Preparing for a season unlike any other in his lengthy, storied coaching career, like the rest of the NFL, Pete Carroll and the Seahawks faced much uncertainty at this time a year ago.
For the prior several months, though commissioner Roger Goodell maintained it would happen as scheduled, it had remained unclear whether or not there would even be an NFL season. Back in March, the COVID-19 pandemic had shut down the entire sports world and while other leagues such as the NBA and MLB were working on plans to return to action, nobody knew if measures such as an isolated "bubble" zone would work during the middle of a health crisis.
As the NFL awaited to see how other sports attempted to start back up, teams held entirely virtual offseason programs via Zoom and other video conferencing platforms. On-field OTAs and minicamps were first postponed and then ultimately canceled, leaving players to work out and train on their own accord with the upcoming season in limbo.
While the elimination of a traditional offseason program didn't have a significant impact on established veterans who would prefer to skip such workouts anyway, rookies were dealt a raw deal. They weren't able to get any reps on the field before training camp, putting them behind the 8-ball. This was especially true for undrafted rookies who already faced long odds of making an NFL roster to begin with.
When training camp officially kicked off in August, preseason games were also canceled, eliminating yet another critical step in the evaluation process. Though his hands were tied due to circumstances completely out of his control, Carroll regrets he couldn't come up with a better way to provide legitimate chances for all of Seattle's incoming rookies to compete.
"Last year at this time, they had done nothing. They hadn't been here for anything and so we showed up for camp," Carroll paused while speaking with reporters at the conclusion of Seattle's three-day mandatory minicamp. "It's one of the things I wish I would've handled it better, although I don't have the answer for it. You get to camp, you've got to get your team ready that you think is gonna play and those guys just did not get the quality opportunities to rep and grow and all that."
Fast forwarding one year later, however, Carroll won't have to worry about such a problem this time around. While the pandemic isn't over just yet, the arrival of COVID-19 vaccines has allowed for some normalcy to return, as teams across the league were able to hold on-field workouts as part of their offseason programs once again.
As expected, the majority of Seattle's veterans chose to stay away during the early stages of OTAs, citing health and safety reasons for not reporting for "voluntary" on-field sessions. Interestingly, this created yet another advantage for this year's rookie class compared to previous years, as first-year players were able to benefit by taking the reps normally reserved for older players.
From Carroll's perspective, this year's rookie class has capitalized on the extensive workload provided to them and looks to be well ahead of the curve with training camp now less than a month away.
"We're at the other end of the spectrum," Carroll commented. "We've never had this much focused time on our young guys and so this is the best group we've ever had as far as being ready for a football season. I just told [them] - I just visited with them before they walked out the door - that if we were going to camp right now this would be just an enormous opportunity for them to take advantage of. They've been smart, they've been strong, they've been consistent, they've been active, they've been juiced up, and they know a lot of football right now.
I don't know what that's going to mean as we put the team together in preseason and all that, but when those guys go in the game, we're not gonna hesitate to worry about them at all."
So far, the Seahawks have been pleased with early returns on all three of their draft picks, who each should have an opportunity to compete for playing time right away when camp opens in late July.
Though he was limited to walkthrough work during minicamp because of a sore big toe, second-round pick D'Wayne Eskridge flashed his elite speed and playmaking ability. Coming from a school that didn't run as complicated of a passing scheme, Carroll has been especially impressed by his route running acumen adjusting to coordinator Shane Waldron's playbook.
"He looks totally legit to be a competitive aspect of this team," Carroll said of Eskridge. "I don't have any question. His strength, his hands, his catching range, his explosiveness, and he had no trouble with any of the transitional stuff... I'm really excited to see him go."
In addition, Carroll indicated fourth-round pick Tre Brown "looks the part" of an NFL cornerback and has already put himself in the heat of the competition for a starting role. As for sixth-round pick Stone Forsythe, while the Seahawks haven't gotten to see him block anyone just yet, Carroll applauded him for his focus and attention to detail.
Away from those three players, Seattle's limited draft capital this year coupled with a true offseason program has presented a unique opportunity for undrafted rookies to potentially push for a roster spot. It's a 180-degree turn from where things stood for undrafted players a year ago entering training camp blindfolded with an arm tied behind their backs.
Offensively, the Seahawks have a trio of fascinating undrafted receivers poised to battle for snaps in Cade Johnson, Tamorrion Terry, and Connor Wedington. All three players made big plays during minicamp earlier this month and bring different skill sets to the table, which should make an intense competition for two or three roster spots at the position all the more entertaining.
In the trenches, away from Forsythe, Seattle signed former California tackle Jake Curhan, who was a four-year starter in the Pac-12 conference. The team also brought in former Mississippi State standout Greg Eiland and Canadian product Pier-Olivier Lestage and both players will be vying for a backup guard role during the preseason.
On defense, Carroll has been complimentary of former Army linebacker Jon Rhattigan, who could have a chance to make the team with K.J. Wright and Shaquem Griffin no longer on the roster. German linebacker Aaron Donkor, who joined the team through the NFL's International Player Pathway Program, offers rare physical traits and could also be in the mix if he can handle the steep jump in competition.
Away from those two linebackers, defensive tackle Jarrod Hewitt, cornerback Bryan Mills, and safety Aashari Crosswell stand out as three other undrafted players to keep an eye on who could surprise and push for a roster spot.
Despite having only three draft picks this year, the always enthusiastic Carroll couldn't be more excited about the potential for this year's class as a whole and believes big things are in store for the group. Unlike a year ago, they've been given the tools necessary to succeed and the return of preseason games will give them another opportunity to impress the coaching staff.
But as the offseason program came to a close, Carroll made sure to give a cautionary warning for each and every one of Seattle's rookies before they departed for the summer, as all of the progress made this spring can easily be undone between now and camp. After seeing how the group carried themselves over the past few months, he's optimistic that won't be a problem.
"They're gonna be ready to go if - let me send this message out - if they do a good job the next six weeks of staying in shape and don't screw it up. We kinda hammered 'em a little bit and want 'em to take care of business and come back to camp ready to go."