Wednesday, August 3, 2011
Camp Confidential: Seattle Seahawks
By Mike Sando
RENTON, Wash. -- NFL training camps aren't what they used to be now that players have secured day-spa treatment from coaches under the new labor agreement.
Still, teams aren't practicing in slippers and robes ... yet.
Earl Thomas, the Seattle Seahawks' second-year safety, did go through a recent practice -- make that a walk-through, just to be safe -- wearing a visor that also would have served him well standing over a Titleist. Several teammates wore ball caps.
None of this shocks the system for Seattle.
Coach Pete Carroll ran a player-friendly camp last year as well, giving the team full days off from practice. But the veterans who lauded Carroll's approach in 2010 aren't around to celebrate it this year. And therein lies the biggest difference for the Seahawks this summer.
For the first time since 2000, quarterback Matt Hasselbeck isn't around to offer the insights and asides that made him mandatory viewing at Seahawks camp. Middle linebacker Lofa Tatupu, leader of the defense since 2005, also is gone. Other veterans I polled during the inaugural Camp Carroll are also elsewhere -- Lawyer Milloy, T.J. Houshmandzadeh and Olindo Mare among them.
This day has been coming for a while. The Seahawks are getting on with their lives, untethered from what came before.
THREE HOT ISSUES
Russell Okung has shown no signs of the injuries that nagged him last season.
1. Why Tarvaris Jackson? The Seahawks decided it was time to move on from Hasselbeck before they had a long-term replacement lined up. Once that decision was made, the team targeted Jackson because he and the Seahawks' new offensive coordinator, Darrell Bevell, had spent five years together. Once Jackson was signed, Carroll wasted little time endorsing him as the starter. Three possible explanations come to mind. One, Jackson knew the offense. Two, Charlie Whitehurst hadn't asserted himself as a leader during offseason workouts when Hasselbeck was without a contract for 2011. Three, a quick endorsement gave Jackson a confidence boost following a rough run in Minnesota. There's a feeling that maybe, just maybe, Brad Childress did not give Jackson the best chance to succeed with the Vikings.
2. Who will lead the defense? Tatupu's release following six seasons with the team leaves the defense in transition. Tatupu was instinctive and adept at getting teammates lined up properly. His play had deteriorated through injuries, but Tatupu had three Pro Bowls and a Super Bowl on his résumé. He was the defensive leader. Carroll pointed to linebacker David Hawthorne, pass-rusher Chris Clemons and defensive end Red Bryant as heirs. He named Thomas and strong safety Kam Chancellor as well. "I'm not worried about it," Carroll said. "There’s a lot of very strong character kids on that side of the ball, particularly."
3. Does Whitehurst have a future? It's tough to see him emerging in Seattle. The decision to go with Jackson even though rules prevented him from practicing right away said plenty about Whitehurst's status on the team. Whitehurst has been running the first-team offense while Jackson waits to become eligible under rules for players with new contracts. Everyone knows he's the backup even though there was never any competition. It's a tough situation for Whitehurst. Still, getting to work with the starters provided an opportunity to impress. It has not happened. Whitehurst's contract runs through the 2011 season. If Whitehurst doesn't show more as camp progresses, it's fair to wonder whether the team would consider bringing in a cheaper veteran.
Signing Zach Miller in free agency. Miller was on the Seahawks' radar when free agency opened. Assistant head coach/offensive line Tom Cable had high praise for Miller from their days together in Oakland. But the Seahawks never expected Miller to remain available so deep into the signing period. After a while, the Seahawks began to view Miller the way they would view a talented prospect falling to them in the draft. They felt compelled to pursue Miller with a strong offer. The Raiders made a push to keep Miller, but Seattle came through with a five-year, $34 million contract featuring $17 million in guarantees. Having Cable and former Raiders guard Robert Gallery in Seattle helped the Seahawks get this deal done. The team emerged from free agency with a 25-year-old Pro Bowl player.
Extending the lockout (sort of). Carroll has bristled every day over the rules preventing newly signed players from practicing before Aug. 4, only one week before Seattle's exhibition opener at San Diego. Jackson, Sidney Rice and Gallery are among the key additions who were forbidden from participating in practices or even workouts with the team. The situation was tough for teams throughout the league, but Seattle felt challenged more than most because the team has undergone so much roster turnover. Seattle also has quite a few new coaches on the offensive side of the ball, including Bevell, Cable and quarterbacks coach Carl Smith. Going a week without getting key starters onto the field didn't make any sense from a football standpoint.
The ankle injuries that slowed left tackle Russell Okung as a rookie last season haven't been a problem so far. Okung appears exceedingly smooth. He rides out defenders effectively during pass-rush drills, sometimes even driving them to the ground. He's a threat to flatten defenders in the running game. Another recent first-round pick on the line, James Carpenter, has made a positive first impression at right tackle early in camp. He's thick and massive. He plays with an edge. He's going to start in Week 1.
Rookie right guard John Moffitt projects as a starter, but he could need time to develop. That was my impression watching Moffitt in drills. Of course, it's not fair comparing Moffitt to Okung or Carpenter. Those guys were first-round picks. Moffitt was a third-rounder. Having youth on the line is a good thing overall. Getting the 31-year-old Gallery into the lineup is critical, however. Gallery has been serving as a coach on the field during practices. He knows Cable's blocking schemes and is already proving valuable as a resource. Durability is a concern for him.
Seattle is finished with the big-ticket purchases in free agency. The team could still add veterans at linebacker and kicker. The team lacks experience in the secondary as well. Marcus Trufant and Kelly Jennings are the only cornerbacks on the team with more than one start. Going young sounds great during the offseason, but throwing untested corners onto the field against veteran quarterbacks isn't very appealing when the games start counting. The Seahawks face Ben Roethlisberger, Matt Ryan and Eli Manning in the first five weeks of the regular season.
Strong safety Jeron Johnson and three linebackers -- Mike Morgan, K.J. Wright and Malcolm Smith -- are among the rookies impressing Seattle early in camp. Another rookie, safety Mark LeGree, is getting a chance to play safety when Thomas, the starter at free, shifts to cornerback against slot receivers. Carroll alluded to such an arrangement during the draft. One more rookie, Pep Levingston, has impressed in early one-on-one pass-rush drills. A defensive tackle at LSU, Levingston projects as an end with Seattle. He's leaner than I had anticipated, an advantage in pass-rush drills.
Seven of the 11 cornerbacks on the roster are at least 6 feet tall. Three are 5-foot-11 and one is 5-10. The biggest, Brandon Browner, goes 6-4 and 221 pounds. Impressive? Perhaps, but only three of the 11 have started an NFL game, and none of the three with starting experience stands taller than 5-11.
The Seahawks might need to find more touches for Leon Washington if they hope to get sufficient return on their investment in him. New rules governing kickoffs figure to diminish the value of Washington and other top returners.
Seattle's front office trusted its coaches during free agency. Just about every free-agent addition has ties to a Seahawks staff member. Miller and Gallery played for Cable in Oakland. Jackson and Rice played for Bevell in Minnesota. Defensive tackle Alan Branch was an exception. Seattle added him after failing to land a defensive tackle in the draft. Ideally, Branch would be a backup. He could start for Seattle at three-technique, with Brandon Mebane moving to nose tackle. Branch will also back up Bryant at five-technique.
For the second year in a row under Carroll, the Seahawks are piping hip-hop beats and mixes into practices. A disc jockey stands behind two turntables near the front corner of the practices fields. "Halfway home and my pager still blowin' up, today I didn't even have to use my A.K. I got to say it was a good day ..." Hearing those lyrics from Ice Cube during a recent practice, I couldn't help but wonder what Chuck Knox would think of the arrangement. Did I mention times have changed in the NFL? Just a little.