By Kyle Rota
It's hard to believe that Pete Carroll has officially been Head Coach of the Seattle Seahawks for less than a week, so many things have changed. In the past week, Carroll has assembled a coaching staff that is an intriguing mix of young (Offensive Coordinator Jeremy Bates is only 33 years old), familiar (holdovers such as Casey "Gus" Bradley and Dan Quinn retain their positions as Defensive Coordinator and Defensive Line Coach, respectively), and legendary (Offensive Line Coach Alex Gibbs is undeniably the best man to teach zone blocking in the NFL, and likely the best overall offensive line coach in the league).
It's hard to tell how the pieces will fall, but one thing that isn't hard to recognize is that Seattle's draft-aims are different now than before. Whether or not a guy is a bust or a success depends so much on the environment he is put into, including what system he is playing in. Trying to find good draftable players for Seattle is pointless without knowing what will be asked of those players on gameday. To that end, I've spent the last week reviewing all of my USC games from 2009 (5 in all) to get an idea of what sort of skills Carroll and Co. will be looking for in the draft.
On offense, Jeremy Bates runs a system that is going to look downright foreign in Seattle. The strength of USC's offense are the running backs - somehow USC manages to convince a couple Parade All-Americans each year that they should fight and claw for playing time with other All-Americans. That was even more true this year, with Mark Sanchez in the NFL and the QB position being held by true freshman Matt Barkley.
Bates, though, seems quite comfortable airing it out. USC operated a ton out of 3,4, and 5-wide sets. The quarterback took quite a few passing snaps out of the shotgun, though also under center. There is a lot of pre-snap motion, and a lot of combination routes (routes where two receivers run routes designed to make the defense commit to one of them, leaving the other open) that are meant to make things easier for the quarterback. A decisive quarterback is important in this offense, and while USC did not challenge deep constantly, it does require a strong enough arm to attack vertically and especially complete intermediate-ranged passes. Great athleticism is not required but rollouts and moving pockets are utilized quite a bit, so a complete statue does not seem like a good fit.
That is not to say Bates is inflexible. The Trojans still ran the ball more often than they passed, by a significant margin. In fact, for Bates to go from 61% passes with Denver in 2008 to ~60% runs with USC in 2009 should be considered a welcome sign of a coach willing to adjust to fit his talent.
At running back and offensive line, as much impact might be made by Gibbs as by Bates. USC recruited all kinds of backs, though Carroll does seem to prefer his primary ball carrier be more "speed" than "strength". Regardless, Gibbs system has shown the ability to make pretty much any marginally talented player a good runner. In looking at the backs Gibbs has had success with, it is interesting to note that they tend to fit into one of two categories: Clinton Portis, Tatum Bell speed-types (and Portis was a small, speedy back before being traded to the Redskins) and Mike Anderson, TJ-Duckett type bruisers. There just aren't many "average-style" runners in there. This is a class that has a ton of "big" backs and a ton of "speed" backs, so Seattle lucked out.
The offensive line is a little more difficult to predict. Gibbs is famous for having said he could turn a garbage man into an NFL guard, so don't expect Seattle to use early picks addressing the interior. Gibbs-teams also tend to shy away from early-round tackles, but Houston did break that trend in 2008 when they selected Duane Brown in the first round. One constant is size - Gibbs likes them small, very small by NFL standards. He's been known to conduct weekly weigh-ins to make sure his OL don't get too big. I'd be surprised if Seattle seriously considers any OL over 315lbs (which means the Mike-Iupati-In-Seattle bandwagon has come to a screeching halt), and the team certainly will be placing a premium on intelligence, footwork, and athleticism. In many ways, it is a more distilled version of what the team looked for when picking out linesmen for former OL coach Mike Solari - we're just getting even smaller. Good cut blocking is another trademark of Gibbs-led lines, though I can't tell you if his linesmen were good cut blockers before Gibbs reached them, it might be something he just teaches extraordinarily well.
One position I don't know what to expect from is the WR position. USC has normally won with decently athletic 6'0ish types who are polished (Steve Smith and Damien Williams are two examples), or giant-and-slow 6'5 types (Patrick Turner, Dwayne Jarrett, and Mike Williams). However, at Denver Bates had success with a bigger WR (Brandon Marshall) and Eddie Royal, a small but cat-quick receiver who was extremely raw coming out of Virginia Tech (worth noting that without Bates, Royal had a very disappointing second season). There are some similarities between Royal and Seattle WR Deon Butler, as both are about the same size and both possess rare quickness. Seattle lacks that big-bodied Brandon-Marshall type, though, and might grab one in the draft.
On defense, things should look quite a bit different despite running essentially the same system. It is a one-gap system, meaning that the defensive line needs to be quick and play fast. After Seattle's failed experiment in "big" (including additions such as Colin Cole and Corey Redding), expect to see a defensive front that is normal-to-small. I fully expect Brandon Mebane to be moved back to the one-technique spot, leaving a vacancy for a quicker defensive tackle to play the "under" tackle, or three-technique. This should be familiar to Seattle fans, it really is the same general principle.
One thing that could change - emphasis on could - is the use of a "Leo" position. USC often had one DE (most recently Everson Griffin) standing up and playing something of a hybrid of DE and OLB - mostly blitzing, but some coverage. It is a role I think Darryl Tapp could excel in, if he stays with Seattle, as Tapp has the athleticism and technique to rush but the hips to play passable coverage. The other DE needs to be a little bigger, as USC often condenses the defensive line, leaving the end playing over the guard. Patrick Kerney is strong enough to do this, if he is retained, but I don't think Tapp, Lawrence Jackson, or Nick Reed could.
The most exciting changes with be at linebacker and safety. Aaron Curry will have every chance to succeed in this new system, as it should play to his strengths more than Mora's defense. USC played their outside linebackers close to the LOS all the time, showing blitz on a lot of plays. Curry struggles with read-and-react, but hopefully being close to the LOS will allow him to play more aggressively against both the run and the pass. Since Curry mans the strongside linebacker spot, he still needs to improve his coverage, but he should blitz more and attack the LOS more often against the run. Hill, likewise, will benefit from this (it is worth remembering that LeRoy Hill is a quality blitzer on the weakside) but he is also capable of reading the flow of the play so he is really just focusing on one strength instead of the other.
Since Seattle appears unlikely to draft a linebacker (of course, that's what I said last year) early in the draft, the real position to look at should be safety. While I think Taylor Mays has major flaws that will prevent him from ever being a great safety, he really did make this USC defense work. His ability to cover so much ground deep allowed Carroll to stack the box, and when Mays himself was the 8th man in the box, USC didn't have to change the play since Mays could still get in deep position. A big safety with great athleticism could be a priority.
Really, though, the key will be how Carroll views Deon Grant. Grant is a valuable player because he is good in deep coverage (especially when it's only Cover-2 - he isn't really optimal as the deep safety in Cover-1) and a solid tackler in the running game. If Carroll decides to keep Grant at Strong Safety, I'd expect us to target an "Eric Berry" type free safety (small, quick, good deep coverage) in the offseason, or perhaps keep Jordan Babineaux as the starter If Carroll decides to move Grant to FS (meaning that Carroll is comfortable with Grant playing centerfield) and get a more dynamic presence at SS, I could see a big, thumper (but still capable of playing Cover-2) like LSU's Chad Jones or Virginia Tech's Kam Chancellor being a target. My money would be on a ballhawking safety, but only because Grant gives the defense more versatility at SS than he does at FS.
The cornerback position should remain largely unchanged from a "skills needed" standpoint. Seattle will still be running quite a bit of zone, but the corners also need to be competent in man coverage and capable tacklers. Seattle is still running Tampa-2, so the secondary might not undergo huge changes, but it really felt like the versatility USC had at safety was an important part of their defense.
Lastly, I'd recommend caution before reading too much into any of this. Many of these observations could be due to situation, not the philosophy of the new coaching staff. That said, I do think this gives us a little bit of direction, and I hope it helps narrow down the type of players Seattle will be looking for in the draft.