Returning to the field after a six-week layoff, the Seahawks officially opened their training camp on Wednesday and now have two practices in the books. Unlike a year ago, fans were finally able to return and cheer on their team, and though players weren't able to sign autographs, they wrapped up both sessions embracing the crowd.
Recapping the action at the VMAC, here are five noteworthy observations from an eventful first two days of camp.
1. Due to schematic shifts, the SAM linebacker and LEO defensive end spots appear to now be mostly one and the same.
One of the interesting developments coming out of last season was Seattle's extensive use of "bear" fronts in the second half of the season, or 5-2 looks with two off-ball linebackers, two 3-tech defensive tackles, a nose tackle head up on the center, and two overhanging edge defenders. Given personnel, including several capable hybrid defenders such as Darrell Taylor, Benson Mayowa, and Aldon Smith who have past experience playing defensive end and linebacker, it shouldn't come as a surprise the strongside linebacker role and LEO defensive end role nearly emulate one another in the Seahawks' scheme at this point.
It remains to be seen what Seattle will do moving forward after only two practices and reps from practices are not allowed to be reported, but Taylor has looked healthy and explosive playing the strongside position during team drills and seems to be the favorite to win the job. He's also moved the other side rushing at the LEO spot, but in both cases, he has been standing up out wide on the line of scrimmage and occasionally dropped into coverage. Meanwhile, Smith looks to be in excellent shape after sitting out OTAs and minicamp in if he's eligible for the regular season - a big if - he has the flexibility to play either spot as well due to their similar responsibilities setting contain against the run and rushing off the edge. Add in Mayowa and the Seahawks have a ton of flexibility mixing and matching all three players.
2. It's early and pads have yet to come out, but the Seahawks have every reason to be excited about their running back group.
Following Wednesday's first practice, coach Pete Carroll gushed about Seattle's running back group, calling it a "really exciting place." Taking in practice, it's not hard to see why he's so ecstatic. Fully healthy, Chris Carson has had several nice runs and made a one-handed grab on a swing route for a 15-yard gain on Thursday. He looks like his usual talented self out of the backfield. Rashaad Penny, who told reporters he's down to 223 pounds, looks lighter and faster on the field more than a year after undergoing reconstructive knee surgery. He broke a pair of nice runs during the team session on Thursday, including spinning away from a defender towards the sidelines for a 30-plus yard carry.
But Penny has been far from the only back to get off to a fast start this week. Second-year back DeeJay Dallas turned in the highlight of the Seahawks first practice, evading a linebacker at the second level with a slick juke move and then was shot out of a cannon for a 70-yard touchdown run. Veteran Alex Collins also has impressed, showcasing improved decisiveness as a ball carrier and performing at a high level as he did in three games for the team last season. Both of those backs will vie for third down duties and once Travis Homer is activated from the PUP list, he will enter the competition as well. Keeping everyone healthy will be crucial, but it's not an overreaction believing this group of backs has the upside to be the best one Carroll has had in 12 seasons as head coach.
3. Several newcomers enjoyed strong practices, drawing cheers from the raucous 12s on the berm.
Until the team puts shoulder pads on, fans will have to wait to see what newly-acquired guard Gabe Jackson brings to the Seahawks' offensive line. But much to the delight of the 12s in attendance, three other free agent additions - including one of the team's biggest surprises thus far - are already making their presence felt during the first week of practices.
During the first portion of Seattle's 11-on-11 team session, Russell Wilson attempted to get the ball downfield to star receiver Tyler Lockett on a skinny post route. Dropping back into coverage, cornerback Ahkello Witherspoon used every inch of his lengthy 33-inch arms to swat the pass away. Moments later, he was involved in coverage on another pass deflection knocked out of DK Metcalf's hands. Other players will get opportunities to impress as camp progresses, but the former Colorado standout is off to a quality start with this new team.
In the trenches, an energetic, enthusiastic Robert Nkemdiche has emerged as a fan favorite to open camp. He bounced up and down as closely to the sidelines as he could, maintaining at least 20 feet of distance from the crowd on the berm as required by NFL rules, throwing his hands up in the air and firing up the 12s. He then delightfully popped a blocking sled in a drill, nearly toppling it over, drawing plenty of applause in the process. During scrimmage time, after recording a pair of tackles for loss on Wednesday, he split the B-gap and blew up another run play in the backfield on Thursday, stuffing Dallas in his tracks. There's a long way to go for the former first-round pick to carve out a role in Seattle's line rotation, but so far, he's done nothing but solidify his odds at a roster spot.
Towards the tail end of practice, Wilson took advantage of one of his newest weapons on the outside. Noticing tight end Gerald Everett had undersized linebacker Ben Burr-Kirven on him in coverage, he lofted a ball towards the back left-hand corner of the end zone. Burr-Kirven had outstanding coverage on the play and was all over Everett, but the athletic tight end adjusted to a slightly underthrown pass and worked back to the football, making the catch while keeping his feet down inbounds for a touchdown. With Everett playing in a familiar offense coming over from Los Angeles with coordinator Shane Waldron, the Seahawks hope to see that connection in the end zone frequently.
4. An intriguing battle for the No. 4 - and possibly No. 3 - receiver spot continues to heat up in the early stages of camp.
Due to a lingering big toe injury, D'Wayne Eskridge's debut will have to wait after being placed on the PUP list to open training camp. But with his absence comes opportunity for other players and through the first two days of camp, no players have done more to help their cause than Freddie Swain and Penny Hart, two wideouts in direct competition against one another for offensive snaps.
After making a pair of catches during scrimmage time on Wednesday, Hart turned in the play of training camp thus far on Thursday. After stepping up in the pocket to evade the rush, Wilson lofted a pass downfield along the hash to Hart, who high-pointed the football with versatile defensive back Jordan Miller hanging all over him. The referee threw a flag for defensive holding, but it didn't matter as Hart managed to reel in the reception and maintained possession through the ground. Coming off a stellar offseason program, his stock continues to skyrocket.
As for Swain, while he didn't have a fancy highlight-reel grab like Hart did, he turned in a trio of long receptions on crossing routes, turning upfield after the catch for big yardage that all would have netted first downs. He's proven himself to be a capable possession threat who can move the chains and similarly to Hart, he can run effective routes from the outside as well as the slot. He also was among a handful of players returning punts prior to practice and remains a viable contender to take over as the team's primary return specialist.
5. Not unexpectedly, the passing game appears to be a work in progress in a new offense, particularly in regards to timing.
With only a couple hours of field time in the books, there's no reason to panic about Russell Wilson and the rest of Seattle's offense going through some growing pains. With a new offensive coordinator in Waldron, there will be bumps in the road as players get acclimated to a new scheme, especially when the star quarterback and several of his receivers have talked ad nauseum about the intricacy and complexity of his system in recent months.
Nonetheless, Wilson and his counterparts looked disjointed for long stretches during the team scrimmage period on Thursday. The quarterback misfired several passes, including short-hopping an out route to DK Metcalf and underthrowing a wide open Swain on a slot fade route. He also had several plays where he hung onto the ball for an extended period of time transitioning through multiple progressions and receivers weren't able to get uncovered. It will take time to work out the kinks and right now, it appears everyone is simply working to get on the same page, especially from a timing standpoint in the quick passing game.
Over time, those issues should be resolved as everyone becomes more comfortable, and Wilson heated up towards the end of Thursday's session with his long strike to Hart and touchdown to Everett. The team also got a touchdown from backup Alex McGough, who rolled out on a bootleg and hit Lockett on a drag route. The shifty receiver then turned upfield along the sideline and bolted into the end zone on one of the most notable plays of the afternoon.