Sep 042016
 

Quarterback

In the past 4 seasons, the Seahawks have gone 26-6 in the final 8 games of the regular season, as opposed to 20-12 in the first 8 games. It makes sense that an organization that is as well run from top to bottom as the Seahawks’ organization is would be able to adapt on the fly better than most teams and figure out how to play at a high level by mid-season. Last year, it was the offense that carried them down the stretch, as they won 6 of their final 8 games to make the playoffs as a wild card, following a 4-4 start. They moved the chains at a 68.24% rate in their first 8 games, but that jumped to 81.18% over the next 8 games and they finished 3rd in rate of moving the chains on the season. Despite “only” being a 10-6 wild card, the Seahawks entered the playoffs 3rd in rate of moving the chains differential and looked like a real contender once again despite the rocky start, but fell a touchdown short in their divisional round playoff loss in Carolina.

As you can probably imagine, a lot of their strong play down the stretch was the result of Russell Wilson, who finished as a top-6 quarterback on Pro Football Focus for the 3rd time in 4 years in the league in 2015. Wilson completed 68.1% of his passes for an average of 8.33 YPA, 34 touchdowns, and 8 interceptions on the season and was an MVP candidate, but he was especially good in those final 8 games, completing 67.5% of his passes for an average of 8.62 YPA, 25 touchdowns, and 2 interceptions. The dual threat quarterback also added 553 yards and another 1 touchdown on 103 carries (5.37 YPC) on the season.

As crazy as those numbers might seem, those are pretty par for the course for him. In 4 years in the league, Wilson has completed 64.7% of his passes for an average of 8.05 YPA, 106 touchdowns, and 34 interceptions, while adding 2430 yards and 12 touchdowns on 411 carries (5.91 YPC) on the ground. He’s had a good defense and running game supporting him, but he’s managed to put up those numbers despite inconsistent play from both his receivers and his offensive line throughout his career. A mere 3rd round pick in 2012, Wilson is one of the biggest draft steals of all-time and was kept on a 4-year, 87.6 million dollar extension last off-season ahead of his contract year. He’s one of the top few quarterbacks in the entire NFL.

The one concern is the backup quarterback spot. Wilson hasn’t missed a start in 4 years in the league, but the Seahawks only have undrafted free agent Trevone Boykin behind Wilson right now. Boykin was a talented enough prospect to get drafted and only fell because of off-the-field reasons, but the dropoff from Wilson to Boykin is probably the biggest starter to backup dropoff at quarterback in the NFL. The Seahawks were probably considering bringing back veteran backup Tarvaris Jackson this off-season if Boykin struggled in the off-season program, but that’s no longer an option after Jackson’s recent domestic violence arrest. They may look to add another veteran backup quarterback, but the market is pretty dried up at this point. They’ll obviously be hoping Wilson can stay healthy once again.

Grade: A

Running Backs

Of course, it wasn’t just Russell Wilson who played at a high level down the stretch. Running back Marshawn Lynch uncharacteristically struggled last season, rushing for 417 yards and 3 touchdowns on 111 carries (3.76 YPC), while missing 9 games with injury, including each of the Seahawks’ final 7 games. His injury was actually a bit of a blessing in disguise, as it allowed rookie backup Thomas Rawls to take over as the starting running back mid-season and he rushed for 830 yards and 4 touchdowns on 147 carries, a league leading 5.65 yards per carry average among eligible running backs. Rawls finished the season 12th among running backs on Pro Football Focus, including 4th in pure rushing grade. When he broke his leg week 14 and missed the rest of the season, it was a huge blow to this team’s chances in the playoffs.

Lynch retired ahead of his age 30 season this off-season, so this is Thomas Rawls’ job now. Unfortunately, he missed much of the off-season program rehabbing from that broken leg. He’s fully expected to play week 1, but the long rehab is a concern for a player who is trying to repeat the improbable year he had as an undrafted rookie in 2015 and do it over a 16 game season. He’s certainly a promising young running back who could put up big numbers in a big role, but he’s still not a reliable bet.

When Rawls went down last season, Christine Michael took over as the starting running back. He wasn’t as good as Rawls, which hurt them in the playoffs, but he rushed for 182 rushing yards on 39 carries in those final 3 regular season games (4.67 YPC), after coming over mid-season from the Cowboys. He was originally drafted by the Seahawks in the 2nd round in 2013, but work ethic issues limited him to 52 carries in 2 years in Seattle and ended up getting him sent to Dallas for a late round pick last off-season. In Dallas, he barely played before ending up back in Seattle via waivers and impressing down the stretch. He’ll be Rawls’ primary backup this season. He’s unproven with just 106 career carries, but has a ton of talent and has averaged 4.69 yards per carry in the regular season in his career.

The Seahawks also used a 3rd round pick on Notre Dame running back CJ Prosise, but he’ll work primarily as a passing down back as a rookie. Neither Rawls nor Michaels is a good pass catcher (9 and 4 career catches respectively), while Prosise is an ex-wide receiver who converted full-time to running back just last season. Prosise could catch 40 balls, but would need both Rawls and Michael to get injured to see significant carries as a rookie. Russell Wilson is also usually good for about 100 carries and 600 yards on the ground as well, so this is definitely still a run heavy team. Their running backs are unproven, but promising.

Grade: B+

Receiving Corps

Along with Wilson and Rawls, wide receiver Doug Baldwin played at a very high level down the stretch, catching 47 passes for 724 yards and 12 touchdowns in the Seahawks’ final 8 games, to finish the season with 78 catches for 1069 yards and 14 touchdowns. It’s his first career 1000 yard season, but, while it was the best season of his career, he’s not really a one-year wonder. In 4 seasons prior to 2015, he had caught 196 passes for 2757 yards and 15 touchdowns, maxing out at 825 yards in 2014. Those numbers are unimpressive, but were kept down by this run heavy offense. Baldwin actually averaged an impressive 1.84 yards per route run over that time period and finished in the top-27 among wide receivers on Pro Football Focus in all 4 seasons.

His big numbers in 2015 are even more impressive when you take into account that they were still a run heavy team last season, attempting just 489 passes. Baldwin caught 75% of his 104 targets and averaged 10.28 yards per target, making Wilson to Baldwin one of the most effective quarterback/wide receiver duos in the NFL. Despite “only” finishing 21st in the NFL in receiving yards, Baldwin finished the year 7th among wide receivers on Pro Football Focus. He might not be quite as good again in 2016, but the former undrafted free agent is a legitimate #1 receiver.

As I mentioned, Wilson has dealt with inconsistencies in his receiving corps throughout his career. In fact, Baldwin was the first Seahawks receiver to top 900 yards in a season since 2009. However, right now he has a solid group, probably the best of his career. It’s not just Doug Baldwin, as Jermaine Kearse and Tyler Lockett are solid complementary wide receivers. Kearse made 16 starts last season and was re-signed on a 3-year, 13.5 million dollar deal as a free agent this off-season, but Lockett is reportedly the favorite for the #2 job opposite Baldwin in 2016.

That makes sense. Lockett was the better of the two in 2015, grading out 32nd among wide receivers on 664 snaps as a 3rd round rookie, and has proven he deserves more playing time. Kearse is not a bad player though, with 36 starts in 4 seasons in the league since being drafted in the 7th round in the 2012 NFL Draft and 2 seasons in which he’s graded out above average, including 2015. He’s a solid #3 receiver and the contract the Seahawks signed him to this off-season was not a bad deal. It’s a nice trio of wide receivers.

The way the Seahawks played down the stretch is even more impressive when you take into account that they lost tight end Jimmy Graham for the season a torn patellar tendon week 12, after trading starting center Max Unger and a first round pick to New Orleans for him last off-season. Graham was a weird fit in Seattle because he’s not much of a run blocker and this is a run heavy team, but he still caught 48 passes for 605 yards and 2 touchdowns on 368 pass snaps in 11 games and finished 7th among tight ends in pass catching grade (11th overall).

His injury is still a major concern though, as the list of players who have torn their patellar tendon and returned as good as they were before is basically non-existent. Giants wide receiver Victor Cruz still hasn’t played since tearing his in the middle of the 2014 season. He looked like he’d be ready for the 2015 season, but ended up missing the year with a variety of leg injuries. It would be a shame if the injury ruined his career, because he’s been a top-15 tight end in each of the last 5 seasons, but he’s far from a guarantee to bounce back, already going into his age 30 season. The Seahawks will certainly be hoping he can make close to a full recovery.

In his absence, Luke Willson was the starter, starting 7 games on the season overall. He’s not nearly the pass catcher that Graham is, but he is a solid all-around player who graded out above average on 451 snaps in 2015, after grading out around average in the first 2 years of his career in 2013 and 2014. The 6-5 252 pounder is the Seahawks’ best run blocking tight end, so he should have a role as the #2 tight end even if Graham is healthy. The Seahawks also drafted Ohio State tight end Nick Vannett in the 3rd round in April as insurance. He could see significant rookie year snaps if Graham can’t play. If Graham can play and plays well, this is one of the best receiving corps in the NFL, but it’s a solid group regardless.

Grade: A-

Offensive Line

While the Seahawks’ receiving corps is the best it’s ever been in the Russell Wilson era, the Seahawks’ offensive line is the worst it’s ever been in the Russell Wilson era, and it isn’t usually that good. They lost right tackle Breno Giacomini two off-seasons ago, left guard James Carpenter and center Max Unger last off-season, and then left tackle Russell Okung and right guard JR Sweezy this off-season. None of those players were great, but they didn’t really do anything to replace them and have arguably the worst offensive line in football as a result. They’ve always preferred to focus on other parts of the roster and mask their offensive line’s flaws with their system, Russell Wilson’s mobility, and legendary offensive line coach Tom Cable’s coaching, but they might have gone too far this time.

They don’t have a single offensive lineman who is making more than 3 million dollars this season and that’s going to be noticeable on the field. They used a first round pick on an offensive lineman, taking Texas A&M’s Germain Ifedi, but he could struggle as a rookie and was probably overdrafted. Pro Football Focus had a 6th round grade on him going into the draft. That may be an exaggeration, but most expected him to be a 2nd or 3rd round pick and he’s very raw in pass protection. He’s also moving positions, as he’ll play right guard, after spending last season at left tackle at Texas A&M. At left guard, fellow rookie Rees Odhiambo will compete with last year’s 4th round pick, Mark Glowinski, for the starting job. Glowinski played just 73 snaps as a rookie.

Ex-right tackle Garry Gilliam will move over to the left side with Okung gone, after struggling mightily as a 16-game starter at right tackle in 2015. The 2014 undrafted free agent was Pro Football Focus’ 63rd ranked offensive tackle out of 77 eligible in the first significant action in his career and is probably the worst starting left tackle in football. The Seahawks like his upside, but I’m skeptical. Justin Britt is the other 16-game starter who returns for the Seahawks, going into his 3rd year in the league with 32 starts already under his belt.

However, he too struggled mightily in 2015, finishing 75th among 81 eligible guards on Pro Football Focus. He was even worse last season than he was as a 2nd round rookie in 2014, when he finished 74th out of 84 eligible offensive tackles on Pro Football Focus as a 16-game starter at right tackle. He’s on his 3rd position in as many years in the league, as he’ll start at center this season. He’s no guarantee to be any better there, especially considering he didn’t even play the position at the collegiate level. Moving him inside seems like a desperation move.

Free agent acquisition J’Marcus Webb figures to start at right tackle, coming over from Oakland on a 2-year, 5.75 million dollar deal. He’s made 71 starts in 6 seasons in the league, including all 16 last season, but he has never once graded out above average. He wasn’t awful last season, playing both right tackle and right guard, but he’s a mediocre starter at best. Fellow free agent acquisition Bradley Sowell is reportedly also in the mix for a starting job, but that’s really reaching deep. Sowell hasn’t made a start since 2013, when he made 12 starts and was Pro Football Focus’ worst ranked offensive tackle. It’s also possible 2015 4th round pick Terry Poole sees snaps in his 2nd year in the league in 2016, after spending his entire rookie year on the bench. It’s a weak offensive line that figures to make life difficult for the rest of this offense.

Grade: F

Defensive Line

Of course, the defense was also great yet again in 2015, finishing 6th in rate of moving the chains allowed. They were led by the usual suspects, including defensive end Michael Bennett, who has become one of the best in the league at his position. He’s been a top-7 4-3 defensive end on Pro Football Focus in each of the past 5 seasons and finished last season 3rd at the position. He’s going into his age 31 season, so his age is starting to become a concern, but he should have another couple strong seasons left in the tank at least. The big 6-4 274 pounder can line up anywhere on the defensive line and often rushes the passer from the interior in sub packages.

Because of that, there are still plenty of snaps for Cliff Avril and Frank Clark to both rush the passer off the edge in sub packages. Clark flashed on 364 snaps as a 2nd round rookie in 2015, grading out above average, but Avril is expected to keep the starting job, after finishing last season 7th among 4-3 defensive ends as a 16-game starter. An 8-year NFL veteran, Avril has finished in the top-13 among 4-3 defensive ends in 3 straight seasons and has graded out above average as a pass rusher in 7 of 8 seasons in the league, but last season was the first year the undersized 6-3 252 pounder graded out above average against the run as well. His age is also becoming a concern, as he goes into his age 30 season, but he should be effective rushing the passer off the edge again in 2016, at the very least.

Clark, meanwhile, will play a significant role as the 3rd defensive end, with Bennett often moving inside. Clark essentially takes over for the departed Bruce Irvin as the nickel rusher. Clark also could replace Irvin at outside linebacker in base packages. Irvin played well in a hybrid outside linebacker/defensive end role last season and Clark, after reportedly losing 17 pounds and slimming down to 6-3 260 this off-season, could play outside linebacker in base packages as well. He’d move to defensive end in sub packages when a 5th defensive back comes in and move Bennett inside. Clark figures to have a significant role in his 2nd year in the league regardless and looked up to the task as a rookie.

In base packages, the Seahawks will start veteran Ahtyba Rubin and rookie Jarran Reed inside at defensive tackle. Rubin was re-signed on a 3-year, 12 million dollar deal this off-season, while Reed will replaced departed veteran free agent Brandon Mebane, who signed with the Chargers this off-season. He’s only a two-down player at this point, but he was arguably the best run stopper in the draft and was Pro Football Focus’ 20th ranked prospect, so he was a good value in the middle of the 2nd.

Rubin, meanwhile, is not a terrible player, but has graded out below average in every season since 2009 and there’s no reason to expect that to change in his age 30 season in 2016. Tony McDaniel is also in the mix for snaps, but the 10-year NFL veteran has only twice finished above average on Pro Football Focus. He finished 101st out of 123 eligible interior defensive linemen last season with the Buccaneers and is unlikely to get better, going into his age 31 season in 2016. Despite depth problems at defensive tackle, it’s a deep, talented defensive line once again.

Grade: B+

Linebackers

As mentioned, defensive end Frank Clark is a candidate for the two-down linebacker job, replacing Bruce Irvin completely. The Seahawks other option is starting Michael Morgan and keeping Clark 100% at defensive end as a sub package edge rusher, which they certainly could do. Morgan is a career special teamer with just 3 starts in 5 seasons in the league though, since going undrafted in 2011. Fortunately, it’s just a two down position, so the winner of that battle won’t have too tough of a job.

KJ Wright and Bobby Wagner remain as the every down linebackers, at outside linebacker and inside linebacker respectively. They’re as good as any duo in the NFL. Wright has started 72 of 76 games in 5 seasons in the league, despite falling to the 4th round in 2011, and has been a top-17 4-3 outside linebacker in each of his first 5 seasons in the league, with his best seasons coming in 2014 (6th) and 2015 (4th). Another strong season seems likely for him, only going into his age 27 season.

Wagner, meanwhile, is actually coming off of a down year, finishing “just” 18th among middle linebackers, but he was a top-12 middle linebacker in each of his first 3 seasons in the league from 2012-2014 and was 5th as recently as 2014. He’s an obvious bounce back candidate, going into his age 26 season and his 5th year in the league. Since the Seahawks drafted him in the 2nd round in 2012, he’s started 55 of 64 games over those 4 seasons. He and Wright are a great pair.

Grade: A-

Secondary

The Seahawks have an incredible secondary as well, led by cornerback Richard Sherman, who is probably the best cornerback in the NFL. He “only” finished 3rd among cornerbacks on Pro Football Focus in 2015, but is the only cornerback in the NFL to finish in the top-5 at the position in 4 straight seasons. He’s also made all 64 starts over those 4 seasons and has never missed a game in 5 seasons in the league, since the Seahawks stole him in the 5th round of the 2011 NFL Draft.

There are some that would argue that safety Earl Thomas is more important to this defense. I wouldn’t make that argument, but he’s certainly one of the best safeties in the NFL. He’s made all 96 starts in 6 years in the league since the Seahawks drafted him in the first round in 2010, and he’s played well all along. He has graded out above average in all 6 seasons in the league and has finished in the top-10 in 4 of 6 seasons, including a career best 3rd in 2015. He and Sherman are both young, going into their age 27 and 28 season respectively, both signed through 2018, and should be a dominant duo for the foreseeable future.

On the other hand, Kam Chancellor, the other starting safety, is coming off of a down year. He didn’t play horribly, but he finished 22nd among safeties, his lowest rank in 5 seasons as a starter. It’s a bit of a self-inflicted wound, as Chancellor foolishly tried to hold out for an extension with 3 years remaining on his current contract. Chancellor missed the entire off-season program and the first 2 games of the season, both close losses for the Seahawks, losing two game checks in the process. When he finally gave it up, it took him a little bit to get back into the flow of things and he dealt with injury issues down the stretch that limited him to a career low 11 games. He’s been present this off-season and, now healthy, is an obvious bounce back candidate. He was a top-20 safety in every season from 2011-2014, maxing out at 5th in 2012.

The Seahawks really lack cornerback depth behind Sherman though and don’t have a good option to start across from him. Cary Williams began the season as the starter opposite Sherman, but got cut by mid-season, leaving 2012 undrafted free agent DeShawn Shead to start down the stretch and into the playoffs. Shead struggled though, finishing 93rd out of 111 eligible cornerbacks on Pro Football Focus on 616 snaps in the first significant action of his career. He still figures to open the season as the starter, despite his 2015 struggles.

Nickel cornerback Jeremy Lane is the unknown of the group. He’s certainly better than both Shead and Browner when he’s healthy, but has been limited to just 13 games over the past 2 seasons due to injury and has played in just 41 of a possible 64 games in his career. He’s also only played 830 regular season snaps in his career, since being drafted in the 6th round in 2012, and has just 6 starts over that time period. He’s graded out above average in all 4 seasons he’s been in the league, but injuries and inexperience are major concerns for him.

The Seahawks don’t seem to share those concerns, giving him a 4-year, 23 million dollar deal to keep him off the open market this off-season, a very risky deal that could pay off if he stays healthy and continues to play at a high level over a larger number of snaps. Those are both far from guarantees though. He’ll begin the season as the slot cornerback, but it wouldn’t be a shock if they gave him a shot as a starter if Shead continues to struggle, considering they essentially paid starter’s money to keep him. The Legion of Boom is not without flaws, but is still one of the best secondaries in the NFL.

Grade: A

Conclusion

The Seahawks have noticeable problems on the offensive line, but have the most skill position talent around Russell Wilson that they’ve ever had, with Thomas Rawls, Doug Baldwin, Tyler Lockett, Jermaine Kearse, and possible Jimmy Graham. Wilson is one of the best quarterbacks in the league and played probably the best football of his young career down the stretch last season. The offensive line keep them from their potential, but they have a great defense as well and once again have one of the most talented rosters in the league. In a top heavy NFC, they’re one of the top few teams and should have no problem making the playoffs for the 5th straight season.

Prediction: 11-5 2nd in NFC West

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