By Mike Kahn - Seahawks Insider
|**2006 Review**: [Part 1](/News/News.aspx?id=46892) | [Part 2](/News/News.aspx?id=47052)|
KIRKLAND - Now that we've put a wrap on the 2006 NFL season for the Seattle Seahawks, what's next?
"You have to make changes," Seahawks president Tim Ruskell said. "If you stay the same, other people will pass you by."
The first changes came almost immediately after the playoffs ended when Jim Mora was hired as secondary coach (also receiving the assistant head coach moniker to share with Gil Haskell) to replace departed Teryl Austin. Bob Casullo left as well, with Bruce DeHaven taking over the special teams coaching duties.
And the staff changes accelerated Monday when vice president of administration and salary cap guru Mike Reinfeldt officially accepted the job as general manager of the Tennessee Titans. It didn't come as a surprise; nonetheless, Ruskell has lost his trusty money guy who also happened to be a former All-Pro safety with the Houston Oilers (now the Titans), and so he knew a thing or three about football players as well.
"We'll miss Mike and we'll definitely have to work to replace him," Ruskell said. "But we know what we're in for here. We were aware of what was happening, so we've been preparing for it."
Director of player administration Jay Nienkark was originally hired to handle the salary cap during the 2004 hiatus taken by Reinfeldt, who was originally hired in 1999. Presumably, Nienkark will handle at least some of the salary cap and contract signing issues initially.
So that translates into three key staff transitions: one in the front office and two on Mike Holmgren's coaching staff to this point.
"I believe we're already better with the additions we've made to the coaching staff," Ruskell said. "We were real lucky getting Jim; I thought he was going to be the new Dolphins coach or at least get a coordinator's job if he wanted it. But his connection here (Mora played high school ball in Bellevue and college at the University of Washington) was strong and his heart is in the secondary.
"And Bruce has been one of the best special team coaches in the business for a long time, and he's jumped right in here."
With the 2006 contract expiration date on March 1, it isn't as if Ruskell's personnel staff and the coaches haven't been going full-bore evaluating the players they have, the players they need, and the players they want. That includes players on the Seattle roster and those on other rosters. The NFL Combine for players eligible for the April 28-29 NFL Draft begins next week in Indianapolis – so there's a lot on everybody's plate.
"We have a plan with our own guys," Ruskell said. "If the circumstances are right, we'd like them back. We've watched lots of film and done research on the other guys out there. When the time comes, we'll be ready to make our moves. We're in good shape with our salary cap, so I'm confident we'll be able to accomplish what we need to do."
Ruskell said he's already made progress to re-sign kicker Josh Brown, but he's only one on the list of players not under contract beyond this month – not to mention players they may or may not want to bring back on contracts that won't seriously harm their cap.
The one certainty is the priority to lace the roster with the same character as they've built the team that has won the past three consecutive NFC West titles.
The list of Seahawks that are unrestricted free agents includes Brown, Jerramy Stevens, Ken Hamlin, Chris Gray, Bobby Engram, J.P. Darche, D.D. Lewis, Will Heller, Derek Rackley, Josh Scobey, Joe Tafoya, Jimmy Williams and Floyd Womack on the unrestricted side. D.J. Hackett, Jordan Babineaux, Niko Koutouvides, Sean Locklear, Josh Parry and Craig Terrill are restricted. Center Robbie Tobeck has unofficially retired, so he's another player they'll have to replace.
"We're happy with a lot of the roster we already have," Ruskell said. "We'll be aggressive in free agency – not with the quantity, but with the quality. We know what direction we're going."
The one advantage is they didn't play into February as they did last year in Super Bowl XL, with the time off and hangover from the loss that followed. Having lost in the second week of the playoffs in 2006, they had a three-week jump on last season – and that makes a big difference with surgery and other rehabilitation for the players at hand.
"This off-season is already well underway," Ruskell said. "We've got the surgeries out of the way for the most part, and this is more of a full off-season for us. We're pushing the March workout program and we'll be in better shape just because we felt behind everybody last year because everything was so late."
As for the draft, the Seahawks dealt their 2007 first round pick to the New England Patriots for wide receiver Deion Branch in September, so that won't be an issue. But there will be the rest of the draft and a possible compensatory pick for the loss of Marquand Manuel, who became the Green Bay Packers starting free safety last season. It would be logical to assume the loss of Steve Hutchinson will be negated by the signing of Nate Burleson.
Keep in mind, all of the draft picks last season – Kelly Jennings, Darryl Tapp, Rob Sims, David Kirtman, Ryan Plackemeier and Ben Obomanu – were on the active roster at the end of the season.
"Well, we got Deion for our first pick and I'll take that any day," Ruskell said. "And we'll do well in the subsequent rounds. Just because we don't have a first-rounder doesn't mean all of this falls on free agency. We've had plenty of success with our later picks, and we'll continue to do so."
In other words, the window of opportunity for the Seahawks to compete for the NFC crown they won in 2005 remains ajar. The prospect of both Matt Hasselbeck and Shaun Alexander returning to 100-percent health – along with banged-up super-tackle Walter Jones – will make them a threat right out of the blocks. The development of youngsters Locklear, Sims and 2005 top draft choice Chris Spencer on the offensive line was palpable, with the hope that tackle Ray Willis will take a major step in development in his third year as well.
The linebacker trio of Lofa Tatupu, Julian Peterson and Leroy Hill has precisely the speed and athleticism they desire, and the hope is that Marcus Tubbs can shed the knee and Achilles problems to become a big factor against the run on the defensive line as he was in 2005. There is optimism that Jennings will continue his growth in the secondary, as will Michael Boulware, and that Marcus Trufant gets back to playing the kind of ball he played late in the year before a high ankle sprain ended it prematurely. Safety Mike Green's foot surgery ended his 2006 season before the first game, and everyone is optimistic that he'll be fine.
There are concerns, of course, but nothing that Ruskell doesn't believe will be remedied before September.
"This is our time to do whatever we can to give the coaching staff everything they need," Ruskell said. "The goal is the same every year: to win the division, and keep winning."