The first preseason game of any season is usually a hodgepodge of substitutions and player changes that leave the viewing audience wondering who these guys are that are playing in the fourth quarter and, in many cases, why these games are even necessary. But one thing a preseason schedule does is show teams how much depth they have and who can and can't be counted on in a pinch when a starter goes down.
For that reason, the Seattle Seahawks are an ideal opponent for the Vikings to square off against in the preseason opener. Seattle is a team undergoing change, but one that has dominated the NFC West for the last several years and is still the likely preseason favorite to win the division. Mike Holmgren has built up both sides of the ball to be able to dominate games. While his starters have become commonplace names among NFL fans, the backups are far less familiar and will be prominently on display Friday in the preseason opener at the Metrodome.
At quarterback, the team seems pretty set. Matt Hasselbeck proved he could carry the offense on his shoulders when the Seahawks' running game collapsed last year. Hasselbeck threw for almost 4,000 yards and had 28 TDs, with at least one in 15 games and two or more in 10 contests. He will likely only see a series or two, but the depth at QB is very good for Seattle and there won't be a huge drop-off later in the game. Seneca Wallace has proved to be an athletic stop-gap when Hasselbeck has been knocked out of games. He hasn't been asked to do much in the regular season, but when given a start last year when the Seahawks had clinched their playoff spot, he completed 17 of 22 passes for 206 yards and two TDs against Atlanta. Former Cleveland Browns starter Charlie Frye is also in the mix. When the Browns drafted Brady Quinn last year, Frye quickly became the odd man out and was traded to Seattle. He didn't see any action with Seattle last year, but is another veteran presence. He is expected to beat out first-year man Dalton Bell for the No. 3 spot and perhaps even challenge for the No. 2 position.
It will be interesting to see how Seattle approaches the running back position. For years, it was simply handing the ball to Shaun Alexander 20 times a game and expecting 100 yards and a touchdown. Alexander hit a wall in 2006 and, after trying to rebound last year to no avail, was released. The new-look backfield of the Seahawks features three backs who have never been allowed to be full-time backs on their own. Julius Jones was signed as a free agent after Dallas decided it was better to invest long-term in Marion Barber than in Jones. While Bill Parcells was his coach, Jones was always the starter and managed about 15 carries a game. A slippery runner, he can slide between the tackles with good burst. Maurice Morris entered training camp on top of the Seattle depth chart, but it seems apparent that he is best suited to be a third-down and situational back, not a 20-carry-a-game workhorse. He doesn't have a lot of explosion out of standard formations and needs to be put out in space to make plays. One of Alexander's primary strengths was finishing off drives at the goal line. The Seahawks addressed that need by signing T.J. Duckett. A fullback in size, Duckett has always found a way to be the thunder in a thunder-and-lightning backfield and has produced a lot of short touchdowns with his bulldozing style. He will likely be used early in short-yardage and goal-line situations, but has shown the ability to be a situational plow horse, getting 25 carries and dragging defenders with him. Leonard Weaver is a standard West Coast Offense fullback. Last year he had more receptions (39) than rushing attempts (33) and is a powerful lead blocker. With few additional spots available, seventh-round rookie Justin Forsett and fullbacks David Kirtman and Owen Schmitt might be fighting it one for one roster spot. Because of Duckett's size, he can be used occasionally at fullback, making the battle between Kirtman and Schmitt one that neither may survive on the final cut-downs.
The wide receiver position has been a vastly different story. Before the 2007 season, the team traded away Darrell Jackson. After the season, they made no effort to re-sign D.J. Hackett and he went away via free agency. With Deion Branch still on the physically-unable-to-perform (PUP) list after tearing his ACL during the 2007 playoffs, former Viking Nate Burleson and veteran Bobby Engram are penned in as the starters for the Seahawks to start the season. The competition behind them is pretty intense. Third-year man Ben Obamanu had the inside track at grabbing the No. 3 receiver position, competing with second-year receiver Courtney Taylor for the job. Both are very raw – they combined for just 15 receptions last year – and will need to get their timing down with Hasselbeck. Aside from journeyman Bryan Gilmore, nobody else on the WR roster has ever played a down in the NFL – a list that includes former Gopher Logan Payne, Jordan Kent and former VikingJoel Filani. There is expected to be plenty of competition for the roster spots, which likely will include an additional young receiver with Branch sidelined. The tight end position is expected to get a boost with the drafting of Hutchinson native John Carlson, a pass-catching rookie from Notre Dame. The team already has a pair of solid blocker TEs in Will Heller and Jeb Putzier, but the addition of Carlson should add an element to the passing game that has been missing since former first-rounder Jerramy Stevens fell out of favor with the coaching staff.
The offensive line has long been a calling card of the Seahawks and this year is no different. Walter Jones is regarded as one of the top left tackles in the game and for years was franchised by the Seahawks to prevent him from leaving, which, in a roundabout way led to the Vikings being able to put a poison pill in the contract of Steve Hutchinson. Veteran Mike Wahle is an upgrade at left guard, which has been a weak link of the line since the Hutchinson defection. The rest of the line is young and ready to be intact for the next several years. All three started all 16 games last year, including third-year center Chris Spencer, fourth-year right guard Rob Sims and fifth-year right tackle Sean Locklear. They seem set, but the backup positions are a different story. Pork Chop Womack has moved from starting left guard to backup left tackle, but he isn't expected to play Friday, so his place will be taken by first-year player Kyle Williams. The competition for backup guard spots includes Mansfield Wrotto, Pat Murray and Steve Vallos. They will be watched closely, since the Seahawks have to replace 16-year veteran Chris Gray, who served as a primary backup at both the center and guard positions but retired earlier this week due to chronic lower pack and spinal injuries. The top candidates to back up at right tackle are Ray Willis, who can play all four non-center positions, and William Robinson, an undrafted rookie from San Diego State.
The Seahawks defense is unheralded, but strong up front. The team boasts a pair of very good defensive ends in Patrick Kerney and Darryl Tapp. Kerney was a sensation in his first year with Seattle after signing a big free agent deal, recording 14½ sacks. Tapp progressed well in his second season and first as a full-time starter. Also expected to fit in the mix and see a lot of playing time against the Vikings is 2008 first-round draft pick Lawrence Jackson out of USC, a strong, long-armed player who has excellent field vision. The fight for the other end spot will come down to fifth-year pro Jason Babin, second-year special teamer Baraka Atkins and second-year pro Nu'u Tafisi. It is only expected that there will one roster spot available for those three players. In the middle, the Seahawks are solid with starters Rocky Bernard and Brandon Mebane, but depth is thin after the team lost fourth-round rookie Red Bryant for a month with a knee injury. Bryant was expected to challenge veterans Marcus Tubbs and Chris Cooper for their spots, but with him out of the picture for awhile, both look to have a good chance to lock down their jobs for another year.
The linebacker corps was dominant last year for Seattle, as Lofa Tatupu continues to impress as one of the league's best young middle linebackers. He is flanked by nine-year veteran Julian Peterson on the weak side and unheralded fourth-year man Leroy Hill on the strong side. Hill doesn't get the ink that Tatupu and Peterson get, but he is a big hitter who was huge down the stretch last year to solidify the Seahawks defense. D.D. Lewis is expected to beat out undrafted rookie Matt Castelo for the backup MLB spot, but there is some good competition for backup roles on the outside. Second-year pro Will Herring has likely won the battle for the weak side backup with six-year veteran Wesly Mallard placed on injured reserve Wednesday. Third-year special teamer Lance Laury is fighting off challenges from undrafted rookies David Hawthorne and Marquis Cooper. Just a couple of years ago, this was a position of weakness for the Seahawks. Now it appears to be a position of strength.
The secondary has been a source of much attention for the Seahawks in recent years and it has shown. The starting corners are a pair of former first-round picks – Marcus Trufant and Kelly Jennings – and the starting safeties – Deon Grant and Brian Russell – were both free agent acquisitions to bolster the position. Of the four starters, Russell is the one who will have to work to keep his free safety job. Seven-year vet Omare Lowe missed all of last season and is looking to rebound, and other contenders include 2007 special teamer C.J. Wallace and rookies Jamar Adams and Eric Wicks. At the corner position, five-year veteran Jordan Babineaux has been injured in training camp and his nickel spot is currently being challenged by second-year pros Josh Wilson and Kevin Hobbs and rookie Rich Gardner. Fellow rookie candidate DeMichael Dizer suffered a torn ACL during Seattle's first scrimmage and has already been put on I.R. While the starting lineup of Trufant and Jennings is impressive, with Babineaux out, depth is razor-thin and could be a cause for concern.
There may also be some questions with the special teams, which have been a Seahawks hallmark for several years. Gone is kicker Josh Brown, one of the best clutch kickers in the league. The Seahawks thought so much of him that they franchised him in 2007, only to have division rival St. Louis pry him away in the offseason. Veteran Olindo Mare, who had the worst field goal percentage of any kicker in the league last year, is competing with seventh-round rookie Brandon Coutu for the job. Punter is also a question mark with starter Ryan Plackemeier suffering a torn pectoral muscle and not expected to play against the Vikings.
As with most preseason games early on, the starters will likely merely get cameo appearances – leaving the heavy lifting to those players battling to move into consideration for starting spots in the first half and those trying to make the roster in the second half. For a team that has worn the NFC West crown for four years in a row, Holmgren's final season as head coach is one in which the Seahawks plan to give him "one for the thumb" in terms of division crowns. That process begins Friday against the Vikings, who hope to get his final year as the head man in Seattle off to a bad start.
Seahawks Preview: Battle for Backups
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