4 Burning Questions Heading into Seahawks Training Camp
Russell Wilson, Bobby Wagner, and company will kick off training camp on Thursday, bringing an end to the long, dark offseason and officially ushering in the 2019 campaign.
Coming off a 10-win season and a Wild Card berth, Seattle has heightened expectations going into a new year. Though star safety Earl Thomas left for Baltimore and defensive end Frank Clark was dealt to Kansas City, coach Pete Carroll believes his team could be entering another championship window.
With Wilson under contract through 2023, most of last year’s playoff roster returning, and a promising 11-player draft class set to compete for playing time right away, Carroll doesn’t expect the Seahawks to miss a beat moving forward and remain contenders in the NFC West.
To reach their potential, here are four questions the Seahawks must answer during their upcoming training camp and preseason games.
Will the Seahawks offense evolve in year two under the direction of Brian Schottenheimer?
Replacing long-time offensive coordinator Darrell Bevell, Schottenheimer spent last offseason simply trying to install his offense and get on the same page with his players. With the coaching staff intact for the most part from a year ago, he’s been able to expand upon concepts this spring, which should make Seattle’s offense more dynamic.
“Last year, we were just trying to put plays on paper and things like that this time of year.” Schottenheimer said during Seattle’s mandatory minicamp. “Now we’re so much further ahead, and it’s cool to see how quickly guys are picking things up.”
Light years ahead of where they were this time last year, Carroll and Schottenheimer expect the Seahawks offense to evolve, but that doesn’t necessarily mean Wilson will start slinging the ball 40 or more times a game. Carroll’s belief in a balanced offense hasn’t wavered and with Schottenheimer calling the plays, the Seahawks will still emphasize running the football.
“We make no apologies for how we play,” Schottenheimer said. “We want to run the football, we want to be physical, we’re going to take our shots – I think that’s evident by the production we had last year, all the points we put up.”
After making Wilson the highest-paid player in the NFL, that may not be the response some Seahawks fans wanted to hear, especially considering the offense’s struggles in a 24-22 loss to the Cowboys in the Wild Card round last January.
But Seattle did finish sixth overall in scoring offense a year ago, proving an old-school, run-oriented approach can still be successful in the NFL. If Schottenheimer willingly opens up the playbook a bit more and does a better job of utilizing the play action passing game in his second season, the Seahawks will have a chance to field a top-five offense.
Which players will help fill the void left by Doug Baldwin on and off the field?
A one-of-a-kind talent and personality, Carroll knows the Seahawks won’t be able to replace Baldwin, who was released in May with a failed physical distinction and unofficially announced his retirement on social media.
“He has been an integral part of everything we’ve ever been about since I’ve been here, it seems,” Carroll said. “But not just that he has been a good player – he has been tremendous competitor in the program, he has been a leader, and he’s demonstrated everything that you’re supposed to demonstrate as a ball player in terms of toughness and grit and care and love and passion and all of that.”
Even as he battled through injuries in his final NFL season, Baldwin still produced 50 receptions for 618 yards and scored five touchdowns. He also remained one of Seattle’s undisputed leaders in the locker room.
The Seahawks won’t be able to replace Baldwin the player or the person, but to remain a viable threat in the NFC, they’ll have to find a way to replace his production. And while there’s plenty of uncertainty in the receiving corps without him, the team was proactive adding young talent through the draft and Carroll expects a heated battle at the position during training camp.
“We’re going to have some real competitions rolling,” Carroll said. “We added three guys to the competition just out of the draft, and also the free agent guys who just make this group really competitive. You’re going to see that we’re really fast, which is awesome.”
Aside from Tyler Lockett returning as the clear-cut No. 1 receiver, Seattle will be counting on a major jump from third-year receiver David Moore, who has been working some out of the slot this spring. Veteran Jaron Brown, who Carroll believes Seattle “underused” last year, is also expected to take on a larger role in the passing game.
As mentioned by Carroll, Seattle used three draft picks on receivers, including second-round pick D.K. Metcalf, who should provide Wilson a big, explosive downfield threat on the outside and instantly become a red zone weapon. Fourth-round pick Gary Jennings and seventh-round pick John Ursua will both have a shot to compete for snaps in the slot, where they played extensively at the college level.
Among others who will have a chance to earn a roster spot, Keenan Reynolds and Amara Darboh should receive ample opportunities out of the slot, while undrafted rookies Jazz Ferguson and Terry Wright shined during offseason workouts and will further bolster the competition.
“I think it’s a really good group.” Carroll said. “I have no idea how it’s going to turn out, but it’s going to be fun to see it happen.”
Where, oh where, will Seattle’s pass rush come from?
Trading Clark to the Chiefs in exchange for a first and second-round pick helped the Seahawks turn a league-low four draft picks into 11 back in April, but it also significantly weakened an already questionable pass rush. Making matters worse, budding star defensive tackle Jarran Reed received a six-game suspension earlier this week.
Seattle will certainly look into some veteran options to help replace Reed, but this latest development has only put more pressure on a young group to perform. And as if the signing of Ezekiel Ansah already wasn’t important enough back in May, his return from offseason shoulder surgery will now be critical to the Seahawks inexperienced defense.
Working on rebuilding strength in the shoulder, Ansah won’t be ready for the start of training camp, but Carroll hopes he’ll be able to return in late August and be ready for the regular season opener. Rediscovering his prior All-Pro form would be a major game changer for Seattle, but it remains to be seen how effective he’ll be upon his return to the field.
With Ansah still working his way back, first-round pick L.J. Collier will need to emerge as an immediate impact player. Compared to former starter Michael Bennett by Carroll, the ex-TCU standout is expected to compete for a starting job at defensive end right away and his ability to reduce inside to defensive tackle during passing situations will be critical without Reed.
“He [Collier] plays with really good leverage and really long arms and he uses his hands really well…”Carroll said during rookie minicamp. “That’s a special characteristic that he already has. So technique-wise, he’s been coached very well also and there’s stuff that we can do with him. I think it’s going to be a really exciting guy for us to fit into the scheme.”
Collier won’t be the only youngster forced to step up, as second-year edge defender Jacob Martin and defensive end Rasheem Green will have to grow up quickly and contribute in larger roles. Martin flashed at the LEO defensive end spot with 3.0 sacks in Seattle’s final seven games, but Green struggled mightily in a reserve role, finishing with just nine tackles and a sack.
Carroll also has a plan in place for linebackers Shaquem Griffin and Barkevious Mingo to be more involved as pass rushers. Mingo has previously played defensive end and worked extensively with coach Clint Hurtt this spring, while Griffin has seen work at SAM linebacker which plays to his strengths playing on the edge.
Ultimately, Seattle’s playoff hopes could depend on the progression of players like Collier, Martin, Green, and Griffin, who will all be under the microscope during training camp and exhibition games.
With the “Legion of Boom” long gone, what’s next for Seattle’s young secondary?
The inevitable departure of Thomas finally stuck a fork in the famous “Legion of Boom,” leaving behind a young, inexperienced secondary that endured plenty of struggles last season.
For Seattle to emerge as a viable contender in the wide-open NFC, that group will have to make substantial strides as a whole this season, starting with the young cornerback duo of Shaquill Griffin and Tre Flowers.
Disappointed with his performance a year ago and giving himself a D grade, Griffin altered his nutritional plan this offseason and reported to offseason workouts weighing a trimmed-down 194 pounds. The third-year defender also put more focus into film study this spring, including watching Seattle’s historic 2013 defense.
“It’s kinda cool to see the type of environment they created here back in 2013, to see the way the guys believed in each other.” Griffin said. “And sometimes you gotta go back to your roots and your history to kinda see the way they did things.”
Griffin admittedly put too much pressure on himself to try to replace Richard Sherman’s production on the stat sheet, but after an eye-opening offseason, the Seahawks will be banking on him finally reaching his potential. If he can leave less tackles on the field and improve playing the football in coverage, he could be in for a big season.
Opposite of him, Flowers enters his second season with much higher expectations after emerging as a surprise starter as a rookie. With minimal experience at cornerback, the fifth-round pick out of Oklahoma State was expected to need a year or two to develop, but he wound up starting 15 games, recorded 57 tackles, and forced three fumbles.
With another offseason under his belt to continue learning his position, Carroll believes he’s set himself up for a tremendous jump in 2019.
“He’ll come back with all of this history already in the books,” Carroll told reporters at the NFL annual meetings. “And what I think we’ll see - he’s already a really aggressive player and he loves to get after the ball and make his hits, and he’s a very good tackler and all of that - I think all of that is going to show up even more. He’ll just be more confident and more sure of himself, and I’m expecting him to be a monster out there.”
Safety will also be one of the most important competitions to watch unfold during training camp, as at least four players will have a legitimate opportunity to win a starting job alongside veteran Bradley McDougald.
Returning starter Tedric Thompson, who filled in for Thomas at free safety after he was lost to a season-ending leg injury, will have to fend off second-round pick Marquise Blair and fourth-round pick Ugo Amadi, who will each be gunning for his starting role. With Blair currently on the PUP list due to a hamstring injury, the third-year defender out of Colorado could have a chance to distance himself early.
At strong safety, McDougald will enter camp as the expected starter and would prefer to stay at the position, but Blair and third-year defender Lano Hill could force Seattle to move him back to free safety. Blair’s lean frame may not allow him to hold up physically at the position, but his hard-hitting mentality makes him the ideal box safety in the Seahawks’ scheme.
As for Hill, he played well down the stretch last season, starting two games in December before suffering a cracked hip in the season finale against Arizona. He will open camp on the PUP list as he continues to work his way back, but when he returns, Carroll has made it clear he will have a chance to compete for a starting role.
“In transitioning to the spot, all of a sudden he just popped last year, past the midway point, late in the season. He just looked like he really embraced the position, the challenges, the questions, all that kind of stuff.”
Given all the draft capital Seattle has used in the secondary over the past three years, it’s time for those investments to start paying off. This group doesn’t need to be the second coming of the “Legion of Boom” for the Seahawks to be successful, but minimal improvements could spell disaster for Carroll’s defense.