Taking a look at the new Seahawks

Change seems to be the theme around the Seahawks these days. A new stadium, new uniforms, and even a new division in a new conference have Seattle fans feeling as though they are getting a new franchise. But it's a team that barely missed out on the playoffs last year, and people in Seattle feel the Seahawks are primed to make a splash in the postseason in 2002.

With the added optimism comes added pressure and it's falling squarely on the shoulders of Mike Holmgren. Rumor has it he is on the hot seat and will be counted on to lead this team back to the playoffs, or else. His coaching ability isn't under question but his personnel moves are. Once again the Seahawks had a suspect draft in 2002 but Holmgren is an excellent field general who will need to put forth a splendid plan if Seattle is to contend in 2002.

The Seattle offense will ride RB Shaun Alexander as far as he can carry them. If you can stuff Alexander your chances of winning increase tenfold. Last season, Alexander rushed for 1,318 yards and 14 touchdowns. Holmgren added RB Maurice Morris in the second round of the draft, stating that Alexander needs to be constantly pressured or he will relax, but with so many other needs it was a surprising pick. Alexander came into his own last season and is the franchise player heading into 2002. Seattle will count on the emergence of Heath Evans at FB to help the offense as Evans is a dual-threat back who can run and catch from the FB spot. Mack Strong is a strong lead blocker who adds little as a runner or receiver.

Last year Holmgren signed QB Matt Hasselbeck and proclaimed him the starter but he didn't make it through the season as the starter as Seattle struggled to win games with Hasselbeck at the helm. He passed for 2,023 yards and had seven TDs with eight interceptions as Seattle went 5-7 in his twelve starts. Trent Dilfer grabbed the starting spot by the end of the season and keyed a late season rally that fell just short of the playoffs. He was 4-0 as the starter and many people believe that Seattle would have made the playoffs had Holmgren not waited too long to go with Dilfer. Dilfer threw for 1,014 yards with seven TDs and four interceptions, and a very solid passer rating of 92.0. Including the 2000 season when he quarterbacked the Ravens to a Super Bowl title he has won his last 15 starts.

Even with Dilfer the Seattle passing game was less than stellar, however. The Seahawks would greatly benefit from the emergence of WR Koren Robinson. As a rookie, Robinson grabbed just 39 passes for 536 yards and one TD. Darrell Jackson assembled a very good season with 70 receptions for 1,081 yards and eight TDs but he needs help. Seattle got just 41 receptions combined from Bobby Engram and James Williams, the third and fourth receivers. Holmgren says he is on the lookout for veteran help here.

Dating back to his days as an offensive coordinator for several great 49ers teams, Holmgren has traditionally involved the RBs in the passing game and will likely look to increase that production this season as Strong had just 17 receptions in 2001. This is why getting an impact season from Evans will be critical for Seattle. He can become a 30-plus receptions fullback. Alexander pitched in with 44 receptions but those aren't the usual Holmgren-run offensive standards for receptions out of the backfield. Ricky Watters production dipped big-time in 2001 as he missed significant action with injury. Drafting Morris is an almost certain indication Watters won't be back.

Seattle also got little production at tight end as Christian Fauria and Itula Mili combined for just 29 receptions for 296 yards and three TDs. Seattle went out and reached on TE Jerramy Stevens in the first round of the April draft with hopes of increasing production at the position. Christian Fauria bolted for the Patriots in free agency, making it critical that Stevens put together a solid rookie season. Adding more diversity to the passing game will be a critical factor if Seattle is to improve and contend in 2002.

The Seahawks offensive line allowed 49 sacks last season though they were very effective at run blocking. Seattle was predominantly a left-handed running team as they rode Walter Jones and Steve Hutchinson. But that duo also allowed nine blind-side sacks. Nonetheless, Jones was franchised. Seattle didn't run well up the middle nor did the Seahawks pass protect well when teams brought pressure up the middle but it doesn't appear there are plans to replace Robbie Tobeck. The right side of the Seattle line loses Todd Weiner who signed a big-money deal in Atlanta so Chris McIntosh, a 2000 first-round pick, gets the first shot at replacing him though Matt Hill, a rookie considered a solid pass protector but questionable run blocker, will battle for the spot as well. Weiner isn't a real big loss as Seattle struggled on the right side in 2001 so perhaps the change will be beneficial.

Defensively, Seattle will count on wily veterans once again. John Randle, Chad Eaton, Levon Kirkland, Chad Brown, Marcus Robertson, and Doug Evans are all 30-somethings who will need to maintain their previous playing levels or this unit could slip a bit in 2002. Randle and Brown will be counted on once again to give Seattle a pass rush. Last season they combined for 19.5 of the teams 38 sacks.

Seattle was pretty average in its run defense last season and could use a run-stuffing hog to go next to Randle but it appears Eaton will handle those duties again this season. Seattle is big at defensive end but probably to the detriment of the pass rush. Brandon Mitchell was signed to replace Michael Sinclair who clearly had lost his pass-rush prowess over the last three seasons (11 sacks over three seasons combined) but Mitchell doesn't appear to have the closing speed to be a real effective pass rushing DE. Antonio Cochran had 4.5 sacks off the bench in 2001 while Anton Palepoi was added in the draft as Seattle looks to bolster the pass rush. Lamar King is making noise that he could be a big sack man in 2002 but has just eight career sacks in three seasons, and he had none last year.

Anthony Simmons is a solid strong-side linebacker who led the team in tackles in 2001 but none of the Seattle linebackers are real good in pass coverage. Brown is known for his pass-rush ability while Kirkland is a big run-defending MLB who doesn't have the range to be effective in pass coverage. Perhaps the team can develop Marcus Bell, Tim Terry, or Orlando Huff as a coverage LB. This group doesn't have real good speed but the starters are a tough trio.

Shawn Springs will be counted on to regain his Pro Bowl form after battling injuries last year. He played in just 8 games and had just one interception. Veteran Evans and youngster Ken Lucas will compete for the right CB spot. Evans is a solid acquisition as he allows Willie Williams to move to the nickel, even if Lucas struggles. I didn't understand the drafting of third-round CB Kris Richard as he will likely be relegated to the fifth CB spot, unless he outperforms Willie Williams which would result in Williams' release.

Ike Charlton was moved to safety but Seattle may still be trying to trade him. He is disgruntled and wants to play CB. Seattle invested a third-round pick in him so they will likely wait until all trade routes are exhausted before releasing him.

Reggie Tongue and Marcus Robertson get the nod at safety. Terreal Bierria will be groomed to start in a year or two and Seattle drafted Curtis Fuller with the hopes that he will show promise as a rookie and succeed Marcus Robertson in the near future as well. Perhaps another of the CBs, Lucas for example, will end up at FS in the long run as well and they could still convince Charlton that FS is his best spot. Rather than drafting CB Richard in the third round they probably should have added S Chris Hope of Florida State, who I feel would have given Robertson stiff competition for the starting spot in 2002.

Seattle brings in punter Craig Jarrett to challenge Jeff Feagles but I wouldn't be surprised if Feagles holds him off despite Jarrett's big leg. He had several punts blocked in college, including four against Central Michigan, as senior. Feagles had a solid 36.4 net average in 2001. Rian Lindell hit on just 20 of 32 field goals and though he hit on three from beyond 50 yards he was just 9 of 18 beyond 40 yards. He's solid on kickoffs however so if he can improve on his consistency he could blossom.

Charlie Rogers was placed on the expansion list and Houston drafted him, then traded him, and I don't really see a replacement though Engram could handle punt return duties. James Williams may be the favorite to win the primary kick return duties but it appears Seattle will be much less dangerous without the explosive Rogers. The Seattle coverage units were fairly solid in 2001.

I don't feel Seattle really improved themselves much this offseason as their draft baffled me and they didn't really add a lot in free agency. So Holmgren will have to do it with the same nucleus he had last season. The Seahawks look fairly solid, provided Dilfer continues his lucky roll, and will be dangerous week in and week out but the move to the NFC West will offer no favors as the Rams and 49ers appear primed to contend for the Super Bowl.

If some of the youngsters such as Lucas, Robinson, McIntosh, Stevens and Evans come through, it could put Seattle over the hump. But the schedule looks pretty tough as the Seahawks travel to their new division rivals, as well as to Oakland, NY Giants, Dallas, Atlanta, and San Diego. It may be tough to break even against that road slate. The key is maintaining their strength at home. They were 6-2 at home in 2001 and will need to match that in 2002 to have a shot at the last NFC wild card. They host Minnesota, Denver, Kansas City, Washington, and Philadelphia in addition to their division rivals so holding that 6-2 home record looks difficult. A 5-3 finish would be a solid home mark for this team.

Holmgren's teams have been slow starters the past two seasons (2-5 in 2000 and 3-4 in 2001). If the Seahwks don't get out of the gates fast in 2002, this team doesn't appear likely to get into the postseason. My impression is they will fall just short, probably at 8-8, in which case they won't continue their season into January and change could be the theme next season, if Holmgren is indeed on the hotseat.

This story written by Pete Toole of NinerFanatic.com

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