DF: I think Hasselbeck and Alexander will enjoy results a bit more like their 2005 seasons than 2006, when both players had disappointing campaigns due to factors that were not entirely theirs to control. Both players were grateful beneficiaries of Seattle's 2005 offensive line – the best in he NFL that season – and both players suffered behind the 2006 line that was so much less effective. There was a reasonable, if unspectacular, commitment made to the offensive line in the offseason, and I'd expect a league-average line in 2007. I'd expect a bit more out of Hasselbeck than Alexander, though.
Hasselbeck has the knowledge of the offense needed for an excellent rebound season; he also has the picket presence needed when enemy defenses are closing in. He's got a quality stable of receivers, as well. My only concern is that I'm not sure what his other outlets will be – the tight end position is a big question mark, and for a supposedly prototypical West Coast Offense team, Seattle does not throw to its running backs very often or with much effectiveness.
Alexander could still have a few good years left, but I really think he'll need to be used differently. In my opinion, he's at that stage (he'll turn 30 before the regular season starts) where he needs to be platooned, and probably given more looks as a receiver out of the backfield. He used to do that reasonably well – Shaun averaged 48 catches per season from 2001 through 2003, but his catches have decreased every season since 2002. Backs whose touches are more reasonably divided between rushes and catches are more productive, and their careers generally last longer. Mike Nolan knows this, because Frank Gore led the 49ers in receptions last year. Can he still be great? Sure. However, I think his MVP days are behind him.
CM: After losing Steve Hutchinson last year, how much will the offensive line miss Robbie Tobeck, and for that matter, what about Jerramy Stevens? We know Stevens had character issues, but what was the deciding factor in the Seahawks letting him leave as a free agent? Have they adequately replaced both players?
DF: The line will miss Tobeck more for what he brought to the huddle and the locker room than anything else. He led the NFL in holding penalties in 2005 with 10, and he missed the last eight regular-season games of his career with a hip injury. Physically, he had been living on borrowed time for a while. However, there was not a single center in the league who was better with quarterbacks and line calls, nor were there too many players at any position who mined the ore of their potential more than Tobeck. Players that smart when it comes to reading defenses make everyone around them just that much better. He was a true team leader, and his intangibles will be missed terribly.
Chris Spencer, the #1 draft pick in 2005 out of Ole Miss, is as physically gifted a center as the NFL can currently field. But he has a long way to go before he can match wits with Tobeck. By all accounts, Spencer is a willing student and a very hard worker. I have a lot of faith in his ability to take charge of that line over time. But what Tobeck brought to the table can't be replaced overnight, and Spencer didn't see any real time at the position until Tobeck's injuries took him out of the picture late last season.
As far as Stevens is concerned, his March, 2007 DUI arrest in Scottsdale, Arizona was simply the last straw. Stevens' history with the Seahawks goes back to his first-round selection in 2002, and he's never come close to living up to his formidable potential. He's got a long list of off-field dirt, and his inability to consistently catch the ball left him behind the curve. Marcus Pollard may not be as flashy (hopefully he can at least equal Stevens' mediocre production), but he'll at least be consistent, show up to practice on time, and avoid giving his handlers migraines.
CM: The Seahawks were pounded on the ground by the 49ers for 490 rushing yards in the two games between the teams last year, and they finished 22nd in the league in stopping the run. Do you see that area as Seattle's biggest weakness, and what did the Seahawks do during the offseason to get better there?
DF: The root of the problem was the absence of Marcus Tubbs; without their elite defensive tackle in the lineup for 11 games in 2006, the Seahawks gave up an average of 65 more yards per game then when he was in there. Because Tubbs underwent microfracture surgery in the offseason, the Seahawks drafted Cal's Brandon Mebane in the third round. Mebane projects to be a good run-stopper, and that was the problem with Tubbs out of the picture – the Seahawks have a great DT rotation, but the other guys were all either undersized nose tackles or flashier 3-technique players. There wasn't really anyone else to man the point and soak up blockers.
As far as "biggest weakness" last year, I'd say it was a tie between stopping the run on defense and facilitating successful drives on offense.
CM: Did the Seahawks end up getting everything they expected out of former 49er Julian Peterson last season after giving him that huge contract in free agency? How indispensable has he become to Seattle's defense in just one season? Jules was a real leader in San Francisco; how much has he stepped up in that department for the Seahawks?
DF: Peterson was as advertised, proving his athletic dominance and leading the team in sacks with 10. However, I think his 2007 will be even better, because the team didn't seem to know how to use him at first. He was implemented primarily as a rushing end early on, which not only narrowed the focus of his freakish versatility, but it also put second-year linebacker Leroy Hill in a disadvantageous position. Hill is a great blitzing linebacker who can stop the run, but his pass coverage is anything but impressive. Because Peterson was locked into a single role and Hill was required to cover more often, Seattle's linebacker trio wasn't as effective as it would be later on.
Initial intelligence from minicamps suggests that Peterson will be used in more roles and Hill will be asked to do what he did in 2005. That's good news for everyone. Regarding Peterson's leadership, there's no doubt that his on-field skill is matched by great character. However, that defense has belonged to middle linebacker Lofa Tatupu almost since the first day he put on a Seahawks uniform. It's possible that the same level of leadership is not required, though Peterson is a player that is universally viewed with respect.
CM: Seattle has a great coaching staff and there still seems to be a good nucleus of talent. Are the Seahawks still the best team in the NFC West? And for that matter, are they going to win the West again this year for the fourth consecutive season? Does the NFC West title still run through Seattle?
DF: The Seahawks are still the best team on the field if health isn't an issue, though the 49ers might be the best on paper after an incredible off-season. I think the NFC West will be a two-horse race, and I don't see either Seattle or San Francisco winning more than 10 games. I'd like to be able to say flat-out that the Seahawks will win the NFC West again. However, when divisions are as unpredictable as the NFC West seems to have been since the Rams fell from grace a few years back, it's anyone's ballgame.
If the Seahawks don't have the 49ers to worry about this year (and I think they do), next year could be a real handful as the Cardinals also discover the benefits of actual coaching. Ironically, I think St. Louis could be at or near the bottom of the West for a few more seasons.