Keeping the Band Together [Now with at Least 50% Fewer Error Messages!]

[Note: Recurring computer problems have kept me sidelined for the last two weeks, but I think I’ve finally got them solved.  The way I see it, my PC was at least polite enough to wait until the Seahawks’ season was over to give me trouble.]

Although the Seahawks’ 2011 season ended with them eliminated from playoff contention for the third time in the last four years, I’d be hard pressed to label it a disappointment.  Okay, so the 2-6 start to the year was pretty much the textbook definition of disappointment, but that was before Pete Carroll’s team salvaged a 7-9 finish from that dismal start, thanks in no small part to the talent unearthed by John Schneider and his 200+ roster transactions over the last two years.  Hey, nobody ever said rebuilding the team from the ground up was going to be quick and painless, right?

Thankfully, unlike the last few years under Seattle’s last general manager Tim Ruskell, at least it’s pain with a purpose.  Do you guys remember 2008, the year we found out what happens when you don’t have any depth at wide receiver?  Better yet, do you remember when the wheels really came off the Ruskell-built bus in 2009?  Y’know, the year Seattle’s pass rush consisted entirely of the mortal remains of Patrick Kerney and the sloth-like speed of Lawrence Jackson?  Remember finding out how horribly wrong things can go when you begin the season with Sean Locklear as your starting left tackle?  Remember watching Julius Jones plow into the backs of his offensive linemen on carry after carry?  Remember the Texans’ QB Matt Schaub playing his old head coach Jim Mora’s sad, predictable defensive scheme like a fiddle?  Remember Jordan Babineaux, starting free safety?

Remember Gregg Knapp?

Sorry, I know most of you have done your best to block out those memories, but I’m trying to make a point here.  The team that Carroll and Schneider inherited was filled to the brim with has-beens and never-will-bes.  Don’t get me wrong, I liked a lot of those guys, but my liking them didn’t make them any more talented, and there were too few legitimately good players on the roster to make up for everyone else’s mediocrity.  Schneider’s perpetual roster churn in 2010 may have been equal parts fine-tooth comb and scorched earth policy, but that’s the only sensible way to go when you’ve got question marks at almost every position.

And you know what?  His approach paid off.  Today, the majority of the pieces the Seahawks need to become serious contenders once again are in place, and the depth behind those pieces isn’t half bad, either.  Just look at all the season-ending injuries the 2011 squad suffered at wide receiver, cornerback, and along the offensive line.  Decimating any one of those positions would have proven (and did prove) to be an insurmountable obstacle to the ’08 or ’09 Seahawks, but this time around the team just shrugged, plugged in the next man up, and kept right on pounding away at their opponents.  Most teams can only dream about having that kind of resiliency.

Unfortunately, in the free agency era, discovering great starters and depth players is only half the job — the other half is holding on to them when every other team in the league starts trying to lure them away with promises of bigger paychecks and increased playing time.  Luckily for the Seahawks, they do have one significant advantage when it comes to re-signing their own players.  Under Carroll and Schneider, the team has developed a reputation for being a franchise that values ability and production over draft position and name recognition.  It doesn’t matter if a player is an undrafted rookie, a career CFL player, or a first-round bust; in Seattle, if you produce, you play, and the goodwill fostered by that policy is a hard thing for other teams to counter in negotiations.

That said, the only players we can all count on returning for sure in 2012 are the ones still currently under contract with the team.  With that in mind, I figured this would be a good time to take a look at the 2011 roster to see how much is already invested in each position for 2012 and where the team stands to lose the most talent in free agency.  For players still under contract, I’ve noted what they’re scheduled to be paid next season, along with what year they’ll become free agents themselves.  For those players who are already free agents, the dollar amount listed is what it would cost to sign that player for one year at the veteran minimum.  Naturally, it’ll take a lot more money than that to re-sign many of these players, plus there’s bound to be any number of bonuses and escalators in existing players’ contracts that we don’t know about yet, but I figure this is as good a starting place as any for a discussion.

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Defensive Backs

Under Contract Position Games Starts 2012 Salary Free Agent Year
Brandon Browner CB 16 16 $465k 2013(?)
Byron Maxwell CB 9 0 $465k 2015
Richard Sherman CB 16 10 $465k 2015
Walter Thurmond CB 6 3 $490k 2014
Phillip Adams DB 1 0 $490k 2014
Ron Parker DB 2 0 $465k 2014
Earl Thomas FS 16 16 $625k 2015
Kam Chancellor SS 15 15 $490k 2014
Jesse Hoffman FS - - Futures -
Totals: - 79 60 $3.49 M -
Free Agents Position Games Starts Min. Salary Free Agent Type
Kennard Cox DB 12 0 $615k Exclusive Rights
Roy Lewis CB 10 0 $615k Restricted
Marcus Trufant CB 4 4 $825k Unrestricted
Chris Maragos S 11 0 $540k Restricted
Atari Bigby SS 15 2 $700k Unrestricted
Jeron Johnson S 7 0 $465k Restricted
Totals: - 59 6 $3.76 M -

After suffering through years of pass defenses that were lukewarm at best, the Seahawks have finally managed to put together a secondary that doesn’t give up long TD passes on every other throw.  Cornerbacks Brandon Browner and Richard Sherman and strong safety Kam Chancellor give Seattle arguably the biggest and most physical set of starting DBs in the NFL, and what free safety Earl Thomas may lack in size and hitting power he more than makes up for in pure ball-hawking instincts. 

These four guys not only played better and better as the season wore on, they’re also young enough that we can expect them to grow together as a unit for many years to come — and best of all, they’re still under contract for 2012.  Chancellor isn’t scheduled to hit free agency until 2014, and Sherman and Thomas’ contracts don’t expire until 2015, but I’m not entirely clear on the specifics of Browner’s contract.  He’s definitely signed for the ’12 season, but I don’t know if he’s under contract for the season after that. 

Beyond the starters, the most notable guy still under contract is Walter Thurmond.  Thurmond showed signs of being good enough to be a starting CB before suffering a knee injury in week six, and if his recovery goes smoothly he should compete for time as a nickel and dime back.  I know that doesn’t sound like much, but nickel backs aren’t just fringe role players anymore — these days, many NFL teams use some form of nickel personnel on more than 50% of their defensive snaps.  Byron Maxwell has shown some promise, but not enough to prove that he’s anything more than an above-average special teamer at this point.  I didn’t see enough of Phillip Adams or Ron Parker to form any real opinion about them (Parker was placed on IR after just two games).  Jesse Hoffman is a safety from Eastern Washington who was also in training camp last year with the Seahawks.  He had some success as a returner in college, but that’s about all I know about the guy.

On the free agent list, the player who had the biggest impact for the Seahawks was Atari Bigby.  When he was with the Packers, Bigby showed he had the talent to be a starter, but his body simply couldn’t hold up under the wear and tear that comes with taking so many snaps.  In three years as Green Bay’s starting strong safety he started just 33 games, and by 2010 he was relegated to playing backup, but residual injuries from previous seasons limited him to just four games.  The Seahawks’ coaching staff worked around his durability problems by limiting his snaps to special teams and defensive sub-package duty, and in return they got a standout player who held up well enough to play in all but one regular season game.

Roy Lewis has been an important contributor on special teams, as an extra defensive back in various sub-packages his coverage abilities have steadily improved, and he also has some added value as a blitzer, registering 1.5 sacks in his two seasons with the Seahawks.  That said, if he returns, I doubt it will be for much more than the veteran minimum, and the same goes for Kennard Cox, Chris Maragos, and Jeron Johnson, as all of them are still purely special teams contributors at this point in their careers.

And with that we come to the last name on the list, Marcus Trufant.  Trufant has been a Seahawk for nine seasons, all of them as a starter.  Granted, he never did quite manage to become the flashy shutdown corner we all hoped he would be when he was drafted back in ’03, but he didn’t fall short by much.  From 2003 to 2008, Trufant regularly went up against star talents like Larry Fitzgerald, Torry Holt, and Isaac Bruce, and he held his own as one of the best man-coverage defenders in the league.  He isn’t as fast as he used to be, and in the last three years he’s missed a whopping 18 games to injuries, but that doesn’t invalidate the caliber of player he was before that. 

There’s a very real possibility that we’ve seen Trufant put on a Seahawks jersey for the last time, and that prospect saddens me.  Don’t get me wrong, I won’t miss the Trufant who in the last few seasons gave up dozens of short-yardage completions because of the massive cushions he gave receivers, but I will miss the Trufant who was a reliable defensive anchor for over half a decade, a cornerback who never complained or resorted to ridiculous antics to get the media’s attention, preferring instead to let his play on the field do all the talking for him.

Linebackers

Under Contract Position Games Starts 2012 Salary Free Agent Year
Malcolm Smith LB 12 0 $465k 2015
K.J. Wright OLB/MLB 16 13 $465k 2015
Allen Bradford LB - - Futures -
Adrian Moten LB 2 0 $540k(?) ?
Totals: - 30 13 $1.47 M -
Free Agents Position Games Starts Min. Salary Free Agent Type
Heath Farwell LB 11 0 $700k Unrestricted
David Hawthorne MLB 15 14 $700k Unrestricted
Leroy Hill OLB 16 16 $700k Unrestricted
Matt McCoy MLB 4 1 $825k Unrestricted
David Vobora LB 6 0 $700k Unrestricted
Totals: - 52 31 $3.625 M -

No, your eyes do not deceive you, the Seahawks really do only have two linebackers of note still under contract.  K.J. Wright became one of the more pleasant surprises of the 2011 season when he supplanted Aaron Curry in the starting lineup and proved he could be counted on not to make the same infuriating mental mistakes as the player he replaced.  I’ll admit, when he was drafted I was skeptical of his ability to play at the NFL level, not because he looked like he didn’t know what he was doing in the college games I reviewed — his tackling was sound, he wasn’t often caught out of position, and he showed discipline in sticking with whatever his assignment appeared to be on a given play — but he looked mummy-slow.  I don’t know, perhaps I just managed to sample all of his off performances, or maybe putting on a Seahawks uniform shaved a few tenths of a second off his forty time.  Whatever the reason was, he proved me wrong with his play this year, and I couldn’t be happier about it.

The other notable LB under contract, Malcolm Smith, is intriguingly athletic and may one day develop into something special, but he’s not there yet.  Whenever I focused on him in games, he looked lost and unsure of what he was supposed to do; when he did manage to factor in on a play, it tended to be more because his speed allowed him to recover quickly and get back in to position than it was because he was where he should have been in the first place.  Considering how often his college career was interrupted by knee injuries, it’s no wonder he’s still raw as a player, but making up for that lost development is going to take time.  If I had to put a more specific timeframe on it, I’d say it’s going to take an offseason or two’s worth of quality time with LB coach Ken Norton, Jr. to find out if Smith can make good on his potential.

Leroy Hill, David Hawthorne, Matt McCoy, and Heath Farwell would be my best bets for the team to re-sign this offseason.  After his previous few seasons were marred by injuries and legal troubles, I never would have expected to see Hill anywhere near the practice field at the VMAC again, let alone regain his starting job, but that’s exactly what happened.  Spending last year on injured reserve must have let him heal up and get his head on straight, because he looked like his old self out there: still somewhat lost in coverage, perhaps, but dominant against the run and punishing with his tackles.  Hill proved himself all over again this year, and he deserves to be brought back. 

I feel somewhat less positive about Hawthorne, who looked slower and was far less effective than he was in his first two seasons as a starting linebacker.  The Heater was a great find as an undrafted free agent pickup out of TCU back in 2008, but it would appear that his body is starting to break down under the strain of 100+ tackles year in and year out.  Granted, Hill was more or less in the same boat health-wise before he was given another opportunity to compete for a roster spot last year, and I believe Hawthorne deserves the same consideration (he’s got a much shorter rap sheet, for one), but I’m not confident that the Seahawks’ coaching staff share that sentiment.  Pete Carroll has already expressed a desire to improve the team’s speed at linebacker, and Hawthorne was easily the slowest of the three starting LBs in 2011.  He’s a proven, capable defensive captain at middle linebacker, but so was Lofa Tatupu when he was released last offseason.  The coaching staff may very well decide they’d rather go with a younger, healthier K.J. Wright at MLB and let Hawthorne go elsewhere.

As long as I’m thinking about him, why not bring in Tatupu for a look in training camp this year?  Like Hill, he’s had a full year to recover from the nagging injuries that were slowing him down in his last few years with the team.  Granted, even at full strength he would hardly be what I’d call an upgrade in the speed department, plus he may still hold a grudge against Carroll and Schneider for releasing him and refuse a tryout offer on principle, so this speculation may be moot.  That said, no other team was interested enough to sign him in 2011, and a year spent not being able to play is a powerful motivator to bury the hatchet.

McCoy and Farwell might not be starting material, but I would love to see both of them return to Seattle next season.  McCoy has spent the majority of his career as a nomadic special teamer, but last season his coverage skills earned himself an additional role as the MLB in Gus Bradley’s nickel coverage scheme (remember, nickel packages are vitally important to modern NFL defenses).  He looked good in that role, too, but then Aaron Curry destroyed his knee in a special teams mishap in week four.  If he hasn’t fully recovered from the surgery by the time camp arrives, he could always be put on the physically unable to play list; the Seahawks did extend the same courtesy last year to Roy Lewis, after all. 

Like McCoy, Farwell is also a career special teamer, but that’s putting it mildly.  Farwell is one of those players who is average in all areas save one, but he’s so phenomenally good at that one thing that his shortcomings don’t really matter.  Farwell is to special teams coverage units what Charles Haley was to rushing the passer — he’s really that good.  The man’s a returner-seeking missile.

I don’t expect much of anything from the remaining few names, David Vobora, Adrian Moten, and Allen Bradford.  Vobora and Moten were rejects from teams with awful defenses (the Rams and Colts, respectively) who were only signed to the roster to replace injured backups.  If either makes it to the VMAC this summer, it’ll be as camp bodies.  Bradford was drafted as a running back out of USC by Tampa Bay last year, only to be cut and claimed off waivers by the Seahawks, who promptly cut him again.  A few days later, he was signed to the practice squad as a linebacker.  I have no idea what to make of that, but there it is.

Defensive Line

Under Contract Position Games Starts 2012 Salary Free Agent Year
Alan Branch DT 15 15 $3 M 2013
Chris Clemons DE 16 16 $3 M 2013
Dexter Davis DE 1 0 $490k 2014
Lazarius Levingston DL 4 0 $465k 2015
Brandon Mebane DT 16 16 $4 M 2016
Pierre Allen DL - - Futures -
John Graves DL - - Futures -
Adrian Taylor DT - - Futures -
Totals: - 52 47 $10.95 M -
Free Agents Position Games Starts Min. Salary Free Agent Type
Raheem Brock DE 16 0 $925k Unrestricted
Red Bryant DE 16 16 $700k Unrestricted
Anthony Hargrove DL 13 0 $825k Unrestricted
Jameson Konz (?) DE/LB/TE/MD/DDS 1 0 $390k (?) ?
Clinton McDonald DT 15 1 $540k Exclusive Rights
Jimmy Wilkerson DL IR - $825k Unrestricted
Totals: - 61 17 $4.205 M -

First, the good: the team’s best pass rusher Chris Clemons is still under contract, as is 1-tech gap-plugging extraordinaire Brandon Mebane.  Better yet, Clemons’ play against the run improved dramatically this season (he was a borderline liability in 2010), and the length of Mebane’s contract will likely make him a Seahawk for life.  Beyond those two, however, things get a whole lot murkier.

For one, Clemons was pretty much the only consistent pass rusher the Seahawks had this year.  Raheem Brock, who was a respectable pass-rush threat in 2010, only registered three sacks in 2011, and two of those came during the blowout win over the Bears.  I don’t expect to see him back next year.  Dexter Davis and Pierre Allen are both young players with the potential to develop into viable pass rushers, but both have had trouble staying healthy.  Jameson Konz is an outside possibility, but injuries have been a major concern for him as well, plus I’m not entirely sure if he’s even still under contract.  For that matter, Clemons has been surprisingly durable in his two years with the Seahawks, but it’s hard to ignore that injuries were a major concern for him in his pre-Seattle career.

The other returning starter, Alan Branch, ate up his fair share of double teams and was especially stout against the run, and that would be more than enough to justify starting him again next year if he was being asked to man the 1-tech position.  Unfortunately for him, he plays the 3-tech, where the name of the game is disruption.  Now, a 3-tech doesn’t have to pile up sacks like Warren Sapp to be effective, although that’s nice too if you can get it.  Rocky Bernard, for example, was a great 3-tech for the Seahawks for years until repeated groin injuries sapped his effectiveness.  He only registered more than 4 sacks in a season once (8.5 in 2005), but his consistent penetration led to a lot of hurried throws, QB hits, and RBs tackled for losses.  Branch got 3 sacks this year, but his visits to the offensive backfield were sporadic at best.  If he can find a way to improve in that area then great, but chances are the Seahawks are going to need to look elsewhere to find the production they need at this position.

From what I’ve read, Adrian Taylor appears to be an awful lot like Alan Branch: stout against the run, tough to move, but unable to consistently reach the quarterback.  Judging by the notes on him from the 2011 Combine though, it sounds like he has the quickness to get to the QB, but lacks the technique he needs to fight his way past blockers.  He’s had problems with injuries, including a torn achilles his senior year that likely prevented him from getting drafted, but he could be someone to watch if he can stay healthy and learn some pass-rush moves.

The only thing that seems to differentiate Lazarius Levingston and John Graves is their contracts: Levingston signed a four-year deal last November, while Graves only has a futures contract.  Both are what you’d call ‘tweeners: not quite big and strong enough to consistently hold up against the run in the middle of the line, and not enough of a burst to rush off the edge, either.  At this point I wouldn’t count on them being anything more than backups, and they may only prove to be camp bodies.  That said, Graves has some potential as a pass rusher, and Levingston has a decent bull rush (I know that last one doesn’t sound like much, but Tony Siragusa built a respectable 12-year NFL career solely on his ability to bull rush).

Red Bryant is the lone starter on the free agent list, and it’s going to be interesting to see what the Seahawks perceive his value to be in contract negotiations.  Bryant is a beast against the run, and he played a huge role in putting Seattle’s rush defense in the top ten.  He also has a great feel for blocking kicks (seriously, when’s the last time you remember seeing an extra point blocked?), and he’s surprisingly effective when asked to drop back into coverage on zone blitzes.  However, he’s only mildly disruptive when it comes to rushing the passer; he has a decent enough burst to get into the backfield, but he has trouble changing direction fast enough to prevent quarterbacks from merely sidestepping him and scrambling out of the pocket to buy more time.  It all comes down to what the Seahawks decide is more important: keeping him on as a strong side DE who can effortlessly stonewall a team’s rushing attack, or finding someone else who has more ability as a pass rusher.  Honestly, if the team can improve its production at the 3-tech position and work in some blitzes from K.J. Wright, Leroy Hill, Roy Lewis, and so forth, “mildly disruptive” may be enough.

Along with Big Red, I’d love to see the team bring back both Anthony Hargrove and Jimmy Wilkerson.  Hargrove seems to be most effective when he’s only asked to play a handful of snaps as a rotational player, but for those few snaps he was able to provide a disruptive burst off the snap that the team was otherwise lacking in the middle of the d-line.  Seriously, go re-watch that safety he scored against the Giants and tell me if you could see Mebane or Branch blast through the hole left by the pulling guard as quickly as Hargrove did. 

Wilkerson is sort of a forgotten man at this point, but before he suffered a season-ending injury in the preseason he was looking to factor in as the same sort of quick, disruptive threat that Hargrove ended up providing.  I don’t know about the rest of you, but I rather like the idea of having a second Hargrove to rotate in on game day.

Clinton McDonald was brought in via the trade that sent Kelly Jennings to Cincinnati, which by itself earns himself a special place in my heart, but beyond that he doesn’t appear to be anything more than a backup of questionable value.  He’s shown some skill at rushing the passer from the 3-tech, although that skill has yet to translate from the practice field, and he’s not so hot against the run.  In his lone start of the season against Washington, all the Redskins had to do to pick up a few crucial yards was call a run in McDonald’s direction.

*        *        *

This seems like as good a place as any to pause for now.  The rest of the article, which will look at the offense and special teams, will go up on Friday Monday.

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