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5 Storylines to watch as Seahawks kick off 2018 season

RB Chris Carson is leading the charge to reinvigorate the Seahawks' run game. (AP)

The Seahawks are entering what may be their most interesting season yet under head coach Pete Carroll and general manager John Schneider. Beginning in 2010, the duo crafted a team that went on to post five consecutive 10-plus win seasons and playoff appearances from 2012-16. But last winter, for the first time since 2011, they fell short of both markers.

O’Neil: This isn’t just a new season for Hawks, it’s a new era

This offseason saw the departures of several longtime veterans, including cornerback Richard Sherman, safety Kam Chancellor, and defensive ends Cliff Avril and Michael Bennett. The team also lost more recent – and costly – acquisitions like tight end Jimmy Graham and defensive tackle Sheldon Richardson.

In an effort to return as a contender in 2018, the Seahawks’ front office has made several deliberate moves to fill holes on both sides of the ball – and offer a bit of redirection for a team that once dominated the NFC.

Here are the biggest storylines to track this season:

The revamped run game

In his final interview of the season with Brock Huard and Mike Salk on 710 ESPN Seattle in January, Carroll spoke about what he believes is the most effective way to win a football game.

“Let’s make this point clear,” Carroll said. “We’ve been really clear on the essence of how we’ve tried to play our football. We’ve always played defense, we’ve always played special teams with great emphasis, and we’ve run the football. When that’s not there, it changes all factors… that’s to me, your coach, the best way to play the game of football. You can look at all the numbers in the exciting passing games and the stats and all that kind of stuff. That isn’t how it gets done year after year after year.”

Unfortunately for the Seahawks, the run game never took off in 2017. That wasn’t a sudden drop-off — its effectiveness had been dwindling since 2015, when lead back Marshawn Lynch suffered a sports hernia to end his season. Prior to his injury, Lynch had averaged 1,339 rushing yards and 12 rushing touchdowns per year from 2011-14. In his final full season with Seattle, Lynch rushed for 1,306 yards and a career-high 13 touchdowns – a performance that remains the most recent 1,000-yard season by a Seahawks running back.

After Lynch was injured in 2015, Thomas Rawls took the reins and put together an impressive rookie campaign that started with a 104-yard breakout game against the Chicago Bears in Week 3. Rawls suffered a broken ankle that prematurely ended his season in Week 13, but finished with 830 rushing yards on the year.

Seattle’s halfback rushing yards have decreased every year since then. In 2016 Christine Michaels’ 469 yards led all running backs, despite the fact that he was released by the team in November. In 2017, no individual running back put up more than 240 yards (that number was recorded by Mike Davis) and quarterback Russell Wilson led the team with 586 rushing yards and three of the team’s four rushing touchdowns.

“You can see how it affects your play,” Carroll said in January. “When you don’t have that sure aspect of your play, the execution just becomes more challenged.”

In the months’ following Carroll’s season-ending interview with Brock and Salk, the Seahawks’ front office made deliberate moves to improve on the ground. The first were the signings of 6-feet-5, 340-pound ex-Giants right guard D.J. Fluker and blocking tight end Ed Dickson (a marked shift from Jimmy Graham, who dominated the aerial attack). In the NFL Draft weeks later, the team used the No. 27-overall pick on San Diego State running back Rashaad Penny and a fourth-round pick on Washington tight end Will Dissly, considered to be the best blocking tight end in the class.

The team did lose big weapons in their effort to diversify the offense. Graham and wide receiver Paul Richardson signed elsewhere in free agency. But there’s reason to believe that Seattle’s goal of an improved running game can make gains in 2018.

The 2017 running back corps was hampered by two major injuries to Chris Carson and C.J. Prosise. Both players are healthy heading into 2018. Carson in particular has looked impressive throughout the preseason, and put on 10-pounds of muscle through his work with a trainer. They’re entering Week 1 with a few injuries (Penny is coming back from a broken finger and McKissic will be out eight weeks with a broken foot) but Carson and Davis handled the workload just fine this preseason.

A start against the Broncos will be no easy feat – Denver ranked fifth in rushing defense last season – but even short consistent gains (particularly on third-down conversion attempts and in the red zone) would be, quite literally, a big step forward.

New-look secondary

With just a handful of Seahawks remaining from the Super Bowl XLVIII-winning team, Seattle looks different on both sides of the ball. But the headline-grabbing departures focused primarily on the secondary, and for good reason: The famed “Legion of Boom” secondary, led by Richard Sherman, Earl Thomas and Kam Chancellor, became the face of Seattle’s team for fans league-wide from 2012-16.

Seattle started making moves to replenish the secondary in the 2017 draft, selecting Shaquill Griffin, Mike Tyson, Delano Hill and Tedric Thompson. But the move to a younger group came swiftly this offseason when the team released Sherman and placed Chancellor on the Reserve/Retired list. Cornerback Byron Maxwell, also a member of Seattle’s famed Legion of Boom, was placed on the injured reserve last weekend.

While Seattle still has Thomas (who ended a months’ long holdout Wednesday) the rest of the secondary will be composed of players acquired within the last two years. Griffin will switch to the starting left cornerback position (Sherman’s old spot), while ex-49er Dontae Johnson will start at right corner. Bradley McDougald will spend his second year starting at strong safety (where he replaced Chancellor in Week 10 of last season).

McDougald (and cornerback Justin Coleman) have had strong camps and offer a veteran presence. Griffin looks to continue to build on a strong rookie season, and his development in Sherman’s old role will surely be a point of focus this season.

The development of Russell Wilson under a new OC

For the first time in his six-year career, Wilson will be entering the season with a new offensive coordinator.

The team hired Brian Schottenheimer to fill the role in January, and already he’s looking for ways to press Wilson’s buttons.

710 ESPN Seattle’s Danny O’Neil wrote about what the process has looked like:

“Bevell wasn’t fired because of anything he did,” O’Neil wrote. “The Seahawks changed offensive coordinators in large part because of one thing he didn’t do. He couldn’t get Wilson to color within the lines more frequently. To take the throws that were there early in a play rather than running and scrambling and improvising his way to the possibility of a bigger play… reliance upon improvisation can come at a cost. It’s going to be less consistent, less reliable, and finding a way to get shorter, more predictable completions would make both Wilson and Seattle’s offense more efficient.”

Scrambling will still be a part of Wilson’s play. But the hope is that improvements on the offensive line and run game leave Wilson scrambling less, and that tweaks and feedback from Schottenheimer help refine Wilson’s game. Also impacted could be the pace of scoring, lessening the need for fourth-quarter heroics – another thing that bothered Carroll from last season.

“Of all the things I’m concerned about is why did we have trouble executing early?” Carroll told Brock and Salk. “Why were we mentally not clear to execute at the beginning of the game, and then we could find marvelous ability to execute later on? That still remains a real issue for me and a problem for me.”

Improvement along the offensive line

The Seahawks’ selection of Ohio State tackle Jamarco Jones was their only addition to the O-line in the 2018 draft. For that, the team received some poor draft grades from national outlets who felt they should have addressed a seasons-long issue.

But there was one problem for Schneider: the drop-off in O-line talent.

“It was solid at the guard position,” Schneider told Bob, Groz and Tom. “I would say solid at guard, solid at center, and not real great at tackle. You had the two top guys and then there was a bit of a gap.”

The team made two additions through free agency, signing right guard Fluker and bringing back ex-Seahawks guard J.R. Sweezy (who will play backup at the same position). The remaining four are all returning starters.

The addition of four-time Pro Bowl left tackle Duane Brown brought improvement last season. Pro Football Focus ranked the unit 27th in the league (compared to 30th in 2015 and 32nd in 2016), though that’s surely a ranking Seattle would like to see end higher this season. Seattle solidified Brown’s role by signing him to an extension.

Seattle also made a move with the coaching staff, parting ways with longtime O-line coach Tom Cable and hiring Mike Solari. Brown spoke about the change during an interview with John Clayton.

“Mike Solari’s been great for us so far. Great demeanor, great approach to the game,” Brown said. “He’s all about detail, technique, and I think myself I’m buying into it. It’s changing my techniques and things I want to improve on. We have a lot of young players who I think will benefit a lot from his way of coaching. He really hammers points down every day and I think we’ll be a very much improved group.”

What will the pass rush look like without longtime vets?

Perhaps no other group experienced more turnover than the defensive line, with just one 2017 Week 1 starter set to make a return. Third-year defensive end Frank Clark, though, got 12 games’ worth of starting experience last season filling in for an injured Cliff Avril, which does help boost that experience level.

Gone are Bennett (traded to the Eagles), Avril (retired), and Richardson (now with the Vikings). Clark is making a return, though it’s unclear whether Dion Jordan – a presumed starter on the other side – will be able to make a Week 1 return from a leg injury.

There are a few new additions that are worth keeping an eye on. Ex-Vikings Tom Johnson and Shamar Stephen were signed to help the interior, and linebackers Barkevious Mingo and Jacob Martin will drop down in pass rush situations. Rookie defensive end Rasheem Green put together an impressive offseason and finished second in Pro Football Focus‘ preseason rankings of rookie edge rushers.