Golden Tate is growing into a fringe #1 WR
Going back and watching highlight reels from last season, Tate stands out much more than his 688 total receiving yards. He's outgrown his knucklehead tendencies as a runner. I had to peek through my fingers to watch him with the ball in 2010 and 2011. This year, those poor running decisions have almost completely vanished, and in their place have come some fantastic efforts after the catch. Like this catch, this catch, or this catch. Amazing.
Tate still needs to work on his jump ball timing, and he needs to learn how to improvise for his QB when Wilson is scrambling, but I don't see those as negatives- but room for further improvement. Last year, Tate was an incredibly valuable WR even with those flaws, garnering an excellent 15.3 yards per catch, a very high catch rate, and 7 TD's in just 45 receptions. Like his QB, his rep count is low, but his efficiency numbers are outstanding. If Tate can improve at his improvisation, he could see an increase in his targets next year.
Which would be a really nice development, since Tate finished #2 in the NFL in yards per target last season (10.3).
Improving zone coverage (and the base pass rush) needs to be a very high priority
Mea Culpa, Gus Bradley. I get it now.
I was rewatching the Gruden/Wilson camp chat again last night, for probably the 10th time now. Something Wilson said, as a college QB, caught my attention. He talked about reacting to coverage, in a very common sense, "matter of fact" manner. He said that if it's man coverage, he checks two reads then he can run. Against zone coverage, he just has to find the soft spot in the zone (implying that running isn't a great option).
I already knew that, but for some reason hearing it in his "matter of fact" tone made something click for me. In the Atlanta game, Seattle's 2nd touchdown was a play where Wilson rolls to his left after a play fake, and his two primary targets are covered in man coverage. Those targets- Michael Robinson and Anthony McCoy- each ran for the left sideline area of the endzone, and in effect pulled their defenders to the sideline as well. Wilson sells the pass for a few seconds as he runs left, then casually walks into the endzone untouched. Everyone knows that man coverage is the better pass coverage, but against smart mobile QBs, it can get you killed.
The NFL is turning into a mobile QBs league, even moreso after the 2012 season in which guys like RG3, Wilson, and Kaepernick were major storylines. Every team must be able to run both zone and man coverages. This is tough news for Seattle since their coverage is built for a stifling press style of man coverage. But as the league changes, Seattle will have to run zone more and more to account for mobile QBs.
Of course, even the best zone coverages break down in seconds, and even if Seattle upgrades their WILL LB spot with an excellent coverage linebacker, and upgrades their secondary against zone, it's only going to buy another second or two at most. The end of the Atlanta game showed exactly why you don't want to be forced to blitz with zone coverage against an elite QB. So pass rush is going to be critical as well, because even the best zone coverages are worthless if the QB has 4 or 5 seconds to throw.
Carroll and Bradley knew this, and I think they hoped that they could pull it off, but the personnel just isn't there yet. All those times I was screaming at Pete/Bradley for their zone coverages, I was misplacing my frustration (although I think they should have played a lot more man coverage vs. Atlanta since Ryan is not a threat to run). The advent of the zone-read mobile QB means that zone coverages will dominate future defenses. Pete is a visionary, and I think the reason we saw so much zone late in the season was because Pete wanted to know where we stood there. And unfortunately, the results were not very good.
Russell Wilson is a legend in the making
I guess it's safe to admit this now, but I was a much bigger fan of Wilson than I let on in public this time last year. Most of my out in the open Wilson comments and blog posts were positive yet guarded. I remember Montana and I having a private discussion in PMs around this time last year, and I sent him a manefesto about how much I loved Russell Wilson and how incredible of a prospect I thought he was and how badly I wanted him to be a Seahawk. A few weeks later, Montana copy-pasted that message on fieldgulls, which got a lot of know-it-all snobby negative attention, as most people were heavy skeptics of Wilson at that time. I defended my honor wading through the criticisms, but in retrospect I really wish I had just trusted my instincts and doubled down by pulling a John Gruden at the NFL draft. Finger pointing and all.
I loved Russell Wilson back then. I have a really high tolerance for repetition when it comes to music or music videos. Not lying, I watched Wilson's highlight videos probably 200 times before that draft (and this continued after the draft as well). I would say at least 5-10 times every day. He was so fun to watch, and I was completely convinced height would not be a major factor. After he was drafted by Seattle, I was in a state of "that didn't really happen" shock for many months. And here I am in February of 2013, and I am still watching those Wisconsin highlight videos, as well as some 2012 Seahawks versions as well. Last night I got off work and started watching videos around 1 am and next thing I know it's 4am and I am still watching them. And this is not a rare occurrence for me. If you think this is stalker level obsession, you wouldn't be off by much.
Had Wilson been drafted by another team, they would have instantly been my 2nd favorite NFL team. But now that he's a Seahawk, the Seahawks are not only my favorite team, but my 2nd favorite team as well. I am almost starting to wonder if I'm a bigger fan of Wilson at this point than the Seahawks. A scary thought.
So consider this almost dangerously obsessed mind following Wilson's historic rookie season, capped off by a pro-bowl where he looked like the best player on the field. I am beyond biased, but I believe that Wilson will be the best QB in the NFL next season (he basically already is if you start from midseason last year), and I also truly believe that if Seattle holds on in that Atlanta game we would be NFL champions right now.
But maybe the best thing is, I feel like this "fantasy world" is actually becoming reality, with more and more people buying in, including millions of non-Seahawks fans. I'm always the first guy to say that football is just a game, that the NFL is entertainment and there is more to the experience than simply winning. But with this guy, things are different. It kind of feels like the world is shifting to surround him- as a natural reaction to rare greatness- whether the world fully realizes it yet or not. What separates Wilson from other great QBs is the emotional connection he creates in people. My first reaction when Seattle lost in Atlanta was to feel bad for Wilson. I never once felt that way for Matt Hasselbeck or anyone else. Tom Brady and Peyton Manning are great QBs, but they do not generate pathos among even casual viewers the way that Wilson does.
Darrell Bevell proved his worth
I was a cautious fan of Bevell's after a strong second half finish to 2011. After a patchy start in 2012, I thought he really proved himself as a perfect enabler for this offense as the 2012 season rolled along. He somehow found a way to run the ball on 55% of snaps without having to use the dreaded run-run-pass punt combo. Actually, it's pretty easy to figure out how he did it- by running often on first down, scoring bunches of points and putting the team in clock kill mode by the 3rd quarter.
The offense was a bit of an amoeba last year, a mix of just about every WR/TE formation with a good dose of read option in the second half. Bevell showed his genius with plays that involved running backs- his short yardage handoff to Michael Robinson was only stopped 3 times all year, and the Robinson mini-wheel route in the red zone was frequently wide open for easy touchdowns. When Wilson connected for an easy TD in the red zone, it was almost always to a TE or RB.
Every team in the NFL is studying Seattle's offense this offseason, not just to stop it, but to copy it. That means those wide open passes to Robinson probably won't be so wide open next year, but I think Bevell knows that and will prepare accordingly. I trust him in a chess match.
Marshawn Lynch did not look like a fluke
Lynch averaged 5.0 yards per carry last season (and 4.9 in the postseason). Those are excellent numbers in any context, but even more so when you consider that Lynch does not inflate his averages with frequent big plays. Lynch runs hard, but he also runs smart and his vision and comfort with reads was as good last year as it's been in a long time. Lynch had 315 carries- only four other backs carried 300+ times last season. So wear/injuries have to be something to watch out for, but if he stays healthy I see no reason why he couldn't post another terrific season in 2013.
There are many performances I could highlight, but this is getting pretty long already. Very quickly, I'd like to cover just a few more:
Brandon Browner played even better this season I thought. I wonder if he would have made the pro-bowl if not for the PED suspension that barred him from going.
I really like JR Sweezy's future even if he did struggle with pass protection last year. His rookie year was light years ahead of Max Unger's, and as good as Unger is right now I think Sweezy's potential is higher because he has longer arms, is quicker, and has more athleticism. I could easily see him earning a pro-bowl nod in a few years if his development continues to go well.
Similarly, I am very bullish on Greg Scruggs and I think Dan Quinn really has a chance to earn some money by coaching this guy up. Scruggs looked like a potentially elite pass rusher in the preseason, and while he only had 6 tackles and 2 sacks in limited action in real games, he still flashed dominance from time to time. He has a lot of power for a 284 pound DT/DE tweener, and he is fully capable of winning the arm battle on every snap against 95% of the guards in the league. That he impressed despite being pretty raw speaks volumes. I think Seattle will still address DT very early in this draft- and may add a second DT later- yet despite that Scruggs might still see an increase in reps if Branch and Jones leave in free agency. He is definitely a player to watch next season, especially if the team gives him looks at the 5-tech spot.
As much as I like Scruggs, I'm rooting for Jaye Howard to supplant him as the 3rd down DT specialist. Howard is atrocious against the run, but at least in the preseason (and at Florida with Quinn) he flashed tremendous pass rushing skills, roughly on par with a guy like Sheldon Richardson. Violent hands, excellent arm technique, quick, nasty streak, slippery- not the kind of guy a guard wants to block 1 on 1. In a way, Howard is kind of the Bruce Irvin of the DTs, let him sell out for the pass rush and he'll reward you, but ask him to consider the run and he turns into crap. One of my biggest disappointments of the 2012 season was that Seattle almost never had a spot open to activate Howard. With just 45 active spots on a roster, it's hard to carry a bunch of 3rd down specialists on your line.
Doug Baldwin played in 17 of 18 total games last season, yet he only exceeded two receptions in a game four times, and not once did he catch 5 passes in a game after managing that feat five times in 2011. While it's certainly true that Baldwin saw a drop in targets thanks to an offense that spread the ball more due to an underrated collection of weapons, they eyeball test indicated a drop in performance from his strong 2011 season, and there are stats that back this up as well. Baldwin went from 9.3 yards per target in 2011 (14th in the NFL) to just 7.1 yards per target last season (53rd). I think WPA is a crappy stat on par with QBR for it's worthlessness, but WPA has Baldwin as the 13th most valuable WR in 2011, and in 2012 he actually posted a negative WPA score, meaning that every pass that targeted Baldwin, on average, reduced Seattle's chances of winning last year. Compare that 7.1 yards per target average with Sidney Rice (8.8 in 2012, 8.5 in 2011), and Golden Tate (10.3 in 2012) and it's pretty clear who the weak link is in our starting WR corps. As much as we like him as a person, he should be considered as a target for upgrade this offseason.
McCoy had a really nice 2nd season- a season he needed to have. A bit of a wizard, he could slip undetected behind coverages despite standing a very tall looking 6'5". His hands improved nicely, and while he's easy to corral from behind after the catch, there is something to said about having 6'5" targets for our 5'11" QB to find.
I think Giacomini is here to stay. He really cut down on the penalties in the second half of the season and has turned into a really under-rated right tackle I think. Right tackles are often maligned since they cannot live up to the standards set by their left tackle counterparts, but I think if you made a list of the ten best right tackles in the game right now you'd need to find a place on that list for Giacomini.
I think Seattle will continue to churn out DBs in the draft every year. Lane struck me as being Trufant-lite this year (meaning Trufant in his prime)- not great at press and not physical, and mediocre in coverage, but he partially makes up for it with consistent play (avoids huge negative plays) and great tackling. Still, I think we need to aspire for more than that given Pete's track record for finding CB talent, and the urgent need for an improved zone coverage defense.
The most underrated Seahawk going into 2013 is Walter Thurmond. He has quickness and instincts on par with Richard Sherman- he is a pass break up machine. That quickness is critical in zone coverages which require DBs to react and break on the football. People are giving up on him way too quickly, especially since the injury that cost him in 2013 was just a hamstring pull which isn't surprising given a long layoff. Maybe Thurmond is cursed like DJ Hackett was, but I think its just as likely he'll have a healthy season and emerge as one of the best players in our secondary.
Seahawks 2013 Outlook
This has gone pretty long, so I'll condense my outlook in .gif form: