Long time no see Seahawks fans. I trust the off-season has treated you all well. I will say right up front that I am predicting 11 wins, possibly 12 for Seattle this year. I think most knowledgeable commentators agree that Seattle is well-positioned to break the much ballyhooed “Super Bowl loser’s curse” this season, barring catastrophic injury. I will preview the 2006 season by offering remarks on each unit, strongest unit first. I weight the units on a subjective assessment of likely performance. Given the high likelihood of injuries, I place great weight on the quality of depth in each unit (i.e., drop-off from starter to primary backup to third string). Consequently, my unit rankings likely privilege those that normally use multiple players at a given position during a game (e.g., WR or linebacker). Your mileage, of course, may vary.
- The Offensive Line. This unit virtually ensures that the offense will remain among the league’s elite. Anchored by the incomparable Walter Jones and the emerging Sean Locklear, this line allows Holmgren to “throw any pitch on any count” so to speak. Nevertheless, losing Steve Hutchinson this off-season will hurt, especially given the persistent nagging injuries that plague Pork Chop Womack, his replacement. I wonder if we are all just a tad over-anxious about Hutchinson’s loss though. It is easy to forget that we were all prepared to pencil Pork Chop in at right tackle without so much as a second thought and we were expected a performance similar to what Sean Locklear produced in 2005. Pork Chop Womack is a talented offensive lineman with experience in the offense. He is not some “replacement level” guard (to borrow a sabremetrics term). If--and it's a big if--he can avoid extended injury time he could easily be a top 15 guard, a drop-off from Hutchinson that may only be noticeable against the best defenses. Adding to Womack’s talent is the advantage of playing next to a tackle he never has to help. In truth I have far greater concerns about Robbie Tobeck and Chris Gray. Both played at a high level in 2005 but the signs of inevitable decline are apparent. Their holding penalties were high last season. Alleviating those concerns to some degree is the quality of depth on the line. Yesterday (Sunday), I heard Mike Sando on Siruis NFL Radio talking about this very thing. He remarked that even rookie Rob Sims’ biggest supporters did not expect him to be able to contribute this year. But that was before he got to camp. Right now the team would have no problem playing him at guard ahead of Tom Ashworth—who Sando mentioned is NOT an option at guard—in case of injury. Ray Willis, Chris Spencer, and Sims would all start on every other team in the division, and a majority of teams in the NFC. (Who doesn’t think Dallas would kill to have those three kids?) Frankly, I could see Spencer starting by week 4 should Tobeck or Gray continue to decline. This is a good, good thing people. I break into a rye smile when I see teams, particularly in the NFC West that just haven’t found that knack for identifying quality offensive linemen in the draft. The Seahawks just about have that down to a science.
- Defensive Line. The defensive line runs a close second to the offensive line as the strength of the team. Though it lacks the individual one-on-one talent of some of the league’s more heralded defensive fronts it has great versatility and depth. The unit’s strength, despite ranking 6th in adjusted sack rate in 2005, is really against the run. The maturation of Marcus Tubbs has been the key (as well as the play of Grant Wistrom when healthy). The addition of Russell Davis promises to improve the run defense even more. The big issues facing the unit in 2006 are health and regression. Depth is a great luxury but virtually all of the key players are returning from off-season surgery or recovery of some kind (i.e., Rocky Bernard, Marcus Tubbs, Russell Davis, and Grant Wistrom). Also, the team got great contributions from veteran "high motor" guys on the downside of their careers like Chartric Darby and Joe Tafoya. How much can it count on them to play at the same level in 2006? The steady, productive Craig Terrill is a valuable rotation tackle, and the addition of Darryl Tapp looks to be a continuation of last year’s draft where the rookies will contribute right away.
- Running Backs. The numbers practically speak for themselves in 2005 for each of the backs, not just Alexander. Stump Mitchell should get a lot more ink than he does outside the Seattle papers for the excellent job he does. In 2006 the big issues are usage and age. It seems folly to expect another 1,800 yard season from Alexander. He passed the magic threshold of 320+ touches that typically indicates sharp decline in the following season. I don’t expect Alexander to fall off a cliff but the loss of Hutchinson, an aging center and right guard, an aging Mack Strong and a somewhat improved division could bring his numbers from the stratosphere back to the world of mere mortals. I fully expect around 15-25 touchdowns, however. As always, Mo Morris remains a capable backup running back.
- Quarterbacks. Matt Hasselbeck is one of the five best QBs in the NFL with no caveats. He’s good in pretty much every phase of the game. He has complete command of the offense. By his own admission when he loses focus he still makes the occasional bone-headed throw but he is in most instances a cerebral guy who doesn’t make many mistakes. Like just about every other team in the league though, woe be unto us should Hasselbeck miss a substantial number of games. At this point we don’t really know what we have backing him up in Seneca Wallace. Fortunately, this is precisely because Hasselbeck has been pretty durable. Holmgren appears to have faith in Wallace as the #2 QB and David Greene at #3. Thus far it appears Seattle has decided not to pursue any of the WCO QBs who came available at different times this off-season (e.g., A.J. Feeley, Koy Detmer).
- Linebackers. Boy, this is a really good, uber-athletic unit with the addition of Julian Peterson. Lofa Tatupu is actually the least athletic starting linebacker. Yikes! On the draft day in 2005 I thought the Seahawks got themselves an absolute steal at linebacker. Only, I thought it would be Leroy Hill challenging for rookie of the year and helping us solve some of our pass rush problem. Oh, and I thought that Tatupu kid would be okay but would never live up to a second round paycheck. Well, I was half-right. I still think Leroy Hill will develop into a special player as a pass rusher. The presence of Peterson may be one of the main reasons for it. Where this unit has been weak has been in coverage, particularly of tight ends (though a bit better against running backs). That seems like the sort of thing that can be tweaked and fixed with another year under the same coordinator. Fortunately, this unit enters the season—knock wood—pretty healthy.
- Receivers. When everyone is healthy this unit may rank slightly ahead of the linebackers based largely on the productivity of the non-starters. However, D-Jack’s knee trouble is increasingly looking like a degenerative condition that cannot be resolved but will have to be managed. Bobby Engram though, continues to age like fine wine. Fortunately for Seattle, he moves back to his 3rd down slot role; one where he can take advantage of matchups with his saavy. Newcomer Nate Burleson looks like a Jackson/Engram clone in that he is more quick and crafty than a raw speedster. He also has very good run-after-catch ability. Hopefully, this will be the much-awaited breakout season for D.J. Hackett. Football Outsiders rated him as the league’s most productive receiver among those with 50 or fewer catches in 2005. He brings a downfield threat because of his size and ability to snatch the ball out of the air. That ability may be called upon, especially early in the season because of the injury to Jeremy Stevens. Stevens was Seattle’s biggest downfield weapon in 2005. With him out of the lineup until at least October—let’s not hold our breath that he’ll be ready by then—that dimension of the offense may need to fall to Hackett. (The rumors continue to float about Seattle’s interest in Patriot wideout Deion Branch. At this point we will just have to keep our eyes on that.)
- Kicker. Seattle is solid in the kicking game with Josh Brown. Unfortunately, in the Super Bowl Brown picked the biggest stage to display uncharacteristic wildness. He is one of the better young kickers in the league. What really needs improvement is his distance on kickoffs. (I will cover the kickoff team separately as a unit.)
- Defensive Backs. This is not a particularly strong unit, though it got better as the season progressed in 2005 especially when factoring in the injuries. Marcus Trufant is developing into a super-solid second-tier defensive back. He is a good cover corner who does not get many interceptions. Unfortunately, he is the best of the bunch by a good margin. The rest of the secondary is erratic or unproven. There is much to like about rookie first rounder Kelly Jennings. He could start opposite Trufant fairly soon. The current starter at that spot, Kelly Herdon, is ideally a 3rd or 4th cornerback. He is probably slightly above replacement level. Jimmy Williams is probably slightly below replacement level. Jordan Babineaux has been the Pork Chop Womack of the secondary in the sense that he has not been able to focus in on one position. He will move back to safety due to injuries at the position. His versatility will likely enable Seattle to look for waiver wire reinforcement at either corner or safety, depending on the better of the off-the-street options. At safety Seattle has two promising young players. Ken Hamlin appears to be back from his injury—knock wood—but his strength is as the enforcer rather than in pass coverage. Michael Boulware is a ball-hawking safety but is incredibly erratic. Sometimes we laud his knack for being Johnny-on-the-spot. (Remember his game saving pick against Miami in 2004?) At other times he allows receivers to catch wobbly, wounded duck passes right in front of him, almost as if he’s lost them in the sun. (Remember the wounded duck he allowed Hines Ward to catch in the Super Bowl setting up Roethlisburger’s TD dive?) We as fans must remember that Boulware is still learning the position. His game-to-game improvement is impressive overall, but the learning curve at safety is not just steep it’s bumpy. Seattle has had such an unfortunate run of luck trying to fill-in at the safety spot with players who could help ease the transition. Last season Marquand Manuel filled in admirably but we acquired him to add to the mix with Hamlin and Boulware rather than replace one of the two. Ditto John Howell, who also ended up hurt. Mike Green is apparently playing the role of drummer in the 2006 Seahawks version of This is Spinal Tap. Note to Oliver Celistin: run while you still can!
- Kickoff/Punt Coverage. Seattle’s coverage teams were pretty good overall in 2005. Based on Football Outsider’s drive stats opponents began their offensive drives on average at their own 29.5 yard line. That ranked them 7th in the league. However decomposing the numbers into kickoff and punt coverage tells a different story. The kickoff coverage team is good. The punt team—not so good. Since coverage teams for kickoffs and punts tend to have substantial overlap in personnel, except for the person kicking the ball, this suggests that the issues in 2005 were primarily with the punter. Hopefully, rookie 7th rounder Plackemeier will improve the punting and perhaps end a trend where the team lets go promising youngsters like Donnie Jones to keep guaranteed mediocrity like Rouen and Leo Aragusz.
- Kickoff/Punt Returns. Taken together, Seattle’s return game was the very definition of mediocrity. The mean field position for a Seattle offensive drive in 2005 was just past the 31 yard line, good for 15th in the league. Decomposing this into separate stories about kickoffs and punt returns doesn’t add much insight. Both were pretty blah. Unfortunately, it appears the team is heading into the regular season with Josh Scobey and Jimmy Williams returning kickoffs and punts respectively. It is not unreasonable for Holmgren to have faith that his offense can score from anywhere on the field. But it borders on unreasonable that Seattle has lacked a quality return game since Charlie Rogers, especially considering that specialists tend to be cheap and in ample supply. (Note: former Giants return specialist Willie Ponder is reportedly trying out with Seattle this week.)
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