NFL teams must trim their rosters to 53 players by Saturday afternoon, but before that happens, the Seahawks, like every team, have one preseason game remaining, a final audition, if you will, for roster hopefuls who have not yet secured their place on the team.
Most starters won't play much, if at all, when the Seahawks host the Raiders Thursday night, so while last week's game was a lengthier tune-up for the starters, who played into the third quarter at Minnesota, this game is all about those players on the bubble who hope to either show the Seahawks they're deserving of a roster spot, or to put enough good play on tape to get another team's attention.
"We have a number of competitive situations where guys are battling," Seahawks coach Pete Carroll said. "We're looking for guys that we're trying to start, we're looking for guys looking for play time, we're looking for guys trying to make the roster, looking for guys to make the practice squad—there's all kinds of considerations here and that's what this game is for. We need to put those guys out there and give them a chance to show for themselves. We're really pulling for them. After this whole offseason and then through the preseason, for these guys to get to this point now where they're still competing for it, we've grown to really have a feeling for these guys and we want to see them come through. That's what we're trying, to promote an opportunity for that. We'll see what happens."
With that in mind, here are five things to watch in Seattle's fourth preseason game:
1. How ready is Shaquem Griffin?
When the Seahawks selected Shaquem Griffin in the fifth round of this year's draft, the hope was that he could use his speed and athleticism to make an immediate impact on special teams while serving as K.J. Wright's backup at weakside linebacker.
But with Wright undergoing arthroscopic knee surgery this week, there's a real possibility that Griffin will be a Week 1 starter, joining his twin brother Shaquill when the Seahawks defense takes the field against Denver. Carroll did not have a definitive timeline on Wright as of Wednesday, but said "a couple of weeks is the most optimistic we could be." Griffin has enjoyed a strong preseason, but with signs pointing to him potentially starting the opener, this final chance for game reps will be crucial.
"This is a really important opportunity for him," Carroll said. "He's played a lot, so he's got extensive playing time and he's made great progress. He played his best game last week. Even though he had a lot of tackles in the opener, he really played the best he's played this past weekend. This is important to see him continue to get better and clean things up and make sure he's really accountable. He's a running and hitting guy. We aren't worried about that. It's just making sure he's really playing the scheme really well and he's really precise about all his fits and all that. It's a bit of a race for him to get there because he's been more of an outside guy in his career, so we've adapted him to be an inside linebacker from the weak side. We'd like to be able to use his speed and his range and all that, so he's working really hard at it. He's been a very astute worker, been a really sharp communicator and all that stuff. A lot of good things are positive and now we'd just like to see him put it all together again. He'll have another big week next week and we'll hopefully add to that."
2. What roster hopefuls state their case?
One of the many lessons Carroll learned from the legendary Bud Grant while working in Minnesota in the 1980s goes like this: "You don't make decisions until you have to."
Well, with the roster deadline looming, the Seahawks have to make some tough decisions soon, so while the score of Thursday's game might be quickly forgotten, it can represent a career-changing moment for a young player on the bubble. Prior to last year, teams made an earlier round of cuts to get to 75 players prior to the fourth preseason game, but starting in 2017, teams can keep all 90 players through the end of the preseason. That's a move Carroll really likes, not just because it keeps teams from having to play someone they might prefer to rest in the final game, but because it opens the door to that many more players to make a final statement about why they belong.
"This is their chance to make this club and there are a lot of guys that have done a lot of good stuff on this roster," Carroll said. "We're not closing our minds to anything. We're wide open to it. The thought is that everybody's getting ready to play, but the young guys will play a lot in this game so they're going to get a great opportunity. The rule change about the cuts from 75, this is a great decision by the league. This is the way it should go and we shouldn't be under duress heading into this fourth game. That change is so obvious. We'll maximize the opportunity for these guys. For some of these guys, their opportunity will show up for other clubs as well. The chance to get on the field, make the plays and then all that may help them here, of course, but then at other places as well. We're going to give them every opportunity to show that."
And again, as Grant once said, there's no need for the Seahawks to have made a bunch of decisions before this game, so a lot is still at stake.
"We don't have decisions made," Carroll said. "We don't have to do that yet. We're going to wait. Coming out of Minnesota, Bud Grant used to say, 'You don't make decisions until you have to.' We're not going to force it. There's no reason to make stuff up right now. We'll just wait it out (and) give these guys every chance. I mean, that's part of our mentality, is to continue to see these guys making it and coming through and doing it. Our coaches are developmental coaches for that reason – to hold that thought throughout and not ever cancel a guy's opportunity out and so we're trying to do that as best we can."
3. Can Amara Darboh make his mark in a crowded competition at receiver?
Throughout camp and the preseason, receiver has been one of the most intriguing position battles on the roster, and one player who potentially has a lot to gain in that battle Thursday is Amara Darboh, a 2017 third-round pick. Coaches have spoken highly of Darboh throughout his time in Seattle, but hip flexor and clavicle injuries have caused him to miss all three preseason games so far.
Carroll said Darboh will play Thursday, and given the strong play of young receivers like David Moore and Marcus Johnson, and of veteran additions like Brandon Marshall and Jaron Brown, Darboh is one of several receivers who could benefit from a strong performance Thursday.
"I just want to see him play ball again," Carroll said. "We've seen a lot of him, we know him well, we like him. He has been a really aggressive player, been a good special teamer and all that, just would like to see him get back out and show that he's back, really, then we'll figure it out from there."
4. The ongoing competition at right cornerback.
When camp opened, veteran Byron Maxwell seemed to have the inside track on winning the starting job at right corner, and for good reason. Maxwell has extensive starting experience, including in Seattle's defensive system, and he played well last year after taking over a starting role in Richard Sherman's absence. But due to injuries, neither Maxwell (hip flexor) nor Neiko Thorpe (wrist) has played this preseason, opening the door for free-agent addition Dontae Johnson and rookie Tre Flowers to emerge as serious contenders for the starting job.
Johnson, who started all 16 games for the 49ers last season, has the edge in experience, but Flowers, a long, athletic former safety, has a ton of upside and has been something of a personal project for Carroll since arriving as a fifth-round pick in this year's draft. Maxwell's experience means he is still in the mix, even after missing the preseason—he played well last season despite some time off between being released by Miami and signed by Seattle—but it's looking more and more like Johnson and Flowers both have a real shot to win the job, particularly with a strong showing Thursday.
5. Michael Dickson's majestic punts.
OK, so this one isn't about a position battle—the rookie out of the University of Texas already won the punting job. But if you can't get excited about backups battling for roster spots, at least make sure to tune in every time the Seahawks have to punt, because what Dickson has been doing this preseason has been ridiculous.
Through three preseason games, Dickson is averaging a league-best 52.5 yards-per-punt and 48.1 net yards-per-punt. Net average, which factors in returns and touchbacks, is often considered the most important stat for punters, and while it's a small sample size, Dickson's average is more than 2 yards better than Rams punter Johnny Hekker's NFL record net average of 46.0, set in 2016. Already this preseason, Dickson has had three punts of 55 or more yards downed inside the opposing 10-yard line, including punts last week of 56 and 57 yards that both made physics-defying right turns after hitting the ground, bouncing out of bounds at the 3-yard line. If doing that twice in a game seems good, well, it is…