Aaron Curry has the physical ability, but can he prove to have the mental makeup of a NFL star?
The Seahawks became the first team in history to enter the playoffs with a sub .500 record in 2010, going 7-9 en route to the NFC West title. Their unorthodox division title drew a variety of jabs and doubt from national pundits, but the Seahawks responded with a home-playoff victory over New Orleans and a 1-1 playoff record.
They appeared to come together as a program and execute at a higher level for the majority of the win-or-go-home stretch to end the season, a 2-1 record during that span.
Seattle has 27 players from its final 53-man roster that played in the Chicago loss or had been placed on IR not under contract into next season.
Furthermore, Pete Carroll is intent on “owning” the division and proving 2010 was no fluke.
For the team to successfully defend their title and attempt to elevate the program to the next level, a group of players will need to prove themselves valuable to the team as the core for the future.
That group is currently in flux, a variety of players facing the opportunity to prove they're capable of placing themselves among that group in 2011, others are fighting to keep their spot among the main contributors.
Here are nine players that will be under the spotlight next season, hoping to prove they can be a core contributor for the Seahawks in 2011 and beyond.
Carlson was taken in the second round of the 2008 draft and quickly became a weapon under Mike Holmgren and Jim Mora as the old regime came to a close.
100-plus catches and 12 touchdowns in his first two seasons had many thinking Carlson was primed to breakout in his third season.
After equaling or eclipsing 3 catches and 30 yards each of the first three weeks, he disappeared after that; only two games with more than 30 yards receiving and no games with more than 3 catches followed last season.
As highlighted in this analysis by Pro Football Focus, Carlson was among the bottom 10 in drops for tight ends among those who received 25 “catchable” passes in 2010.
Due to injuries along both the offensive line and to fullback Michael Robinson, Carlson was relegated to backfield blocking and H-back duty more than expected in 2010.
A two touchdown performance against New Orleans in the playoffs showed signs of revival, but against Chicago a squirrelly fall led to a concussion, one of the many factors that shell shocked Seattle early in the loss. It was a sour way to end the year for Carlson.
Carlson has emerging competition behind him on the depth chart: Cameron Morrah emerged towards the end of last season as a potential big, athletic receiver at the tight end position; former USC tight end Anthony Mccoy is a strong blocker with soft hands; Dominique Byrd is on the practice squad—another USC product--and is theoretically in position to push Carlson.
Carlson is in the final year of his rookie deal and faces high expectations for a rebound season. Carlson is high on the list of Seahawks with the most to prove, especially with competition at the tight end spot improved in 2011.
Four linebackers have been taken in the top five of the NFL draft since 2000. In 2009 the No. 4 pick Aaron Curry became one of them.
Unfortunately, he has been very inconsistent in his two years in the pros; at times flashing his combination of size, speed and tenacity, but proving to be overwhelmed with certain responsibilities and inconsistent in most phases of the game.
The Wake Forest product oozed production his final two seasons in college; 204 tackles, 29.5 for loss, 5.5 sacks and five interceptions his final two years (as per stats on his CBS Sports draft profile), playing on the strong side all four years. His work ethic and drive to succeed in the NFL had him pegged as one of the “safest” picks in the 2009 draft.
Fast forward two seasons and Curry is slowly walking towards the gates of bustville; still a season or two premature to accurately judge where his career may go, 2011 will still prove to be a crucial year in his development.
Now in his third year under defensive coordinator Gus Bradley and second under linebacker coach Ken Norton Jr., a three time Super Bowl winner as a linebacker, Curry will be expected to become more polished—Curry enjoyed uninvited trips to the neutral zone, drawing too many penalties in 2010.
There are questions as to where Curry is best fit to play in the NFL; is he a defensive lineman/linebacker hybrid or is he capable of being a complete strong side ‘backer that can move around the formation in sub packages?
The Seahawks need to find the right role for Curry, but more importantly Curry needs to prove he can play with discipline in whatever niche the coaching staff creates for him; after the week 10 victory in Arizona when Curry had eight tackles, two sacks and a forced fumble, Pete Carroll proclaimed his belief that Curry can be one of the most dominant line of scrimmage players in the league—Carroll’s optimistic-as-usual take on Curry’s potential.
It was very high praise for a player who has proven to be anything but a safe top 5 pick to this point. Curry is a player that every Seahawks fan and member of the organization hopes can add consistency to his toolbox of athleticism, potential and attitude.
The Seahawk entering his ninth season is on the hot seat for 2011; a player who I’ve recently highlighted as a prime option for a contract re-structure, but also a player that could be in danger of losing his job, and maybe even roster spot, with a poor training camp.
The reason Trufant is under the microscope is because the former pro-bowler ascended through the ranks of NFL corners into the upper echelon from 2003-2007. He received the franchise tag after the 2007 season and a six year, $50.2 million dollar deal just months later.
Trufant had two of his best seasons in 03-04 to start his career; 179 tackles, 32 passes defended, seven interceptions and a sack.
His production dipped the next two seasons but he added a third stellar season to his resume in 2007, resulting in the contract extension.
Since, he’s intercepted four passes and recorded career lows in tackles in 2008 and a shortened 2009 due to a back injury; 13 passes defended in 2008, but only 14 since.
Trufant’s contract is not in line with his recent performance, missing seven games in 2009 and enduring a dinged up 2010, still playing 16 games. He showed physicality in support at the line of scrimmage at times in 2010; signs of his prior form arose early in the season, week 1 in particular, with a pick six and three pass breakups.
As the season wore on he began to lose his health, and he often looked overmatched in single coverage; hosting the Giants in Week 9 a noticeably rough game:
At 11:50 in the second quarter, Fox commentator Joe buck noted, they were going at Trufant “play after play,” and they went after him the next play; at the 4:11 in the second quarter, “every time you look up, they are going at Marcus Trufant. Whether it’s with nicks, Steve Smith or Manningham they’re going at 23.”
Trufant gave up two third and long plays, drew a penalty flag, and was beat on a variety of early down throws; he had one pass breakup on a deep ball defending Steve Smith.
The Seahawks program has stockpiled a stable of inexperienced, tall, fast and physical defensive backs that could benefit from the leadership of a healthy Trufant. Furthermore, the Seahawks need Trufant to come to camp healthy and explosive enough to maintain the starting role; having to cut ties with their former franchise corner, in addition to the possibility of losing two safeties with nearly a quarter century combined football experience, would be very costly.
Trufant was expected to be an asset for the defense for years to come when he re-signed in 2008, not an asset on the decline; a solid 2011 would help stabilize his career and the Seahawks secondary, but Trufant has a tough task in proving he can once again be the number one corner for Seattle.
Justin Forsett heads into the 2011 season in a unique position, an underrated and unheralded player who could be in position to take over a role as a team leader.
The former seventh round pick continuing to prove his team first attitude, an attitude he has possessed since his days as the change of pace runner in the Cal backfield with current teammate Marshawn Lynch.
I’ve spent the majority of the past seven years living less than a mile from Memorial Stadium, a Cal student during the days of the Lynch-Forsett backfield.
Lynch’s toughness and grit is unique. However, Forsett’s versatility, burst, football IQ and team first attitude have always put him above Lynch in my mind as the more dependable, complete back of the two.
As I highlighted earlier in the offseason, Forsett’s role was greatly reduced with the addition of Lynch, but Forsett managed first downs at a higher rate. He had an equal number of 20-plus yard runs and averaged almost a yard per carry more behind a patchwork offensive line.
Lynch is a more successful runner when the offensive line opens holes, Forsett is more apt to slip through tiny creases.
Forsett may be undersized at 5’8” and not have breakaway speed, but he is very effective at gaining chunks of 10 to 30 yards. The compact Forsett’s combination of acceleration, vision, between-the-tackle toughness, solid hands and football IQ makes him one of the more underappreciated backs in the NFL.
The Seahawks backfield was strangely utilized in 2010, and I have been a proponent of Forsett receiving more touches since Lynch took over the main load.
In his limited role—Only started the first four games—Forsett had six games with a reception of 10-plus yards, nine games with a run of 12-plus yards and four games where he had both. He broke a run for 10-plus yards about one in every 10 carries in 2010—118 carries total. Forsett had a total of 151 offensive touches, 60 coming in weeks 1 through 4.
The Seahawks don’t need Forsett to be the big play-maker out of the backfield, Leon Washington more suited for that role; the battering ram role is well played by Lynch.
The Seahawks may be willing to involve Forsett to the degree of 12-15 touches a game. Darrell Bevell’s prior usage of Chester Taylor suggests Forsett could see an expanded role in the passing game.
He will have a fair chance to prove he is one of the more valuable and complete change of pace backs in the league. The chance to prove himself as a team leader the Seahawks can count on in 2011 and beyond.
Lofa Tatupu helped lead the Seahawks to a Super Bowl appearance in his rookie season and earned a $42 million dollar extension in 2008 after his third consecutive pro bowl berth. He gained that through his consistency and for never having missed a game in three seasons.
Since then it has been a different story. A career low in tackles and his first missed game in 2008, was followed by five games played in 2009 and an injury plagued 2010.
As noted earlier in the week, Tatupu is still the field general on defense. However, his reduced durability, limited play making ability and lack of consistency have become reason for concern.
The Seahawks have backup middle linebacker/ 2010 starting weak-side linebacker David Hawthorne signed to the remainder of a one year $1.38 million dollar extension that he signed towards the end of the 2010 season.
He filled in admirably for Tatupu in 2009 and showed side by side in 2010 that he is capable of pushing him for the starting middle linebacker job, if given the chance.
Tatupu helped mentor Hawthorne in 2009, but the rookie proved he was still too inexperienced to lead a defense. Tatupu was the obvious facilitator on the field in 2010, but Hawthorne got to play next to Tatupu. In my opinion, Hawthorne proved to be the stouter, more consistent of the two over the course of the season.
Tatupu is scheduled to make $4.35 million through 2013, his salary rising into 2015 and expiring after the season. The Seahawks focused on making their defense more athletic in the draft. how much longer can the Seahawks wait for Tatupu to re-gain his health?
Coming off dual arthroscopic knee surgeries in late January, the team needs consistent tackling and attitude in the middle of this young defense but also vocal leadership.
A rejuvenated Tatupu would be a welcome sight for fans and the organization, as he is only 28 years old. Tatupu needs to contribute in whatever way possible in 2011 and prove he is willing to facilitate the Carroll buy in philosophy, even if his role on the field fluctuates in 2011.
When Williams was signed in the 2010 offseason most on the outside questioned whether or not Williams would be able to make an impact. Heading into 2011 Williams is among the Seahawks under the most pressure to prove 2010 wasn’t a fluke.
Carroll said during the draft week pressers he feels Williams is just getting going, coming off his “rookie” year. Williams had 65 catches including 40 for first downs in 2010, but 32 of his 65 catches came in three of the 13 games he was able to stay on the field past the first quarter; he was listed on the injury report with foot, ankle, thigh, shoulder, hand and knee issues throughout the season.
Furthermore, Williams showed a propensity to drop balls early in games and had the nasty habit of being stopped just short of the goal line during the first half of the season. However, Williams flashed the suction cup hands and overwhelming field presence that made him a star at USC.
Many questioned whether or not Williams would be able to maintain his weight during the lockout, especially given his history of weight problems and poor work ethic.
However, Williams has made it clear those issues are no more and he is eager to assert himself as a key member of this team, his five-and-a-half to six hours of cardio a day a hot topic among the media.
Seahawks fans would be delighted to see him become a top flight, full field possession receiver and true red-zone threat, a Marques Colston type; It’s up to Williams to capitalize on his new found, steady work ethic and drive to prove himself as more than just a one year, comeback wonder.
Bryant went from being a backup defensive tackle to a star at the 5-technique end spot in Carroll’s hybrid 4-3 system, albeit for just six plus games before suffering a season ending MCL injury; Bryant has appeared in only 17 games in three NFL seasons.
The Seahawks had the second ranked run defense through six games, allowing 77 yards a contest. Bryant was all over the field, pushing the pocket and finding the football; one sack, a forced fumble and two recoveries to his credit. The Seahawks finished the year 21st against the run allowing just shy of 120 yards per game on the ground.
It must be noted that Bryant’s production was partly due to the Seahawks’ scheme; Bryant consistently faced one on one matchups versus the offensive tackle by design, the aim being for Bryant to be a dominant run stuffer as the strong side end.
The scheme was set up to take advantage of his unique combination of size and athleticism; the lack of effectiveness at the 5-tech position without him in the lineup was staggering.
I noted this Football Outisders quote below when I highlighted Bryant as a player to watch earlier this offseason, but I believe it’s worth repeating as it displays the impact he had at the position for Seattle:
“The Seahawks allowed 3.4 yards per carry (YPC) with a healthy Bryant, as opposed to 4.9 YPC after his injury. 94 percent of Bryant’s ‘run tackles’ prevented a meaningful gain, with an average gain of 1.4 YPC, while replacement Kentwan Balmer was able to convert only 61 percent, with an average gain of 3.1 YPC”
Carroll noted during the draft week pressers the scheme needs to be less reliant on individuals; Carroll cited Red Bryant as the primary individual of note. Bryant made a noticeable difference in the run game, a trend that was prevalent in his performance dating back to his college days.
As a team captain he tried to play with an ACL tear during his junior season in 2006; he proved in 2010 that he can be a monster on the field, appearing to be in better shape than prior years and committed to Carroll’s new role.
Bryant is currently rehabbing at Texas A&M—according to Mike Williams’ interview linked earlier—and he needs to prove he can recover with the same success he did after his 2006 injury.
The main question is will he be able to rekindle his hot start to the 2010 season, remain injury free and be activated on gameday for at least double digit games, preferably a full season?
Unger is expected to step back into the center of the offensive line.
2009 2nd round pick Max Unger came to the Seahawks carrying the expectation of becoming a versatile lineman for the future, ideally at center but capable of playing multiple positions on the offensive line.
He earned all conference honors all four years at Oregon, two years at left tackle before moving to center for his final two years; he didn’t draw a single penalty his final two seasons according to the cbssports.com draft profile of him.
The only consistently highlighted knocks on Unger coming out seemed to be his speed and drive blocking abilities, needing to get stronger on the next level; general savvy as a very high IQ, durable and quick lineman are what stood out about the versatile blocker who started 51 games at Oregon.
While still adapting to the center position, his play in college was consistently compared to Cal center and 2011 pro-bowl alternate Alex Mack.
Unger had a successful season as a rookie, starting 13 games at right guard before being moving to center to finish the season; he suffered a season ending turf toe injury at right guard in week 1 of 2010.
The expectations for Unger to step in and replace Chris Spencer, who never lived up to the expectations of Robbie Tobeck, are high because of his reputation as a tough minded field general.
Smart, tough offensive linemen don’t always get the credit they deserve as offensive facilitators on a play to play basis; Unger provides the potential to step in right away and be a leader and facilitator for the offensive line.
While he may be flying under the radar as a player who needs to prove his worth in 2011, Unger will likely be given the tough task of proving he can anchor the middle of Tom Cable’s offensive line.
Unger’s pedigree and college durability suggest he should recover for 2011, but turf toe can become a lingering problem; he'll need to prove his durability isn't an issue, nor is the adjustment back to center.
The career backup heads into the 2011 season with the biggest opportunity of his pro career; currently the only quarterback on the roster, the job is theoretically his to lose.
Earlier in the week I speculated as to why the organization may eventually be willing to name the unheralded quarterback the starter in 2011; the organization has stated their faith in Whitehurst during the 2011 offseason, but that doesn’t necessarily make their comments by choice given the situation at the position.
He did show improvement from his prior performances in week 15 relief work for Matt Hasselbeck, and proved in week 17 he can win a game under pressure-packed conditions.
However, many pundits are still convinced Whitehurst spent four seasons on the bench in San Diego behind Phillip Rivers and Billy Volek, attempting a grand total of zero regular season passes, for a reason; errant passes, inconsistent footwork and missed opportunities just a few of the bullet-points on the anti-Whitehurst list for critics.
However, there is also a group of pundits who believe the Hasselbeck era should be over at all costs; the thought of Whitehurst losing 11 games to get a top 10 pick much more appealing than whatever result comes with the aging Hasselbeck.
Either way, few feel Whitehurst is the answer, especially given the questions surrounding the lockout; has Whitehurst been able to receive the right coaching, a pair of eyes that will scrutinize to the extent that the Seahawks coaching staff will? Has Whitehurst been training to add bulk? Is he watching game film correctly and gaining a proper understanding of the playbook?
One of the teams least experienced players is the only player currently signed at the most important position on the roster; proof the Seahawks have a lot to prove in order to own the division in 2011.