By Jeff Risdon
2012 Record: 11-5
Point Differential: +167
Turnover Margin: +13
Sack Differential: +3
Rushing YPC: 5th
Passer Rating: 4th
3rd Down: 12th
QB: One year ago at this time, the quarterback position was seen as a giant question mark as Tarvaris Jackson, Matt Flynn, and Russell all entered camp with legit shots at earning the starting job. Pete Carroll saw right away that Wilson had a je ne se quos that belied his diminutive stature. In giving Wilson the starting job right away, Carroll transformed his Seahawks into legit Super Bowl contenders.
Wilson is the shortest starting QB in the league, but other than that it’s hard to find a valid criticism. He is preternaturally poised, with a football IQ off the charts and an inherent charisma that exudes natural leadership. Oh yeah, Wilson can throw the ball pretty well too. His accuracy while throwing on the run is very strong, and Wilson also understands the geometry of the passing game. Using great angles and precision touch on his passes helps Wilson compensate for having to maneuver about to find throwing lanes. His yardage totals were not outstanding, but Wilson quickly learned to take what defenses gave him.
In year two, the pressure is on Wilson to progress his game even more. He will still take some wildly circuitous scrambles that lead to huge losses; learning to throw the ball away will help. Wilson tends to deliver balls into the flat a half count late, and he is still adapting to blitz-happy odd man fronts. Yet there is no reason to believe that Wilson will not continue to emerge as one of the game’s next stars, a heady dual threat field general.
His safety net in Flynn is now gone. The new backup is former first round pick Brady Quinn, a player that doesn’t exactly inspire confidence. To that end, the Seahawks brought back Tarvaris Jackson immediately after Buffalo released him. For the second year in a row Jackson went from atop the depth chart to being usurped by both a younger free agent with more promise and a draft pick expected to start sooner than later. He knows Offensive Coordinator Darrell Bevell’s system and brings some playmaking ability with his legs. If he embraces his lot in life as a backup and veteran mentor for Wilson, he could be quite valuable. Should something happen to Wilson, it would be very interesting to see who gets the call in his stead, Jackson or Quinn. Neither will lead the team to more than a .500 record, and that might be overly optimistic.
RB: Marshawn Lynch in full Beast Mode is a scary proposition for opposing defenses. A violent, powerful runner with excellent balance and leg drive, Lynch is one of the most difficult players in the league to bring down. In his two seasons in Seattle, Lynch has rushed for over 2800 yards and 23 touchdowns. His aggressive style brings a real edge to the Seahawks running game. Lynch can also catch the ball pretty well out of the backfield. The only real holes in his game are pass protection, where he can be late to pick up an assignment, and that he will put the ball on the ground a handful of times every year. Few backs have his ability to take a hit and spring out into the open field.
I love the insurance policy that is Robert Turbin. A lot of teams like to have their #2 back possess a divergent skill set from the main back. Not the Seahawks. Anything Lynch can do, Turbin can do. They are stylistically quite similar, which allows the Seahawks to run the same plays and formations with either in the lineup. Turbin isn’t quite as powerful and doesn’t have quite the second gear as Lynch, but he’s darn close. He’s also a solid receiver. Seattle did draft a prototypical third down back in Christine Michael, an enigmatic speedster from Texas A&M. Michael has some very good natural tools but they don’t always stay orderly in the toolbox. It will be interesting to see how he handles the hyper-competitive nature of Pete Carroll’s practices, as Michael often struggled when pushed as an Aggie. Having reliable depth is important, as the Seahawks ran the ball more than any other team last year and figure to challenge for that honor once again.
Fullback Michael Robinson returns for yet another go around. The former college QB is a versatile performer for the Seahawks. They love his lead blocking and his ability to flare out and catch the ball. Robinson gets about two touches a game but generally makes the most of them; he picked up 19 first downs, including two TDs, in his 25 touches last year. Robinson is also a valued locker room presence and guiding force for what is still a young team.
WR/TE: If you’re looking for a reason why the Seahawks are a popular Super Bowl pick, a great example is how they handled their receiving situation. Golden Tate and Sidney Rice are not a bad outside duo, but lack real playmaking ability. Rather than simply hope they could improve with a full offseason working with Wilson, the Seahawks aggressively sought out a proven playmaker. Enter Rice’s old Minnesota teammate Percy Harvin, one of the most dynamic receivers in the league.
Adding Harvin did not come cheaply. Seattle sent Minnesota a first and a seventh round pick in this past draft and a 3rd round pick next year. He also comes with some degree of risk. Chronic migraine issues (that he may or may not play up for effect), persistent griping about both his contract and involvement in the offense, and a broken ankle that ended his 2012 after nine games are all valid flags that pushed the Vikings, already perilously thin at WR, to deal Harvin. But Seattle is trying to win now, and they believe the competitive culture and realistic chance for Super Bowl glory will keep Harvin on the straight and narrow for at least a year. Few players in the league are as electric with the football in their hands as Harvin. He can play in the slot, motion out of the backfield, or even split wide and attack down the field. With an improvisational QB like Wilson, Harvin’s open field creativity and explosiveness is a huge impact weapon. His instant acceleration and lateral shiftiness make him like a greased pig at the county fair, incredibly slippery and difficult to corral.
Harvin’s presence in the slot will only help both Tate and Rice outside. Rice is the better downfield threat of the two but less consistent in his route reads and at actually securing the football. He excels at creating separation down the left sideline and presenting Wilson with a comeback target on his looping scrambles. Tate is better operating in the intermediate routes and making something happen after the catch. He is excellent at working across the middle on crossing routes and drags out of multiple receiver formations. Tate is also an accomplished run blocker. He really came on late in the year, a trend the team clearly hopes carries over into 2013. He certainly has incentive, as this is a contract year for Tate, situation that can produce production spikes. Wilson clearly doesn’t play favorites as both Rice and Tate had very similar production in 2012. Look for that trend to continue, as each figures to see about 70 throws, catching between 45-55 of those for about 750 yards apiece and a few touchdowns. Unlike last year, those numbers are now supporting a big threat in Harvin instead of standing on their own.
The Seahawks don’t use more than three wideouts in the formation very often, preferring to stick with two back sets or using a tight end as the fourth receiver. Versatile Doug Baldwin will handle the 4th wideout chores. Baldwin is the epitome of an average NFL wideout; nothing about Baldwin stands out, but he does everything well enough to bring value. Fourth round pick Chris Harper brings size and physicality at 6’2” and 220+ pounds. Despite his imposing size, Harper has very precise feet and soft hands. Look for him to get looks as a possession receiver and short yardage perimeter blocker. His experience playing with a scrambling QB at Kansas State should help him quickly adjust to playing with Wilson.
Zach Miller hasn’t been as productive as expected in his two years in Seattle after posting some prolific numbers in Oakland, but the team has no other receiving threat at tight end. Although he has decent speed and burst off the line, Miller primarily operates in the 8-12 yard range. His run blocking is better than advertised and he proved in the playoff loss to Atlanta (8 catches for 142 yards and a TD) that he is still capable of being a viable threat when needed. With blocking TE Anthony McCoy tearing his Achilles this spring, the Seahawks are very thin behind Miller. Rookie Luke Willson (yes Mr. Spellchecker there is an extra “l”!) comes from Rice having caught just nine passes last season, though he does run extremely well. Sean McGrath will also get an opportunity to show his skills after spending his rookie campaign on the practice squad. Should Miller get hurt, don’t be surprised to see Seattle go after a more proven veteran than leaning on the greenhorn youngsters.
OL: Not many teams feature two Pro Bowl linemen and still have the level of uncertainty that the Seahawks do up front. Some of that is the ridiculous nature of Pro Bowl merit, but it also underscores the impact of injuries and failed expectations. We’ll start with the negative here.
Both guard positions are unsettled. The starters should be John Moffitt on the right and James Carpenter on the left, but neither has a firm grasp on their role. Moffitt plays guard more like a finesse tackle, fairly adept at sliding laterally to stymie pass rushers but unable to get any sort of movement as a run blocker. He has not lived up to his 3rd round draft status from the 2011 draft. Carpenter is the closest thing the Seahawks have to a draft bust. A surprise 1st round pick in 2011, Carpenter was projected to be the answer at one of the tackle spots. Instead he has been devastated by a torn ACL suffered late in his unimpressive rookie season. Carpenter was a penalty-plagued turnstile at right tackle, and the move inside is likely his last chance to salvage any sort of career in Seattle.
Paul McQuistan is one of the other options at guard. I’ll admit it: I cannot keep track of which brother is Pat and which one is Paul McQuistan. The brothers are much like the McCowns at quarterback, veterans who practice hard, are good citizens in the locker room, and don’t make much money for the services rendered. The mere fact that he could beat out Moffitt or Carpenter is more of an indictment of Carpenter’s injury-laden fall from grace and Moffitt’s relative ineffectiveness. Converted defenseive tackle JR Sweezy, a pet project of OL Coach Tom Cable, started the opener last year and was summarily benched for his awful performance. He regained that role late in the year and played better, but still looked very much like a long-term project more than an immediate answer. Sweezy is the best run blocker of the bunch, which helps in his quest to start again.
Packers castoff Breno Giacomini holds down the right tackle spot. He has steadily improved and played with discernibly more confidence as 2012 bore on. When he stays on his toes he is a pretty solid edge protector, and he can blow up a target in space if it’s where he expects it to be. Playing with a mobile QB like Wilson behind him helps Giacomini overcome his lack of range. In fact, the Seahawks have plays designed where Giacomini lets the rusher get around him so Wilson can slide into the void and survey the situation. Smart coaching has turned Giacomini from a bottom of the roster hanger-on to a functional starter, but he deserves some credit himself for continuing to grind and giving 100 percent on every play.
Now we get to the good stuff. Center Max Unger is a devastating run blocker on the interior. Quick out of his stance and exceptional at seizing leverage upon initial contact, he’s one of the best in the business. Unger is a very good recovery blocker as well, which is responsible for him allowing just half a sack in the last two seasons. He’s also the best guard on the roster, which means if backup center Lemuel Jeanpierre can impress in camp the team has some flexibility to play Unger at the most pressing spot. It’s hard to envision them softening the center spot, however, because Unger is really that impressive. I was not bullish on Unger in the 2009 draft but he has proven me wrong, good for him and better for the Seahawks. Left tackle Russell Okung was the team’s first round pick in 2010 and has not disappointed. By hook or by crook he keeps the defense away from his quarterback. He gets called for far too many penalties (23 in the last two seasons) but that is a byproduct of his no-holds-barred style of blocking. Okung is very athletic as a run blocker and knows how to finish a block.
Depth is an issue, particularly if one of the tackles goes down. The swing tackle figures to be Mike Person, an undrafted free agent a year ago who spent his rookie campaign on three different practice squads. Massive 7th rounder Michael Bowie is a developmental project who needs to spend 2013 (at least) on the practice squad himself. Carpenter would likely slide outside if the team gets desperate, though he is no lock to make the team if he doesn’t earn a starting spot. McQuistan offers some flexibility as well but is better inside, and that versatility is likely to keep him as a reserve. Carroll’s open competition style of practice means a youngster like Rishaw Johnson or Alvin Bailey will get a chance to prove he belongs in camp. Alas, neither can play tackle.
Rushing YPC: 27th
3rd Down: 17th
DL: There is a strange statistical anomaly with the Seahawks last season. They led the league in rushing yardage allowed, but as highlighted above ranked just 27th in opposing yards per carry. Even though the Seahawks passing defense was superlative, teams ran at the Seahawks as a percentage of plays less than all but four other teams. Let that serve as the backdrop for this section, and why it’s not unrealistic to expect this unit to fall back.
Left end Red Bryant is a massive run stuffer, a 320+ pound converted tackle. It’s an ingenious move by Coach Carroll to position Bryant at end, where he can control the edge and command extra attention from tight ends and backs on their way into routes. But last year Bryant often looked slow and confused, and because he has no discernible value as a pass rusher it really hampered the team. He just hasn’t been the same since a mid-2011 injury. Bryant must bounce back in 2013, especially as a run defender, or he will not be on the field much going forward. Seattle uses a rotation of nondescript tackles, the best of which is Brandon Mebane. Their primary function is to occupy blockers and try to plug gaps. Mebane does so reasonably well and can also get to the quarterback a little, with 3 sacks last year. A pair of McDaniels, Clinton and Tony, will also see extensive time inside along with second-year Jaye Howard. The Florida product saw little action as a rookie but was a draft value favorite of mine in 2012 and could bring some gap-shooting vitality to the front…if he proves he can hold up against the run. A pair of rookies, Jordan Hill and Jesse Williams, will get chances to earn their way into roles. If Williams is healthy, the Alabama product with the copious body art could step up and really help as an interior run agitator. Of course my saying that will mean that Hill winds up being the more prominent player, and that wouldn’t surprise me; he’s talented and hungry.
The other end spot will be filled by free agent signee Cliff Avril. The former Lion has 30 sacks and 10 forced fumbles over the last three seasons, though his middling run defense and up-and-down production left him expendable for the price in Detroit. Two qualities he brings that will help Seattle: he absolutely owns the Green Bay Packers, and he drops into coverage pretty well. Avril’s signing proved more important when Chris Clemons, last year’s sack leader with 11.5, blew out his knee and underwent surgery in January. His availability is very much in doubt for the beginning of the season.
Bruce Irvin, the surprise 1st round pick a year ago, will miss the first four games on a suspension for PED usage, a rampant plague in Seattle. Irvin bagged eight sacks thanks to his almost unbelievable speed off the edge, but he cooled off considerably as the weather cooled. He got just one sack and 8 tackles in their final six games, though Irvin did chip in a sack in the Wild Card win over Washington. The team was counting on an expanded role from Irvin, hoping to use him as both a base linebacker and a nickel edge rusher, but the suspension puts a crimp into that plan. Another free agent, Michael Bennett, will certainly see a lot of time during Irvin’s suspension. He also provides the ability to kick inside as an interior nickel rusher, a role the Seahawks sorely need help with. If he can come close to the nine sacks and three forced fumbles he generated in Tampa Bay last year, Bennett will be a valuable addition. As with the tight end position, if the injury bug strikes here look for GM John Schneider to aggressively address the situation via trade or veteran street free agent instead of leaning on unproven youngsters from the practice squad.
LB: There was some skepticism from Seahawks fans when they drafted Bobby Wagner from Utah State in the second round of the 2012 draft. Wagner quickly made those doubters look silly. The rookie was excellent right off the bat, starting 15 games and finishing 7th in overall tackles. He also picked off three passes while breaking up four others. What is impressive with the tackle numbers is that Wagner is more of a north/south attacker than many who rack up 125+ tackles; he makes a great deal of plays moving forward, not laterally. Wagner can also blitz with some effectiveness. He is the centerpiece of the defensive front seven and looks like a future star. Just as the Seahawks picked up the leader of their offense in Russell Wilson, they got the same in Wagner for the defense.
Seattle has a pretty strong flanker for Wagner in KJ Wright. In his first two seasons Wright has proven to be well-heeled in coverage. He generally shows a strong blend of instincts and quick reaction. He doesn’t have great closing burst and will overrun some tackles, but Wright is very solid overall. He plays off Wagner nicely and the two appear to have legit chemistry. Together they give the Seahawks an impressive, young, inexpensive duo for the next couple of seasons. They will need to be very good because with veteran Leroy Hill departing, there is a sizeable hole at the other outside linebacker spot. Veteran special teamer Heath Farwell sits atop the depth chart as of July 1st, but not even Farwell expects that to pervade into the season. Bruce Irvin is the most likely candidate, but with his four-game suspension it leaves the door open for Malcolm Smith to seize the opportunity. Many Seahawks backers would quietly like for Smith to do just that, keeping Irvin in a more specialized and focused role. Smith hasn’t played much but has acquitted himself in limited duty despite being smaller than both starting corners. Fifth round rookie Ty Powell is a small-school thumper who could be the latest unheralded draft pick to make a big splash, but his impact is likely a year or two away. He figures to spell Wagner in the middle and see loads of time on special teams. Mike Morgan, like Smith a lightweight USC product under Carroll, clings to the other outside depth position.
Secondary: The starting foursome is as strong and talented as any secondary in the league. Corner Richard Sherman gets top billing as one of the most talented cover men in the league. He’s also among the biggest braggarts in the league, a nonstop fountain of trash talk and hyper-confident swagger. Sherman wears it well. Big, strong and able to anticipate routes and moves thanks to his own background as a receiver, his eight INTs and 15 PDs were both good for second in the league. Sherman allowed completions on less than half the passes thrown his way, and he’s very good at making the tackle right after the catch to prevent extra yards. Opposing fans bemoan his proclivities for holding and arriving a little too early for the ball, but Sherman thrives at playing on that edge of the knife.
Fellow corner Brandon Browner is bigger than most safeties--and some linebackers--at 6’3” and a muscular 225 pounds. Like Sherman, his overt physicality can get him into trouble. He doesn’t have the long speed or closing burst of Sherman, but Browner still thrives by getting a strong jam and smartly positioning his long body into the passing route. Browner is also a strong run defender on the edge, simply too big for wideouts to block. He’s an excellent success story for the unconventional route, having gone to the CFL before making it with the Seahawks. It’s worth mentioning that Browner is one of the several Seahawks that missed 4 games due to PED suspension, and he did not play well upon his return in the playoffs.
Not content in having two strong starters, the Seahawks once again went shopping at the Vikings store. Signing Antoine Winfield is a divine move. Winfield was the only corner that graded out higher than Sherman by the good folks at Pro Football Focus last year. Where Winfield excels is in run defense, where he has been one of the best in the business for years. He can still handle covering in the slot, but at 36 he isn’t as spry or flexible as in his Minnesota prime. Winfield’s presence is such an upgrade against the run that it makes up for any coverage deficiencies down the field. He fits in with Browner and Sherman with his physical style, though Winfield is barely 5’9”. In addition, I really like the concept of bringing in a veteran desperately seeking a Super Bowl to a younger roster with that potential.
The safety duo of Earl Thomas and Cam Chancellor make a rangy, effective pairing. Chancellor blends in with the corners as a long, physical athlete that likes to use his imposing size to set a tone. He’s not all that fluid in coverage and can be beaten by swifter tight ends (see Tony Gonzalez in the playoff loss). He is the sort of safety that prefers to play the player and not the ball, though he does have some ball skills when he goes after it. Thomas is more conventional, a runt amongst the starters at just 5’11” and under 200 pounds. He is very rangy and quick, a bundle of fast twitch muscle. Thomas is more of a centerfielder type of safety, and the Seahawks give him freedom to try and make plays. He comes off a season where he earned All Pro status with 80 tackles, 3 INTs, 9 PDs, and a touchdown. Thomas is an emerging star just entering the prime of his career. Playing with these corners allows him the opportunity to be even more aggressive after the ball.
The depth is much better at corner than safety. Speedy young Jeremy Lane saw some action as a 6th round rookie and did not appear to be in over his head despite making the jump from Northwestern State. He is long and able to turn and run, but his tackling and run defense must improve. Adding some meat to his bones would help. Walter Thurmond has battled several leg injuries in his Seattle career but has played well when healthy. Fifth round pick Tharold Simon is a better athlete than football player and will likely not see much action outside of special teams because the team doesn’t need to rush him along. Simon will likely stick behind Byron Maxwell, who saw action late in the year during Browner’s suspension and flashed solid cover skills of his own. The top reserve safety is Jeron Johnson, a straight-linish thumper whose best attribute is blitzing up the gut. Winston Guy and Chris Maragos will form the other reserve safeties, though both are limited skill players who figure to do more on special teams.
Special Teams: Kicker Steven Hauschka is a solid contributor in both field goals and kickoffs. His field goal range tops out shorter than a lot of other kickers but he is absolute money inside 45 yards. Opposing teams started right at the 20 on average after his kicks. Punter Jon Ryan doesn’t force many fair catches but also does a very solid job pinning the ball deep and directing kicks towards the sideline to prevent big returns.
Losing Leon Washington as a return specialist could be a large blow. Percy Harvin is an electrifying return man in his own right, but he might be too valuable to the offense to risk injury on returns. Christine Michael offers potential but must prove he can hold onto the ball. Golden Tate will also get a crack at the gig. He strikes me as someone who can reliably get the ball beyond the 25 but seldom past the 35 on kickoff returns.
Forecast: There is a real buzz about the Seahawks heading into 2013. Coming off an impressive 11-5 campaign and led by dynamic rookies at quarterback and middle linebacker, there is valid reason for the high expectations. This is unquestionably one of the most talented rosters in the league, and they clearly enjoy playing for Carroll and his underlings. Russell Wilson gives them a chance to win any game, anytime, anywhere. The 12th man remains one of the most imposing home field advantages in all of professional sports.
The goal for the Seahawks is to win the stacked NFC West and get homefield advantage. In order to do that they need to more consistently bring their best effort, something they did not do last year in inexplicable losses to Detroit and Miami and closer than necessary shaves with Carolina and a tanking Bears team. Getting a more reliable pass rush and more solid performance from the offensive line will help in that regard, though neither is a given.
Still, Wilson and his receivers played their best football down the stretch, however, and the addition of Percy Harvin gives them another dimension altogether. If they can keep the prime time performers on defense out of PED jail, they should once again challenge for the league lead in interceptions and scoring defense. They catch a bit of a break from the schedule makers, with just one outdoor game in the Eastern Time Zone (at the Giants) and finishing with five of their final eight at home. They’ll need to steal at least one divisional road game and fare well in trips to 2012 playoff teams Houston, Indianapolis, and Atlanta if they want to top last season’s 11 wins. They certainly have that potential, but I’m sold they will move beyond the occasional head scratchers, something that has plagued Carroll’s teams wherever he’s coached. The forecast is for a repeat at 11-5 and the potential to win any playoff game they find themselves in, including the Super Bowl.