Seattle Seahawks 2015 NFL Season Preview

Quarterback

The Seahawks have quickly ascended to the top of the NFL. They didn’t win the ultimate prize last season, but they literally came within inches of winning the Super Bowl, before a goal line interception cemented a 28-24 Super Bowl loss. It’s unfair to suggest that they should have won that game because it was a fluky interception, because it took a fluky, crazy catch to even get them down to the goal line and because the Patriots did slightly outplay them statistically, but, looking at the whole body of work, it’s hard to say that the Seahawks weren’t one of the best teams in the NFL last season, finishing 2nd in rate of moving the chains differential. When you add in their Super Bowl victory in 2013, the Seahawks look like the most accomplished team in the NFL over the past 2 seasons, winning the NFC’s #1 seed and the NFC Championship game in both years.

The Seahawks are so deep and talented on both sides of the field that it’s unfair to attribute their recent success to one person, but this team has certainly been a lot better over the past 3 seasons since they drafted Russell Wilson in the 3rd round in 2012 and solidified the quarterback position. In 2011, they had a strong defense that included many of the same players that headline the defense now, but they missed the playoffs because of a stagnant offense led by quarterback Tarvaris Jackson.

In 3 years in the league, Wilson has made 48 of 48 starts, winning 36 of them. It’s unfair to give him all the credit for those wins considering the defense he has supporting him, but he’s been a big part of it, completing 63.4% of his passes for an average of 7.95 YPA, 72 touchdowns, and 26 interceptions, while grading out 6th, 4th, and 13th among quarterbacks in 2012, 2013, and 2014 respectively. He’s also added 1877 yards and 11 touchdowns on 308 carries (6.09 YPC). His numbers are even more impressive when you consider the fact that he’s had little offensive support from his receiving corps or offensive line in his career. Going into his contract year, Wilson wants to be paid like a top-5 quarterback. He might not be quite that good, but he’s close, he’s young (going into his age 27 season), and the Seahawks don’t have another choice but to pay him. Quarterbacks like him are far too indispensable.

Grade: B+

Running Backs

While Wilson doesn’t get much help from his receivers or his offensive line, he does get a lot of help from feature back Marshawn Lynch. Lynch is well known for his hilarious interview answers, but he’s also a hell of a football player as well. As a result of Lynch’s dominance, Wilson has only had to throw 1252 passes in 3 seasons in the league, an average of 417.3 per season, which has made life easier for him. Part of that is because Wilson himself is a gifted runner in the open field and someone who has averaged 102.7 carries per year in his career, but Lynch is the main reason for the Seahawks’ run first offense. He’s averaged 298.7 carries per season over the past 3 years and hasn’t missed a single game with injury.

Over the past 3 seasons, Lynch has rushed for 4153 yards and 36 touchdowns on 896 carries, an average of 4.64 YPC and he’s been even better than his numbers suggest as, like Wilson, he has to deal with a poor offensive line and a receiving corps that rarely draws double teams. The fact that the Seahawks finished 9th in rate of moving the chains last season on offense despite just 4 players who played more than 300 snaps and graded out above average on Pro Football Focus (Lynch, Wilson, Doug Baldwin, and Max Unger) is a testament to how good both Wilson and Lynch are.

Lynch has graded out 5th, 4th, and 2nd on Pro Football Focus in those last 3 seasons respectively and his 221 broken tackles on carries lead the NFL over that time period. He’s also the only running back in the NFL to grade out in the top-5 among running backs on Pro Football Focus in each of the last 3 seasons. There’s a case to be made that he’s been the best running back in football over the past 3 seasons, despite what guys like Adrian Peterson, LeSean McCoy, DeMarco Murray, and LeVeon Bell have done over single seasons over the past 3 years.

One issue is that he’s going into his age 29 season with 2033 career carries. Of the top-25 all-time leading rushers who have played in the last decade, the average one has his last 1000 yard season in his age 30 season at 2602 career carries. That suggests that Lynch has about 2, maybe 3 good years left in the tank and that possibly his best days are behind him. The only other issue is that Lynch isn’t a great pass catcher, as he has just 96 catches over the past 3 seasons and hasn’t graded out above average as a pass catcher on Pro Football Focus since his rookie year in 2007. That’s nitpicking though and he should still have a strong year in 2015.

The Seahawks also have good depth behind him with backups Robert Turbin and Christine Michael. Turbin, a 2012 4th round pick, has rushed for 928 yards and 0 touchdowns on 231 attempts in 3 years in the league, an average of 4.02 YPC. He’s also added 43 catches for 427 yards and 2 touchdowns. Michael, meanwhile, was a 2nd round pick in 2013. He has the bigger upside and has been more productive than Turbin in limited action, rushing for 254 yards and 0 touchdowns on 52 attempts (4.88 YPC), while adding 1 catch for 12 yards. With Turbin missing time this off-season with a hip problem, Michael could end up as Lynch’s primary backup. Ultimately it won’t matter much though because Lynch is a workhorse who rarely cedes carries. If Lynch were to get hurt, it would likely be a committee replacing him, with Michael as the primary runner and Turbin as a passing down back. They’re good depth behind a great starter.

Grade: A

Receiving Corps

As I mentioned, the Seahawks had problems in the receiving corps last season. In order to remedy that, they made a shocking trade with the cap strapped Saints for Jimmy Graham, who the Saints brought back on a 4-year, 40 million dollar deal last off-season. There’s no doubt that Graham will instantly be their best receiver and, owed just 27 million over the next 3 years, the Seahawks are getting a good value. However, the price was steep as the Seahawks swapped their first round pick to the Saints for a fourth rounder and also had to give up center Max Unger, who was their best offensive lineman last season and very reasonable paid, making just 9 million combined over the next 2 seasons. On top of that, while Graham’s contract is a good value, it’s another big contract for a team that has a lot of highly paid talent and soon-to-be highly paid talented to figure out how to keep under the cap long-term.

In the short term, there’s no doubt Graham makes them a better team though. Graham has caught 386 passes for 4752 yards and 51 touchdowns on 576 targets (67.0%) and 2281 routes run (2.08 yards per route run) in his career, the 2nd most yards per route run by a tight end only behind Rob Gronkowski over the past 5 years. He’s also graded out 7th, 15th, 4th, and 11th among tight ends in 2011, 2012, 2013, and 2014 respectively. He might not post the same composite numbers this year that he’s had over the past 4 years in New Orleans, when he’s averaged 89 catches for 1099 yards and 12 touchdowns, because the Seahawks are not nearly as pass heavy as the Saints and have a slightly worse passing quarterback, but he could still be Seattle’s first 900+ yard receiver since TJ Houshmanzadeh in 2009 and he’ll definitely make this offense better. Graham isn’t seen as an ideal fit in Seattle because he’s not seen as a great run blocker, but the big 6-6 259 pounder has graded out above average as a run blocker in 4 of 5 seasons in the league, so I’m not worried about that.

Graham is certainly an upgrade on the likes of Luke Willson, Tony Moeaki, Cooper Helfet, and Zach Miller, all of whom saw snaps for the Seahawks at tight end last season. Willson led the way with 579 snaps played and should be the #2 tight end this season behind Graham. A slightly better run blocker than pass catcher with 42 catches for 634 yards and 4 touchdowns in 2 seasons in the league since the Seahawks drafted him in the 5th round in 2013, Willson has graded out about average in both seasons he’s been in the league, on 415 snaps as a rookie and then 579 last season. He’ll fit in well as the 2nd tight end.

Doug Baldwin remains as the #1 wide receiver. Like Golden Tate before him, he doesn’t get a ton of respect because he plays in a run heavy offense and doesn’t put up big numbers, but he’s graded out 17th, 27th, 20th, and 20th respectively in 4 seasons in the league since the Seahawks signed him as an undrafted free agent in 2011. In his career, he’s caught 196 passes for 2761 yards and 15 touchdowns on 294 attempts (66.7%) and 1502 routes run, a strong average of 1.84 yards per route run. Unlike Tate, the Seahawks wisely locked Baldwin up long-term last season on a 3-year, 13 million dollar deal that looks like a steal.

The problem is the Seahawks don’t have many options after Graham and Baldwin. Jermaine Kearse was the other starter last year and will probably be the other starter again this year, a problem because he isn’t very good. He graded out as Pro Football Focus’ 81st ranked wide receiver out of 110 eligible last season. He’s been better in the past, grading above average on 486 snaps in 2013, after struggling on 78 snaps as a rookie, but the former undrafted free agent is probably better off as a #3 receiver.

The Seahawks drafted Paul Richardson in the 2nd round in 2014 with this situation in mind and he was decent on 516 snaps as the #3 receiver as a rookie, but he tore his ACL during the playoffs in January and his 2015 season very much is in doubt. Even when he’s on the field, he’ll be the #3 wide receiver at best, assuming he holds off the likes of Ricardo Lockette and Tyler Lockett for the job. The former is a 2011 undrafted free agent who has played 284 nondescript snaps in 4 seasons in the league, while the latter is a 3rd round rookie drafted primarily for his special teams ability. It’s an improved receiving corps thanks to Jimmy Graham and Doug Baldwin is very underrated, but there are still a lot of problems here.

Grade: B

Offensive Line

While the receiving corps should be better this season thanks to Jimmy Graham’s arrival, their offensive line should be worse now without Max Unger. Unger was the 4th ranked center on Pro Football Focus and the only Seahawk offensive lineman to play a snap and grade out above average. Even more impressive, he ranked 4th despite only playing 385 snaps and missing 10 games with injury. No center played fewer snaps and graded out better at the position last season. The Seahawks desperately missed him when he was out of the lineup. In games he started in the regular season, the Seahawks moved the chains at a 78.89% rate, as opposed to 72.51% in games he missed. You can’t necessarily attribute all of that to Unger, but it’s worth noting. Unger’s replacement, Lemuel Jeanpierre, was horrible in 4 starts down the stretch last season. The 2010 undrafted free agent has graded out above average just once in 5 seasons in the league and is a steep downgrade.

The Seahawks also won’t be able to hide him because the rest of the offensive line sucks too. Also leaving this off-season was James Carpenter, who signed a 4-year, 19.1 million dollar with the Jets, after starting 13 starts at left guard for the Seahawks in 2014. He wasn’t nearly as big of a loss as Unger, primarily because Carpenter struggled last season. He’s someone who was overpaid by the Jets and someone who can be upgraded. It’s just unclear if the Seahawks have anyone who can be an upgrade.

Alvin Bailey is penciled in as the starter at left guard right now. He flashed on 84 snaps as an undrafted rookie in 2013 and made his first career starts in 2014, but struggled in the first significant action of his career, making 2 starts at left tackle and 3 starts at left guard, grading out below average at both positions. Bailey probably isn’t a downgrade from Carpenter, but he’s unlikely to be much of an upgrade either. He could be pushed for snaps by 4th round rookie Terry Poole later in the season.

At the right guard spot, the Seahawks have JR Sweezy, a 2012 7th round pick defensive tackle turned offensive lineman. The good news is he’s started 34 games in 3 seasons in the league and is coming off the best season of his career, but, even in the best season of his career, he was a mediocre starter, grading out as Pro Football Focus’ 51st ranked guard out of 78 eligible in 2014. He’s never graded out above average in his career and is unlikely to become an average starter this season.

The only recent big investment the Seahawks put into their offensive line was when they used a 2nd round pick in 2014 on Justin Britt. He made all 16 starts at right tackle last season, but graded out 74th out of 84 eligible offensive tackles. The Seahawks are hoping he can be better in his 2nd year in the league, but there are definitely no guarantees. The only potential saving grace on this offensive line is left tackle Russell Okung and I should emphasize potential.

Russell Okung was the 6th overall pick in the 2010 NFL Draft and he graded out as Pro Football Focus’ 8th ranked offensive tackle in 2012, but that type of dominance has been rare from him and he generally hasn’t lived up to his billing. He’s graded out below average in his other 4 seasons in the NFL, never played all 16 games in a season, and missed 21 games in 5 seasons with injury. It’s strange to think that the Seahawks’ offensive line could be one of the league’s worst, but they were one of the worst last season without Unger and that really hurt their ability to move the chains. Now, Unger is gone permanently. The Jimmy Graham trade doesn’t just make them definitely better.

Grade: D

Defensive Line

While the Seahawks’ offense was good last season, their defense was still better, finishing 2nd in rate of moving the chains allowed. Guys in the secondary like Earl Thomas, Richard Sherman, and Kam Chancellor get a lot of the credit in Seattle, but defensive lineman Michael Bennett is arguably as valuable as or more valuable than any of those three. He’s been a top-7 4-3 defensive end in each of the last 4 seasons, including a career best #2 last season, dominating as both a run stopper and a pass rusher at 6-3 274.

Bennett has been in the news this off-season because he’s not happy with his current contract and at times there have been rumors he wants to be traded. While I expect Bennett to be in Seattle this season, Bennett does seem serious about his demands. It’s a weird situation. Bennett gave the Seahawks a big hometown discount last off-season, signing a 4-year, 28.5 million dollar deal to remain in Seattle. However, after making 10 million in the first year of the contract (thanks to a big signing bonus), owed just 18.5 million remaining over 3 years, Bennett seems to have changed his mind. It’s not that Bennett wasn’t worth 10 million last season or that he doesn’t deserve a raise, but the Seahawks, given all of their expensive players, can’t really afford to be giving raises to guys who have 3 years left on their deal. Either way, Bennett should be on the field and dominating for the Seahawks this season.

Cliff Avril will start opposite Bennett once again. After seeing just 574 snaps in a largely situational role in the first year of a 2-year, 13 million dollar contract in 2013, Avril saw 736 snaps in 2014. Avril has graded out 12th and 13th  in 2013 and 2014 respectively since arriving in Seattle, but he is still probably better off in a situational pass rush role playing 500-600 snaps instead of 700-800. A 2008 3rd round pick, Avril has graded out above average as a pass rusher in 6 of 7 seasons in his career, but has also never graded out above average against the run. The 6-3 252 pounder is very much a finesse player. The Seahawks drafted defensive end Frank Clark out of Michigan in the 2nd round and he’s expected to eat into his snaps as a rookie. The 6-1 270 pounder should be a better run defender.

Bennett sees a lot of snaps inside in sub packages and, when he moves inside, much more often than not, the Seahawks drop down outside linebacker Bruce Irvin to be the other edge rusher, playing in that Von Miller/Khalil Mack-esque hybrid role. Irvin actually graded out below average as a pass rusher, but graded out 11th among 4-3 outside linebackers thanks to his run abilities and coverage abilities. Irvin, who graded out 10th among 4-3 outside linebackers in 2013 as well, graded out above average as a pass rusher in both 2012 and 2013, after the Seahawks made him a surprise 1st round pick in 2012. There was controversy after the Seahawks decided not to pick up his 5th year option and Irvin was talking about being traded to his hometown Atlanta Falcons. It seems weird that the Seahawks would decline the option when it’s only guaranteed for injury, but the Seahawks might just know they can’t give him a big salary because of their long-term cap issues and see him as expendable. He’s likely to be in Seattle next season though.

At defensive tackle, the Seahawks had 4 different players see significant snaps. The player that saw the fewest of the quartet was Brandon Mebane, who played just 289 snaps thanks to a hamstring injury that cost him the final 7 games of the season. He was much better in 2013 on the Super Bowl team, grading out as Pro Football Focus’ 3rd ranked defensive tackle, but that’s not the norm for him, as he’s graded out below average in 3 of the last 4 seasons. Going into an age 30 season, Mebane is primarily just a base package run stopper at this point in his career. He’ll be good to have back though.

Tony McDaniel should be the other base down player inside. He really struggled last season, grading out 72nd out of 81 eligible defensive tackles. He was much better in 2013, grading out as 15th among defensive tackles, including 4th in pure run grade. However, like with Mebane, that’s not the norm for him. Like Mebane, 2013 is the only season he’s graded out above average in the last 4 seasons and he’s graded out above average just twice in Pro Football Focus’ 8 year history. Going into his age 30 season, already his 10th season in the NFL, he’s a weak spot upfront.

In sub packages, McDaniel will cede snaps to Jordan Hill, a 2013 3rd round pick who graded out below average on 366 snaps last season, but excelled as a pass rusher. The Seahawks lost their 4th defensive tackle Kevin Williams in free agency this off-season, but they did add Ahtyba Rubin from the Browns. Rubin was one of the worst defensive tackles in the NFL last season, grading out as Pro Football Focus’ 74th ranked defensive tackle out of 81 eligible. He’s not generally this bad, but the last time he graded out above average on Pro Football Focus was 2009, so he’s not great either. He’s mere insurance and depth as the 4th defensive tackle right now. It’s once again a strong front, but there are some problems.

Grade: A-

Linebackers

I mentioned that Bruce Irvin plays linebacker in base packages, lining up outside as the 3rd outside linebacker in a primarily run stopping role, which, as I mentioned, he does quite well. In sub packages, it’s just Bobby Wagner and KJ Wright, who are one of the best linebacker duos in the NFL. Wright, a 2011 4th round pick, has graded out above average in all 4 seasons he’s been in the league, ranking 17th, 14th, 13th, and 6th in 2011-2014 respectively.

Wagner, meanwhile, is a 2012 2nd round pick who has graded out 2nd, 12th, and 5th in 3 seasons in the NFL. Especially impressive about his 2014 season was that he did that despite missing 5 games with injury. If you take out the 5 week stretch where he didn’t play, he ranks 2nd at his position.  In the 5 games he missed, the Seahawks allowed opponents to move the chains at a 72.38% rate, as opposed to 66.45% in the 11 games he played in the regular season. His presence was so noticeable that Tony Dungy actually cast his MVP vote for him because, as he explained, it’s most “valuable.” That’s absurd. Yes, the Seahawks did really miss him when he was hurt, but basic interference suggests that the Packers would have missed Aaron Rodgers far more if he were hurt or the Texans with JJ Watt.

However, Wagner did have a fantastic season. Going into his age 25 contract year, the Seahawks are trying to lock him up now so they’ll have the franchise tag free next off-season for Russell Wilson. Wagner is rumored to be in line to be the highest paid middle linebacker in the NFL. His only real issue is he’s missed 7 games with injury over the past 2 seasons. He, Wright, and Irvin make a very strong linebacking corps.

Grade: A

Secondary

Everyone knows about the Seahawks’ secondary, the legion of boom. There’s debate about who is the best member of it. Earl Thomas is a great coverage safety, but he missed too many tackles for me to consider him the best of this bunch. Instead, I think that title should go to Richard Sherman, who has made 48 of 48 starts over the past 3 seasons and 58 in 4 seasons in the league, since the Seahawks grabbed him as a steal in the 5th round in 2011. In 4 seasons in the league, he’s graded out 16th, 2nd, 5th, and 3rd from 2011-2014 respectively. He’s the only cornerback in the league to grade out in the top-5 in 3 straight seasons and is firmly in that top tier of cornerbacks with Darrelle Revis and Chris Harris.

At safety, the Seahawks have Earl Thomas and Kam Chancellor, who are among the best safeties in the league and complement each other very well. Both were drafted in 2010, but they’ve both taken different paths to the starting lineup. A first round pick, Thomas was a starter from the word go and has made 80 of 80 starts in 5 seasons in the league. Thomas has graded out above average in every season he’s been in the league, grading out 30th, 8th, 36th, 10th, and 5th in 2010-2014 respectively.

Chancellor, meanwhile, was a 5th round pick in 2010 and took a year to break into the starting lineup, flashing on 138 snaps as a rookie and then making 61 of 64 in the 4 seasons since. He’s graded out 5th, 20th, 12th, and 20th respectively from 2011-2014. Because the Seahawks have so much talent in the secondary, particularly Thomas and Sherman, Chancellor often plays near the line of scrimmage, playing 81.3% of his snaps within 8 yards of the line of scrimmage in 2014, 2nd most often in the NFL among eligible safeties, a great role for the 6-3 232 pounder. Meanwhile, the 5-10 208 pound Thomas played within 8 yards of the line of scrimmage on just 8.1% of snaps, 3rd least often in the NFL among eligible safeties. Thomas has missed 66 tackles in 5 seasons in the league, but, other than that, he’s great and he’s coming off the best season of his career in 2014.

The Seahawks lost Byron Maxwell at the other cornerback spot to a monster 6-year, 63 million dollar deal that he signed with the Eagles. However, Maxwell was massively overpaid as he was just Pro Football Focus’ 45th ranked cornerback in 2014. The Seahawks replaced him with Cary Williams, who he ironically replaced in Philadelphia, on a much more reasonable 3-year, 18 million dollar deal. Williams might not have Maxwell’s upside and he is going into his age 31 season, but he graded out 49th among cornerbacks last season, very similar to Maxwell. Williams has made 64 starts in the last 4 seasons, grading out 57th, 69th, 80th, and 49th respectively, slightly below average overall. He’s not very good, but he should be able to hold his own opposite Richard Sherman this year.

The slot cornerback spot should remain the only weak part in this secondary and there are 4 players who could conceivably play there. Jeremy Lane is the least likely to win the battle, even though the 2012 6th round has flashed on 524 snaps in 3 seasons in the league. That’s because he tore his ACL and broke his arm on the same play in the Super Bowl. He won’t be ready for the start of the season and he could easily miss the entire year. Tharold Simon is an option, after the 2013 5th round pick graded out slightly below average in the first experience of his career last season, playing 305 snaps, but he struggled mightily in the playoffs.

Realistically, the battle is between Marcus Burley and Will Blackmon. Burley began the season in the #3 role last season and ended up grading out above average on 328 snaps, after not playing a snap as an undrafted rookie in 2013. Blackmon, meanwhile, comes over as a free agent Jacksonville, where he played under former Seattle defensive coordinator Gus Bradley, who is the Head Coach in Jacksonville. Blackmon had the best year of his career in 2013 in Jacksonville in Bradley’s system, grading out as Pro Football Focus’ 22nd ranked cornerback on 682 snaps and he has the requisite size to play cornerback for Pete Carroll at 6-0 198, but 2013 is the outlier in his career. He’s graded out above average just 2 times in 8 seasons in Pro Football Focus’ history and has only played 66 games in 9 years in the league since being drafted in the 4th round in 2006. With Blackmon going into his age 31 season, the Seahawks would be better off with the youngster Burley. Despite uncertainty on the slot, it’s still arguably the best secondary in the NFL.

Grade: A

Conclusion

The Seahawks should once again be one of the best teams in the league this season. The NFC West is getting worse with Arizona unlikely to have as good of luck with turnovers and close games this season, the Rams still a little bit away, and San Francisco self-destructing, so Seattle has a fairly easy journey to the top of the NFC West for the 3rd straight year. Their offensive line is a big problem, but they’re strong pretty much everywhere else, particularly on defense. The only concern is that the Seahawks lost the Super Bowl last year and it’s been 40 years since a Super Bowl loser won the following year and 20 years since a Super Bowl loser even went back to the Super Bowl. That’s more than a fluke I think because teams that go that far and lose can be dejected and tired the following season. That’s certainly a possibility for a Seahawks team that has played 38 games in the last 2 seasons and 56 games in the last 3 seasons, but they should be one of the best teams in the NFL again. As with all teams, I’ll have official win/loss records for the Seahawks after I’ve done all team’s previews.

Prediction: 13-3 1st in NFC West

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