With the conclusion of training camp on Thusday, it’s time to pass out some honors — with input on the selections from coaches, scouts and players:
Best player: Sidney Rice. He got a late start, because free-agent additions were not allowed to begin practicing until Aug. 4. He also sat out last week’s preseason opener to rest a sore shoulder. But when the Pro Bowl wide receiver from the Vikings was on the field, the 6-foot-4 Rice displayed the traits that attracted the Seahawks – an off-the-charts catch radius; sure, soft hands; the kind of competitive work ethic that is the foundation for Pete Carroll’s program; an instant rapport with also just-acquired QB Tarvaris Jackson. As former Seahawks linebacker Dave Wyman said on 710 ESPN today, “I don’t think I’ve ever seen anyone have a better camp.”
Best offensive player: Marshawn Lynch. A year ago, Lynch was summering – and shimmering – in Buffalo with the Bills team that made him the 12th pick overall in the 2007 NFL Draft. After being acquired in trade during the Seahawks’ bye week, Lynch admits to “learning on the fly” last season. But in this camp, he’s simply been flying – in his own “Beast Mode” fashion – and leading by example. He did not miss a practice. He ran out every rep he got. He looks ready – and sounds determined – to help re-launch a running game that ranked 31st in the league last season.
Best defensive player: Earl Thomas. The second-year free safety has been even better than during his first season – which already was pretty good, as he intercepted five passes to tie the franchise record by a rookie. Thomas picked off a half dozen passes in practice in this camp and got his hands on even more balls. He appears poised to make another giant step toward becoming the consistent playmaking centerfielder that Carroll needs to play his style of defense.
Best special teams player: Jon Ryan. The veteran punter wins this one almost by default, but there’s also plenty of merit behind the pick. Ryan’s consistency has been his calling card since signing with the Seahawks a game into the 2008 season, and that remains the key to his 2011 season.
Best rookies: Richard Sherman and Doug Baldwin. We’ve split this into defensive (Sherman) and offensive (Baldwin) categories – and colored both Cardinal – because there are so many rookies on the 90-man roster, and so many who deserve recognition as they scramble to play catchup after the 136-day lockout erased the spring minicamps and OTA sessions. Sherman’s size (6-3) and playmaking ability have been apparent from his first practice, but then the cornerback from Stanford was a fifth-round draft choice. Baldwin, on the other hand, was part of the undrafted free-agent class. But you would never know it by how well – and consistently – the wide-out from Stanford has played. In the preseason opener, he not only caught a team-high four passes, Baldwin returned a kickoff for 41 yards and a punt for 20 yards.
Best free-agent addition: Brandon Browner. There’s a lot of competition here, since the club signed Rice, Jackson, left guard Robert Gallery, tight end Zach Miller and defensive tackles Alan Branch and Jimmy Wilkerson once the unrestricted free-agent period finally began. But the 6-4 Browner was added long before the lockout and free agency began – in January, and to a future contract. The Seahawks have been looking for a bigger cornerback, while Browner has been looking to get back into the league after playing the past four seasons in the CFL. This need-meets-desire matchup is working out very well. Honorable mention to Gallery, who has been just what the young O-line needs at the left guard spot.
Best unit: Tight ends. The Seahawks were solid here even before adding Miller, the Pro Bowler from the Raiders. Now, with the ability to use Miller and John Carlson in tandem, well, it provides versatility, productivity and even a dash of deception in the passing game and the running game. Anthony McCoy and Dominique Byrd, who played for Carroll at USC, provide depth and big-play capability. Then there’s Cameron Morrah, an incumbent backup who has yet to practice while recovering from offseason toe surgery.
Biggest surprises: Ricardo Lockette and Neal Howey. Again, there’s one on offense (Lockette) and one on defense (Howey). Lockette’s speed sets the rookie free agent apart from the other wide receivers – as well as the rest of the players in camp. He won the NCAA Division II 200-meter championship in 2008 and has run 40 yards in 4.27 seconds. Howey, a rookie linebacker from Eastern Michigan, has stood out because of all the “I see you, Neal” salutes he’s gotten from the older ’backers while making plays with the No. 3 defense. It will be surprising if Lockette and Howey don’t stick around, at least on the practice squad.
Most improved player: Leon Washington. Say what? The guy returned three kickoffs for touchdowns last year in his first season with the Seahawks. But we’re talking about Leon Washington the running back. Another year removed from the severely broken leg that ended his 2009 season while with the New York Jets, Washington is displaying his old explosive first step and sudden quickness while running the ball out of the backfield. As Carroll put it when asked about Washington the back, “It’s not even the same guy. Last year at this time, he was limping around we were cringing as he was running with the football. He is in full flow, full speed.” Now, the coaches just have to figure out how to best use Washington, while still getting Lynch and Justin Forsett the touches they need.
Best quote: “Somebody from the back of the room yelled, ‘That’s not separation; that’s a divorce.’ He was so wide open.” – quarterback Charlie Whitehurst on Baldwin