This article is part of our Team Previews series.
The Seahawks look re-energized after last year's turbulent season. With key players in their primes, a potentially explosive offense and perhaps the league's best defense, it's Super Bowl or bust in 2016. Thomas Rawls' health and the O-line's development will help determine how good this team can be.
THREE KEY STORY LINES
NEW-LOOK OFFENSE HERE TO STAY
After allowing sacks on a league-high 11.7 percent of dropbacks through Week 7 last season, the Seahawks had to find a way to keep QB Russell Wilson from getting killed. The answer was a quick-strike passing game with fewer deep dropbacks and faster reads, designed to get the ball out of Wilson's hands in minimal time. Not only did it keep Wilson upright, it led to an offensive explosion. From Week 11 on, Seattle gave up 13 sacks, at a 5.5-percent clip (23rd overall), while Wilson threw an NFL-high 24 touchdowns and an NFL-low one interception. In addition, premier marks in yards per attempt (8.78, second) and completion percentage (71.0, third) generated a 132.8 passer rating that dwarfed all quarterbacks. The main beneficiary was WR Doug Baldwin, who gathered in 75.4 percent of his targets at 10.2 YPT and an NFL-high 11 TDs in that span. Of utmost importance was the resulting 32 points per game, which was good for second-most in the league. Although Seattle may not keep up that pace in 2016, the scheme could be thrust upon Wilson due to an arguably-worse offensive line.
RAWLS TO THE RESCUE REPLACING BEAST MODE
An undrafted free agent, Thomas Rawls' dramatic emergence last season made Marshawn Lynch's retirement a little easier to swallow. Rawls impressed in training camp, and when Lynch got injured, he picked up almost where Lynch left off. In his first six starts, Rawls averaged 118.7 yards rushing per game and scored five touchdowns. Running with a similar tenacity and determination as Lynch, Rawls also led the league with 5.65 yards per carry, which included 2.5 yards after contact (tied for first). Rawls' breakout came to an abrupt end in Week 14, though, when he broke a weight-bearing bone and tore ligaments in his left ankle. The potential exists for the back end of his recovery to extend into training camp, pushing the Seahawks to re-up Christine Michael and draft three running backs after Lynch's decision was evident. The reality of the situation could serve to dampen Rawls' ADP, but he's the presumptive starting RB, when healthy. Additionally, during the late-season aerial display, Seattle rushed on 50.1 percent of plays, compared to 46.8 percent the rest of the season, partially explaining his own rise.
DEFENSE LOOKS TO KEEP DOMINATING
The Seahawks, under their third coordinator in four seasons, got off on the wrong foot last year as S Kam Chancellor held out the first two games. Furthermore, free-agent addition Cary Williams was such a liability at cornerback that he was released midseason, but not before the Seahawks blew fourth-quarter leads in five of six losses. In the end, the defense found its footing, joining the 1950 Browns as the only teams in NFL history to allow the fewest points in four consecutive seasons. The unit also finished first against the run and second against the pass. Per usual, the D lost key contributors to free agency, but LB Bruce Irvin and NT Brandon Mebane are replaceable, even if they'll be missed. The Legion of Boom will accept back an original member (CB Brandon Browner) in an uncertain role, while DE Chris Clemons brings pass-rushing depth to the D-line. Seattle rounded out the offseason with the selection of run-stuffing DT Jarran Reed (6-3, 307 pounds) in the second round of the draft. Of utmost importance is the health of DBs Richard Sherman and Earl Thomas, who will enter camp without so much as a nick.
KEY JOB BATTLE
With Marshawn Lynch retired and Thomas Rawls still recovering from a season-ending broken left ankle, the Seahawks drafted three running backs to join holdover Christine Michael. Third-round pick C.J. Prosise is expected to fill the third-down role, leaving Michael to battle fifth-rounder Alex Collins for early down work should Rawls not be ready. The Seahawks will likely ease in Rawls during training camp, giving Prosise, Collins and Michael a chance to emerge as the bonafide backup and/or injury replacement. Meanwhile, seventh-round pick Zac Brooks has an uphill battle to make the roster. The Seahawks are still a run-first offense, and shoring up the position in camp will be priority No. 1.
If Seattle is to reach a third Super Bowl in four years, it will be by the arm, legs and guts of Wilson. Despite getting sacked 45 times last season – or tied for third-most in the NFL – he still ranked in the top 4 in yards per attempt, completion percentage and TD:INT ratio. The task may be difficult, though, behind an offensive line with perhaps five new starters.
RISING: Tyler Lockett
A dynamic returner, Lockett's role expanded in the final seven games last season, as he caught 30 of 40 targets for 404 yards and five TDs. Don't expect six targets per game again, but he looks poised for a bigger role.
FALLING: Jimmy Graham
Graham is uncertain for the start of the season thanks to a knee injury, and his role remains up in the air after last season's struggles. For where he should be drafted, though, he can only provide upside to owners.
SLEEPER: C.J. Prosise
Formerly a wideout, Prosise is the favorite for the third-down reps, and if Thomas Rawls struggles in his return from a season-ending fractured ankle, Prosise could see even more opportunities. Prosise makes for a great late-round flier.
THE INJURY FRONT
Thomas Rawls, RB – The Seahawks are confident Rawls will be ready for Week 1 after spending the offseason rehabbing his left ankle, but he's not expected to play much, if at all, in preseason, which means drafting him requires a bit of faith.
Jimmy Graham, TE – Graham is coming off a season-ending torn patellar tendon in his right knee, a notoriously difficult injury from which to return. Coach Pete Carroll said he "absolutely" expects Graham to be ready for Week 1, but it wouldn't be surprising if he needs more time. His effectiveness when he does finally return is another matter.
PAUL RICHARDSON, WR – Richardson was supposed to be the deep threat in the passing game, but both of the last two seasons ended with injuries. Now Tyler Lockett figures to fill the the role, leaving Richardson both having to prove he's not injury prone and that he still has something to offer the offense.
BOBBY WAGNER, LB – Wagner is a somewhat underrated playmaker with 4.46 speed who only needs a bit of health to put up elite IDP numbers. In a full season, 130 tackles and a couple sacks is his floor.
MICHAEL BENNETT, DE – Bennett had a career year in 2015 with 52 tackles and 10 sacks and should finish in that range again this year. He played 808 snaps last season, but even if he plays fewer this year, the extra rest likely will benefit him on the field.
Earl Thomas, FS – Thomas' tackles dropped to 64 last season, more than 30 fewer than in 2014. He offset that somewhat with five interceptions. Expect a bounce-back in tackles, as he had 105 and 97 the previous two years.
C.J. Prosise – RB (Rd. 3, No. 90 – Notre Dame)
Expected to play on third down; insurance for Rawls.
Chris Clemons – DE (from Jaguars)
Returns to Seahawks to add depth to defensive line.
Brandon Browner – CB (from Saints)
Reunites original LOB, but uncertain how much he has to offer.
GERMAIN IFEDI – G (Rd. 1, No. 31 –Texas A&M)
Seahawks need immediate returns to bolster weak O-line.
Marshawn Lynch – RB (retired)
Beast Mode leaves a big hole in offense and locker room.
Bruce Irvin – LB (to Raiders)
Salary cap made it difficult to re-sign 2012 first-round pick.
RUSSELL OKUNG – OT (to Broncos)
Not a surprise team let oft-injured left tackle walk.