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Entering Final 2 Games, Seahawks Must Balance Playoff Push With Eyes On Future

Still in a prime position to earn a wild card, the Seattle Seahawks have much left to play for heading into Sunday's home tilt with the New York Jets. But evaluating for 2023 and beyond must be a central focus in the process.

Down to their final strike with two games left to play and sitting in eighth place in the NFC standings, a recent swoon losing five out of six games has put the Seattle Seahawks in a desperate situation in regard to their playoff aspirations.

Still, despite the prolonged slump that has lasted nearly two months after a stunning 6-3 start catapulted the franchise to first place in the NFC West for a brief moment, Seattle remains very much alive in the postseason hunt. If coach Pete Carroll's squad can find a way to close out the season with back-to-back victories over the New York Jets and Los Angeles Rams, though help would be needed, they would have a strong chance of earning one of the final two wild card spots.

But while clinching a wild card would be a fantastic accomplishment for Carroll and the Seahawks given low expectations entering the season, they can't allow such a pursuit to prevent them from evaluating players for 2023 and beyond when the franchise hopes a new Super Bowl window opens.

This isn't to say that Carroll and his staff should adopt a preseason-like mentality where every player on the 53-man roster receives equal reps. The NFL isn't a participation trophy league and winning takes top precedent for everyone from the head coach down to the training and equipment staff. Stars such as DK Metcalf, Tariq Woolen, and Ken Walker III should be on the field going full bore aiming to lead their team to the playoffs.

However, Carroll shouldn't hesitate rotating in young players at positions of question heading towards the offseason to see where they may fit into the puzzle beyond this year, regardless of whether such planning starts in two weeks or early next February after a surprise playoff run.

On defense, the Seahawks have allowed more than 25 points per game in coordinator Clint Hurtt's first year at the helm, ranking 29th out of 32 teams. Struggling mightily against the run all season, they have yielded more than 2,300 rushing yards and 20 touchdowns on the ground, ranking near the bottom of the league in both categories. That's far from close to Carroll's standards.

Considering those tribulations, Seattle undoubtedly will seek to infuse the unit with talent through the draft and free agency next spring with a bevy of high picks and ample cap space to work with. Significant turnover should be anticipated and beyond rising star cornerback Tariq Woolen, linebacker Uchenna Nwosu, and maybe linebacker Jordyn Brooks and safeties Quandre Diggs and Jamal Adams, nobody else should feel secure about their spot on the team.

Several key contributors, including starting defensive tackle Poona Ford and linebacker Cody Barton, will be unrestricted free agents in March with concerns persisting about their fit in Hurtt's hybrid 3-4 defense. Even for players under contract next year, linebacker Darrell Taylor has been wildly inconsistent and lost his starting job early in the year, defensive tackle Al Woods will turn 36 in March, and Diggs carries a hefty $18 million cap hit in 2023, casting questions about their respective futures.

Keeping this potential shakeup in mind as the front office continues reloading the roster in the post Russell Wilson, Bobby Wagner era, if the Seahawks aren't committed to players such as Ford and Barton beyond 2022 or have doubts about former high draft picks such as Taylor emerging as a viable starter as planned, they need to assess players who could replace them as part of their defensive foundation moving forward.

Along the defensive line, with Ford and Woods both possibly on the way out for different reasons, Seattle should continue to see what it has in Myles Adams, who has played well in recent weeks and will be an affordable exclusive rights free agent in March. Though undersized at 300 pounds, he has held up well in limited snaps at nose tackle and offers the athleticism and toughness to excel at multiple alignments as a one-gap or two-gap defender.

At linebacker, Barton has steadily improved as his first season as a starter has progressed. But his lack of size and inability to work off blocks consistently has been a detriment to Seattle's run defense and his skill set may not be the best fit personnel-wise for Hurtt's scheme. Set to be a free agent, the team has nothing to lose giving Tanner Muse - who played well subbing for Brooks two weeks ago against San Francisco - or Jon Rhattigan auditions in his stead in the final two games.

Most notably, the Seahawks have to take the training wheels off of second-round pick Boye Mafe, who has logged just 98 defensive snaps in the past five games. In comparison, 35-year old veteran Bruce Irvin has started each game off the edge and played 210 snaps, producing only five more tackles than his younger counterpart on more than double the playing time.

While Irvin has been an invaluable asset returning for a third stint in Seattle, his performance has dipped since being thrust into the starting lineup and given his age, he isn't part of the team's future beyond this season. Mafe has flashed when given opportunities, including producing three tackles for two yards or less in Saturday's loss to Kansas City, and should receive the bulk of the snaps across from Nwosu down the stretch to see if he can be a starter next year.

Offensively, Seattle has already relied heavily on rookies this season with tackles Charles Cross and Abraham Lucas starting every game and running back Ken Walker III emerging as one of the best young ball carriers in the NFL. With Metcalf, Tyler Lockett, and Noah Fant also under contract through at least next year, the team doesn't have quite as many question marks for future seasons on that side of the ball.

With that said, neither Gabe Jackson nor Phil Haynes has performed like a future starter at right guard, as each player ranks lower than 50th in pass blocking grade per Pro Football Focus and rank 69th and 75th in pass blocking efficiency. After being held out as a healthy scratch most of the season, Jake Curhan may be worth a look there. Behind Metcalf and Lockett, especially with Dee Eskridge still on injured reserve, providing more snaps for seventh-round pick Dareke Young on offense would be beneficial for evaluative purposes at receiver as well.

With a playoff berth still within reach, even though they will need help from other teams to advance to the wild card round, Seattle obviously isn't going to stop competing. It's the only way Carroll and his troops know how to operate.

But if Carroll is taking his own philosophy to heart, his "Always Compete" mantra shouldn't just be restricted to the practice field and eyes shouldn't be in tunnel vision for simply making the postseason on house money this year. With a prime opportunity to get back into contention for a Lombardi Trophy coming up this offseason, the future needs to be now with Mafe, Young, and other potential long-term contributors receiving extended tryouts in the heat of a playoff chase.

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