In recent blogs and interviews, ESPN's John Clayton has described "five key positions" he considers the keys to improving an NFL team.
These "five key positions" (listed in Clayton's stated order) are Quarterback, Left Offensive Tackle, Defensive End/Pass Rusher, Wide Receiver, and Cornerback. Of course Clayton recognizes other positions such as RB or MLB to be important but feels that teams can more easily find adequate players to fill these roles. His "five" are the impact positions for which top-flight pros are in short supply.
Let's look at the Seahawk's performance at these five key positions in 2008, and their prospects for improvement in 2009.
Key #1 Quarterback:
Matt Hasselbeck struggled with a bulging disc in his back, took too many hits by opposing pass rushers, and was sent to the IR list after 7 games (52.2 % completions, 5 TD, 10 INT, 19 SCK). Seneca Wallace started the final 11 games and was competent (58.3% complete, 11 TD, 3 INT, 14 SCK) but played behind a make-shift offensive line and generally fell short of Hasselbeck's ability to make the plays needed to extend drives.
The Seahawks should receive a big boost in point production and victories from the return of a healthy Hass. By all accounts, his back is sound and strengthened by his conditioning program, but only full-speed game action will allow Matthew to demonstrate his fitness. Clayton considers the return of a starting QB from injury to be the factor most likely to improve a team's record from one year to the next, and suggests this one change can be responsible for as many as 6 points/game which can translate into as many as 6 additional victories.
Prospects for improved QB play in 2009? Excellent.
Key #2 Left Offensive Tackle
For the past 11 seasons, the Seahawks have known one left tackle - Walter Jones. Jones affects every opponent's defensive game plan and simplifies the Seahawks' plan on offense by making the opponent's blind-side pass rusher disappear. In 2008, Jones' shoulder was unhealthy most of the year, and and when his knee sidelined him near season's end, several players (Locklear, Womack, Williams) were rotated in to fill the gaping hole at LOT.
The biggest question mark, and potential dark cloud hanging over this team is the fate of Walter's surgically-repaired knee. His rehab from microfracture knee surgery appears nearly complete, but once stressed repeatedly in game action, no one knows how it will hold up. If Big Walt's knee cannot hold up, its failure could be career-threatening. In his absence, Sean Locklear would man the LOT spot (a plan that was fuddled in 2008 by Locklear's injuries). Although Lock would be significantly less intimidating to opposing pass rushers he is an experienced pro who would get the job done. Ray Willis would move to ROT, and the offensive line would at least be appreciably better than in those final games of 2008 when Jones and Locklear were both out injured at the same time. No Seahawks fan will be comfortable seeing Walter exit after 11 years of domination at this most important position, but fans should take comfort in having another top flight Tackle waiting in the wings. Few NFL teams are staffed three-deep in starting-quality OTs.
Prospects for improved LOT play in 2009? Fair.
Key #3 Defensive End/Pass Rusher
The Seahawks had two dominant pass rushers, Patrick Kerney rushing from the LDE position, and Julian Peterson rushing from ROLB. Kerney was injured in week 8 against San Francisco, irreparably weakening the Seahawks defense for the remaining 8 games. The combination of Peterson, DE Darryl Tapp, rookie DE Lawrence Jackson, and second-year DE Baraka Atkins managed a fair number of sacks but often allowed quarterbacks too much time to stand in the pocket, scan the field, and complete their passes on third-down.
Patrick Kearney returns from rehab and is running, lifting, and says he's "feeling fantastic". He had this to say about his prospects on May 21st: "There was the original shoulder surgery, and I hurt my shoulder again against San Francisco so they repaired the labrum. After that they did a wrist reconstruction which is why I was playing with a cast all season. Then I had some bone chips removed from my elbow since I had been wanting to do for three years and finally had time to do it. Its feeling good and I'm already pressing. This is all upper body rehab which is a very good thing because at my position as long as you can still run, that's the key. I'm working on my upper body now and I'll get the bulk back and be at 275 pounds by training camp."
The Will (weak side) LB position will be manned by Leroy Hill, who should have 8-plus sack potential now that he will be allowed to focus on pass rushing. Versatile rookie Aaron Curry is expected to take on Hill's former role on the strong side covering the opponent's TE. These changes should produce more consistent and assignment-correct performances from the LB corps. The return of a healthy Patrick Kerney (12-plus sack potential) should again strike fear into the eyes of opposing QBs, which was seldom true of Darryl Tapp or young Lawrence Jackson in 2008. Former Lion Cory Redding adds his versatility to the defensive line rotation and is expected to play hybrid role at DE and 3-technique-DT. Key also to the rotation will be 320-lb wide-bodies Colin Cole and Red Bryant rotating in at Nose Tackle to take on double teams and keep blockers off of the Seahawks' LBs.
Prospects for an improved Pass Rush in 2009? Very Good.
Key #4 Wide Receiver
The Seahawks began the year with Branch and Engram recovering from injuries, Obamanu was lost to injury during the preseason, Burleson and Payne were lost to injuries during game one. From bad to worse, the receiving corps eventually featured a bevy of backups and the passing game never gained its footing. By season's end, Branch was starting but was just beginning to regain the skills he had pre-injury.
Branch returns at full strength, Burleson should regain 100% by season's end, and T. J. Houshmandzadeh joins the team after three successive 90-plus catch seasons in Cincinnati. If healthy, this three-WR corps could be among the NFL's better units. In addition, speedy rookie Deon Butler (4.28/40) joins the team, leaving the remaining roster spots hotly contested.
Prospects for improved WR play in 2009? Excellent.
Key #5 Cornerback
Marcus Trufant enjoyed another solid season at CB in which he could never do enough to overcome the breakdowns in the front seven in front of him. The other CB spot and the Nickel-CB were manned by Kelly Jennings and young Josh Wilson. Injuries troubled Jennings, who struggled against bigger receivers. Josh Wilson moved from Nickel-CB to take Jennings' place opposite Trufant near the season's end, playing bigger than his 5-foot 9-inch frame would suggest.
Ken Lucas, veteran of the 2001-04 Seahawks seasons, returns. If the team is lucky, Lucas will have a big chip on his shoulder and insist on reclaiming and keeping his former starting job. Lucas' height and physical presence should toughen the pass defense. Scrappy Josh Wilson is likely to be the favored Nickel-CB. This leaves Jennings competing with both Lucas and Wilson, and ready to step in to fill at any CB position if a man goes down injured. The last point to consider is that an improved pass rush can only serve to aid the CB's pass defense efforts. If opposing QBs have less time to scan the field before throwing, this could make all the difference.
Prospects for improved CB play in 2009? Good.
What Clayton's Five Keys Tell Us
It would appear that General Manager Tim Ruskell has done his job well by bolstering these five important positions in preparation for the coming season. Considering the rash of injuries in 2008, this improved outlook for 2009 suggests the Seahawks have potential for the most improved record in the NFL.
If players falter at other positions (S, RB, OG, and C come to mind as positions with lingering question marks) this will affect the team's prospects. However, on paper this team looks like they can accomplish 10 or 11 wins and regain the NFC West crown.
The results on the field may largely depend on the degree to which Hasselbeck, Jones, and Kerney have rehabilitated their injuries and whether these aging players stay out of the trainer's room and on the playing field.