RENTON, Wash. - Closing in on their first season in a decade without Russell Wilson under center or Bobby Wagner helming the middle of the defense, few outside of the Pacific Northwest expect the Seahawks to contend in 2022.
But in the months since Wilson was flipped to Denver in a blockbuster trade and Wagner was cut as a cap casualty, coach Pete Carroll and general manager John Schneider have remained steadfast in their belief Seattle will remain competitive in the NFC West. Tanking won't happen under their watch and coupling an exciting incoming draft class with the return of stars such as Jamal Adams and DK Metcalf, there's no shortage on optimism within the team facility.
If there's another reason to justify the positive vibes radiating from the VMAC in the early stages of training camp, it's the unbridled excitement shared by Carroll, Schneider, and others within the organization about the Seahawks' 2020 draft class, a cast of talented players whose continued development could push the rebuilding process into overdrive.
Headlining the group entering their third NFL seasons, Jordyn Brooks has taken the torch from Wagner after a sensational sophomore campaign and looks to be a superstar in the making in his own right. Breaking a franchise record and finishing second in the league, the former Texas Tech star racked up 184 tackles along with 10 tackles for loss while starting all 17 games for Seattle in 2021, receiving his first All-Pro vote for his efforts.
Bring up Brooks during a press conference and it's a near-guarantee Carroll will take his patented enthusiasm up a few notches with a beaming smile on his face. Given Brooks' production and blossoming leadership skills at such a young age, it's not difficult to understand why he can't stop gushing about the playmaking linebacker's tremendous ascent.
"He’s been extraordinary, God, he’s been so good," Carroll told reporters following Seattle's eighth minicamp practice on Sunday. "He’s been so exciting to see take leadership and all of the stuff that he can do. I don’t know how you can expect a guy to look better at the spot right now.”
Just 24 years old, Brooks has taken the reins as Seattle's new on-field defensive play caller, donning the green dot on his helmet that Wagner wore throughout his 10 years with the team. While he remains a quiet individual and speaks much louder with his actions than words, he has been noticeably more vocal on the field, even occasionally jawing at the offense as his predecessor loved to do.
Coming into his own as one of the top young linebackers in the sport, Brooks isn't the only defender from the '20 class poised for a breakout season. After missing his entire rookie year recovering from leg surgery, outside linebacker Darrell Taylor impressed with 6.5 sacks and a team-best 36 quarterback pressures in 2021, flashing speed and underrated power rushing off the edge.
Thus far in training camp, a stronger, faster, more confident Taylor has been terrorizing Seattle's tackles on a daily basis, winning with an elite first step off the line of scrimmage and the ability to beat his opponent by bending around the corner, slipping by with a swim or rip move, or powering through them with a bull rush. That continued into Saturday's mock game as the former Tennessee standout generated a trio of pressures and proved to be a nightmare to block.
"He’s flying off of the football," Carroll commented following the mock game. "He’s so much more at ease and comfortable with what we are asking him to do. He’s way ahead now, he’s seeing things way better than he was a year ago. He will be able to take advantage of sets, formations, and opportunities. He’s grown up, so it should be a really big opportunity and season for him and he’s ready to go.”
The frightening part for the rest of the league? Now more than two years removed from his injury, Taylor reported for Seattle's offseason program with an additional 10 pounds of muscle on his frame. Ready to shine in a 3-4 scheme perfectly catered for his strengths as a pass rusher and dropping back into coverage, he's barely scratched the surface of his immense potential to this point.
If Brooks and Taylor can take a massive leap forward and transform into bonafide stars, the Seahawks 2022 draft class would be viewed as a success. But significant growth of other players such as guard Damien Lewis, tight end Colby Parkinson, and edge rusher Alton Robinson could make it the best class Schneider and Carroll have drafted since Wilson and Wagner's heralded 2012 group.
Lewis, a third-round pick out of LSU two years ago, turned heads starting all 16 games as a rookie, including an emergency spot start at center in a win over Arizona. Earning a top-10 run blocking grade from Pro Football Focus among qualified guards, he also received All-Rookie Team honors from the Pro Football Writers Association, setting the stage for him to emerge as a potential Pro Bowler moving forward.
But Lewis didn't make the second year leap Seattle envisioned due to a number of factors. While he downplayed the transition, moving from right to left guard to open up a spot for veteran Gabe Jackson proved to be a tougher adjustment than anticipated. On top of that, he battled through shoulder, elbow, and abdominal injuries while also spending time on the COVID-19/reserve list.
Back healthy and more comfortable playing on the left side, Carroll has been thrilled by what he's seen from Lewis thus far in camp. With Seattle set to roll out as many as three new starters on the offensive line, including the possibility of two rookie tackles in Charles Cross and Abraham Lucas, seeing him round back into form as an improved version of his 2020 self would be a huge boost in the trenches.
“What I’ve been really impressed with is Damien has really come back better," Carroll said of Lewis. "He just looks better in every way, he’s taken the next step. He’s taken a sophomore step in his junior year, that’s kind of what it looks like. That’s really a big deal."
Parkinson, the former fourth-round pick has rebounded from two injury-shortened seasons to turn in a fantastic camp so far. After missing time with two foot fractures and catching just seven passes combined in 2020 and 2021, the athletic 6-foot-7 tight end has been targeted frequently by Geno Smith and Drew Lock and at a bulked up 260 pounds, he's transformed into a viable in-line blocker to go with his receiving skills.
Playing in an offense schemed by coordinator Shane Waldron that features extensive 12 personnel with two tight ends on the field and an emphasis on the quick passing game, Parkinson should see plenty of snaps and targets as long as he stays healthy. Echoing the sentiments of teammates Noah Fant and Will Dissly, he called the system tight end "friendly."
“I think a lot of quick game stuff really runs a hand to the tight ends," Parkinson explained. "Trying to be efficient on first and second down, making sure we are getting the ball out fast. And with three guys that can catch the ball really well, it should bode well for us this year.”
As for Robinson, the fifth-round selection out of Syracuse reported for his third training camp as an afterthought in an edge rushing group featuring Taylor, free agent signee Uchenna Nwosu, and rookies Boye Mafe and Tyreke Smith. Moving from a 4-3 defensive end role to a 3-4 outside linebacker role, questions persisted about how well he would fit into the new scheme.
But after only producing one sack and falling out of the rotation to an extent in 2021, Robinson has shown himself to be up to the challenge emerging as one of the bigger surprises on defense thus far while playing at a lighter weight under 260 pounds.
"Alton came back with a different body type," Carroll stated. "He lost about 15 pounds, but is really stout, strong, and explosive. He’s done a nice job starting up camp so far."
Seattle's other two 2020 selections who remain on the roster - receiver Freddie Swain and running back DeeJay Dallas - should be key special teams contributors at minimum and will see action on offense.
Previously a receiver at Miami, Dallas' soft hands and ability to line up in the slot and on the outside benefit his cause battling for third down back duties. After being Seattle's primary kick returner a year ago, he will once again be in the mix in that capacity and his ability to run with power and underrated agility between the tackles could give him an advantage over Travis Homer vying for offensive snaps.
Meanwhile, Swain has vastly exceeded expectations as a sixth-round pick, becoming a viable contributor on offense and special teams in his first two seasons. Doubling his numbers across the board last year and finishing third among Seahawks receivers in receptions and receiving yardage, he appears to hold the advantage over Dee Eskridge, Marquise Goodwin, Cody Thompson, and rookies Dareke Young and Bo Melton for the No. 3 role behind DK Metcalf and Tyler Lockett.
Looking at the class as a whole, Seattle has a fascinating mix of ascending stars and capable role players who could serve as the foundation for the team's next playoff contender. Whether that winds up being this year or in the future will depend in part on how much the group improves collectively, most notably when it comes to impact starters such as Brooks, Taylor, and Lewis.
While it would be a stretch at this juncture to compare the group to the 2012 draft class, which stands out as one of the best in NFL history reeling in Wilson and Wagner as day two selections, it's not out of the question that the Seahawks' 2020 class could have a similar impact ushering in a new era. Based on comments from Carroll and others in the organization, expectations couldn't be higher and if they can meet those lofty goals, the future will undoubtedly be much brighter than forecasted nationally.