring their only real backup option for Unger (yes, a good center really is that important).
Barbre, who won’t be available to play until week five, is decent enough but isn’t a better option than any of the linemen currently on the roster. I don’t expect him to stick around unless someone lands on injured reserve between then and now.
Starter: Russell Wilson
Backup: Matt Flynn
When it was announced during the spring OTAs that Wilson would be competing with Flynn and Tarvaris Jackson for the starting job, I don’t think anyone other than the coaches and Wilson himself believed the rookie might actually win it. But he did, and after watching him this preseason I can understand why.
Wilson’s mobility more than makes up for any lack of height and he knows how to avoid taking a big hit when he runs the ball (something Michael Vick never seems to have learned), but there are plenty of QBs out there who can juke and run just as well as he does. What sets Wilson apart from the Vince Youngs and Brad Smiths of the world is that, in addition to being a gifted rusher, he’s also a gifted passer.
All through the preseason, he anticipated openings, manipulated coverages, and placed the ball where only his receiver had a chance to catch it, but what really sold me on him was a single throw he made in the game against the Broncos. On the play, Wilson was falling to the ground with a defender wrapped around him, but somehow he still managed to keep his eyes downfield and throw a perfectly placed sideline pass to Lavasier Tuinei. You can count the number of current NFL quarterbacks who could make that throw on one hand.
That said, Flynn also appears to be an excellent quarterback. He’s efficient and doesn’t take stupid risks with the ball, but he still has the guts to make some aggressive downfield throws. He seems to have better overall touch and accuracy on his passes than Wilson, and he’s great at anticipating when his receivers are going to be open. In the long run he may even prove to be the better quarterback, but for now Wilson’s playmaking ability is an x-factor the Seahawks can ill afford to pass up. Bottom line, the Seahawks could win a lot of games with Flynn under center, but Wilson has the potential to make this team a serious championship contender for years to come.
Starters: FB Michael Robinson, RB Marshawn Lynch
Backups: RB Robert Turbin, RB Leon Washington, RB/FB Kregg Lumpkin
Lynch is still the star attraction in the Seahawks’ backfield, but the addition of Turbin should take some of the load off of Beast Mode’s shoulders. Turbin doesn’t run quite as hard as Lynch (who does?), but he’s surprisingly agile for his size and has proven to be a reliable receiving option this preseason as well. Robinson has developed into an all-around great fullback (strong lead blocker, receiver, rusher, and special teamer), and Washington will reprise his role as a change-of-pace scatback and kick returner.
The surprise new addition to the running back corps is Lumpkin. He was originally signed in free agency to be Lynch’s primary backup, but after Turbin was drafted it was widely assumed that there was no longer any room for Lumpkin on the roster. Well, after a strong showing in the preseason, the coaches made room for him (Had Vai Taua not been hurt in the final preseason game, he might have gotten the nod instead for his superior lead blocking).
Lumpkin can run well enough and can lead block in a pinch, but he really shines when he’s used as a receiving option out of the backfield. In Tampa Bay last season, Lumpkin had 41 catches out of 53 targets (that’s a 77.4% catch rate) for 291 yards (7.1 yards per catch, 61 yards after the catch). Really, he’s got better hands than most of the receivers the Seahawks had in camp this season. It’ll be interesting to see how they work him into the offense.
Starter: Zach Miller
Backups: Anthony McCoy, Evan Moore
If it weren’t for the constant media hand-wringing this offseason regarding the Seahawks’ wide receiver corps, this personnel group would be the one giving fans the most reason to worry.
Don’t get me wrong, there’s a lot to love about the tight end position. Miller is an accomplished Pro Bowler who is equally adept at blocking and receiving. McCoy has always been a strong blocker, and it looks like he’s finally developed into the reliable receiving option that Carroll and Schneider hoped he would be when they drafted him. Moore, who was brought in to replace Kellen Winslow, Jr., is more of an overgrown receiver than he is a tight end, but in the limited offensive snaps he played in Cleveland he proved he could be a hell of a weapon in the passing game.
Speaking of Winslow, a lot has been written about the team’s decision to release him. On paper, the move makes good financial sense: paying $3.3 million and a conditional seventh round pick for a guy whose knees are essentially held together by Bondo and fervent hope is not a great investment. The question is, does the move also make good football sense?
There’s no doubt that Winslow, despite his injury troubles, has been a very productive player for a long time. He’s amassed at least 400 receiving yards in six of the seven seasons in which he’s played, and in five of those seasons his total was over 700. Among active players, he ranks 30th overall in receiving yards per game (52.6), 33rd in career receiving yards (4,836), and 25th in career receptions (437).
However, it’s easy to forget that past performance is no guarantee of future production. Winslow could still have a few good years left in him, but the deterioration of his knee, coupled with the difficulty he seemed to have in getting separation from defenders this preseason, made keeping him a bad risk for the team to make at the price he was asking (the team had been trying to negotiate a pay cut with him since acquiring him, but he refused).
There could also be more to the decision we don’t know about. What was he like in team and position meetings? How much time did he put into film study or learning the playbook? Did he get along well with coaches and teammates? What sort of influence was he in the locker room? Unless someone decides to let something slip we’ll probably never know the answers to those questions, but it’s important to keep in mind that something other than on-field production could have factored heavily into this decision.
But with or without Winslow, one thing remains unchanged: injuries, not talent, will be what determines the effectiveness of Seattle’s tight end position in 2012. The book on Moore is that he’s a tough guy who is willing to take a big hit to secure a catch, but he also tends to get hurt and miss games. Miller has two recent concussions to his name, but it’s too early to tell whether that means he’s becoming more prone to concussions (which is a warning sign of the “retire immediately” variety) or that he’s just had rotten luck with some of the hits he’s been taking. McCoy is the one tight end on the roster with a relatively clean bill of health, but he still needs to prove that the great catches he made this preseason were not flukes.
Starters: Sidney Rice (flanker), Golden Tate (split end), Doug Baldwin (slot)
Backups: Braylon Edwards, Ben Obomanu, Charly Martin
The more I look at him on film, the more I’m convinced that Rice is the single most gifted receiver to play for the Seahawks since Steve Largent hung up his cleats. He’s got decent speed and height, but what really sets him apart is the fluidity of his movement and his complete awareness of his position in relation to the field, the defenders covering him, and the ball in flight. He made the most difficult catches look routine so often last year that a great many fans seem to be convinced that his contributions to the passing game were nothing special. Let me put it this way: it’s a rare talent who can make the exceptional look that ordinary.
Unfortunately, Rice also has some serious durability concerns. Including the postseason, Sidney Rice has missed 23 out of 83 possible career games, including seven last season – that’s a 27.7% miss rate. No matter how talented a player is, it’s hard for him to help you out if he’s constantly sitting on the bench being checked out by the team’s doctors. Still, I have a hard time faulting Schneider for making the move to sign him last offseason. Players of Rice’s caliber hit the open market so rarely, and Seattle has been in such dire need of stronger production from its receivers, that the ex-Viking was a gamble the team couldn’t afford to pass up.
Moving past Rice, the split end position is still a big question mark. As of this writing, Golden Tate is listed at the top of the depth chart there, but he twisted his knee in the final preseason game and may end up missing significant time. If he does, Braylon Edwards appears to be the next player in line for the job.
And honestly, subbing Edwards in for Tate may prove to be a much-needed upgrade. Aside from a few brief flashes of awesome, Tate’s stay in Seattle has been pretty unsatisfactory. Judging by some of the things that he’s said in interviews, it sounds like he tried to depend more on his natural abilities to get by his first two seasons instead of, say, spending time in the film room or learning the playbook. If he’s finally decided to put some effort into improving his on-field performance, then great; if not, Edwards is a big-play talent who’ll be more than happy to relieve him of his starting duties.
It used to be that slot receivers were just backups who could only count on seeing a handful of snaps a game, but in modern passing offenses the skill level of the guy in the slot has become every bit as important as the skill level of the starting flanker and split end. Ideally, you want a guy with reliable hands, a sixth sense for settling into coverage gaps in the middle of the field, and the physical and mental toughness to absorb punishment from the linebackers and then put themselves right back in harm’s way on the next snap without flinching. Thankfully, Baldwin meets all of the above criteria and then some. He’s missed a lot of time this preseason with a hamstring problem, but it appears that all he needed was some fluid drained from the area so there’s no strain or tearing of the ligament. That said, if he misses the game against the Cardinals, it’s time to be concerned.
For the time being, Obomanu and Martin will be seeing the majority of their action on special teams, where both have been outstanding contributors this preseason. Martin made the team in large part because of his rapport with new starting QB Russell Wilson, so he may get some offensive snaps as well. Obomanu is the same okay-but-unspectacular emergency receiver he’s always been – not anyone’s first choice to play, perhaps, but good enough to give you a fair shot at winning if you have to use him.
Starters: DE Red Bryant, DT Brandon Mebane, DT Alan Branch, DE Chris Clemons
Backups: DE Bruce Irvin, DE Greg Scruggs, DT Jason Jones, DT Jaye Howard, DT Clinton McDonald
Between Mebane and Branch’s gap-plugging in the middle and Bryant’s RB-devouring ways at the 5-tech position, opposing offenses have a hell of a time running against Seattle’s defensive line. Add in Clemons’ pleasantly surprising ability to shed blocks and play containment, and most teams don’t stand a chance in hell of grinding things out on the ground. At least that was true last year, but if anything the run defense has looked even stouter this preseason.
The real question mark for this unit is whether or not they can produce sacks without relying on blitz packages. If you can get consistent pressure with your front four, that frees up your linebackers and secondary to make life miserable for the other team’s receiving options. That’s why the team spent three draft picks on pass rushers this offseason and signed another in free agency. Clemons is good, but the defense is never going to reach its full potential if he’s the only real pass rush threat they have.
Irvin, the Seahawks’ surprise first-round pick, will see time as a situational pass rusher and as Clemons’ primary backup he’ll likely rotate into the Leo spot for a few snaps a game. He’s got that rare mix of speed, agility, and explosive first step an elite speed rusher needs to eat offensive tackles alive, but he still needs a lot of work on his hand-fighting technique.
More surprising than the decision to draft Irvin has been the emergence of seventh-rounder Scruggs as a viable pass-rush threat. Scruggs is strong enough at the point of attack to play the 5-tech position, but he spent so much time in opponent’s backfields this offseason on passing downs that he might as well start having his mail delivered there. He’ll likely come in as a rotational guy at first, but look for him to earn some snaps in the nickel defense as the season progresses.
One of the most difficult defensive players to find is a consistent interior pass rusher, and it looks like the Seahawks might have actually lucked into two good ones this offseason. Jones was brought in via free agency to be the designated 3-tech pass-rush specialist (he’s also listed as Bryant’s primary backup). He was kept out of the preseason to rest some minor injuries, so this Sunday in Arizona will be the first chance for most of us to see him in action, but he performed well enough in camp to become a fixture in the nickel defense. The other promising new acquisition is Howard, who spent a lot of time menacing QBs this preseason. The question for him, though, isn’t whether he has the ability to get to the passer, it’s whether or not he can do it on a regular basis – his inconsistent performance in college was the main reason why he slipped to the fourth round of the draft. Howard is listed as Branch’s primary backup.
With all of the above hype and potential swirling around, McDonald seems to have become the forgotten man on the d-line. He was average-to-good in limited snaps last season, but he’s been drawing a lot of praise from coaches and teammates alike for the strong improvements he’s made in his ability to hold against the run and rush the passer. He’ll be seeing plenty of defensive snaps this season next to Jones as the second defensive tackle in the team’s nickel defense, and he’s also listed as Mebane’s primary backup.
Starters: OLB K.J. Wright, MLB Bobby Wagner, OLB Leroy Hill
Backups: OLB Mike Morgan, MLB Heath Farwell, OLB Malcolm Smith
Injuries were beginning to slow David Hawthorne down last season, but it always hurts when you lose your team’s leading tackler in free agency. Or in this case, losing him hurt until we got to see Wagner in action. Wagner is an athletic, hard-hitting linebacker who fell in the draft because of questions concerning his football instincts. Well, he may never be the next Lofa Tatupu in that regard, but his read-and-react awareness this preseason was not deficient at all.
Wagner will also get help with defensive adjustments from Wright, who has done a great job making everyone forget the expensive mistake he replaced last season, Aaron Curry. Hill will start at the other outside linebacker spot, and his main goal will be to play a second season in a row without missing a game due to injury. Both outside linebackers are strong tacklers and great against the run, but Wright is far and away the better of the two in coverage.
Barring injury, the three backups will see the majority of their action on special teams. Farwell, who led the league in special teams tackles last season, is one of the best special teams aces I’ve seen in recent memory. The importance of special teams tends to get downplayed a lot, but having a player like Farwell who has an almost preternatural ability to avoid waves of blockers en route to nailing the return man can give you a hell of an advantage in starting field position on both sides of the ball. He also showed this preseason that he’s got some chops as a middle linebacker, which is nice too.
Morgan earned his roster spot by making big plays from the outside linebacker position. He’s not bad on special teams, but his main value is as a potential injury replacement (note: Smith, not Morgan, is listed on the Seahawks’ depth chart as the primary backup to Hill, but I would sub in Morgan over Smith any day of the week).
I’m not a big fan of Smith. His sheer athleticism allows him to correct and get back into the play when he’s caught out of position, but he seems to be caught out far too often. Maybe he just needs to spend more time in the film room, but his inability to read plays correctly is troubling. I thought Kyle Knox outperformed him this preseason by a fair margin, but the coaching staff doesn’t appear to be ready to give up on Smith just yet.
Starters: CB Brandon Browner, CB Richard Sherman, FS Earl Thomas, SS Kam Chancellor, CB Marcus Trufant (nickel)
Backups: CB Byron Maxwell, CB Jeremy Lane, S Jeron Johnson, S Chris Maragos, S Winston Guy
Whenever I read an article about the Seahawks’ secondary these days (or attempt to write one myself), I always find myself thinking that the content of the entire piece could be summarized in two words:
How else do you describe a starting quartet consisting of two giant press corners with great hands (both are ex-wide receivers), the best young free safety in the NFL, and a strong safety who hits like a freight train without being a liability in coverage? If 2012 goes as well as for the Seahawks as everyone hopes it will, it’ll be thanks in large part to Browner, Sherman, Thomas, and Chancellor.
The return of Trufant as the team’s nickel back makes this unit even more special. (Roy Lewis was close to winning the job, but that was before he injured his knee). Like slot receiver, nickel back used to be an afterthought position filled by whatever backup DB happened to be standing closest to the defensive coordinator on third and long, but the ever-increasing emphasis on the passing game has seen the usage of nickel defenses skyrocket. Last season, Seattle used some form of nickel coverage on 35% of its snaps, and by all accounts Trufant has really taken to the position. Instead of having to run stride-for-stride down the sideline with the league’s top receivers, something he really struggled to do the last few seasons, he can now play more of a zone, sit-back-and-react sort of role tailor-made for an experienced veteran like him.
That said, Trufant isn’t going to be the go-to guy when Gus Bradley opts for a big nickel package. For those of you who aren’t familiar with it, a big nickel defense uses a third safety instead of a third cornerback. The package is used when a team’s third receiver is a big, physical player who likes to use his size and strength to push around smaller defenders.
The trouble with running the big nickel, however, is finding a safety who can hold up in coverage against guys like Jimmy Graham and Rob Gronkowski. Maragos and Johnson are decent in coverage (Johnson more than Maragos), but both only measure 5’10” and just a shade over 200 lbs. At 6’1”, 218 lbs, Guy has the size and physicality to handle the job, but his coverage skills were lacking all throughout the preseason – he may yet develop the skills to be a great cover safety, but that’s not going to help the Seahawks right now. Maxwell is a possibility as a 6’0”, 200 lbs corner, but I haven’t seen him play with the sort of physicality he’d need to be effective in that role. But ideal fit or no, someone’s going to have to do the job, and it’ll be interesting to see who ends up with it.
In the backup ranks, the player who impressed the most this preseason is Johnson. He showed he has a knack for making big plays, and I wouldn’t be surprised to see him get worked into various packages as an extra DB just to see if he can make something happen. Maxwell and Maragos are both decent players, but neither really seems to do anything more than you would expect from any other backup-level DB. Lane has great size and speed for a CB, but he’s got a short fuse and needs a lot of work in terms of technique and reading offenses.
There wasn’t much to like about Guy’s play this preseason, especially when he muffed some blocks on special teams and allowed Jon Ryan’s punts to get blocked, but Carroll mentioned last week that he and his coaching staff really like what Guy has to offer as a pass rusher out of the Seahawks’ Bandit (i.e. 6 defensive back) package. Granted, the team only ran the Bandit on 5% of its defensive snaps last season, but they’ve been so hard up for additional pass rush that I can understand why they’d want to hold on to Guy anyway.
Starters: K Steven Hauschka, P Jon Ryan, LS Clint Gresham
I happen to really like kickers and punters, but I know most folks could care less so I’ll keep this brief. Hauschka only seems to hit on about 50% of his field goals from 50+ yards, but he’s made 88.5% of his field goals from 0-49 yards out and he appears to be getting more touchbacks on his kickoffs this season.
Ryan has improved every year since the Seahawks signed him in week two back in 2008. Today, he’s one of the top five punters in the NFL (Fun Fact: Ryan was available as a free agent in '08 because Green Bay thought they had found someone better. That punter, Derrick Frost, was released by the Packers later that season for excessive suckitude and hasn’t played in the league since).
I haven’t caught myself cursing the long snapper since Gresham took over last season, so I suppose that means he’s good at his job. Seriously though, Gresham's placement isn't always perfect, but he doesn't sail his snaps overhead or skip them off the turf.
Beyond those three, the main question mark for these units is how well the new mix of backup players is going to mesh. Most of last year’s special teams mainstays like Farwell, Obomanu, and Robinson are still on the team, but there’s always a bit of a transition phase at the beginning of the regular season when everyone who made the final roster finally gets a chance to start practicing together on coverage, return, and punt protection duty. Of course, the same holds true for the other NFL teams’ special teams units, but that’s small comfort if you let a guy like the Cardinals’ Patrick Peterson run a few back for touchdowns in week one because you aren’t on the same page as the guy next to you.