|Russell Wilson has played his way into a roster spot for the Seahawks. Will he start Week 1? (US Presswire)|
The Seattle Seahawks really, really like their young defense. There is a general excitement about where that young group is and where it is going. But to the coaches, execs, and even some players in this organization, the offense is much more of a work in progress.
There are questions at quarterback. There is a pretty wide, sweeping open competition going on for spots at wide receiver. And, as one team source said, "my biggest concern is the offensive line." So clearly this team could be a bit unbalanced this season.
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The good news is that last year a team led by Alex Smith won the division. And the year before that, a team led by an aging Matt Hasselbeck won the division (these very Seahawks). The is an overall passing deficiency in the NFC West, and though they are at varying stages of health, and varying stages of their careers, receivers like Sidney Rice, Terrell Owens and Braylon Edwards all have done big things at times in this league ... just not so much lately.
Of course, the run game will carry the day. No doubt about that. Marshawn Lynch will take on a heavy load and this will be a throwback team built on ground control, a menacing defense and probably the NFL's best home-field advantage. If they can sustain a vertical threat through Rice, Edwards or T.O., then all the better. Matt Flynn will be asked to more or less manage games and come up with a few big plays here and there ... Which sounds an awful lot like the 49ers' template a year ago, and we all know how that went.
On paper, they feel good about it all, but games aren’t played on paper, the front office is eager to see how everyone gels, and if they can in fact strike up some chemistry, than a shot at the division is within reach.
Take T.O.’s temperature: Everyone here knows this cat can go rouge at any moment. According to team sources he has been humble, contrite and worked after practice with other receivers. He didn't even provide pushback when asked to lose the garish tights he usually practices in under his shorts. "He’s been a model citizen, but we’re keeping a close eye on everything,” one source said. “We know that can change in a hurry.” Actually, T.O is just one offbeat character in these offensive meeting rooms. Lynch has had off-field issues and isn’t always the most stable dude. Edwards has quickly worn out his welcome in other places. Kellen Winslow has been alienating people since before he came into the league. And T.O. is still T.O., even if on his best behavior.
That’s a lot of, um, personality, to juggle. If Pete Carroll can make it work, more power to him, but there is the potential for flare ups and getting these guys to foster some relationships in the preseason is very high on the to-do list.
Sort Out The QBs: The Seahawks are pretty far along in this regard. Flynn is most likely going to start the opener, but they believe rookie Russell Wilson could start pretty much ASAP, if need be, and he will start the third preseason game with that in mind. However, with Flynn there they expect to err on the side of caution, team sources said. The Seahawks have kept Tarvaris Jackson off the field in games with the hope of dealing him (preferably for a fifth-round pick that could become a fourth-rounder), league sources said, and trade talks should intensify soon.
Regardless, they aren’t likely to carry three quarterbacks. Barring an injury, Jackson is the odd man out. Getting a deal worked out in short order would be ideal.
Find Reps for Irvin: Bruce Irvin is a long-term project in terms of making him a regular part of the defense. He is raw, and had major off field issues in college. But he was also the best natural pass rusher in the draft, according to many GMs I’ve talked to. He has tremendous instinct, and while he’s learning the basics of coverage and boning up on some defensive principles, getting him involved in some obvious passing situations is key.
The Seahawks believe Irvin can be a third-down factor right away by limiting his assignments and putting him position to let his natural ability flourish. He should be the perfect counterpart to speed rusher Chris Clemons, but, like some other guys on this team, will have to be watched closely. Getting some initial burst out of him would be a boost to an already stout defense, and he looked lively in Denver over the weekend and even managed to get his hands on Peyton Manning, the first time the quarterback has been hit since his neck surgery (it was a tame shot, it should be noted).
Wide receiver: This is a free for all. The Seahawks figure they'll keep six receivers -- given all of the depth there. But might they also keep four tight ends, as they like some options there, too? And many of their receivers are not going to give them anything on special teams, which complicates things. Rice, Golden Tate, slot guy Doug Baldwin, and Ben Obomanu (a key on special teams) are in, but the powers that be are unsure if there is room at the inn for Edwards and T.O. In the end, I have a feeling Edwards, who is younger and has more downfield thrust, makes it over T.O., as there is a real trepidation that Owens could turn sour if he feels he isn’t being fed the ball much. Deon Butler is in this muddled mix as well.
As for who starts, Rice is in if/when he is fully healthy, which is rare. Baldwin is a top slot option. The front office believes Tate is ready to make a real push for a starting spot, but I wouldn’t be shocked to see Edwards opposite Rice come Week 1. Owens really struggled to get on the same page with Flynn in the second preseason game, getting targeted five times, making no catches, with T.O. flat-out dropping a perfectly thrown bomb in the end zone. Not good.
Defensive tackle: Jason Jones could end up being a steal in free agency, but with a deep injury history he has to be managed and limited in practices (this is a recurring theme for this team, as we’ll address below). Alan Branch was the starter at left tackle last season and while a solid contributor, coaches are enamored with Jones’ ability to burst into the backfield and create interior penetration, and that has already flashed through two preseason games. Jones is also highly motivated -- he signed a ”prove-it” deal. So if he stays healthy and is productive -- he's still in his mid-20s -- Jones would be in line for a big contract.
Middle linebacker: Rookie Bobby Wagner would have a lot of responsibility trying to quarterback the defense, but with Barrett Ruud first hurt then traded to the Saints, the reps Wagner's getting now make it more likely he'll keep the job. He had a strong outing in his preseason debut and has gotten better through camp, coaches say. I expect youth to prevail here. I don’t see someone else creeping up on the roster to dethrone Wagner now.
Somebody to watch
LT Russell Okung: He has been oft-injured and has yet to live up to his high draft status, but the breakthrough could be at hand. Players and coaches told me he has become more vocal, more fiery. He is persevering through the remnants of the torn pectoral muscle that ended last season. He had ankle injuries the season before that. He seems stronger for it, the Seahawks say, and they expect him to begin playing at a Pro Bowl level. “He’s becoming more of a leader,” general manager John Schneider said of the third-year player.
The Seahawks hoped Okung could be a guy to carry the standard once set by Walter Jones, and if he does fulfill that that franchise-tackle potential, the passing game, and Flynn, could flourish. But the protection must improve from where it’s been the past few years.
The biggest issue here is nursing along guys who come into the year off of serious, nagging problems from a year ago. Rice has never been fully healthy with his shoulders. Edwards is still trying to get his legs fully under him. Okung has the pec thing, Winslow is no stranger to injury, RB Leon Washington, with his knee history, has to be watched.
John Moffitt, who was expected to push for a starting guard spot, is expected back relatively shortly from an elbow injury.
The last word
I like the direction this team is headed, and I’m not ruling out a division title. Will the 49ers stay pretty much entirely injury free, have like a plus-30 turnover ratio and get the same kind of year out of Alex Smith again? I’m not so sure, and if this bunch can get to 10-6, I say that takes the NFC West.
Seattle will throw some interesting two-tight end sets out there with Winslow and Zach Miller, and I am of the belief Flynn will be just fine. He has flashed good athleticism, is able to roll out and is plenty mobile. He threaded a few nice balls against a tough Denver defense in the second preseason game. I suspect this group gets to play with the league more than they have been accustomed to in recent years, which will help Flynn as well, and never under estimate the impact of The 12th Man at home games.