Salk: The Seahawks’ 6 biggest storylines as training camp begins

Jul 26, 2023, 12:01 AM | Updated: 12:45 pm

Seattle Seahawks Pete Carroll...

Seattle Seahawks head coach Pete Carroll during minicamp on June 8, 2023. (Taylor Jacobs/Seattle Sports)

(Taylor Jacobs/Seattle Sports)

As Seattle Seahawks players roll into camp, everything feels different than it did a year ago.

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If last July was about what we didn’t know, this time it’s about knowing even more. If last year was a test to see if the Seahawks could survive without their quarterback, they passed. But this season is an opportunity to surpass that and to actually thrive.

Instead of unknowns, this year’s training camp has honest-to-goodness competitions at a variety of key spots. And anyone who wondered if the Seahawks did the right thing by keeping Pete Carroll over Russell Wilson most certainly is now focused on something else.

In last year’s version of this column, I wrote: “We will learn a lot by watching Russ in Denver. If he runs for more yards, is that a statement on his lack of commitment in 2021? If he throws for 5,000 yards and the team succeeds, is that an indictment on a coach that wasted his talents the last few years? If he tries to ‘cook’ and it sputters, will we get a complete acquittal of Pete from those that have criticized his balanced approach? There is much to be learned.”

I guess that apology got lost in the mail.

A year later, Pete is firmly entrenched, Russ is trying to reclaim what’s left of his reputation, and Geno Smith is the Seahawks’ established starter trying to take this roster to the next level. We know so much more about this year’s team than we did a year ago, or at least we think we do. What we don’t know yet is whether they can take their game to the next level and truly compete for the championship that has eluded them for the last decade.

Here are the six top storylines that will dictate the Seattle Seahawks’ success as they start training camp Wednesday.

Seattle Seahawks training camp storylines

6. Competition is back!

Let me be clear, Pete would be mad if he saw this ranked sixth. This is always storyline No. 1 for him. But after years in which it seemed too many spots were sewn up before camp started, there are some real battles with unknown victors set up for the next month.

Who will start at cornerback opposite Tariq Woolen? Devon Witherspoon wasn’t drafted No. 5 overall to sit on the bench, but Mike Jackson was excellent last season and might have been their best player in the offseason practices. Whoever “loses” this battle will be in another competition for the nickel spot that Coby Bryant owned last season. This promises to be one of the strongest and deepest position groups on the roster as Tre Brown has starting experience and upside as well.

We should see legit competition at right guard between veteran Phil Haynes and rookie Anthony Bradford – two mountainous men who should be able to move whatever is in front of them. And a few feet to the left, Evan Brown will try to hold off rookie Olu Oluwatimi at center.

Those three spots are the marquee battles, but there is a chance for competition at outside linebacker (three second-round picks fighting to start opposite Uchenna Nwosu), safety, running back, tight end and wide receiver. Nearly every position on the field is at least a little up for grabs.

Just how the coach likes it.

5. Who got better?

Pete is fond of saying that the Seahawks run a “developmental program.” That means they don’t draft finished products but rather continue to coach their players to improve. Last year saw a tremendous influx of young talent, mostly through the draft. We saw players that shined as rookies in ways we hadn’t seen since the nucleus of the Legion of Boom first arrived. But it wasn’t enough. None of the promising young players were voted at the top 10 at their respective positions by ESPN. And while they outperformed expectations, they didn’t win a playoff game.

If the Seahawks want to get back to dominating football, they’ll need some growth from within.

Woolen is a freak athlete who is way ahead of schedule. But can he take away half the field like Richard Sherman used to do?

Charles Cross and Abe Lucas bucked the odds by starting all season at tackle as rookies, but they were far from perfect. Can they impose their will in the run game and keep their quarterback even safer?

Can running back Ken Walker III become the primary offensive feature and breakaway threat that he was in college?

Can pass rusher Boye Mafe use his athleticism and regularly affect the game? To do so, he’ll need to improve his instincts and understanding.

Some of these players will get better. How many and how much will go a long way to determining the team’s success.

4. The rookies – again.

Last year’s Seahawks rookie class turned heads. In order to grow, this year’s will have to be even better – and it can be. With two first-round picks likely to start from Week 1 and two second-rounders who could contribute immediately and all kinds of depth behind them, this could be the class that rivals 2012 for impact.

By my count, six rookies have at least a fighting chance to start out of training camp and four others could play specific roles beyond special teams. That is the kind of class that transforms an organization. But it won’t just be about how many snaps they take; it’s about how many game-changing players emerge.

Obviously, that starts with Witherspoon and his fellow first-rounder, wide receiver Jaxon Smith-Njigba. But it’ll take more than those two to really set this class apart.

How many start right away? How many push for playing time? How many provide the real depth that is so crucial to surviving a grueling season? How many can not only hold their own but dictate play around them? Which ones step up to lead this young core?

Will the two first-rounders get the first crack at starting jobs? Will the two rookie linemen? Is defensive lineman Mike Morris a rotational piece? Those questions start to get answered day one of camp.

3. Is Geno for real? Can he be even better?

Geno Smith was a revelation last year. He was better than anyone predicted – well, at least anyone not named Geno Smith. He proved himself to be a legitimate starting quarterback in the NFL, something I didn’t think he could do.

After taking every snap last season, he showed he was one of the better starting quarterbacks in the league. I agree with the Madden rating that puts him as the NFL’s No. 12 QB. He didn’t make many mistakes and bounced back after the few he made. He hit open receivers, especially on deep and intermediate routes. He created offense when plays broke down. He showed command of the huddle and leadership of the offense. He was durable. He even led a late-game drive to win.

While it was very good, it wasn’t quite elite. Why not? It’s hard to answer that question other than to say you know it when you see it. I (somewhat unpopularly) judge quarterbacks by wins. The best at the position control the game and elevate everyone around them, and they do it consistently year after year.

Geno says he will be even better with an improved receiving corps, a full season under his belt, full command of the offense, and an offseason spent preparing as the starter. If he’s right, this could follow the Rich Gannon path even more closely. I don’t think he will significantly regress – last year’s success seemed real. But will he improve?

The Seahawks paid him starter money and didn’t draft a quarterback. But they also left themselves an out after this season if they find someone better at the most crucial position. Their direction will likely be dictated by Geno’s ability to grow.

2. Can they stop the run?

Here’s the problem: this question needs to be answered or else it has the power to completely undo all of the many positive gains the Seahawks have made. At least on paper, it is by far their biggest weakness. They had trouble stopping the run last year and their defensive line doesn’t look significantly improved in that area. In fact, with Al Woods and Shelby Harris moving on in favor of a pass-rushing defensive lineman (Dre Jones) and a player in Jarran Reed that struggled last season in Green Bay, you could argue that this phase of their game might have gotten worse.

The Seahawks spent money on Jones. Real, phase-1-of-free-agency money. They need him to be an improvement on what they’ve had up front because that position hasn’t been good enough. I think he will help an already exciting pass rush, but what team would look at this defense and throw against it? The line is suspect, the linebackers are mostly new faces, and the secondary looks nasty. Why throw when you might be able to grind out victories by running right up the gut?

There is a good chance this line isn’t complete and that a nose tackle is still to be added. I hope so. They have spent a lot of energy making the change to the 3-4 front but are currently missing the unique body type that plays in the middle of that scheme.

Here’s the good news: if they can stop the run, this defense could be much better than it’s been. It has depth (especially in the secondary and on the edge), sure tackling and veteran presence in the person of returning linebacker Bobby Wagner, and some real speed. They just need to be solid enough to take advantage of those differentiating skills.

1. Can the Seattle Seahawks go from good to great?

This seems to be the theme of the year in Seattle sports. The Mariners have thus far been unable to pull off this feat, and now it’s the Seahawks’ turn to try.

Last year was good. They proved themselves to be a playoff team with a solid foundation, exciting upside, a quarterback that can play, and a coach that is still one of the best in the game. But they were never a true contender for the Super Bowl. To do so, Geno needs to take another step, strong safety Jamal Adams (who could have been his own storyline) needs to get healthy (and stay healthy) and earn that huge salary with impact plays, and this young nucleus needs to turn potential into star power.

Like their quarterback, I don’t think the success of this roster last season was a fluke. Unless the Seahawks are ravaged by injuries, I don’t see them taking a step back. They play in a decidedly weaker conference and two teams in their division are questionable at best. But if they want to contend with the Niners and Eagles (and maybe the Giants and Lions), they are going to have to keep growing.

Fortunately, the Seahawks have the upside to do it and a coaching staff that is built for the challenge and has done it before. Their future is in their own hands, and we get to start seeing where it goes right now.

More on the Seattle Seahawks

Seattle Seahawks cut Alton Robinson, sign a DT ahead of camp
Huard: Why Uchenna Nwosu is worth his extension
After Nwosu deal, is time right to bring back Shelby Harris?
What Bump wants to see from Seattle Seahawks’ DeeJay Dallas
What can be expected from Seattle Seahawks top two rookies in camp?

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