Saturday, April 20, 2013

Cause and Effect: Seahawks Off-Season Thus Far

Scarcity is a hidden hero of NFL football. The salary cap, the roster limit, the off-season calendar all conspire to create urgency and boundaries that force hard decisions. A general manager can have the best quarterback on the free agent market, but that very well may force him accept league average players at two or three other positions. Big-name acquisitions can be misleading. Landing an older player can mean a younger and cheaper one does not develop. A team that loses a bidding war with a division rival can find themselves the winner when they are left with more cap space and draft picks. John Schneider and the Seahawks have had as dramatic an off-season as any team in the NFL, and each move brought repercussions. Cap room dwindles. Roster spots are taken. Needs are met. This off-season began with a labyrinth of possible directions for the team to go. The totality of theirs moves to date has illuminated a few possible paths forward for the roster, while dimming others. 

Weakside Linebacker = K.J. Wright
The linear path would indicate that the Seahawks have a hole at starting WILL linebacker. Sure, they have Malcolm Smith and Allen Bradford, but surely the team needs to bring in more talent to compete for the starting spot, right? There are more and more indications that both Cliff Avril and Bruce Irvin will combine to be the SAM linebacker, shifting K.J. Wright to WILL. Many have already discussed the possibility that Avril will get some snaps at SAM, and Dan Quinn corroborated that in his recent interview with Dave Mahler on KJR. I expect Irvin will see significant time there as well. Keep in mind, he is a converted safety in college. His athleticism could be elite in zone coverages, leading to lighting fast drops that are deeper than quarterbacks are accustomed to. And this still allows him to and Avril to be rushers on any down.

Red Bryant will continue to act as a 3-4 DE, whose primary job is to occupy the tight end and tackle and set the edge while the SAM crashes the corner. Aaron Curry attempted to play on the line of scrimmage in this role, but had no pass rush instincts to speak of. Irvin and Avril could benefit greatly from Bryant's presence and the simplicity of this role. 

Moving Wright to WILL is a risk in that he was effective at SAM, but it is a small risk. Weakside linebackers are asked to make plays in space, shed blockers and read short-yardage plays like screens and swing passes. Wright excels in these areas. This could be the position that maximizes Wright's play-making ability, and helps to get the most talented players on the field. 

As of now, this direction is highly probable. The next indicator if it true will be how early the team drafts a linebacker next week. My guess is we will not see one until round four or later, most likely five or later. 

Fullback Role Marginalized
I love Michael Robinson. He appears to be a fantastic teammate, a tough guy, and a terrific lead blocker for Marshawn Lynch. He also very well may have played his last game for the Seahawks. His snaps were already reduced with the introduction of the read-option package last season. It will be further reduced when we see Percy Harvin in the back-field with Lynch. Lynch was often a single-back runner in college and in Buffalo. The fullback inclusion has been as much about Robinson as it has been about the offense. The team could very well add an H-Back style tight end that can motion into the back-field as a lead blocker. Robinson is also set to make $2.5M this year. He will either accept a significant salary reduction, or he will be taking snaps elsewhere. 

Surprise Draft Choices That Should Not Surprise
Many mock drafts and draft analysts will look at the WILL linebacker spot as the lone remaining starting role from last season that has not been filled, and project a linebacker drafted early. Expect otherwise for the reasons listed above, and do not be surprised if the team to goes after a position like quarterback or wide receiver.

This team acquired Harvin. Why in the world would they use an early pick on a receiver? Harvin is not a classic split end. He gets most of his snaps in the slot, although he can split out wide and be used in 2x0 formations that have him and Sidney Rice as the only receivers on the field on the same side of the formation. Golden Tate is also not a classic split end, and is an unrestricted free agent at the end of this season that is unlikely to fit within the team's budget. This draft is stocked with terrific receiver prospects, many of them lanky and fast, perfect for the split end role. Finding someone that could push Rice would not be a bad idea either, based on injury history and future contract uncertainty. If the right talent is sitting there in the 2nd or 3rd round, Schneider will not hesitate to add talent to an already stocked position group.

Quarterback is a bigger stretch, but Brady Quinn and Josh Portis are unlikely to be alone in the battle for the back-up role. Quinn is a veteran insurance policy. The front office would love to see a younger player with more upside win that spot. If a starting caliber player falls to them, they will pull the trigger. 

Other Clear Needs - Offensive Tackle, Safety, Linebacker
The Seahawks are thin at offensive tackle. Breno Giacomini is not the massive liability that a portion of the Seahawks fan base seems to think he is. His pass protection is below average at times, but his run blocking and fit with the other players on that line is better than most realize. That said, he will have competition and better quality depth behind him. 

Winston Guy may step up as a starting-quality safety behind Kam Chancellor, but the team needs to draft more talent at the spot to be sure. There is little reliable depth at the safety spot if Chancellor goes down, and an even bigger gap if Earl Thomas is out. Chris Maragos, Jeron Johnson and Guy are solid role players, but only Guy would appear to have future starter potential. There are quality safety prospects in this draft that will surely tempt the front office.

Even with Wright, Avril and Irvin likely playing large linebacker roles, the team will certainly look to add players that can play WILL or SAM on the chance that the change of roles for those three players does not pan out.

Less Clear Needs - Offensive Guard, Nickel Corner, Tight End, Defensive Tackle
The health of James Carpenter is paramount. He is the only certain starting-caliber guard on the roster. Paul McQuistan, John Moffitt and J.R. Sweezy all started last year, but none have played well enough to earn starting expectations for 2013. McQuistan is a possible salary cap casualty, meaning guard depth will be even more important as he is the only one who has managed to stay healthy and ready thus far. The team will likely look for a player that could swing between right tackle and guard.

Seattle has an embarrassment of riches at the cornerback position. Set aside Brandon Browner and Richard Sherman for a moment, the combination of Antoine Winfield and Walter Thurmond could start for 70% of the league. That is without even bringing up Jeremy Lane, Byron Maxwell and Will Blackmon. Still, Thurmond and Winfield are unrestricted free agents after this season, and none of the other players have proven they can play nickel corner. The team could spend one of their many picks on this role.

The signing of Darren Fells was a quiet start to what became a frenzy of free agent activity for Seattle. It is not clear whether the team sees him as a long-term project or a potential role player this season. There are a number of tight ends worth looking at in the draft, and what the team does at that position will give a good indication where Fells falls on the depth chart.

Any time the team can add a disruptive interior lineman, they will do so. There is a rather large pile now  at the tackle position with Jaye Howard, Brandon Mebane, Tony McDaniel, Greg Scruggs, Clinton McDonald, and players that swing inside like Michael Bennett and Bryant. Only McDaniel and McDonald are proven gap eaters at 3-technique tackle, and only as rotational players. Quinn may feel comfortable with what he has, but it would not be a surprise to see a thick run stuffer added to the mix.

No True Needs
Ok, I lied. This team does not need the draft next week to compete for a Super Bowl. They have answers at every position. They simply will be adding levels of luxury to an already-loaded roster. Even then, the priorities described above are based on what positions have the most risk now, and in the near future, due to performance, contract status, durability, and importance of position. Pull out your popcorn, because there should be no stress associated with the draft next week. 

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