To keep his relentlessly positive messages fresh entering his sixth season leading the Seahawks, Pete Carroll enlists surrogates.
The latest one for Seattle’s training camp, which begins Friday: Cliff Avril.
The veteran defensive end, who got a new, $28.5 million contract in December, spent a chunk of June guiding and molding Frank Clark.
Avril wasn’t just drilling the team’s top rookie draft choice on the finer points of playing end in Carroll’s system, the one that’s made Seattle the NFL’s top-ranked defense the last two NFC-championship seasons.
Avril was telling Clark about how Carroll expects and gets his players to always compete, be it in summer or the Super Bowl.
“I think about that on almost a daily basis, and how to keep it fresh, and how to stay on top of it,” Carroll said of continuing to motivate by using the messages he had when he and general manager John Schneider arrived along the east shore of Lake Washington in January 2010. “When you know (what) you believe in, you are going to stay with it. There is great comfort in that, and familiarity.
“But sometimes I have to find ways to keep it fresh and all of that. The responsibility that the older players have to teach the younger players is what keeps it going. … There was an extraordinary illustration (last month) to see Cliff working with Frank.
“That’s how we keep it fresh.”
Another illustration of how Carroll still motivates this accomplished team in its quest to reach a third consecutive Super Bowl is the way he and Schneider handled Bruce Irvin this offseason.
The playmaking linebacker and edge-rush specialist on passing downs entered May expecting the Seahawks to pick up his contract option for 2016 at $7.8 million. They did not.
Now Seattle’s first-round draft choice from 2012 is ultra-motivated to begin a free-agency season. He is entering the final year of a contract paying him almost $1.7 million this year. A peak performance would net Irvin peak cash next spring, perhaps in a long-term deal to stay in Seattle at an annual rate more salary-cap friendly than that 2016 option would have been.
“I got a little complacent,” Irvin said last month. “And I feel that really put a chip on my shoulder that I go out here and handle my business.”
Avril is back on the defensive line after a concussion forced him from the second half of the Super Bowl. He missed a couple of weeks of organized team activities in May following the death of his father in Florida.
Fellow starting end Michael Bennett is back, too. He spent his offseason complaining about his own $28.5 million contract extension, with $16 million guaranteed, that he signed in the spring of 2014. It has fallen behind the deals that other ends in the league have since signed.
Like Irvin, Bennett stayed away from all voluntary team workouts. But just one season into his four-year deal Bennett has about as much contract leverage with the Seahawks as you do. So Clark will also be learning from Bennett in camp.
The Seahawks want to turn Clark into a younger Bennett. They see the speedy rookie as an end on running downs who moves inside as a hybrid tackle lined up over slower guards and centers on third downs.
Seattle enjoyed that pass-rush mismatch inside with Bennett throughout last season, including in the Super Bowl against the Patriots.
That is, until Avril got hurt in the second half of that still-galling loss. With Avril out, the Patriots focused more blockers on Bennett. That made him less effective while New England’s Tom Brady got ample time to throw touchdown passes.
The Seahawks want more pass rushers like Bennett to prevent a repeat of that. That’s why they took a project in May’s draft to try and create one: former Oregon State wide receiver Obum Gwacham. He is 6 feet 5, and maybe his listed 249 pounds. He’s built like a light-rail track. He will be doing as much learning as any Seahawk in this camp.
Many have forgotten the fifth rush end that Seattle has returning for camp. Cassius Marsh is fully healthy, with the energy that attracted the team to draft him in the fourth round in 2014 out of UCLA. He missed the final 3½ months of his rookie season with a broken foot, so he doesn’t at this point need what is motivating Irvin and Bennett.
Two veteran tackles also have reasons to be self-starters throughout August. Brandon Mebane is back from a torn hamstring he sustained in November, though he could be limited into August as he gets back into practice form. This is the 30-year old’s final season of a contract paying him $5.5 million in 2015.
Jordan Hill is back in the middle of the defensive line after being a revelation into December last season. Then the third-round draft choice from 2013 missed the postseason with severely pulled calf. While no one in the last decade has been as effective as Mebane in tying up multiple blockers inside and freeing up linebackers to make tackles, Hill’s quickness and versatility in slicing through different gaps make him a valuable piece inside now that 2014 part-time starter Kevin Williams is gone.
Tony McDaniel started 14 games last season at tackle. But he is entering his 10th season and is coming off injury. That’s why the Seahawks signed seven-year veteran Ahtyba Rubin from Cleveland to a one-year, $2.6 million deal this spring.
One defensive lineman Carroll doesn’t need to motivate with refreshed messaging is Jesse Williams. The defensive tackle from Australia, by way of the University of Alabama, is a unique player in this camp — and, in one, remarkable way, in this league.
Williams missed his first two NFL seasons with knee injuries. Then in mid-May, doctors found he had papillary type 2 cancer, which occurs in 10 to 15 percent of all kidney cancers.
Surgeons removed one of Williams’ kidneys. Yet last month Carroll announced that Williams was “free to come back” to the practice field.
It has the potential to become the feel-good story of this Seahawks’ training camp.
“It’s just a matter of how soon he can get strong and what kind of level of conditioning can he achieve and then we’re going to reassess,” Carroll said. “But the doctors have said that it’s safe for him to come back and play football.
“It’s been an extraordinarily difficult time for him and his family to have to deal with, such a young man dealing with issues like this. But he’s got great support and he’s a wonderful kid and he’s got a great attitude about it. And I would think if a guy can come back from it, he will do that. So we’re giving him every opportunity.”
How the Seahawks’ defensive line looks to the TNT entering training camp (listed by unofficial depth chart order, * = starter):