Seattle Seahawks 2011 Preseason Schedule: Position Battle Preview
What happens when you combine a massive roster turnover and the "always compete" mantra?
A bevy of position battles in Seahawks' training camp.
The Seahawks are definitely bigger and younger—now among the youngest teams in the league. They are more athletic and the organization likes their new group of players; but, negotiating transition at nearly every position is a must in order to be competitive.
The unusual offseason hindered all 32 teams' preparation; Thursday at San Diego provides Carroll and co. their first opportunity to see how the squad competes under the lights. Here are eight position battles to watch as the 2011 preseason finally begins.
Seahawks Depth Chart for San Diego (Scroll to the bottom)
The Cornerback Hierarchy
While Marcus Trufant has struggled the past few seasons with injuries, he provides stability and leadership to an extremely young cornerback group. Kelly Jennings has been with the team five years and is back on a one-year deal, the only other veteran in the unit. Walter Thurmond has starting experience, a mere one game.
Otherwise, Seattle has a group of young, tall, physical, inexperienced corners that are competing for a roster spot. Thurmond has been dealing with an ankle sprain throughout camp and potentially has opened the door for a competition at the right corner spot—a spot that was presumably his.
Brandon Browner and Jennings have both seen time with the ones in camp, in place of Thurmond; Browner brings unique size and a glowing CFL resume, but doesn't have the NFL experience the undersized Jennings does. Byron Maxwell has also come on strong in recent days.
And while Browner may be the prototypical press corner, Jennings is the incumbent starter. Many are eager to see Browner on the field, but does his CFL experience shine or is he a work in progress? He has stood out all camp; I want to see him over Jennings.
No matter what is decided at the spot opposite Trufant, the competition doesn't end there. Add rookie Richard Sherman—a player Carroll has high hopes for—and young veteran Kennard Cox to the mix, both behind Trufant on the depth chart and Seattle has a crowed cornerback situation.
They need to figure who will play in nickel and dime packages—though Earl Thomas will be covering the slot at times, adding a wrinkle to the situation. Also, when does Roy Lewis come off the PUP and does he gain his spot back?
Seattle will be watching who can play physical and clean on the line of scrimmage, but also who can turn and run downfield; which corners are most effective in run support; do certain combinations of corners work best; who has a knack for finding the backfield and the quarterback?
Seattle has a lot to learn about their cornerback situation; who steps up as depth behind Thurmond and earns time in sub packages are main questions that will begin to be answered.
Will There Be Movement on the Offensive Line
The Seahawks have gotten massive on the offensive line, but the big guys have to fit the new mentality under Tom Cable.
Robert Gallery noted earlier in the preseason it takes toughness to play on Cable's line; a strong motor and willingness to be nasty is a must. Yesterday, Gallery gave additional insight into what it takes to play under the new o-line coach:
"He pushes guys. He wants you to push your body past where you thought you could go. I think that's the biggest thing, just the mentality he wants you to bring to the game, and the style we run for us to be successful, we've got to come off and strike people and do that play after play after play. Some people are not built for that. So if that's not your deal or you can't learn to relish in that, it's going to be a long, long game."
To get guys prepared for the menality, the Seahawks implemented a "cause a penalty, take a lap" policy in practice; one must be focused and bring it on every play.
Going into game one, Cable is putting an emphasis on studying how players get off the ball and how they are targeting opponents. As this is a fast-paced system, there will likely be a learning curve; especially considering Max Unger is still learning as an NFL center.
One player I'm watching is John Moffitt; he admitted heading into the San Diego game he's "71 percent" comfortable and clearly still learning the ropes.
Earlier in the week, he spoke about the importance of Robert Gallery helping him in meetings with the nuances of the offense. Cable also spoke about veteran, versatile guard Pat McQuistan as a player who he likes because of prior experience in the system.
I'm not expecting Moffitt to lose his spot, per se; but he must be wary of players such as Paul Fanaika, McQuistan, Tyler Polumbus and Mike Gibson—who ended 2010 as the starting right guard.
Gibson and Polumbus should provide depth across the line—Gibson is currently the second unit center.
If a veteran shows during camp and preseason they can be a more consistent blocker to start the season, does Cable decide to insert a veteran for the time being?
This unit has been widely presumed to be complete with the addition of Gallery, but the younger lineman—sans Russell Okung—will have to fully earn their spots. The offensive line needs to be tough early and establish the mentality as the preseason begins.
The Final Safety Spot
The Seahawks head into 2011 lacking the veteran leadership they've had at the safety spot for a number of seasons, with Lawyer Milloy gone—but still a free agent—and Jordan Babineaux now in Tennessee.
However, Seattle has a pretty defined top three for 2011:
Earl Thomas is going into only his second season, but is primed to be a defensive leader; second-year player Kam Chancellor is thriving in his role as starter at strong safety; rookie Mark LeGree is the most likely candidate for the third safety role, a "ball-hawk" type player that allows Thomas to be used in a variety of ways.
As of now cornerback/safety Josh Pinkard—a Jordan Babineaux type—is listed as the backup strong safety; I think he gets an opportunity to stay in that fourth safety spot. He played corner for Carroll at USC and though he has a history of major knee injuries, his skill-set is well known to this staff.
Undrafted rookie Jeron Johnson is also a candidate for this spot; a player who can cover and hits like a ton of bricks, but his speed/size is questionable and he is still learning the game. But, he came to Seattle willing to do whatever it took to make the team.
This could play out in a variety of ways over the course of camp. Seattle likely still has the cap room to sign a veteran safety if need be, as they missed out on now new Rams linebacker Ben Leber.
I'm curious to see how this group performs Thursday and the resulting roster moves. I do think a strong game by Pinkard is the first step in seeing him on the active roster in 2011. Otherwise, it could be wide open for Johnson and others to challenge for a spot.
Which Receivers Make the Roster
Seattle will face a tough decision when they eventually trim down the receiving corps.
On the current depth chart, Golden Tate, Doug Baldwin, Ricardo Lockette and Patrick Williams—also, Deon Butler on the PUP list—sit behind Sidney Rice.
Ben Obomanu, Kris Durham, Isaiah Stanback and Chris Carter sit behind Mike Williams on the other side.
Tate and Baldwin both figure to be slot weapons; the question is, does Seattle find a way for them both to be on the roster at once? This is an extremely important preseason for Golden Tate, who is in position to assume a Percy Harvin-like role in the slot—which should include a role in the running game.
But Baldwin has come on strong in camp and Seattle pursued him strongly as an undrafted free agent. This could be a very exciting competition.
On the other side, I'm curious to see who emerges between Stanback and Durham. Obomanu is presumably a lock for a roster spot. Durham is a promising rookie while Stanback is a strong special teams player, progressing receiver, potential wildcat quarterback and locker room guy. Durham is lean and long, while Stanback is a strong, thick-bodied player. They bring different dimensions to the team.
So who has the advantage? Durham is not expected to play versus San Diego due to a hamstring injury; Stanback may have an opening to pass him on the depth chart.
Carter and Williams have both made their presence known during camp with solid play, but they have a tall task in moving up the depth chart. Lockette, I believe, is a wildcard; he has track-star speed and is proving to be a threat in camp. If he fits on the roster over the six-plus guys ahead of him remains to be seen.
This is the most competitive unit on the offense and will be an exciting competition through the end of the preaseason and potentially into the season. Stanback and Lockette are the two I'm looking forward to watching on Thursday; Stanback is the type of leader the Seahawks could use in a young locker room.
Which Linebackers Will See Time in Sub Packages
The linebacker corps is in major flux, which is no secret.
David Hawthorne is now in the middle, Leroy Hill will most likely take over at the weak-side spot and Aaron Curry should remain at the strong side.
But, that is just an expectation for the "base" 4-3 defense; there is a possibility they could spend less time in the 4-3 and incorporate more 3-4 looks or various sub packages, using specialized roles and focusing on matchups.
Last season the Seahawks kept Tatupu on the field in the vast majority of situations; does Hawthorne stay on the field as much? He proved in 2009 that he can cover "the pipe" and was forced into more coverage responsibilities last season. I'm curious to see if Hawthorne assumes a true every down role.
Seattle drafted K.J. Wright because of his length and versatility; they drafted Malcolm Smith because of his speed and strength as a passing down linebacker—he's been around the ball in camp with tipped passes and near big plays.
Are either on the field in the Bandit defense? They could try a variety of guys in that role, such as Michael Morgan—Curry was a part of it in 2010, primarily on the defensive line.
I liked both the Smith and Wright picks because they are unique players and Carroll pointed out in the post draft presser that Smith's third down capabilities were a skill that could get him on the field right away.
With the way he has performed in camp thus far, he could see a bit of time on Thursday. Also, how much does Wright play in his first preseason game and does he only play as a backup in the middle?
The Third Quarterback Is the Charm
The quarterback situation and "competition" has been discussed ad nauseum recently. In short, Jackson was named starter while Whitehurst is caught up to speed in the new system. Will there be a competition? We don't know, but there should be.
My main concern here is how will the playing time be split between the two in the preseason. Obviously, Jackson needs reps to gain continuity with his receivers, but Whitehurst needs reps to learn the offense.
With Jackson being the Opening Day starter—for now—presumably his chemistry with receivers is more important in the short-term than getting Whitehurst ready. But for there to be a competition, Whitehurst needs to be ready. Does Seattle have a target date for the "competition" to begin?
Now this to make matters a bit more complicated.
Josh Portis is excited about his opportunity in Seattle and is reportedly going to see a lot of time on Thursday in San Diego.
Now it's common for starters to see little time in the first preseason game in lieu of learning what talent exists in the depths of the roster, but Seattle has two quarterbacks that need reps as it is; so why give Portis time?
Portis has been a pleasant surprise in camp and Seattle likely wants to see what they have in their developmental quarterback. The coaching staff really likes him and Carroll believes will be with the team for a long time, as they want to develop his talent.
Back to the top two; how does Whitehurst respond to being back in San Diego?
Personally, I hope he rises to the challenge and shows reason to hold an eventual competition. On the other side of the coin, does Jackson let the window begin to slip open; he could get limited reps, so we may not learn much either way.
Putting Together the Defensive Line Puzzle
As noted earlier in the week, Pete Carroll believes the front line is a "pretty complete" group with Raheem Brock. The next task is figuring out everyone's role.
The depth chart provided some interesting insight as to where we will see players in game one.
The starting front line of Bryant (if healthy), Mebane, Branch and Clemons is set.
The second unit has Jimmy Wilkerson, Junior Siavii, Kentwan Balmer (injured) and Raheem Brock. I think three of those four are locks for the roster; Balmer is a player I've been curious about all offseason, not sure if he would be around in 2011 if the team found an adequate replacement.
However, Ryan Sims (third-string 3-tech) sat out practice on Tuesday, Colin Cole is hurt (PUP, 1-tech), Red Bryant's (starting 5-tech) conditioning is down and his weight up due to his injury; the interior defensive line is not currently at full strength. Balmer needs to stay healthy if he wants to stay on the roster.
I'm curious to see how Jay Alford performs inside, how many spots Pep Levingston plays and when does Pierre Allen see the field; presumably as a 5-tech on passing down, but I want to see his versatility and if he drops in coverage.
At Leo, there is a road jam. Dexter Davis has the opportunity to step up into the third Leo role and had expectations placed on him by John Schneider's comments at the combine. Jameson Konz has been converted back to defense and his athleticism is apparent as a pass rusher; he's presumably the rawest talent at the position, but one worth watching. A.J. Schable is somewhat of an unknown with eight career tackles.
Overall, I wouldn't be surprised to see a lot of players trying different roles. I'm extremely curious to see Branch and Mebane on the field together, as well as a 340-pound Junior Siavii. I'm also looking forward to learning what the rookies and second-year players can bring to the table.
Reed Versus Coutu
There isn't much to this one; it's mano-a-mano.
Jeff Reed is a bonafide vet; two super bowl rings and a career 82.2 percent kicker, a career clip comparable to Adam Vinatieri, David Akers and better than Olindo Mare.
He is not the best on kickoffs, but the new rule should help. He has at times shown to be a quirky character; does he smoothly transition to Seattle?
Brandon Coutu was drafted by Seattle in 2008 and was unable to beat out Mare. He was a very strong college kicker but was hampered by hamstring issues his final two seasons in college.
One would expect the veteran to win the competition, but it's interesting Seattle brought Coutu back—an old regime player.
If he starts fast and Reed somehow falters, this will be one of the more interesting and important competitions to watch in training camp.