2017 NFL Preview: Does this Seahawks core have one great run left?

Shutdown Corner

Shutdown Corner is previewing all 32 teams as we get ready for the NFL season, counting down the teams one per weekday in reverse order of our initial 2017 power rankings. No. 1 will be revealed on Aug. 2, the day before the Hall of Fame Game kicks off the preseason.

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The Seattle Seahawks have been a consistent force in the NFL for five seasons. They’ve won 56 games, three division titles, two NFC championships and a Super Bowl. For anyone but the New England Patriots, that’s great.

That run has come with mostly the same core of players. That also means the Seahawks are aging, at least in NFL terms.

Russell Wilson will be 29 years old during this season. Doug Baldwin will be 29, too. Jimmy Graham will be 31, as will Cliff Avril. Michael Bennett will turn 32. The three stars of the “Legion of Boom,” cornerback Richard Sherman and safeties Earl Thomas and Kam Chancellor, will be 29, 29 and 28 respectively. Linebacker Bobby Wagner is the young man of the group at just 27.

There’s some younger talent on the depth chart, and the Seahawks could get a few more years out of each of those stars. It’s not like they’re that old. But there should be some urgency. This great Seahawks run has an expiration date, and it might be coming sooner than we expect. Maybe we saw the first signs of a small decline last season.

The Seahawks weren’t the Seahawks last season. They were good but not dominant. Their point differential, which never slipped below plus-140 from 2012-15, was plus-62. Their final ranking at Football Outsiders, based on their DVOA per-play metric, was ninth in the NFL after finishing first four straight seasons. Three of the 2012-15 Seahawks teams finished among the 10 best teams Football Outsiders has ever tracked, which tracks back to 1989. On the surface the Seahawks had a fine year. They won 10 games, took the NFC West crown and won a playoff game. But last season was a significant step back for Seattle, which has set a really high bar. That continued in the playoffs. After winning a playoff game against a Detroit Lions team that was a fairly weak wild-card entry, the Seahawks were dismantled by the Atlanta Falcons. After Seattle scored the opening touchdown, the Falcons scored 26 of the next 29 points. These Seahawks have rarely been outmatched like they were against the Falcons.

Injuries, particularly ones to Wilson early and Thomas late, affected Seattle last season. That’s a reasonable excuse for some of the struggles (and “struggles” is relative, because most teams would be thrilled with the 2016 Seahawks’ season). The offseason drama, with Sherman trade rumors the team was happy to talk about and then a story that some defensive players resent how Wilson is treated, wasn’t a great sign. However, the outspoken Seahawks operate a bit differently than any other team, so it’s probably not as big of a deal as it might be elsewhere.

Nobody is figuring on the Seahawks fading away this season. However, it’s worth wondering if their run of truly dominant teams is over.

The best guess is the Seahawks still have one more run left in them, at least. The offensive line is bad, but Wilson is used to it. Perhaps Eddie Lacy and Thomas Rawls can replace what Marshawn Lynch did when Seattle was really clicking. Doug Baldwin has erased any doubts he’s a top receiver. The Seahawks still have a great defense.

When I termed the Seahawks a “dynasty” a couple years ago, some people scoffed. But in the current NFL, what Seattle has done over the past five years at least comes close to dynasty status. They’ve had an amazing run of great football. Another championship would solidify this Seahawks run as at least a mini-dynasty. If they’re going to get that second Super Bowl ring they might want to hurry, because we might have started to see some signs of decline.

Russell Wilson struggled with some injuries last season. (AP)
Russell Wilson struggled with some injuries last season. (AP)

I didn’t like the signing of offensive lineman Luke Joeckel. It was just one year and $8 million but there haven’t been any signs Joeckel is a good NFL lineman. We’ll see if Seattle can fix him. Running back Eddie Lacy was the only other signing of more than $2 million a year, and he’s a fine one-year flier at $4.25 million. I thought getting former Tampa Bay Buccaneers safety Bradley McDougald on a one-year, $1.8 million deal was smart. The Seahawks had no first-round pick, but perhaps the team’s second-round picks, defensive tackle Malik McDowell and center Ethan Pocic, play to that level. McDowell in particular is an intriguing talent. We all knew the Seahawks had to spend a ton to keep their stars together and it would affect their flexibility in free agency at some point. We’re seeing that now. Grade: D

The 2016 New England Patriots went 14-1, including playoffs, with Tom Brady in the lineup. Their one loss was at home to the Seahawks. That game, with Russell Wilson throwing for 348 yards and three touchdowns and the defense playing well and forcing a couple turnovers, was a reminder that Seattle can beat anyone. That Seahawks team wasn’t always on display last season, but that win showed what this group is capable of.

The Seahawks’ clear weakness is their offensive line. George Fant was inserted at left tackle during last season, and made his first start since pee-wee football. He didn’t play football in high school or his first four years at Western Kentucky, where he was a power forward before picking up football for a year at the end. Fant is an awesome, fun story, and it’s also incredible the Seahawks’ situation on the offensive line was so bad they had to turn to a power forward at left tackle. The signing of Jaguars first-round bust Luke Joeckel reinforces their belief that they can take average talent and have offensive line coach Tom Cable make them better. That approach hasn’t worked lately, and it’s a reason Russell Wilson is usually running for his life. The Seahawks’ line still looks poor on paper, and that’s the weakness of this team.

Russell Wilson suffered an ankle injury in Week 1, a knee injury in Week 3 that should have kept him out for multiple games (he never missed a start) and a pectoral injury in late October. It’s hard to say if or when he was healthy last season, though it’s fair to say he definitely wasn’t healthy in the first couple months. That’s why it’s meaningful to look at what Wilson did from November on. In those nine games he threw 16 touchdowns with nine interceptions, with 2,407 yards. If you take out two clunkers against the Buccaneers and Packers, he had 15 touchdowns and two interceptions. After posting 44 rushing yards in Seattle’s first seven games, he had 215 in the last nine. While you can’t just ignore the bad games, especially late in the season, Wilson should earn the benefit of the doubt by now. When he was reasonably healthy he usually played very well. Assuming he’s healthy (and Seattle’s offensive line might prevent that), Wilson should again be among the best quarterbacks in football.

Don’t underestimate how the loss of safety Earl Thomas affected the defense late last season. Thomas looks like a future Hall of Famer, and his presence allows Seattle’s defense to be very aggressive in front of him. Thomas roams the middle and erases plenty of mistakes because he’s smart and can get to any deep pass. Thomas broke his leg last season, an injury so devastating he considered retiring. There’s no reason to believe Thomas won’t be back to his normal self, and with him back the Seahawks’ fantastic defense gets even better.

From Yahoo Sports’ Liz Loza: “I may want my six-month-old to sleep through the night, but that doesn’t mean she won’t wake the whole household screaming at 3 a.m. Similarly, Seattle would like to make C.J. Prosise their primary pass-catching back, but a few glaring impediments exist. Most notably, the presence of Tyler Lockett. Both gadget players have an over-lapping skill set, which means these two tyros may cannibalize each other’s opportunities. Given the number of red flags (adding o-line efficacy, inexperience and durability concerns to the pile), I don’t plan on reaching for Prosise.”

[Pressing Questions: Fantasy outlook on the Seahawks]

The Seahawks had a pretty easy schedule last season, and it gets even easier this year. According to football analyst Warren Sharp, who uses Las Vegas over/under win total projections to determine strength of schedule, the Seahawks have the second-easiest schedule in the NFL (Jacksonville has the easiest). Seattle plays only four games against teams Las Vegas projects to be in the top 10, Sharp said. Seattle might not be the same dominant team it was early in its run, but an exceptionally soft schedule means they’re a great bet to get back to the playoffs.

How good are the Seahawks’ skill position players?

The emergence of Doug Baldwin as a legitimate No. 1 receiver over the last two seasons has been a huge boost to the offense. So was the reemergence of tight end Jimmy Graham as one of the best tight ends in the NFL. Graham’s 923 yards ranked third among NFL tight ends. There are two big questions, however: Can the Eddie Lacy/Thomas Rawls combination revive a running game that slipped last season without Marshawn Lynch? And who steps up as a No. 2 receiver after Baldwin? Lacy was very good his first two seasons but injuries and conditioning have hampered him the last two seasons. Rawls had a surprising rookie season but last season wasn’t as good, as he was working back from a serious leg injury and then fractured his fibula in Week 2. Both backs are capable of big things, but they both have major questions. Receiver Tyler Lockett could be a great complement alongside Baldwin, but suffered a serious leg injury last season that could affect his speed and quickness. Jermaine Kearse and Paul Richardson will have to step up if Lockett doesn’t come back strong.

Seattle has the talent to win a Super Bowl. If we assume last year’s slump was due to Russell Wilson’s injuries early in the season and Earl Thomas’ absence late, we can talk ourselves into Seattle jumping right back to its 2012-15 levels. This is a team that went on the road and beat the Patriots last season. This is still a championship contender.

Russell Wilson should have sat out some games last season with his injuries. He’s tough, and the Seahawks were a bit lucky he didn’t suffer an injury he couldn’t play through. However, Wilson’s injury issues didn’t scare the team into a major overhaul of the offensive line. For almost any team, the true worst-case scenario involves a quarterback injury. Because of the Seahawks’ line, it’s a real worry for Seattle. If Wilson goes down, backup Trevone Boykin isn’t keeping the Seahawks near the top of the NFC. Maybe there’s another worst-case scenario that involves many of the Seahawks’ older veterans hitting a wall at the same time, but the biggest concern is Wilson playing behind a leaky offensive line.

I like the Arizona Cardinals to be better than last season, but a soft schedule makes the Seahawks a runaway favorite in the NFC West. Winning a division title is not the goal for the Seahawks, however. The Seahawks have the elite talent to go on another long playoff run. It’s crucial for the Seahawks to get home-field advantage (a Week 1 game at the Green Bay Packers might end up being very important in that race) because Seattle is always tough to beat at home. Seattle is capable of winning enough games with a favorable schedule to get the No. 1 seed. I’m not picking them to get the NFC’s best record because I think a few teams have passed them by, but it’s still a dangerous team that will be better than it was last season.

32. New York Jets
31. Cleveland Browns
30. San Francisco 49ers
29. Chicago Bears
28. Los Angeles Rams
27. Jacksonville Jaguars
26. Detroit Lions
25. Houston Texans
24. Buffalo Bills
23. Indianapolis Colts
22. Baltimore Ravens
21. Los Angeles Chargers
20. Minnesota Vikings
19. New Orleans Saints
18. Washington Redskins
17. Philadelphia Eagles
16. Miami Dolphins
15. Cincinnati Bengals
14. Tampa Bay Buccaneers
13. Arizona Cardinals
12. Denver Broncos
11. Tennessee Titans
10. Carolina Panthers
9. Oakland Raiders
8. Kansas City Chiefs
7. New York Giants

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Frank Schwab is the editor of Shutdown Corner on Yahoo Sports. Have a tip? Email him at shutdown.corner@yahoo.com or follow him on Twitter!

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