There’s one really obvious thing to watch in this Seahawks preseason, which makes it unlike any other in the team’s recent history: a battle for the quarterback position.
And that alone means that not since 2012 has a preseason game meant as much as does Saturday’s at Pittsburgh. Kickoff is 4 p.m. PT.
A decade ago, Russell Wilson used a couple of sterling preseason performances to finalize his hold on the starting QB job, which he had already started to win in training camp practices. With Wilson gone, this preseason is now mostly about finding his successor — Geno Smith or Drew Lock — a battle that ratchets up Saturday.
But that’s not all there is to watch as Seattle plays its first of three preseason games.
Here are four questions for which we’ll be looking for answers Saturday.
Can Drew Lock make further inroads on the QB job?
The big story of last Saturday’s mock game — which in essence served as the team’s first preseason game — was Lock going 18-27 for 185 yards and a touchdown to Smith’s 10-19 for 94 yards and no touchdowns, numbers that also fairly replicated the eye test in terms of who played better.
Smith remains atop the depth chart for now, even if there were some subtle changes to how the team did things this week indicating Lock closing the gap, such as mixing and matching the skill position players more with the first- and second-team offenses to assure each QB gets equal turns with the likes of Tyler Lockett and DK Metcalf.
But if outplaying Smith in the mock game was one thing, doing it again against an actual opponent and on the road is another.
And with just three preseason games this year, each one takes on an added importance in the evaluation process.
Smith will start, but coach Pete Carroll was vague otherwise in how the snaps will be divided, such as whether the two might alternate series, as they did in the mock game, and also share series with the first and second offensive lines.
Each could play into the second half with Carroll sure to want to get as much information as possible.
Can Tariq Woolen prove Richard Sherman-like on gameday?
The biggest revelation of camp has been the emergence of rookie cornerback Tariq Woolen as a legitimate candidate to start. A fifth-round pick out of Texas-San Antonio, Woolen played just two years of corner in college and that had many thinking he might need some time to develop.
Instead, when Sidney Jones IV was sidelined with a concussion last week, it was Woolen — and not more-heralded rookie Coby Bryant, the Jim Thorpe Award winner a year ago at Cincinnati — who moved into the starting lineup at right cornerback alongside Artie Burns. Burns has since also gotten hurt (a groin issue) and if neither plays Saturday, Woolen and Bryant figure to be the starters.
For both it will be a big opportunity. For Woolen in particular, the game looms as a big chance to break out on a national stage and begin to validate the lofty praise he has received the last few days.
Just how lofty?
Carroll this week again compared Woolen to Richard Sherman. Initially, those comparisons were due to their similarity in physical makeup (Woolen is 6-4, Sherman 6-3) and background (each began their college careers as receivers before moving to cornerback for their final two years). On Wednesday, Carroll made the comparison also based on how Woolen has come along in his rookie year the same way Sherman did in 2011, also arriving as a fifth-round pick who was regarded as something of a project.
“I’m thrilled about this,” Carroll said. “It was [a shot to take] on a guy that has the tools and all that and hasn’t really shown it. It’s kind of similar of what Tariq is taking and kind of the same amount of development for this moment. … I don’t know if you guys remember, I remember Sherm’s camp and how he did and how that went. And four to five games into it, he was playing. He was going. There was a lot of surprises in there but a lot of great accomplishments.”
Who will be left standing at right tackle?
Aside from quarterback and cornerback, the other heated position competition is at right tackle. It was initially billed as a three-man battle among Jake Curhan, Abraham Lucas and Stone Forsythe. But of late, it appears to be down to Curhan and Lucas. Lucas, a third-round pick out of Washington State, got all the snaps with the first-team offense in the mock game Saturday. But Curhan, a second-year player out of Cal, got the reps with the first-team offense in practice this week, which seems to indicate he will start against the Steelers (he is also listed first on the team’s public depth chart).
Who knows what the Steelers will do defensively in a preseason game. But they typically bring a lot of pressure, which would be a big challenge for both rookie tackles — Lucas and left tackle Charles Cross. And especially on the right side, which tackle handles the pressure better could take the upper hand in their battle.
Who else could emerge?
Here are quick thoughts on a few other players worth watching.
Right guard Phil Haynes: Carroll said this week that Haynes is pushing veteran Gabe Jackson for the starting spot at right guard. Jackson, whose reps have been closely monitored as he recovers from offseason knee surgery, might not play, which would give Haynes the start and a chance to further state his case.
Receivers Cody Thompson/Dareke Young/Bo Melton: Seattle is thin at receiver with Dee Eskridge, Marquise Goodwin and Freddie Swain all unlikely to play due to injury. Lockett and Metcalf also figure to see limited action. That should give a lot of snaps to some others fighting for a roster spot. Thompson, a practice-squad player the past two years, had the highlight-reel play of the mock game with a juggling 20-yard TD catch of a pass from Lock. Melton and Young are each seventh-round picks whom Seattle will get their first eyes on in game action.
Running back Ken Walker III: The second-round pick out of Michigan State is in line to get the start at running back. He’s a lock to make the team and have a big role this season. But Seattle would like to get some validation that their high expectations are justified.
Linebacker Boye Mafe: Like Walker, Mafe is a second-round pick whose spot on the roster also isn’t in question. But the team hopes Mafe, whom Carroll at one point compared to Cliff Avril, can be a significant contributor this season and will hope he shows that now that the game-night lights are going on.
Safety Josh Jones: Jones, a veteran of 26 NFL starts in a career dating to 2017, has been a consistent playmaker throughout camp working as backup when Jamal Adams missed time, or in three-safety sets alongside Adams and Quandre Diggs, something the Seahawks are using increasingly this year. Jones also appears a lock to make the team at this point, but he figures to get some significant reps against the Steelers to further validate his position.