Since beating the Redskins in 2012, the Seattle Seahawks have been a perennial contender. With Russell Wilson and the legion of boom at the helm, there’s no doubt Seattle will look to compete for another title in 2017. However, this organization is not without flaws. Seattle’s eye-opening loss to Atlanta proves that there is still room to improve. The question is not where do they improve, but how. Between decreasing cap space and glaring positional needs, Pete Carroll and John Schneider have a tough task ahead of them.
2016 Evaluation – offense
It’s clear that Russell Wilson is a great quarterback and who this offense will revolve around moving forward. Wilson ended the 2015 season playing the best football of his career, but that momentum did not carry over to the start of the 2016 season. Overall, the Seahawks finished as tied for 18th in points scored and 12th in yards. Russell Wilson had his second-best statistical season in terms of completion percentage and his best in terms of yards. While his quarterback rating was the lowest yet, Wilson had never thrown more in his NFL career. Not only was Wilson asked to do more in 2016, he was also asked to work with less.
No, I am not referring to his playmakers on the outside or in the backfield. I am talking about the left and right tackle positions. Any marginal Seahawks fan knows that the tackle position was a liability this season. Here is how poor that position played relative to the rest of the league. According to Pro Football Focus (PFF), Gary Gilliam and George Fant were rated as the 73rd and 80th best tackles among 80 qualified players. The Seattle Seahawks empirically had the worst tackle in the NFL protecting Wilson’s blindside. Both players were also liabilities as run blockers. This impacted the decreased production on the ground more than not having a “premiere” running back. Seattle absolutely must address both tackle positions this offseason if they hope to keep Russell Wilson upright in the immediate future.
Doug Baldwin and Jimmy Graham are great playmakers. Both players are rated as top 10 players at their position by PFF. The emergence of Paul Richardson as a compliment to Baldwin on the outside is also a good sign moving forward. The Seattle Seahawks will see an increased production from all of their current players is they find a way to upgrade their tackles in the offseason. This idea is simple, but not easy, given the salary cap situation of the team.
2016 Evaluation Defense
Since the Seahawks started their ascension to one of the best franchises in the NFL, they have had a dominant defense. The 2016 season was no different. This defense finished as the third in terms of points and fifth in yards. Their secondary, when healthy, is the best bar none. They have two great linebackers in Bobby Wagner and K.J. Wright, as well as a premiere defensive lineman in Michael Bennett. Given all of these great defensive assets, there is still room to improve.
The biggest drop off in a relevant statistic for the Seahawks was their third down defense. In 2015, opposing offenses converted only 34.4 percent of their third downs. In 2016, the Seahawks only stopped their opponents on 38.7 percent of their third downs. That may not seem like much, but small percentages in this statistic matter. For example, there’s only a 3.5 percent difference between the first and 10th ranked third down defense and a 7.5 percent difference between the 15th and 32nd ranked third down defense.
The 4.3 percent difference from year to year leads to extended drives by the opposition and more points. That difference in production could have been the difference between winning another game and potentially getting a first round bye and a home divisional playoff game.
Of course, injuries played a role in this decline. Kam Chancellor, Earl Thomas, and Michael Bennett all missed at least four games at some point during the season. With the emerging information about Richard Sherman’s injury, it’s fair to say that he was impacted significantly throughout the season. It’s absolutely logical that this portion of the Seattle defense will improve next season as their key players return to full health.
The Seattle Seahawks have been the class of the NFC West for the past five years; every divisional rival is building their team to beat the Seahawks. So what does Seattle need to do? They need to continue refining and reinforcing what got them to this point: a productive running game and a dominant defense.
Given the greatness of Russell Wilson, they won’t ever have an offense that goes through a running back, like Marshawn Lynch. But they need to be able to control the line of scrimmage in order to stay atop this division. When you have to face the Cardinals and Rams front seven twice a year, you need a physical offensive line and running game. We’ve already talked about their deficiency at both tackle positions.
With the 26th overall pick, Seattle has an opportunity to address this need. It is likely that Cam Robinson will be off the board by the time Seattle is on the clock. Other viable players at that position include Ryan Ramczyk from Wisconsin and Mike McGlinchey from Notre Dame. At this point, those are the only two players outside of Robinson that could warrant a first-round selection.
Injuries are never expected, but always occur. While you can’t predict being without your best defensive players for multiple games, you can do your best to prepare for that scenario. Seattle needs to add depth to their defensive line and secondary. Michael Bennett is unique because of his ability to play every defensive line position at a high level. Carroll Phillips from Illinois could be that player in the third or fourth round to add depth to an already physically gifted front four. While he has off-field issues, his talent could outweigh those issues if he remains a day two prospect.
Seattle could also go the route of drafting a long, athletic corner to bolster their secondary. This could come in the form of Des Lawrence from North Carolina, who has the size and would fit well in their cover 3 defense. However, his man to man skills are not NFL ready. If they decide to add depth, they will be using day two and three selections to do so.
Post Season Prospects
This section is meant to show non-playoff teams where and by how much they need to improve to be a playoff team. Clearly, Seattle was a playoff team, so I will use them as a means to back up why I use these metrics to determine post season probability.
Metrics like points scored and time of possession are straightforward. However, stats like yards per attempt and third down conversion give more insight about the team. Yards per attempt is one of the best stats to differentiate between quarterbacks. A high yards per attempt means a quarterback is consciously trying to throw the ball downfield as opposed to constantly checking down. Thus, this is the difference between a Russell Wilson and an Alex Smith and why one has had more post season success.
Wilson is always looking to make a play downfield as opposed to dumping the ball off after three seconds. Alex Smith missed a wide open Tyreek Hill twice during their playoff game because he doesn’t try to attack defenses deep. Being in the top ten in yards per attempt is a good sign for any offense. There are of course areas in which this offense can improve. The biggest theme of this entire analysis is that if the Seahawks had just average tackle play, they might still be playing. Being in the bottom third of the league in sacks allowed is the direct result of such poor tackle play.
From a defensive perspective, this team just needs to stay healthy. We outlined their decrease in third down efficiency, but it’s not because they aren’t getting to the quarterback. This means that problem is in the secondary and with so many injuries, it was bound to impact their play. I firmly believe that is also why the turnover numbers are low for this unit. Health permitting, the 2017 Seahawks will be better on third down as well as accumulating turnovers.
As I eluded to earlier, the Seattle Seahawks have a unique challenge facing their franchise this offseason. The salary of Russell Wilson and their elite defensive players has left this team strapped for cap space. The Seahawks have just over $4.8 million in cap space. This is not enough to sign substantial free agents to upgrade their tackle positions. They have 14 players who become free agents this year, but none of them will create significant cap space if let go.
Ordinarily, this wouldn’t be a big issue, but with the emerging story concerning Seattle’s second-round draft pick, it becomes a pressing one. Yes, they have found good players in the late rounds of the draft. However, no franchise can depend on striking gold with a day three pick. Given their salary cap and draft situation, I don’t see this team being able to get all the adequate help they need. With that being said, I believe the Seattle Seahawks will finish 9-7 behind the Cardinals, but will make the playoffs as a wild card team.
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