Rost: 3 things we learned from Seahawks’ preseason — and 3 things we’re still wondering about
The Seahawks’ preseason ended Saturday night with a 27-0 win over the Los Angeles Chargers, giving Seattle a 1-2 record in its three exhibition games.
With the Seahawks now preparing for the start of the regular season with a Sept. 12 road game in Indianapolis, let’s look at what we learned and what we’re still wondering about following the preseason.
• Learned: Kyle Fuller is the surprise favorite to start at center, while Ahkello Witherspoon remains the expected favorite to start with D.J. Reed at cornerback.
• Still wondering: Whether those two can be better than their predecessors.
The Seahawks signed Ethan Pocic to a one-year, $3 million deal in March, and while that didn’t ensure him a long-term future with Seattle, it kept him as a favorite in the battle at center barring a big-name addition in free agency. After Seattle passed on veterans Corey Linsley and Alex Mack and Day 2 draft options like Josh Myers, Creed Humphrey, and Quinn Meinerz, the starting role felt like a near lock. That was until a hamstring injury sidelined Pocic through a large chunk of training camp. In his place, the Seahawks turned to backup center Kyle Fuller (who, coincidentally, was drafted 243rd overall by Houston the same year Seattle drafted Pocic in the second round).
Head coach Pete Carroll said there’s nothing Pocic has done to hurt himself in the center battle – he just hasn’t been available – but the team also believes Fuller has made a case to be named starter.
“When we evaluated all the centers that were available coming out (of college in 2017), as we do, I thought he had all the fundamentals: size, weight, arm length, quickness, stoutness. And he’s played the position for years in college,” Carroll said. “… He got screwed up at the start of camp last year and didn’t really get to make the statement that he wanted to. Really, he’s been able to do everything, and he’s really commanded the line of scrimmage, too. And he and (Russell Wilson) get along great and with their communications. He’s working well with the guards. He’s given us no reason to say that he can’t start. So, he’s done a nice job. Really well done.”
What we’re still wondering is whether Fuller is a true upgrade from Pocic – or, in the worst-case scenario, a downgrade. Pocic finished 2020 with a 62.4 grade from Pro Football Focus, the lowest for any of Seattle’s five starting offensive linemen. But Fuller hasn’t earned high marks either through three preseason games. Granted, that’s with a significantly smaller sample size. Carroll seems comfortable enough to name Fuller the starter, which at the very least gives Pocic additional time to recover. But stability along the O-line sure would make things easier for a rookie offensive coordinator, which the Seahawks have in Shane Waldron.
Meanwhile on defense, the battle at cornerback feels a little more settled. The team rolled with a couple different starting combinations over three preseason games: Ahkello Witherspoon started the first two games at left corner while Damarious Randall started Saturday against the Chargers. Veteran Tre Flowers, who has the most starting experience of the group, started all three games at right cornerback, but one of the reasons is because D.J. Reed was sidelined with a groin injury. Reed remains the expected starter for Week 1 after having won the job last season. That he was able to practice last week but was still held from the preseason game (along with a few other starters) also speaks to that plan.
Witherspoon may not have started the third preseason game, but he continued to see a large portion of first-team reps throughout camp. The left corner spot certainly feels more unstable, but the expectation remains that Witherspoon will start alongside Reed against the Colts.
What we’re still wondering is whether Witherspoon can be consistent enough – and make enough plays on the ball – to keep Seattle from allowing the big-chunk pass yardage it did last season. The Seahawks may have improved there in the back half of the season (they did!), but when you finish the year with an average of 285 pass yards allowed, that remains a liability until proven otherwise.
• Learned: Fans have reason to be optimistic about a handful of young players.
• Still wondering: Whether two former first-round picks can meet expectations in 2021.
Fans had two reasons to root for rookie wide receiver Dee Eskridge on Saturday night. The first was an impressive 19-yard reception on a touchdown drive, which was the first game action of the summer for the Western Michigan alum.
Rookie Dee Eskridge makes his first catch as a pro! @Seahawks
— NFL (@NFL) August 29, 2021
The second was Eskridge’s confidence in a postgame press conference.
What does it take to be good at the fly sweep?
Rookie WR Dee Eskridge: “Good? I don’t know. Great? Run fast like me.” pic.twitter.com/k9W9oslCd5
— Stacy Jo Rost (@StacyRost) August 29, 2021
Now back from a toe injury that had been nagging him through camp, Eskridge looks speedy and remains an intriguing option for a Seahawks offense that will need to be more multi-faceted than it was last season. In a handful of plays Saturday, Seattle got a preview of those possibilities.
Fans also saw a preview of what another second-round pick could look like this season. Safety Marquise Blair scored Seattle’s first points of the game on a fumble recovery that he returned 17 yards for a touchdown.
MARQUISE BLAIR ‼️
Gotta love a defensive touchdown 😏 pic.twitter.com/4lqdoL1wEf
— Seattle Seahawks (@Seahawks) August 29, 2021
Blair missed the bulk of last season after suffering a torn ACL and, at least last training camp had to work to find his role on the field. That role feels settled now in the slot where he has a chance to play more snaps than he would as a backup to either safety (and to bring some more physicality to the secondary). Fellow recent Seahawks draft picks Alton Robinson and Jordyn Brooks also put together solid performances through camp and into the preseason, with the latter looking especially speedy at times.
What we’re wondering is whether Seattle will hit the mark on two of its biggest draft investments: first-round picks L.J. Collier (2019) and Rashaad Penny (2018).
To his credit, Collier notched three sacks last year and appeared in all 16 games, but he’ll need to build on that production in an even more crowded D-line room this year.
Meanwhile, Penny needs to find a way to stay on the field and offer a rotational option for an offense that hasn’t had a healthy Chris Carson for all 16 games in any of his four pro seasons. Carson remains one of the league’s most underrated weapons when he’s on the field, and I’d argue the injury-prone label isn’t deserved, but it’s also worth mentioning here while we’re talking about draft picks paying off that Carson is one of the team’s best bargains: a seventh-round pick who gave Seattle two 1,000-yard seasons before getting a real payday.
After a promising preseason from veteran halfback Alex Collins, I saw plenty of questions about whether Penny would even be assured a spot on the roster. While nothing is guaranteed (at least until Tuesday’s 1 p.m. 53-man roster deadline), I’d still expect Penny to make the cut. There’s little financial incentive to release him – doing so would save the team just over $1 million – and he has the ability (key word here) to be one of their best every-down back options rather than just a special teamer. This is a player who led the country in rushing yards at San Diego State, finished fifth in Heisman voting, and is still just 25 years old.
If Seattle isn’t going to get that version of Penny (a reality that seems likelier every year), the hope is that this season they can tap into some of the potential he carries when he’s healthy and in a rhythm. At the very least, it sure would make it easier to watch Nick Chubb’s success in Cleveland.
• Learned: There are a few differences so far in Shane Waldron’s offense.
• Still wondering: What does Russell Wilson look like in it?
The million-dollar question: Is a change at offensive coordinator enough to get Seattle to a Super Bowl? The addition of Waldron overshadowed most of Seattle’s player acquisitions this offseason and has a chance to be more impactful. If it pays off, that is.
And we don’t really know if it will because, well, we haven’t really seen what it’s going to look like. Practice has been reflective of a few of the conversations you’ve been hearing: there’s some more tempo at times, there were a few days where intermediate passing felt like a focus, and there was some nice usage of the tight ends. But contact rules in camp make it tough to figure out whether a play would work out in the face of a nasty pass rush, or whether a new starting center could hold his own, or whether a rookie wide receiver could beat out an elite corner. And Russell Wilson – along with other offensive starters – sitting out the preseason means we didn’t see the closest thing to those situations August offers.
The gamble of not playing offensive starters is that in lieu of game-like reps with a new playbook, key players have made it out of the preseason healthy. Now, they have a chance to catch the league by surprise.
Of course, as with any gamble, there’s a flipside: there’s always a chance defenses do the same to them.