Seattle Seahawks

High expectations come with valid concerns for Seahawks

Seattle Seahawks quarterback Russell Wilson (3) stands with tackle Garry Gilliam, left,, offensive tackle Justin Britt (68) and linebacker Mike Morgan (57) in the Levi's Stadium tunnel before an NFL football game against the San Francisco 49ers in Santa Clara, Calif., Thursday, Nov. 27, 2014.
Seattle Seahawks quarterback Russell Wilson (3) stands with tackle Garry Gilliam, left,, offensive tackle Justin Britt (68) and linebacker Mike Morgan (57) in the Levi's Stadium tunnel before an NFL football game against the San Francisco 49ers in Santa Clara, Calif., Thursday, Nov. 27, 2014. AP

Here are five areas of uncertainty that could determine the Seahawks’ 2015 fortunes:

Can the Seahawks fit together another makeshift offensive line well enough to generate offense?

The 2014 Seahawks started four different centers and a rookie at right tackle but led the NFL in rushing by nearly 1 yard per carry. They could afford to dip somewhat and still have the best rushing attack in the league. With powerful running back Marshawn Lynch (1,306 yards) and elusive quarterback Russell Wilson (849 rushing yards) at top form, the Hawks averaged 5.3 yards a carry. No. 2 was Dallas, at 4.6 YPC. (In contrast, Dallas backs operated behind a line loaded with first-round draft picks.) The group of young and unproven offensive linemen Seattle used this preseason is not bad at rush blocking. Pass protection is another matter — the toughest thing to learn for young linemen in the NFL. Wilson has been sacked 119 times in his three seasons, and he has avoided at least as many with timely scrambles. It has been tough to develop timing and continuity in the passing game with that kind of pressure. The bigger question for the team’s future is: How long can Wilson stay healthy while taking that many hits?

Will Jimmy Graham significantly improve the Seahawks offense?

Getting Graham in trade from the New Orleans Saints was expensive — a first-round pick and center Max Unger. Unger was the anchor of the offensive line, and his departure leaves them weaker at their most susceptible unit. But the 6-foot-7 Graham is a rare commodity: A proven big-play receiver who can score touchdowns, particularly in the tight confines of the red zone. During training camp, Wilson and Graham often took extra reps after practice working on the intricate timing of red zone routes. The Hawks pass only about two-thirds as often as the Saints, so Graham will get fewer targets. But even discounting one-third from his production last season, that would still give him about 58 catches for seven touchdowns — record territory for Seattle tight ends. Graham worked on becoming a more convincing blocker during the preseason. That will be good enough because his job is to catch passes and score touchdowns. And the added benefit is that he will force defenses to account for him, creating more space for the other receivers, and taking some of the defensive focus off Lynch. Another bonus: When Wilson is under pressure, Graham is always an attractive bailout, as he can go up and pull in the occasional chuck-and-duck pass.

Is the separation still in the preparation for Russell Wilson?

It’s entirely fair for even the biggest fan to wonder if a man on so many magazine covers, attending so many celebrity functions, and shilling for so many companies can still be the first player in the building for predawn film studies. In the preseason, his timing seemed off and his accuracy questionable. That was a small sample with no blocking, so it’s no cause for great alarm. But will teams figure him out? Are they arriving at tactics that will better hem him in to the pocket and control his scrambles? The defensive approach of taking shots at quarterbacks when they are vulnerable on read-option runs could cause coach Pete Carroll to steer away from what has been an effective series of plays. Wilson’s passer rating in 2014 was the lowest of his career, dipping to 95.0 after peaking at 101.2 in 2013 and starting at 100.0 when he was a rookie. His rushing yards ballooned to 849 last season, though, with a league-high average of better than 7 yards a try. Wilson found time in the busy offseason to improve his speed. That will help him find open space and also get out of bounds quicker when being pursued. He earned his big contract extension. Now we see if it changes him.

Can the ‘Legion of Boom’ improve?

The statistics tell an interesting story but one that requires context. In 2014, Seattle’s interception total plummeted from 28 (in 2013) to 13. And opponent passer rating improved from 63.4 to 80.4. That’s a huge slide for a team that had three of four secondary players earn All-Pro honors. First, they faced better quarterbacks last season, particularly early, when Aaron Rodgers, Philip Rivers, Peyton Manning and Tony Romo trotted out against them in the first five weeks. Wise offensive coordinators discovered the effectiveness of underneath, short routes against the Seahawks’ zones. They also surrendered to the obvious: If you test Richard Sherman, sooner or later, it’s going to cost you. This is a systemic issue, though, as pressure on the passer leads to interceptions. Sacks dropped last season from 44 to 37. One of the all-time great ball-hawking units in 2013 was much less threatening last year, with takeaways nosediving from 39 to 24. The health of Earl Thomas and contract situation with Kam Chancellor can largely influence this year’s prospects. It also will be interesting to see the philosophy of new defensive coordinator Kris Richard. The suspicion is they’ll blitz more, particularly with linebackers Bobby Wagner and K.J. Wright, two good finishers. The addition of rookie Frank Clark might be a factor, too, when used inside on passing downs alongside Michael Bennett, with speedy Cliff Avril and Bruce Irvin on the edges.

Can any of the rookies come in and immediately help?

Last season, the Hawks got so little from their draft picks, with the 16 starts by right tackle Justin Britt standing out as the rare input. This season’s group, though, could have an immediate impact. The most exciting, certainly, is rookie receiver/returner Tyler Lockett, who scored touchdowns on kick and punt returns in two of his first three exhibition games. The Hawks didn’t score on a special teams return in 2014. The Hawks traded up in the third round to get Lockett from Kansas State, and he looked like a bargain in the preseason. As a bonus, he appears to be a legitimate receiver — he hauled in a 63-yard TD pass from Wilson in the exhibition finale against Oakland. The Hawks’ most controversial pick was Michigan defensive lineman Frank Clark, who was taken off some draft boards because of off-field issues. Clark has been a star in the preseason, with a variety of skills that should translate well to the regular season. He’s strong enough to have an effective bull rush, quick enough to get after the passer, and motivated enough to hustle from sideline to sideline in pursuit. Some young offensive linemen may provide depth and hopes for the future, but Lockett and Clark will pay off from the start.

Related stories from Tacoma News Tribune