Football fans, your time has come.
The Seattle Seahawks’ preparations for the 2017 season officially get underway Sunday with the beginning of training camp, which takes place at the Virginia Mason Athletic Center in Renton.
Seattle’s offseason was dominated by off-field news. Whether it was reports of star cornerback Richard Sherman possibly being traded, or the explosive ESPN the Magazine article that claimed discord within the Seahawks’ locker room, or the continued contract uncertainty surrounding strong safety Kam Chancellor, tight end Jimmy Graham and center Justin Britt, the headlines had little to do with anything that involves actual play.
That all changes Sunday.
The start of training camp means we can get back to focusing on what’s happening on the field instead of what’s off it. So here’s five on-field issues I’ll be keeping track of during Seattle’s training camp:
1. How does the offensive line shake out?
It’s the never-ending position of concern for the Seahawks, and this year is no different.
Last year Seattle had by far the least-expensive and least-experienced offensive line in the NFL, and that no doubt contributed to the Seahawks finishing in the middle of the pack in total offense (12th at 357.2 yards per game) and near the bottom in rushing offense (25th at 99.4 yards per game). By the end of the season quarterback Russell Wilson’s blind-side was being protected by George Fant, an undrafted rookie free agent who was a basketball player in college.
And once again there will be more shuffling on the offensive line. At the end of last season the starting unit, from left to right, was Fant, Mark Glowinski, Justin Britt, Germain Ifedi and Garry Gilliam. Gilliam departed to San Francisco as a restricted free agent, while Glowinski (left guard to right guard) and Ifedi (right guard to right tackle) are being tried at different positions. Seattle brought in free agent Luke Joeckel, who is currently slated to start at left guard but could also displace Fant at left tackle. Another free agent, Oday Aboushi, could be a factor at right guard, while second-round draft pick Ethan Pocic could be inserted anywhere along the line.
There’s every chance that the starting unit at the end of training camp won’t be the same as at the beginning.
2. Are Earl Thomas and Tyler Lockett back at full speed?
Last December was a rough month for the Seahawks, as Seattle lost both free safety Earl Thomas and receiver Tyler Lockett to season-ending injuries. Thomas suffered a fractured tibia in his left leg in Seattle’s victory over Carolina on Dec. 4, while Lockett broke both the tibia and fibula in his right leg in the Seahawks’ defeat versus Arizona on Dec. 24.
Those proved to be devastating losses. The Seahawks’ defense was never the same without Thomas playing center field, and the offense was deprived its biggest gamebreaker in Lockett’s absence.
When the offseason began it was unknown when either Thomas or Lockett would be back at full strength, though the Seahawks were hopeful both would be back in time for the start of the season. Reports have been positive on both players’ recoveries, and it’s possible both will be on the field when camp begins, though they’re likely eased back into action.
But being back on the field and being back to their normal selves are two different things. Whether Seattle has a full-strength Thomas and Lockett at its disposal will play a major role on how successful the Seahawks are in 2017.
3) Who starts at right cornerback?
While Seattle has been set at left cornerback for years thanks to Sherman, the Seahawks have churned through several starters on the opposite side. Last year it was DeShawn Shead’s turn, and the former special teams standout proved up to the challenge, giving Seattle solid play against both the pass and the run.
However, Shead’s season ended when he tore the ACL in his left knee in Seattle’s season-ending playoff loss to Atlanta, and he’s expected to be placed on the physically-unable-to-perform list when camp begins. Who takes his place?
It could be one of several players. Veteran Jeremy Lane could be the first in line, but he seems to have settled into the nickel role, and the few times he played outside last year he was less than stellar. Third-round draft pick Shaquill Griffin received rave reviews during offseason activities and has a chance to start from Day 1. Neiko Thorpe is also in the mix.
Seattle needs one of those players to step up until Shead is healthy enough to return.
4) Who gets the first-team reps at running back?
The past two seasons, because of injuries, the Seahawks found themselves scraping the bottom of the barrel in search of options at running back. This year, at least as camp begins, Seattle has several to choose from, with former Green Bay Pro Bowler Eddie Lacy brought in to compete with Thomas Rawls and C.J. Prosise.
All three have shown the ability to be impact backs, but all three also come with question marks. Lacy was stellar for the Packers in 2013 and 2014, but has had issues with keeping his weight down. Rawls was impressive as a rookie in 2015, but he was less effective last season, and he had major injuries both years. Prosise was spectacular when he was on the field last year as a rookie, but those moments were few and far between as he tries to shake the tag of being fragile.
Lacy and Rawls would seem to be vying to be the early-down battering ram, with Prosise serving primarily as the third-down back. But no doubt the Seahawks would settle for just one of those players remaining effective and healthy throughout the season.
5) Does Seattle have a reliable kicker?
Kickers are often a source of derision in the NFL, but this is a sneaky-important issue for the Seahawks.
For six years Seattle had one of the best in the business in Steven Hauschka, who ranks third all-time in NFL field-goal accuracy and is particularly adept from 50-plus yards. But Hauschka became too expensive for the Seahawks, signing a lucrative deal with the Buffalo Bills as a free agent.
In his place Seattle signed Blair Walsh, who is best known by Seahawks fans for a field goal he missed — the 27-yard chip shot he shanked that would have knocked Seattle out of the playoffs two seasons ago when he was playing for Minnesota.
Walsh isn’t exactly riding high, having been released by the Vikings midseason last year after struggling through the first half. Seattle played in five games that were decided by three points or fewer last season, so the reliability of the kicker can’t be dismissed.
Follow Nick Patterson on Twitter at @NickHPatterson.