It was exactly a year ago when the Seahawks were in the midst of a late-season run heading into a measuring stick game against the 49ers in CenturyLink Field. It was heresy, at the time, to point out that the Seahawks roster may be the better of the two over the next few seasons. The 49ers had more elite talent, but the Seahawks had more young talent across the board. Seattle would end up losing that game 19-17, but a signal was sent when a makeshift Seahawks offensive line worked in unison with Marshawn Lynch to become the first 100-yard rusher that year against the 49ers, and the first to score a rushing touchdown. This was not a Seattle team that was going to back down to San Francisco. The Seahawks were coming. Another San Francisco victory earlier this year allowed 49er faithful, players and coaches to cling to the belief that the two teams were of different classes, but that facade came crashing down this past Sunday night. They are now faced with the reality that the Seahawks may be the better team now, and for years to come.
A hidden story line in the Seahawks 42-13 thumping of San Francisco was not just how the teams played, but who the teams played. Seattle has a younger roster, younger starters, and plays far more young players overall. Consider the percentage of snaps for players age 26 or younger on Sunday.
Only 31% of the snaps on defense came from players age 26 or younger for San Francisco, and that’s with 24-year-old Ricky Jean-Francois subbing for 33-year-old Justin Smith. A full 77% of Seattle’s defensive plays came from players no more than age 26. I chose that age because it generally means a player is no more than three years out of school, depending on whether they came out early, and still has significant upside potential. Patrick Willis is 27-years-old. That does not mean he is an old man, but it is harder to argue that he is going to get significantly better than he already is. NaVorro Bowman is 24-years-old, and just his second year as a starter. There is reason to believe he could get even better. A scary thought for Seahawks fans. Seattle starts Earl Thomas, Kam Chancellor, Bobby Wagner, K.J. Wright, and Richard Sherman as regulars under age 26, but players like Bruce Irvin, Malcolm Smith, Jeremy Lane, Greg Scruggs, Walter Thurmond, Clinton McDonald, Byron Maxwell, Chris Maragos, and Jeron Johnson also get significant snaps at a young age.
The offense is closer, as the 49ers offensive line is young. A major difference here is Marshawn Lynch versus Frank Gore, as Lynch is still just 26. Receivers also play a role as Doug Baldwin, Sidney Rice, and Golden Tate all check in under 26, along with Anthony McCoy. The 49ers lean on Randy Moss and Vernon Davis (28). Michael Crabtree is a nice young receiver, but it is hard to see how that unit is going to outperform Seattle’s in the long run, as they are the lesser group already. The 49ers offensive line is mostly young and all talented. Only Joe Staley and Jonathan Goodwin are older than 26. The Seahawks have Paul McQuistan and Breno Giacomini over that age.
Just look at the total snap count for players drafted in 2012:
Seattle – 343
San Francisco – 25
Think about the effect that will have on these teams over the next few years. Seattle fans understand as they have seen major contributions from every draft class Pete Carroll and John Schneider have made so far. The 49ers had a nice draft in Jim Harbaugh’s first year, getting Colin Kaepernick, Aldon Smith, Chris Culliver, Kendall Hunter, and Bruce Miller, but they appear to have very little to hang their hat on this year. Gaps like that have an impact on a franchise. This year’s Seahawks draft class appears to have allowed the Seahawks to leap-frog the 49ers in terms of talent.
The overall numbers tell a significant part of the story. If you add up all the offensive and defensive snaps and then total the number that were played by young players, Seattle appears to be far better situated for future growth. That, however, is just one game. Looking at the whole season would be a better barometer.
The numbers tighten, but the overarching narrative holds. Seattle is relying on a much younger set of defenders, and is playing younger players on offense as well. Some of the difference on offense changes if Colin Kaepernick were to play a full season instead of Alex Smith, but not enough to make massive difference. San Francisco fans have to be asking themselves if they cannot beat the Seahawks now, when will they?