Lefko: Temper expectations for Seahawks’ 2023 rookie class

Aug 14, 2023, 1:13 PM

Seattle Seahawks Devon Witherspoon...

Seattle Seahawks CB Devon Witherspoon at the team's rookie minicamp on May 12, 2023. (Taylor Jacobs/Seattle Sports)

(Taylor Jacobs/Seattle Sports)

On the surface, what do you learn about a team from its preseason opener? Not much, except for maybe that Michael Bennett might have the most practical idea for using AI in the NFL. Outside of that, it’s hard to quantify what you see on the field because the Seattle Seahawks and other teams are in various states of what they are trying to accomplish in the preseason.

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The sidelines become the more intriguing show, especially when looking at why guys aren’t playing. That falls into two categories: Already an established starter or injured. Rookies are never going to fall into that first category, even if it is assured that they will enter the season atop the depth chart. So to see a rookie not playing is concerning at the outset, but it should also cause us to reassess the expectations put on this rookie class.

With a similar number of picks, especially the clustering of high first- and second-rounders, it’s an easy leap to make in modeling the success of this year’s draft class after what the rookies did for the Seahawks last season.

The 2022 class broke the mold. That’s not happening again. There was plenty of roster churn and room for raw talent to win out, along with “URGENT: HELP WANTED” signs at positions like left tackle and cornerback.

Now, the Seahawks have leaped past those basic needs of simply filling out a roster. They’re in a spot where they can be selective in finding the right guys to upgrade the team. The luxury items and treat yourself purchases. There is currently not a single position lacking someone who started games at it last year, whether that was on the Seahawks or as a veteran somewhere else.

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The rookies are going to have to truly earn it. And if the expectation is that they make the same widespread and immediate impact as the 2022 class, then the class of 2023 is already behind where their counterparts were in the preseason.

Last year, Charles Cross, Tariq Woolen, Coby Bryant, and Ken Walker all started in the preseason opener, with Cross and Woolen starting the next two as well. Those were valuable reps that helped ease the acclimation process to the speed of the NFL game, and I’m not sure Seahawks head coach Pete Carroll (nor any coach) would start a rookie in Week 1 if he hadn’t played a single NFL snap yet.

I think we can get it out of the way that the tempering of expectations doesn’t apply to receiver Jaxon Smith-Njigba. We’ve seen the pure skill shine already, from his one-handed catch in practice to his preseason debut where he finished with three catches on four targets. He’s good, he’s ready to go. But what about everyone else?

There doesn’t seem to be a locked-in starter out of anyone else in this rookie class. The obvious one would have been cornerback Devon Witherspoon, but another injury to the same hamstring, and in a different spot, pushes back that timeline.

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On Saturday, at the Seahawks first practice after their preseason opener, Carroll said they were still unsure about Witherspoon’s return, but would re-evaluate this week. Doing some easy math here, you’re then already just a few days out from the second preseason game, with a guy who hasn’t practiced in a couple of weeks and with an injury that can linger.

At that point, you don’t risk reaggravation. But then Witherspoon would only have one more chance to get live NFL reps before the season begins.

It’s certainly possible, but this is also different from last season when your top draft pick was chosen at an area of immense need. The cornerback depth is enviable, and it will allow Witherspoon to learn by observing, rather than being thrown into the cauldron and trying to correct mistakes on the fly. If we’re making guesses right now about the starting cornerbacks in Week 1, it feels like Tariq Woolen and Mike Jackson on the outside, with Coby Bryant starting when the team goes into the nickel package.

Defensive lineman Cam Young is another rookie who it felt like had a significant chance to start due to the current lack of a nose tackle, but the Seahawks adjusted to that deficiency by simply sliding Jarran Reed into that position. That, coupled with Young missing the first preseason game due to a calf strain, kind of feels like a recalibration based on availability and what gives them the best chance at an NFL-ready defensive line heading into the first few weeks of the season.

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Reed sliding from defensive end to nose tackle does create an opening at a different position than originally expected, and it could open the door for the wild card of this rookie class, Mike Morris, to be a starter. The main factor working in his favor is easier barrier of entry than someone like Witherspoon is facing at their respective positions. Morris started at one of the end spots in the opener, with Roderick Perry, who played in two games as an undrafted free agent last year for the Browns, on the other side. When the season begins, Dre’Mont Jones will certainly lock down one of those spots, but the path is free right away for Morris to claim the other side.

So let’s put this all together with a tidy prediction on which rookies from the 2023 draft class are starters in Week 1:

Devon Witherspoon: No…injuries and too much depth in the secondary

Jaxon Smith-Njigba: Absolutely

Derick Hall: No…but eventually overtakes Darrell Taylor

Zach Charbonnet: No

Anthony Bradford: No

Cam Young: No…could soon work his way into that nose tackle spot with Reed back at defensive end

Mike Morris: Yes

Olu Oluwatimi: No…an established Evan Brown holds him off at the start

Jerrick Reed: No…too much depth in the secondary

Kenny McIntosh: No

One rookie will start, two or maybe three could be out there as well when the Seahawks take the field in Week 1 against the Rams.

That isn’t an indictment on the rookie class, rather a nod to the place the Seahawks are in relative to where they were a year ago at the dawn of the 2022 season. This rookie class is talented, and it will get the time it needs to develop. Competition brings out peak performances in everyone.

As the Seahawks go through the machinations of a season the best players will find their way onto the field, and don’t be surprised if that includes a few more rookies.

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Lefko: Temper expectations for Seahawks’ 2023 rookie class