The Seahawks kick off training camp with two practices today and begin the process of trying to turn things around under newly hired coach Pete Carroll.
Since his hiring, Carroll has answered questions about his motives for leaving USC, his ability to coach in the NFL and the sanctions slapped on his former team by the NCAA. He also went on a cross-country tour to promote his poorly timed book release. Starting today, however, he'll have to start answering the questions that will determine if the Seahawks can turn things around after winning just nine games during the past two years.
The real answers won't come, of course, until the regular season begins Sept. 12, but the next few weeks should at least paint a picture of how the Seahawks will answer these eight questions. (Why eight? Because that's what I came up with):
Who will carry the load?
Last season began with Julius Jones as unquestioned starter at running back, but after an impressive second year by Justin Forsett, the battle is wide open between the two. Jones has never lived up to expectations since signing with the Seahawks, but to be fair he also has been running behind less-than-stellar offensive lines his two seasons in Seattle.
Forsett doesn't have quite the burst and top-end speed of Jones, but he showed toughness and elusiveness last season while averaging 5.4 yards per carry and becoming a fan-favorite.
Leon Washington, who Seattle acquired in a draft-day trade with the New York Jets, is coming back from a serious leg injury, but could provide a big-play threat if healthy.
Running back will be one of the most competitive position battles during training camp.
Who will catch the ball?
It seems that every season brings a fierce battle for the final roster spots at receiver and this year is no different.
T.J. Houshmandzadeh, Golden Tate and Deion Branch, if healthy (yes, that's a big if) seem like locks to make the roster. Mike Williams, a former top-10 pick who hasn't played in two seasons, has been impressive in preseason workouts and also seems close to a sure thing to make it. Beyond that, however, it gets more complicated.
Assuming special teams, er, specialist, Sean Morey makes the roster, that means Seattle may only have room for one, perhaps two, more receivers. That means last year's third-round pick Deon Butler could be battling for a roster spot with the likes of Ben Obomanu and, though he's more of a long shot, former Husky Isaiah Stanback.
How much does Hasselbeck have left in the tank?
Starting quarterback Matt Hasselbeck turns 35 this season and is coming off two straight subpar seasons marred by injuries. If Hasselbeck can stay healthy and return to his 2007 form, the Seahawks have the best quarterback in the division -- a huge advantage. Hasselbeck will be motivated too, as he is in the final year of his contract, and will want to prove to Seattle, or another team, that he has a few good years still ahead of him.
Of course, much of what Hasselbeck does this season depends on the line in front of him. He spent way too much time running for his life and getting knocked over last year, and needs much better protection to stay healthy for 16 games.
Which brings us to ...
How will the new-look line fare?
Seattle addressed a huge need by taking Russell Okung with the No. 6 overall pick, and while the left tackle of the present and future has undeniable physical talents, he is still being thrown into the fire at one of football's most important positions.
Okung will be mentored by new left guard Ben Hamilton, who signed as a free agent this offseason. Hamilton has the advantage of having played under new offensive line coach Alex Gibbs, as does guard Chester Pitts, who signed this week.
Pitts, 31, was a longtime starter in Houston at left guard, but is coming off of microfracture surgery. He could compete for a starting spot -- conceivably Max Unger could move back to center if the team likes the trio of Hamilton, Unger and Pitts better than Hamilton, Spencer and Unger -- but more likely Pitts will provide much-needed depth for the line.
With one of the league's top line coaches on board as well as improved talent, this should be a much improved area for the Seahawks. How much improved? That depends on how the new group comes together during the preseason.
What is Leroy Hill's future with the team?
Hill was kept away from the team for most of the offseason workouts following an April arrest for domestic violence. When the linebacker returned in June, Seahawks coach Pete Carroll said he expected Hill to be part of the team's future. But with Hill facing a trial next month, and with new reports out that he is under investigation for possibly having broken a no-contact order with the victim, his future could still be in doubt, depending on how the case develops.
Hill already is facing a one-game suspension at the start of the year because of a 2009 marijuana charge, and his already short leash might be shrinking.
How fast can the rookies adjust?
A lot is being asked of the Seahawks' top three draft picks, and how much better this team is in 2010 could depend on the performances of Okung, Earl Thomas and Tate. Okung has the most pressure on him, as he is being asked to take over the spot once anchored by Walter Jones and keep a veteran quarterback healthy while he's at it.
Thomas, meanwhile, will start right away at free safety and is expected to give an immediate boost to a secondary that has struggled the past two seasons. His speed and playmaking ability are readily apparent, but the big test for Thomas, who is undersized at 5-foot-10, 202 pounds, will come when they strap on the pads.
Tate, the Seahawks' second-round pick, could be the big-play threat at receiver the Seahawks' offense has lacked in recent years.
Where's the pressure?
Of the team's many struggles last season, few were as pronounced as the defense's inability to pressure quarterbacks. And that was before three of Seattle's top defense ends left -- Patrick Kerney to retirement, Darryl Tapp in a trade and Cory Redding in free agency.
The starting defensive ends are currently Chris Clemmons, who will play the "Leo" position (a hybrid of an end and a linebacker) and Red Bryant, a converted tackle. Neither has been a starter in their career, and if the Seahawks are going to be successful on defense, either they or some other linemen -- such as Lawrence Jackson -- are going to need to step up in a major way. Look for the Seahawks to also use linebackers, Aaron Curry in particular, to bolster the pass rush.
Can Pete Carroll win in the NFL?
Again, this question won't really be answered until the regular season, but how the team responds to its new coach throughout training camp will help paint a picture. So far, players seem to be buying into Carroll's way of doing things, but the grind of training camp should reveal just how on board everyone really is.
Carroll twice has held head coaching jobs in the NFL, and twice has been fired. He says he's a different coach and a different person than he was then. Now he has to start showing it.
Herald Writer John Boyle: firstname.lastname@example.org. For more Seahawks coverage, check out the Seahawks blog at heraldnet.com/seahawksblog
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