Seahawks 2016 Season Preview Part III: New Faces, New Places
Continuity is the foundation of every successful franchise. Maintaining the same coach, front office and core players allows talent to develop and combine to reach a level of performance only possible through the crucible of shared failure and learning. It is hard enough to be better at finding, grooming and utilizing that talent. The NFL makes it nearly impossible to sustain it due to salary cap restrictions and draft ordering. We discussed how some franchises have fought their way through those obstacles to develop into dynasties in the first chapter of our season preview. Now, we will examine the step John Schneider and Pete Carroll have taken this offseason to overhaul their roster in the middle of their championship window.
Fourteen of the 53 players listed on the Seahawks final roster were rookies. That means more than 26% of the players currently on the roster have never played a regular season snap. Inexperience goes beyond rookie status. Mark Glowinski has only started one game. Justin Britt has never played a regular season snap at center. Frank Clark will be used in new ways. Paul Richardson has only had limited snaps due to injury. Tyler Lockett enters just his second season. In all, 22 players (42% of the roster) are under the age of 25. Over half the roster (51%) is entering their third season in the NFL or less.
Going young is not a nice idea for Schneider. It is a requirement. Their strategy to pay their core elite requires that they construct a roster around those players with younger, cheaper options. Youth plays differently at various positions in the NFL. A rookie quarterback will almost always limit what an offense can do, even if they are a great rookie. A rookie running back can explode from snap number one and never look back.
Seattle is blessed with youth at the running back position. Their oldest back, Christine Michael, is just 25 years old. Those young legs figure to serve Seattle well as they run behind a revamped offensive line.
Despite being flush with young players, the Seahawks are not relying on them in most cases. Jarran Reed will compete to start at nose tackle, but the team has veteran options in Ahtyba Rubin and Tony McDaniel as fallbacks. Germain Ifedi will start at right guard, which should be simpler than the right tackle position he played in college. Mark Glowinski has started one game already and had a year in Tom Cable’s system. The rest of the starting spots are in the hands of experienced players.
The hope is that gives the Seahawks the best of both worlds: elite veteran product and a youthful minor league system of depth to call up as needed.
Schneider and Carroll have openly compared this draft to their 2012 haul that included Wilson, Bruce Irvin, Bobby Wagner, J.R. Sweezy and more. There may not be any single player who reaches the All-Pro upside of a Wilson or Wagner, but the quality throughout may very well be the best.
Most improved: Offensive line
Never has a position group as mundane as the offensive line received so much attention from the casual fan. The Seahawks were undone by their patchwork line last year, including an unforgettable embarrassment in Carolina during the playoffs. There was plenty of scrutiny—including from yours truly—during the offseason as castoffs like Bradley Sowell and J’Marcus Webb were added to questionable rookies like Ifedi (who struggled in pass protection in college) and transient offensive lineman Justin Britt moved to yet another home at center. The regular season has not started and I’m already offering my mea culpa.
Not only will this line be better than the one they featured last season, but it may wind up being one of the best lines the Seahawks have ever had. Yes, I just wrote that. There will be challenges. They will not be perfect. There will be communication errors that happen when any group of five men work together in stressful conditions for the first time. I am not blind to any of that. What has captured my attention is the remarkable and consistent push they have displayed in the run game, as well as the precocious unity in their pass protection.
Cable has said multiple times that this is one of the smartest group of linemen he has ever had. That matters because many breakdowns in pass coverage or run plays come from mental mistakes on assignments. We have all seen those moments where two guys block one defender while another runs straight through to the quarterback. That was a staple of the line in early games last season. Not so with this group. The run blocking has been magnificent.
On the other side of this coin, #Seahawks RBs have been afforded 2.3 yards-before-contact/carry, which is easily the best mark in the NFL.
The rebirth of Britt is easily the biggest story of the Seahawks preseason. If he is 75% of the guy he appeared to be, it will completely change the makeup of that line. At 6’6″ and 325 pounds, he is among the biggest centers in the history of the NFL. He looked like a giant standing next to 6’1″ 310 pound Patrick Lewis, the starter for the last half of the 2015 season. His improvement was apparent even during 1v1 pass rush drills in training camp where he has struggled mightily in past years. It was not uncommon for him to successfully block Michael Bennett, which is nearly impossible in these drills.
Tackle position not the problem fans think it is
Sowell is the other big surprise. He was rated as the worst left tackle in the NFL by ProFootballFocus.com when he last started for the Cardinals a few seasons back. He was relegated to backup duty in Arizona the past couple of years and was expected to continue that role here. Instead, he went out and grabbed the starting left tackle spot with physical and consistent pass blocking as well as decent play in the run game. He does not have the athletic ability of strength of a top ten pick like Russell Okung, who left this offseason, but he appears to be a serviceable left tackle.
Many fans are concerned about the Seahawks tackle play. That is fair. It is unlikely to become the same level of problem the center and guards were last year. The main reason being that Wilson is well suited to evade outside pressure. It is interior pressure that gets home too quickly and blocks passing lanes. Add in the Seahawks new focus on quick passes, and those tackles will not have to hold their blocks nearly as long. Take a look at the Patriots from last season. Their line was a mess, but it rarely caused them issues due to Tom Brady’s quick trigger.
The big picture
This graphic is an overview of all the major roles, where they have turned over, and my perspective on whether those changes were good or bad. Some of it requires a little explanation. For example, Lockett is listed as WR2 this year after being WR3 last year. That is due to my expectation that Lockett will be the second-most targeted receiver after Baldwin this season. Kearse is still the split end.
Wilson at his best
Expect Wilson to have his best year as a pro.
Running backs among most improved
Thomas Rawls is listed as RB1, and considered an improvement over Marshawn Lynch. To be clear, I expect Rawls to be an improvement over 2015 Lynch, not Lynch in his prime when healthy. Although, his yardage numbers could surpass Lynch if he gets enough carries due to his higher average per rush. Michael is a guy I see as an upgrade even over Rawls from last year. The biggest change here, and one of the biggest on the team, is C.J. Prosise stepping in for the aging Fred Jackson. Seattle gets considerably more dangerous with that new weapon in tow.
Receivers improve depth
Besides Lockett continuing to develop into a lethal weapon, the return of Paul Richardson greatly improves the quality of their fourth receiver spot. Little is expected of that role, but Richardson’s speed and route running make him a guy who will make some key plays more consistently than Ricardo Lockette did.
Tight ends tough to judge
We won’t know what we have in Jimmy Graham until he plays. Even then, we won’t know how long he will be able to do it. I’m projecting a slight downgrade in his quality, but could easily see him blowing up this year if he is able to stay on the field. The team is far better ready to utilize his talents. Part of the reason for that is the addition of Brandon Williams who is a true inline blocker at tight end capable of relieving Graham of blocking duties. Luke Willson remains the same dependable guy he has always been, and Nick Vannett will fight to find snaps.
Base defensive line is at least as good
Brandon Mebane was allowed to leave and is replaced by Reed and Rubin. McDaniel can play 3T DT, which means Rubin can slide over to NT if needed. There is a lot of flexibility and quality here, but I was reticent to predict an improvement until we see Reed get snaps in real games.
Rush defensive line is a mystery
With the release of Jordan Hill, it is unclear who will be the nose tackle in nickel rush packages. My best guess for now is that it will be Quinton Jefferson. It could also be Bennett with Clark playing inside next to him and Cassius Marsh playing rush end. For now, let’s assume they will want Clark on the edge. He could be a huge improvement over Bruce Irvin, but I have to see it first. For now, I’m expecting a slight downgrade there.
The reason I am predicting improved play from Avril is that he is being allowed to rush from his favored left side in nickel situations like he did during his 2013 season and throughout his time in Detroit.
Linebackers dragged down by SAM
Mike Morgan will step in for Irvin at SAM, and I expect a significant downgrade there. He is not the athlete Irvin is, and has not shown up against the run or the pass in the preseason. Teams could have far more success running outside in his direction than they did in past years. I love what I have seen from Bobby Wagner and am expecting one of his best seasons.
Secondary steps forward
Gone is the human pin cushion named Cary Williams. In his place, seasoned Seahawks corners DeShawn Shead and Jeremy Lane step in. Shead has been one of the more impressive players in camp. Lane missed most of last season due to injury and should be better equipped to step forward this year. Tharold Simon has played quality snaps in the past at outside corner, but was not great this preseason.
Each safety is the same name as last year but each have reasons to expect better play this year. Thomas was coming off a major surgery and had no preseason snaps last year. Chancellor was holding out and missed the first two games. Kelcie McCray was acquired late and only now has had the chance to truly acclimate. McCray, in particular, could be an impact player for the team as a third safety.
This group remains the same except for rookie long snapper Nolan Frese. His snapping was erratic in the preseason. Clint Gresham was as consistent as one can be. Expect a significant step down here, and hope I’m wrong. Keep an eye out on recent additions L.J. McCray and Dewey McDonald. Seattle has lacked a dominant coverage team since Heath Farwell and Chris Maragos left. There is some reason for optimism that those two can combine with Tyvis Powell and others to make the Seahawks special teams coverage units truly special again.
The offense could be among the best in the NFL this year, and there is little reason to expect the defense to step backwards. An improved offensive line and running back room should lead to more reliable results. The highs should be higher and the lows should be less low. Graham is the wild card here. If he can be healthy and 75% of the guy he was before the injury, this group could explode.
Linebacker and pass rush are areas to watch on defense. Morgan is a big step back from Irvin and Clark has a total of three sacks in his career. The team needs an effective pass rush to fit together with their secondary in order to force more turnovers. They got by with very few takeaways last season. If Clark can become a 6-8 sack player, the takeaways should come far more frequently. Have some fun with the Frank Clark Sack Calculator if you want to see what it would take for him to get there.
This is undoubtedly a deeper and more talented team than last year. There are no fatal flaws and some unmatched strengths. This team has everything it needs to contend for a crown. Now, they need to go out and prove it.