The Seattle Seahawks are coming off a pair of 7-9 seasons and haven't had a winning record since 2007. They are starting a rookie quarterback, have questions at the offensive skill positions and lack continuity on the offensive line.
It is easy to write Seattle off as languishing in mediocrity, as many analysts have done.
But there are reasons to be optimistic.
Seattle had a top-10 defense in 2011 with the youngest starting unit in the NFL. They return 10 starters and appear to have upgraded the 11th position with rookie Bobby Wagner.
There are certainly a few concerns on the offensive side of the ball. But if a few players launch this season, Seattle has the possibility to make playoff noise.
Here’s your surprise pick. The 49ers are very good, but should regress a little bit—turnover margin isn’t reliable year to year—and the Seattle defense can be really good if it can find a consistent pass rush. Russell Wilson has a chance to be really good because of his maturity—he could be this year’s Andy Dalton.
If San Francisco can repeat their turnover margin and remain healthy again in 2012 they will be tough to catch. But if they leave a window open, Seattle could make a move.
Sorry to be obvious, but we're going to start with special teams and build to more critical parts of the roster.
The Seahawks had several breakdowns on special teams in 2011, typically corresponding to an injury to a key contributor on the fourth leg of the team.
To respond to the depth and continuity issues on special teams, the Seahawks rotated in several different combinations of players over the offseason. They also gave extra attention to this area over spring mini-camps.
The four primary contributors should help make the Seahawks one of the better special teams units in the NFL this season.
Jon Ryan: A-
It befuddles me that Ryan doesn't get more recognition than he does around the NFL.
Some punters punt in stadiums known for aiding kicking distances. Britton Colquitt and Andy Lee both average at least a full yard more at home than on the road, for example, but it is hard to argue with Lee averaging close to 50 yards per punt in both cases.
Ryan was eighth overall in punting average in 2011, but led the NFL with the number of punts inside the 20-yard line. He also led the league in fewest touchbacks in 2010 with just one.
That lone touchback is forgivable as he was over 60 yards from the goal line.
Ryan won't be at the top of the charts for punting average, but he'll have a good net and is very adept at pinning opponents inside their own 10-yard line.
Steven Hauschka: B
This will be an important season for Hauschka. Seattle signed the restricted free agent to a one-year, $1.26 million contract in the offseason. He'll be looking for a big payday in March and he'll need to show he can be an elite kicker in the NFL to get it.
Hauschka has decent leg strength, even if some of the fanbase is concerned with his ability to garner touchbacks. His stats there weren't as good as many kickers in 2011, but a pair of coverage-team breakdowns early in the season had several teams willing to test the Seahawks.
At 27 years old, Hauschka can't afford a so-so season for Seattle. He needs to demonstrate he's consistent from 45-yards and repeat his preseason success with forcing touchbacks.
Leon Washington: A-
I saw Washington as a possible bubble player in 2012. While he's one of the best kick returners in the NFL, that role has been devalued with kickoffs at the 35-yard line.
His $3 million salary in 2012 was set when kicks were taken from the 30.
Washington is also valuable returning punts but Golden Tate has also demonstrated the ability to takeover those duties...at least until his last return against the Oakland Raiders when he continued to give up ground before being awkwardly tackled and straining his knee.
Washington will remain on the team and could get a bit more aggressive on kick returns to solidify his spot.
Clint Gresham: A-
The long snapper is the most overlooked position on the field...until something goes wrong. Seattle had no blocked punts in 2011 which speaks volumes for Gresham's value.
This grade could quickly become an "A" in 2012 if a few players step up and provide an expected pass rush.
Seattle uses a bevy of looks and schemes with their defensive line. They have specialists in run-stopping and pass-rushing and rely on the ability to rotate players.
As great as the personnel is in their area of specialty, Carroll's approach could create issues with his defense.
He may not always be able to get the right personnel on the field.
Opposing teams will likely attempt to run a hurry-up offense to keep the Seahawks from getting fresh bodies on the field in their area of expertise. Having run-stoppers that aren't adept at rushing the quarterback, and vice-versa, could become an issue.
Chris Clemons, DE: A
Clemons has been one of the leading sack machines over the last two seasons, notching 11 in both 2010 and 2011. He's also adept in run defense, proving to be a solid one-gap player in Seattle's run-stopping scheme.
He was given a big raise over the offseason. While some critics will be concerned that he will start to coast, Clemons knows he'll need to continue to produce to avoid his employment being terminated.
Alan Branch, DT: B
Seattle has received what they expected when they signed Branch prior to the 2011 season. He's a good run defender that has an adequate pass rush.
Seattle made several offseason additions to help pressure opposing quarterbacks. Expect Branch to be used primarily on early downs in 2012.
If Seattle's rookies continue to improve he will likely be a long-shot to get a new contract offer over the offseason.
Brandon Mebane, DT: A
ESPN.com listed Justin Smith as the leading tackler among NFC defensive tackles in 2011. Just two tackles behind was Brandon Mebane in second place.
The only problem there is Smith is actually a defensive end.
Mebane is solid in creating pressure on quarterbacks but those efforts haven't resulted in sacks over the last two seasons. He'll be primarily used defending the run, giving way to pass-rush specialists on third downs.
Red Bryant, DE: A-
For what Bryant is asked to do, he's one of the best in the NFL. He's a dominant run defender and has the size, speed and power to shut down nearly half of the line.
Bryant isn't much of a pass-rusher, but he does surprisingly well dropping into coverage on a tight end. He had two interceptions last season and returned one for a touchdown.
He's also a kick-blocking machine, registering four last season.
Bruce Irvin, DE: B
Irvin will be called upon to spell Bryant on passing downs. He has shown in preseason play that he has the speed and motor to excel in the NFL. Now he just needs to prove he has the skill and technique to do so against starting NFL offenses.
Irvin's goal for 2012 should be to reach double-digit sacks and show solid growth as a run-stopper.
Jason Jones, DT: A-
During the offseason, I had Jones as the top-rated defensive tackle, particularly relative to the available pass-rushers. He was one of Seattle's best acquisitions and should be a disruptive force for the Seahawks.
Jones has the speed and push to get to quarterbacks up the middle. More important, he has the vision and athleticism to fill the middle when quarterbacks step up in the pocket.
Seattle struggled with allowing quarterbacks to escape up the middle last season when their defensive ends applied pressure. Look for Jones and one of the following trio to plug that gap.
Jaye Howard, Greg Scruggs, Clinton McDonald, DT: B
It will be interesting to see how the Seahawks opt to use these three in 2012. Scruggs and Howard may see some duty at defensive end, but these three players will be active in the middle in Seattle's "big nickel" package.
Scruggs has been the most impressive thus far and could turn in a very good rookie season. The development of these three players will have a big impact on how Seattle approaches Branch and Jones in free agency.
Seattle will look to Bobby Wagner to bring the pain in the middle of its defense.
This position group could be the weakest link in a potential top-five defensive unit in 2012.
Seattle has a solid mix of youth, experience and potential. What they lack are established starters.
I still have concerns on their ability to cover tight ends and running backs in passing routes, but they will be very good in run support.
K.J. Wright, OLB: B+
Wright had a solid rookie season, showing speed and tackling proficiency. He needs to continue to improve in pass defense, but has become a defensive leader and mentor for their new middle linebacker.
Bobby Wagner, MLB: B
It is simply too early for outsiders to know what the Seahawks have with their replacement for David Hawthorne, whom the Seahawks allowed to leave in free agency. Wagner has the speed needed for the position and should provide an upgrade in pass coverage, an area where Hawthorne struggled.
Seattle has high expectations for Wagner. He's been strong enough in preseason to allow the Seahawks to trade his competition for starting duty, Barrett Ruud, to the New Orleans Saints for a conditional draft pick.
He's picked up the defense quickly and will be relied on to call the plays and direct his teammates.
Leroy Hill: B+
Hill is a fierce run-stopper and powerful hitter. He's the veteran of the group and one of the few holdovers from before the Pete Carroll/John Schneider era.
Hill won't be asked to do much in pass coverage...so long as they can get him off the field.
Heath Farwell, Mike Morgan, Malcolm Smith: B-
Seattle's depth at linebacker will help in nickel and bandit packages and on special teams. An injury to one of the starters could be problematic for Seattle.
Despite Brandon Browner landing in the Pro Bowl in 2011, Seattle's corners still aren't getting the broad-base recognition that other units are receiving.
That will change in 2012.
The mix of starters, reserves and options in nickel and bandit packages will make Seattle's secondary an unfriendly place for receivers.
Richard Sherman and Brandon Browner, starting CBs: A
The biggest concern with this pair is they play so hard and physical that replacement officials may have a hard time deciphering legal physical play from illegal contact and pass interference.
Browner struggled with penalties early in 2011 but improved over the course of the season as he gained a better grasp of tighter rules in the NFL.
Opposing quarterbacks will have a hard time finding a soft spot in Seattle's secondary. Analysts will have a hard time finding a better pair of press corners in the NFL.
Marcus Trufant, Nickelback: B
Trufant will look to provide an exclamation point on his tenure in Seattle by showing he can still provide quality pass defense. He's struggled against bigger receivers and there are concerns about his ability to keep pace with faster options in the slot.
Jeremy Lane, Chris Maragos, Byron Maxwell, reserves: B
Seattle has an impressive mix of depth for their defensive backs. Maragos can step in at free safety or spell Trufant if he struggles with a speedy third receiver.
Lane and Maxwell are bigger players that have the ability to play press coverage. All three will play a role in special teams.
Chancellor has become adept at separating would-be receivers from the ball.
Seattle has the best safety tandem in the NFL. In 2011, I tempered that comment by adding the "young" moniker, but that is no longer required after both starters made the Pro Bowl following the 2011 season.
The Seahawks also have depth that will step in and make their "big nickel" package a daunting defense.
Earl Thomas, FS: A+
It is possible that Earl Thomas isn't the best free safety in the NFL...yet. But, Ed Reed is getting a little more grey in his beard and Thomas is only getting better.
Thomas' interception numbers dropped a bit last season from five in 2010 to just two last season. Part of that was Thomas dropped two passes, but the bigger reason is opposing quarterbacks simply know to stay away from his part of the field.
Thomas has great speed that allows him to close on receivers and ball carriers. His vertical leap allows him to get up to the ball and his ball skills and timing allow him to make plays.
One area where critics weren't originally kind to Thomas is in run support. But this was more of their projection on how a 5'10", 200-lb. safety would take to NFL running backs.
Thomas has proven to be stellar in run support.
He doesn't knock ball carriers out of their shoes, but he does have sound tackling technique.
Kam Chancellor, SS: A
There are a few things Chancellor does well. He is good at covering tight ends and can pick up receivers in pass patterns.
The rest of the things that Chancellor is asked to do...he simply excels.
He has a blend of speed and instincts that allow him to plug gaps in ground support. His size gives him the ability to stop even power running backs.
Chancellor has developed a reputation as a fierce hitter, taking out receivers and tight ends alike. There were a pair of plays in preseason action where catchable balls hit the turf because the targets felt Chancellor's presence and weren't willing to extend and catch the ball.
Jeron Johnson, S: B+
My biggest complaint with the Seahawks' 2011 draft wasn't the selection of James Carpenter in the first round. It was the failure to draft Johnson at the end of the draft. I thought his strength and speed made him a natural fit for their defense.
Carroll thought so, too, and believed he'd be able to land the former Boise State standout as an undrafted free agent.
Johnson showed promise as a rookie and fans got a good idea of what he can do on special teams and in the Seahawks' big nickel package during the 2012 preseason.
Look for Johnson to make his presence felt in blitz schemes and in pass defense.
Winston Guy, S: B
The Seahawks drafted Guy to be a versatile defensive back. His size and speed set him up well for Seattle's defense and, with some seasoning, Guy could develop into a quality safety.
There is one task the Seahawks have likely determined Guy shouldn't be doing: He struggled with blocking as Jon Ryan's personal protector on punts.
Seattle's offensive line is the biggest question mark on the team. They are very talented, particularly up the middle, but they have struggled with injuries going back as far as 2006.
If the unit can stay healthy and find some continuity they could grow into a dominant unit.
If they lose three starters to injured reserve again in 2012, their backfield could suffer.
Russell Okung, LT: A-
When Okung is on the field and healthy, he is one of the better left tackles in the NFL. Few defensive linemen know this better than Trent Cole who tired of being manhandled by Okung when the Philadelphia Eagles visited Seattle last December.
Cole gave Okung a judo hip-toss, tearing the tackle's pectoral muscle. It was his third injury in two seasons; Okung has also dealt with a pair of high-ankle sprains.
Okung needs an injury-free season to prove he can become an elite left tackle in the NFL. Staying healthy may seem like a stretch, but Okung didn't miss any time due to injury in college.
Paul McQuistan, LG: B
McQuistan is the current starter at left guard but that will likely change as soon as John Moffitt or James Carpenter are back on the field. The true role for McQuistan will be depth for every position except center.
McQuistan is solid in pass and run blocking but not spectacular. The Seahawks made him a priority over the summer and were able to release veteran Robert Gallery when McQuistan re-signed.
Max Unger, C: A
Unger was due to become a free agent in 2013. I listed him as the No. 2 priority for the Seahawks relative to signing a contract extension.
Chris Clemons was first and Seattle has made it clear how highly they think of both players.
Pro Football Focus agrees, rating Unger as the second-best pass-blocking center in 2011 with a Pass Blocking Efficiency (PBE) of 99.0. He surrendered no sacks and seven quarterback pressures in 547 pass-blocking snaps.
John Moffitt, RG: C+
As well as Unger rated in pass-blocking, Moffitt wasn't treated nearly so kind. His PBE of 93.9 was in the bottom 10 of starting guards. Moffitt showed improvement over the course of the season but it is still unclear if he's lost his starting spot to rookie sensation J.R. Sweezy.
J.R. Sweezy, RG: B-
Sweezy took over for Moffitt while the incumbent starter recovered from a minor surgical procedure on his elbow. Moffitt was able to play against the Oakland Raiders but did so with the second team.
Carroll said at a recent press conference that he expects Sweezy to start in Arizona.
Sweezy has made an amazing transition from defensive line in college to offensive guard in the NFL. His preseason play was better than a B-, but he has yet to see the complex fronts and schemes of a regular-season defensive line.
It looks like he will get a chance to face a formidable challenge against a solid Cardinal defense before his final fate is determined.
James Carpenter, LG: B+
It may seem premature to give Carpenter this high of a grade for a position some will say is new to him, but Carpenter started the 2011 season replacing Robert Gallery who missed the first game due to injury. It was Carpener's best game of the season and the best performance Seattle had at left guard in 2011.
Clare Farnsworth of Seahawks.com spoke with Carpenter after his first practice over Labor Day weekend:
“I’m going to be happy playing guard," Carpenter said. "I feel that’s where I should be playing.”
The original plan for Seattle was to start Carpenter off on the physically unable to perform (PUP) list. They would then reevaluate his ability to return in October.
However, he made great strides in August and is expected to be on the field later in the month. He said it was obvious when he was ready (via Seahawks.com):
It just stopped hurting. So I just kept working as hard as I wanted to, so I can come back.
I wanted it real bad. I never missed any games until now, so it was rough. But I made it back and I’m happy to be back.
I’ve been waiting for 10 months to be back, so I’m happy.
Beno Giacomini, RT: B-
Seattle made re-signing Giacomini a priority, as they didn't want to lost their new right tackle in free agency. He was given the nod after Carpenter's injury and proved to be a quality replacement.
Giacomini won't be confused with one of the elite front-side blockers in the NFL, but he plays with a nasty streak and will be a key component of Seattle's offense.
Lemuel Jeanpierre, C/G: C+
Jeanpierre is a solid depth option for the Seahawks but they are a much better offense with him on the sidelines.
Frank Omiyale, G/T: D
Omiyale will have a roster spot as an emergency tackle until Allen Barbre returns from the reserve (suspended) list. McQuistan will likely be moved from his guard spot to fill in before Omiyale's number is called.
If one of the starters is lost prior to Barbre returning, expect Seattle to look for a free agent to fill the backup role.
Seattle would like to use Miller more as a receiver than just a blocker in 2012.
The startling move of releasing Kellen Winslow Jr. began to make sense when his replacement was announced. Seattle was able to save over $2.5 million in 2012 alone. They will also save a draft pick with the move and their passing game isn't likely to suffer without Winslow.
The Seahawks value saving cap dollars where possible to ensure they can retain their own talent. They also have confidence in their ability to find gems in the later rounds of the draft.
Zach Miller: B+
Prior to joining the Seahawks, Miller was a Pro Bowl tight end.
He still has the skill level to compile receptions and yards in the passing game. He's also a very good blocker, which is the role Seattle needed him to fill in 2011.
Miller should get back to being a productive part of a passing game in 2012 and he could again flash Pro-Bowl talent. Actually, making the Pro Bowl in a conference that houses Vernon Davis and Jimmy Graham is a bit difficult, though.
Part of Miller's issues last season involved a quarterback that wasn't overly accustomed to using his tight end.
Anthony McCoy: B-
Since joining the Seahawks there have been two obvious traits with McCoy.
First, he's a quality blocker. Whether at the line or downfield, he can engage and hold a block.
Second, while he is good at getting open, he's dropped almost as many passes as he's caught.
Carroll has insisted that McCoy was a good receiver in college and would get back to catching the ball in the NFL. He showed great progress in preseason play and Seahawks.com chronicled Carroll's thoughts on McCoy:
He does have really good hands. There’s been times when he’s coming up, getting ready to play NFL football, that he hasn’t been able to keep his concentration that’s needed to catch the football.
But he’s on it now. His attitude that he brings and his effort every day is just really, really positive. I’ve never seen him so full of spirit and the kind of mentality that he has. It’s infectious. He’s been a real good factor for us. I’m really excited for him.
Evan Moore: Inc.
I've yet to see Moore play much, but what I've seen is a big receiver that plays some tight end. He can run as a huge target from the slot or drop down next to the tackle and do a little blocking.
Moore had a solid showing against the Seahawks last season and figures to be able to help in the Seahawk passing attack. He may not have the same potential as Kellen Winslow Jr. but hopefully he'll have a better outlook health-wise.
Eric Williams of the News Tribune commented that Moore "looked pretty explosive" in his first practice with the Seahawks on Monday.
Seattle's receiving corps has come under tremendous scrutiny. It is deserving based on concerns with a few of the key contributors.
But as the unit stands for their opening game against the Arizona Cardinals, Seattle has some strong talent that will create matchup issues for most secondaries in the NFL.
I'm sure critics will scoff at the grade above, but at least follow through the unit below before reacting.
Sidney Rice: A
There is a major concern with Rice but it has nothing to do with his play on the field. It has everything to do with how many plays he misses when he's not healthy enough to be on the field.
Rice had a Pro Bowl season the only year he played all 16 games. Some will argue that was the result of Brett Favre throwing him the ball, but Rice has the speed, size, soft hands and body control to be a feared playmaker.
Rice dedicated himself to building strength following a pair of offseason shoulder surgeries. If he can stay on the field he will make life much easier for Russell Wilson and the balance of the Seahawks receivers.
Golden Tate, Doug Baldwin: B
Baldwin had one of the best seasons ever for a rookie undrafted free agent at wide receiver. He'll need to prove in 2012 it wasn't a one-hit wonder.
Tate has flashed at times in games, but is yet to really launch his career. He's had a very good training camp and he knows he either steps up this season or will likely be stepping out of Seattle.
Braylon Edwards: B-
It is almost impossible to know which Edwards the Seahawks will have on the field. Will it be the physical phenom from his days in Cleveland, the misguided version seen with the Jets or the broken-down receiver that didn't survive the season in San Francisco?
The coaches are convinced Edwards is healthy and ready to contribute to the team. Fans that have lived through Mike Williams and T.J. Houshmandzadeh will believe it when it happens.
Charly Martin, Ben Obomanu: C
The final two receivers on Seattle's roster aren't likely to have big expectations.
Obomanu's greatest skill is his ability to stick on Seattle's roster. He is a very good route-runner, but he has had issues holding onto passes.
Martin is a gritty competitor that has bounced around the league for the last three seasons. He did very little in his stint in Carolina, but returns to his home state to try to jump-start his career.
Martin made a few solid catches in the preseason and showed the willingness to dig in on special teams and make blocks downfield for his teammates.
Seattle wants to win games with strong defense and a fierce ground game. They took a step in the 2012 draft to ensure they have the depth to make it happen.
While two of their division rivals, that also rely on a power rusher, drafted backs that fill complementary roles, Seattle drafted a player that can step in and replace its starter without changing its ground attack.
The Seahawks' game in Cleveland in 2011 was a prime example of what can happen to their offense if they can't pound the rock. They had their backup quarterback playing, which certainly didn't help. But they couldn't lean on their rushing attack to balance the field for Charlie Whitehurst.
They won't have that issue in 2012.
Marshawn Lynch, RB: A-
Lynch established himself as an elite running back last season. He may not quite be at the level of Ray Rice, but nobody was better than Lynch and the Seattle ground game over the last half of the 2011 season.
The first half of the season was marred with offensive line issues and a runner adjusting to a new offense. Expect Seattle and Lynch to pick up where they left off.
Michael Robinson, FB: B+
Robinson isn't elite in any one area but is a very good all-around fullback. He can block, run the ball and catch passes out of the backfield.
If Seattle was so inclined, the former college quarterback could throw the ball, too.
Robinson's efforts in 2011 led to a Pro Bowl appearance.
Robert Turbin, Kregg Lumpkin: B
Both of these players showed the Seahawks enough to earn reserve roles with the team. Lumpkin, in particular, impressed, as it seemed the Seahawks wouldn't keep a fifth running back.
Should Lynch miss any time, Seattle can drop in Turbin and the ground game should continue to thrive.
If pressed for a grade I would give the Seahawks a "B" at this point. They have an exciting rookie with tremendous potential and a backup that has played well over the offseason since signing with the Seahawks in March.
Russell Wilson: B
There wasn't much attention being paid to Wilson leading up to the draft, and not much serious consideration of him starting even after his amazing rookie mini-camp led to Pete Carroll including him in the competition for starting duty.
Then he stepped onto the field for preseason games and it was hard to ignore his potential.
Wilson has succeeded at every turn in college and thus far in his almost non-existent NFL career. He ran a pro-style offense at Wisconsin and set the FBS record for passing efficiency.
He was largely overlooked because his 5'11" stature meant he couldn't succeed in the NFL.
Wilson hasn't proven he can be a franchise quarterback, but the Seahawks certainly believe he has the potential. Given the success Carroll and Schneider have had with finding hidden gems, skeptics should be wary of discounting Wilson.
Matt Flynn: B
Analysts are pointing to Flynn's spot on the depth chart and are making comparisons to Kevin Kolb. While understandable, it isn't an accurate portrayal of what has happened on the field.
John Skelton won the starting job in Arizona by default, as Kolb has looked lost and scared while on the field.
Flynn has shown the ability to run Seattle's offense. He was just overshadowed by an amazing training camp and preseason play of Wilson.
Should Wilson struggle with the transition to regular-season action, Seattle won't hesitate to give Flynn the opportunity to show he is a starting-caliber quarterback.
The final leg of an NFL franchise is comprised by those making roster and playing decisions.
Carroll still needs to show he can be a commanding general on game day. He was a master in college, but has been suspect at times with the Seahawks.
It is impossible to ignore the quality of players the Seahawks have found and added to their roster. Carroll and Schneider have built one of the NFL's top secondaries from a pair of fifth-round draft choices, a CFL player and a first-round draft pick that many thought was too young and unpolished.
Seattle began to show a promising offense towards the end of 2011 but an upgrade was needed at quarterback. If Wilson or Flynn can step up and lead the team, it will mark the quickest rebuild the new NFC West has seen.