It’ll be interesting to see if Auburn receiver D’haquille ‘Duke’ Williams turns pro
#1 Big target (WR/TE)
Despite losing Brandon Mebane, Cassius Marsh and Greg Scruggs to injured reserve — plus Chris Clemons, Red Bryant and Clinton McDonald in free agency — Seattle’s defensive line has shown it can still prosper. In the last three weeks the pass rush has excelled, the run defense has been exceptional. Pete Carroll and John Schneider haven’t gone big at defensive tackle early in the draft possibly because they believe they can slot players in.
For that reason, receiver/tight end is listed as the #1 need right now. This isn’t a review of Paul Richardson and Kevin Norwood. Against Philadelphia they showed signs of progression. They could grow into vital role-players. But the Seahawks need a legit possession receiver and they know it. That’s why they at least sounded out Tampa Bay regarding Vincent Jackson and it’s why they asked about Julius Thomas, Jordan Cameron and Coby Fleener.
This isn’t about getting a focal point of the passing game. The offense is set up to spread the ball around and use multiple targets. This is about getting a missing piece to help in certain vital situations. The Seahawks have needed a proper red zone target for years. They need someone who can provide a physical advantage down the seam. They need someone who can win a contested ball in the air. They need someone who can make chunk plays without needing to beat the defensive back.
It’s also about getting better too. Doug Baldwin is a terrific player. Jermaine Kearse has his moments too. Richardson and Norwood are rookies. Yet there’s no terrifying receiver on the offense who warrants extra care and attention. That was supposed to be Percy Harvin’s job. Seattle can win with this group of receivers — they showed that last year. But it doesn’t mean they can’t get better. Russell Wilson is a dynamic playmaker and he deserves other dynamic playmakers to throw to. We’re only scratching the surface of his potential right now. Wilson, Baldwin, Kearse and co. could be even more effective with the addition of a true #1.
So what are the options? Nobody should expect Demaryius Thomas or Dez Bryant to reach free agency. Torrey Smith is the right kind of athlete (4.43 forty) but he’s only 6-0/206lbs and stands to cost more than he’s probably worth.
At tight end there are a few options. Denver has to pay Demaryius and (eventually) Von Miller. Can they afford to keep Julius Thomas? Possibly not. The end of Wes Welker’s two-year deal (2014 cap hit of $7.6m) will free up some room. Essentially they could let Welker walk and use the money to give Julius the franchise tag (worth around $7m this season). Cleveland has $20m in free cap space so might consider franchising Jordan Cameron. That would offer some short term security with Cameron suffering all year with a concussion issue. They’re unlikely to cut ties as a consequence, but they’re also unlikely to make any kind of long term commitment. The other option is Jermaine Gresham — one of the most underwhelming first round picks in recent history.
Seattle really needs to fill this hole with a possible impact player. The draft isn’t plush with big possession receivers and it’s a black hole for tight ends in 2015. Dorial Green-Beckham has a laundry list of off-field issues and should make a statement by choosing to play football for Oklahoma next season. Kevin White has enjoyed a tremendous season for West Virginia but is only in the 6-2/210lbs range — as is Louisville’s Devante Parker. Michigan’s Devin Funchess has the body type and size (6-5, 235lbs) but he’s one of the more frustrating players to watch and will need to be pushed constantly at the next level.
For that reason the best solution could be a trade. With the Tampa Bay Buccaneers flying head-first into #1 pick contention and with Mike Evans dominating the way he is, it might be worth revisiting talks over Vincent Jackson. He’ll be 32 in January and he’d need to re-work his contract. It’s worth noting Anquan Boldin was approaching 33 when he was traded to San Francisco — and he’s been a nice pick-up for the Niners. Age isn’t a problem if the deal is right — and it was for Boldin. If the Buccs are happy to accumulate picks this could be the best option. A short-term proven veteran who can have an immediate impact for a mid/late round pick.
If such a deal is a no-go they might be forced to look to the draft. It’ll be interesting to see if Auburn pair D’haquille Williams and Sammie Coates turn pro. Williams is a bigger, possession style receiver formerly of the JUCO ranks and someone we need to look very closely at. He makes tough catches look easy, he’s got the size. He has the potential to be a very effective NFL receiver. Coates is a chunk-plan specialist and a crazy athlete (although he drops too many passes). Keep an eye too on Duke’s Issac Blakeney.
#2 Defensive line depth
For most of the year this looked like the top need. The loss of Red Bryant has been overstated, but Chris Clemons and Clinton McDonald have been missed. It took a while but eventually the D-line has got back to 2013 form. Michael Bennett is showing why he was such a key keep in the off-season. Brandon Mebane played well before picking up a hamstring injury. Jordan Hill has started to look like an effective DT and they’ve filled in the gaps elsewhere.
That isn’t to say defensive line depth is no longer a need. Cliff Avril is a free agent-to-be and provides one of the more challenging posers for 2015. His cap hit this year is $9.25m. Ideally you’d keep him around — but not at that price. In a big contract year he has just 4.5 sacks so far. His career high — 11 sacks — came three years ago playing next to Ndamukong Suh. Avril played as well as anyone in the playoffs last year and he probably should’ve won the Super Bowl MVP. Yet during the regular season, playing on a productive line, he recorded just eight sacks. He’s firmly in the good-not-great category. He’d be a pain in the ass to try and replace without spending big. But how much are you willing to pay to keep him around?
They let Bennett test free agency and the same will probably happen with Avril. If he has another killer post-season he could tempt a team with cap space to make a substantial offer. He turns 29 in April so it’s his last chance to see what’s out there in terms of big money. He already has a Super Bowl ring. It’s hard to imagine what constitutes a fair deal — so he could easily be playing for another team next year. It’s a really tough one to call.
Having already lost Clemons — they can ill-afford to lose Avril without some kind of replacement. Even if they keep Avril they could do with another pass-rusher, especially with Bruce Irvin sticking mostly at linebacker (and playing pretty well).
At defensive tackle they could also use reinforcements. Having plucked the likes of Clinton McDonald, Tony McDaniel and Kevin Williams out of relative obscurity or near retirement — they probably feel like they can bring in depth later in the draft or in the second wave of free agency. That’s not to say there aren’t some nice options that would cost a lot more.
Suh is the big-prize here, but he has almost no chance of landing in Seattle. Despite a slightly unnecessary dirty reputation, he’s one of the true defensive superstars in the NFL. With Gerald McCoy signing a 6-year, $95.2m contract extension in Tampa Bay — that’s the kind of deal Suh can expect and will almost certainly get. The New York Jets have $16.2m in free cap space they’ll carry into 2015. That looks like a safe bet as a future big market home for Mr. Suh.
Some other names of interest:
Dan Williams (Arizona) — took a while to settle in the league but has developed into a key run stopper for the Cardinals. They need to make a big push to keep him — he’s an underrated player.
Stephen Paea (Chicago) — another fantastic run defender, tough as nails. On tape looked like a really solid pick in round two and will be a gem of a free agent if he hits the market.
Terrance Knighton (Denver) — otherwise known as ‘Pot Roast’ — or the man who was supposed to be able to stop the Seahawks in the Super Bowl. In fairness Marshawn Lynch struggled for running room in that game. Knighton is massive and will command a lot of interest.
Nick Fairley (DT, Detroit) — once a prototypical three-technique at Auburn with a huge future, he’s failed to make an impact despite the gift of playing next to Suh. He could be a busted flush, but someone will take a chance on him to try and unlock that lost potential.
Pat Sims (Oakland) — Whenever I’ve watched Sims he’s played well. Maybe it’s just a coincidence. He didn’t generate much of a market this year. He’s an option though.
When I look at this list, I struggle to imagine Seattle adding any of the group. I’m not convinced they believe they need to either spend big or draft high for the interior defensive line. They’ve put a lot more stock into edge rushers — Irvin (first round), Avril/Bennett (free agency). The Seahawks love speed and athleticism — and there’s only so much speed and athleticism you can find at +300lbs. If they get a chance to draft the next Suh or McCoy they’ll probably take it. But how likely is that in the late first?
There are two defensive tackles who look like the real deal and we discussed them recently — Eddie Goldman (Florida State) and Malcom Brown (Texas). Both former 5-star recruits. Both good enough to crack the top-20 and fly up boards. They don’t get talked about enough in the media. I’ll be shocked if Seattle gets a shot at either, providing they declare for next years draft. What’s more likely is a pick or two beyond the top two rounds and a no-frills free agent addition.
If they’re going to be aggressive on the D-line it’s more likely to be on the edge. That’s where they can get the speed and production. Whether it’s the draft of free agency, there’s a depth of riches to be had.
Jabaal Sheard (Cleveland) would be an ideal fit for the defense as an aggressive LEO rusher. He’s miscast in Cleveland’s 3-4. He might get a lot of interest in free agency — but he’ll be worth it. The Browns have the money to tie him down long term. Justin Houston (Kansas City), Jason Pierre-Paul (New York), Jerry Hughes (Buffalo), Brooks Reed (Houston), Brandon Graham (Philadelphia) and Brian Orakpo (Washington) could all test the market.
The draft is loaded with talented edge rushers. Bud Dupree (Kentucky) is big-time and the heart soul of his team. He’s just a relentless pass rusher with all the athleticism and technique you want to see. A great player with a fantastic future at the next level. Randy Gregory (Nebraska) has a chance to go very early considering his length (6-5) and athleticism. He’s better as a blitzing OLB than a pure edge rusher at the moment, but some believe he could develop into an Aldon Smith-type talent. The Missouri duo of Shane Ray and Markus Golden should earn consideration early. Florida’s Dante Fowler Jr is a complete defensive playmaker who can line up anywhere, while Clemson’s Vic Beasley has the get-off, speed and production to be a top pick.
There’s depth too — including Hau’Oli Kikaha (Washington), Trey Flowers (Arkansas), Cedric Reed (Texas) and Owamagbe Odighizuwa (UCLA) to name a few. This won’t necessarily need to be an area addressed in round one.
We could easily see a combination of free agency and draft here, depending on what happens with Avril. Jabaal Sheard looks like a perfect fit as a key open-market addition and there’s so many interesting prospects they could easily bring in a couple of edge rushers in the draft — including the use of a first round pick.
#3 Running back
Considering I’ve put WR/TE and DT/DE into two categories, I’ve gone with running back as the #3 need. As much as we’d all like to believe Marshawn Lynch could stay in Seattle — there isn’t usually smoke without fire. Chris Mortensen isn’t the type of guy to put his reputation on the line running a total non-story. Ian Rapoport has been beating the Lynch-out drum for several weeks. Of course there’s a chance things could change. But it’d be naive to just wave the reports away as nonsense. The reality is, there’s probably an element of truth here.
The key question is — can they find common ground? Can this situation be repaired? Can Lynch accept the fact he isn’t going to get a whopping pay rise? Can Seattle find even more money to keep their best offensive player happy for one more year? Are both parties at a point where — you know, it’s just time to move on? They could be. And nobody should be overly critical of the Seahawks if they’re at that point. Lynch is a complex character. Sometimes that gets lost because as a player he’s so fun to watch. He has done an awful lot to drive the identity of this team on the field. It’s also worth remembering — fans don’t have to deal with him on a day-to-day basis. They don’t have to manage him or his position within a crowded locker room. When he isn’t turning up for training camp, when he is living by his rules, when he’s making demands and debating retirement. It’s easy to imagine how you could come to a point where you say, “enough is enough”. However influential that player is.
It’s often said this is a passing league. That’s true. Just not in Seattle. It’s become conventional wisdom that the running back position isn’t that important anymore. You can just plug guys in there. You can start UDFA’s. By now we should know — the Seahawks don’t pay attention to conventional wisdom.
Seattle needs the starting running back to be a dynamic playmaker. Lynch has been the best offensive player for some time. Russell Wilson will probably take on more responsibility if he departs. But they’ll still need a stud runner. Someone who can be an X-factor in the same way Lynch was — even if they bring a different running style to the table. Pete Carroll used a multi-back system at USC — but he also regularly recruited four and five star recruits to compete for carries. He wanted potential stars battling with each other to start at running back.
I don’t see any difference in Seattle. The trade for Lynch was a total bargain and yet still relatively bold and high-profile. Carroll knew he needed a tone-setter so they went and got one in an aggressive and pro-active way. They’ve since spent a further second round pick (Christine Michael), fourth round pick (Robert Turbin) and seventh round pick (Spencer Ware) on the position. Not to mention the previous Lendale White trade (remember that?). The Seahawks have been hunting for running backs pretty much constantly since Carroll arrived in Seattle. If they lose Lynch, you better believe the search will continue.
Adding to the possibility is a talented group of running backs with potential stars at the top of the class. While some of the league turns its nose up at the idea of drafting a running back early, the Seahawks could easily find their next big-time playmaker.
Todd Gurley’s ACL injury is a red flag, but it could put him in range for Seattle — something that would’ve never happened without the injury. ACL tear’s are no longer the career death sentence they used to be — science has moved on. Gurley has every chance to return to his very best. And his best is unbelievable — he’s a rare, potentially generational talent. Melvin Gordon has been a production machine in 2014 for Wisconsin and would provide a Jamaal Charles-like option. He should be a first round pick. He’s a sudden athlete (Seattle likes that) and a home-run hitter. He’s a big-time character guy and a gym rat. He fumbled again in the Big-10 Championship — but there’s still a lot to like. And then there’s Indiana’s Tevin Coleman — the other player in what could become a ‘big three’. Along with Malcom Brown, he’s one of the more underrated 2015 eligible prospects. A fierce competitive runner with breakaway speed — he is the real deal and deserves to sit at the top of the table with Gurley and Gordon.
You could point to the obvious depth at the position too — but I’m not overly sold on T.J. Yeldon (Alabama), Duke Johnson (Miami), Mike Davis (South Carolina), or Ameer Abdullah (Nebraska). Gurley, Gordon and Coleman give the Seahawks a chance to move on from Lynch. That doesn’t mean they’ll be as good — it’s a tough act to follow. But they can be an X-factor for an offense that has the run at the heart of its core.
The running back position is as important to Seattle as the #1 receivers in Denver, Detroit or Green Bay. For that reason I doubt they’d simply roll with Michael and Turbin plus another later round option. Michael has the talent but can he be trusted? Turbin is destined to always be a good #2 and third down option. If the Seahawks want a star to head the group — they probably have to look at the big three.
As for free agency — I guess it comes down to this. Why spend reasonable money on a player who already has a number of carries to their name? A late first round or early second round pick will cost you around $1.2-2m per year maximum. It’s just not worth going after a Mark Ingram (for example). When the draft has become a bargain in that range.
I’m not saying the Seahawks will go after a running back early. They could trade down into round two again and still get a shot at one of the top-three runners. But the defensive line depth in this draft and free agency plus the lack of options at receiver could make it a distinct possibility — especially if this really is the last year of ‘Beast Mode’ in Seattle.