Michael Jordan used to talk about getting in “the zone” for stretches of torrid game play. He could not miss a shot. Every move left opponents grasping at air, and fans breathless. Some of the stretches of greatness lasted for much of the game, but even the best of them ended after one night. John Schneider managed to stay in the zone for three years. His first three drafts, along with corresponding free agent signings, led to one of the most stunning accumulations of talent the league has ever seen. One of the oldest and least talented rosters in the NFL became one of the youngest and most talented. Each draft included at least one all-pro player. The zone ended in 2013, and failed to reignite in 2014 as both draft classes struggled to gain a footing. These last two drafts, however, appear to have restocked the cupboard and made the plan to bolster the roster in the coming years far less risky.
Frank Clark looks like a Pro Bowl pass rusher
Everyone wants to find a quarterback in the draft. Seattle did that. The next most coveted player to add to your roster is a pass rusher. Schneider and Pete Carroll hoped they had done that in the same draft when they took Bruce Irvin in the first round. Irvin proved to be a passable edge rusher, but had a limited ceiling in that regard. He totalled a respectable 22.0 sacks in four seasons before signing a big free agent deal with the Oakland Raiders. The next-closest Seahawks defensive line draft choice was Jordan Hill who had 7.0 sacks in his three seasons in Seattle. Frank Clark has 7.5 sacks this year alone.
Clark has achieved that total in just eight games. Should he continue his current pace of 0.9 sacks per game, he will finish the season with 14.0 sacks and have 17.0 in his two-year career. Just five Seahawks have ever reached the 14.0 sack mark in a season:
- 16.5 — Michael Sinclair, 1998
- 16.0 — Jacob Green, 1983
- 14.5 — Jeff Bryant, 1984
- 14.5 — Patrick Kerney, 2007
- 14.0 — Cortez Kennedy, 1992
Clark has done it with consistency instead of in bunches. Most pass rushers pile up their numbers against weaker competition and then disappear when facing a strong opponent. Clark has recorded at least one sack in six of the eight games he has played this season. He has been able to succeed both from the edge and as an inside rusher. Of the player’s in his draft class, only Vic Beasley has more sacks this season (9.5), and he has played two more games than Clark thus far. Beasley was drafted eighth overall. Clark was taken in the second round, 63rd overall. Schneider strikes again.
Finding a pass rusher in the draft who the team has contract control over for two seasons after this one means the team has some ability to maintain their level of play when Michael Bennett inevitably starts to decline. The team will never stop looking to add pass rushers in the draft, but they appear to have hit on a Pro Bowl quality player who should continue to improve and allow the team to bolster the roster in other places.
Justin Britt, Mark Glowinski and Germain Ifedi form core of future offensive line
There tends to be a noxious cloud surrounding any discussion of the Seahawks offensive line. Any mention of their performance usually brings on grumbles and even outright cursing. When they helped Seattle to become one of the best running teams in the NFL the past few years, complaints came in about their pass protection. When they were second in the NFL earlier this year in fewest sacks allowed, complaints flooded in about their run blocking. It’s a tough gig. What Schneider is trying to do with this group is fascinating. Whether he succeeds may just determine how many rings this group of Seahawks put on their fingers.
Justin Britt has found a home at the center position. He is the jewel of the 2014 draft class, which nobody would have believed before the season began. The team also signed Garry Gilliam as an undrafted free agent that year. While Gilliam is the current starter, he is not progressing the way the team had to have hoped he would. Mark Glowinski was drafted last year and Germain Ifedi was the first round pick this year.
Both players look like they should have long careers ahead. They are still young and can be error-prone, but the arrow is pointing up for both. Ifedi was a right tackle in college, and that will give the team some flexibility as the approach the draft next year. Taking a right tackle early or a guard later will determine where the team places Ifedi. We have not seen how he performs out on the edge, so it is hard to project him there, but he has the classic right tackle build.
Rees Odhiambo was also drafted early this year, and could be in position to challenge for a starting spot next season like Glowinski did this year. Odhiambo has played every spot but center, so if he is one of the best five linemen next year, he could be the guy that forces Ifedi outside or may even be in consideration for right tackle. That seems less likely.
George Fant is the latest entrant. He came aboard as an undrafted free agent and will be given the chance to finish the season as the starting left tackle. His ceiling is high, but he is incredibly hard to project given his lack of prior experience playing football. This could be a tough week for him, and there are a number of tough matchups the rest of the way. It is way too early to pencil him in as the future at this position. The team is very likely to target the tackle position, and prefer left tackles, in the upcoming draft.
Joey Hunt is a sleeper who was drafted this year and might just force his way into the lineup next season. Britt will be entering the final year of his rookie deal, and the Seahawks could decide to let him go in favor of the cheaper Hunt and Odhiambo. It would be cruel to move Britt back out of the center spot after finally showing his worth, but the team will do whatever is necessary to put the best talent on the field and set up their salary cap to keep stars around.
Thomas Rawls, C.J. Prosise, Troymaine Pope and Alex Collins give Seattle options at running back
Nobody is more excited about the game this weekend than Thomas Rawls. The undrafted free agent signed by Schneider last year is finally back from injury and eager to resume his battering ways. There is plenty of reason to be bullish on the peanut butter and chocolate pairing of Rawls and C.J. Prosise. They have distinct styles and strengths. Should both prove they can be durable, which they have not done thus far, Seattle may be set at the position for the next three years.
They may still add a frontline runner to the group if one falls to them, but it is unlikely to be a priority. Now, if Rawls goes down with another injury, this position becomes an area the team will need to bolster. Let’s hope that is not the case.
Troymaine Pope is an interesting addition as another undrafted free agent. He is small, but reminds me a bit of Ray Rice. He is compact and physical, and shows great vision and burst. It would not shock me if he grows into a starting caliber running back. That is a bit of a longshot considering the competition in front of him and his diminutive size, but his build lends itself more to durability than either Rawls or Prosise.
Alex Collins has had a tough rookie season. He may not make the team next year if he does not show some clear improvement. Still, he has the most prototypical build for a starting NFL running back of the group, and has shown glimpses of the talented college player who merited a Seahawks draft pick.
Tyler Lockett was already a Pro Bowler, and may make it as a receiver
Touchdown makers are hugely valuable. Tyler Lockett had eight in his first season, trailing only David Johnson, Todd Gurley, and Karlos Williams among rookies. Only three Seahawks rookies scored more touchdowns:
- 14 — Curt Warner, 1983
- 10 — Daryl Turner, 1984
- 9 — Joey Galloway, 1995
A knee injury has kept Lockett from building on his rookie showing, but he is looking more and more like himself every week. He has established himself as one of the team’s best deep threats. Doug Baldwin and Jermaine Kearse are locked up for the next few years. Paul Richardson has done well in limited opportunities, and could still step forward from the 2014 draft class. Adding a more physical split end is something the Seahawks will continue to look for, but will be satisfied with Kearse if nothing materializes. Failing to pursue and affordable option like Kenny Britt this past offseason, and paying Kearse more money, feels like a missed opportunity. Even so, the receiver position has rising star and may soon feature two Pro Bowlers.
What do they need?
The offensive line will continue to be an area of focus, particularly the tackle spot. Schneider may continue to use draft capital there. Defensive line features some of the oldest players on the roster with Bennett and Cliff Avril both nearing the end of their contracts in their early 30s. Jarran Reed came in with a lot of hype from the coaches, but it is unclear that he has lived up to it so far. Cassius Marsh is signed through next year and looks to be more of a role player than a future starter. Ahtyba Rubin and Tony McDaniel are shorter-term solutions inside. Getting younger along the line would be ideal, but Schneider has had repeated success plugging holes with veterans on short-term deals at that position.
Tight end is another one to watch. Jimmy Graham has been terrific this year, increasing the odds he will get the chance to play out his deal next year at age 31. Luke Willson is in the final year of his deal, and Nick Vannett has yet to prove his worth. The team will probably try to sign Willson to an affordable deal to stabilize the position.
Cornerback and safety could see some attention given. Kelsie McCray is a free agent after the season, and it is not clear if the team will want Kam Chancellor to play out his contract next year. Even if they do, it would be wise to add to the pile. DeAndre Elliott shows some promise as another undrafted free agent find at the corner spot. He has a little dog in him, and shows some nice instincts. DeShawn Shead, Jeremy Lane and Richard Sherman are all under contract for next year, so the need is not necessarily pressing. It is more about preparing for who can step up next.
Bobby Wagner and K.J. Wright are signed for the next few years, but there is a void of talent behind them. The team needs to add there.
If I had to guess at offseason priorities, it would look something like this:
- Offensive tackle
- Defensive tackle
- Split end
One of the nice things about that list is that finding players at those top three spots is not incredibly difficult when compared to trying to draft a frontline running back or premier edge rusher or franchise quarterback. Thankfully, Schneider has managed to already address the most challenging aspect of the roster. These last two drafts have restocked the shelves. They are expected to receive two compensatory fourth round picks in the upcoming draft due to the Irvin and J.R. Sweezy departures. That sets them up for another top-heavy draft. The fact that this team should improve next season is remarkable. No front office has done a better job setting their team up for sustained success than Schneider and his crew.