2. Seattle Seahawks
Nobody enters the 2013 campaign with higher of expectations than Pete Carroll’s young, talented Seattle Seahawks squad. Despite receiving awful news at the start of training camp that newly acquired WR Percy Harvin would miss three months after suffering a partially torn hip flexor, the team remains loaded on offense and made several other key offseason improvements that could lead this team to a Super Bowl berth.
Led by a potent, hard-hitting defense and a suddenly dangerous, well-rounded offense, Carroll’s team has its sights set on ending the 49ers’ two-year run as NFC West champion. If Seattle can establish offensive rhythm early and then add Harvin to an already strong offense, it could be a special season in the Pacific Northwest. In order to finally bring home the franchise’s first championship, however, the team will need to survive life in the NFL’s toughest division, which could be easier said than done, especially with major improvements made in Arizona and St. Louis.
Entering last season, the Seahawks were seen as a sleeper team by many experts, but the lack of a franchise quarterback left many skeptical that this team could put together a postseason run. Matt Flynn was brought in from Green Bay for a big contract despite only two career starts, but upstart rookie QB Russell Wilson took the job during training camp. Led by Wilson and star running back Marshawn Lynch, the offense exploded late in the season and made the ‘Hawks a team nobody wanted to face in the playoffs.
Entering 2013, Seattle expects to have one of the league’s premier offenses, as Wilson is expected to be even better in his second season. While Seattle lost defensive coordinator Gus Bradley to the Jaguars, offensive guru Darrell Bevell returned to the team, which will allow the offense to finally have stability. Bevell had been rumored as a top candidate for several head coaching gigs, including the Chicago Bears. His return will benefit Wilson the most, as the dual-threat quarterback thrived under his tutelage as a rookie while putting both his passing and running ability on display. Bevell also will know how to use Harvin when he returns to the lineup, as he served as Minnesota’s coordinator before arriving in Seattle.
With Wilson’s emergence, WR Sidney Rice and Golden Tate flourished in ’12, and they’ll be expected to make up for Harvin’s production while he recovers from surgery. Doug Baldwin could also see more passes coming his way due to Harvin’s absence after an injury-marred year, and second-year man Jermaine Kearse has put together an outstanding preseason that could vault him into the starting lineup. Tight end Zach Miller struggled at times last season, but a monster playoff performance against the Falcons gives the team hope he will become the receiving threat they envisioned when he signed with the club two years ago. More importantly, however, the Seahawks have continuity in the backfield, as Lynch, Robert Turbin, and rookie Christine Michael provide a three-headed monster for opponents to deal with. Turbin played well in limited action last year as a rookie, while Michael has drawn rave reviews with a strong showing in his first training camp for the Seahawks. Regardless of how much the passing attack has improved, this team is still built around its physical ground game.
At times early last season, the offensive line looked out of sync, but LT Russell Okung finally stayed healthy and put together a career year protecting the blindside, while C Max Unger also made the Pro Bowl and provided stability to a unit that has been decimated by injuries in recent seasons. Provided that these two anchors stay healthy, the ‘Hawks should boast one of the best lines in the game. The biggest question mark up front lies at the right guard position, as former first-round selection James Carpenter has battled injury problems in his first two seasons with the team and this could be his last shot at solidifying himself as a franchise cornerstone. With Tom Cable serving as line coach, the team has developed much better depth up front and Carpenter will need to prove he’s capable of staying healthy and performing at a high level to keep his job.
Unlike the offense, the ‘Hawks defense entered this past season as one of the best units in the league and lived up to the hype. The “Legion of Boom,” made up of corners Richard Sherman and Brandon Browner along with safeties Earl Thomas and Kam Chancellor, formed the league’s best secondary and helped Seattle boast the league’s No. 1 scoring defense. With all four of these young talents returning and continuing to improve, it should once again be a major challenge for opponents to score on this defense.
One glaring issue that needs to be resolved is the team’s problem stopping opponents on third-and-long situations. Despite having such a strong secondary, opponents had no problem getting first downs on third-and-long situations, and this problem eventually led to the Seahawks' undoing, as the Falcons converted multiple third-and-longs in the NFC Divisional Round.
The biggest reason for these struggles revolved around the inability to put pressure on opposing quarterbacks. In order to improve in these situations, the ‘Hawks addressed their lack of pass rush by bringing in DE Cliff Avril and Michael Bennett through free agency to bolster the defensive line. Teaming Avril, Bennett, Bruce Irvin, and a healthy Chris Clemons should make the Seahawks front line one of the best in the NFC and lead to more sacks this season.
The biggest X-factor for this defense will be the linebacker corps. Bobby Wagner put together a magnificent rookie campaign and should be even more productive this season, but away from him, the Seattle linebackers may be the weakest unit on the defense. Seattle will need several young players to step up to improve depth at the position, but newly signed LB O’Brian Schofield could provide a nice boost alongside Wagner and steady K.J. Wright. Schofield played his first few seasons in Arizona, but a new coaching staff found him to be expendable. Carroll loves his speed and believes he will be a nice asset for Seattle this season.
Seattle’s defense won’t face as much pressure this year with the improvements on the offensive side of the ball, but anything less than a top-five defense would be a major disappointment for Seahawks fans. Losing Gus Bradley may lead to early growing pains, but the Seahawks made sure to find an adequate replacement in Dan Quinn. Quinn served as defensive line coach under Bradley and will run a similar system, which should prevent much of a drop-off in performance. This is a championship-caliber defense that only got better through shrewd offseason moves and should have the talent to help Seattle contend for the Lombardi Trophy.
SPECIAL TEAMS: B-
Seattle didn’t make a ton of moves to improve a special teams unit that was solid, but far from outstanding, in ’12. Harvin could’ve returned kicks for the Seahawks, but with durability concerns, Seattle will look to keep him off the field in those situations when he returns. Leon Washington was released after acquiring Harvin, so the team took a hit in the return game. Washington didn’t return any kicks or punts for touchdowns last year, but he still gave the ‘Hawks excellent field position on plenty of occasions. Finding a solid replacement for Washington to return kicks stood as one of the team's biggest question mark entering camp, but Kearse could make a big impact on the return game if he plays even close to the level he's shown throughout the preseason.
On the bright side, Steven Hauschka was re-signed and Jon Ryan has been one of the NFL’s most productive punters in recent seasons. Hauschka was greatly missed after suffering an ankle injury during the playoffs and may have been given a shot at attempting a game-winning field goal against the Falcons had he been healthy. Seattle proved to be one of the best teams in the league at controlling field position, and Ryan played a critical role by pinning opponents inside the 20. While special teams won’t be Seattle’s strength, the unit will be productive and certainly won’t hinder Pete Carroll’s squad.
PROGNOSIS: BEST/WORST POTENTIAL OUTCOMES
Best Case Scenario — 13 Wins If ...
- Even without Harvin during the first half of the season, Russell Wilson emerges as an elite quarterback in year two, while the running game doesn't miss a beat with Lynch and Turbin running through opposing defenses
- Cliff Avril and Michael Bennett give the 'Hawks an even nastier defense, as they once again lead the league in scoring defense and push the Seahawks to the franchise's first Super Bowl title.
Worst Case Scenario — 8 Wins If ...
- Wilson regresses after a strong rookie season, Harvin ends up missing the entire 2013 season, and the defense falters under heavy expectations
- The NFC West proves to be too tough for Seattle, as improved squads in St. Louis and Arizona as well as the defending champion 49ers all finish with better records and the 'Hawks finish a disappointing campaign without a playoff berth
Football.com Prediction ...13-3, 1st NFC West
- It won't be easy for Seattle in a division featuring the defending NFC champion 49ers and much-improved teams in Arizona and St. Louis. However, the additions made by the Seahawks during the offseason should prove to be the last missing pieces needed to make a run at a Super Bowl title. Look for Russell Wilson to emerge as one of the top quarterbacks in the NFC, while the defense will fix issues with its pass rush and remain one of the league's premier units.