Next season’s playoff race begins this spring as all 32 teams retool their rosters, so it’s time to take a look at what each franchise must do for a better season in 2016. Next up? The Seahawks, who lost their offensive heartbeat when Marshawn Lynch retired this month and are at risk of losing a few more key contributors in free agency, which makes this spring the perfect time to reassess their weaknesses. Check back for our other 31 off-season outlooks, which we will be rolling out in reverse order of finish over the coming weeks leading up to free agency and the draft.
Key free agents
OT Russell Okung, DT Brandon Mebane, OLB Bruce Irvin, DT Ahtyba Rubin, WR Jermaine Kearse, OG J.R. Sweezy, CB Jeremy Lane, DB DeShawn Shead, P Jon Ryan, C Patrick Lewis, OL Alvin Bailey, RB Fred Jackson
Players that must be re-signed
Okung, Mebane, Rubin, Kearse, Lane, Lewis, Ryan: Okung was the first pick of the Pete Carroll/John Schneider era—sixth off the board in the 2010 draft—and when healthy, he’s been the most stable member of an offensive line that has underperformed most of the time. He gave up just three sacks from Week 2 through the divisional round loss to the Panthers after a two-sack disaster in Week 1 against the Rams. Okung will get serious looks from a lot of teams, but his injury history will put some off—he’s never played a full season and his effectiveness diminishes pretty quickly when he’s hurt. Still, if his market value puts him in the second tier of tackles, the Seahawks should try to re-sign him, if only because there are so many issues elsewhere along that line.
Mebane is getting up there in age, but he’s still a dynamic rotational player, especially when teamed with Rubin, who was a bargain after the Browns let him walk in free agency.
While Kearse isn’t the most consistent receiver, he understands the system well and has a knack for the big catch at the right time. Lane, back from the gruesome injuries he suffered in Seattle’s Super Bowl XLIX loss to the Patriots, has the potential to be a top-tier nickel defender and work outside as well. He came back in Week 12 and played very well through the rest of the season, and the team has said he’s in their future plans. Lewis was, along with Okung, the only relative strength on Seattle’s offensive line, and Ryan is one of the best at his position in the business.
Most important position to improve
Offensive line: Over the last few seasons, the Seahawks have addressed what they believe to be a widespread problem with college offensive linemen in an interesting way, drafting college defensive linemen and converting them to O-linemen. It’s a good idea on the surface—in practice, not so much. Line coach Tom Cable is the brains behind this theory, and it could be argued that his reliance on a defensive tackle turned center cost the Seahawks a shot at their third straight Super Bowl. Drew Nowak played the position during the season’s first half, but Cable forgot that guys who haven’t played center before don’t really know how to handle protections and line calls. Nowak was so bad he was eventually waived, but not before the Seahawks stumbled to a 2–4 start that Russell Wilson spent running for his life. Seattle’s offensive revival began not long after Patrick Lewis—who did, in fact, play center in college—took over at center.
Okung would be a point of stability if he re-signed. If not, Seattle will have to go back to the draft to replace him—unless they believe that right tackle Garry Gilliam, who resembled a turnstile at times in 2015, is ready to make that move. Or, they could re-sign backup Alvin Bailey ... or, they could scrap this patchwork plan and find a way to coach the best out of the players who have played their positions before. What a novel concept.
The guard positions are no more stable. Sweezy, yet another D-line convert and a favorite of Cable’s in the face of all reason, struggles mightily with run-blocking placement and flat-out whiffs on assignments far too often. Left guard Justin Britt, who played right tackle in college, was a little better when he moved inside, but the little things—guard pulls, seal blocks—seem to elude him.
How has Seattle managed to be so successful despite this obvious issue? Two words: Marshawn Lynch. Two more words: Russell Wilson. Both have shown the ability to create incredible plays out of chaos, but with Lynch retiring, it’s up to the Seahawks’ front office to understand that it will need men who can block for a less transcendent running back and protect a quarterback who is now the face of the franchise.
Other positions to improve
Cornerback, receiver, defensive tackle, running back: Yes, Seattle has one side of the field on lock with Richard Sherman, but the right cornerback spot has been a fascinating mish-mash of contributors over the years. In 2015, it was the combination of Cary Williams, Shead and Lane playing that role. Williams was released halfway through his first season in Seattle. Shead and Lane have potential, but with both men looking at free-agent status, it might be a good idea for the franchise to go back to the well and find a permanent fourth starter for the Legion of Boom.
Seattle has good receiver pieces in Tyler Lockett, Doug Baldwin and Jimmy Graham, but what the team hasn’t had in this era is the kind of earth-mover who can consistently take on the best cornerbacks in the game and win. With the calls growing for a more explosive passing game in the Emerald City, a true alpha-dog target for Wilson would certainly help. Trading a first-round pick and center Max Unger for Graham was a bold move in that direction, and Graham was starting to make headway before his season-ending injury in November.
With Mebane and Rubin testing the market and getting up there in age, there’s a clear need for young talent in the middle of Seattle’s estimable defensive line. Jordan Hill is a difference-maker when healthy, but he’s more of a three-tech than a guy who will consistently take on double teams. And while undrafted rookie Thomas Rawls took Marshawn Lynch’s starting job and ran with it, the decline of Seattle’s running game when Rawls himself was hurt shows the need for depth.
Overall priority this off-season
Create the new Seahawks offense: Pete Carroll prefers a balanced offense, but without his quarterback, he might have missed the playoffs entirely in the 2015 season. Wilson was transcendent when he was allowed to be, throwing for 29 touchdowns and just five interceptions from Week 9 through the postseason, after some of the protection issues were addressed. Wilson signed a five-year, $89.142 million contract with $60 million guaranteed last July, and those are franchise quarterback numbers. With better blocking, a couple more top-level targets and a consistent running game, Wilson could be one of the NFL’s top quarterbacks—he’s already proven that he can be just that without those things on a regular basis.