When the Seahawks took the field for offseason workouts in May and June, there was a sense of energy and optimism that was similar, according to head coach Pete Carroll and some players, to the way things felt heading into the 2013 season.
"The energy out there is unbelievable," is how quarterback Russell Wilson put it. "It feels like we're in midseason, just how we're practicing."
Cornerback Richard Sherman added, "Guys just came back renewed."
And talking to reporters at his youth football camp Wednesday, safety Earl Thomas noted that last year's playoff loss in Carolina was "the medicine we needed to get back to that fire pumping that we need… Everybody's in a great place."
Now, after a little bit of time off, the Seahawks return to the practice field for training camp, which kicks off Saturday, and the intensity both of practice and competition will be taken to an even higher level. Between now and the start of the season, Seattle's coaching staff and personnel department will have many hard decisions to make, from starting jobs to final spots on the 53-man roster, and those position battles are part of what makes training camp such an important and exciting time on the NFL calendar.
And while a talented, veteran team like the Seahawks has plenty of starting jobs seemingly settled already—spoiler alert: Wilson will start at quarterback this season—training camp is always good for a few surprises. Who knew going into camp in 2012 that Wilson would beat out Matt Flynn and Tarvaris Jackson for the starting job? Or that in 2011 an oversized cornerback out of the Canadian Football League named Brandon Browner would win a starting job, and eventually become a Pro Bowler? Or that last year an undrafted rookie out of Central Michigan named Thomas Rawls would not just win a spot on the 53-man roster, but go on to lead the NFL in rushing yards-per-carry? In other words, while people might have a rough idea of what this team will look like when the regular season starts, plenty is still up for grabs when camp kicks off Saturday.
Here, in no particular order, are five of the most intriguing position battles that will take place in training camp:
1. Offensive line
With Russell Okung and J.R. Sweezy leaving in free agency, the Seahawks now have one of the youngest—and as a result, least expensive—offensive lines in the NFL. That has led some to believe that the Seahawks have made a conscious decision to skimp on their line to spend elsewhere, but general manager John Schneider notes that his team doesn't have any sort of go-cheap-on-the-offensive-line philosophy, but rather that's the way things have worked out with this roster, that's just the way things are right now because of the constraints of the salary cap. The Seahawks have spent big to lock up the core of their dominant defense, they signed Russell Wilson to a big contract last summer, and extended Doug Baldwin this offseason. The reality of a league designed to facilitate parity is that teams can't spend big at every position.
"You have to do it somewhere, and we're not in the business of letting damn good football players leave," Schneider said.
All of that being said, however, the Seahawks are still really excited about their line, even if it is rather inexperienced.
"We like the group, it just so happens that it's younger guys who people don't necessarily know," Schneider said.
And what that group will look like come September is one of the biggest questions to be answered in training camp. Garry Gilliam is moving from right tackle to left tackle to replace Okung, but he'll have to hold off free-agent signing Bradley Sowell for that job. At left guard, Mark Glowinski looks to be the favorite, but rookie Rees Odhiambo, among others, will try to push him for that job. At right guard, first-round pick Germain Ifedi looks like the man to beat, while free-agent signing J'Marcus Webb is the likely candidate at right tackle. The biggest battle of all will be at center, where last year's starter Patrick Lewis is battling Justin Britt, last year's starting left guard who is playing his third position in as many years, and rookie Joey Hunt.
"He's done a very good job now," Carroll said of Britt at the end of offseason workouts. "He's really embraced the role and he's the guy that's been around the most and we hoped he would take the leadership up there making the calls and all that. He's done that. He loves playing the spot. He's looked very, very comfortable, really adds to the pass protection, he's so long and all that he fills up a lot of good space for us. Again, those guys have to get in pads to really see what's happening, but he has totally embraced the opportunity, so it's a really good move.
"Joey had a really, really good offseason with us. He's a very experienced football player and he's really smart. He's as smart as an offensive lineman can be coming in…That position looks much different to us right now than it has. Again, that's going to be a good competition. Those guys are going to battle it out."
2. Strongside linebacker
There aren't a lot of starting jobs available in one of the NFL's top defenses, but Bruce Irvin's departure in free agency leaves two openings in a sense. From a pass-rushing perspective, Frank Clark, and likely a rotation of other defensive ends, figure to take a lot of the snaps that previously went to Irvin. The bigger mystery is what will happen at strongside linebacker when the Seahawks are in their base defense.
While some competitions feature a frontrunner and maybe one or two challengers, the battle at strongside linebacker truly is wide open heading into camp. Mike Morgan is the most experienced at that position, having started there in the past and having played for Carroll for nine years between his college and pro careers. Former defensive back Eric Pinkins, meanwhile, offers a lot of athletic upside, while Cassius Marsh, a defensive end up to this point, could be an Irvin-like hybrid who can play both off the line of scrimmage and also put his hand on the ground and pass-rush. Kevin Pierre-Louis, a weakside linebacker up to this point in his career, has also been added to the competition having spent time there in offseason workouts.
"The SAM linebacker spot is going to be a really good one to watch," Carroll said. "That's going to be wide open to see what happens. Mike Mo brings all the experience and so he would start if we had to start a game today, he's just ahead of the other guys. But both Cassius and Pink have done a great job of battling and those guys are getting a great shot."
3. Running back and fullback
With Marshawn Lynch retiring this offseason, the Seahawks loaded up on running backs in the draft, taking C.J. Prosise in the third round, Alex Collins in the fifth round and Zac Brooks in the seventh round. They join a position group that includes Thomas Rawls, one of the breakthrough players of 2015, and Christine Michael, who revived his career with a strong finish to the season after bouncing from Seattle to Dallas to Washington, back to Seattle.
While Rawls will be the man to beat in this competition, there will be room for others to earn carries, and the battle for playing time and touches should be a fun one to watch unfold in camp and in preseason games.
"The running back thing, as young as it is, it's going to be a great spot to watch," Carroll said. "There's a lot of diversity there in the styles that the guys bring. I'm really excited about that one."
Fullback, meanwhile, is a pretty wide-open battle at this point, with undrafted rookies Taniela Tupou and Tre Madden battling for the job. Brandon Cottom, while listed as a tight end, will also factor in there having played running back in college.
4. Backup quarterback
While there is no mystery when it comes to the starting quarterback position, the Seahawks do have decisions to make when it comes to Russell Wilson's backup. As things stand now, undrafted rookie Trevone Boykin and free-agent signing Jake Heaps are the only other quarterbacks on the roster, though Schneider said the Seahawks will keep their eye on the veteran market as well, not because he doesn't have faith in Boykin and Heaps, but rather because it is his job to always be looking for ways to improve the roster.
"I like all of our players, but I'm not one of those guys who's ever like, 'We got this,'" Schneider said. "Pete's the guy to instill confidence in people, and he does a great job of it—it's one of his best attributes making everybody feeling great about themselves and instilling confidence in their abilities—my job is to be forward thinking, and with our staff, Dan (Morgan), Trent (Kirchner), Scott (Fitterer), to be ready for what's coming next if it doesn't work out."
On Boykin, who the Seahawks signed immediately after the draft, Schneider said, "Great athlete, tons of arm strength. I like the way he dialed himself in as a pro in that short period of time he was here, studying and watching Russell and learning as much as he possibly can. He started putting together some practices that were consistent all the way through. He's a rookie, so that's why that's impressive—it's a lot of information for him."
5. Defensive line rotation
Even though the Seahawks return three starters—Cliff Avril, Michael Bennett and Ahtyba Rubin—there is still plenty of playing time up for grabs. For starters, Brandon Mebane's departure in free agency leaves an opening at nose tackle in the base defense. Second-round pick Jarran Reed is very much in the mix for a starting job, either at nose tackle, or perhaps at Rubin's three-technique defensive tackle spot if Rubin moves to nose. Free-agent addition Sealver Siliga will battle at that spot as well, and Jordan Hill has also played there in the past. And because the Seahawks rotate their linemen so frequently, there are plenty of snaps available outside of the starting lineup. With Irvin leaving in free agency and with Chris Clemons expected to retire, there is a good opportunity for a young pass rusher or two to carve out a role. Interior pass-rush help is always welcome as well, and whether that comes from Hill or from fifth-round pick Quinton Jefferson or elsewhere, the Seahawks will be looking for players who can help rush the passer in their nickel packages.
Seahawks players reported to Renton's Virginia Mason Athletic Center on Friday to prepare for the start of the team's 2016 training camp, which opens Saturday, July 30 with the first of 13 practices open to the public.