*Disclaimer: The Seahawks are my home team. **Disclaimer: I’m also a realist.
Over the past five years the Seattle Seahawks have been perennial contenders for the NFC Championship title, if not for the Super Bowl. Russell Wilson‘s play-making ability, Marshawn Lynch‘s punishing running style, and the Legion of Boom propelled talk of a dynasty that lifted the hopes of the 12th Man to soar as high as a seahawk itself.
However, beginning with the unexpected slow start to 2015, the Seahawks began to slip. Kam Chancellor didn’t show up until his team was 0-2, the #1 rated scoring defense from the previous year gave up 4th-quarter lead after 4th-quarter lead, and Marshawn Lynch proved to be only human, playing just 7 games during the regular season due to injury. To the Seahawks’ credit they showed incredible grit of a championship caliber, grinding away to a 10-6 season and a 1-1 2015 post-season record.
2016 finished with nearly an identical record to the previous year (10-5-1, 1-1), however, injuries dominated the story lines. Russell Wilson‘s MCL and high ankle sprain significantly limited his mobility and the Seahawks’ running back core couldn’t stay healthy. Then multi-Pro-Bowler safety Earl Thomas broke his left tibia, Tyler Lockett‘s compound leg fracture required surgery in the offseason, and even Richard Sherman apparently suffered an MCL strain that affected his post-season play at cornerback. Skilled position injuries like these alone could derail any team and the Seahawks offensive line woes haven’t even been mentioned yet. Still, they managed to win another NFC West title before losing in the Divisional Round of the Playoffs to the Atlanta Falcons.
Who will the Seahawks be in 2017? The Super Bowl contenders of 2013 and 2014, or the 2015 and 2016 athletically stacked teams that failed to execute?
WHAT HASN’T CHANGED
- Russell Wilson is back and healthy. He has been a top 10 fantasy quarterback since his rookie year with the exception of his 2016 season (#11) as he dealt with ankle and knee injuries. The two most recent seasons when he was healthy, 2014 and 2015, he was a top three fantasy sports scoring QB. He is still in the prime of his career and there is no reason to think otherwise.
- The WR core is the same. Jermaine Kearse, Paul Richardson, Tyler Lockett (to be tested since his injury) and Doug Baldwin, who finally earned Pro-Bowl honors in 2016 while catching 94 passes and gaining 1,128 yards, are all back. The Seahawks’ offense had a respectable 5,715 total offensive yards (12th most in the league) and were ranked in the top 10 for total receiving yards per game (257.8).
- The Seahawks’ defense is relatively the same and without the distraction of looming contract negotiations for the big name players (i.e. Michael Bennett, Frank Clark, Cliff Avril, Bobby Wagner, KJ Wright, Richard Sherman, Kam Chancellor, Earl Thomas, or DeShawn Shead.) This is a defense in 2016 that was #5 for least amount of total yards allowed/game, #3 for total sacks, and tied for #2 for least amount of points allowed per game. The defense may be aging past their prime, but even accounting for a mild regression, they are still a top 5 defense.
IN ORDER TO WIN ANOTHER NFC TITLE
- In 2016 Jimmy Graham finally felt like the star-studded TE that was promised back in 2015 when he came over from a trade with the Saints. He finished with the 3rd most receiving yards (923) in the League for the tight end position on 65 catches and was the 4th best TE in the NFL. This was a drastic improvement from his underutilized 2015 season when he had only 48 catches and 605 receiving yards. Jimmy’s 2016’s stats should be the floor and not the ceiling for arguably the leagues best receiving tight end. Jimmy Graham is plenty capable of double digit touchdowns, 80+ catches, and 900+ receiving yards per season (he accomplished this three times as a New Orleans’ Saint), even with Pete Carroll’s run-first mentally and determination to prioritize a successful running game. If you think Jimmy Graham is slipping, just take a minute to look at this highlight from 2016:
- C.J. Prosise showed the most promise and upside out of Seattle’s young stable of running backs in 2016. His 5.7 yards per carry (YPC) and 12.2 yards per reception led all Seahawks’ running backs, but injuries kept his use limited (only 47 offensive touches in six games). Thomas Rawls, the real bell-cow of Seattle, had the lowest YPC for the team at 3.2. This was quite the disappointment as Thomas Rawls out performed the injured Marshawn Lynch in 2015 (111 carries, 3.8 YPC, 417 rushing yards) with 5.6 YPC on his 147 attempts. The Seahawks need to find a way to utilize the dynamic C.J. Prosise, especially in passing situations, while still finding a way to get Thomas Rawls to return to his 2015 glory. The talent is there. If they stay healthy, both will be a steady running (and receiving) force that could help the Seahawks return to their 2013 and 2014 form.
- Bottom line: If the Seahawks are going to win another NFC title, Jimmy Graham needs to be a key factor in their offense and their running back core needs to stay healthy.
IN ORDER TO WIN THE SUPER BOWL
- Pro Football Focus ranked the Seattle Seahawks offensive line as the worst in the NFL for 2016 based on their run blocking and pass blocking grades. One of the most telling quotes from the article states, “The other four starters (not including center Justin Britt) top out at overall grades of 52.3 (out of 100), and the best-ranked among them (LG Mark Glowinski) is the 63rd-ranked player at his position league-wide.” Ouch. While the Seahawks will point out that Russell Wilson was sacked at the lowest rate of his career in 2016, he was still sacked 42 times, with only 5 other teams giving up more sacks than the Seahawks. Basically their bragging just highlights how many sacks the Seahawks have given up since Russell Wilson started tossing the pigskin in Seattle. They weren’t very good at protecting the QB and they didn’t exactly “pave the way” for their running backs, as their average rushing yards per game was 25th in the NFL (99.4 yards/game). Those are all bad things, especially for a team that wants to have a physical down-hill running game and control the clock.
- The good news is they all have another year of experience and they seem to be getting better with time… and the draft… and with the free agency. Time has made them better because Germain Ifedi and George Fant are no longer rookies and that alone counts for something. Their learning curve may be best illustrated by the fact there were only 15 sacks of Wilson in the last nine games compared to 27 over the first seven. The draft has made the line better because they doubled-down and drafted their most offensive lineman since 2010. There has to be some gold in there somewhere. And if there is, their offensive line coach, Tom Cable, is best suited for the job as he has become accustomed to trying to turn unpolished, inexperienced linemen into pro caliber players. If all that fails, free agency has added veteran talent in a former Jacksonville Jaguars’ 1st-round draft pick, Luke Joeckel and former Jet and Texan Oday Aboushi, both on a one year deal.
- Proof that you can manipulate statistics to reflect multiple truths, thehuddle.com ran their own offensive line statistics, “…take(ing) into account past performance, continuity, scheme, and personnel as well as the data available from sources such as Football Outsiders (FO) and Pro Football Focus (PFF)” and they found the 2016 Seahawks’ offensive line was 20th overall and 10th in running yards attributed to the offensive line, 5th in preventing RBs to be hit before or at the line of scrimmage, and 8th in 3rd-and-4th down situations with two or less yards to go. This indicates the line has a very powerful first step and it may be the downfield blocking/sustaining the block that is lacking. There is a skill of holding on to one block before releasing to the next level that takes years to become proficient in and experience is what Seattle lacks. Unfortunately for the Seahawks they only have the offseason to get it right.
- Bottom line: If the Seahawks are going to be Super Bowl Champions, Tom Cable is going to have to take his optimism and turn the offensive line into a consistent pass and run blocking force that has been missing in Seattle for the past couple of seasons.