Seahawks have holes to fill as training camp opens

The Seattle Seahawks begin training camp today, and as we covered in Thursday’s Herald, that means the beginning of a title defense in a league designed to make repeating difficult. The Seahawks have the weapons to compete for a second straight title, but they also have things to sort out in camp beginning today.

In Part 1 Thursday, we looked at seven of the 14 questions the Seahawks have to answer in training camp. Now here’s Part 2, looking at seven final questions that the Seahawks need to answer for for 2014.

1. Who’s healthy?

The first thing media folks like myself will be looking for as training camp opens and continues through Aug. 13 is who is actually on the field and participating in practice. As I covered Thursday, that includes Marshawn Lynch and whether he decides to show up or not. Otherwise the question marks surround players’ health, particularly those players who had surgery this offseason: Safety Kam Chancellor (hip), linebackers Bruce Irvin (hip) and Malcolm Smith (ankle), and offensive tackle Russell Okung (foot).

Seahawks coach Pete Carroll said in June that everyone had a chance of being on the field when training camp started, though he sounded less optimistic about Irvin, whose surgery occurred later than others. And while all the surgeries occurred early enough that everyone theoretically should be ready for the start of the season, fans surely will be somewhat nervous about Chancellor and Irvin given how much trouble Percy Harvin had with his hip surgery last year.

2. Who fills the leadership void?

There is no question that the Seahawks are talented. Many would even call them the most talented team in the NFL, but if there is one thing possibly lacking, it could be veteran leadership following a number of key departures in the offseason.

Red Bryant was the captain of Seattle’s dominant defense last season, and fellow defensive end Chris Clemons was another important voice in the locker room. Both now are in Jacksonville. On the other side of the ball, two of the most respected veterans on offense were receiver Sidney Rice, who retired Thursday, and fullback Michael Robinson, who is currently a free agent and likely heading towards retirement.

Yet even with those important veterans gone, the Seahawks have plenty of players capable of stepping up and taking on a big leadership role, most notably quarterback Russell Wilson and safeties Kam Chancellor and Earl Thomas. Newly-signed defensive tackle Kevin Williams also could fill some of the void on defense having established himself as a Pro Bowl player in Minnesota.

3. Who fills D-line vacancies?

The Seahawks love the depth on their defensive line, but other than five players — Michael Bennett, Cliff Avril, Brandon Mebane, Tony McDaniel and Kevin Williams — that depth is made up of inexperienced players. And perhaps you’re thinking: “But five players for four starting jobs is plenty. Why do they need experience beyond that?”

Well, as you probably noticed last year, few teams like to rotate linemen more than the Seahawks, and while Seattle used a lot of youth on its way to a title, the Seahawks have tended to rely on veterans more on the D-line than anywhere else on the field. With Clemons, Bryant and Clinton McDonald gone, there are important roles to fill.

The Seahawks have high hopes for young players like Jesse Williams, Jordan Hill, Benson Mayowa and Greg Scruggs, and there’s room for some, if not all, of those players to contribute. However, until they step up and prove it, the Seahawks will have question marks when it comes to depth on the defensive line.

4. What do the Seahawks do with all these linebackers?

With Irvin and Smith recovering from surgeries, plenty of young linebackers like Korey Toomer, Mike Morgan and rookie Kevin Pierre-Louis had a chance to show what they could do in offseason workouts. But what happens when everyone is back and healthy? The Seahawks are so deep at linebacker that Smith, the Super Bowl MVP, might have a hard time getting on the field if everyone is healthy.

It’s safe to assume that Bobby Wagner is starting at middle linebacker, and KJ Wright at one of the outside linebacker spots. So, if the Seahawks are really committed to keeping Bruce Irvin at linebacker and not defensive end, which is what coaches have said throughout the offseason, Smith appears to be the odd man out.

The Seahawks always could rotate a player like Smith in for a few series a game, and depth is always important because of injuries, but it’s odd to think that a Super Bowl MVP might struggle to earn playing time. And then there’s Toomer, who Carroll has been raving about this offseason, as well as the very athletic Pierre-Louis and Morgan. Barring trades or injuries, some very good linebackers are going to struggle for playing time, and perhaps even spots on the roster.

And along those lines …

5. What exactly is Bruce Irvin’s role?

Irvin led NFL rookies in sacks in 2012 as a defensive end, but the Seahawks decided to move the first-round pick to strongside linebacker in 2013. Irvin didn’t play poorly by any means last year, but after opening the year with a suspension, and then switching to a position that doesn’t always allow for the big plays that come with rushing the quarterback, he didn’t exactly have the impact most were expecting, either.

With Clemons now in Jacksonville, and with so much depth at linebacker, many have speculated that Irvin could go back to end this season. However, everyone from Carroll to defensive coordinator Dan Quinn to linebackers coach Ken Norton Jr. have said so far that Irvin stays at SAM linebacker, though he will be used as a pass-rusher in passing situations.

The question now is how exactly the Seahawks divide Irvin’s time between linebacker and hand-on-the-ground pass rusher.

6. How’s the secondary depth?

We all know the Seahawks have the best secondary in the NFL. They start three Pro Bowl players, two of them first-team All-Pros, and Byron Maxwell more than held his own after taking over a starting job late last season. But with Brandon Browner, Walter Thurmond and Chris Maragos all with new teams, depth is something of a concern.

Maragos had been Earl Thomas’ backup, though you may not have noticed since Thomas never leaves the game, and while Jeron Johnson could fill in there in a pinch, he’s more suited to play strong safety and doesn’t have the range of Thomas, or Maragos for that matter. One player to watch at that spot is undrafted rookie Dion Bailey, who has earned praise from his coaches so far.

Cornerback depth will be tested as well with Browner and Thurmond gone. In the past, because of injuries and suspensions, the Seahawks have had to tap into their depth at that position. The good news for Seattle is that Carroll and company have done a tremendous job turning mid-to-late round picks into very good or even great cornerbacks.

So even if you don’t’ know much about the players backing up Sherman and Maxwell now, that doesn’t mean they won’t play well if called upon. One player who has stood out so far is Tharold Simon, a 2013 fifth-round pick who missed all of last season with foot injuries, but who played very well in offseason workouts.

Finally, Jeremy Lane seems to have the inside track on the nickel cornerback job, but that’s a spot that could be up for grabs depending on how others do in camp.

7. Who returns punts?

In Golden Tate, and in Leon Washington before that, the Seahawks have been set at punt return throughout Pete Carroll’s tenure in Seattle. Now, however, the Seahawks lack an obvious replacement for Tate, although they have plenty of candidates for the job.

Carroll says Earl Thomas is currently leading the competition to return punts, but there are several others vying for the job, including Richard Sherman, Doug Baldwin, Bryan Walters and more. The Seahawks are clearly willing to let starters play on special teams — Chancellor and Thomas are both regulars on kick coverage. But perhaps having just locked up Sherman, Thomas and Baldwin to new contracts, they’d prefer to have a young player who has a slightly smaller role on the team win that job.

The Seahawks won’t force anyone into it, but if somebody like rookie receiver Paul Richardson is able to do the job, that might be the best scenario rather than putting a key starter in that role.

Herald Writer John Boyle:

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