By Danny O'Neil

Seattle's offseason conditioning program begins next week, and we're counting down the five Seahawks who have the most to gain this season in everything from playing time to future contract negotiations.

Byron Maxwell will presumably be a full-time starter in 2014, the final year of his rookie contract. (AP)
We started with Bruce Irvin at No. 5. Next:

CB Byron Maxwell

Age: 26

Experience: Entering fourth season

Pedigree: He began last season as the fourth cornerback on the roster who had a history of leg injuries and an uncertain future. He ended the year starting in the Super Bowl, a player with enough future that the free-agent departures of Walter Thurmond and then Brandon Browner were met with a collective shrug.

A sixth-round pick out of Clemson in 2011, Maxwell has strong hands, a physical style and a nose for the ball. Remember the Super Bowl when he punched the ball away from Demaryius Thomas? Well, he has had a penchant for that in previous games and even in practice.

Danny O'Neil's look at the other Seahawks with the most to gain:
LB Bruce Irvin
RB Christine Michael
WR Jermaine Kearse
DE Greg Scruggs
The Seahawks were excited about Maxwell as far back as his rookie season when he was impressive in training camp. Maybe even more impressive than his fellow rookie that year, a guy named Richard Sherman. Maxwell was susceptible to muscle strains, though, and last season was the first time he played more than nine games in a season.

Predicament: Maxwell was the presumed starter even before Thurmond signed with the Giants, Browner with the Patriots. Now, Maxwell must prove both his durability and the ability to stand up to opponents who are more likely to throw his way given the fact Sherman is on the other side.

The possibilities: Maxwell is in a terrific spot to showcase himself, entering the final year of his rookie contract and playing for a team whose secondary is the biggest strength.

On the flip side, Seattle is now going to be counting on him to be healthy, and after Maxwell played his way up the depth chart a year ago, we'll see how he handles being a starter now. It's a great opportunity for Maxwell. It's also more pressure than he has had before.

Drafted 15th overall in 2012 to be a pass rusher, Bruce Irvin is entering his second season as a linebacker. (AP)

By Danny O'Neil

Room to grow.

Seattle has plenty of it, which seems odd to say considering the Seahawks are coming off a Super Bowl victory.

But that's the situation Seattle finds itself in after an offseason that began with the payroll pruning of veterans like Chris Clemons and Red Bryant, and continued with the free-agent departures of starters like Golden Tate, Breno Giacomini and even Brandon Browner.

Add in the fact the Seahawks have yet to sign another team's unrestricted free agent this year, and Seattle has plenty of opportunities for growth from within. This week, we'll count down the five returning Seahawks who have the most to gain this year whether that's in terms of playing time or negotiating position for a new contract.

We start with a guy Seattle drafted to be a pass rusher, and found himself downsized to linebacker a year ago.

Bruce Irvin had two sacks in limited pass-rush opportunities last season. (AP)
LB Bruce Irvin

Age: 26

Experience: Entering third season

Pedigree: He was the single most surprising first-round pick in the 2012 draft, chosen No. 15 overall by a Seattle team that believed he was the best pass rusher available. Sure enough, he went out and led all NFL rookies with sacks in 2012 with 8. A knee injury to Chris Clemons forced Irvin into a starting role for the divisional playoff game against Atlanta, and the Falcons ran right at – and often over – Irvin.

Of all the players on the roster last year, Irvin is the one who took the biggest step back. First, there was a position switch as he moved from end to linebacker following the free-agent additions of first Cliff Avril and then Michael Bennett. Then came a suspension, Irvin forced to miss the first four weeks after testing positive for a substance banned under the league's policy on performance-enhancing drugs.

Drafted as a pass rusher, Irvin had two sacks all of last season, and while he started every game, he was only on the field for 25 percent of Seattle's defensive plays in the Super Bowl.

Predicament: Where does Irvin fit into Seattle's defense? Irvin is going to stay at linebacker, defensive coordinator Dan Quinn was pretty clear about that back in February. But he's going to be pushed for playing time considering Malcolm Smith was only the Super Bowl MVP last season.

The possibilities: It's not quite a make-or-break season for Irvin, but it's getting close. Seattle has moved in a different direction at defensive end, first by signing Avril and now likely promoting him to the starter with Clemons gone.

That's troubling because pass rush is the one trait Irvin was drafted to play, and it's a role he moved away from in 2013 to the point he wasn't even part of the team's nickel pass-rush package like he was as a rookie.

Danny O'Neil's look at the other Seahawks with the most to gain:
CB Byron Maxwell
RB Christine Michael
WR Jermaine Kearse
DE Greg Scruggs
But before anyone writes him off, remember that he is the single most athletic player in Seattle's front seven as he demonstrated with that remarkable over-the-shoulder interception in Week 8 at St. Louis last season.

He's got a full offseason and training camp to carve himself a role, and his defensive coordinator sounded very excited about the possibility Irvin will do just that at linebacker.

"He's got all the stuff that we look for in our outside 'backer with speed and length and he can set the edge, he can rush," Quinn said in February.

As for Irvin's 2013 season?

"I thought for his first time playing linebacker he did a terrific job," Quinn said. "You know that it's only going to get better from here. So we feel like he's in the right spot and we couldn't be more excited to see how far we can take him."

By Brady Henderson

Highlights from the latest edition of "Hawk Talk" with Danny O'Neil:

Jim O asked how linebacker K.J. Wright – who is entering the final year of his rookie contract – fits into the Seahawks' plans.

O'Neil: That's a really good question, and one that can be applied to the other linebackers as well: Bobby Wagner and to a lesser extent Malcolm Smith. We haven't seen the Seahawks pay a linebacker big money yet. We've seen them cut a linebacker when he didn't take a paycut: Lofa Tatupu. We've seen them trade an linebacker who was overpaid for his contributions: Aaron Curry. We've seen them let a productive linebacker walk in free agency: David Hawthorne. We haven't seen them pay a linebacker yet, though.

GM fan asked whether Seahawks fans should be worried about another team's owner luring general manager John Schneider away from Seattle with a huge contract and an opportunity to have complete control of an organization's football operations.

O'Neil: What could another team offer that he doesn't have here? I ask that in all seriousness because I don't think there is a better job. And if you point out final say over football operations, are you sure that he won't get that here in Seattle when coach Pete Carroll retires?

Jim O asked whether wide receiver Jermaine Kearse could have a significant impact next season if he's given a bigger role.

O'Neil: There's no reason to think he won't thrive with more playing time. At the same time, we haven't seen him exhibit that kind of consistency because he hasn't been placed in that role. I would list Jermaine Kearse and Greg Scruggs as the two veterans who will have the most to gain after the offseason attrition.

tom page asked whether the Seahawks will be more inclined to look for offensive linemen later in the draft because of the early-round picks like James Carpenter and John Moffitt that haven't panned out.

O'Neil: I agree with your observation, but don't believe it will have the tangible effect you're describing. I don't think the Seahawks will avoid taking O-linemen early in the draft because they weren't successful in the past. From what I know with the Seahawks, they would look at those past picks as experiences that would help them refine their draft rationale and avoid making similar mistakes in judgment.

howker asked about the nature of the foot issues that sidelined cornerback Tharold Simon during his rookie season.

O'Neil: It has been described in different ways. Coming out of training camp, Carroll said it wasn't quite a stress fracture, but an injury that could become a stress fracture if he didn't rest it. Then, toward the end of the season, Carroll said Simon was having a problem with his other foot, not the one that was previously the problem. Whether he plays or can contribute down the road is all projection at this point.

Corey Hart's first of two home runs Tuesday night helped the Mariners erase an early deficit. (AP) | More photos

By Danny O'Neil

Hector Santiago was down on one knee as the crowd at Safeco Field got to its feet, a pair of equal – and opposite – reactions to the Mariners' most meaningful hit in four years.

It's possible that is an overstatement. Maybe Corey Hart's three-run home run in the bottom of the third inning won't mean anything in the long run of a 162-game season. Maybe the potential loss of starting pitcher James Paxton will turn out to be more significant than this game the Mariners won 5-3 over the Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim Tuesday night.

But maybe – just maybe – Hart's home run will become part of the bedrock that Seattle will build upon this season. With two out and two men aboard in the third inning, Hart provided a 400-foot correction to anyone who believed the home opener was going to turn out disappointingly familiar.

Same old Mariners? Not so far this season. Certainly not on this night as the Mariners took a game that looked disappointingly familiar and turned it into a signature moment.

Felix Hernandez's perfect game is the single most celebratory moment this franchise has had since its last winning season in 2009, and while Hart's home run didn't prompt that kind of celebration, it certainly sent a jolt of electricity through the sold-out crowd, keying a victory that was as important as it was odd.

Yes, odd because not only did Seattle lose its starting pitcher to an injury in the sixth inning, but the Mariners scored four runs in the third inning after Brad Miller struck out for what would have been the final out of the inning. Except Miller wasn't out, reaching first after the ball got away from Angels catcher Chris Iannetta. Robinson Cano walked and Seattle scored its first run on Justin Smoak's RBI single.

Hart came up next, falling behind 0-2 before fouling off two pitches and then clobbering a homer to left field. It was a moment that elicited a roar from the stadium, and erased that sinking feeling Seattle felt earlier when Paxton allowed two first-inning home runs before he recorded his second out.

Not quite the start Seattle wanted as it returned home after a 4-2 road trip, carrying that momentum into a pregame ceremony that included Seahawks coach Pete Carroll, quarterback Russell Wilson and half a dozen other players from the Super Bowl champions. They walked in from the outfield fence, the final act in a pregame introduction that included a red carpet, the U.S. Navy band and a Lombardi Trophy.

Yet the Mariners weren't even two-thirds of the way through the first inning when they trailed 3-0, and that sigh you heard was the air coming out of Seattle's fast start.

What happened next was noteworthy not just for what it meant in Tuesday's home opener, but what it could mean for this season

It's early. That is a word that urges caution in baseball, and it is a refrain that has been hung onto every conclusion drawn through the first seven games of this Mariners' season.

But it wasn't what happened early that determined the outcome of the Mariners' home opener, but what Seattle did later. Paxton allowed almost as many runs in the first inning (three) as he had allowed over his first five major-league starts (four).

The Angels recorded three runs before the Mariners recorded two outs, and just like that a week's worth of momentum and an evening of feel-good celebration was threatening to evaporate until Hart's home run provided the kind of exclamation point the Mariners have spent years searching for.

By Danny O'Neil

Ashley Fox, Chris Johnson will find out running backs lack value in today's NFL

Chris Johnson was the benchmark just two years ago during Marshawn Lynch's negotiations with the Seahawks.

Johnson wasn't the industry standard at that point, he was the exception. The Titans running back, along with Minnesota's Adrian Peterson, were at the top of the food chain. Everyone else was a notch below. Lynch. The Bears' Matt Forte. The Ravens' Ray Rice in 2011.

Same was true for Houston's Arian Foster and Philadelphia's LeSean McCoy more recently.

Peterson and Johnson remained the only two running backs whose contracts exceeded $10 million per year.

And now it's just Peterson. Johnson is a free agent, soon to be released by Tennessee, and he's walking into an open market where Knowshon Moreno was signed for $3.5 million after rushing for more than 1,000 yards in 2013. And then there's Maurice Jones-Drew, who went from averaging $6 million on his deal with the Jaguars to $2.5 million on the three-year contract he just signed with the Raiders.

The decline in value can even be seen in the draft. Only one running back has been chosen among the first 20 picks of the past three drafts. That one guy? Trent Richardson, the No. 3 pick in 2012 who last year was traded from Cleveland for the Colts' first-round pick this year.

Unlike some head-coach and general-manager duos, Pete Carroll and John Schneider are in perfect harmony. (AP)

By Danny O'Neil

The press conference was more like a very public hug.

"A love fest," general manager John Schneider said.

That about sums up last week's announcement of the extension to coach Pete Carroll's contract with the Seahawks, which isn't all that uncommon. After all, contracts don't generally get extended because of hard feelings or a lack of success, and under Carroll, the Seahawks have won a playoff game in three of his four seasons in Seattle and they just claimed the first Super Bowl in franchise history.

That success doesn't explain the tone of Friday's press conference. Not entirely.

Just look at San Francisco. The 49ers have had no shortage of recent success. They haven't won a Super Bowl, but they have reached the conference title game in each of Jim Harbaugh's three seasons as head coach. Yet it was less than two months ago that there were reports the 49ers had at least listened to a trade proposal from Cleveland for their head coach.

It doesn't really matter how close the 49ers came to shipping Harbaugh to the Browns. The significance is that things are sufficiently awkward in San Francisco to create an opening for that conversation to occur. The 49ers have a coach with two years left on his contract and a relationship with general manager Trent Baalke that has been characterized as less than completely friendly.

That's what makes last week's announcement in Seattle so noteworthy. Not because of how harmonious Carroll and Schneider appeared as they announced the extension, but because of how harmonious that relationship truly is.

It isn't always this way. In fact, it seldom is when it comes to a general manager and a coach in professional sports, which is only part of the reason that the working relationship between Carroll and Schneider is so truly remarkable.

It wouldn't have taken much to throw things off balance between the two. Just a little ego here, a pinch of resentment there. It would've started out subtle. It usually does. Then it could have grown into an elephant in the room, the coach simmering about the quality of players he's being provided while the general manager wonders whether the coach is doing enough to develop the talent that has been acquired.

Reports have characterized the relationship between 49ers general manager Trent Baalke (left) and head coach Jim Harbaugh (right) as dysfunctional. (AP)
The working relationship between Carroll and Schneider could have been even more fragile than normal given the way it started. Remember, Carroll was hired first. In fact, he consulted on the hiring of the general manager, which is precisely the opposite of the way it usually works.

The day Schneider was hired, there was an underlying question of just how much control he would have over personnel. Tod Leiweke – the CEO who hired both – repeatedly said the coach and GM would work to come to a consensus on any decisions yet he conceded that in the case of an impasse, Carroll would be the tiebreaker.

Turns out the whole emphasis on who had final say was much ado over nothing given how balanced the working relationship between Carroll and Schneider has been. That has remained true even through the bumps in the road, and there have been bumps. Whether it was the quarterback transition that included the acquisitions of Charlie Whitehurst, Tarvaris Jackson and Matt Flynn before Seattle found Russell Wilson through the imperfection inherent in the draft. E.J. Wilson. Kris Durham. Jaye Howard. Chris Harper. All four players were drafted in the fourth round. None lasted to a second season with the Seahawks.

And through it all, Carroll and Schneider remained partners. That truly is the right term, each reporting up to the CEO and both working toward the same goal of sustained success in a league that seeks parity.

It wouldn't have taken much to throw things off balance. A little ego. A pinch of resentment.

Yet last week, the two men sat side by side to announce an extension that felt more like a celebration than a news conference. You don't need to look far to see how difficult that is. Just check second place.

By Brent Stecker

The three seasons that Eric Wedge served as the Seattle Mariners manager were trying ones, to say the least.

The Mariners constantly lacked production in their lineup, and young players like Justin Smoak and Dustin Ackley struggled to find consistency as everyday players early in their Major League careers. It caused a lot of friction for Wedge and the organization, and he decided he wouldn't return to the the franchise after the 2013 season.

Ex-Mariners manager Eric Wedge told 710 ESPN Seattle's "Brock and Danny" that leaving the team's younger players was the toughest part of his decision not to return to the team after 2013. (AP)

Earlier this week the Mariners began their first regular season since Wedge's departure, and the results from those once-struggling prospects and the team in general have been promising. Considering the early success, which included a three-game sweep of the Angels in Anaheim, and the manner in which he left Seattle, nobody has as interesting a perspective on the Mariners in 2014 as Wedge.

Now an ESPN analyst, Wedge is obviously keeping tabs on his former team, and he was plenty willing to address the Mariners' hot start and his reaction when talking to 710 ESPN Seattle's "Brock and Danny" on Friday.

"I've been excited for Justin Smoak and the early success that he's had. Mike Zunino and (Brad) Miller, all the kids, really," Wedge said. "That was the toughest part about me leaving, was just all the kids."

The treatment of those "kids" was the biggest reason Wedge left Seattle, and while he was quick to explain that he still believes the Mariners' core of young players will turn into a strength, he hasn't forgotten about what led him to leave.

"I've said time and time again that you have a solid group of young players there. Just because people weren't strong enough to be patient and believe in them like they should doesn't mean they're not good players," he said. "It takes time and baseball's a difficult sport."

That time may be here, or it may still be a year off. But Wedge believes that patience will pay off sooner or later in Seattle.

"I think this year and next year you're gonna see performances like you're hoping to see. Patience is rewarded in baseball. It just takes strong people to be able to have that patience, and then it's gonna pay off for the kids and the organization."

So, with the Mariners suddenly giving fans a reason to be optimistic, does Wedge wish he was still with the club?

"Absolutely no second thoughts," he said about his decision to not return to the team. "I left for all the right reasons. I talked to the kids about living by a code and that's what I do."

He's not above acknowledging that getting a fresh face in new manager Lloyd McClendon may have been the right thing for the franchise, though.

"I think that with the decision I made, it probably pushed them in a different direction, and maybe indirectly it's gonna help them."

Follow Brent Stecker on Twitter @BrentStecker.

The ideal situation Pete Carroll has with the Seahawks made his contract extension a foregone conclusion. (AP)

By Danny O'Neil

The most significant thing about Pete Carroll's contract extension isn't the length nor the size nor is it even the timing of the announcement.

The most important facet of this deal is the complete and utter lack of suspense.

Carroll wasn't going anywhere. This was as close to a multi-million dollar formality as you get in the NFL, which has everything to do with the way this job was structured upon Carroll's hiring and stands in stark contrast to the last time the Seahawks extended their coach's contract.

It wasn't nearly so easy back in 2006 when Mike Holmgren was coming off three straight postseason berths and a Super Bowl appearance, but still had a latent desire to have a say over personnel. It took a month and a half of uncertainty before he decided to accept a two-year extension to remain Seattle's coach and just the coach.

Carroll has his ideal job. It was the reason he cited for leaving USC in 2010, a position that was exactly what he wanted right down to the fact that he got to help hire the general manager he would work alongside.

Four seasons, three playoff berths and a Super Bowl victory later, there's no way that he can move up. The only question is how long he can stay on top.

Money is part of this, too. Just not necessarily the biggest part. Carroll's contract in 2010 was to pay him $35 million over five years, which already put him in the upper tier of coaching salaries. No word on the size of his next deal, but Paul Allen is the richest owner in the league, and a Super Bowl would seem to warrant a raise. Carroll's contract extension was first reported by the league's official website.

But money wasn't really the issue for Seattle's last coaching extension for Holmgren. The tension there regarded to power, Tim Ruskell having been hired a year earlier to serve as the president and general manager.

At the NFL's owner meetings that offseason, Holmgren confessed to feeling an itch to make personnel decisions again, something that wasn't going to happen in Seattle. At least not then.

Remember, Ruskell was riding high. The Seahawks reached the Super Bowl in Ruskell's first season as GM, a year marked by the drafting of linebackers Lofa Tatupu and Leroy Hill as well as the free-agent signing of receiver Joe Jurevicius.

The Seahawks' roster eroded considerably over Ruskell's final four years to the point that Seattle turned to Holmgren in hope he could return to the franchise in 2009. When the two sides couldn't agree on a contract, Seattle decided for a hard reset in its football operations.

Starting over in Seattle started with the hiring of Pete Carroll, and the way that job was structured in the beginning made his contract extension so very straightforward.

He has the job he wants, written exactly to his specifications.

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Brock Huard

Brock Huard has co-hosted the show since 2009. After earning Gatorade Player of the Year honors at Puyallup High School, Brock went on to a record-setting career at Washington and then spent six years in the NFL, including four with the Seahawks. Brock also works for ESPN as a college football analyst in the booth and the studio. He makes his home on the Eastside with his wife Molly and their three young children.

Danny O'Neil

Danny O'Neil, the new co-host of "Brock and Danny", is the son of a logger, a graduate of the University of Washington and has been a working journalist in Seattle since 1999, first at newspapers and since 2012 at 710 ESPN Seattle. He is married to Sharon Pian Chan, associate opinions editor at The Seattle Times. They live on Capitol Hill with their wrinkled, smelly dog.

Tom Wassell

Tom Wassell has produced the show since 2011 and also co-hosts "Seattle Sports at Night" with Colin Paisley and Matt Pitman. A native of Connecticut, Tom came to 710 ESPN Seattle after working at ESPN Radio's headquarters in Bristol, Conn. for five years. Tom studied communications at Indiana University, is color-blind and has a weak sense of smell.
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