In their two playoff games this season, the Seahawks got starts or significant playing time from several players who early in their careers were on Seattle's practice squad, were backups contributing primarily on special teams, were at some point waived, or some combination of the three.
Center Patrick Lewis spent time with a couple of teams before landing in Seahawks camp for a week in 2014, only to be cut again, then eventually re-signed off Cleveland's practice squad. Right tackle Garry Gilliam was an undrafted backup last season who saw almost all of his playing time on special teams. Cornerback DeShawn Shead and tight end Cooper Helfet were signed as undrafted free agents in 2012, then spent most of their first two seasons on the practice squad. Receiver Jermaine Kearse was also part of that 2012 UDFA class and began his rookie season on the practice squad before a midseason call-up. And cornerback Jeremy Lane, a sixth-round pick in 2012, started three games late in his rookie season due to injury, but up to that point he made a name for himself on special teams.
The Seahawks' ability to develop players who didn't make an instant impact, players like Lane, Shead, Kearse, Helfet, Lewis and Gilliam, is relevant now not just because they are big contributors to the current version of the team, but also because of what it might mean going forward.
As much as Seahawks coach Pete Carroll and general manager John Schneider have said they like their team, and would like to keep as many players around as they can, they also realize that in the NFL, some turnover is inevitable. Reinforcements will be needed next season, and while the obvious way to add help is via the draft and free agency, the Seahawks feel like they can find help in another spot: their current roster and practice squad.
"There's a lot of guys on this roster right now, the young guys that you don't know a lot about, that I think have a chance to really push other guys that are on our team right now," Carroll said. "It's an exciting group of young athletes, and speed, and mentality, and stuff that will have a chance to maybe give us a boost."
Two position groups in particular could benefit from in-house reinforcements most—the offensive line and cornerback. The Seahawks used three picks on linemen in rounds four through six, selecting Terry Poole, Mark Glowinski and Kristjan Sokoli. Glowinski started one game at right guard in place of an injured J.R. Sweezy, but otherwise that trio flew under the radar in their first season, which as offensive line coach Tom Cable pointed out during the season, was the plan all along, especially with Sokoli, who played defensive line in college.
"At that position in particular, yeah," Carroll said. "Kristjan Sokoli, I'm really excited about what he can do. But he's a transition guy, and we decided not to try and force the issue with him to try to make him play right now. He needs a whole other year to get through this, and then we'll see where he is. He's an exceptional athlete. I want to see him play center, I want to see how he does there as he grows through it, and just see how much ground he can make up, and see where that leaves us. We'll have one of the really good athletes at center if that's where he winds up playing. He's fast, he's quick, he's athletic, and all of that. But the transition, it's more than just sticking him out there. We did that with Sweez, and that was hard, that was hard on him. So we'll see, hopefully we've learned how to do this, and we'll make good progress with that."
Under Carroll, the Seahawks have built arguably the NFL's best secondary while using just one first round pick—safety Earl Thomas in 2010—and they have never drafted a cornerback higher than the fourth round. But as good as players like Richard Sherman, Byron Maxwell, Lane and Shead have been, all needed time to learn Seattle's technique—even Sherman was third on the depth chart early in his rookie year. As was evident in the decision to eventually replace Cary Williams with Shead this season, cornerbacks who have spent time in Seattle's system often have an advantage over outsiders. All of that points to why Seattle's cornerback reinforcements next season could just as likely be players who were on injured reserve or the practice squad this year than someone added in the draft or free agency.
Between fifth-round pick Tye Smith, who was inactive on gameday most of the season, Tharold Simon and Mohammed Seisay (injured reserve), and practice squad players like George Farmer, Stanley Jean-Baptiste and Trovon Reed, there are a lot of options Carroll is excited about even if they didn't make an impact in 2015.
"I'd like to think that our guys, because they've been coached by us, that they know our stuff and they're well-schooled," Carroll said. "I know we have a number of corners, George Farmer, that you haven't seen, that's a nice player for us. We'll bring him back. And guys to work at the spot that have a real future. They've kind of been indoctrinated now, but now they have to come back and utilize the skills, and get in some really good, competitive opportunities. I know Richard's already talked about getting those guys together, and making sure they're keeping their skills going through the offseason, and doing some special things. Because you can see a real young kind of a nucleus of guys that could be a factor for us, so it's a good group I think."
Add in-season receiver call-ups Kasen Williams and Kevin Smith to the mix, and the Seahawks have a number of young players who could have much bigger roles in 2016 after having a quiet 2015.
"We're also really excited about the future," Schneider said on 710 ESPN Seattle last week. Schneider first talked about the core players the team has under contract for multiple years, but then added, "Then also our young class that just came in. There are several players people don't even know about yet, so we're excited for people to get to see those guys. Guys who were on our practice squad, or guys who were inactive a lot."
After traveling with the Seahawks all season, team photographer Rod Mar selected his favorite and most memorable photos from the 2015 season Eye on the Hawks photo essays.