2016 NFL Preview: Seahawks move on after 'Beast Mode'

Shutdown Corner is previewing all 32 teams as we get ready for the NFL season, counting down the teams one per day in reverse order of our initial 2016 power rankings. No. 1 will be revealed on Aug. 6, the day before the Hall of Fame Game kicks off the preseason.

The Seattle Seahawks built an identity, and it has been incredibly successful.

The Seahawks play physical, stifling defense and then Marshawn Lynch would run through the opponents’ faces over and over and over and over and over and … (if you don’t know what I’m talking about, this NSFW quote from Lynch will explain).

The Lynch era is over. He hung up his cleats and retired. Now the Seahawks have to decide who they are moving forward.

The defense is still great. Free agency has chipped away at some of the incredible depth the Seahawks had when they destroyed the Denver Broncos in Super Bowl XLVIII, but it’s still one of the two or three best in the NFL. The offense has to choose a path though.

The Seahawks got to experiment last year. Lynch missed nine games in 2015. And quarterback Russell Wilson took his play to a new level. He had 24 touchdowns and one interception in a seven-game stretch to end the season. He had a 132.6 rating in that stretch, according to ESPN. That’s not just a great run, it’s one of the greatest runs in the history of the NFL. If you thought before last season Wilson was just an OK quarterback who happened to land on a great team, you were proven wrong.

The Seahawks have an interesting dilemma. They could morph into a pass-heavy team now that Wilson has shown he can be an MVP-level quarterback. But the Seahawks have an identity, and it’s not Wilson throwing it all over the field like he’s Drew Brees. Lynch’s tenacity and violence set a tone for the entire team.

Greg Cosell of NFL Films likes to look at a team’s draft and decipher what type of team they’re trying to build. In the Seahawks’ case, after seeing Wilson get white hot for two months, they drafted like a run-first team. They took massive guard Germain Ifedi in the first round, then took running backs in the third, fifth and seventh rounds. They also took a guard in the third round and a center in the sixth. Does that sound like a draft of a team that is turning into a pass-first offense?

[Yahoo Fantasy Football is open for the 2016 season. Sign up now]

Whatever the Seahawks do, they’ll probably do it well. Seattle was better than you remember last season. They were excellent in about every category. In Football Outsiders’ DVOA per-play metric, Seattle finished first in offense, fourth in defense and third in special teams. They were Football Outsiders’ top team overall. Seattle was the top team in the ratings of USA Today’s Jeff Sagarin too. The Seahawks outscored teams by 146 points. They lost seven games all season, including playoffs, and six were by seven or fewer points. The only time they lost by more than one score, they led in the fourth quarter at the Green Bay Packers. The Packers got an insurance field goal with 1:56 left and won by 10. The Seahawks struggled a bit early on when safety Kam Chancellor was holding out, but were excellent most of the season.

The Seahawks were stuck in a tough spot in the playoffs, playing an early (10 a.m. Pacific kickoff) divisional-round game on the East Coast a week after a brutally cold wild-card game at the Minnesota Vikings. They slogged through 25 awful minutes at the start of that divisional-round game at the Carolina Panthers. Seattle fell behind 31-0, then outscored the Panthers 24-0 the rest of the way. But Seattle’s comeback ran out of time and its season was over.

It might look like Seattle took a tiny step back last season, at 10-6, but don’t be fooled. They’re as good as ever. Assuming Thomas Rawls is healthy and can replace Lynch, or someone else can do it, and Wilson holds onto most of the gains he made late last season, Seattle can win another Super Bowl.

We just don’t know if they’ll have a new offensive identity this time around.

Russell Wilson is coming off a fantastic 2015 (AP)
Russell Wilson is coming off a fantastic 2015 (AP)

When you have the deepest roster in the NFL, it’s tough to hold onto your core guys without losing too much depth. The Seahawks couldn’t be big players in free agency because most of their stars ate up cap space with big extensions. So the Seahawks didn’t add much, and lost key pieces of their championship teams like outside linebacker Bruce Irvin, offensive tackle Russell Okung, defensive tackle Brandon Mebane and guard J.R. Sweezy. Irvin is the biggest loss among that group. And, of course, Marshawn Lynch retired after a borderline Hall-of-Fame career. Grade: D

The Seahawks have been remarkably good and consistent over the past four seasons. If not for a last-second field goal at the Atlanta Falcons at the end of the 2012 season and Malcolm Butler’s interception (after a questionable play call) two seasons ago, we’re probably looking at an undisputed dynasty. The window hasn’t closed yet, either. Russell Wilson becoming an MVP-level quarterback last season gives the Seahawks a new gear headed into this season.

The offensive line is a bit scary. Russell Okung struggled with injuries the past few years, but he’s still a talented left tackle and the Seahawks didn’t do much to replace him. The line gave up way too many sacks early in the season (an incredible 31 in their first seven games), forcing the Seahawks to incorporate more quick throws to compensate for the line. That formula led to success for Russell Wilson, but it doesn’t mean the line’s issues have been fixed. If anything can derail the Seahawks it’s their below-average line.

Russell Wilson’s contract looks like a sound investment after his play in 2015. The Seahawks must figure if Wilson goes down they’re toast no matter who replaces him, so they have no need to invest in a backup. The Seahawks currently have undrafted rookie Trevone Boykin as the backup. The third-stringer is Jake Heaps, who was undrafted in 2015 and played with a semi-pro team last season. And that’s it. Tarvaris Jackson’s legal issues mean he’s no sure thing to come back, even in an emergency situation. Boykin was a good college player at TCU and Heaps was a big-time recruit out of high school a long time ago, but no team in the NFL has a worse backup quarterback situation. Unless they made a late acquisition, the Seahawks would be in big trouble if Wilson misses any time.

A year ago, everyone figured Jimmy Graham would reshape the Seahawks’ offense. Seattle traded a first-round pick and center Max Unger for Graham, one of the most talented players in the NFL. It didn’t work out last season. Seattle never seemed to figure out how to use Graham, and then he tore his patellar tendon on Nov. 29. That’s a tough injury to come back from.

What do the Seahawks have with Graham now? He started training camp on the physically unable to perform list, though there is some optimism he’ll be ready early in the season. But he’s a wild card. Will he be anywhere near his old form? Even if he is, can the Seahawks use him in a more effective way? If Graham plays anywhere near the level he was at with the New Orleans Saints, it would be a huge boost to the Seahawks’ offense. But it’s impossible to say whether he’ll ever return to that form.

“Tackle remains a position that’s a little up in the air right now, but when you have a quarterback like Russell Wilson, it gets back to the Drew Brees conversation. It’s more important to be really strong and fortified with your two guards and your center so Russell Wilson has functional space in front of him with which to deliver the ball. He is an over-the-top thrower, so a quarterback who is not quite 5-11, he throws more like he’s 6-1 or 6-2. So it’s important to have the interior of the line really strong.”

[Click here for Greg Cosell’s podcast previewing the Seahawks and the rest of the NFC West.]

From Yahoo’s Brandon Funston: “Thomas Rawls averaged 5.6 yards per carry as a rookie. That was more than half a yard better than any other running back that handled 100 carries or more. And Rawls’ physical, pinball style is like predecessor Marshawn Lynch, making him a perfect fit for the Hawks’ brand of offensive football. If Rawls was 100 percent healthy entering 2016, you could argue he should be a top-10 running back on preseason draft boards. However, he’s on the PUP list and his status for Week 1 still remains a question mark. The fear of the unknown has dropped his stock into the back end of the top 20 running backs in current drafts. But Rawls and head coach Pete Carroll have been adamant that Rawls will be ready to go when the regular season starts. And if that’s the case, fantasy owners will definitely want to reach a little bit higher for him on draft day.”

[Yahoo Fantasy Football is open for the 2016 season. Sign up now]

Through Doug Baldwin’s first four-and-a-half seasons, he was a consistent, solid receiver. He never had more than 66 catches, 825 yards or five touchdowns in a season and halfway through last year, he was at about that same pace. Then he became an entirely different player. He had 47 catches, 724 yards and 12 touchdowns in Seattle’s last eight games. The Seahawks rewarded him with a four-year, $46 million contract. Baldwin can’t keep up that pace, especially the scoring, but even if he’s comes close he’ll be one of the NFL’s best receivers. It’s hard to tell if Baldwin just had a hot streak or that’s his new level going forward, but he’s just 27 years old and it wouldn’t be a surprise if he and Russell Wilson continue their success together this season.

WHO IS THE MOST VALUABLE PLAYER ON THE SEAHAWKS DEFENSE?

The Seahawks have many great players on defense, like defensive ends Michael Bennett and Cliff Avril, linebacker Bobby Wagner, cornerback Richard Sherman and safeties Kam Chancellor and Earl Thomas. So I asked NFL Films’ Greg Cosell who he thought was the most valuable among Seattle’s defensive players, and here was his answer:

“It’s funny you ask that because not this summer, but last summer I was watching film of their defense and thought the same thing. I got in touch with [Atlanta Falcons coach and former Seahawks defensive coordinator] Dan Quinn, who is obviously no longer there but was there, and his answer was Earl Thomas.

“The reason he said Earl Thomas is he said he’s so good at erasing any mistake that’s made in front of him, that you never have to worry about a big play occurring because of mistakes that are made. In his mind it was Earl Thomas because he’s the eraser.

“He’s the best free safety in the NFL, but he’s got more than free safety skills because he’s a strong tackler and can play downhill very, very effectively.”

Another Super Bowl would lift the Seahawks to a new level historically. Two titles and the nearest miss in Super Bowl history would be a pretty amazing four-year run. And the Seahawks can win another Super Bowl. Very few teams can match Seattle’s excellence on both sides of the ball.

What if the Seahawks are the second-best team in the NFL, but also the second-best team in their division? It’s possible. Teams have won a Super Bowl as a wild card before, but it’s hard. Seattle won’t fall off a cliff unless Russell Wilson gets hurt, but that’s the case for most NFL teams and their quarterback. But any legitimate Super Bowl contender can never be too sure when the window will close, and Seattle has to feel some urgency.

I think the Seahawks will be one of the best wild-card teams in NFL history. It’s incredible that they had to battle a very good San Francisco 49ers team in the NFC West at the beginning of their run, and when the 49ers fell off a cliff the Arizona Cardinals stepped right up to challenge them. Although I’m not currently picking the Seahawks to win the NFC West, it wouldn’t surprise me if they won a Super Bowl. They’re that good (and so is Arizona). It has been a joy to watch this Seahawks team the past few years and I’d love to see them make another deep run.

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

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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!