_With Seahawks training camp kicking off later this month, Seahawks.com is taking a look at some of the team's most intriguing storylines, position battles and players heading into the 2019 season. Today we look at special teams, a phase of the game the Seahawks are expecting to be a strength in 2019. Tomorrow we focus on running back, which figures to be one of the most competitive position groups in camp. _
For eight games or so, the Seahawks were great on special teams, arguably one of the best teams in the NFL in that phase of the game. Problem is, an NFL season consists of 16 games, and at times last season, the Seahawks were unable to maintain that level of play on special teams.
In 2019, the Seahawks are counting on special teams play to be a strength not for a few games or for half a season, but over the course of the entire year.
"Really good in the middle," is how special teams coordinator Brian Schneider assessed Seattle’s play in 2018. "We started a little bit slower, then we had about eight games there where I think we were as good as anyone in the NFL. We were really helping our team with field position. What I always go back to when you watch us play on tape, the effort that was there was outstanding, phenomenal. Towards the end we had some issues, and it kind of showed up for different reasons. That's our whole mindset going in: to finish. Because right there about eight games, we were as good as we've been since I've been here, and we just need to continue to finish."
And while having the right mentality is important—Seahawks coach Pete Carroll regularly preaches the importance of finishing for a reason—the Seahawks also have more tangible reasons for optimism about their special teams play this year.
For starters, there are the players coming back, from All-Pro punter Michael Dickson to core special teams contributors like Neiko Thorpe, Barkevious Mingo, Akeem King, Shalom Luani, Austin Calitro, Shaquem Griffin and others, to steady long snapper Tyler Ott. Then there's also what the Seahawks added, most notably Pro-Bowl kicker Jason Myers, who signed as a free agent after a standout season with the Jets. Myers spent last offseason and preseason with the Seahawks before eventually losing a close competition with Sebastian Janikowski, then went on to sign with the Jets, where he made 33 of 36 field-goal attempts, including six of seven from 50-plus yards to earn Pro-Bowl honors. When the Seahawks had a chance to bring him back, they didn't hesitate.
"He did a great job throughout this offseason," Carroll said of Myers on the final day of minicamp last month. "We're really fortunate to have him. The consistency was really there and the leg power and all that, working together with Michael (Dickson) and Tyler Ott. Those guys did a great job. So that move that we made to get him, I think is going to work out great for us and it's going to give us the confidence to utilize the kicker like you'd hope to in crucial situations, long balls when we've got to go for it. We're going to be playing with a lot of confidence in that regard. He did a great job. So I'm really happy that—and to have Michael too, we love what Mike can do. So I really feel good about that part of the kicking game."
As for Dickson, for as good as he was as a rookie, he should be even better in 2019. Dickson earned first-team All-Pro honors, was named to the NFC Pro Bowl squad, was the NFC Special Teams Player of the Month for November, set single season franchise records for net and gross punting average, and threw in one game-sealing 9-yard run out of his own end zone for good measure. But he's also someone who is relatively new to the game, having only started punting in Australia in 2015 before enrolling at the University of Texas later that year.
"I've seen the greatest growth of him from the end of the season to where he is now," Schneider said. "And he's just going to continue to get better. He has such a better understanding of what's happening now, and he's such a hard worker, and he's so smart in terms of how he does it. Where he was at last year at this time and where he is now, it's amazing. So he's going to continue to get better."
The signing of Myers in March was what kickstarted a focus on improved special teams play for the Seahawks, but that emphasis continued throughout the 2019 draft when the Seahawks added a number of players, including two safeties, Marquise Blair and Ugo Amadi, and two linebackers, Cody Barton and Ben Burr-Kirven, who don't just project as special teams players, but who were standouts in that phase of the game in college.
"The great thing about a lot of our rookies is that we were really able to evaluate them on tape as rookies," Schneider said. "They all played in their senior year or throughout their college career. So as special teams coaches, we really had a good evaluation. A lot of times you project guys. You see them play on either side of the ball then you hope they can be good special teams players, but all these guys, we've seen it in college and it's showing up out here."
Or as general manager John Schneider put it after the draft, "We know a lot of these guys are going to be special teams players. They've already done it, they've proven it… We've seen them play on teams. It's different, it's a different feel. You have to have an instinctive feel for knowing how to block in space and knowing how to cover. It's a different deal."
As for training camp competitions, while last year's camp featured six players battling for three spots at kicker, punter and long snapper, those positions are set for 2019 barring something unexpected. Instead what could be the most interesting competition could be for the return jobs should the Seahawks decide to take some or all of the return duties off of Tyler Lockett's plate. As good as Lockett has been as a returner, earning All-Pro and Pro Bowl honors in multiple seasons, he is also expected to be the Seahawks' No. 1 receiver, and Carroll has said they might decide to have him handle fewer returns as a result. J.D. McKissic and Rashaad Penny have both spelled Lockett on returns at times, so both are options there in 2019, as are rookie safety Ugo Amadi and receiver David Moore, among others.
Yet even if there's a bit of uncertainty in the return game heading into camp, the Seahawks feel very good about their prospects to improve on special teams in 2019.
"I think the move that John was able to make to get Jason Myers in here really kickstarted the emphasis on let's make the special teams aspect of this club really be there and ready to answer the call to be at a championship level," Carroll said. "Right down the list, all of these guys (in the draft class), we evaluated as special teams guys and that was a big part of the factor. We're really excited about some guys that will be competing for their time right off the bat. The linebackers and the safeties in particular."