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<  Brock and Salk

Four veteran Seahawks at career crossroads

By Mike Salk and Brock Huard

100-1. Those were the odds posted this week for the Seahawks to win next year's Super Bowl.

100-1.

They were the team 30th most likely to win it. Only the lowly Carolina Panthers and Buffalo Bills were longer shots. Clearly, as much as we may want to put a positive spin on what Pete Carroll and John Schneider accomplished in their first year in Seattle, the bookmakers are not quite ready to buy in. Thus, as the Seahawks prepare themselves for the upcoming offseason and attempt to improve their roster, they have to make some difficult personnel decisions. The critical eye of the head coach and general manager will now turn to a few players who thus far have been able to stay clear of it. Here are four Seahawks, previously taken for granted, that are now at a career crossroads.

Curry

Aaron Curry

The youngest of our four “crossroad” Seahawks will be going into his third season in 2011. The 6’2”, 250 pound linebacker has not been the impact player the organization needed him to be when it drafted him fourth overall in 2009 and paid him over $30 million guaranteed.

The reason Carroll studied Curry’s game film so intently when he took over the team was because of the freakish size and strength Curry brings to the position as well as the enormous financial commitment that comes with fourth pick money. After producing impact linebacker after linebacker at USC, and hiring Ken Norton Jr. to lead the position group, Carroll must have felt like he could not only put Curry in a position to have success, but flourish this season.

It didn't happen.

Thirty games into his professional career it is hard to find areas of real growth and development in Curry’s game. He struggles to play in space, change direction, redirect receivers, recognize schemes and concepts, and play with any level of anticipation. He can maul a tight end at the point of attack, and use his physical attributes in a straight line bull rush, but there are many linebackers across the league that can perform those duties.

Today’s linebackers must be diverse in their repertoire, and instincts and feel for the game are a must if you want to be a difference maker at the position. In fact, the two linebackers drafted after Curry in 2009, Brian Cushing and Clay Matthews, are exactly that.

Curry was a late bloomer in high school and did not emerge as a difference maker at Wake Forest until his junior year. He is committed to the game, is bright in the classroom and his work ethic is unquestioned. However, success in the meeting room has not translated into playmaking on Sunday’s, and with his junior year for the Seahawks looming, time and patience are beginning to run out.

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John Carlson

When Carlson caught 55 balls for 627 yards as a second round rookie out of Notre Dame, there were plenty of reasons to believe he was on his way to stardom. He has prototypical size at 6'5”, 251 pounds which he combined with excellent speed and soft hands. Put him in the right system and throw him the ball, went the theory, and he'll emerge as an elite pass-catching tight end.

Two years later, we are still waiting for the emergence.

Carlson essentially repeated his rookie year in 2009. Though that felt like a disappointment because of the lofty goals, his numbers were virtually identical. But in 2010, those numbers precipitously declined. His 31 receptions for 318 yards ranked 33rd and 34th respectively among tight ends. He had only four plays all year of more than 20 yards and was a non-factor in the passing game until his two touchdown performance against the Saints in the Wild Card round. Not what you would expect from a pass-catching tight end who often struggles with his run blocking.

Fortunately for Carlson, he has one year remaining on his team-friendly rookie contract so he is in no risk of being cut this season. But this will very much be a contract year for him. If he performs, he will likely be able to parlay a good season into some dough. If he does not, he can expect to be looking for work elsewhere. It would not be a surprise to see the Hawks draft another tight end to compete with him for reps as he has likely lost his hold on the position.

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Lofa Tatutpu

How do you put a value on the player who has led the Seahawks defense since taking over the middle linebacker position in 2005? Tatutpu made more than 100 tackles per season in each of his first three campaigns, but has failed to hit that figure in the past three seasons. That is to say, he has not finished with elite statistics since 2007. Perhaps it is not a coincidence that that was the team's last winning season.

At the age of 28, Tatutpu is not old even for NFL linebacker standards. At 6'0”, 250 pounds, he is slightly undersized to play the middle of the field, but he has always made up for that with his speed and his instincts. If healthy, he should still be an effective tackler.

But “if healthy” hasn't worked for Tatupu the past few years. In fact, after playing through a series of issues this season, he underwent a pair of knee surgeries last month.

How do the Seahawks judge him now?

If they believe his lack of both speed and production stem from his injuries, then they should expect him to return to elite status now that the surgeries have been performed. If, however, they believe he has permanently lost a step, they may very well need to swallow hard and make a franchise-altering decision on one of their marquee players. If need be, they have David Hawthorne ready to step into the position and middle linebackers often seem to be available through the draft.

It is never easy to determine when a player is on the downside of a career. Because of his great instincts and leadership, Tatupu will always have value to an NFL defense. But will his value equal the potential $6.1 million cap hit he could cost the team?

Again, the answer depends on whether you think his surgeries have solved his problems. If the team needs that money elsewhere, he could be a candidate to be cut, or to have his salary reconfigured. Regardless, the Hawks will need to make a difficult decision without a clear-cut right answer. One more down year would seemingly end their association with their defensive captain.

Trufant

Marcus Trufant

The elder statesman of this group turned 30 on Christmas and just finished his eighth year as a Seahawk. After going to the Pro Bowl and signing a monster deal in 2008 (6 Years/$51 million), Trufant has endured injuries and a dip in production.

In the Pro Bowl Season of 2007 Trufant intercepted seven passes and deflected 15 more. He was a force on the edge, and a difference maker with the ball in the air. In 2010, Trufant did have 80 total tackles and is more than willing to contribute in run support, but with just one interception and eight pass deflections on the season, he struck little fear in opposing quarterbacks.

The challenge for the Seahawks is Trufant’s contract. Over the next three years he is scheduled to be paid elite cornerback dough. In 2011, his base salary will be just shy of $6 million. For that investment, Marcus must be more productive, and the question is physically can he?

There is no question the back injury Trufant suffered in 2009 dramatically affected his game that season. He lacked the burst and quickness necessary to play the cornerback position effectively in the NFL. With a healthy offseason and training camp in 2010, he looked to pass the eye test and seemed back to normal. However, the productivity on the field didn’t emerge, and it must if he is to realize the remainder of his lucrative contract.

Trufant can still be a very solid number two corner for the Seahawks; however, he is being paid to be a number one guy. He may be approached to restructure his deal, and that will depend largely on what a new salary cap structure will look like. If he had made more plays on the ball and influenced a quarterback’s decision making process more this would be easier. Yet, with the inexperience the team will have at the position group in 2011, it's hard to see Trufant going anywhere quite yet. He is probably in a very similar situation as Tatupu: he must re-emerge and prove his worth in 2011...or else.

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