Seattle Seahawks Training Camp: Year 2 of Turnover Yields 8 Changes to Watch
The Seahawks have wasted little time rebuilding the program since the start of free agency; Pete Carroll and John Schneider are approaching the turnover in year two with the same, surprising vigor they displayed in year one.
There are fresh faces at nearly every position; a handful of those players already making an impact. However, free agent acquisitions hit the field for the first time on Thursday, and the team has been complete for only three days.
Now, Seattle is full speed ahead in implementing months of hard offseason work; but the process is really just beginning, as the coaching staff can finally see the team in action.
Can the Red Jerseys Right the Ship
Tarvaris Jackson's rise to starter before he took a snap surprised some, but I agree that for now, it makes sense.
Whitehurst simply can't command the offense in a similar fashion as Jackson without knowing the playbook. The jury remains out on Whitehurst and it's worth mentioning that his contract is non-guaranteed.
Whitehursts' play has picked up a bit over the course of camp and it would be surprising to see Seattle give up on him so quickly, especially without a viable backup plan--rookie Josh Portis' play has improved as camp has progressed, " a pleasent surprise" in the words of quarterback coach Carl Smith. Some news to note; but, putting an undrafted free agent in the back-up spot is an unorthodox move.
On to Jackson, who has been on the field for a few days; somewhat rusty, but flashing ability day one and more consistent as time has gone on.
The notable quality Jackson has reportedly displayed is a starting quarterback like swagger, and players' comments have cited his knowledge and command of this offense--the connection between Rice and Jackson appears to have not missed a beat.
A promising sign is that Jackson has come to Seattle critical of his own game and looking to fill the shoes left by Matt Hasselbeck. Furthermore, he understands that the organization is putting talent around him; his job is to let teammates make the majority of the plays.
But for his teammates to make those plays, first he needs to set the tempo in practice. Command of the offense has been a consistent topic this offseason and Jackson needs to prove his command and urgency in the huddle can keep improving.
A lot of pundits are not expecting strong quarterback play in 2011--the organization may feel otherwise. Regardless, the team will struggle if the quarterbacking isn't clean and consistent.
A Bullpen of Receivers
Seattle struggled through injuries and inconsistent play at reciever in 2010. The hope is new year, new theme.
Seattle has a formidable top three. Sidney Rice is already proving that he's a premier receiver and can make special plays--he must stay healthy, but the reward associated with this signing is already clear.
Mike Williams is a leader on and off the field, on a mission to become a top receiver. Ben Obomanu is a hard worker, special teams contributor and a strong third receiver.
A unit can't be as strong without depth; the receiving corps is now one of the most competitive positions on the team.
Golden Tate, by most accounts, has had a solid camp. As mentioned this offseason, he's in position to assume a unique role in this offense. He should safely make the roster.
Undrafted rookie Doug Baldwin has impressed with strong hands, route running abiilty and speed in the slot. As noted previously, Seattle pursued him strongly and it appears for good reason. By most accounts, he's been the most impressive of the unknown receivers and could make the roster--and, he stood out to Jackson as the quarterback watched from the sideline.
Isaiah Stanback is still developing as a receiver--a potential wildcat quarterback given his experience at the position--but can be a core special teamer and is hard worker and leader; he is apparently healthy and ready to contribute. His intangibles matter, and he's a player with a job to gain this camp. Thus far, he's performed well.
Kris Durham's size and effort have stood out; rookie Ricardo Lockette is a downfield threat; Seattle's other young receivers are making an impact as well.
Because of the versatility and talent spread across the group, Seattle may choose to keep seven receivers. I expect competition will run it's course and the quarterbacks, particularly Jackson, will develop rapport with particular players. The tiebreakers here could be special teams value and intangibles; and on a simpler note, may the most reliable hands win.
The Progression of the Running Backs and the Chester Taylor Effect
While most attention has been placed on the importance of the running game, and rightfully so, the Seahawks will find ways to get their backs the ball, but not via handoff.
Rewind to Minnesota, recent memory; Chester Taylor had 40-plus catches in three of his four seasons as the main receiver out of the Vikings' backfield, under the direction of coordinator Darrell Bevell.
As a complement to Adrian Peterson, Taylor took pressure off the running game and especially the quarterback.
Now, Bevell is not lacking similar weapons in Seattle.
Forsett has been an obvious candidate for this role since early in the offseason and Leon Washington has regained his speed--he was a tremendous factor for the Jets as a receiver and should be in the mix too.
Add in the fact that Marshawn Lynch is a capable, powerful receiver and Seattle has a group of safety valve weapons--not to mention Michael Robinson has bulked up to 240 pounds to accentuate the play at fullback.
The Seahawks appear to be installing the short passing game, with their backs, as a main part of the offense--an enhanced screen game would be a welcome addition to the 2011 playbook.
Beyond the fact that this group will provide support for the quarterback; they are improved, have been making plays in camp and will be heavily relied upon all season, both on the ground and through the air.
Two Tight End Sets and New-Found Versatility
Heading into the season two main questions existed at the tight end spot; who would emerge as the groups' leader; could the unit be capable as blockers---especially given Bevell's use of two tight end sets in Minnesota and Cable's blocking scheme-- and effective in the passing game?
The addition of Zach Miller is one of my favorite signings because it creates flexibility in all facets of the offense.
Miller knows Cable's run blocking scheme. He attributed his tie to Cable as one of the main reasons he even looked at Seattle. Now they can put pressure on opposing defense using varied sets and motion, with two tight strong tight ends on the field.
He is a strong receiver across the middle, and can draw the defense away from Mike Williams; he's a tough locker room presence and takes the pressure off John Carlson to be the guy--Carlson's talents can be maximized as the second tight end.
It's worth noting Cable and Bevell each recommended a "former" weapon and the organization moved, strongly, to acquire those players.
I believe this move is a great complement to the Rice addition; both "luxury" moves, big contracts that place expectations on each of them--Rice the bigger risk due to his injury history.
But as a whole, they bring an entirely new element to the offense--the play action passing attack should become more dangerous and the offense gains continuity. The Rice addition was a high-upside risk; the signing of both makes the reward that much sweeter.
Plus, with Cameron Morrah on the sidelines with a toe injury and Anthony McCoy struggling to be consistent in camp, this move filled a potentially growing need.
Miller is much more than a short term fix; Seattle has an elite tandem with Miller and Carlson for at least one year--Miller signed for five; in the words of Pete Carroll on their new 1-2 punch; "It'll be a great asset for us."
A Potentially Devastating and Versatile Defensive Line
Heading into free agency, I was highly curious as to which direction the team would move on the defensive line because they had flexibility; they had six free agents.
I really like what Seattle has done in re-building this group---on paper. They are massive and athletic on the inside; a solid group of experienced pass rushers will help bring consistent pressure on the edge.
Seattle has retained three of their players and complemented them with three new guys that can accentuate what Carroll wants to do with the defense.
They've presumably created interchangeability up front; the personnel to play a 4-3 or a 3-4, as well as variations on both schemes.
Brandon Mebane has been moved to the 1-tech and is thriving--Carroll admitted on Friday he wished they had used him more at that spot in 2010 and the video above shows his dominance there early in his career.
Seattle got him for a good price--5 years, $25 million--and moved him to the nose; an ideal scenario. What happens to an injured Colin Cole remains to be seen--he could be placed on the physically unable to perform list-- but $3.75 million is a lot for a rotational lineman.
Alan Branch is a Red Bryant like player; a giant athlete with long arms that can play on either side of the nose, 3-tech or 5-tech. And of course, there is Red Bryant--though, he is being brought back cautiously from his knee injury.
As a trio--nearly 1000 pounds of athletic space-eaters--they give Seattle the potential for great scheme flexibility.
On the edge, Raheem Brock was re-signed to a one year deal and gives Seattle the flexibility to play a traditional 4-3 in certain situations.
Jimmy Wilkerson was signed to a one year deal and his experience with Todd Wash in Tampa Bay--a career best stint of 11 sacks in two seasons--is a positive sign he can make an impact as depth at the 5-tech and 3-tech in passing situations. Ryan Sims, another Wash connection, provides even more versatile size.
Junior Siavii is in "really good shape" at 340 pounds according to Carroll; Pierre Allen is an undrafted rookie to watch, as is second year player Jameson Konz-- a defender turned tight end in college, now a defender again.
This is a group that looks different than last year, one Carroll believes is "pretty complete."
Seattle made it no secret going into the offseason that the main goal was to upgrade on both lines of scrimmage. The offensive line was the focus during the draft and the defensive line has evolved during free agency.
They are building a well rounded front and though each individuals' role will grow--Carroll, "we have to put it together"-- and change as camp progresses, this is a potential-laden group.
Can Hawthorne Lead, with the Help of Hill?
Seattle now has speed, versatility and size in the back seven behind the behemoth athleticism up front; but also a tremendous amount of youth.
While the back seven may be young--sans seasoned veteran Marcus Trufant, returning old regime star Leroy Hill and career Seahawk Kelly Jennings --their skills complement the front line. The question is, can they hold up their end of the bargain? First, linebackers.
David Hawthorne must prove he can be an outspoken leader in the middle, but his play has spoken for itself in recent seasons; well enough to make the defensive captain expendable. A reportedly rejunevated Leroy Hill brings attitude and experience to the group. Aaron Curry will hopefully take one more step forward in 2011, and there are rumblings his teammates believe he is finally primed for success.
Behind them on the depth chart is a young, very fast and versatile group of linebackers for Ken Norton Jr. to work with.
The versatile K.J. Wright is now depth in the middle and I've had high expectations for Malcolm Smith since draft weekend--he's had a strong camp by many accounts. Add former USC teammate Michael Morgan to the mix at backup strongside linebacker--similar to Smith, he is a 4.4 linebacker--and Seattle has unique speed.
Seattle could still opt to bring in an experienced, versatile veteran in case Hill or Hawthorne goes down. A necessity no, but a smart move if Seattle is unsure about whether or not their talent can contribute now.
Ultimately it's on Hill to assert himself as a veteran and Hawthorne to prove he can lead a young linebacking corps, and the defense as a whole.
Younger, Faster, Stronger, Better?
While one of the more impressive elements of this new back seven is the speed in the linebacking corps, the size and talent in the secondary is equally as exciting.
Earl Thomas is the obvious leader-to-be in the secondary; expect to see his role expand in 2011 into slot duty and potentially more time hovering around the line.
Kam Chancellor is a player who went into camp with a lot to prove, and he has excelled thus far--proving he did his homework learning from Lawyer Milloy; Carroll called Chancellor a "natural leader." Mark LeGree is experienced as a college player, but must adjust to the speed and size of the NFL.
Seattle is relying on this threesome to tie the secondary together. Luckily, Seattle has a handful of players to choose from at cornerback to round out the unit.
I've been drinking the Brandon Browner-ade since February. His name has been continually popping up in training camp reports as a surprise contributor; notably, his great size and physicality.
On Friday Carroll added; "we're always looking for special dimensions. He's a unique character at that (cornerback) spot;" Carroll went as far as to call it a "dream" to have a player of Browner's size, length and physicality on the line. Thus far, Browner looks like he could be an absolute steal.
Add Richard Sherman, Walter Thurmond, and potentially Josh Pinkard--a Babineaux type--or Byron Maxwell to the mix and Seattle has a strong, fast, young group of press capable, physical corners to mold for their aggressive scheme--Sherman is almost 6'3", Browner almost 6'4".
I give the organization credit for not pursuing a top flight cornerback; Browner was had for a minuscule price, add in the younger players and there looks to be little room for a big money player--Trufant is their savvy vet with the sizable salary, but he must keep up his end of the bargain as well.
Don't get me wrong; this unit is by no means a gelled product. And while there is mixed reaction to the changes at quarterback--many questioning what is happening there--I think the changes on defense show clear direction.
An aggressive rebuilding of a back seven--and defense as a whole--that will have an aggressive mentality. There will be growing pains, but the entire defense should become fast, physical, smart and intimidating; perhaps more quickly than expected.
Can Seattle Replace Franchise Leading Leadership?
While the organization has made a strong effort to become younger and more talented, it's legitimate to question whether or not the team has ample leadership and continuity to be competitive through this transition.
Seattle is undergoing a rapid transition on both sides of the ball and the dynamics are changing on and off the field. On top of that, not every position is at the same stage in transition; and that will affect the team as a whole.
As the preseason unfolds, both youth and leadership will be an ongoing discussion; sociological concepts such as the Totem and Calling will re-enter the discussion, along with some new ideas.
The Seahawks' culture is evolving and only 17 players remain from the old regime; the affect individuals have on the continuity--or lack-there-of--of the team will be a constant issue of note.
Back to the present. We've talked about Tarvaris Jackson's importance already; we haven't talked about left guard Robert Gallery. Seattle's 2011 offensive line has only one starter from the 2010 opener--Tyler Polumbus filling in for Okung to start last season, otherwise the number would be two.
Gallery's familiarity with Cable's offense is a huge boost to a very young offensive line. Gallery's toughness will help set the tone for the entire offense, an extension of Tom Cable on the field. Thus far, the offensive line has struggled with false starts. Can the offensive line gel quickly enough? Tom Cable will be a crucial factor in ushering this transition; the bar is set high.
At the skill positions Seattle has budding leadership; Michael Robinson is a veteran, Forsett and Williams are emerging as leaders; Williams is a hard worker dedicated to making it in the league, Forsett a tough, smart contributor that leads by example.
In highlighting those two, Raheem Brock was also a focus; his offseason drawing somewhat volatile outside attention, but was his attitude too important for Seattle to lose? With the departure of Tatupu and Hasselbeck, bringing back Brock made sense, especially on a one year deal.
Defensive ends tend to wear in their early 30's, but his on-field energy and toughness after Bryant went down last year was imperative to the teams success. Brock came back for money, but also unfinished business; he wants to go to a pro bowl. The 12th man would certainly take it, along with some wins.
The organization has complemented the youth in the back seven with a very experienced group up front, a mix of emerging veterans and established players; as Mebane explained, "I feel real good about this (veteran) group."
In my opinion, Seattle has put the defense as a whole in a position to succeed with the new changes. Lofa Tatupu's leadership was invaluable, partly because of the impact he had on Hawthorne off the field; Hawthorne is ready for this challenge and will be helped by the changes up front.
"Going back there (to the middle) is a natural fit for me...last year was the only season I've played where I wasn't the Mike...I'm really accepting that challenge, stepping in there and trying to get guys to follow me as a leader."
But most importantly, Hawthorne noted how the linebacker corps is "growing together." Continuity on offense is greatly accelerated by the coaching staff and free agent additions, but on defense ambiguity is much more of a factor. Linebacker coach Ken Norton Jr. must help this process along.
Seattle's leadership may be untested, but it's not as though the players have gone untaught. As Lawyer Milloy displayed after the victory against New Orleans; "We're all we got, we're all we need" (watch from 2:30, forward) isn't an individual mentality.
Rather, it's one that focuses on the success of the group; and it applies on and off the field, the fans included. It's a state of mind that Milloy passed down to his pupils in the secondary.
A mentality that must remain ingrained within the locker room despite the loss of long time leadership; as the Seahawks progress towards the first exhibition game in San Diego, and ultimately prepare for Week 1 in San Francisco.