Nothing gets people scrutinizing a team like losing four out of five games, including a few nasty blowouts. Rob Staton did a nice job exploring possible Seahawks draft needs after Sunday's game. I questioned Lofa Tatupu's future on Twitter and got some strong reaction on both sides. Pete Carroll's job status was even questioned during Softy's show this morning. One thing everyone agrees on is the impact of injuries to this season. Injuries have not only shown the fragility of the roster, but more importantly, they have illustrated which players most influence team success.
Identifying these cornerstone players does not mean other players are irrelevant. It is more like a game of Jenga. Some pieces can be removed and the column remains standing. Removing one piece shifts the weight of the column, making other pieces more important. When a football roster is well built, it can withstand these sorts of weight shifts to some degree. Some players, however, cause the tower to collapse when they are removed no matter who else is there to take their place.
I made predictions about who these foundation players were when I analyzed the potential 53-man roster before it was announced. Back then, Russell Okung, Earl Thomas and Golden Tate were the only players that appeared to have a certain future and value for the team.
Okung has proven he is a difference maker, and will be the anchor of that offensive line for years to come. Every other player is replaceable and upgradeable. It is a shame we never got to see what Stacy Andrews looks like at RT, and that we did not find out for sure whether Max Unger can be a long-term solution at RG.
Thomas has thankfully not been out, but his value is so clear and unique that nobody needs to see the defense without him to know it would be even worse. The scheme being employed this year puts a ton of pressure on him as a rookie to cover lots of ground. It is too early to tell if that's viable with upgrades elsewhere in the secondary. He and Trufant are the only legitimate guys that are effecting offenses, although Tru has not been as good as his pre-season play indicated.
One could make a compelling argument that Red Bryant is the player who has the most profound effect on overall team performance. Few would argue he was the key to a stunningly stout run defense that was yielding less than 3 yards/carry before he went out. Even in the big loss to the Raiders, they were unable to run in the first half when Bryant was playing. When this defense is unable to stop the run, everything falls apart. When the defense falls apart, the offense struggles to get on the field and find a rhythm. Some may point to Colin Cole since he went out in the same game, but the Raiders went crazy well before Cole got injured late in that game. Plus, as good as Cole has been this year, there are other players like him in the NFL. How many effective 320 lb defensive ends are there? The status of Bryant's injured knee for next year will have a major impact on the team's ascent into respectability.
Matt Hasselbeck is a close second to Bryant. The Chiefs game would have probably still been a loss if Bryant was playing and Hasselbeck was not, but it almost certainly would have been closer. There is no way the Chiefs would have been able to run those sweeps the Bryant's side. However, the overall chances of the team winning goes down dramatically when Hasselbeck is out. That will remain true for at least another season, and possibly two.
The last linchpin player on the roster is Mike Williams. Production does not disappear when Williams is out, but it is noticeably worse. It is like running a Ferrari on cheap gas. Resigning Williams past this season is a major priority for the front office. Losing him would set the team back significantly.
Players that are missing from this list of cornerstone contributors include: Brandon Mebane, Lofa Tatupu, John Carlson, Chris Clemons, David Hawthorne, Marshawn Lynch, Justin Forsett, Lawyer Milloy, Aaron Curry, and Golden Tate.
Clemons, Milloy, Cole and Mebane are in the cornerstone category for this season, but each has question marks that keeps them from being in that true, untouchable status. Clemons has proven the perfect fit for the Leo position, but he's 29 and still vulnerable against the run. Milloy may be the MVP of the defense with his hard-hitting and nasty attitude, but he has a promising rookie backing him up in Kam Chancellor. That makes it hard to say the team would take a dive without him. Cole and Mebane are hard to separate. Mebane has returned from injury and the defense has not improved noticeably. Cole was mediocre last season and is already 30-years-old.
Lofa Tatupu may a controversial omission, but he's likely to finish with less than 100 tackles for the third straight year after going over that number his first three. He has been healthy this year, but still has not effected a single game the way he often did his first three years. He has always been an undersized linebacker, and like a running back who takes so much pounding, he may be wearing down. His ability to get the defense in the right alignment is great, but his production is not. David Hawthorne was a major upgrade in production last season replacing Tatupu, but was a liability in coverage and alignments. Aaron Curry is still young, but his production is so low that any argument that he is a cornerstone is just wishful thinking. Again, ask yourself if the Seahawks Jenga tower would still stand if you removed these players.
John Carlson not only is off the cornerstone list, but he may be off the field by next season. His "blocking" is putrid, and his chemistry with Matt is non-existent. Anthony McCoy is waiting in the wings, and could prove to be a better receiver. He is already a better blocker. Cam Morrah has some potential there as well.
Golden Tate has gone from sure bet to purgatory. The emergence of Mike Williams, and now, Ben Obamanu raises big questions about where Tate will fit. Add in that Tate has been less than a diligent student in learning the offense, and you get a highly talented 2nd round pick who needs to make major strides in year two to avoid being a bust. The odds are still good Tate becomes an impact player, but most of that depends on his willingness to work in the off-season.
Five linchpin players. Five guys whose absence leads to immediate and crippling drop-offs for the team. You could argue there were zero players in that category last season. Finding players like that is how you build a championship team. Sure, Hasselbeck will need to be replaced in the next few years, but the other four could form the core of a championship team. That's reason enough to be optimistic about what comes next.