Seahawks training camp is upon us once more! Sat here in England, I can (almost) smell the turf of the VMAC and hear the thump of pads, the booming music and the whooping of coaches.
This part of the preseason throws up positional battles and other interesting storylines that develop in the run up to Week 1 of NFL action. Scouring Twitter timelines, intensely re-watching live Seahawks practices and being the absolute offseason fanatic that I am, here are five major Seahawks camp storylines to look out for:
Who Takes the SAM Role?
The Seahawks are clearly happy with their strongside linebacker (SAM) position. This is evidenced by the team letting future Ring of Honor member and 2020 star K.J. Wright walk in free agency. Seattle had, and has, no urgency to re-sign the 32-year old Wright, who the team expected to sign with one of the many other franchises running some version of Pete Carroll's defense. Of course, 2020 first-round pick Jordyn Brooks was drafted to be Wright’s successor. Brooks, however, is going to slot in at weakside linebacker, so it's up in the air who the first string SAM will be on a team that loves it some 4-3 alignments.
Following Wright’s departure, SAM can become more conventional again. The Seahawks have shown clear ambition to return to the days of Bruce Irvin and having a pass-rushing threat at strongside linebacker. Fans will remember that was the plan heading into 2020 as well—before Irvin tore his ACL against the Patriots in Week 2.
Benson Mayowa, who will be 30 come Week 1, started his career in Seattle as a SAM and is now moving back to compete at that spot. Free agency addition Aldon Smith could play there too, although the 31-year old may have been signed to push Carlos Dunlap at LEO.
Ultimately, the Seahawks seem to be pitting former second-round pick Darrell Taylor against third-year man Cody Barton for the spot, with all signs pointing towards the former as the frontrunner. Seattle is eager to see Taylor out on the field after he spent all of his rookie year recovering from leg surgery that saw him slip in the 2020 draft.
The difference between more of a pass-rushing SAM and the LEO defensive end will become even less apparent given the Seahawks will be basing largely out of bear fronts. The SAM will still have more coverage responsibilities and be asked to play in some 4-3 shade looks.
Which Receiver Is No. 3 on the Depth Chart?
DK Metcalf and Tyler Lockett are the clear starting receiver duo for the Seahawks. Not only will the pair stay on the field for most of the snaps, they will also command the majority of targets and receiving yards. A clear third receiver is vital for Shane Waldron’s offense, though.
Waldron will want to use 11 personnel (one tight end, one running back, three receivers) on most of Seattle’s plays. With the talk about playing uptempo—playing fast and getting to the line of scrimmage quickly—being able to keep the same players out on the field while staying versatile is a crucial necessity.
The third receiver in Seattle used to be David Moore, signed in free agency by the Panthers back in March. Now the No. 3 receiver appears to be rookie D’Wayne Eskridge, drafted in the second round of the 2021 NFL Draft. But what if his foot/big toe injury, picked up in OTAs and seeing him start camp on the PUP list, is worse than initially feared and impedes his progress to the extent that he cannot start in the offense? What if Eskridge struggles to adapt as a rookie to the demands of an NFL attack? Or what if a different receiver simply plays better? If you're wanting look at it superstitiously (don’t), the Seahawks have not seen much in terms of early returns from their recent early-round draft picks.
Could John Ursua finally learn an NFL offense at the age of 27? Is Penny Hart, who's managed to connect to Russell Wilson, going to establish a more significant role for himself in his third year of professional football? Could an undrafted free agent like Cade Johnson steal the spot? Or could the media star of last year’s training camp, 25-year old Cody Thompson, build his flashes into shock ascension?
Is There a Positional Battle at Center?
Seeing Ethan Pocic lose his job this offseason would be surprising, but examining the background of Seattle’s center situation hints that it’s not as unlikely as you may initially think. Pocic was re-signed in free agency to a one-year, $2 million deal; both the player and team want to re-evaluate the situation in the rosier cap offseason of 2022.
Although the Seahawks chose not to dip into what was widely regarded as a deep draft class for centers, Seattle clearly thinks highly of the long-armed Kyle Fuller, entering his fourth year in the league.
The team already tried to replace/aggressively push Pocic by signing B.J. Finney during last year's free agency period. In the end, Pocic won the job after Finney showed up to camp out of shape, and the latter was eventually moved to Cincinnati in a trade for Dunlap.
This year, the Seahawks signed the athletic Canadian Pier-Olivier Lestage as an undrafted free agent following the 2021 NFL Draft. Lestage is a man who surely would have been drafted had football north of the border been played last year.
Pocic is a solid center. However, his weaknesses are consistent and cap certain elements of the offense. For instance: he struggles one-on-one in pass protection or in the run game, which could really frustrate Waldron as he tries to get his center to reach block dudes one-on-one on outside zone runs.
Who Is the Starting Cornerback Opposite D.J. Reed?
The obvious other outside cornerback is Ahkello Witherspoon. Seattle’s free agent acquisition was signed to be that dude; the team wants him to play the left corner spot where it usually puts its most talented CB. While the 26-year old is the prototypical Seahawks corner in terms of measurables and is familiar with Seattle’s CB technique, he suffered from patchy play in San Francisco and there’s a reason he only got what is essentially a one-year, $4 million contract. He must prove it.
Once the starter at right corner, Tre Flowers is heading into a contract year and will be looking to earn his job back. Seattle was also reunited with Pierre Desir, now a veteran, as an older presence to its corner room.
The Seahawks also took the quick-twitch Tre Brown from Oklahoma in the fourth round of the 2021 NFL Draft. Brown is more of a Reed roster mirror given his short height, although he has shorter length arms.
The other potentially complicating factor is that Reed could get moved back into the slot. Reed has stated repeatedly that he prefers to play on the perimeter of the defense, though. However, competition and/or injuries could throw Reed back into the nickel corner role. And Richard Sherman remains unsigned, though football may not be at the forefront of his mind at the moment.
What Is the Nickel Pass Rush Configuration?
Seattle lost its every-down 3-technique defensive tackle in Jarran Reed after a cap fallout. New leading defensive tackle Poona Ford started to showcase some pass rush upside last year in spurts, although the 25-year old has not yet been able to consistently disrupt on the interior. The nickel pass rush configuration when Seattle is defending in clear passing situations is shrouded in competition.
Bargain free agent addition Kerry Hyder, expected to slot in at the big end spot, could very well move inside to the 3-tech position in these instances. Hyder, arriving from the 49ers, has already managed to impress defensive line coach Clint Hurtt to such an extent that the 30-year old has earned the “game-caller” role in Seattle, signifying that he will be on the field for pretty much all of the clear passing downs. Hyder’s best pass rush snaps, however, came on the exterior in San Francisco.
Aiming to become a 100-sack man this season, Carlos Dunlap will presumably anchor one edge of the Seahawks’ first string exterior. The competition opposite the 32-year old will be fierce—to such an extent that Seattle will be hoping Dunlap’s snap count dips. When Seattle has been at its deepest, it's had the option in nickel to keep the SAM on the field and move him to defensive end. Smith, Taylor and Mayowa could all fill that role. And what about forgotten man Alton Robinson? The 2020 sixth-round pick had a highly efficient rookie season that suggests he deserves more snaps.
We should be able to see the nickel rush configuration if the Seahawks photographers get generous with their pics again...