By John Boyle Herald Columnist
When the Seahawks open training camp today, there won’t be a three-way quarterback competition to dominate headlines for a month. And team’s depth at seemingly every position means we’re not likely to see another Terrell Owens-esque signing that creates a sudden mid-camp upsurge in buzz.
But the next six weeks leading up to Seattle’s season opener will be anything but boring.
When the Seahawks begin their fourth training camp under coach Pete Carroll, they’ll be preparing for a season of extremely high expectations and doing so under a spotlight that’s brighter than anything they’ve ever known — why yes, that is Richard Sherman on the cover of this week’s Sports Illustrated.
And while we won’t fully know just how well the Seahawks handle all of that until winter, they can do plenty, starting this week, to prepare for one of the most anticipated seasons in Seattle sports history, starting with answering these five questions:
1. Magnificent 7?
Following the loss in Atlanta that ended the Seahawks’ playoff run, Pete Carroll said his team’s No. 1 priority would be improving the pass rush. The Seahawks hope to have done that by signing Cliff Avril and Michael Bennett, the beginning of a series of changes that will have front seven looking quite a bit different than a year ago. Two rookies, Jesse Williams and Jordan Hill, as well as veteran Tony McDaniel all figure to play into the rotation at defensive tackle. One of them will take over the starting job that used to belong to Alan Branch, but Seattle’s base defense will hardly be its only look.
Already the Seahawks are tinkering with Bruce Irvin at linebacker. If, or when, he’s playing that position, expect the Seahawks to look more like a team with five linemen on the field — or perhaps more accurately, a 3-4 defense with outside linebackers serving as edge rushers.
There is a lot of uncertainty when it comes to the front seven, even if there is plenty of talent from which to choose. First, Irvin is suspended for the first four games of the season. Then the Seahawks have a new defensive coordinator, Dan Quinn, who is expected to be a bit more aggressive. Also, Chris Clemons is still a question mark for the start of the season because of the knee injury he suffered in the playoffs
The addition of cornerback Antoine Winfield, who is expected to play as the third cornerback in nickel packages, could also affect the front seven as well. Winfield, despite being undersized, is one of the league’s best cornerbacks at defending the run, so that skill set, along with Kam Chancellor’s strength against the run, could tempt the Seahawks to use five defensive backs and two linebackers more than they have in the past.
So how’s it all going to look? Well even Carroll probably couldn’t tell you at this point, but he and Quinn will no doubt have fun this summer figuring it out.
2. How good will the QB be?
Some have wondered if Russell Wilson might suffer a sophomore slump after his breakout rookie season, but if anything Wilson should only be better. Wilson had a passer rating of 100.0 last year, the second best total for a rookie in league history behind fellow class of 2012 QB Robert Griffin III, and he tied Peyton Manning’s rookie record with 26 touchdown passes.
Still, as good as his numbers were, Wilson’s stats early in the season were pretty pedestrian. When you look at what he did in the second half of the season and the playoffs, Wilson wasn’t just one of the best rookie quarterbacks in the league, he was one of the best quarterbacks period, throwing 19 touchdowns with just three interceptions in those 10 games.
Oh, and let’s not forget that Wilson spent his rookie training camp splitting reps with Tarvaris Jackson and Matt Flynn, so he wasn’t just going into the season as a rookie starter, he was doing so as one of the least prepared, in terms of practice reps, quarterbacks in the league.
“We’re just a million miles ahead of where we were,” Carroll said of Wilson during May organized team activities.
And if you think Wilson is the kind of player who will let all the praise go to his head and lose his edge, well then you haven’t been paying attention at all.
As for who backs Wilson up, the battle between Jackson and Brady Quinn seems to favor Jackson, Seattle’s starter in 2011, but as last year’s camp showed us, Carroll isn’t about to just give a job to a quarterback without an honest competition.
3. What is Percy Harvin’s role?
The Seahawks gave up a first-round pick and a bunch of money to get a player they see as a game-changer, but exactly how they’ll use Harvin remains to be seen. Harvin’s versatility means we likely will see him line up some as an outside receiver, sometimes in the slot, and even a bit in the backfield.
Also, how often will the Seahawks let one of their highest-paid players return kickoffs? Carroll said Harvin will return kicks, but he also added that it won’t be an every kickoff situation.
The addition of Harvin also creates a lot of other questions for the offense. How much will his presence keep Golden Tate or Doug Baldwin off of the field? Or if the Seahawks play more three- and four-receiver sets, how much less will they use two tight-end sets, or how many fewer snaps will that mean for the fullback?
While the Seahawks won’t suddenly get pass happy, the evolution of Wilson along with the addition of Harvin likely means at least a few more passes each game. With Christine Michael now in the mix at running back, will that mean a few less touches for Marshawn Lynch? Lynch still will be the lead back, make no mistake about that, but at 27, the Seahawks might just want to limit his workload a bit this year.
4. How’s the knee?
Offensive lineman James Carpenter, Seattle’s 2011 first-round pick, is coming back from another knee surgery. This one a minor procedure that was done in the spring, and while he should be back during training camp, it remains to be seen exactly how much he’ll be able to do or what kind of playing shape he’ll be in. If fully healthy, Carpenter could provide an upgrade at left guard, but for a man his size with a history of knee issues, nothing can be assumed heading into camp.
Defensive end Chris Clemons, meanwhile, is coming back from a torn anterior cruciate ligament in his knee that he suffered in January. By all accounts he’s recovering well, but it’s impossible for the Seahawks to assume a player coming off of that serious of an injury will be ready for the season opener.
Is it possible? Sure, but Clemons will have to show, if not right way, then at some point before the season starts, that he is ready to go full speed so soon after a major injury. Vikings running back Adrian Peterson showed last year that quick recoveries from ACL injuries are possible, but that was hardly the norm.
5. What’s up for grabs?
Well, Carroll’s always-compete philosophy would dictate that all positions are, but in all reality we know that the Seahawks have very few starting jobs available.
As mentioned above, Carpenter figures to be a starter when he is fully healthy, but the Seahawks, with or without him, are not settled at guard. J.R. Sweezy and John Moffitt traded off on the left side last year, while Paul McQuistan started on the other side. All three could be battling for one spot depending on Carpenter’s situation.
The changes to the defensive front seven, also mentioned earlier, also creates a pair of new starting jobs with Branch and Hill gone. Regardless of who starts, there will be so much rotation up front that a handful of players will see significant playing time, not just two.
While Zach Miller is entrenched as the starting tight end, the backup job is pretty wide open. That’s not a starting job, but for a team that likes two-tight-end sets, the second tight end will be on the field plenty. Rookie Luke Willson looks like a legitimate downfield threat, while Sean McGrath is the more complete all-around tight end. Seattle also added former Falcons tight end Michael Palmer this week to add to the competition.
Winfield is expected to be the nickel corner — again, not technically a starting role, but a significant one — but a finally healthy Walter Thurmond might prove too talented to leave off the field. Remember, it was Thurmond and not Richard Sherman who took over as a starter in 2011 when Marcus Trufant went down with an injury. Sherman’s chance came only after Thurmond broke his leg. That’s not to say that the SI cover boy is in danger of losing his job, but rather a reminder that Thurmond has legitimate talent when healthy.
The Seahawks also plan to use rookie Spencer Ware at fullback and running back, and it’s going to be tough to find room on the roster for two fullbacks, so is there any chance Ware could push Michael Robinson for a job? That’s unlikely given that Robinson is a Pro Bowl player, a leader in the locker room and a special teams standout, but we should know by now that Carroll is always willing to let young players compete with veterans for jobs.
Herald Writer John Boyle: firstname.lastname@example.org.