By John Boyle
Tuesday we looked at the offensive side of the ball, so today, with training camp just two days away, let’s dive into the Seahawks defense and what will be worth keeping an eye on in training camp over the next few weeks.
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 maybe you’re thinking, “But five players for four starting jobs is plenty, why do they need experience beyond that?” But few teams like to rotate linemen more than the Seahawks, and Seattle is also a team that has tended to rely on veterans more on the D-line than anywhere else on the field. And with Chris Clemons, Red Bryant and Clinton McDonald all 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, but until they step up and prove it, the Seahawks will have question marks when it comes to D-line depth.
What do the Seahawks do with all these linebackers?
With Bruce Irvin (hip) and Malcolm Smith (ankle) recovering from surgeries, plenty of young likebackers 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 Wager 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 could always 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…
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 four-game 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 Chris Clemons now in Jacksonville, and with so much depth at linebacker, many have speculated that Irvin could go back to end this season, but so far everyone from Pete Carroll to defensive coordinator Dan Quinn to linebackers coach Ken Norton Jr. says they’re keeping Irvin 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.
How’s the secondary depth?
We all know the Seahawks have the best secondary in the NFL. They start three Pro Bowlers (Richard Sherman, Earl Thomas and Kam Chancellor), two of them first-team All-Pros (Thomas and Sherman), 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.
Corner depth will be tested as well with Browner and Thurmond gone, and because of injuries and suspensions, the Seahawks have had to tap into their depth in the past 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 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 corner job, but that’s a spot that could be up for grabs depending on how others do in camp.
Who returns punts?
OK, so this isn’t a question about the defense, but it’s an important one to watch in camp nonetheless. 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, though they have plenty of candidates for the job.
Carroll says Earl Thomas is currently leading the competition for that job, 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, 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. They won’t force anyone into it, but if, say, Paul Richardson is able to do the job, that might be the best scenario rather than putting a key starter in that role.