Where are Seahawks Better than Last Season? Breaking Down Each Position Group
Seattle said goodbye this offseason to some of the best players at their positions in the NFL, and some of the best players to ever put on a Seahawks uniform. Their exits have opened the door for fresh faces to step forward. The prevailing wisdom, though, is that this is a less talented Seahawks team than it has been. The average projected win total for this team is around 8 wins. Some have projected them to win as few as 4 games. Watching the first Seahawks preseason game left me curious how each position group compares to the players who manned the same spots a year prior. Using a simple grading system, I went through and evaluated the most meaningful roles on the team. The results were eye-opening, and left me wondering if I am being far too generous in projecting this year’s squad or had forgotten just how bad some of the talent was that played for Seattle last season.
The simple grading system
There are a variety of grading systems out there for NFL players. For this evaluation, I chose a simplified version of the scouting scale. The basic premise here is to group players into buckets: All-Pro (top 2-3 at their position in the NFL), Pro Bowl (among the best at their position in the conference), Starter (quality starter), Rotation (quality contributor), Bench (roster-worthy, but only plays if situation demands it), Non-NFL (not worthy of being on an NFL roster).
This is almost completely subjective, and comes with all those caveats in mind. You should absolutely look at the grades I give with a critical eye and decide if you think they are too high or too low. I will call out where I had tough times deciding. My goal was to get a basic feel of which position groups were ahead and behind of where they were last year. Important note: My focus was on key roles likely to see the field versus judging the quality of talent across the entire 53-man roster. Let’s get into the results.
Quarterbacks – Even
One could argue that I only needed to grade Russell Wilson as he has never missed a start, but the quarterback position is so important that it is worth at least grading the backup. In this case, it does not matter either way as both the starter and backup come out the same as last year. Wilson may finally reach All-Pro status, which would be a leap, but I am not ready to project that quite yet.
Running backs – Significant improvement
It felt appropriate to grade the whole position group given the catastrophic injury situation last season. The most controversial grade outside Seattle would be leveling Chris Carson as a Pro Bowl-level player. That is what I see from him in terms of talent. The only question is whether he can stay healthy the full season. Believe it or not, Eddie Lacy led Seahawks running backs in rushing attempts (69) last season. He is not on a roster this year and should not have been last year.
The most controversial grade inside Seattle is either Rashaad Penny as below starter quality or C.J. Prosise rated as equivalent of Penny. I have not yet seen sustained evidence of Penny being a special player at the position. This is only based on a handful of practices, a scrimmage, and a single preseason game. Seahawks Twitter is working overtime to explain why Penny’s 2.0 yards per carry on Thursday was not indicative of what kind of player he will be. There very well could be real upside for Penny from where I have him graded. Time will tell.
Prosise is a tough grade as his talent level is at least starter, but his durability issues make him a question mark to even make the final roster. He has shown more ability than Penny to this point, but far less durability. For now, I grade them out the same.
The 2017 comparables are done in descending order of carries last season. There are some who would argue Mike Davis deserves a higher grade, but he has gone two free agency periods without getting any interest outside of Seattle and averaged 3.5 yards per carry last year. He’s a backup, who can show flashes.
Wide receivers – Significant improvement
I know there will be some disapproval of this assessment, but stick with me for the explanation. The toughest grade for me on this list was Doug Baldwin. I am concerned about his injury. This is a guy who never misses practice. It would not shock me if he was a significant step back from where he has been, and that would take this whole position group a lot lower.
Tyler Lockett looks much better than where he was physically last year, and he still finished with one more reception than Paul Richardson on 11 fewer targets during that season. Lockett was an above-average receiver in 2015. I believe he is going to have a breakout season. The 3.5 is probably generous as I look at it again, but he is a solid 3.0, so we are not way off. There are a lot of fans who loved Richardson. He was a low efficiency receiver with just 44 receptions in 80 targets, but did have a healthy 16.0 average on his receptions and 6 touchdowns. I prefer Lockett’s efficiency and greater route variability.
Brandon Marshall is a big question mark. He may not even make the final roster. The team could choose to lean on Jaron Brown as the veteran and keep young players in Marcus Johnson and David Moore. Marshall still looks capable of contributing quality snaps at the position this season. He should be better than a gimpy Lockett from last year.
What many fans might not realize is after Lockett’s 69 targets, the next closest receiver in targets drops all the way down to Amara Darboh (13) and then Tanner McEvoy (9). Seattle really did not go deep into their receiver group last season. Guys like Jaron Brown and Johnson are significant upgrades over the guys in those roles last year. Consider that Baldwin and Richardson were really the only quality receivers playing at full strength on the roster last year.
This year’s group looks stronger, but a significant degradation in Baldwin’s play would have a huge impact on the overall quality and upside of this group.
Tight ends – Roughly even
Jimmy Graham was a polarizing figure among Seahawks fans. He scored 10 touchdowns and set pretty much every franchise tight end record, but also showed miserable effort on many occasions and was disastrous blocking. No tight end on the current roster is going to challenge Graham’s receiving records, but they very well may be better fits for how Seattle plays.
Ed Dickson has yet to play due to injury. I see him as an aging rotational player who is a sometimes starter. Will Dissly rates higher for me as a young guy who can be among the better blockers in the game for his position and be a reliable receiving option. Nick Vannett might be better than a rotational player, but he has had issues blocking and receiving thus far in his career so even rating him as a rotational player is a slight improvement from where he was as recently as last season.
Luke Willson was a fan favorite, but Dissly should be a far superior blocker and roughly equivalent receiver. This group has a lower ceiling and higher floor than the group from last year. They seem to also be far better suited to the way the Seahawks want to play.
Offensive line – Slight improvement
Ah, the offensive line. No fanbase has gained a greater appreciation for the importance of line play than Seahawks fans. Duane Brown has been a Pro Bowl player in the past, including last season, but he has not been the truly among the best at his position in the conference for a couple of seasons. I see him as a near-Pro Bowl level player. I could have compared him to Rees Odhiambo, but Brown actually played more snaps last season.
Ethan Pocic was not a very good player last season. He was a rookie and undersized. I am projecting a slight improvement given the weight he has added and the extra year of experience. Still, he is not quite a quality starter. Luke Joeckel manned left guard the most last year. You also had guys like Oday Aboushi and Mark Glowinski in there. Joeckel would have been fine as a backup player. I think Pocic can be better than Joeckel was last year.
Justin Britt was not as good last year as he was the season before. He might be better this season, but I’m being conservative and leaving him at quality starter level.
The right guard spot is still up in the air. D.J. Fluker is the current starter. J.R. Sweezy was signed to battle at that spot, and the Seahawks may not be done looking for additional guard help. I see either player as meaningful upgrade over the rookie version of Pocic or guys like Aboushi or Glowinski. The main questions are around health.
Right tackle is a sore subject. Nobody outside the organization was particularly enamored with Germain Ifedi’s play at that spot last season. His penalties were arguably the worst part of his game as he led the league in that category. He may face real challengers in the form of George Fant or Jamarco Jones if either can return to full health. For now, I’m projecting Ifedi to be roughly the same player he was last season. There is upside potential at this position, either in the form of better play from Ifedi or a replacement.
Overall, this position group feels more projectable than it has the past two years where it was so young. Brown will be here the full season. Fluker and Sweezy are far better bets (at far better prices) than Joeckel and Aboushi were last year. Pocic is a promising player who should take a meaningful step forward this season. I did not go further down the depth chart because the general goal is to only play five offensive linemen each game. I think the depth is better than last year as well, though, if I was to grade it.
Defensive line – Slight improvement
I wince at this grade. It reads a little better if you cut off the final spot, as that means the group is roughly even to last season. You may still argue that’s off. Keep in mind Cliff Avril barely played last year. Branden Jackson had almost twice the snaps that Avril did. This comparison is not to what the Seahawks broke camp with last year, but the actual players who led to results on the field. I list more players for DL than OL because there is always an intentional heavy rotation among the DL so more players get time on the field.
Michael Bennett was a guy I originally graded at 3.5 because I don’t think he was as effective last season, but decided in the end to grant him Pro Bowl status. Rasheem Green is a big guess here, but I am seeing more and more evidence that this guy could be a quality starter at the 5-technique defensive end spot against both the pass and the run. That would be huge.
I have Frank Clark finally reaching Pro Bowl status this season as he will be the featured rusher and is playing for a contract. I am moving Branden Jackson up from a borderline rotational player to a solid rotational player as he has definitely taken a step forward from where he was last season and may even get some starter snaps. Marcus Smith II was reportedly dealing with a tough injury last season, but I have not seen enough to project him as any more than the occasionally effective pass rusher he was last year.
I could have put Jacob Martin on this list, but he has generally been a LB.
Jarran Reed looks quicker and ready to step forward, but I need to see the disruptive impact plays on the field to grade him above a solid starter. Tom Johnson is much older than Sheldon Richardson, but I am not convinced his production will be meaningfully different this season. If I was getting more fractional, I’d put Richardson at 3.3 last year and Johnson at more like 2.7 this year. Just keep in mind that Richardson had 1 sack and 7 quarterback hits last season. Johnson had 2 and 9, albeit in more snaps.
I could have easily projected gains down the depth chart, but only at the very bottom did it feel egregious to leave things as they were.
The wild card with this group is Dion Jordan. I thought it was safer to not expect anything from him this season. Even if that is the case, I am having trouble seeing the argument that this defensive line is significantly worse than last season. The biggest flaws there could be undervaluing Richardson, overvaluing Johnson, and overvaluing Green. The reality is I may be undervaluing Green. This is not a group that compares favorably to the great Seahawks defensive lines of a few years ago, but the Seahawks did not have that line last season either. That group finished 19th in rushing yards allowed and 13th in sacks. This group could be better against the run. The pass rush remains the big question.
Linebackers – Better
Bobby Wagner was in the running for defensive player of the year. K.J. Wright has been a Pro Bowl performer for years. Those guys should remain who they have been. The interesting part here is when you look at SAM and realize that Barkevious Mingo should be a meaningful upgrade over the aged Michael Wilhoite from last season. Mingo is a better pass rusher and a better athlete. He is far closer to Bruce Irvin than to Wilhoite as a player. The team also has guys in Jacob Martin and Shaquem Griffin who could find their ways onto the field the way a young Malcolm Smith did his rookie season. Both players are clear upgrades over what Terence Garvin brought to the team last year.
Cornerbacks – Slight step back
Richard Sherman was an All-Pro player who was playing below his standards last season, but still among the best in football. One could argue he should at least be a 4.5, while others might argue he was closer to 3.5. Either way, his departure is significant. Remember, it does not matter if he is coming back from injury since we are comparing to what he did for Seattle last season. Shaquill Griffin has the talent to be a Pro Bowl player, but he needs to show an ability to create turnovers. That has not happened yet. For now, I am leaving him as a quality starter.
Byron Maxwell played well for Seattle last season in a short stint, but has not looked great in training camp and is currently out with an injury. The team has tried out Domique Rodgers-Cromartie. I would not be surprised to see him signed to increase competition at the spot. As it stands, I see the starting outside corners being a sizable step backwards from Sherman and Griffin.
Justin Coleman was among the best nickel corners in the game and I see that continuing. No change.
The fourth corner does not get many snaps, but the young Tre Flowers already projects to be more valuable than Jeremy Lane from last season.
Safeties – Big step back
There is no credible way to read the change at safety for Seattle than to say the third safety is now the top safety. Bradley McDougald has been a starter in Tampa Bay and ended up with a number of starts for Seattle, but he is nowhere near the class of either Earl Thomas or Kam Chancellor. He’s never going to make a Pro Bowl, let alone rank among the best players to ever play his position in the history of the sport. That is the standard Thomas and Chancellor set.
Tedric Thompson has continued to improve and is in line to start. He has yet to prove he is truly a starting caliber safety in this league, as opposed to the best option to start for Seattle. There is an important nuance in there.
Delano Hill is the better player between the two, but McDougald is better as a strong safety, which means Thompson gets the playing time edge over Hill since he can play free safety and Hill is strictly a strong safety. Maurice Alexander is a strong safety as well.
No position group has taken a larger step backwards than this group. I am assuming Earl Thomas does not play for the Seahawks this season. Should that somehow get resolved and he suits up and plays to his normal level, the equation changes significantly.
Special Teams – Big improvement
The Blair Walsh Project was horrifying and even old man Sebastian Janikowski qualifies as a big upgrade at kicker. Michael Dickson being graded as just below Pro Bowl is likely controversial for some, but that’s my honest assessment of what he will be as a rookie. A Pro Bowl berth is not out of the question. Jon Ryan was not good last season. Tyler Lockett has been a Pro Bowl returner, and should be more dangerous on punts this season as his quickness is back.
Summary – Better than I expected
Let me start by pointing out a few caveats. Not every position is of equal importance. Michael Dickson being better than Jon Ryan is not nearly as important as even a slight improvement in Russell Wilson’s play at quarterback or any drop-off from Michael Bennett’s play on the defensive line. I did not weight these grades. That shows up especially when seeing special teams improved by 4 points while the defense dropped by 2.5. It is a far bigger deal that the defense looks to have taken a step back than that the special teams stepped forward.
Also, the difference between an All-Pro player and a Pro Bowl player is massive, let alone the difference between an All-Pro and a quality starter. The drop-off from a 5 to a 4, or a 4 to a 3 is not linear. Beyond that, a team is better graded by how many truly elite players they have on the field. Dominant players win games far more than a well-rounded collection of average players.
Then there is also the obvious, which is to say that these are all projections based on limited sample size and impossible-to-project injury situations. I am sure I have missed other shortcomings of the methods used in this article.
That said, my goal was to gauge for myself where things might be for this team relative to the 9-7 squad we saw last year. It helped in that regard. I had forgotten how thin the receiving corps was and how makeshift the defensive line had been. I had put players like Michael Wilhoite out of my mind. Even the maligned offensive line has a very credible story for why it will be better.
On balance, I do believe this offense is going to be meaningfully more talented than the one the Seahawks put on the field last season. It remains to be seen what Brian Schottenheimer will do with that talent. The injury to Baldwin is a major wildcard, and is one to watch. The difference in the running game, though, could be massive. Carson could be an explosive 1,000 yard rusher on a team whose rushing leader at running back last season was Mike Davis with 240 yards. There was only a single rushing touchdown from the running back spot.
Those who love analytics will tell you the running game does not matter, but given the Seahawks are certain to run the ball, better to run it well than to be historically terrible. I would love to hear where your grades are the same or differ from what I have shared here, and am eager to see the team get back on the field so we can all learn more.