The Seattle Seahawks begin their quest to repeat as Super Bowl champions Thursday night against the Green Bay Packers, the first of many tests Pete Carroll’s squad will face during the 2014 season.
Seattle’s young core remains intact from last season’s Super Bowl run, but the Seahawks will face a tougher challenge than they did a year ago. Less depth, the loss of a couple of important pieces in free agency and a brutal schedule leaves Seattle with a few more questions than a season ago.
Once again, the Seahawks and San Francisco 49ers are expected to battle for the NFC West title right down to the wire, while the New Orleans Saints could challenge both for home field advantage. Even if the Seahawks are still better on paper than those teams, the difficulty of repeating in the NFL means nothing is certain in 2014.
With that, here’s what to watch for from Seattle during the upcoming season.
Offensive Skill Positions
Russell Wilson improved between year one and two and will look to take another step forward as he enters his third season in the NFL. As good as Wilson was during the Super Bowl run, some losses on offense means he might even need to play at a higher level for the Seahawks to be as successful.
To label Wilson as a so-called “game manager” who relies on a strong defense and running game is underestimating his capabilities. Wilson is deadly efficient in the red zone, extends plays with his legs and doesn’t make mistakes.
The passing game will never be the main focus in Carroll’s offense, but it wouldn’t be surprising to see the Seahawks rely on Wilson a bit more this season. Look for Wilson to post career highs in the neighborhood of 3,500 yards and 30 touchdowns.
Marshawn Lynch has been one of the top running backs in the NFL since coming to Seattle in 2010, but he may be entering his last season with the Seahawks. He should again put up strong numbers, but the 28-year-old is about to enter the period where many running backs begin to decline.
The hope is that Lynch will have more help in the backfield than in previous years. Robert Turbin looked much better at times this preseason than in any point in 2013, while Christine Michael is a tremendously explosive runner and should contribute more this year.
Seattle’s biggest loss in free agency was Golden Tate, who was the team’s best vertical threat for much of 2013. While Tate didn’t have flashy numbers, he created big plays throughout his career in Seattle, both as a receiver and as a punt returner.
The returning receivers, led by Doug Baldwin and Jermaine Kearse, will be more than capable, but the group cannot afford any injuries this year. Keeping Percy Harvin healthy is key, as the Seahawks are less equipped to be without his explosiveness for long periods of time in 2014.
Second-round pick Paul Richardson will also be interesting to watch, as he offers plenty of speed. Packages with both Harvin and Richardson on the field will allow the Seahawks to stretch the field vertically and challenge opposing defenses.
Without a question, the offensive line is the biggest question mark heading into the season. Run blocking was good in 2013, but the Seahawks will look for improvements in pass protection this year.
That will be a challenge, as solid starter Breno Giacomini left in free agency for the New York Jets. Rookie Justin Britt is expected to start at right tackle and still needs some time to adjust to the NFL level, leaving a potential weakness.
Former Pro-Bowlers Russell Okung and Max Unger are the strengths of Seattle’s offensive line, but both missed significant time in 2013. If there is an injury to a lineman, ultra-athletic backups Alvin Bailey and Garry Gilliam have enough raw potential to minimize the losses.
Fortunately, guards J.R. Sweezy and James Carpenter are drawing rave reviews from the Seattle coaching staff and outside analysts alike. If both live up to that preseason hype, the Seahawks’ offensive line will be just fine, but that’s still a hypothetical.
While the Seahawks retained prized free agent Michael Bennett, this is likely the positional group that lost the most depth during the offseason. With Chris Clemons, Clinton McDonald and Red Bryant elsewhere, Seattle will look for a few younger players to join the rotation.
Fortunately, Seattle appears to have the talent to replace the losses. Rookie Cassius Marsh has impressed so far, while O’Brien Schofield looked disruptive during the preseason as Cliff Avril’s primary backup at the LEO spot. Greg Scruggs and Jordan Hill also made the 53-man roster after dealing with injuries a season ago.
Not to be forgotten is veteran Kevin Williams, who has slowed down at 34-years-old but can still contribute meaningfully with fewer snaps.
Expect this group to be effective again, particularly in combination with Seattle’s outstanding secondary. Avril, Bennett and Brandon Mebane will continue to pressure opposing quarterbacks often, while the younger players appear ready to step in right away.
This is largely the same group as last year, with a few places on the depth chart rearranged. Bobby Wagner and K.J. Wright have dealt with injuries over the past year, but will continue to play at a high level if healthy.
The most interesting news entering the year is that Mike Morgan is listed as starter at SAM linebacker over Bruce Irvin. Irvin is still dealing with a hip injury but will likely take over the starting spot when he is fully recovered.
Super Bowl MVP Malcolm Smith is listed as the primary backup to Wright at WILL linebacker, although both will get considerable playing time. Undrafted free agent Brock Coyle impressed during the preseason and could receive considerable playing time if Wagner’s hamstring needs more rest.
Seattle’s linebackers have been very effective over the past couple of seasons and shouldn’t slow down at all in 2014.
Maxwell will be the player to watch. He looked even better than Browner late last year, but now has to keep up that level of play over an entire season.
Again the core remains, but the loss of Walter Thurmond as a valuable backup and nickel corner could hurt.
The NFL’s new emphasis on illegal contact could impact the Seahawks, although the team says it won’t change anything about the way the secondary plays.
After months of speculation, Earl Thomas has indeed been listed as the No. 1 punt returner. Thomas has the speed and open field skills to break some long returns, but there will be endless second-guessing should one of the team’s most valuable players get injured returning a punt.
As seen in the Super Bowl, Percy Harvin can score any time he touches the ball, including on kick returns. A full season of Harvin on special teams will make a positive difference.
An underrated aspect of Seattle’s championship run was its kick coverage, particularly on punts. Ricardo Lockette made the 53-man roster, largely due to the fact that he is one of the best gunners in the NFL.
Prediction: Seattle survives the loss of depth and brutal last six weeks of the season to go 11-5, good enough to hold off the San Francisco 49ers for the NFC West title and No. 2 seed in the playoffs behind the New Orleans Saints.
Photo Credit: John Froschauer / Associated Press
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