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Seahawks’ 2018 NFL Draft shows a firm commitment to rebuilding special teams

NCAA Football: Texas Bowl-Texas vs Missouri Troy Taormina-USA TODAY Sports

It’s been a month since the 2018 NFL Draft concluded, and going over the Seattle Seahawks’ nine-player haul, I believe there’s one aspect of this year’s group that has been overlooked. Yes, Rashaad Penny is supposed to be Seattle’s new starting running back and part of the answer for a woeful rushing attack, but he and several others from this class also figure to contribute on special teams, a unit that has been largely mediocre-to-bad in three of the last four years.

Penny returned seven kickoffs for touchdowns at San Diego State, and also added a punt return for a score in his senior year. It’s really hard to ignore eight ST touchdowns and a career average of 30.2 yards per kick return.

Keeping in mind that the NFL kickoff rules have changed — see the rules explained here — we don’t know what impact that will have on the game moving forward, but it’s no secret that Penny could be the new primary kickoff returner, while Tyler Lockett stays on punt return duties. Penny only returned two punts at San Diego State, so I’m not expecting any changes there.

Then you have Shaquem Griffin and Tre Flowers. Griffin is going to compete at weakside linebacker, but special teams? Pete Carroll had this to say at minicamp.

“He looked very comfortable, very natural,’’ Carroll said. “He has a sense already for scheme and terminology. The position is the right spot for him, it looks like. We can be aggressive and use his speed. He’s already shown some sense in the passing game and he had a couple really good plays adjusting to zone coverage and man coverage and things we’ve already seen. So those were good things to take away. And we can’t really get a feel at all for special teams but we know that that’s going to be a factor so we’re excited about that.

As for Flowers, the plan is to switch from safety to right cornerback, but you know what Pete Carroll also was excited about?

“We’re going to take a guy from a different spot and move him and we’ll see how he does knowing that he’s going to be a really good contributor on special teams,” Carroll said Saturday. “The ball sense that he has and the awareness that he has, this kid is going to be really exciting to watch. We’ll see how that comes about.”

Then you have the real posterboy for the special teams revival, Texas punter Michael Dickson. Seattle traded up for him in the fifth-round (I know, I know), and the fact that Dickson declared early tells you that he’s no run-of-the-mill guy at the position.

Jon Ryan has had a negative punting DVOA in all but two of his ten seasons in Seattle. It’s been downhill since 2013, which was one of the best punt coverage units in NFL history. As much as I love him as a personality and for giving us this moment, he’s 37 years old in a few months and the Seahawks can save $5 million by cutting him. It’ll be a competition between Ryan and Dickson for that punter spot, and I have to think Dickson is the early favorite. He was MVP of the Texas Bowl after placing seven of his 11 punts inside Missouri’s 10-yard line, with no punts going for touchbacks. Those little things can win you games, and the field position battle was a battle Seattle lost far too often last season.

I dread bringing up the 42-7 loss to the Los Angeles Rams, but literally all of the Rams’ scoring drives were no longer than 50 yards. Why? Well the two fumbles didn’t help, but Jon Ryan’s first punt of the game went only 39 yards, was returned for 4 yards, and the Rams began their second offensive possession at midfield. His next punt went 44 yards and was run back 53 yards to the Seahawks’ 1-yard line. With a chance to seriously flip field position after a Seahawks drive stalled at midfield, Ryan punted into the end zone. The next two punts traveled a combined 100 yards, but Pharaoh Cooper had a combined 52 return yards, instantly putting the Rams in Seattle’s half of the field on both occasions. Ryan’s final punt was a successful 41-yarder and just a 6-yard return to the Rams’ 41, but Delano Hill committed a 15-yard penalty to send Los Angeles to Seattle’s 46.

That reads to me like staggering incompetence. Seattle’s special teams made an already easy day for the Rams that much easier, in a game where Blair Walsh was limited to only one PAT and zero field goals. And that was coming off almost giving up a punt return touchdown to Jaydon Mickens of the Jacksonville Jaguars the week before.

Of the many things the Seahawks needed to address this offseason, the decline of special teams play was quite conceivably towards the top of the list. They were 20th in DVOA last season and 15th in 2016. Pete Carroll preaches balance, but I don’t think balanced mediocrity is what he had in mind. Hopefully Penny, Griffin, Flowers, and Dickson can help turn the ship around.