Fans are made of cardboard. Fake crowd noise is encouraged. Your team has not tackled an opponent. Your coaches have not seen their new players perform even a single snap in game. Welcome to the 2020 Seahawks season, where even Bill Belichick and the Houston Astros don’t know what to expect from your team.
There is a bit of a time travel vibe to this NFL season. Those of us old enough to remember when social media and the internet had not yet shoved every detail down our gullets, can recall what it felt like to enter the season mostly basing our expectations on the previous season performance and news reports. Even then, there were preseason games and reporters were allowed to report on what they were seeing in practice.
Coaches have restricted the flow of information to the point that just 17 players who were cut by their teams were claimed by another team this weekend. That’s about one-third of the typical number. Teams don’t know which players are worth claiming because they have no new film or even practice reports to assess.
Fans should expect to see some very rough game play the first few weeks of the season. Offensive lines have not faced live blitzes and stunts. Defenses have not had to tackle to the ground. Rookies have not experience NFL game speed. New faces on new teams have not built chemistry with their teammates or made in-game adjustments with their coaches.
Generally, this probably works against Seattle. They tend to play the same defense year in and year out. There are unlikely to be exotic formations on offense or disguises on defense. Seahawks coaches have also not shown a great ability to handle uncertainty.
Take the season opener last year against what would become the 2-14 Cincinnati Bengals. That team had a new coach, and Seattle had no film on their offense. What should have been a comfortable victory was a nailbiter, in large part due to the Seahawks inability to game plan for their opponent. Pete Carroll admitted they played more conservatively to gain information until they had a handle on how the Bengals were attacking them.
It could be 2-3 weeks before the Seahawks have enough film on opponents to confidently build a game strategy ahead of the game. This will not just be a Seahawks challenge, of course. A coach like Belichick likes to adjust his approach week-to-week based on opponent. That is going to be much tougher in the early going of this season. You could argue a team like Seattle that stays more opponent-agnostic each week could even have an advantage there.
So how do we prognosticate for a team when there is so much we cannot possibly know? We start with the places where we have the most information.
QB1 + WR1a + WR1b
Seattle enters the season with what may be the best quarterback in the game. Russell Wilson had a career year last season, and if he had not faded a bit and Lamar Jackson had not exploded onto the scene, he very well could have won the MVP.
While there are legitimate gripes about how Wilson is utilized, the pairing with offensive coordinator Brian Schottenheimer has resulted in two of Wilson’s best career seasons.
Part of that success has been the remarkable chemistry between Wilson and receiver Tyler Lockett. After achieving a perfect passer rating in 2018 when targeting Lockett, Wilson again had crazy success throwing in that direction. Lockett finished with a career best 1,057 yards receiving and 8 touchdowns. That meant 18 touchdowns in two seasons.
As good as Lockett has been, 20-year-old rookie D.K. Metcalf blew by all reasonable expectations with a season that precious few players have managed at his age. He was putting up numbers reserved for guys like Julio Jones.
The fun question heading into this season is which of these two receivers are going to be the top target for Wilson?
It would be easy to stick with Lockett given the amazing success they have had, but I’m betting on Metcalf.
He and Wilson spent the entire offseason training together. Wilson even taught Metcalf how to swim. Metcalf made a name for himself with his physique and combine numbers, but his humble nature and outstanding work ethic are what I am betting on.
This is a player who showed truly dominant traits last year. As much as I love Lockett as a player, he must get open to be effective. Metcalf does not. And once he has the ball in his hands, look out.
Some of my clearest memories of Metcalf last year were of painful fumbles. It is not the fumbles I remember, but the preceding 5-6 seconds, where ran over smaller defensive backs and dragged them for 10-15 yards after the catch. His fumble at the 1-yard line against the 49ers is one example. He has the chance to be a breakaway threat on every catch.
He has the potential to be the Seahawks most dominant, match-up proof, player. That would be a big leap, but it is not hyperbole.
Tight ends, too
Every game Will Dissly has played has been impressive. Unfortunately, he has also been injured in each of his first two seasons. Dissly is back again, and is one of the biggest sleepers in the NFL. This is a guy who has 6 touchdowns in 10 career games, including two where he didn’t finish, so more like 6 in 8 games.
He was on his way to a 10+ touchdown season before getting sidelined last year. His catch rate was an insane 85.2%.
Greg Olsen now joins Dissly to form one of the stronger tight end duos in the league. Olsen is near the end of his career, but is still plenty effective.
Wilson played a role in lobbying for Olsen’s signing, so you can expect him to target his new toy regularly. I expect Olsen to be a big weapon on third down.
We should see an increase of 1-2 personnel groupings from the Seahawks this season. That would be one running back, two tight ends, and two receivers.
A group of Chris Carson, Dissly, Olsen, Lockett, and Metcalf creates a lot of matchup problems for opponents, and across a wide swath of the field. Seattle only ran that grouping 14% of the time last season, per SharpFootball. They typically were a 1-1 team, with one tight end and three receivers (73%).
That will still likely be their dominant formation, but 1-2 would seem to give them a lot of flexibility in the run and pass game and get their best players on the field.
Jacob Hollister is a nice third option, and Luke Willson remains on the roster for the time being. Keep an eye on practice squad rookie Tyler Mabry as someone who could get called up later in the year as a strong blocking tight end. He’s a bit of the inverse of Hollister.
The fulcrum: offensive line play
As good as the skill players appear to be for Wilson and the offense (I didn’t even mention Josh Gordon or Phillip Dorsett or Deejay Dallas or Carlos Hyde), there may be no bigger bellwether of this Seahawks season than the play of their offensive line.
That is always true to some extent, but this year it stands out even more. Seattle has moved on from three starters. Justin Britt, D.J. Fluker, and Germain Ifedi are gone. None of them were above average at their position. At least two of them were far below average.
Replacing them will be Ethan Pocic at center, rookie Damian Lewis at right guard, and free agent signee Brandon Shell at right tackle.
Pocic was a center in college, but has not had the chance to play there in the NFL as Britt had that position locked down. He has become the surprise starter as free agent B.J. Finney could not win the role. It is unclear how much of that was due to Finney being new to the system and not having the line calls well in hand, and how much was due to actual performance.
The center position is responsible for making adjustments in protection at the line and working in harmony with the quarterback. That is a lot to take on with a new team in a shortened offseason. I still expect Finney to start this year, but Pocic has a chance to keep him on the bench.
Britt was a failed tackle and guard, and became a decent center. Pocic was a better player at guard than Britt, and may have some upside at center. Strength has always been his issue.
Lewis seems to have a high upside, but we do not really know, and it is dangerous to assume a rookie will step in on the line without some big mistakes. One thing that will help him is there will not be excessive crowd noise on road games, at least early on. That should help with communication.
Shell is the guy I have the least confidence in. The coaches have had glowing reviews, but they have mostly been about how big he is. Shell was every bit as bad of a pass protector with the Jets as Ifedi was with the Seahawks. The only thing he clearly did better than Ifedi was limit penalties. That is a big deal, but nothing to get super excited about.
Those are three new players who will line up next to each other. The most likely scenario is they will struggle, especially early in the season, and line play could be even worse than what we have seen, which is saying something.
The alternative scenario is that the line play was bad enough at those positions last year, and these players are enough of a pass blocking improvement, that the Seahawks could get a major boost. The bar was set pretty low, and a guy like Lewis seems like a big step up from Fluker. Pocic should be a step up from Joey Hunt. Shell is probably Ifedi with fewer penalties.
Add in what will hopefully be a healthy Duane Brown, who played with a serious biceps injury all of last season and a predictable veteran in Mike Iupati at left guard, and there is a chance for this line to be average.
Should Finney break into the lineup at center and maybe a guy like Phil Haynes or Jordan Simmons earn the nod at left guard, this could wind up being a good line. I still believe the biggest improvement would be Jamarco Jones starting at right tackle, but we likely would not see that unless Shell is injured.
Best guess offense
Put it all together and the Seahawks offense should be at least a few points per game better than they were last season. People forget how many games were played with Hollister being the only tight end, or Hunt getting bowled over at center, or Travis Homer starting at running back.
This offense appears deeper and has more upside than what they had a year ago.
A team that averaged around 24 points per game should be able to climb up toward 27-28 ppg. In fact, I would argue that should be the acceptable floor if you want this team to contend.
This is not your 2013 Seahawks that can rely on their defense to win games. The offense must be one of the best in football. I think they can be.
Shocking turnround: secondary
Seattle started last season with Tedric Thompson and Bradley McDougald at safety and Shaquill Griffin, Tre Flowers and Jamal Taylor at corner. They start this season with Jamal Adams and Quandre Diggs at safety, and Shaquill Griffin, Quinton Dunbar, and Marquise Blair at corner. That is an astounding talent upgrade in one offseason.
I have been most skeptical of Blair at nickel corner, but all reports have been glowing about his performance in that spot. If true, there is no weakness in this group. Your best chance might be Dunbar, who is new to this system and had a tumultuous offseason.
Still, Dunbar is not like other veteran corners who have come to Seattle and failed. He worked with Marquand Manuel for multiple seasons and is familiar with the Seahawks step-kick and bail technique. He is also in his prime and on the rise.
The difference between Adams and Thompson is like the difference between steak at El Gaucho and steak at Sheri’s. Sure, they play different safety spots, but the point is Seattle was running out a below replacement-level player last season and are now featuring a guy who may be the best safety in football. You cannot overstate how big of a change that is.
Diggs was a midseason pick-up who made a big difference when he was on the field. He is a steadying force and playmaker.
Once of things to like most about this secondary is it now possesses more playmakers. Dunbar was a former receiver with great ball skills. Adams hits with fumbling force. Blair has shown the ability to knock the ball loose and pick it off. Even Griffin started getting more pass breakups last season.
This secondary must be elite for this defense to be above average. They have the talent where that should be the expectation, and not a reach.
Avert your eyes: defensive line
If the Seahawks offseason grade for improving the secondary was an A+, their grade on improving the defensive line has to be a D. They had plenty of cap room, free agent targets of every size and price, and countless opportunities to reel in an impact pass rusher.
The wound up with Jarran Reed, Benson Mayowa, and Bruce Irvin. I actually like each one of those signings, and am one of the few people who think the Reed contract was fine.
My issue is that the list ends there. They needed a player who commanded double teams, and they simply do not have one. They needed a veteran run stuffer a la Colin Cole, Tony McDaniel, Al Woods of past years. They don’t have one. They invested in young pass rushers through the draft, where it generally takes at least two seasons for pass rushers to develop.
They lost Jadeveon Clowney over what appears to be principles regarding how much they were willing to pay him, while sitting here with almost $10M in cap space.
I actually believe the edge pass rush is better than it was last year, which is not saying a lot. Irvin and Mayowa are a better tandem than Clowney and Ansah. It also sounds like rookie Alton Robinson could contribute early, and we saw some nice development from Rasheem Green last season.
I am also hopeful that Reed will be better than people think and Poona Ford will improve on a disappointing season.
It just feels like Seattle is taking far more risk than is necessary here. If either Ford or Reed get injured, they may not be able to field a starting caliber defensive tackle. That is inexcusable.
I saw nothing from Bryan Mone that makes me think he is worthy of being a third tackle in the NFL. I saw nothing on the field from LJ Collier that makes me think he can be a productive interior rusher.
Mayowa could be a surprise to many. It would not shock me to see him get 9-10 sacks as a featured rusher.
This line is generally considered the worst in the NFL. It did not have to be that way.
Best guess defense
Seattle has to be hoping they can replicate the Patriots approach to defense lately. New England was 31st in the NFL in 2018 in sack percentage. They have not signed or spent money on quality pass rushers for years. Heck, when they get one like Chandler Jones, they send him away.
What they can do is cover like crazy. They have ranked either first or second in coverage grade the past two seasons, one of which ended in a parade.
There is evidence in the analytics world and on the football field that coverage is more valuable than pass rush.
What all of us remember is that coverage plus pass rush is when things get very exciting. The 2012 Seahawks were a great cover team with limited pass rush. That team was probably capable of winning a Super Bowl, but their odds went up dramatically when they added a pass rush.
I admit to having skepticism of Ken Norton Jr. as the defensive coordinator, and his ability to maximize his talent the way Belichick does. That said, this formula can work.
What will also help is the team should play far less base defense with three linebackers than they did a year ago now that they have a nickel corner they like in Blair.
The defense does not need to be great for this team to contend. They need to be top 15. If they can be a top 10 group, things really get interesting.
After allowing about 24 ppg last season, I think it is reasonable to expect them to shave 2-3 points off that number.
Seattle had one of the toughest schedules in football last year, and they get a bit of a break facing the AFC East and NFC South this year. Miami, the Giants and Jets, and the Washington team are teams you should beat. There were very few gimmes on the schedule last year.
The 49ers are still the most talented team in the division. Arizona has improved a lot.
I see this as a 10-11 win Seahawks team, and think it is more like 11 with this schedule.
It will take a fair amount going right for this team to contend. A playoff berth and a win in the playoffs feels most likely. For that projection to rise, the offensive line must be better than last season, Metcalf must dominate, and the defense must prove they can stay healthy and hold teams down.