LINEBACKER TURNED strong safety Michael Boulware still can't find a stance that suits him. He's not positioning himself like a linebacker anymore, in a slight squat with hands on knees. He also hasn't adopted the posture of an experienced safety, more upright with one foot in front of the other. For now Boulware, who started at outside linebacker for three years at Florida State before being converted as a rookie last year, has a bit of a crouch and a bit of a stagger to his foot placement. "It'll take a while before all this becomes natural to Michael," defensive backs coach Teryl Austin says, "but he's getting there."
Boulware might still be struggling to look like a safety, but he's had little difficulty playing like one. In fact, Boulware has progressed so quickly that he could spark a turnaround in a Seattle defense that last year ranked 23rd in the NFL against the pass (224.4 yards per game) and 26th in total defense (351.3).
Though Boulware has good size (6'3", 223 pounds), speed and instincts, his best quality is his work ethic. He's committed to getting better in a hurry. "This was my first real off-season, so hopefully I've done all the right things to get ready," he says. "Nobody knew who I was last year. This year everybody will be prepared for me."
Boulware worked for three days at Rod Woodson's football camp in Fort Wayne, Ind., but he may have gotten more out of it than the kids. An NFL safety for 17 years, Woodson, now an analyst with NFL Total Access, taught Boulware how to pick up play-calling tendencies on film and emphasized keeping the game simple: Offenses actually run only six formations, Woodson told him, and most young defenders tend to get overwhelmed by all the personnel changes.
Now Boulware is more adept at determining an opponent's play-calling options based on how the offense lines up, and he has become a more vocal player on the field. "You can see he's more confident with what he's doing," says Austin, who spent nearly three months schooling Boulware in Seattle over the off-season. "Now he can really focus on the little things, like blocking schemes and route progressions. He couldn't handle all that stuff last season."
A second-round draft pick, Boulware opened last season as a nickelback--coaches felt he could handle the underneath routes because that's what he defended in college--but with four games left in the season he was promoted to starting strong safety. He intercepted one pass in those games and finished the year with five, two of which sealed victories. "He had the skill to play safety. It was just a matter of his learning how to do it," says coach Mike Holmgren. "I actually think we made a mistake by not throwing him in the lineup sooner. He would've struggled a little, but when he did play, he was very good."
Boulware isn't the only greenhorn in the secondary--free safety Ken Hamlin and cornerback Marcus Trufant are entering their third seasons--and such inexperience was one reason Seattle gave up several big plays last season. In Week 5, for example, the Seahawks blew a 17-point, fourth-quarter lead to the Rams, then lost in overtime. According to Holmgren, that defeat sapped the confidence of his young defense, and it never recovered. To prevent a similar meltdown this season, the unit underwent a major transformation. This year there could be as many as seven new starters, including defensive end Bryce Fisher, linebacker Jamie Sharper and cornerback Andre Dyson, all free-agent pickups. They will try to bring consistency to a unit that hasn't lived up to the expectations of defensive coordinator Ray Rhodes, who turned around defenses at previous stops in Denver and Green Bay.
At the heart of this convergence is Boulware, whose continued growth on the field and leadership will play a major role. "I've told him that he needs to fight the sophomore jinx," Holmgren says. "I've seen guys have great rookie years and then flatten out before they pick things up again. I don't think he'll do that. He's too much of a quality kid." --J.C.
Darrell Jackson, the Seahawks' top receiver for the last three seasons, is a precise route runner with deceptive speed. He had a career year in 2004: 87 receptions (a club record), 1,199 yards and seven touchdowns. One more yard and he would have joined Steve Largent and Koren Robinson as the only receivers in team history to reach 1,200 yards. True, he has dropped too many balls, but coach Mike Holmgren believes Jackson will be more consistent this year.
An Opposing Scout's View: Enemy Lines
Matt Hasselbeck isn't a quarterback who could succeed in any system, but he's a good fit for the West Coast offense. He's at his best when they run play-action because he knows how to dink and dunk, and he's got a knack for finding holes in zone coverage.... There's always been a toughness issue with Shaun Alexander. He dances a little too much. There's not always going to be a hole, and sometimes he'd be better off just slamming it in there and gaining three or four yards. Plus, if he wants to be paid like the best back in the league, he needs to do a better job of blocking and catching the ball.... They're going to miss Koren Robinson's athleticism at wide receiver. Bobby Engram was a reliable No. 3 because he knew how to operate in the slot, but he's not a starter.... They brought in a lot of new faces on defense, which tells you how bad they were.... The guy I really like in their secondary is Marcus Trufant. He has good size, smooth hips and can run with just about anybody in the league. He just needs to become more consistent.... I don't know how much better they'll be at linebacker. Jamie Sharper gives them a veteran presence with some versatility, but he's an above-average player at best.
PROJECTED STARTING LINEUP with 2004 statistics
2004 RECORD: 9--7
NFL RANK (rush/pass/total): OFFENSE 8/13/8 DEFENSE 23/23/26
COACH: Mike Holmgren; seventh season with Seattle (125--83 in NFL)
FG MADE 23
JAMIE SHARPER [NEW ACQUISITION]
SACKS 3 1/2
LOFA TATUPU (R) [NEW ACQUISITION]
CHARTRIC DARBY [NEW ACQUISITION]
BRYCE FISHER [NEW ACQUISITION]
SACKS 8 1/2
ANDRE DYSON [NEW ACQUISITION]
LEO ARAGUZ* [NEW ACQUISITION]
(R) Rookie (statistics for final college year) *2003 stats
PVR: Player Value Ranking (explanation on page 170)
11 at Jacksonville
2 at Washington
9 at St. Louis
30 Open date
6 at Arizona
13 ST. LOUIS
20 at San Francisco
27 N.Y. GIANTS
5 at Philadelphia (M)
11 SAN FRANCISCO
18 at Tennessee
24 INDIANAPOLIS (S)
1 at Green Bay
NFL rank: 29 Opponents' 2004 winning percentage: .457 Games against playoff teams: 6