Seattle Seahawks 2017 NFL Season Preview

Quarterback

Since drafting Russell Wilson in the 3rd round in 2012, the Seahawks have gone 56-23-1 and won 8 playoff games. Wilson doesn’t deserve all the credit, as he’s always been supported by a strong defense, but this team could not have had the success they’ve had without strong quarterback play. Wilson has made every start in his career and has completed 64.7% of his passes for an average of 7.98 YPA, 127 touchdowns, and 45 interceptions in 5 seasons in the league, while adding another 2689 yards and 13 touchdowns on the ground on 483 carries (5.50 YPC). He’s been a top-6 quarterback on Pro Football Focus in 4 of those 5 seasons.

Wilson wasn’t quite himself in 2016 and multiple nagging numbers were the culprit. The most serious injury was a knee sprain he suffered early in the season. Ordinarily an injury that keeps players out for 4-6 weeks, Wilson played through it, but was not himself, especially on the ground. In the first 7 games of the season, he completed 65.6% of his passes for an average of 7.52 YPA, 5 touchdowns, and 2 interceptions, while rushing for just 44 yards on 25 carries (1.76 YPC). The Seahawks moved the chains at a mere 31.14% rate in those 7 games, 29th in the NFL over that stretch.

In the Seahawks’ final 9 regular games and their two 2 playoff games, he looked much more like himself, completing 64.4% of his passes for an average of 7.82 YPA, 20 touchdowns, and 11 interceptions, while rushing for 261 yards and 1 touchdown on 56 carries (4.66 YPC). The Seahawks moved the chains at a 37.02% rate in those 11 games. Unfortunately, the Seahawks lost safety Earl Thomas for the season with a broken leg week 13 and were not nearly the same defense after that, which significantly hurt their chances of making a deep run in the playoffs.

They were 3rd in the NFL with a 31.52% first down rate allowed at the time when Thomas was injured, but allowed opponents to move the chains at a 39.55% rate in the 6 games (4 regular season, 2 post-season) they played without Thomas. They went 4-1 in the 5-game stretch where Wilson looked healthy and Thomas was on the field, but, all in all, last season was probably their worst season in the Russell Wilson era, as they finished the season 8th with a 1.25% first down rate differential, impressive for most teams, but subpar for the Seahawks. They have a good chance to be better in 2017, but Wilson staying healthy is a necessity, especially since only veteran journeyman Austin Davis is behind him on the depth chart.

Grade: A

Running Backs

It wasn’t just Russell Wilson’s relative struggles that hurt this offense. They also couldn’t move the ball on the ground, which has always been a huge part of this offense. They finished the season averaging 3.95 YPC, 24th in the NFL. Part of that was because Wilson wasn’t as effective running the ball, but the running backs themselves also deserve a fair amount of the blame. In their first season without Marshawn Lynch, issues at the running back position weren’t a huge surprise, but the Seahawks were counting on Thomas Rawls, who averaged 5.65 yards per carry on 147 carries as an undrafted rookie in 2015, to fill Lynch’s shoes as the lead back and that didn’t happen.

Rawls ended up averaging just 3.20 yards per carry on 109 carries thanks to injuries. Rawls’ 2015 season ended with a broken leg and then he re-broke it again in the 2nd game of the season in 2016. When he returned, he did not look like himself. Third round rookie CJ Prosise flashed in his absence, but was limited to 6 games by injuries of his own. He finished the season with a 5.73 YPC average on 30 carries and 17 catches for 208 yards. With Rawls and Prosise both hurt, Christine Michael actually led the team in yards and carries with 117 and 469 (4.01 YPC), but he didn’t even finish the season with the team, getting cut mid-season and ending up in Green Bay.

If the Seahawks are going to get back to being a top level team, they will have to run the ball better. Wilson threw a career high 546 passes last season and, between pass attempts, sacks, and quarterback runs, Wilson was used on 659 plays last season, easily a career high. They will want him to run more this season, but they probably don’t want him throwing the ball that often and they definitely don’t want him to take all those sacks (41), so this offense needs to get back to being two-dimensional. They finished last season just 19th in first down rate.

Prosise and Rawls both have upside going into 2017, but the Seahawks didn’t feel that was enough, so they added veteran Eddie Lacy in free agency. Lacy has strong upside as well, but he also has considerable downside. A 2013 2nd round pick, Lacy rushed for 2315 yards and 20 touchdowns on 530 carries (4.37 YPC) in his first 2 seasons in the league and finished in the top-5 among running backs on Pro Football Focus in both seasons, but he was out of shape in 2015 and rushed for just 758 yards and 3 touchdowns on 187 carries (4.05 YPC). In 2016, he was in better shape and averaged 5.07 yards per carry on 71 carries in the first 5 games of the season, but then went down for the year with an ankle injury.

Going into his age 27 season, Lacy should still theoretically be in the prime of his career and could have a big season if he can stay healthy and stay in shape. His contract is heavily incentivized and he needs to meet certain weight goals at certain points to get bonuses, so the Seahawks are protecting themselves against risk. If all goes well, Lacy should be their lead back, with Prosise working as the passing down/change of pace back. Rawls’ path to playing time is blocked by Lacy, but he could finish 2nd on the team in carries and would take over as the lead back if Lacy were to struggle or get injured. Overall, there’s obvious upside here and the arrow is pointing up at running back for the Seahawks.

Grade: B-

Offensive Line

A big part of the reason why Wilson took so many sacks last season was simply that they couldn’t block upfront. The Seahawks have never really invested in the offensive line in the Russell Wilson era, always believing a good offensive line was less important because of Wilson’s scrambling ability and also trusting the ability of legendary offensive line coach Tom Cable to coach players up.

For the most part, that strategy has worked, as they’ve been able to invest at other positions and still have offensive success without strong offensive line play, but they took things a little too far last season. They had easily the cheapest offensive line in the league and had no proven starters. Cable was only able to do so much and Wilson’s injury turned him into more of a pocket quarterback and often left him a sitting duck when protection broke down. That led to more injuries, so it’s very important that they keep Wilson upright this season. Better offensive line play should help their running game too.

It wouldn’t be hard for them to be better upfront this season, but they’re still not very good on paper. Their two off-season additions were Luke Joeckel, signed from the Jaguars, and Ethan Pocic, drafted in the 2nd round out of LSU. Pocic made 27 of his 37 collegiate starts at center, but that’s the one position where the Seahawks got good play last season, as Justin Britt finished 10th among centers in his first season at the position.

A 2014 2nd round pick, Britt struggled mightily at right tackle as a rookie, finishing 74th out of 84 eligible offensive tackles on Pro Football Focus, and then wasn’t any better at right guard in his 2nd season in the league, finishing 75th out of 81 eligible guards. He seems to have found a home at center, though he is a one-year wonder, so I’d like to see him prove it again. If he does, he could be well-paid in free agency next off-season.

Pocic could end up at center in 2018 and beyond if Britt isn’t re-signed, but, for now, he will either play right guard (where he made 9 starts in college) or right tackle (where he made just 1 start in college. Pocic is a big lineman, but doesn’t have long arms, so right guard seems like a better fit for him, especially since he barely as any experience at right tackle. The Seahawks also seem to want to move last year’s first round pick Germain Ifedi from right guard to right tackle.

According to the Seahawks, Ifedi playing right tackle in his 2nd year in the league was always their plan and that was his collegiate position, but he struggled mightily at right guard last season, finishing dead last at the position on Pro Football Focus. Ifedi came into the league super raw and with a lot of bad college tape, so he was probably a reach in the first round. They need him to deliver on his upside quickly. He’s only going into his age 23 season. Veteran free agent Oday Aboushi is also an option at both right tackle and right guard, but he wouldn’t really be an upgrade at either spot. The 2013 5th round pick has made 18 career starts, but has never finished above average in a season on Pro Football Focus.

Luke Joeckel, their other off-season acquisition, was actually the 2nd overall pick in the 2013 NFL Draft, but was a massive bust in Jacksonville. As a rookie, he played just 5 games at right tackle before missing the rest of the season with an ankle injury. He then moved to left tackle, where he struggled mightily, finishing as Pro Football Focus’ 50th ranked offensive tackle out of 77 eligible in 2014 and their 67th out of 84 eligible in 2015. He then moved to guard in 2016 and was a little bit better, but missed the final 12 games of season after tearing his ACL.

The Seahawks took an expensive flyer on him this off-season, giving him a 1-year, 8 million dollar deal, making him easily their highest paid offensive lineman. He was once a highly touted player and is still only going into his age 26 season, but it’s becoming less and less likely that he’ll ever deliver on his upside. His durability is also a concern. The Seahawks think he played better at guard than tackle, so they will try him at left guard to start, but he could also end up playing left tackle for this team because that was a huge hole last season.

Undrafted rookie George Fant made 10 starts at left tackle last season, a position he had never played at any level. Fant was a basketball player and tight end at Western Kentucky University, but the Seahawks decided to try to turn him into an offensive lineman. The results were not pretty in year one, as he finished dead last among offensive tackles on Pro Football Focus. He truly did not look like he belonged and was responsible for multiple big hits on Wilson. The Seahawks still seem to like his upside and he is currently penciled in as the starting left tackle, after bulking up from 296 to 321 this off-season, but he’s likely to struggle again.

If the Seahawks move Joeckel from left guard to left tackle, Mark Glowinski, who made 16 starts at left guard last season, would move back into the starting lineup. Glowinski, a 2015 4th round pick, did not play well in the first significant action of his career, finishing 61st out of 72 eligible guards on Pro Football Focus, but he played better than Fant did at left tackle. Rees Odhiambo, their 3rd round pick in 2016, is also an option at both left guard and left tackle, but he played just 75 snaps as a rookie and is completely unproven. The Seahawks will likely use a bunch of different combinations upfront to find their best 5. Center is the only position that is solidified. This could easily be the worst offensive line in football again.

Grade: D

Receiving Corps

The good one thing Russell Wilson had going for him last season was this receiving corps. He got better play from his receivers last season than he ever had in his career. Not only did Doug Baldwin repeat his 2015 breakout season, but tight end Jimmy Graham made a miraculous recovery from a nasty torn patellar tendon injury suffered in November of 2015 during his first season with the Seahawks. Graham, who the Seahawks traded talented center Max Unger and a first round pick to acquire from New Orleans two off-seasons ago, seemed to be 100% returned to form in 2016.

Jimmy Graham didn’t match his 89/1099/12 season average from 2011-2014, but that’s mostly because the Seahawks are not as pass heavy as the Saints. He still caught 65 passes for 923 yards and 6 touchdowns and finished 5th among tight ends on Pro Football Focus, his 6th straight season in the top-15 among tight ends. He also had arguably his best run blocking season in 2016, which is very significant, given the type of offense this team likes to run. Now going into his age 31 season, there’s some risk he might decline, especially given his injury history, but he could easily have another couple strong seasons left in him. His numbers will likely fall if this team becomes more run heavy in 2017 though.

Doug Baldwin will remain Russell Wilson’s #1 target. A 2011 undrafted free agent, Baldwin had a breakout season in 2015, catching 78 passes for 1069 yards and 14 touchdowns on a run heavy offense and finishing 7th among wide receivers on Pro Football Focus. It was the first 1000 yard season of his career, but it should not have come as a shock because he was productive on a per route run basis through the first 4 seasons of his career, averaging an impressive 1.84 yards per route run and finishing in the top-27 among wide receivers in all 4 seasons.

In 2015, he just took it to another level and then he maintained that level of play into 2016, when he caught 94 passes for 1128 yards and 7 touchdowns and again finished 7th among wide receivers on Pro Football Focus. Going into his age 29 season, Baldwin should still be in his prime and is one of the best receivers in the NFL. Like Graham, his numbers could go down if this team doesn’t pass as often this season, but he still has a good chance at a 3rd straight 1000+ yard season.

Jermaine Kearse has been their #2 receiver over the past 3 seasons, making 45 starts over that time period, but he is coming off of arguably the worst season of his career, finishing last season 110th out of 115 eligible wide receivers and managing just a 41/511/1 slash line. He caught just 45.6% of his targets and led the league in offensive pass interference penalties. He was a league average starting wide receiver in 2014 and 2015, so he has some bounce back potential, but he could also easily lose his starting job to Tyler Lockett.

Lockett was supposed to take Kearse’s job last off-season, after finishing 32nd among wide receivers on 664 snaps as the #3 receiver in 2015, as a 3rd round rookie. However, Lockett was limited by knee issues for much of the season and then broke his leg in week 16, ending his season. He finished 60th among wide receivers on 558 snaps and made just 9 starts. Still only going into his age 25 season, Lockett has much more upside than Kearse and is probably the favorite to start opposite Baldwin. Lockett could easily have a breakout 3rd season in the league if he can stay healthy.

Kearse is not even a lock for the #3 receiver job. He’ll be pushed for the job by Paul Richardson, a 2014 2nd round pick who flashed down the stretch last season with Lockett injured. A 2014 2nd round pick, Richardson hasn’t played much in his career, but that’s largely because he tore his ACL at the end of his rookie season and was buried on the depth chart by the time he came back. Still only going into his age 25 season, he’s flashed in limited action throughout his career and has plenty of talent. I wouldn’t be surprised if he beat out Kearse for the #3 job. Amara Darboh, a 3rd round rookie, could also be in the mix for snaps.

The Seahawks will also use a lot of two tight end sets with Luke Willson, who was re-signed this off-season. Willson is an underwhelming player and has never caught more than 22 passes in a season, but he’s an adequate #2 tight end and a solid blocker. He won’t be needed much in the passing game though, because the Seahawks will probably pass fewer times this season and because they have other good options in the passing game like Doug Baldwin, Jimmy Graham, Tyler Lockett, and CJ Prosise.

Grade: A-

Defensive Line

Despite needs on offense, the Seahawks spent their first pick on a defensive tackle, trading down three times from 26 to 31 to 34 to to 35 select Michigan State defensive tackle Malik McDowell at the top of the 2nd round. He fills an immediate need at defensive tackle and will play at least in sub packages as a rookie. McDowell has first round talent, but was off some team’s boards because of concerns about his work ethic.

The Seahawks clearly think they can get the most out of him. As a rookie, he’ll likely split snaps with last year’s second round pick Jarran Reed (49th overall pick), who struggled on 477 snaps as a rookie, but could be better in his second season in the league. In contrast with the 6-6 296 pound McDowell, Reed is a big run stuffer at 6-3 311 and will play primarily in base packages, with McDowell coming in for him in sub packages.

Reed will play next to Ahtyba Rubin in base packages, although Rubin is arguably their worst starter. Rubin finished last season 113rd out of 125 eligible interior defensive lineman on 602 snaps and has finished well below average in 3 straight seasons on Pro Football Focus. Rubin was a solid player in his prime, but is now going into his age 31 season and is unlikely to get any better going forward. Owed a non-guaranteed 3.8 million in the final year of his contract in 2018, he could easily be let go this off-season. McDowell and Reed are the future at this position.

In sub packages, hybrid defensive lineman Michael Bennett moves from defensive end, where he plays in base packages, to defensive tackle. The 6-4 274 pounder has been one of the best defensive linemen in football in that role over the past several seasons. He’s been a top-7 4-3 defensive end in 6 straight seasons. He doesn’t always post huge sack numbers, but that’s partly because he usually lines up inside in passing situations and partly because he’s more of a disruptor than someone who finishes off the quarterback.

He takes on double teams, gets hits and hurries, makes it easier for other guys to get sacks, and plays the run at a high level as well. He’s going into his age 32 season, so there’s some reason for concern, but he still isn’t someone you want lining up in front of you as an offensive lineman. He finished last season 5th at his position, but did miss 5 games with injury, his first missed games since 2011.

With Bennett playing inside in passing situations, Frank Clark and Cliff Avril are their top edge rushers. They also rotate heavily in base packages and played 682 and 830 snaps respectively in 2016. Those roles could be flipped in 2017 because Clark is one of the best young edge rushers in the league, going into his 3rd season in the league (age 24), while Avril is a bit on the decline, going into his 10th season in the league (age 31).

Clark was a 2nd round pick in 2015 and appears to be a good one. After flashing on 364 snaps as a rookie, Clark broke out in 2016, finishing 12th among 4-3 defensive ends on Pro Football Focus. Avril, meanwhile, finished around middle of the pack, though he did finish 13th at his position in pure pass rush grade. Both he and Clark had double digit sacks last season. Avril has always been a much better pass rusher than run stuffer, finishing above average on Pro Football Focus 8 times in 9 seasons as a pass rusher, but just once as a run stuffer. The undersized 6-3 255 pounder would be best as a pure nickel rusher at this stage of his career, with Bennett and Clark as every down players. It’s a talented defensive line, even if their defensive tackles are underwhelming.

Grade: A-

Linebackers

The Seahawks also have a very talented linebacking corps. Bobby Wagner and KJ Wright are arguably the best linebacking duo in the NFL. Wagner is the better known player, but Wright has had just as good of a career. A mere 4th round pick in 2011, Wright has made 88 starts in 6 seasons in the league and has finished in the top-17 among 4-3 outside linebackers on Pro Football Focus in all 6 seasons, including 3 straight seasons in the top-6. Last season was his highest rated season, as he finished 3rd at the position. Still only going into his age 28 season, Wright is a do everything linebacker in the prime of his career and is criminally underrated on this Seattle defense.

Wagner, meanwhile, is also in the prime of his career, as the 2012 2nd round pick is just going into his age 27 season. He’s been a top-18 middle linebacker in each of his first 5 seasons in the league, including 3 seasons in the top-5. One of those 3 seasons was last season, when he finished 3rd among middle linebackers. Both players should have strong seasons again, as every down linebackers on this defense.

Cassius Marsh was the 3rd linebacker last season, but the 2014 4th round pick and ex-defensive end didn’t fare well in his first season at linebacker and will face competition from free agent acquisition Michael Wilhoite. Wilhoite has made 34 starts over the past 3 seasons at middle linebacker in the 49ers’ 3-4 defense, but has finished in the bottom-10 among middle linebackers in all 3 seasons on Pro Football Focus. He might fare better as a base package outside linebacker in Seattle’s 4-3, but he’s definitely an underwhelming option and might not be an upgrade on Marsh. Fortunately, this role doesn’t play many snaps, as the Seahawks are often in sub packages. Marsh played just 387 snaps last season. This is still an incredible linebacking corps.

Grade: A

Secondary

The Seahawks’ secondary is probably the group that gets the most attention, led by the Legion of Boom, Richard Sherman, Earl Thomas, and Kam Chancellor. However, they have a big problem at cornerback behind Sherman on the depth chart. DeShawn Shead and Jeremy Lane were their #2 and #3 cornerbacks respectively last season, but Shead tore his ACL late last season and is unlikely to play at all in 2017, while Lane struggled mightily, finishing 94th out of 111 eligible cornerbacks on 769 snaps.

To upgrade the position, the Seahawks used a pair of draft picks, first taking Central Florida cornerback Shaquill Griffin in the 3rd round and then taking Cincinnati safety Mike Tyson in the 6th round, who they will convert into a cornerback. Those two will compete for playing time with Lane. Lane is a solid slot cornerback, but he has struggled in the past when he’s had to play outside and he only has 15 starts in 5 seasons in the league, so either Griffin or Tyson could be the favorite to start outside opposite Sherman. They could be easier to pass on this season than they have been in recent years.

Fortunately, they still have Sherman, Thomas, and Chancellor, who will help mask their depth issues at cornerback. Sherman is coming off of a bit of a down year though, finishing 13th among cornerbacks on Pro Football Focus, after finishing in the top-5 in each of the previous 4 seasons. He reportedly wasn’t 100% all season, as he played through a knee injury, so he could easily bounce back in 2017, his age 29 season. He’s still one of the best cornerbacks in the NFL.

Chancellor and Thomas also dealt with injuries in 2016. Chancellor missed 4 games with a groin injury, while Thomas missed the final 4 games of the season and their 2 playoff games with a broken leg. Chancellor has missed 7 games with injury over the past 2 seasons, which is a bit of a concern, but he’s also going into his age 29 season, so he’s in his late prime like Sherman and could easily have another strong season. In fact, he finished last season a career best 3rd among safeties on Pro Football Focus. He’s been a top-22 safety on Pro Football Focus for 6 straight seasons. The Seahawks did draft a pair of safeties for depth purposes, Delano Hill in the 3rd round and Tedric Thompson in the 4th round, so the Seahawks might not bring Chancellor back as a free agent next off-season.

Thomas, meanwhile, talked about retirement last season after he broke his leg, but that was never a serious consideration. Prior to the injury, he had made 106 straight starts to begin his career and is still only going into his age 28 season. He finished “only” 14th among safeties last season before the injury, but he’s been a top-10 safety in 4 of the last 7 seasons. This is still a strong secondary, but their lack of cornerback depth makes them more vulnerable.

Grade: A-

Conclusion

The Seahawks have obvious issues on the offensive line still, but their key players should be healthier this season and they should run the ball better with the addition of Eddie Lacy. This team should be better than they were last season and should compete for another Super Bowl, though there are a few teams I would rank higher than them. 

Final update: The Seahawks lost 2nd round pick Malik McDowell to injury, but replace him with ex-Jet Sheldon Richardson, who they acquired for a 2nd round pick and wide receiver Jermaine Kearse (who was beaten out for the #3 receiver job by Paul Richardson). Richardson is an upgrade for what was already the best defense in the NFL. They have issues at running back and on the offensive line, but are still one of the most talented teams in the league. With four games against the 49ers and Rams, the Seahawks should considered be the favorites to win the #1 overall seed in the NFC.

Prediction: 12-4, 1st in NFC West

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s