2014 Preview: Seattle Seahawks
The Seahawks are the last of our 2014 Previews, and as usual we’ll cover five reasons to be confident and concerned about the team. However for the defending Super Bowl Champions, it’s tough to find the latter. In last year’s Seattle preview, I wrote the following:
Trying to poke holes in this roster was a tough task, as there seemed to be an abundance of talent and depth at each position group…Once they get [to the playoffs], they may not come up short on the scoreboard again.
For the second year in a row, a look at the Seahawks depth chart just doesn’t reveal many flaws. Even the negative points below are borderline nitpicking. The NFL hasn’t had a repeat champion since the 2004 Patriots, but this year’s Seahawks team may be the one to break that trend.
Five Reasons To Be Confident
1. Russell Wilson
One of the worst narratives of the offseason is that the Seahawks won the Super Bowl with Russell Wilson as a “game manager,” as if it’s impossible for a championship team to have both a great defense and great quarterback. The fact is, in two years Wilson has already established himself as one of the game’s best signal-callers. After earning our Rookie of the Year award in 2012, his +25.5 grade last season was fourth-best at his position. He’s a better traditional passer than what he’s given credit for as he posted a +12.2 grade with a 101.3 passer rating from the pocket last season.
Where Wilson really wins is with his legs. His quarterback run grade in 2013 was second only to Cam Newton and he’s a master at extending plays. In fact he earned the highest grade of any quarterback on both scrambles and plays that lasted at least 3.6 seconds. Despite facing pressure on 43.8% of his drop backs, the second-highest rate in the NFL, he earned a +4.3 grade on those plays. He carried the Seahawks with a decimated offensive line in the first half of the season, and despite some uneven play down the stretch, capped it off with a nearly flawless Super Bowl where he was downgraded on just two of 25 passes. A strong preseason indicates that Wilson may be taking yet another step forward, a scary thought for the rest of the NFL.
2. Beast Mode
Marshawn Lynch has had a tumultuous offseason, with a contract holdout, minor criminal accusations, and speculation that he’ll cede playing time to his backups. The man who claims to be “just about that action” will certainly welcome a return to the field, as he’s one of the game’s best backs when he’s on it. “Beast Mode” has long been praised for his hard-running style, but he took his bruising to the next level last season. Including the playoffs, Lynch forced 97 missed tackles on his runs in 2013. The previous PFF single-season record was 68.
Even on a team full of stars, Lynch’s impact was massive enough for us to name him the 10th best player of the 2013 season. No game typified his impact more than the Divisional Round victory over the Saints. His 140 rushing yards and +3.0 grade weren’t earth-shattering numbers, but he did it behind a starting line and tight end that earned a collective -9.3 run blocking grade that day. The 13 missed tackles he forced on his rushes were a PFF single-game record, and more than some other running backs had in the entire season. Even in games where Wilson can’t get the passing game going, the Seahawks can still rely on their workhorse running back to carry them.
3. Defensive Line
Overseeing a young defense that lacked only pass rush depth, Seahawks GM John Schneider signed our top two free agent edge rushers last offseason. It was money well spent, because Michael Bennett and Cliff Avril proved to be the missing pieces that ultimately got Seattle over the championship hump. Including the playoffs, Bennett’s +34.1 grade was the second-highest of any 4-3 defensive end last season. Also playing 36.2% of his snaps inside as a defensive tackle, he was a powerful and versatile chess piece for the Seahawks coaches. Avril posted a Top 5 pass rush grade at his position in the regular season and played even better as the playoffs progressed, culminating with three QB hits and six hurries in the Super Bowl.
Brandon Mebane took a leap as well, posting the second-highest run defense grade and third-highest Pass Rushing Productivity mark of any defensive tackle last season. Even eighth-year veteran Tony McDaniel had a career campaign, tying for the fourth-most run stops of any defensive tackle. Free agent veteran Kevin Williams is still a productive player, and O’Brien Schofield and Jordan Hill both earned strong pass rush grades in the preseason. Though Seattle’s defensive foundation lies in its secondary, this front is up there with the best in the NFL.
The Seahawks’ linebackers, sandwiched between a disruptive line and a star-studded secondary, are sometimes overlooked, but they’re a complete unit in their own right. Bobby Wagner nearly won our Rookie of the Year award in 2012, and though his run defense took a step back last season he was still a complete three-down linebacker. Bruce Irvin was effective as a situational pass rusher, but also allowed a stingy 61.5 passer rating on nearly 200 coverage snaps. Not to be outdone, K.J. Wright’s +10.9 coverage grade and 0.84 Yards Per Coverage Snap were also among the best marks by a linebacker. Even before Malcolm Smith became a Super Bowl MVP, he made sure the Seahawks didn’t skip a beat when Wagner and Wright missed time earlier in the season with injuries. When opponents try to avoid the Seahawks’ secondary, they find no relief underneath against this group.
5. Legion of Boom
This just about sums up how good the Seattle secondary was last season: six NFL defensive backs cracked the Top 30 of our PFF 101 and three of them were Seahawks. A lot has been made this offseason about how Richard Sherman does not shadow opposing wide receivers. Still, even in their zone scheme, the Seahawks ask Sherman to cover a massive amount of real estate and he does so almost flawlessly. From Seattle’s Week 12 bye onward last season, Sherman allowed just eight receptions, zero touchdowns, and a comically low 6.0 passer rating. In the same timespan, Byron Maxwell emerged as a Secret Superstar in his own right. As opponents attacked him more often to avoid Sherman, Maxwell allowed just a 38.1 passer rating with four interceptions.
When opponents try to attack deep, they risk testing the NFL’s premier free safety, Earl Thomas. Missed tackles and coverage lapses have depressed Thomas’ grade in the past, but in 2013 he parlayed a good season and better playoffs to post the highest coverage grade of any safety. Thomas’ range allows Kam Chancellor to often play in the box, where he punishes opponents while still staying disciplined in coverage. On a defense full of strong finishes, his was arguably the strongest as his +12.6 grade in the playoffs was by far the highest we’ve ever charted for a safety.
Five Reasons To Be Concerned
1. Offensive Line
On a team with so much talent, there’s no question that the Seahawks biggest question mark lies with their offensive line, a unit we ranked 27th in the league last season. Left tackle Russell Okung and center Max Unger were both among the best players at their position in 2012, but each struggled with injuries and inconsistent performances in 2013. Left guard James Carpenter has never earned good marks from us and had a team-low -10.6 run block grade last season. Right guard J.R. Sweezy improved last year after a very poor rookie season, but he still struggled in the running game. Right tackle Michael Bowie had the team’s best run blocking grade last season, but he was recently cut and rookie Justin Britt’s 89.1 Pass Blocking Efficiency is among the lowest rates of any tackle this preseason. Unger and Okung could both have bounceback seasons, and it’s worth noting that Sweezy is having a very good preseason. On a team that boasts so much talent elsewhere, there’s no doubt that this group is its weakest.
2. Goodbye Golden
By prioritizing extensions for Bennett, Sherman and Thomas, it was very unlikely that the Seahawks would have the cap space to re-sign Golden Tate. That doesn’t make his departure any less damaging, however. Tate hasn’t had the surface stats to earn praise in the fantasy football world, but his diverse skillset constantly shows up on film. We named him our Secret Superstar last year thanks to his elusiveness and reliability.
Over the past three seasons, Tate’s 50 forced missed tackles on his receptions are nine more than any other wide receiver. Percy Harvin is known for his after-the-catch ability, but since 2011 Tate has forced a missed tackle at nearly double the rate. Furthermore, with just five drops on 149 catchable targets over the past three seasons, Tate’s Drop Rate is the lowest of any starting receiver. Despite his 5-foot-10 frame, Tate plays a lot bigger thanks to his uncanny ability to high-point passes and fight for contested catches. His offensive contributions aside, Tate was also our highest-graded punt returner last year by a significant margin. Such a diverse weapon will certainly be missed in 2014.
3. Offensive Weapons
Hand-in-hand with Tate’s exodus is the fact that it leaves the Seahawks with one less receiving weapon. Harvin’s talent is undeniable, but so is his injury history. It’s unrealistic to expect him to make it through a whole season unscathed. Doug Baldwin is an efficient receiver who makes the most of his opportunities, and Jermaine Kearse has flashed as well, but both would need to take big steps forward if Harvin goes down. Tight end Zach Miller is an excellent run blocker, but he hasn’t been a difference-making receiver since he left Oakland. If the 28-year-old Lynch starts to feel the effects of his 403 touches last season and if Harvin’s body betrays him again, the Seahawks could be scrambling for ways to move the ball.
4. Defensive Depth
Tate wasn’t the only loss in free agency, as the Seahawks also had to say goodbye to a few defensive veterans. Brandon Browner earned a positive coverage grade in each of his three seasons as a starter in Seattle. Walter Thurmond is one of the league’s best nickelbacks, having not allowed a single touchdown in nearly 400 career slot coverage snaps. Red Bryant’s and Chris Clemons’ departures to Jacksonville deplete the Seahawks’ defensive line in both facets of the game. Bryant’s +6.6 run defense grade was in the Top 10 among 4-3 defensive ends, and Clemons ended his Seahawks tenure with six QB pressures and a +6.9 grade in the Super Bowl. Seattle likely has the depth to survive these losses, but they’re still counting on younger, largely unproven players to replace these valuable veterans.
5. Tough Slate
To even get the opportunity to repeat, the Seahawks will first have to get through a grueling schedule. Once the laughingstock of the NFL, the NFC West is now arguably the league’s best division. Of the Seahawks’ 16 games, 10 will be against teams with a winning record last season. Much like the 49ers did last year, Seattle could finish 12-4 and still find itself travelling on the road as a wild card. The Seahawks are as prepared as any team to defend their title, but they certainly won’t be taking an easy road to do so.
Follow Pete at @PFF_Pete