With Richard Sherman, Earl Thomas, Bobby Wagner, Michael Bennett and the rest of the talent on the Seahawks defense, Seattle should be the favorite to win the NFC West year in and year out. All that talent, combined with the coaching staff put together by Pete Carroll, and Seattle will remain a Super Bowl contender, as they have been for the past five years.
Yet, after consecutive Super Bowl appearances in 2013 and 2014, the Seahawks were trounced in the second round of the playoffs each of the past two seasons. In 2015, they needed a missed chip-shot field goal to even get that far. After averaging 12 wins per season from 2012-2014, they scratched their way to 10 wins two years in a row. It might seem petty to complain about that, but a team built on defense and running the football, with an elite quarterback, might finally be feeling the effects of ignoring the wide receiver position in recent years.
Bless Doug Baldwin and what he has been able to accomplish the past two years in Seattle, but he is far from a prototypical No. 1 wideout. At 5-foot-10 and less than 190 pounds, Baldwin led Stanford in receiving, but was not invited to the NFL Combine and ultimately went undrafted in 2011. He worked his way into Russell Wilson’s favor, and gained nearly 2,200 yards while catching 21 touchdowns over the past two years. He is one of the best slot receivers in the game, and even if he never reaches the Antonio Brown/Julio Jones level of dominance, he shouldn’t be underestimated at this point in his career.
The problem is that there isn’t much in the way of consistent playmakers surrounding him on the depth chart. Tyler Lockett and Jermaine Kearse represent the next best options at the receiver position, but neither has consistently made plays from that position. In fact, despite Wilson throwing significantly more in 2016 than ever before in his young career, both players saw significant reduction in their numbers. Both ended up with 41 catches in 2016, with neither breaking 600 yards in the process. Kearse, specifically, was ineffective compared to the previous season, even if Lockett lost more catches. Kearse put up 41 catches and one touchdown despite being targeted 90 times on the season.
Paul Richardson and Tanner McEvoy provided little help beyond that, and neither player factored in at all the previous season. Looking at that five-man group from top to bottom is uninspiring, and only third-round pick Amara Darboh has a legitimate chance to break up that group. That doesn’t leave much room for improvement in 2017.
Yet, the lack of explosive talent shouldn’t be their undoing. In 2014, Baldwin led the team with 825 receiving yards, and the Seahawks made a run to the Super Bowl. Marshawn Lynch led the team with four receiving touchdowns that year. They weren’t much more prolific in their Super Bowl-winning season, even with Golden Tate still on the roster. He has become an even more effective player since joining the Detroit Lions, but there wasn’t an outsized production for him in Seattle at the time. The Seahawks had previously relied much more heavily on the running game to make their offense go.
Considering the improvements Wilson and Baldwin have made since the consecutive Super Bowls, and the addition of Jimmy Graham at tight end, it is pretty clear that the Seahawks have more top-end talent in their passing game that they have had in the Carroll era. Lockett and Kearse have shown flashes in the past, and the team would benefit from their improvements, but Wilson, Graham and Baldwin should be able to carry the passing game, to a certain extent.
If there is an obvious roster weakness, it probably isn’t even receiver, but the offensive line. The group after Baldwin could probably credibly blame the five guys blocking for Wilson for some of the lack of production on their end. The offensive line has deteriorated from those Super Bowl teams, much further down than the relatively stable if unimpressive collection of receivers. Yet, Wilson has steadily improved despite them.
His completion percentage has fallen between 63.1 and 64.7 in four of his five seasons, with his mark of 68.1 in 2015 being the outlier. His touchdown passes tell a similar story, ranging from 20 to 26 ,with the 34 in 2015 the outlier again. That year, Baldwin’s touchdowns also spiked. Yet, Wilson’s interceptions, yards and yards per attempt were roughly static, while his overall play improved. Of course, the major difference in the passing game in 2016 came with a career high 546 passing attempts, a significant jump from his previous high and over 150 more throws than he made as a rookie in 2011.
With that spike the Seahawks also saw their quarterback finish the season with a career-low 72 rushing attempts. He also set career lows in rushing yards, yards per carry, longest run and first downs, all by significant margins. Not only did he run less, but he was unquestionably ineffective when he did attempt to take off. Part of this can be attributed to an injury he suffered early in the season, but also to the way he was getting beat up in the pocket and because the running game in general suffered with Lynch retired and Thomas Rawls failing to live up to his terrific 2015 campaign.
The biggest reason the lack of talent after Baldwin is something the Seahawks can live with is because they make their living on the defensive side of the ball. They were the third-best defense in 2016 after leading the league in points allowed from 2013 through 2015. The drop in ranking was partially because they lost safety Earl Thomas for five games this past season and because of exceptional season by the New England Patriots defense. In the 11 games with Thomas, the Seahawks went 8-2-1 and gave up 16.36 points per game. Without Thomas they were 2-3 and gave up 22.4 points per game.
Thomas and the defense should be healthy again in 2017, and should post another year as a top-five unit in the NFL. The running game and offensive line should both improve as well, if only because there is nowhere to go but up. If Thomas isn’t at full strength and the defense declines, it is a different story, but the Seahawks haven’t been hampered by their receiving group because they have never relied on their receiving group to carry the team.
If they do, Baldwin and Graham should be able to get it done. And if the defense drops off so dramatically that the offense needs a superhuman effort, the Seahawks probably weren’t going to make a run at another Super Bowl anyway.
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