- Mike Sando, NFL Insider
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It commanded the Seahawks' attention as well, not just on the field but in the meeting room, where coach Pete Carroll made Owens the leading man in an entertaining prank.
But when the Seahawks' first exhibition game kicked off Saturday night against Tennessee, the focus returned to where it needed to be: quarterback. For while Owens might not even earn a roster spot, let alone an important role on the team, the situation behind center will determine whether Seattle breaks from its recent 7-9 form.
The way Matt Flynn and Russell Wilson played against the Titans showed Seattle has a chance to do just that. It was only one game, and one whose outcome was meaningless. But it affirmed some of the evidence collected to this point.
Flynn, non-descript through organized team activities and minicamps, had responded favorably when Carroll gave him the first-team practice reps last week. He was sharp in practice and efficient while completing his first eight passes against the Titans. Flynn's lone interception resulted from a rookie running back failing to sell the play fake, allowing linebacker Colin McCarthy to drop into coverage without concern for the run.
Wilson, sensational for a rookie during the offseason program, hadn't stood out as much in camp. But when the lights went on Saturday night, he looked like the best player on the field. Wilson showed the pocket presence needed to move just the right distance at just the right times, extending plays. He scored on a 32-yard bootleg and threw a 39-yard touchdown pass from the pocket. Only an ill-advised interception over the middle prevented a full Wilson lovefest from breaking out. But it's early, and Wilson is just getting started.
Seattle has seen enough to think one of its new quarterbacks can provide an upgrade from Tarvaris Jackson, who remains on the roster as insurance.
THREE HOT ISSUES
1. Owens or Edwards? The Seahawks want a receiver with dominant size to fill the role Mike Williams played during the 2010 season. Owens is one candidate. Braylon Edwards is another. Second-year pro Kris Durham might still emerge as third, but he has struggled to gain traction in camp to this point.
Edwards has stepped up his game markedly following Owens' arrival, no coincidence. He has to realize the Seahawks aren't going to keep two veteran receivers with no value on special teams. Owens has the bigger name and better credentials, but Edwards has the inside track for a roster spot if both play well. That is because Edwards is nine years younger and could conceivably project as a factor beyond this season. It's also because Owens has been a higher-maintenance player.
Edwards was scrapping like an undrafted free agent during the game against Tennessee. He was a willing blocker -- too willing at one point, drawing a penalty. He rewarded Wilson's trust by making a strong play on the ball for that 39-yard touchdown reception. Owens will get his chance in the coming weeks. This competition is only beginning.
2. What to do with Jackson. Carroll has shown sensitivity for Jackson after the veteran quarterback played through a torn pectoral muscle last season. The grit Jackson showed won respect in the locker room. As much as the team wanted to look at Flynn and Wilson this summer, Carroll gave Jackson an equal portion of the reps through the first week of training camp.
Carrying a three-man race through the exhibition schedule would have been impractical. That is why Flynn and Wilson took the meaningful reps in practice last week. It's why Flynn and Wilson took all the snaps during the exhibition opener. Jackson represents the known. He's the baseline for a team seeking improvement at the position. Jackson, for all his toughness, wasn't effective enough when it counted last season (no touchdowns, six interceptions and nine sacks in the final two minutes of halves).
Jackson is scheduled to earn $4 million in salary for the 2012 season. Flynn and Wilson are going to be on the roster. They will most likely fill the top two spots. The team still likes developmental quarterback Josh Portis. Something has to give, and logic says it'll be Jackson.
3. Health concerns at tight end. The Seahawks envision running quite a few personnel groupings with two tight ends. Assistant head coach/offensive line Tom Cable values H-back types. The expectation this season was for Zach Miller and Kellen Winslow to provide Seattle with a diverse duo at the position. That still might happen, but with Miller now suffering from his fourth concussion in less than three calendar years, there are suddenly renewed health questions at tight end.
Winslow's chronic knee problems limit how frequently he can practice. While Winslow hasn't missed a game to injury over the past three seasons, he is 29 years old and doesn't figure to gain durability from this point forward, especially in light of his knee issues.
REASON FOR OPTIMISM
The Seahawks have upgraded at quarterback and in their ability to rush the passer. Those were the two areas most responsible for holding them back in the recent past. They're also more settled on the offensive line.
How much Seattle has upgraded at quarterback remains unknown, but even if Jackson were to somehow emerge as the starter in a sort of worst-case scenario, at least he would be healthy. The Seahawks aren't asking their quarterbacks to carry the team. They want efficient play from the position. The early returns suggest Flynn can provide that, and that Wilson might be able to provide more.
Newly acquired defensive tackle Jason Jones has already improved the pass rush. Rookie first-round choice Bruce Irvin has been the most difficult player to block in one-on-one pass-rush drills. He has the speed to beat tackles to the outside. He's got better power than anticipated for a player weighing less than 250 pounds. The combination of Jones, Irvin and leading sacker Chris Clemons will be tough at home in particular.
Seattle's defense already ranked among the NFL's top 10 in points allowed, yards allowed and yards allowed per play. This was a mostly young defense on the rise even before Jones and Irvin arrived to address the pass rush.
REASON FOR PESSIMISM
There's faith involved in projecting how well unproven quarterbacks will perform.
A year ago, division-rival Arizona was convinced Kevin Kolb would fix its problems at the position. At the very least, the Cardinals would become average at quarterback, it seemed. Surely that would be enough to make them a playoff contender once again.
Flynn might be better than Kolb, but what if he's not? What if it becomes clear a month or two into the season that Flynn, with only two career regular-season starts, isn't ready to manage an NFL offense from week to week? That's not such a stretch.
Wilson has appeal as an alternative, but how far can a team with a 5-foot-10 rookie quarterback go in an NFC featuring Aaron Rodgers, Eli Manning, Matthew Stafford, Drew Brees, Tony Romo, Matt Ryan, Michael Vick, Jay Cutler and Cam Newton?
Sure, the Seahawks have a powerful ground game and a potentially dominant defense, but the NFL is a quarterback-driven league, right? The five most recent Super Bowls featured Eli Manning, Tom Brady, Ben Roethlisberger, Rodgers, Brees, Peyton Manning and Kurt Warner as the starting quarterbacks. None was trying to decide between a player with two starts (Flynn) and a rookie third-round choice (Wilson).
Even if Flynn or Wilson emerges as viable this season, Seattle could realistically have the third-best quarterback in the division this season.
The red non-contact jersey Sidney Rice wears in practice invites questions about his availability coming off two offseason shoulder surgeries. Rice seems to be moving and catching well, however. My read is that the team is being cautious, and there are no pressing concerns.
Rice needs to do a better job of protecting himself. He tends to land awkwardly, exposing himself to unnecessary contact. The plan was for the shoulder surgeries to enable more aggressive weight lifting, allowing Rice to strengthen his lithe frame. While the shoulders are a concern, Rice also suffered two concussions last season.
Seattle continues to show an uncanny ability to find important roles for obscure defensive players. Defensive end Red Bryant became a success story after converting from defensive tackle over the past couple of seasons. Clinton McDonald, a former college linebacker acquired from Cincinnati in the Kelly Jennings trade, is now a factor. McDonald stands ahead of Bryant, Brandon Mebane and Alan Branch as the fourth defensive lineman in the nickel package. McDonald is backing up Mebane in the base defense.
Bryant's outgoing personality makes him a natural leader on defense. Mebane, his quieter teammate on the line, emerged in that area last season, after the team released veteran linebacker Lofa Tatupu. Leroy Hill: "A lot of times in the huddle, Mebane is the one talking. It's odd because he never did that role, but last year he stepped up and people fell in behind him. ... People listen to what he's got to say."
Left guard John Moffitt could miss the next few weeks after requiring elbow surgery. My initial take was that his replacement, Deuce Lutui, would provide an upgrade. That could be true in pass protection especially. One question, however, is whether Lutui fits the profile for Cable's zone blocking scheme. Moffitt appears to be a better fit that way. He might be best suited for center, actually, but the team is set there with Max Unger, who recently signed a long-term extension.
Seattle has apparently hit on two seventh-round choices this year. Greg Scruggs has a chance to stick on the defensive line. J.R. Sweezy has improbably made a quick conversion from college defensive lineman to NFL guard. Seattle gave him time with its starting line against Tennessee in the preseason opener. Sweezy played surprisingly well. He projects as a good run-blocker for Cable's scheme. Rishaw Johnson is another obscure offensive lineman to watch along those lines.
We've made it this far without mentioning Marshawn Lynch, the offensive player Seattle relied upon most heavily last season. Rookie Robert Turbin has gotten more attention as the projected backup. The Seahawks haven't heard whether Lynch will face a suspension in relation to his pending DUI case. Teams wouldn't have to fear the ground game nearly as much if Lynch missed time.
Speaking of middle linebacker, rookie Bobby Wagner remains the favorite to start, in my view. He has outstanding speed and strong hands for taking on blocks when necessary. Veteran fullback Michael Robinson even compared Wagner to a young Patrick Willis. Wagner's preseason debut was a bit of an adventure, however. He overran a few plays and didn't stand out.
The offensive line should be fine as long as left tackle Russell Okung remains healthy. Okung was looking good early in camp one year ago, only to suffer an ankle injury during an Aug. 11 preseason game against San Diego. The torn pectoral he suffered late last season counts as a fluke. Philadelphia's Trent Cole, frustrated by Okung's edgy style, unleashed a judo move on him. The longer Okung can go without landing on the injury report, the better Seattle can feel about his long-term prospects.
Cornerback Walter Thurmond and offensive lineman James Carpenter could make an impact later in the season. Both are coming off serious injuries. Neither will factor early in the season. Playing Carpenter at left guard has long-term appeal. He and Okung would form a massive combination on the left side. Carpenter is still limping around with a heavy brace on his surgically repaired knee, however.
Carroll's extreme commitment to competition shows up in his willingness to play young players at key positions, including middle linebacker and even quarterback. The effect is felt throughout the roster. Lutui: "Rookies, first-year guys, he puts them in. I’ve never seen that on any level. That pushes the older guys. Everybody is not comfortable. Everybody is not complacent. It doesn’t matter if you have a new contract. Everybody is on an edge. You know have to better yourself. And that is good to see."