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Seahawks 53-man preview and the Tyler Lockett kickoff conundrum

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Searching for a player on the roster to make the second-year receiver feel a little less special (teams)

NFL: Preseason-Dallas Cowboys at Seattle Seahawks Troy Wayrynen-USA TODAY Sports

One of the things I looked for during the game but didn’t mention in my notes from the Seattle Seahawks 27-17 preseason win over the Dallas Cowboys Thursday was what Seattle did with its kick returners. It’s not a position I gave a lot of thought to during the offseason but after the Minnesota game I noticed the apex bird around here banging the drum about Tyler Lockett (1) returning kicks.

Lockett was the top kickoff returner in the NFL in 2015, according to the All-Pro voters. He’s valuable to the Seahawks in that role: Lockett averaged 25.8 yards per kick return, eighth in the league as a rookie, and scored touchdowns returning both punts and kickoffs. But Kenneth Arthur is right to raise the question. If Lockett’s value as a receiver, and for the long term, is so much greater than his prowess fielding kicks offers in 2016, why risk it? Lockett’s kick return average was solid but only 2.3 yards better than the mean, while NFL teams in 2015 only brought an average of two kicks out of the end zone per game. And this year touchbacks after kickoffs already go to the 25.

Thursday, Lockett absorbed some punishment from the Cowboys. He had one fair catch off a punt but then fielded a bouncing ball near the goal line before getting stood up at the 20 by J.J. Wilcox. It was a hard hit that would have been bad enough, but then Lockett got sandwiched heavily from the opposite angle by 245-pound Damien Wilson. On the next punt Anthony Hitchens tried to body slam him. Lockett’s last return was the second half kickoff and he didn’t get powerfully hit but kind of lassoed around in a potentially scary way.

Still, Lockett’s odds of surviving are rather beside the point. I watched this position during the game because I wanted to see what the options were. The kicks Lockett fielded came in the period when the Seahawks starters played offense and defense. In the other preseason games, Lockett didn’t return the majority of kicks, but each time he was the “starting” returner. The other guys getting reps, Trovon Reed, Montario Hunter, Troymaine Pope—Thursday it was DeShon Foxx—aren’t favored to make the team.

So that seems to signal Lockett is the guy again, unless there’s a player chosen (or acquired; the Chiefs reportedly could cut De’Anthony Thomas in favor of Tyreek Hill and there are plenty of other kick returner contests around the league) as a specialty returner. But you can’t just add another roster spot. Obviously anyone in that role would contribute elsewhere, if only a reserve like Leon Washington was in 2011-12, but a hidden value of Lockett returning kicks might be if it helps remove that factor from deciding a roster choice that wouldn’t be made otherwise.

I don’t mean that this will make or break the final cut, but I realized to get to the bottom of what else is possible and available at kick returner required working out a puzzle of the whole rest of the roster. I had never done a 53-man projection before, so I started by naming all the players I am sure (barring sudden new injury) will make the September 3 team:

Jimmy Graham, Luke Willson, Nick Vannett, Doug Baldwin, Jermaine Kearse, Paul Richardson, Russell Wilson, Trevone Boykin, Justin Britt, Mark Glowinski, Germain Ifedi, Garry Gilliam, Bradley Sowell, Thomas Rawls, Christine Michael, Sr., C.J. Prosise, Cliff Avril, Michael Bennett, Frank Clark, Ahtyba Rubin, Jarran Reed, Quentin Jefferson, Richard Sherman, Jeremy Lane, DeShawn Shead, Earl Thomas, Kam Chancellor, Kelcie McCray, Bobby Wagner, K.J. Wright, Mike Morgan, Cassius Marsh, Steven Hauschka, Jon Ryan

In addition to Lockett, that’s (35) guys. Whatever questions remain about the offensive line, particularly at the edges, by this point it is clear none of the acting starters are in jeopardy of falling all the way off the roster if healthy. Next I looked at everyone I didn’t believe had any shot to make it, based on consensus reports, lack of opportunity at a settled or deep position, or in certain cases never having heard the names at all.

After Hunter, Foxx and Trovon Reed, Clayton Echard, Joe Sommers, EZ Nwachukwu, Douglas McNeil, Jake Heaps, Tani Tupou, Kyle Coleman, Josh Shirley, Tyler Harris, DeAngelo Tyson, Deandre Elliot, Keenan Lambert, Quayshawn Nealy, Pete Robertson

Many of these players will probably be among the first 15 roster cuts today and tomorrow, although some may hold on for a week for the sake of distribution of bodies. That clears away about a third of the remaining pile, but leaves from the 90-man list 36 still realistically jousting for only 18 more spots.

I’ll subtract one from each total: I expect the Seahawks will end the Nolan Frese experiment and find another Long Snapper X (36), whether Clint Gresham or another street guy, but it technically may not be by opening day. It’s lame how a provision, the vested veteran clause, designed to protect veteran salaries ends up as a disincentive, along with the veteran minimum schedule, to getting these guys paid at all. (A minimum player in his seventh season like Gresham is required to collect about 100,000 dollars more than last year, and overall almost double what a rookie like Frese costs.)

Another utility player snapping on punts and field goals could, like Lockett as a returner, in theory save the team a roster spot—or for some bubble guys steal themselves a job. But if Kevin Pierre-Louis or anyone else was actually worth inserting here we would have seen it tried in the preseason.

Removing the obvious bits doesn’t make cuts any easier, but it does narrow the focus of each selection.

Tight End

Spots filled: 3

Estimated spots open: 1

Players competing: 1

If Graham and Vannett were healthier, Brandon Williams (37) might be more of a doubt. Seattle hasn’t held four tight ends to start a year since 2010 but the Seahawks are gonna need at least two of them active in week 1.

Wide Receiver

Spots filled: 4

Estimated spots open: 1

Players competing: 5

When I started noticing Antwan Goodley relayed as the possible fifth receiver last week it surprised me because he wasn’t somebody I ever earlier saw projected ahead of draft pick Kenny Lawler or those Huskies with a year already in the system, Kevin Smith and Kasen Williams. Plus I was traveling during the Minnesota Vikings exhibition and missed how Goodley established himself—supplying several key first-down catches, displaying professional technique coming back nicely toward the ball on the sideline late in the fourth quarter.

Goodley’s route running and occasional possession-preserving grabs (if sustained) present probably a more reliable skill than pure home-run play potential. Out of context he could even be the more useful receiver for advancing chains and winning football games, but that’s not really what you need the fifth receiver for. Goodley hasn’t really distinguished himself on special teams and Seattle already has guys who do those other tasks well, while Tanner McEvoy’s (38) height and potential for explosive plays separate him.

Spike Friedman spoke Friday as if McEvoy’s appeal is his availability as an athlete to play multiple positions, but I think it’s rather these specific attributes as a pass-catcher. Especially, like Bob Condotta points out, if the team can find ways to use him until the tight end depth returns in full.

Quarterback

Spots filled: 2

Estimated spots open: 0

Players competing: 0

It’s apparent by now that Boykin has the job, even if he’s not looked totally ready every moment.

Offensive Line

Spots filled: 5

Estimated spots open: 4

Players competing: 9

Notice above there are no offensive line candidates I could totally rule out. I wanted to dismiss Will Pericak out of hand, he and his flooded heart, but there just aren’t enough guards to do that. As it is only four or five of the lineman are going to get cut at all.

I saw somebody say Jahri Evans (39) was this year’s Antoine Winfield. But Winfield was an old master trying out for maybe the greatest and deepest combination of defensive backs ever gathered. This offensive line’s possibly adequate ceiling is its best excuse, sure, but its upper limit is not “Legion of Boom in 2013”. Antoine Winfield right now, in 2016, might be able to crack this offensive line.

The question isn’t, “Is Jahri Evans still good?” The question is more like: “Is Jahri Evans better than Kristjan Sokoli?” Sokoli has been playing the opposite side of Evans, but the Seahawks mostly need someone as a swing guard to handle both duties in case of in-game injury or worse—and right now Rees Odhiambo (40) is more of a patch replacement than a dedicated guard.

Pericak was the blocker Pope gobbled all those yards behind in the Minnesota game, while Sokoli missed blocks on the left side. Sokoli seemed more reliable in pass protection whereas it was Pericak in combination with Pope’s failed pickup who allowed the free runner that forced Boykin’s interception at the end of that same game. In the Cowboys matchup this got reversed, with Pericak getting crushed by Dallas penetrators multiple times while Sokoli held up better and led the Pope charge from the left.

However, even if Evans or J’Marcus Webb (41) are truly better options (as reserves) in 2016, and even if the developmental approach works and the inexperienced starting line plays well, some of these guys have taken so long to develop (Gilliam, Britt) they are already scheduled to be free agents next year or the year after. Understanding the approach Seattle has taken to drafting and restocking its line, it may be more valuable for John Schneider to hold on to young replacements that might step in when the developed talent signs elsewhere. But does Schneider have anything to say about cuts? I imagine Carroll knows that what’s good for Schneider’s plan is good for his own.

That’s why I somewhat reluctantly place Joey Hunt (42) ahead of Patrick Lewis. I’d also like to find room for George Fant, but Fant just has more competition given that the Seahawks probably won’t carry even five tackles, and he and Terry Poole seem to be battling for the fifth spot. A 10th lineman could make the team, but beside the starting five I see Seattle keeping two centers, three guards, three tackles and one more dude (Odhiambo) who can cover both guard and tackle.

Running Back

Spots filled: 3

Estimated spots open: 2

Players competing: 3

I’m kind of cheating by calling this two running back spots but fullback is too shallow to consider its own unit right now, so Will Tukuafu (43) plows right in to snatch one of those openings. Alex Collins (44) looked solid against the Cowboys, including one nice spinning catch, and I wasn’t burning him at sea like others after watching the Vikings tape either. He had at least three good carries that day even though it didn’t show in his totals. That beats Zac Brooks, and I already revealed I don’t figure Pope for the roster. Too much of Pope’s outburst against the Vikings came piercing through vast immensity of third-teamers, and he’s averaged less than 20 yards per kick return.

**INTERMISSION**

There are only nine dry towels left for the defense, and 17 candidates still the pool.

Defensive Line

Spots filled: 6

Estimated spots open: 4

Players competing: 5

Looking at the depth here makes me actually slightly worried about the defensive front. The top locks are terrific, and it’s all around a better group than most teams have. But it’s arguable (and has been argued) that exceptional pass rush rotation was what pushed the 2013 Seahawks over the top, and I don’t think I see that same overwhelming depth now—plus the run stuffing may not be as stout as 2015 particularly while Jarran Reed both recovers from his toe injury and explores the rookie adjustment curve. If Sealver Siliga doesn’t get healthy enough to join the roster, who excels at filling gaps and commanding double teams after Reed and Rubin?

Tony McDaniel (45) is huge and competent in the scheme but he did only register 13 tackles last year for Tampa Bay, while his interior mates Jordan Hill (46), Justin Hamilton (47) and Brandin Bryant (48) are all better suited to chase the quarterback.

Cornerback

Spots filled: 3

Estimated spots open: 2

Players competing: 3

I think Seattle carries five corners so it can have flexibility in nickel, which is also why I choose the better slot guy Marcus Burley (49) over Tye Smith. Tharold Simon (50) also makes the cut, but has appeared to play himself into an exclusively reserve situation during the preseason.

Safety

Spots filled: 3

Estimated spots open: 1

Players competing: 3

Third-string Cowboys quarterback Jameill Showers really picked on Tyvis Powell late in the third preseason game. Powell’s alignment at the edge on those sequences suggests to me the coaches may be looking for a way to justify his roster hold by turning him into a Shead-like all-purpose DB, but looking at the larger picture I don’t believe there’s room for more than four safeties and Powell’s coverage didn’t earn him a spot at the expense of someone like Burley.

Powell becomes probably the biggest upset on my list, after the buzz surrounding him in camp and the way he previously sparkled on special teams. He probably ends up on the ghost roster in some fashion. Steven Terrell gets the other short straw.

It looked to me like Brandon Browner (51) played a lot more snaps and in a lot more places than folks think the past two outings, even if his run came with reserves. He didn’t have any big Browner-y moments in the games but if anything his laissez-faire performance suggests a confidence in himself that he doesn’t need to get too sweaty or pounded right now to perform his role in the team’s plans later. It’s not the most courteous parallel, “competition”-wise, but his overall attitude reminded me of Shaquille O’Neal coasting through winter basketball. (At first I just wrote “Shaq”. Funny how you have to take care to clarify that now.) Call him the CFO, because he made so many business decisions—or call it a hunch, but I suspect we’ll see something realer when the games count.

Linebacker

Spots filled: 4

Estimated spots open: 2

Players competing: 6

If you notice I put a preponderance of 3-techniques and rush tackles on the defensive line. That’s because I’m counting Marsh and Ryan Robinson (52) as linebackers although they’ll most often play defensive end. In Seattle’s 4-3 “Under” scheme, the LEO end is really more like a 3-4 outside linebacker as I pointed out in July and Carroll reminded us earlier this month. Robinson played a lot in the preseason action I saw, but roamed the line of scrimmage less like a hand-in-the-dirt end taking on blockers than a second-level weakside ’backer keeping his hands free to run and pursue. He is listed at 260 pounds but looks to my eye like he has lost weight, in contrast to Eric Pinkins who definitely added thickness to fit the strongside role but it didn’t help his coverage.

The SAM thing appeared intriguing because it was a mystery, but Morgan claimed the job rather decisively. Cutting Pinkins challenges depth there, but again I don’t imagine we’ll see the Seahawks in base an extraordinary amount and perhaps Robinson can pick up some of that slack too. Meanwhile Brock Coyle (53) completes my roster as Wagner’s alternate, because Brock Huard said on Friday Coyle distanced himself from Kache Palacio and Steve Longa during the Dallas exhibition.


Of course I could be wrong about a lot of this. Stephen Cohen Sunday indicated certain veterans evidently will not make the cut, so maybe Evans and Browner are gone after all. Or maybe he’s just talking about Siliga and Lewis. We’ll find out Tuesday at the latest.

However, since we reached our magic number, that doesn’t leave any room for an extra kick returner to pop up. That doesn’t either prohibit Seattle from getting another guy when cuts arrive from around the league, and you could certainly subtract some borderline cases like Bryant or Hamilton, but the number of talented players already knocking on the door of the roster—Powell, Goodley—indeed supports the chances that we’re in for another season of Lockett fielding kicks.

There’s one more name from the 90-man group I haven’t discussed, because if the Seahawks want to try George Farmer at kick returner in Thursday’s Oakland Raiders tuneup I won’t complain. Farmer, a converted defensive back filling in at tailback initially because of a slight rash of injuries the first week of training camp, got featured maybe a surprising amount in the last two exhibitions. He seems to possess all the will and engagement Carroll seeks in bottom-roster guys, and runs with an elusive, downhill style that might work even better in the open field than bursting past trenches.

If he’s even good at returning, could the 2016 Seattle roster make space for a player like Farmer who doesn’t figure to have a chance to contribute in regular action, without also offering developmental upside in that regard? Probably not. But the downside to hedging Lockett’s focus on blossoming into one of the league’s top wideouts might be worth the exchange.