INDIANAPOLIS — The NFL’s annual combine is a continuing test of Pete Carroll’s offseason promise.
To get back to what the Seattle Seahawks’ coach is all about: running the ball.
The first step was re-making his coaching staff. Eight assistants from 2017 are gone. Six new ones have arrived. That includes new offensive coordinator Brian Schottenheimer, new offensive-line coach Mike Solari and defensive coordinator Ken Norton Jr.
So this week Carroll, general manager John Schneider and the Seahawks’ personnel, coaching and scouting staffs will conduct step two at the annual scouting showcase: focusing only on prospects to run the ball and who can block lanes to do it, right?
If only Seattle’s issues stopped there.
“John and I have a huge job,” Carroll said.
Don’t forget Carroll loves to stockpile pass-rushers. And right now, Seattle’s cupboard is getting empty.
Cliff Avril is off at career-transition seminars, extending his philanthropic interests and hosting radio shows following a career-threatening neck injury. Fellow Pro Bowl defensive end Michael Bennett, who is 32-years-old and coming off an 8½-sack season when he played through three injuries, told The News Tribune at the end of last season he “probably won’t be back” to a team he believes is about to start a youth movement.
Dion Jordan, 27, looked promising debuting for Seattle in 2017. But then he got hurt again. Miami’s former No.-1 draft choice has played just five games in the past three seasons. The Seahawks’ only other proven edge pass-rusher is Frank Clark. Their top pick from 2015 is entering the final year of his rookie contract.
Edge rushers are always a featured commodity at the combine. Bradley Chubb from North Carolina State, Texas-San Antonio’s Marcus Davenport, Harold Landry of Boston College and LSU’s Arden Key are the sack guys in this draft class. Carroll is likely intrigued by Florida State edge-rusher Josh Sweat for his athleticism and speed. Sweat’s injury concerns could leave him available for Seattle in the bottom half of round one, or beyond.
Meanwhile, Seattle’s “Legion of Boom” secondary is breaking down, if not breaking up. Kam Chancellor may not play again because of his own neck injury. Richard Sherman will be coming off a torn Achilles tendon plus a second surgery on his other ankle — and into the final year of his contract. Fellow three-time All-Pro Earl Thomas is also entering the final year of his deal. He has hinted at possibly holding out to get a new one, if not to get out of Seattle in a trade or playing out his contract in 2018.
Many are touting Florida State safety Derwin James as a potential Seahawks first-round pick. But James is so athletic, so primed to be such a star in workouts at the combine, he may be long gone by the time Seattle’s draft turn comes up at 18th overall in April.
Sheldon Richardson’s pending free agency, despite Seattle’s ongoing efforts to re-sign him, means defensive tackle is also a need.
There are two premier ones from Washington state. Washington’s Vita Vea was already a combine star, before players even got to Indiana. He could be a top-10 pick, gone by the time the Seahawks are scheduled to pick in round one. Tacoma-based guru Rob Rang from CBS Sports and NFLDraftScout.com calls Washington State’s Hercules Mata’afa one of the “more explosive pass-rushers in this year’s class” but one with “questions about his fit at the next level.” Is Mata’afa a tackle? End? Outside linebacker as an edge pass-rusher? He played at WSU in the 250-pound range. Mata’afa’s official combine weight will attract plenty of attention this week.
Oh, and Seattle has Jimmy Graham potentially leaving in free agency plus Luke Willson poised to join him as an unrestricted free agent March 14. That makes tight end a pressing Seahawks concern, too.
Yet Carroll’s goal of fixing the running game will shape much of what the Seahawks seek and whom they interview and scout in Indiana.
Seattle’s specific needs to fix the run are (in estimated priority order):
— Improve the weak and battered offensive line. Yet again.
Germain Ifedi was slow and the league’s most-penalized player last season at right tackle. The left guard was Luke Joeckel, and he’s likely leaving in free agency after one injured and subpar year that cost the Seahawks $7 million.
As usual, the combine will be an evaluation of which college linemen are ready to play now for Seattle. Solari, hired last month to replace fired Tom Cable, arrived in Indianapolis Tuesday to remake the way the Seahawks evaluate and coach blockers. The prevalence of no-huddle, spread offenses, blockers working from stand-up stances and very little pre-snap reading in college football continue to make offensive-line prospects mostly iffy projections instead of sure things.
— Add healthier and better runners.
Carroll raves about Chris Carson’s potential to be the lead back for years. But Seattle’s seventh-round pick in 2017 has played only one month of an NFL regular season and parts of two seasons of major-college ball, at Oklahoma State. He’s coming off a broken leg and surgery to repair ankle ligaments. C.J. Prosise has been active for just 11 games in his first two NFL seasons while having a half-dozen injuries. Mike Davis looked promising as the lead back late last season. But he was waived by a two-win 49ers team last spring. Davis was on Seattle’s practice squad for the first 10 weeks of last season.
Carroll has said adding competition at running back is a must.
— Get a blocking tight end, the opposite of Graham.
UW’s Will Dissly, a converted defensive lineman, is getting attention as an intriguing blocking tight end in this draft class.
— Add a fullback, for a change.
Overlooked in the fact the Seahawks had the league’s lowest production from running backs in 2017: they didn’t have a true fullback on the roster all year after they released Marcel Reece, a former Pro Bowler. The former UW Husky is still available as an unsigned free agent, by the way.
All that is why the majority of the Seahawks’ scheduled seven draft choices in April — and time in Indiana through Monday — may end up related to rushing offense.
“We have been committed to that from the start,” Carroll said. “But unfortunately we have not been able to recapture it the way we have in the past.”
Carroll pointed out that nine of the top-10 rushing offenses in 2017 were teams that made the playoffs.
“We are not losing the essence of who we are and what we are trying to become and how the formula is that is championship football,” he said.
Barring a trade the team does routinely before each draft, Seattle’s seven draft picks would be the fewest selections they’ve had in the Carroll/Schneider regime. They drafted eight players in 2015. They were going to have just seven this time last year. Then they traded twice out of the first round. Seattle ended up with 11 selections in 2017, tied for most in the league.
So whom will the Seahawks be targeting at this combine?
First, know they are targeting guys who won’t even be here.
The NFL has invited 336 players to this year’s combine. There are only 256 selections in April’s draft. Yet if Carroll and Schneider keep to their form, the Seahawks will be drafting someone who won’t be part of that talent surplus in Indiana this week. In their eight years running the team they have drafted 18 players the league didn’t invite to the combine. Last year it was wide receiver David Moore. Their seventh-round pick out of Division-II East Central University in Oklahoma finished last season on Seattle’s active roster.
There’s been one such selection by the Seahawks in every draft under this regime, and multiple non-combine players taken in six of Seattle’s last seven drafts.
Of those who will be in Indianapolis this week, Rang is predicting the Seahawks will draft LSU running back Derrius Guice in the first round. Guice has the size Carroll and Schneider covet in runners (officially 5-feet-11, 218 pounds in college).
NFL.com likens Guice to some guy named Marshawn Lynch.
Oregon’s Royce Freeman is an even bigger runner (238 pounds). But injuries set him back last season as a junior with the Ducks. Freeman could be available in later rounds.
The Seahawks have yet to draft a running back in round one under Carroll and Schneider. And this draft is deep in runners.
Right now Seattle doesn’t have a second-round or third-round pick. That’s because of trading to get Richardson and left tackle Duane Brown last season.
North Carolina State’s Jaylen Samuels, a star at the Senior Bowl, could be available in the mid to late rounds. That depends on how fast he runs his 40-yard dash at this combine. He’s played tight end and running back, and Carroll loves guys with more than one skill.
Then again, the transitioning Seahawks have so many other needs.
“As I always say at this time of year, there’s a lot of huge decisions to be made, and we’re faced with big challenges, always,” Carroll said. “We take all that into account to compete our butt off to figure out how to get better, and back on track, the way we want to be.
“I’m pumped up about it. I’m excited about that challenge. … We’ve got to go after it.”