Position Battles to Watch

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Surprise at LB and Shuffling O-Line Highlight Seattle Seahawks Position Battles

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Surprise at LB and Shuffling O-Line Highlight Seattle Seahawks Position Battles
(Photo by Otto Greule Jr/Getty Images)

When the Seahawks drafted Aaron Curry at No. 4, there were pretty clear implications that the team wants to win now. Walter Cherepinsky of WalterFootball.com wrote a very interesting piece about how “New regimes mean new quarterbacks.”

The Seahawks bucked that trend when the drafted Curry.

The team will have to utilize Curry to his full potential, but there are some other very important position battles to watch heading into training camp.

Also, I wrote an article about the opposing-philosophy of the Seahawks two new scheme emphases, and got some feedback both on Bleacher Report and from Seattle Times Columnist Danny O’Neil. The offensive line shuffling that is inevitable is something in need of addressing.

 

No. 5 – Fullback

The Seahawks let Leonard Weaver walk. The versatile fullback signed with Philadelphia, after most media members all but assumed he’d eventually return to Seattle. The Seahawks lost a potential offensive weapon in Weaver, one which was probably under-utilized by Mike Holmgren.

Weaver was a tight end in college, and had very good hands, was an adequate blocker, and was a good athlete at the position. The team has a few potential replacements: Owen Schmitt, T.J. Duckett and Justin Griffith.

None of the three offer the variety of skills that Weaver did, but perhaps in each, the team can greatly improve on one or more of Weaver’s wide range of skills.

The main reason Duckett has been slotted in as a fullback is because of his size. He’s a monstrous runningback (250+ lbs), and despite not being a natural fullback, he’s got the size to bully some linebackers.

When Duckett steps in at fullback, he’ll keep defenses honest on play action and deception plays to his direction, as he is a more legitimate threat to run the ball than Schmitt or Griffith.

Owen Schmitt looks like a fullback, plays like a fullback, and it doesn’t hurt that he’s an absolute lunatic in pads. He’s a ferocious blocker, and is a scary guy for second-level defenders to take on.

He’s also an underrated short-yardage runner, and if he can find a niche in the passing game, and improve his technique to match his physical skills, he may end any discussion of sharing snaps.

Griffith is one of the more athletic fullbacks in the NFL. He’s probably the best pass catcher of the three. He’s a little undersized, but may be the most effective zone-blocking fullback on the team.

He’s perhaps the only player on the roster who will be able to keep pace with Julius Jones as he slides through the line, and while Griffith won’t be a power blocker, he’ll be able to occupy defenders downfield long enough to potentially break Jones and Justin Forsett for big gains.

Predicted Winner: Justin Griffith

 

No. 4 – Second, Nickle, and Dime cornerbacks.

The Seahawks depth chart at corner will undoubtedly include Marcus Trufant, Kelly Jennings, Josh Wilson and Ken Lucas.

But apart from Trufant, the order the rest fall into is very much up for debate. Jennings struggled last year, after a promising 2007, but nursed injuries for most of the season.

Wilson stepped into his place and played admirably considering his relative inexperience as a starter. Ken Lucas returned to Seattle after a stint in Carolina where he experienced mixed success.

I may be one of few who believe that the safety play caused the bulk of the Seahawks problems last season among their secondary, and that with simplified assignments with a greater emphasis on the Cover Two, Brian Russell and Deon Grant may be able to help the corners out.

Jennings had a rough 2008 season, but a broken rib went essentially unaccounted for by many after Week 3. Injuries in a player’s core, especially injuries that can effect breathing (ribs, back muscles) are often hard to quantify, so it’s entirely possible that the reported regression of Jennings was simply a product of him being winded in 2008.

Core injuries affect nearly every other aspect of his game, the ability to jam, and turn his hips in man coverage.

Wilson has been a kick-returner for most of is career in Seattle, with time spent mostly I the nickel until last season’s demotion of Jennings. Wilson is very undersized, but may be the best athlete in the Seahawks secondary. He filled in admirably for Jennings, but may struggle in an NFC West where receivers seem to keep getting bigger.

Lucas may regain his old form next to his former running mate Marcus Trufant. The two were the foundation of a solid secondary until Lucas signed with the Panthers before the 2005 season. Lucas is a solid tackler, and has the height and size to match up to the NFC West’s physical receivers.

Predicted Depth Chart: Trufant-Jennings-Lucas-Wilson

 

No. 3 – Slot/No. 3 receiver

Fittingly, the third biggest position battle going into Seahawks camp is for the No. 3 spot in the receiving corps. Deion Branch and T.J. Houshmandzadeh will probably hold down the two top spots, but Nate Burleson and Deon Butler will probably battle it out for the No. 3 spot.

Burleson started last year strong, playing perhaps the best half of football he’s played in a Seahawks uniform – that would be where it ended. In the Seahawks season opener against the Buffalo Bills, Burleson tore his ACL.

Burleson has been a big play threat, and a decent red zone receiver with the team, but has not lived up to hype he came to Seattle with. He’s been characterized unfairly, as he’ll be forever linked to the “Poison Pill” fiasco before the 2006 season.

However fair or unfair he’s been characterized though, Burleson may be playing for the right to continue receiving a paycheck from the Seahawks, as the team has a lot of money allocated at the receiver position.

Butler is a guy that played in the shadow of Derrick Williams at Penn State. Perhaps a lesser athlete, Butler still broke Bobby Engram’s reception record at the school (I promise there is not a profanity-laced rap song as the video’s backdrop). Butler has elite speed, and though he may not be an elite deep threat, he offers a facet to the passing game that the Seahawks haven’t been able to take advantage in the last few years.

I’ve forecast Burleson’s 2009 departure since he signed his original seven-year, $49 million contract in 2006. The contract has since been re-structured, but the team has also acquired Deion Branch and T.J. Houshmandzadeh, and has potentially priced themselves out of the luxury of having an under-productive receiver making No. 2 money.

Predicted Winner: Deon Butler

No. 2 – How to use Aaron Curry most effectively

This battle may not be a position battle in its traditional sense, but one that may be a battle of philosophies among the defensive coaches.

The Seahawks, despite the luxury of having three potentially Pro Bowl caliber linebackers, are faced with a dilemma. With as much money as they’ll undoubtedly have invested in the trio of young linebackers, a trio I’ve dubbed the “Three Amigos,”(the shots of tequila are coincidental) the unit must be one of the team's strongest next season.

The pick of Curry, and the subsequent money that will be attached to his expectations, mean the team has to maximize his abilities.

Leroy Hill has experience on the strong side, and is probably best suited to move back there. However, I’d like to introduce an idea here, something based purely on my own speculation.

Is it blasphemous to suggest taking Lofa Tatupu out of the middle of this defense? He’s been an absolute stud there, but as a collective group, I truly feel this team is better with Tatupu on the weakside.

Curry is the most versatile linebacker on the team, but the only question-marks surrounding the highly-touted rookie are his ability to cover man-to-man, and his ability to blitz. On the weakside he wouldn’t be asked to blitz much, but he may have to cover tight ends pretty regularly.

It remains to be seen how devoutly the Seahawks adjust to the Cover Two defense they’ve represented as at least a slight transition this offseason.

However, if they do, The team may be better off with Tatupu handling man coverage on tight ends and slot receivers, and having Curry roam the middle of the field with his elite athletic ability, combined with his size to stuff the run.

Curry is the best equipped to simply “be around the ball,” no matter where the play ends up.

I don’t doubt that both Curry and Tatupu can play either position, but quite frankly, drafting Curry is the greatest indication that Tim Ruskell and the team’s coaching staff believe that this team doesn’t have the luxury of an extended window.

If the Seahawks are going to return to their 2005 glory, they’ll likely have to do it in 2009 or 2010, as many of their core players are beginning to show their age already.

Prediction: Weakside-Tatupu, Middle-Curry

 

No. 1 – Interior Offensive Line

Much like the transition to a Cover Two defense, a transition to a zone-blocking-scheme (ZBS) has been misrepresented as a wholesale change. The Seahawks have incorporated both into their schemes in previous years, but each will be more heavily emphasized this season.

The biggest transition will be a greater emphasis on the run, something I’ve already noted that I’m not a big fan of.

While I respectfully disagree with some of the comments on that article, as well as Seattle Times writer Danny O’Neil, I understand that the entire transition, and its severity, are somewhat unknown.

Rob Staton wrote a great article describing the philosophies of Mike Solari and Greg Knapp’s differing ZBS’s.

A lot of the positioning on the Seahawks line will depend on whether or not Walter Jones is healthy enough to play for extended time this year. He’s coming off of microfracture surgery, which is an ominous injury this late in his career.

If Jones falters, Sean Locklear will probably move to the left side, and the battle would be between rookie Max Unger and Ray Willis at right tackle, leaving Mike Wahle, Chris Spencer, Steve Vallos, Rob Sims and Mansfield Wrotto to battle for the remaining three spots.

During Unger's combine workouts, Mike Mayock kept stating that teams "carry seven" offensive linemen, and that an eighth offensive lineman is a luxury.

If Jones is healthy, chances are at least one of the aforementioned doesn’t make the team. With three centers: Unger, Vallos and Spencer, it is likely that Vallos, probably the least versatile of the three, becomes the fall guy.

Spencer may be able to spend some time are both guard positions or even right tackle in a pinch.

There’s really no question that Unger will get significant playing time, and likely start. Wherever he goes he’ll probably shuffle the player presently holding that position to another.

Both Spencer and Sims are free agents after 2009, and if Unger wins the center job, there’s a chance that Sims and Spencer battle it out for the right guard position. Both are athletic for the position, and fit well in the scheme.

Unfortunately, while Mike Wahle may logically be the odd-man-out in favor of the younger players, the length and size of his contract may force the team to keep him, even if he’s outplayed by one of the former.

And ultimately, because he doesn't fit Knapp's scheme very well, Mansfield Wrotto may be cut, simply because he's the only plus-sized offensive lineman left on the team.

If anything, the ZBS emphasis has turned a beaten and battered offensive line into one with depth, with several players who can start at several positions.  

Prediction: Jones healthy, LT-Jones, LG-Wahle, C-Unger, RG-Spencer, RT-Locklear

Jones retired, LT-Locklear, LG-Wahle, C-Vallos, RG-Spencer, RT-Unger

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