This story originally appeared in the May 18 edition of Hawk Mail. To subscribe to Hawk Mail, click here.
The Seahawks welcomed to Seattle last week a rookie class that included 11 draft picks and eight undrafted free agents, a group that took part in a rookie minicamp last weekend. Now that rookies have joined the team and free agency has for the most part wound down—there's always the possibility of veteran additions at any point, but most of the biggest names were already signed before the draft—the Seahawks' roster is starting to take shape.
A lot can and will change between now and September when teams have to trim their rosters from 90 players down to 53, but with Phase 2 of offseason workouts wrapping up this week and OTAs kicking off later this month, now is a good time to take a position-by-potion look at the Seahawks roster.
After an injury-plagued 2016 season, Russell Wilson is having what Seahawks coach Pete Carroll recently called "an extraordinary offseason," which is why Carroll expects his quarterback can return to the form he showed in the second half of 2015 when he threw 24 touchdowns and one interception over the final seven games of the season.
"He has the ability to be the best quarterback out there doing his thing," Carroll said on 710 ESPN Seattle this week. "… We have tremendous expectations for Russell's performance this year."
But while there's no mystery when it comes to the starting job, there's plenty of intrigue about who will serve as Wilson's backup. Trevone Boykin, Seattle's No. 2 quarterback last year, is one of two candidates currently on the roster along with Jake Heaps, but Carroll has made no secret of the fact that the Seahawks are considering other options at that spot, including some veteran free agents currently on the market. That's not a knock on Boykin, but rather the result of Carroll seeing just how close the Seahawks were a year ago to having to hand the offense over to an undrafted rookie when Wilson was battling knee and ankle injuries.
"We're looking at everybody, really," Carroll said. "We really are. We've been tracking everything that's going on. We've got cap and roster issues and stuff like that that we're still trying to make sure we manage properly, but quite frankly, yes, we're looking at all those guys."
And just as the Seahawks are considering multiple options at the backup spot, Carroll also said keeping a third quarterback on the 53-man roster, something the Seahawks haven't often done under Carroll and general manager John Schneider, is an option this year.
One of Carroll and the Seahawks' biggest priorities this offseason has been making moves that will help Seattle get back to being one of the top rushing offenses in the NFL. Thanks to Wilson's injuries, as well as several injuries at running back, most notably those sustained by Thomas Rawls and C.J. Prosise, the Seahawks were not as balanced in 2016 as they have been in the past, something that "exposed some stuff" on both sides of the ball.
"Not maintaining the rhythm of the running game that we've had really factored into everything," Carroll said earlier this offseason. "We had to throw the ball more, and it exposed some stuff. It exposed the young linemen somewhat, it forced us into situations on the other side of the ball, all of that. That's why I'm so adamant about getting us back to the elements that we need to have in the running game that complement the rest of the team. I'm not pointing the finger and blaming anyone, but that's what was so glaringly obvious. When Russell wasn't equipped to run, it factored into the running game in the subtle ways—over the years he has made us unique. In one respect, we've learned how to play without it and still win the division and all of that, and we'll be better for that, but that's not the way I want to go. So I'll try to avoid that as much as possible."
One move the Seahawks hope can be a big factor in improving the running game is the signing of former Packers running back Eddie Lacy. The Seahawks still have high hopes for other backs, including Rawls, Prosise and Alex Collins, but Lacy adds to that mix a proven, Pro Bowl talent who will bring a physical element to the running game. If the Seahawks can stay healthy at running back this year, or at least healthier than they were a year ago, they should have much better depth, and with that, a more successful running game.
In Doug Baldwin, Jermaine Kearse and Tyler Lockett, the Seahawks have three proven veterans with starting experience coming back, and Paul Richardson's late-season play in Lockett's absence showed he too could be a big factor. But just because the Seahawks had talent and experience already on the roster, that doesn't mean they were content to stand pat this offseason. That became clear when Seattle picked Amara Darboh in the third round of last month's draft, then added David Moore in the seventh round. Those two both possess a combination of size and speed that make them not just intriguing options at receiver, but potential contributors on special teams as well. Both did enough in rookie minicamp to show they'll be factors in training camp when they mix it up with veterans, and it wasn't just drafted rookies making an impression. Carroll has been impressed with Cyril Grayson, Jr., an LSU track and field standout who is playing organized football for the first time since high school, and Texas A&M's Speedy Noil did enough as a tryout player to earn a contract this week.
Add to the mix Tanner McEvoy, who made the team as an undrafted rookie last year, Kasen Williams, Kenny Lawler and others, and receiver should be as competitive of position group as any on the roster when training camp rolls around.
The Seahawks didn't make any big changes at tight end this offseason, but for a couple of reasons they hope to be better at that position in 2017. For starters, they'll be looking for Nick Vannett, a third-round pick in 2016, to take on a bigger role in his second season. Re-signing Luke Willson was an important move in free agency, and Willson is hoping to bounce back from a 2016 season that saw knee injuries limit him to 11 games. And finally, for as good as Jimmy Graham was last season, earning Pro-Bowl honors with 65 catches and 923 yards, he was not at his very best, physically, thanks to the 2015 knee injury that caused him to miss offseason workouts and most of training camp and the preseason.
"It's really one of the beautiful things that's happening this offseason is that Jimmy has a chance to work out and get better," Carroll said at the NFL scouting combine in February. "Last year, he was just rehabbing. If you can imagine at this time last year, he was looking at that scar and wondering if he's ever going to be able to run again. He barely made it back to camp, then barely made it into the season, then had a marvelous season under all of those circumstances. Under any normal circumstances he had a marvelous season. In communicating with him, he feels great. He's thrilled about the chance to work out, he's going to be working Russell (Wilson) wherever they get together and do their thing; they're looking forward to that. They didn't have the chance to do that last year. He couldn't run; he couldn't work out. And the amazing thing is that he had such a good season under those circumstances, so we're really looking forward to what comes up, and I know he is too and everybody's pumped up about it."
If the Seahawks stick with three tight ends on their roster, Graham, Willson and Vannett are the obvious candidates to fill those spots, but should they go with four, as they did last season, the battle for that fourth spot would appear to be wide open.
The offensive line could very well be the most intriguing position group in training camp, with so many different possible starting combinations in play as competitions play out. George Fant, who finished last season as the starting left tackle, will battle to keep that job, while free-agent addition Luke Joeckel and last year's third-round pick Rees Odhiambo will battle at both left guard and left tackle. Justin Britt, who thrived after switch to center, will stay there, but the right side of the line is just as open as the left. Mark Glowinski, last year's starting left guard, will go back to the right side—his position in college and as a rookie in Seattle—where he'll compete with Oday Aboushi and possibly last year's starter Germain Ifedi, but Ifedi, last year's first-round pick, will first get a look at right tackle. Second-round pick Ethan Pocic will start out competing at right tackle, but the former center has the versatility to be an option just about anywhere on the line, and Carroll raved about undrafted rookie guard Jordan Roos after the rookie minicamp.
In other words, there's a lot for offensive line coach Tom Cable and company to sort out, but they like their options, both because of the talent they have added, but also because of the growth they're expecting to see from second-year players like Fant, Ifedi and Odhiambo.
"That's a real positive for us going in, we're not feeling like we're stuck or forced to do anything right now," Carroll said after the draft. "Ifedi is going to play some tackle for us again and we'll see how that works, we're going to put this together. It's going to be interesting to see where Luke fits in. Luke is a terrific football player. We are very fortunate to have him. He's not quite healthy yet—when we get to phase three [of the offseason program] he won't be able to practice much—but in the next couple weeks he'll do some stuff on the field and get to show us. He has been a starting left tackle in the league and drafted to do that and he has been a starting left guard. It gives us great flexibility there, too, to see how George develops and all that. It's going to be really exciting to put this thing together."
The Seahawks return three full-time starters from last season, Pro-Bowl defensive ends Cliff Avril and Michael Bennett and defensive tackle Ahtyba Rubin, plus Jarran Reed, who started six games as a rookie, and Frank Clark, who had 10 sacks. Then in the draft they used their first pick on Malik McDowell and a third-rounder on Nazair Jones.
Cassius Marsh, who took a big step forward last season, again figures to be a factor in the rotation, as could Quinton Jefferson, a fifth-round pick who missed most of last season with a knee injury. The Seahawks also signed former first-round pick Dion Jordan in free agency and have added a few other pieces to the line, making it possibly the deepest position group on the team.
At their best, the Seahawks have had a deep rotation on the defensive line, so there's room for seven or eight players to see significant playing time, but the battle for those spots figures to be fierce.
The Seahawks have a pair of Pro-Bowlers at linebacker in K.J. Wright and Bobby Wagner, but that doesn't mean that position group is entirely settled. Last year's starting strongside linebacker, Mike Morgan, is a free agent, and while that position isn't an every-down one in today's NFL, it's still a spot that needs to be figured out. The backup jobs also figure to be wide open, especially after Brock Coyle's departure in free agency.
The Seahawks signed three linebackers in free agency, Michael Wilhoite, Arthur Brown and Terence Garvin, all players they think could make big contributions on special teams while perhaps also offering options at strongside linebacker.
"Michael Wilhoite is a really nice football player with a lot of versatility," Carroll said earlier this month on 710 ESPN Seattle. "Right now he's learning the Sam (strongside) position. We know he can play Mike and Will. Terence Garvin, he's also playing the Sam position with Michael. He shows us some really good flexibility, he's a former DB, he's got good movement skills, good hitter, good teams guy. And Arthur Brown has been added too. So we added three guys who all have experience that are versatile and are very good special teams guys. That's a real addition to our team, that's a big boost. Where we've been really young in the backup spots the last couple of years, these guys have been around and add experience that we like."
Three starting jobs are in very good hands, held down by Pro-Bowlers Richard Sherman, Earl Thomas and Kam Chancellor, but there is plenty to keep an eye on in the secondary beyond those spots. With DeShawn Shead coming back from a knee injury sustained in the postseason, right cornerback could be a wide open battle between the likes of Jeremy Lane, Neiko Thorpe and rookie Shaquill Griffin. And if Lane were to win the starting job, another corner would still see significant playing time either as the nickel corner or as an outside corner in nickel packages with Lane moving back inside to the position he held last season.
The Seahawks drafted four defensive backs with their first eight picks—Griffin, Delano Hill, Tedric Thompson and Mike Tyson—and are also very excited about the free-agent addition of Bradley McDougald, who by all accounts will find his way onto the field one way or another this season, so the depth behind those starters will look very different than it has in recent years.
"He's a good football player," Carroll said of McDougald at the NFL Annual Meetings. "Played really aggressive and tough, was excited about coming here to help us out. Shoot, I think he's a great guy to add. He has the kind of mentality in guys we are looking for. Has a chip on his shoulder, wants to prove it, he has always had to do that—make his own way. So he's coming in here to battle with us. It's a great addition.
"He has been good enough in the past to move guys around on their own team. There's a chance we can be creative with some stuff and we'll look forward to figuring that out."
As for what "getting creative" means when it comes to McDougald, Carroll said one way is to use him in different versions of their nickel defense.
"There are ways for us to play a bigger nickel group, and we're wide open to that flexibility and with Earl and with Kam," Carroll said. "We played over 800 snaps of nickel last year, the most we've ever played by far, and there's different opportunities in early-down situations to vary your groups, which we've done sometimes in the past already. We're open to the competition of it and what the players bring. If they can bring something, hopefully we'll identify it and we'll figure out how to tweak things so we can do that. There's a lot of opportunity for us. We moved (former safety) Dewey McDonald, we got him to see if he could swing into the linebacker position, and that's where he has settled for us, knowing he can play safety. There's an opportunity for us to continue to look for kind of a hybrid guy who can do both, so we'll continue to do that."
The big change will be at kicker, with Steven Hauschka moving on in free agency and former Minnesota Viking Blair Walsh being signed as a possible replacement. Carroll has said that the Seahawks will have competition for Walsh in camp, but as of now he is the only kicker on the roster, and as a result the frontrunner to win the job. The Seahawks also will have competition at long snapper between Nolan Frese, who held that job last year, and Tyler Ott, who was signed late in the season to replace an injured Frese.
Outside of the specialists, the Seahawks are looking to improve the overall quality of their special teams in part with the free-agent signings they made at linebacker. A draft class that includes four defensive backs and two physical receivers could also make a big difference on special teams. And not to be overlooked when it comes to special teams is the re-signing of cornerback Neiko Thorpe and linebacker Dewey McDonald, two of Seattle's top special teamers last year.
And while Tyler Lockett still figures to be the team's top returner in the long-run, there could be a short-term need in the return game depending on how he progresses in his comeback from a broken leg sustained in Week 16. Lockett is expected to be ready for the start of the season, but depending on his workload in training camp and the preseason, it's possible the Seahawks could try to take some things off his plate until he is fully up to speed.