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The Drive: Evaluating the Seahawks offense

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NFL: Seattle Seahawks at Carolina Panthers Jeremy Brevard-USA TODAY Sports

The Seattle Seahawks have reentered a window of contention and should maximize short-term chances at winning a Super Bowl even if at the cost of long-term organizational health. That’s the premise of this post. It’s debatable, as are all things, but it is the criteria by which I am evaluating the Seahawks offense and previewing moves that can be made to improve that offense.

Winning the offseason will be a product of savvy management of cap room and draft capital, but moreover precise evaluation of talent and exceptional development of that talent. This post is not primarily concerned with the latter two. It is beyond my purview because I could not hope to in a few hours approach the kind of work it would take to accurately evaluate talent or determine if Seattle could properly develop that talent. Instead, I am concentrating on need and fit. Where do I perceive Seattle to have needs and what players could fill those needs?

Therefore this is an indirect audit of the Seahawks offense as of late January 2020, and a projection of the players who I think fit Seattle’s scheme, culture and athletic profile. Positions of little to no need will be skipped. Let’s go.

Backup Quarterback

Geno Smith signed for the veteran minimum last year. He was just okay in the preseason and didn’t play a snap in the regular season. It’s all but impossible for an outsider to make an informed decision about whether Seattle should re-sign Smith or once again go searching for a suitable backup, but should Smith be willing to sign once again for the veteran minimum, I see no harm in bringing him back.

Running Back

Now we face some difficulty. Seattle has four backs under contract entering 2020, but all come with questions. Rashaad Penny’s injury occurred in week 14 and his ACL tear was coupled with what is being called “additional damage to his knee.” I do not think Seattle can depend on Penny being healthy for the start of training camp. Chris Carson ended the season on IR for the second time in three years. Travis Homer seems destined for a complementary rather than starting role in Seattle’s backfield, and Adam Choice, who spent last season on IR, is likely similarly pigeonholed.

Seattle has built its offensive gameplan around inside running. This is probably the primary reason that Marshawn Lynch out-snapped Homer 37 to 27 in the divisional round. The list of free agents who could reasonably fill that role is pretty short:

Jordan Howard, Carlos Hyde, Marshawn Lynch and Lamar Miller.

I assume Melvin Gordon, Derrick Henry and Kenyan Drake are either too expensive, unavailable or an iffy scheme fit.

Which means Seattle likely must draft a running back, that back must be scheme compatible, and that back should be reasonably polished. Here’s a rough list of players who fit that profile.

Jonathan Taylor, Zach Moss, Najee Harris, Kylin Hill, Ke’Shawn Vaughn, Michael Warren II, Patrick Taylor, &c.

I don’t know exactly how polished any of these backs are. And this list is not exhaustive. But inside runners with size will be available in the draft, and the above are some of the more notable names.

Tight End

Cutting Ed Dickson saves Seattle three million against the cap. He’s very likely gone.

Will Dissly and Jacob Hollister are very different kinds of tight end. If Seattle could, I’d imagine they’d be thrilled to play both, but finding a proper backup for Dissly would be wise. That could be Luke Willson, but Seattle should probably set their sights a bit higher given Willson’s age and production.

Seattle needs an in-line tight end who can credibly run and pass block. Hunter Henry, Austin Hooper and Eric Ebron all fulfill those requirements to various degrees. All would demand seven to ten+ million annually in free agency. Tyler Eifert may make a good buy-low candidate, and also fits the role.

For whatever reason, rookie tight ends do not typically produce at a high level. And so, mindful of our attempt to maximize Seattle’s short-term chances of winning, I will not list any draft prospects. Few, from my preliminary research, seem like particularly good fits. This may be a position worth spending on.

Interior Offensive Line

Mike Iupati ranked third on the team with 1,029 snaps on offense, trailing only Russell Wilson and Germain Ifedi. That may surprise you as it certainly surprised me. If Seattle could re-sign Iupati for something similar to what he made in 2019, it may be worth it. Sometimes in the NFL you have to pay an okay wage for an okay performance. The team has a lot of versatile depth who can play multiple spots along the interior.

No free agent looks a lot more attractive than Iupati. In a nutshell, Seattle is seeking relatively large road-grading guards who are best at achieving push but who may have limitations pass blocking. Notable free agents who fit that description:

Ereck Flowers, Quinton Spain.

If Seattle should wish to draft, Solomon Kindley, Deonte Brown and Ben Cleveland fit the mold. But I think Seattle would be better served by adding or retaining a veteran.

The free agent market for centers is particularly weak. I would advocate restructuring and extending Justin Britt. Few centers with the size and polish necessary are likely to be available in the draft. Joey Hunt is a free agent. Ethan Pocic is signed through 2020 and costs only 1.4 million against the cap. He has primarily played guard, but could still be a candidate to backup or supersede Britt. Jordan Roos is an exclusive rights free agent.

Seattle may be able to re-sign Hunt for a song. If so, I would consider this position largely filled. It’s not an organizational strength, but upgrading it may not be worth the cost.

Offensive Tackle

What to do about George Fant? Fant was Duane Brown’s primary backup for most of the season, starting in his place four times and playing 100% of the snaps in those games. The Seahawks had some of their best performances on offense of the season in three of those games, totaling 16.53 EPA against Cleveland, 10.85 home against San Francisco, and 10.59 in the wild card round against Philadelphia. Against Baltimore, Seattle struggled to a -6.98 EPA. Fant was flagged once all season and allowed three sacks for, strangely, three yards. Which may mean those sacks were suffered during aborted scrambles—much like Josh McCown’s six sacks for 14 yards in the wild card round.

Fant made three million on a one-year contract in 2019. He was Seattle’s only good depth behind Brown and has a role as a sixth offensive lineman even if Brown should be healthy. Keeping him this offseason might require signing him to a starter’s contract, and justifying that might require Fant taking over at right tackle. While Germain Ifedi has not developed into a great pass-blocking tackle, it’s worth noting that Seattle was most effective running off right end and behind right tackle in 2019.

In the short term, Ifedi is probably the better right tackle, but he’s a free agent and has no potential to play left tackle. Seattle has some depth at right tackle. Jones and Phil Haynes are probably at least capable of manning the position, given Seattle’s run-centric offense and frequent employment of additional blockers. Retaining Ifedi probably depends entirely on Seattle’s own internal evaluation of him and the size of his market. It seems very possible he’s gone.

Spotrac projects Bryan Bulaga to earn 10.1 million annually in free agency. Which is to say: Starting offensive tackles are very expensive. In the Pete Carroll era, right tackle has been a revolving turnstile of young, modestly-performing players on rookie contracts. The turnstile metaphor works in more ways than wanted, too. If they wish to fill the hole again with a rookie, the draft offers many options:

Mekhi Becton, Jedric Wills, Tristan Wirfs, Trey Adams and Yasir Durant to name a few. But as rough as Ifedi has been, I wonder if starting over at the position again is really in Seattle’s best interest short-term.

Wide Receiver

Seattle drafted three wide receivers in 2019 but only DK Metcalf made a meaningful contribution. The Seahawks actually incurred $500,000 in dead cap to cut Gary Jennings Jr., and John Ursua finished with one catch on one target in 18 snaps—including no special teams snaps. What looked like impressive depth in training camp quickly winnowed to one starter and one depth player (seemingly without special teams value.) David Moore didn’t seem to take a step forward or back, and though Malik Turner emerged as a decent four or five, he hasn’t proven further potential. Which means Seattle should probably again look to upgrade its talent and depth at wide receiver.

The free agent class is both not-great and pretty top heavy, which will likely result in some teams overpaying for those few projected difference makers available. The position Seattle most likely needs filled is the position played by Jaron Brown. Brown is big enough to block and fast enough to go deep, making him an unusual talent. He also didn’t contribute much this season, surfing the rainbow edge of the roster bubble all season. Luckily, he was paid very little, and as uninspiring as a decision as it may be, simply re-signing Brown to another one-year deal may be ideal.

2020 looks to be another excellent class for wide receivers. If we assume Tyler Lockett is firmly entrenched in his role and his role isn’t likely to change much, ditto Metcalf except his role is likely to increase, what Seattle needs is someone a little Jennings and a little Brown. Here’s a very incomplete list of guys who broadly fit those parameters and are likely to be available for Seattle to draft:

Laviska Shenault Jr., Justin Jefferson, Bryan Edwards, Tyler Johnson, Michael Pittman Jr., Donovan Peoples-Jones, Antonio Gandy-Golden, Denzel Mims, Chase Claypool and Gabriel Davis.

(Probably) Seattle should not emphasize drafting top-end talent. Lockett and Metcalf excelled, are signed for the foreseeable future, missed few snaps, and are at or before their respective primes. But adding depth, a potential replacement for Brown, and a return specialist with upside (like say Lynn Bowden Jr.) would be wise.

Conclusion

Seattle has finished in the top ten in offensive efficiency each of the last two seasons. They’ve especially excelled at passing the ball. Passing efficiency correlates best to winning and is the best indicator of future performance. Russell Wilson seems to have entered a second prime, but while some quarterbacks have extended their prime into their 40s, that’s still very atypical. Honestly, Tom Brady is such an outlier in so many ways I wouldn’t base any projection of any other player on his career. Which means Seattle should expect to be very good next year and in the foreseeable future, but should not count on Wilson performing at such an elite level in, say, 2026.

For years now John Schneider and Pete Carroll have prudently managed their talent and assets. But, at the same time, they’ve been stuck as low-end contenders. Against Green Bay in 2020 and against Atlanta in 2017, Seattle never played even one snap with a positive win probability. While ESPN does not have a chart for 2016, Seattle trailed Carolina 31-0 at halftime. Those three seasons are the best performances by a Seattle team since that awful day in February of 2015.

Over the past few seasons, Seattle has not developed a lot of high-end talent and has not retained much of the high-end talent they had previously developed. While trading or not retaining players like Earl Thomas, Richard Sherman, Michael Bennett and Frank Clark were all justifiable from the perspective of process, I think phrases like “trust the process” assume we know exactly which process is right, and that that process should not be further refined through evaluating outcomes. To my knowledge, it is a phrase first popularized in the discussion of baseball, and the ability to evaluate and project individual performance in baseball is light years ahead of what is possible in football.

To win, not to make the postseason and crap out, but to win it all while Wilson is still balling, may require challenging the existing process and managing in a way that is less prudent, more risky, and more likely to result in extreme outcomes of potential failure and possible title contention. Seattle’s offense may seem good enough. The defense is certainly in far worse shape. By almost any metric, it was the worst defense the Seahawks have fielded since 2010. But for as bad as it’s played, many starting positions are virtually locked in, and Seattle has abundant depth at every position except primary pass-rushing defensive end. Seattle needs better scheming, a full year of Quandre Diggs, better pass rush, and growth from young players more than it needs a huge influx of young talent. The range of performance for the defense in 2020 is likely somewhere between bad and above average.

Which would make it an awful lot like this year’s Chiefs, the Patriots of 2018, ‘16 and ‘14, the Ravens of 2012, the Giants of 2011, etc. Defense does not win championships. Great teams, lucky teams, and more than anything, great and lucky teams win championships. Passing success is the key to sustained contention, and Seattle has found a formula to sustain its excellent passing attack. Now is the time to be ballsy. As efficiently as Seattle performed in 2019, the offense begins 2020 with many holes to fill and many tough decisions to make. How Schneider, Carroll and Schotty transform an excellent unit into a championship-caliber unit will define next season and likely many seasons to come.

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This is my final post for many months, at least. I must concentrate on finishing my school. Thanks all for reading and if I can, I will be back in August.