When the 2012 season started, the Seahawks’ main goal was to get rookie Russell Wilson adapted to the NFL while staying in contention for a playoff spot.
With a strong running game and defense, the Hawks figured to be no worse than a nine-win team. Anything more than that would depend on how Wilson developed.
As it turned out, he developed more quickly than anyone could have hoped and, as the defense faltered in the second half, Wilson and the running game carried the team to an 11-5 record.
Then, with the running game shut down last week in Atlanta, the rookie nearly carried the Hawks to a comeback win and NFC title game appearance.
It was a disappointing end to a fantastic season, to be sure, but the Seahawks’ last-second loss to the Falcons showed the Hawks are close to being true Super Bowl contenders.
With his heroic performance, Wilson proved once and for all that the Hawks have the quarterback to win it all.
The loss in Atlanta was tempered by the feeling that the Seahawks — led by Pete Carroll and Wilson — are here to stay.
They are well positioned for a great offseason and, if all goes well, could make a big push to knock off the 49ers for the NFC West title next season and perhaps gain a first-round bye and home playoff game — something that would have helped them immensely this season.
The Hawks have over $18 million in cap space and will have as many as 12 draft picks, with no major free agents of their own.
Here are the offseason priorities:
1) Fortify the defensive line. Read about that in detail here.
2) Try to trade Matt Flynn. Read about that possibility here.
3) Figure out their guard situation.
Despite rotating guards for most of the season and using four combinations, the Hawks were third in rushing at 161 yards per game. But they need to figure out who they want to start on either side of All-Pro center Max Unger.
They have not given up on 2011 first-round pick James Carpenter at left guard.
Carpenter was shut down for the season in early December but is expected to be ready for the offseason program in March.
“He absolutely should be healthy. There’s no reason not to be physically right,” Carroll told reporters last week. “We’re going to be off for like three months or something. And he’ll be in great shape. That’s a really important project for us. James is a really dynamic blocker. And he gives us a different dimension of just force and thrust off the football. And we would love to have him playing for us.”
GM John Schneider told KJR-AM: “We feel like he has a very bright future at left guard.”
Then the Hawks need to decide what to do at right guard. Do they want to bank on J.R. Sweezy or John Moffitt getting better? Do they want to keep journeyman veteran Paul McQuistan in there? Or do they want to find a free agent to bolster the spot?
4) Add a wide receiver to their thin corps.
The Hawks have just three somewhat dependable receivers, but none would qualify as a No. 1 wideout. Sidney Rice led the way with 50 catches for 748 yards, and Golden Tate caught 45 balls for 688 yards. Each scored seven touchdowns. Doug Baldwin had a slow first half of the season but finished with 28 catches for 366 yards and three scores.
When the Hawks signed Rice to a five-year, $41 million deal in 2011, they hoped he would become the big-play threat. But injuries have limited him since he got to Seattle, and he has not been a consistent weapon. Part of it has been the fact that he has not had steady QB play, but Wilson was very good in the second half of this season, and Rice was hobbled by a bum knee.
If the Hawks wanted to spend some cash on a blazer, the speedy Mike Wallace could be an option. But they have invested so much money in receivers over the last decade (e.g., Deion Branch, T.J. Houshmandzadeh, Rice), that just seems like a bad road to go down.
Rice is due to make $8.5 million in 2013, but it is easy to see them giving him the mandate they have given many players: “Take a pay cut or take a hike, pal.” They could save about $6 million by letting him go.
Or they could keep Rice for another year and add cheaper backups through free agency and the draft.
One game-breaking type receiver they could target is West Virginia’s do-everything jitterbug, Tavon Austin. He’s the kind of guy who would fit the Carrneider philosophy of picking a player with unique skills and then finding ways to use him.
5) Upgrade at linebacker.
The Hawks need to find a weakside linebacker to replace Leroy Hill, unless they think Malcolm Smith can do it.
It’s still stunning that Hill has outlasted Lofa Tatupu, Julian Peterson and Aaron Curry in Seattle. But the Hawks didn’t lose much, if anything, when Smith stepped in for Hill this season, so it is easy to see the 30-year-old finally leaving.
The Hawks could go big money at this position for versatility, bringing in a pass-rush guy like Dallas’ Anthony Spencer or Baltimore’s Paul Kruger. Or they could just see what they find in the draft, where they have done well with Bobby Wagner (second round) and K.J. Wright (fourth) the last two years.
Rutgers’ Khaseem Greene is being mentioned as a strong possibility by respected Seahawks draft bloggers Derek Stephens and Rob Staton.
6) Add another cornerback.
Marcus Trufant has gotten a step slow at age 32, and Walter Thurmond and Byron Maxwell cannot stay healthy, so the Hawks have to find a solution at nickel back.
Jeremy Lane, a sixth-round pick last year, was OK as a rookie and figures to get a chance to be the third corner. But Carroll loves his DBs and can always use another one — especially if they can find a guy who has the same measurables as Richard Sherman and Brandon Browner.
7) Time to get a real kicker.
Steven Hauschka simply does not have the range for an NFL kicker — he is far too inconsistent from beyond 50 (3 of 8 in two seasons with Seattle). He’s a free agent, and it wouldn’t be surprising to see the Hawks find someone else.
They signed Carson Wiggs, who was with them in camp last year, and they surely will add another kicker or two to the mix.
8) Extend some contracts.
Schneider told KJR-AM that he already has talked to players the team wants to extend, so the groundwork has been laid.
The key players with contracts expiring after 2013: SS Kam Chancellor, OT Breno Giacomini, CB Brandon Browner (RFA), FB Michael Robinson, WR Golden Tate, OG Paul McQuistan, CB Walter Thurmond, TE Anthony McCoy.
Chancellor is the one guy on that list who might merit an extension, but the Hawks don’t need to overpay him — $4 million a year seems like more than enough.
Tate had a very eventful season, but he needs to continue his development. If the Hawks could lock him up for $2 million a year for another four years, that would be a good deal. Otherwise, let him earn more next season.
Giacomini has been a nice find on the right side, and the Hawks would do well to keep him. He is finishing a two-year deal that is paying him $6 million, and he probably would merit a raise to $4 million a year. But the Hawks certainly could wait until after the season.
Robinson and the rest don’t need to be dealt with until next year.
UFA: DT Alan Branch, DL Jason Jones, LB Leroy Hill, CB Marcus Trufant, TE Cam Morrah, OT Frank Omiyale, K Steven Hauschka.
RFA: Clint Gresham, Chris Maragos, Clinton McDonald.
Around $18 million
Fifth for LB Aaron Curry (2011 trade to Oakland)
Seventh for QB Tarvaris Jackson (2012 trade to Buffalo)
Seventh for LB Barrett Ruud (2012 trade to New Orleans)
Possible sixth and seventh comp picks for Charlie Whitehurst and Atari Bigby signing with San Diego