Last season, Thomas did a series called "Seahawks on the Precipice" where he examined a few players that could potentially make big impacts in 2011. He took a look at Walter Thurmond, Deon Butler, Charlie Whitehurst, and Golden Tate, I believe, and I wanted to do a similar type of series this offseason. Subsequent to those articles, in my mind, Thurmond and Tate showed that they belong with the team down the road and Butler/Whitehurst did nothing to solidify their positions (Whitehurst obviously left and Butler will face tough competition at receiver).
For my feature though, I wanted to identify a few guys that I think could really surprise in 2012, and tell you why. "Surprise" is a relative term, and I'll be stretching the definition of that word a bit by looking at players that could be surprise members of the final-53, could be surprise starters, or even surprise Pro Bowl type contributors. Inevitably, some of the players I identify won't even make the roster - but picking 'surprise' players is inherently risky for my street cred. Nonetheless, here we go.Deuce Lutui
The Lutui signing has flown under the radar a bit this offseason because of the former Cardinal and USC Trojan's dubious contract snafu last year with Cincinnati. Lutui failed a physical there by being overweight, which voided the two-year contract he had recently signed, so he returned, downtrodden, to Arizona and sat on the bench most of last season. From all reports, Lutui, 28, is now back at playing weight, has a contract stipulation to play at or around 350, and is hungry to prove his doubters wrong.
He's reunited with Pete Carroll, a coach that he described as "the only coach in the NFL who really knows who Deuce Lutui is." He continued, "I came at him at 396 (in college), but he has really honored me for my strengths and I'm going to honor him by playing at a weight that is under the radar. I am stepping into my prime. I haven't even yet scratched he surface of that. I am so optimistic about this year as far as my training has been. I can't wait to prove to this organization who I am and who they are getting."
With the Seahawks' injury woes on the offensive line still lingering from 2011, and with the departure of Robert Gallery, we could see Lutui win a starting job at one of the guard positions (depending on James Carpenter and John Moffitt's injury situations and Paul McQuistan's performance), and contribute nicely there. The Seahawks, despite their later-season success running the football, did not fare as well overall in pass protection, surrendering 50 sacks (4th worst in the NFL) and 114 QB hits (worst) throughout the season.
Whether it's Matt Flynn or Tarvaris Jackson, or especially if it's Russell Wilson, guard play is going to be one of the most important things to keep an eye on this season. Avoiding a collapsed pocket, creating passing lanes, providing an extra beat or two for plays to develop downfield - these are a few things that will be key for quarterback improvement in 2012. The run game under Tom Cable's tutelage appears to be going in the right direction, but if you want to see this offense perform down the stretch, when behind in games, or mounting a two-minute drill, pass pro is going to be essential.
It would be a nice surprise for us as fans to see Lutui's veteran presence, leadership, and talent pay dividends for the Hawks in a major way in this regard and Lutui, above all the other players I'll be highlighting, is one of those boom or bust types of guys that I could actually see develop back into a pro-bowl caliber player. Obviously, the other side of the coin is that he may have regressed badly after missing a season for the most part and there's the possibility he's released even before the season, but that's kind of the point of this article.
Staying on the offensive side of the ball, another player I could see surprising all of us this season is TE Anthony McCoy. McCoy has become a bit of a forgotten man with the arrival of Zach Miller and Kellen Winslow, and will likely cede most of his snaps to those players provided they stay healthy. This is the NFL though, and injuries are part of the game, so if there's one player that stands to benefit from potential injuries at tight end it's McCoy.
Another former Trojan, McCoy has shown glimpses, among his young-player type mistakes, miscues, and drops, that he's a physical talent with speed and blocking ability that just oozes frustrating potential. At 6'5, 260, he has the ability to stay in-line and block, pass protect against defensive ends and linebackers, run routes, create matchup problems for defenses, and could be one of those true "Y" tight end types that offers the offense immeasurable versatility. Rob Gronkowski is the prototype, but Zach Miller is another great example (albeit, one whose potential wasn't used all that well in 2011, as Tom Cable recently lamented). McCoy was graded by some in the 2nd round coming out of USC simply because of his ability to block in-line.
Of course - that's all potential, no production. McCoy curiously developed an issue with drops last season, and interspersed in his excellent blocking on the line were frustrating blown assignments that led to sacks or tackles for a loss on bubble screens, etc. In a similar fashion to Golden Tate though - his draft classmate - I could see McCoy being a case of a slow starter that emerges in his third year as a viable option in the passing game and a standout blocker in the run game or in pass pro. McCoy is the best true backup to Miller because the Seahawks are not likely going to go into the season depending on Winslow or Cameron Morrah as a "Y" tight end. Because of this, I think he should make the roster, and if the Seahawks run more heavy formations going forward, he could even see some time in 3TE sets.
When you look through scouting reports for McCoy as he was coming out, there's no mention of the 'drops' so it could potentially be a correctable thing - hopefully just a phase - and take this scouting report from New Era Scouting for an example (that's just one example of many I found - all with similar reports for the most part):
Hands: Has very big hands - the third-largest measured at the combine. Snags the ball out of the air with ease. His power base allows him to shrug off defenders while the ball is in the air, so he can make a play. Doesn't get scared going over the middle.
Route Running: Playing in Pete Carroll's pro-style offense [at USC], McCoy learned a proper route tree for a tight end. He may not be the most fluid of route runners, but McCoy knows how to attack a zone and make himself big over the middle.
This shows up in the redzone, especially within the five-yard line, where McCoy can be a nuisance to account for - and with 'it's the preseason yeah yeah yeah blah blah backups' caveats issued, he has scored a few touchdowns over the years in those situations. Examples here, here, and here.
If he can get his head screwed on straight and get over the dropsies that have plagued him thus far, McCoy has the potential to be a huge asset for the offense. In heavy formations in the redzone, McCoy could be that de-facto 6th offensive lineman that allows you to release Zach Miller and Kellen Winslow into routes. His big frame and blocking ability gives the Seahawks the ability to run out of those formations - especially with Miller opposite him or used in tandem. Most importantly, if he's a legitimate threat as a receiver, he's one more player that the defense has to account for and a thinking defense is not a quick reacting defense.
The potential is so frustrating to me because the physical ability and talent are there, but it hasn't manifested itself on the field yet. 2012 will be a litmus test for McCoy and I'm hoping he steps up - it would be an excellent surprise if he does. He's still only 24 - younger than Cam Morrah, rookie Sean McGrath and practice squad competitor John Nalbone. He's younger than Deon Butler and Ricardo Lockette, and only a few months senior to Kris Durham so there's plenty of time still for development. Progress will have to come this year though, I think. He's at or near the top of my list of 'must-watch' players in training camp and preseason.