Russell Wilson and the Seahawks enter a transitional season following a roster and coaching staff shakeup
The Seahawks no longer ran the football with emphasis, suffocated teams with defense or routinely converted kicks with the game on the line. So when the 2017 season ended with Blair Walsh badly missing a 48-yard field goal that would have defeated Arizona -- and Seattle already eliminated from the playoffs for the first time in six years -- heads rolled. A lot of heads. The franchise changed almost everything except its nickname and uniform colors.
The roster churn was rapid-fire. The franchise parted ways with headlining players Richard Sherman, Michael Bennett and Jimmy Graham. Kam Chancellor and Cliff Avril appeared headed for certain medical retirements. The coaching staff was hurriedly dismantled, too. Coach Pete Carroll fired nearly everyone on his staff except himself, bringing in six new assistants, among them offensive and defensive coordinator replacements.
Three seasons removed from a second consecutive Super Bowl appearance, the team committed to sweeping and uncomfortable change. The Seahawks went from a fearsome defensive-minded team to one trying to win with a gritty offensive approach.
“We didn’t like the way it went, and we wanted to do something about it,” Carroll says. “You’re seeing the result of that.”
The Seahawks made restoration of their feeble rushing attack the top offseason priority after Russell Wilson became the first NFL quarterback in 27 seasons to lead his team in rushing (since Randall Cunningham topped Philadelphia) by finishing with 586 yards, 346 more than the nearest Seattle running back. Enter Rashaad Penny. The first-round draft pick from San Diego State has been brought in to fix this mess. He’s a big back with a straight-ahead burst, someone with enough speed to score on seven kickoff returns as a collegian. He also showed himself to be a durable player, an important trait for the Seahawks, who’ve had trouble keeping their top runners healthy in recent seasons.
Wilson comes off a season in which he tied his career best with 34 touchdown passes but was forced to run more than the team wanted. He has a new offensive coordinator in Brian Schottenheimer, who will push Wilson to elevate his game as he enters his peak years. A productive Penny will buy Wilson more time to work his improvisational magic.
For the first time in three seasons, the Seahawks are significantly invested in their blockers. After paying a league-low $1 million per man in 2016, the team will shell out a $9 million bounty this season both to left tackle Duane Brown and center Justin Britt, which signifies added value. A midseason acquisition in 2017, Brown permitted three sacks in nine games with Seattle, tying for the most in his career, but he is still an able lead blocker. Britt, adept at recognizing defenses and rated as a quality pass protector, has become a solid center. The only new face up front is D.J. Fluker, a free-agent addition at right guard whose massive 6'5", 342-pound physique qualifies him as an effective run blocker but makes him a questionable pocket protector. George Fant, who missed the previous season with a knee injury, will open at right tackle if fully recovered, combining his 6'5", 332-pound frame with unique athleticism. Left guard Ethan Pocic permitted just two sacks on the right side as a rookie and showed he could be a long-term starter. New offensive line coach Mike Solari, returning to the Seahawks for a second stint, will change the team blocking scheme from zone to man to better utilize the wide bodies up front.
Wilson’s receiving corps is centered around wide receiver Doug Baldwin, one of the league’s best at getting separation. At tight end, free-agent signee Ed Dickson won’t score as many touchdowns as the departed Graham, but he’ll offer a decided upgrade as a blocker, further boosting the rushing attack. Slotback Tyler Lockett, who provides a deep threat, and former Cardinal wideout Jaron Brown will vie to become Wilson’s second option; however, Lockett has never started more than nine games in a season, and Brown previously struggled when put in a leading role. Seattle needs more help here, which is why six-time Pro Bowler Brandon Marshall, who played just five games for the Giants before suffering a season-ending ankle injury, was signed to a one-year deal in late May.
The Seahawks allowed 332 points in 2017, their most in seven seasons, which spurred the defensive facelift. Sherman and Bennett were moved because the team no longer saw them performing at elite levels; the trash-talking cornerback has to bounce back from two Achilles surgeries, and the defensive end showed his age.
Sherman’s departure and Chancellor’s career-threatening neck injury effectively meant an end to the Legion of Boom. All that remains of the once superlative secondary is free safety Earl Thomas, and even he was shopped around in the offseason. Thomas still brings a fearless presence, equally adept at stopping the pass and the run. Cornerback Shaquill Griffin, who played confidently as a rookie alongside Sherman, will be asked to be the top cover guy now. Thomas and Griffin will line up next to newly added Dontae Johnson at cornerback and holdover fill-in Bradley McDougald at strong safety. Johnson in effect was swapped for Sherman; he left the 49ers after losing his job over inconsistent play. McDougald previously started at both Seattle safety slots as an injury replacement for Thomas and Chancellor but will need to show more than just versatility. The fall-off in overall secondary talent shouldn’t be understated. Opponents will aggressively attack this group.
The earliest indication of defensive erosion last season was the noticeable absence of a disruptive pass rush. The biggest offseason moves on defense were the signings of former Vikings defensive tackle Tom Johnson and ex-Colts hybrid defensive end/outside linebacker Barkevious Mingo, both designed to escalate the pressure. The dependable Johnson, who played 70 percent of the snaps in Minnesota, was considered by many to be one of the league’s more underrated pick-ups in free agency. He’ll team inside with tackle Jarran Reed, now Seattle’s top defensive lineman following a steady rise as a run stuffer with his effective leverage. At defensive end, Frank Clark seemingly supplanted Bennett as the playmaker up front after collecting nine sacks, giving him 22 in three seasons. At the other end, Dion Jordan, run out of Miami as a bust, picked up four sacks in a five-game comeback with Seattle and made himself relevant again. This group still lacks an elite player.
Linebacker appears to be the team’s most stable position area. It’s built around middle linebacker Bobby Wagner and outside linebacker K.J. Wright, the league’s best second-row tandem with a combined 1,478 career tackles. They’re every-down players. Wagner is Seattle’s defensive cornerstone, using his extraordinary lateral and closing speed to make plays. Wright, a steady, instinctive player, will line up alongside Wagner for the seventh consecutive season. Mingo, playing for his fourth team in four years, will join them on early downs and shift to rush end in passing situations. A wild card is rookie Shaquem Griffin, Shaquill’s twin brother, who has more than enough speed to make an early impact.
Seattle took a gamble on Walsh, and it didn’t work. Next up is Sebastian Janikowski, who missed 2017 with a back injury. If his health holds up, Janikowski brings a proven long-range foot -- he holds an NFL record with 55 field goals from 50 yards or more. Jon Ryan, who is averaging 44.7 yards per punt in his career, will face a stiff challenge from fifth-round pick Michael Dickson. Lockett remains a dangerous kick returner.
The Seahawks lost far too much talent in one offseason to improve their situation. They conducted a major housecleaning that proved disconcerting to both fans and returning players. A glory era ended. “Every year it’s not fun when guys leave, but this hurt pretty bad,” Wright says. Realistically, a team revamp as extensive as this is going to take a few seasons -- and more moves -- to take hold. Expect Seattle to hover around .500 and be home during the playoffs again.