Since starters aren’t expected to see much action or play at all in the preseason finale, fans often overlook the significance of these games for final roster construction.
Keeping this in mind, when the Seattle Seahawks take the field against the Oakland Raiders on Thursday night, several players will be fighting for their NFL lives. Some will be trying to make one last impression to earn a roster spot, while many others will never see an NFL field again after tonight. That’s the harsh reality of this business.
“We have a number of competitive situations where guys are battling. We’re looking for guys that we’re trying to start, we’re looking for guys looking for play time, we’re looking for guys trying to make the roster, looking for guys to make the practice squad,” Seahawks coach Pete Carroll said in regard to Thursday’s finale. “There’s all kinds of considerations here and that’s what this game is for. We need to put those guys out there and give them a chance to show for themselves.”
With so much at stake for a large percentage of the players in uniform, here’s a few areas to keep under the microscope in Thursday’s matchup with the Raiders.
1. How will the reserve offensive line fare against a talented defensive front?
While the Seahawks may play starters for a series or two, the Raiders have already been extra cautious playing their starters in preseason contests and likely won’t have any key players suit up tonight. But Oakland does have a trio of defensive linemen who were drafted back in April who still should see extended snaps for valuable experience.
The Raiders snagged defensive tackle P.J. Hall, defensive end Arden Key, and defensive tackle Maurice Hurst in the second, third, and fifth rounds respectively.
Hall opened the season on the PUP list, but he’s played in the past three preseason games, as the athletic interior lineman has recorded three tackles in that span. Key made his preseason debut against the Packers last week and hasn’t recorded any stats yet, but he’s been impressive throughout camp as an edge rusher.
Hurst, once viewed as a first-round prospect, may be the most intriguing of the bunch. His stock plummeted after being sent home from the NFL Scouting Combine due to a heart condition and he fell into the Raiders lap on day three of the draft. He’s recorded three tackles and 1.5 sacks in three preseason games, looking like a potential late round steal.
These three talented young defenders will present an unusual challenge for Seattle’s reserve line in the exhibition finale, but Carroll and his staff should be ecstatic about the chance to watch veterans such as J.R. Sweezy, Rees Odhiambo, and Isaiah Battle face off against them. This will be an excellent test that should yield quality film for evaluation, especially for a player like Sweezy who hasn’t yet played this preseason.
2. Which player intends to force Seattle into keeping a sixth receiver on the final roster?
It may be a bit premature to say Seattle already has five receivers guaranteed to make the roster, but it would be a stunner at this point if 34-year old Brandon Marshall and second-year target David Moore aren’t on the opening day roster. Both players have performed well in camp and preseason games, and with Doug Baldwin still nursing a knee injury, each could be more valuable than expected in the passing game.
But considering Baldwin’s injury as well as J.D. McKissic being out for several more weeks with a Jones’ fracture, the Seahawks may strongly consider keeping a sixth receiver for extra insurance. At this point, Marcus Johnson, Keenan Reynolds, and 2017 third-round pick Amara Darboh will be competing on Thursday night for a single roster spot.
Johnson, who Seattle acquired in the Michael Bennett trade, has had a quiet preseason but remains the favorite to steal one of the last roster spots. He flashed his game-changing speed against the Vikings last week, snagging a 34-yard reception on a vertical route down the right sideline. He needs a big night with the starters likely sitting out, but he’s the front runner right now.
If the Seahawks remain concerned about Baldwin’s health moving forward, the chances of Reynolds sneaking onto the roster improve exponentially. The former Navy quarterback won’t be mistaken as a replacement for Baldwin, but he’s shown he can thrive out of the slot, which gives him an advantage over his peers. He caught three passes against the Vikings playing with the starting unit and converted two of them into first downs. He’s also contributed on special teams, adding to his value.
Since he’s been unable to stay healthy, Darboh finds himself in a difficult situation. The Seahawks know what he’s capable of when he actually plays, and as Carroll said Wednesday, the team “would like to see him get back out and show that he’s back.” Regardless, he will need a monster game against the Raiders to position himself for staying on the roster after missing time.
3. Set to start in Week 1, how will Shaquem Griffin perform in his final tune up?
With K.J. Wright unlikely to be back in time for the season opener following arthroscopic knee surgery, Griffin will see the field as a starter for the Seahawks far earlier than expected. So far, he’s passed every test the coaching staff has thrown at him and Carroll understands how vital this last preseason game will be for him.
“This is important to see him continue to get better and clean things up and make sure he’s really accountable. He’s a running and hitting guy.” Carroll said. “We aren’t worried about that. It’s just making sure he’s really playing the scheme really well and he’s really precise about all his fits and all that.”
Griffin has racked up 18 tackles in three preseason games, so he hasn’t had problems finding the football and making plays. However, he’s been indecisive on his reads at times from the weakside linebacker position and has struggled getting off of blocks throughout the preseason. After playing his best game last week in Minnesota, Carroll hopes to see growth in both areas against Oakland.
“He’s been a very astute worker, been a really sharp communicator and all that stuff. A lot of good things are positive and now we’d just like to see him put it all together again.”
Fortunately for Griffin, the Raiders will provide a worthy opponent even with starters sidelined. Coach Jon Gruden’s squad has outstanding depth along the offensive line and even with Marshawn Lynch sitting out, Oakland has several quality running backs who will test Griffin. Among those to keep an eye on, undrafted rookie Chris Warren III, the son of former Seahawks star Chris Warren, will be a load to bring down and has averaged over five yards per carry this preseason.
4. Will someone, anyone step up and win the starting right cornerback job?
Entering training camp, finding a second starting cornerback remained one of the Seahawks’ biggest priorities. Shaquill Griffin has taken over for Richard Sherman on the left side and shown impressive progress during the preseason, but seriously, who’s going to play across from him?
Before the season opened, Byron Maxwell looked to be the favorite to resume his role as the starting right corner. After being re-signed late in the 2017 season, “Maxie” played very sound football for the Seahawks, recording 45 tackles and an interception in seven games. But he’s been hampered by hip and hamstring injuries throughout the preseason and couldn’t make it back for the preseason finale, leaving room for other challengers to take the starting job.
As one of Seattle’s priority free agent signings, former 49ers starter Dontae Johnson missed the first half of training camp recovering from a broken foot. The 6-foot-2 veteran has gradually scaled up his activity and played more snaps last week against the Vikings, recording two tackles in the process. He’s yet to have much of a chance to show what he can do in coverage, but expect backup quarterbacks E.J. Manuel and Connor Cook to test him at some point in what will be a very important game for Johnson.
While not the ideal scenario for the Seahawks, there’s also a chance rookie Tre Flowers forces himself into the starting lineup for the opener against the Broncos. Seattle would love to give the converted safety from Oklahoma State ample time to develop rather than rushing him onto the field, but Maxwell’s injury and Johnson’s lack of snaps this preseason might give the team no choice. The fifth-round pick has surrendered some completions in three preseason games, but he’s also shown he can play tight coverage and tackle in space, so he’s clearly in the mix for Week 1.
Carroll made it clear the team doesn’t have to “rush any decisions” after Thursday’s game, but Seattle’s staff will have a tough call to make before the team begins preparation for the Broncos.