Part 1, Defense – Which Seahawks Players Can Get Even Better?

Coming into a season, analysts look at a variety of factors to determine whether a team is going to be good or not (or improved or not).  They look at which players leave for other teams (or retirement), they look at which players are brought in (either via trade, free agency, or draft), they look at the strength of schedule and that of the teams in their division, they look at the injury situation and the potential injury situation based on player histories, and they look at which players are over the hill and due to start their slide into mediocrity.

There’s one aspect that’s often overlooked:  which players are still at the point in their careers where they’re getting better?

All too often, we look at rookies – whether good or bad – and think we’re looking at those players as they’ll be for the rest of their careers.  But, no one enters the league as a finished product.  Yes, some flame out, but even the really good ones still have room for improvement.

Take Golden Tate, for instance.  He didn’t really get a handle on all the intricacies of the wide receiver position until his third year in the league.  On the downside, that meant we only had two good years with Golden Tate before he left for richer pastures.  But, on the upside, it means there’s still hope for players who haven’t done a whole lot yet in their careers.

Secondary

How long did it take Byron Maxwell before he was able to make an impact on the Seahawks outside of special teams?  Try a little over 2.5 years.  He was one of our most important players when he was thrust into the starting cornerback spot across from Richard Sherman; now he’s entering a contract year where he could get even BETTER.  You have to think Maxwell has dollar signs in his eyes after seeing the deals Earl Thomas and Richard Sherman got this past offseason.  Granted, it probably won’t be with the Seahawks – as who can afford to pay four studs in one secondary? – but at least we’ll have this last year of greatness before he moves on.

In keeping with this section of the team, what about Jeremy Lane?  He was taken late in the 2012 draft, so we’ve got two more years of his services.  He’s always been a special teams standout, but this year he’s going to get his first real shot at the nickel cornerback spot.  He had some time in that position late last season and seemed to do all right.  If he manages to take a step forward and help us all forget about Walter Thurmond, it could be a boon for an already-outstanding secondary.

I’d also like to shine some light on Tharold Simon.  He spent the entirety of his rookie season injured last year.  In the spring camps, he apparently looked really good.  No one is expecting him to start, or take over anyone else’s job in 2014, but it’s nice knowing we’ve got some quality depth.  As mentioned before, we lost Thurmond.  We also lost Browner.  Maxwell took over that job, but he’ll be gone after this year.  If Simon can keep our momentum going in the secondary, there’s no reason why we shouldn’t have the best secondary in the league for many years to come.

Now, before I move on, I’ll talk briefly about the rest of the L.O.B.  Normally, when people write about the Legion, these are the first names they talk about.  But, when you’re talking about players improving, it’s hard to see a lot of room for improvement in guys like Earl Thomas, Kam Chancellor, and Richard Sherman.  Nevertheless, I think all three of these players have another gear in them.  This is the fun part about having such a young team – even the All Pros have room to grow!  Earl Thomas, before all is said and done, will win a Defensive MVP award.  Chancellor – already an enforcer – can still be a better all-around safety.  And, at this point, I have to imagine the only way Richard Sherman can get better is to completely eliminate the number of attempts to his side of the field.  I didn’t say there was a TON of improvement in these guys, but what if they’re able to squeeze just a little bit more?

Linebackers

I’ve heard people talking about K.J. Wright taking it up another notch, but I have my doubts.  I’ll be the first one to admit, however, that I know very little about the linebacking position outside of:  tackle the guy with the football.  I think Malcolm Smith is probably at the height of his powers.  I still like him as our weakside linebacker, and think he’s a quality playmaker on the outside, but I don’t see a lot of room for growth.  He’ll probably parlay his Super Bowl MVP (and whatever he does for us in 2014) into a nice little long-term deal with another team.  Like I’ve said many times:  you can’t keep everyone.

Bobby Wagner looks like he’s got another level in him, however.  I expect GREAT things in his third year as a starting middle linebacker.  I think 2014 is the year he finally gets his due as a Pro Bowler in a very tough conference for linebackers.  Also, keep an eye on Korey Toomer.  Along with Simon, Toomer was singled out as having an amazing spring camp.  He’s always had the athleticism and the speed, but he hasn’t been able to stay healthy.  This year, he could be a real terror on special teams (perhaps helping us ease the blow of inevitably waiving Heath Farwell to save some money on our cap).

Bruce Irvin is one of the biggest question marks on the team.  Yes, he certainly has ROOM to improve, but is it safe to EXPECT improvement?  If he does reach his full potential, he could be a wrecking ball on opposing quarterbacks.  Suffice it to say, I’ll be watching him closely in pre-season games, to see how he’s used, and to see how he bounces back from his hip surgery.  Obviously, if that hip is giving him problems, I won’t be watching him at all in pre-season games, so let’s hope that’s not the case.

Finally, a couple more under-the-radar fellas.  Mike Morgan will be entering his fourth season with the Seahawks.  He has primarily been a little-used depth guy and a full-time special teamer.  I never really had a lot of expectations out of him – especially when Malcolm Smith passed him on the depth chart – so it’ll be interesting if he’s even able to hold down a spot on this team in 2014.  The Seahawks just drafted Kevin Pierre-Louis, who looks like an absolute freak of nature.  The safe bets on this team are:  Wagner, Wright, Smith, and Irvin.  The bubble guys are:  Toomer, Morgan, Farwell, and KPL (among lesser-known guys).  You can forget about stashing KPL on the practice squad, as that’s just a non-starter.  Not only will he get snapped up by another team immediately, but putting him on there would actively reduce the talent level of this team’s special teams.  Morgan is in the fight of his life right now with those other bubble guys.  I’ve heard good things about his spring as well, so it’ll be interesting to see who shakes out.  Obviously, injuries would settle this thing real quick, but that’s neither here nor there.

Defensive Line

Michael Bennett and Cliff Avril are veterans.  They’re as good as they’re going to be.  You could see incremental improvements (particularly with Avril, who is going into a contract season), but I wouldn’t expect huge steps forward.  Same goes for Mebane, McDaniel, and recently-acquired Kevin Williams.  You’d be safer in assuming that these three tackles are closer to getting worse than they are getting better.  You just hope they have another year in the tank.

The room for improvement is ALL dedicated to the very young and unproven.  Jordan Hill, Jesse Williams, Benson Mayowa – none of whom played all that much at all in their rookie years.  Greg Scruggs, who was okay in his rookie year, but was injured all of last year.  He has apparently been spending all of his free time bulking up and becoming more beastly, so I’ll be VERY interested to see how he looks, and if he’s ready for a tough rotation.  Then, we’ve got the rookies:  Jackson Jeffcoat, Cassius Marsh, and Jimmy Staten (among others, presumably).  Hard to expect much out of any of these three, unless we’re decimated by injuries and they’re thrust into more minutes.

Very volatile group, this defensive line.  We’ve got enough sure things (so long as they stay healthy) to be able to maintain at least a high percentage of our effectiveness of last year, and a good number of wild cards who will duke it out in Training Camp and the pre-season, to see if we can somehow BEST last year.

In any given year, THAT’S what I’m most looking forward to when it comes to this time of the football season.  Tomorrow, I’ll look at the offense.

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