DF: After Jackson was traded to San Franciso for a fourth-round draft pick in April, Deion Branch took the #1 position on the depth chart – that's the pole position you get when you sign a six-year, $39 million contract AND your new team gives up its first-round draft pick for your services. Branch has everything it takes to replace Jackson as the team's top man, including a more reliable injury history. He came to the Seahawks last September, and the expectation is that after a training camp with Matt Hasselbeck, he'll become the top kick.
BK: There has been a lot of fantasy buzz surrounding D.J. Hackett. What are your predictions for him this season?
DF: The buzz is entirely justified. Hackett has developed into one of the more impressive young receivers in the game. He used to be underrated, but that isn't the case anymore because he's on everyone's "underrated" list. While Branch is a smallish receiver with good hands and the ability to make plays, Hackett has size, breakaway speed and the best hands on the team. If he can stay healthy, a breakout season would not be a surprise. I could see him with 70 receptions and over 1,000 yards.
The overall idea with the West Coast Offense is to spread the ball around, but Branch and Hackett are the top guys. It's almost a #1 and #1a scenario, not unlike the Boldin/Fitzgerald tandem (except our guys aren't quite THAT good just yet!)
BK: Does Shaun Alexander make it through the season without injury? If he doesn't, who else does Seattle have to carry the load? Is Maurice Morris still the answer?
DF: Shaun might make it through the season without injury, if he can keep Antrel Rolle and Darnell Dockett from performing uncalled horse-collar tackles on him (sorry – I had to stick that shot in there!) He missed six games with a broken bone in his left foot, and rushed for less than half of 2005's 1,880 yards behind an offensive line very much in transition. Even when that line came together down the stretch, his yards per carry average wasn't that impressive – 3.6 in December when Rob Sims started and performed so well at left guard. I'm less concerned with injury (the break in his metatarsal bone doesn't really put him more in line for a recurring problem, per se) than with a general decline in effectiveness. I think his MVP salad days are over, though he's still got a few decent seasons left if he's used correctly.
Morris is a good change-of-pace back – he's not really built for the grind of a 350-carry workload, but he was effective enough in 2006 to get the first two 100-yard rushing performances of the season. He's a better receiver than Shaun, and I'd like to see the team use him a bit more. If fullback Leonard Weaver can come back from a high ankle sprain that robbed him if his 2006 season, he's one to watch out for – Weaver has surprising mobility for a 250-pounder, and he owns the nastiest stiff-arm in the league.
BK: How much does Walter Jones still have left in the tank?
DF: Jones has quite a bit left in the tank – he's still among the best left tackles in the game. In a way, 2006 might have been almost impressive as 2005 for Jones (if you ask me, he should have been the NFL MVP in 2005) because he struggled all last season with a sprained ankle and other nagging injuries. He's 33 this year, but I would expect a noticeable improvement in performance because he will be healthier, and also because he'll have a more stable situation at left guard with Rob Sims installed from Day One. After Steve Hutchinson poison-pilled his way to Minnesota, life was far more difficult for Jones because he had a very iffy series of solutions at the position until the last few games. I don't care how good you are as an offensive lineman – if you see a severe downturn in the position next to you, your play will suffer. But Jones? He's a breed apart. It will be a long time before we see his like again.
BK: By letting Grant Wistrom go in free agency, then signing Patrick Kerney, the Seahawks seem to have traded one "try-hard, big-motor" white guy for another? What sets the two apart and how does Kearney improve the team?
DF: Well, let's just say that although I don't mind the idea of Kerney as part of the rotation on the defensive line, I'm not sure what the thought was behind the six-year, $39.5 million contract, with $19.5 million guaranteed, that he got from Seattle. Kerney is a player with explosive burst off the edge, and he can be an elite pass rusher when healthy. He missed the final seven games of the 2006 season with a torn pectoral muscle, the first major injury of his career. He's reportedly ahead of schedule in his rehab, though he didn't participate in any minicamps.
My concerns are three. His age – Kerney turned 30 in December – and the fact that he hasn't seen a double-digit sack season since 2004. I'm also a bit worried about his ability to stop the run. I know he's perceived as an every-down end, but according to Football Outsiders' Stop Rate statistic (which measures effectiveness against the run for individual defensive players), Kerney's been a below-average run-stopper over at least the last two years. That was the one thing Wistrom did better than Kerney, though Bryce Fisher was the Seahawks' best end against the run in 2006. Wistrom wasn't worth what the Seahawks paid him, but he was a bit more well-rounded.
Brad Keller is the Associate Editor of CardinalInsider.com. Feel free to e-mail him here.
Doug Farrar is the Editor-in-Chief of Seahawks.NET and a staff writer for Football Outsiders. He wrote the NFC West chapters for the Pro Football Prospectus 2007 book, which will be available just about everywhere on July 23. Feel free to e-mail Doug here.