The Hit Job editors Julian Rogers and Jessica Ridpath preview the Seattle Seahawks’ outlook as they prepare for the 2016 NFL season.
When: Saturday, July 30, 2016
Where: Virginia Mason Athletic Center (VMAC), Renton, Wash.
Rogers: How loaded are the Seattle Seahawks as they prepare for the 2016 season? Very. Despite last season’s clunker of a conclusion at the hands of eventual Super Bowl participants the Carolina Panthers, the Seahawks are positioned at or near the top of most sports prognosticators’ picks as a/the team to beat in the NFC — this season and beyond.
Temper, temper … our enthusiasm. Fellow NFC West contenders, the Arizona Cardinals (and the division’s reigning champion) also look strong. As do the 2015 NFC North champions, the Minnesota Vikings, and the always-in-the-hunt Green Bay Packers. The Panthers will get their top receiver back and the Dallas Cowboys, reloaded offensively, could very well be more like their 2014 12–4 squad than last year’s injury decimated 4–12 debacle. If they can get their defense worked out (a big if).
The Seahawks won’t have to battle the Vikings or the Cowboys next year, but they will have to face off again against the Panthers, who ended their 2015 season, and play at the New England Patriots, who ended their 2014 season. Memorably, ahem.
Apart from a tough-ish schedule, where else should we be concerned? Most would say the 12s should focus Seahawkian anxiety on the constantly-in-flux offensive line. I’m going to offer a different concern: the quarterback position.
Russell Wilson has ascended to the status of NFL quarterback prototype for the Seahawks. It’s a great time for Seahawks quarterbacking. The issue is who is backing him up. And it’s a curious set of circumstances. Why roll the dice with a couple of undrafted rookies / first-year players at the game’s most important, longest-to-develop position, when you are a legitimate Super Bowl contender?
Wilson, remarkably durable, is still only one play away from being knocked out. No quarterback is immune. Gone is the past three seasons’ security blanket, former starter Tarvaris Jackson. In his stead are Trevone Heaps and Jake Boykin. Actually, it’s Trevone Boykin and Jake Heaps, but I’ll bet you didn’t know that. And why would you? You’ve got a tumultuous social life to work out, instead of tracking the blue birds’ camp bodies.
Yes, that’s it. Boykin and Heaps to back up Wilson. If Wilson goes down, there is no viable Plan B. It’s Super Bowl contenders no more. Why risk that?
The Seahawks appear to be moving on from Jackson. The reason looks to be related to his June arrest for pulling a gun in his wife, but it’s hard to say. Particularly because the Seahawks have previously offered nothing but public praise for the veteran’s locker room demeanor and leadership. And also because they have a fairly slippery relationship with players accused of off-field violence: Frank Clark (last year’s top draft pick) and — wait for it — this year’s leading backup quarterback, Trevone Boykin.
Earlier this month, Boykin pleaded guilty to resisting arrest and striking a police officer in San Antonio, Texas. His availability for Seahawks training camp is no longer in question. Only his suitability to be the No. 2 guy behind Wilson. Positive Pete Carroll likes him, of course. When he’s your only option and training camp has yet to begin, what’s not to like?
Jess, do you think this is just a look-see, to test the young guys, with the intention of bringing in a veteran during training camp? Or are the Seahawks really pinching pennies this tightly for good reason? What position group causes you the most concern?
Ridpath: Are you talking to me? You went on for so long I thought perhaps you were having a dialogue with your female alter ego.
I wouldn’t be surprised if the Seahawks are banking on these two rookie back-ups being up to snuff. Why? They may need the cash to re-up contracts with antsy veterans — Michael Bennett, for instance. (Who can forget their sluggish start last year amid Kam Chancellor’s contract holdout?)
That said, you make a good point that any quarterback, no matter how good, is just one hit away from a season-ending injury. Perhaps that’s why some are saying offensive line coach Tom Cable is the most important position coach in football right now. Seattle’s 2015 line was an often out-of-tune game of musical chairs. And it appears the game continues. With Russell Okung and J.R. Sweezy lost to free agency, Garry Gilliam trying on left tackle, Justin Britt in the mix at center, and a handful of rookies to consider, we’ll likely see new starters at all five positions this season.
Cable has high hopes for 2016 draft picks Germain Ifedi (first round), Rees Odhiambo (third round), and Joey Hunt (sixth round). But he’ll have to get his puzzle put together relatively quickly to give the new guys (and the returners who take on new positions) time to gel.
If the pieces don’t fit, we may see a replay of last season — when Wilson hit the turf so many times that 12s everywhere were feeling the bruises. If the blue birds indeed gamble on two untested back-up QBs, they better be certain that the reconfigured line can protect their starter. Come hell or high water. Either that, or Wilson will just needs to keep on being super-human. (In 2015, only Blake Bortles and Aaron Rodgers were sacked more times than Wilson — yet he still earned the highest rating among full-time QBs. That’s pretty remarkable.)
Gosh, now I’m getting excited! But since there’s only room for one word hog in this column, I’ll punt it back to you, Julian: Which Seahawks’ position group are you most excited to see take the field this year?
Rogers: My female alter what? Wow. The 12s hope the Seahawks can get off to as fast of a start this season as you. Welcome to the NFL, to me.
About that offensive line. When hasn’t changing out all five starters worked wonders? Don’t answer. The o-line has been the biggest source of angst for the Seahawks for two years running. And now, given the lack of depth behind the starting quarterback, they plan to enact their greatest re-shuffle yet. Talk about pressure on Mr. Cable and his new guys.
The position group I’m most expecting to be a strength for the 2016 Seahawks is … the receivers. Here’s why: The Seahawks’ top two receivers (Doug Baldwin & Jermaine Kearse) both started all 16 games. Baldwin notched a career year with 78 receptions for 1,069 yards and 14 touchdowns on 103 targets. He was rewarded with a new long-term (four years) contract. Kearse got his long-term deal (three years) in March. While not as gaudy as Baldwin’s numbers, Kearse managed a workmanlike 685 yards and five touchdowns on 68 targets. His yards per reception are actually better than Baldwin’s 14.0 to 13.7. That’s very solid chemistry forged with Russell Wilson. It’s a strong and often overlooked combination.
Adding to that, second-year wide receiver Tyler Lockett may surpass one or both starters as soon as this season. He played in all 16 regular season games with eight starts. His 51 receptions on 69 targets and six touchdowns edged out Kearse in all three categories. (Kearse had the edge in YPR and total yards.) With scary speed that can take the top off the defense, the needle is pointing up for Lockett to take an even bigger step in year two, and bring the entire Seahawks’ receiving corps along with him.
The tight ends should also be improved, if injury does not once again ruin the season of either starter Jimmy Graham or occasional starter Luke Willson. Willson, now in his fourth year, has grown to be a versatile tool for Wilson the quarterback, although his numbers declined last year with the arrival of Graham. Graham’s season ended just as he was getting comfortable in the offense, so I expect he and Wilson will build on that in 2016. Expect targets, yards, receptions and touchdowns to grow significantly for Graham in his second Seahawks season.
We skipped the defense, but let’s just consider them well-stocked enough to repeat near the top in most defensive efficiency rankings, a la 2015, 2014, 2013 ….
Prediction time, pre-preseason edition. Any incorrect guesses and we will cheerfully refund your ticket price: How do you see the NFC West stacking up in 2016, Jess?
Ridpath: What, no comeback after my snarky remarks? I’m not sure whether to be grateful … or scared of what you’ll come up with to get even with me next time.
Speaking of feeling grateful versus scared: One NFC West team should obviously be feeling the latter. The shadow-of-their-former-selves San Francisco 49ers are facing one of the toughest schedules 2016 has to offer. Gone are veterans Anquan Boldin and Alex Boone. Still around are (yawn) Blaine Gabbert and Colin Kaepernick, who will ostensibly be battling it out for the starting QB spot now that Kap has been cleared to practice (advantage, Gabbert). New to the team is former Philadelphia Eagles coach Chip Kelly — but I think we’ve seen enough of him in the NFL to assume that’s more worrisome than exciting. (And believe me, as someone who grew up a stone’s throw from the University of Oregon and has followed the Eagles closely for years, I’d love to give him the benefit of the doubt. But I can’t.)
Long story short: It’s gonna be a hot mess down in San Fran. I expect we’ll see them at the bottom of the division all season long. Prediction: 5 and 11.
The Los Angeles Rams won’t fare much better. By virtue of landing in the NFC West, rookie quarterback Jared Goff will have to face two of the league’s toughest defenses (Seattle and Arizona, ranked #2 and #5 last season, respectively). Twice. I already feel bad for the kid. Prediction: 7 and 9.
That leaves us with a repeat of last year’s divisional contenders: Seattle and Arizona. The Cardinals appear to have a slightly easier schedule overall (of note: they’re one of four lucky teams that will face the always tough New England Patriots while Tom Brady is on the sidelines). But this season will be a tale of two halves for the red birds: They get underway with a hefty helping of home games … and end with five of seven on the road. Not ideal conditions for veteran quarterback Carson Palmer and his penchant for late-season implosions. Prediction: 11 and 5.
Seattle’s early season also looks to be cake walkish, which may be a boon given their sluggish start last year. But they get their bye very early (week 5), leaving a long row to hoe in the season’s second half — which includes games against the two teams that sent them packing in the last two post-seasons (New England and the Carolina Panthers.)
I expect we’ll see a close race, but I give the edge to Seattle. Assuming Wilson stays healthy (here’s where I elbow Tom Cable … really hard), he’ll have better stamina than Palmer down the stretch. And, oh my gosh, Thomas Rawls. I’m counting the days until we get to see his Barry Sanders-like moves again. Then there’s the potentially stellar receiving corps you so astutely pointed out. And, of course, the LOB.
If the Seahawks offensive line can play even marginally better than they did last season, I expect the division title will wind up back in Seattle. Prediction: 12 and 4.
Okay, Julian. How do you see the NFC West this year?
Rogers: Speaking of going long, snarky Kathy, is this an article or a book? Word hog.
I am so disappointed in myself. I have to agree with everything you said. I hate that.
I’ll make the most minor of quibbles, particularly because I thought I would have a rosier view of the 49ers than you would. While I agree they are easily the fourth best team in the division, I think your prediction of five wins is too high. I honestly see them as a three- or four-win team. And I don’t hate on the Gabbert/Kaepernick option as much as most do.
With your great analysis considered, here is how I stack it up in the NFC West:
- Seattle Seahawks 12–4. (Needle pointing up on offense; keeping pace on defense)
- Arizona Cardinals 12–4. (David Johnson = stud; passing game very efficient)
- Los Angeles Rams 7–9. (Step back with rookie QB growing pains; big step forward with healthy, 16-game Todd Gurley)
- San Francisco 49ers 4–12. (Rebuilding — lack of identity, lack of star talent)