The Seattle Seahawks have climbed into the ranks of the NFL's elite by stockpiling top-notch playmakers on both sides of the ball. Coach Pete Carroll and general manager John Schneider have been daring and courageous in their pursuit of blue-chip talent; perceived issues and baggage don't scare them away from such players. This was certainly the case when the team landed Marshawn Lynch in a pivotal 2010 trade, and it remained true when the Seahawks acquired receiver Percy Harvin in a blockbuster deal with the Minnesota Vikings this offseason.
While some teams saw Harvin as a talented malcontent, the Seahawks viewed the fifth-year pro as the missing piece of a championship-caliber roster. With a week to fully examine how Harvin could fit into Seattle's plans, I've come up with three reasons to believe the move will push the team to the top of the NFC in 2013:
1) Harvin's versatility will make the Seahawks' offense more explosive.
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The Seahawks' offensive attack developed into one of the most dangerous in the NFL under the direction of quarterback Russell Wilson. The rookie sensation spearheaded a unit that averaged 32.4 points over the final 10 games of the 2012 season (including the playoffs). Numbers like those are typically reserved for high-powered passing attacks. However, the Seahawks were blowing up scoreboards across the league with a power running game driven by Lynch and complemented by a varied passing attack that featured receivers Sidney Rice and Golden Tate terrorizing opponents outside of the numbers. The evolution of the offense nearly catapulted the Seahawks to the NFC Championship Game. Still, the team was missing a crucial ingredient: a dynamic slot receiver.
In today's game, the middle of the field is where explosive offenses find ways to pick up chunks of yardage and points, by creating mismatches against linebackers and safeties. Elite units feature a dynamic, playmaking tight end or slot receiver who can exploit the less-athletic defenders lurking between the hashes. With Harvin in the lineup, the Seahawks will no longer lack that key component. One of the most dangerous playmakers in the NFL, Harvin primarily does his damage while working from the slot. He excels at running option routes and short crossing routes from that position; this allows him to get the ball quickly in the open field with plenty of room to maneuver.
When I broke down the All-22 Coaches Film of Harvin's best plays from his time with the Vikings, I came away impressed with his ability to find open areas between the hashes on underneath routes. He has a nice feel for using picks and rubs from tight ends (and/or inside receivers) to create separation from defenders in the slot. Harvin also displayed excellent field awareness, and the Vikings were able to capitalize on his abilities as an outstanding runner in the open field.
In the video clip to the right, taken from a game against the Denver Broncos in 2011, the Vikings are running a flanker-drive concept, with Harvin coming underneath on a shallow cross. He quickly makes his way over the middle of the field, hauls in the ball and utilizes his speed and burst to transform a short pass into a big gain. This play was a staple in the Vikings' playbook. Seattle offensive coordinator Darrell Bevell (who should be familiar with Harvin from the time he spent on the Vikings' staff) certainly will implement the concept in the Seahawks' game plan.
Harvin is an outstanding option route runner. He flashes remarkable stop-start quickness, allowing him to obtain significant separation from defenders at the top of his routes. Additionally, he is stronger and more physical than his 5-foot-9, 184-pound frame would suggest. He isn't afraid to push or pull his way through contact to get open against tight coverage. Earlier in that same game against the Broncos, Harvin showcased his strength and power while separating from a defender on a "bench" route (10-yard speed out) from the slot for a 52-yard touchdown. Whereas most diminutive receivers shy away from contact down the field, Harvin uses his body to shield and push off against defenders at the top of routes. This allows him to routinely win against man coverage in key situations. Defenses likely will be reluctant to try covering the Seahawks with a two-deep zone, thanks to the presence of Lynch in the backfield. Harvin's explosiveness and effectiveness as a slot receiver certainly will make the passing game even more difficult to defend.
2) The Seahawks' read-option package becomes harder to stop.
The Seahawks quietly implemented several read-option concepts over the course of the 2012 season. The threat that the quarterback would take off enhanced the team's power running game, creating hesitation in the minds of defenders at the point of attack. Defensive ends in particular were routinely left in a bind by Wilson's clever handling at the mesh point as they tried to determine which player had the ball. Edge players who overreacted to the chance that Wilson would keep the ball would leave huge creases for Lynch on the back side.
Defenses are spending the entire offseason crafting plans to stop the read-option. Harvin will help Bevell stay a step ahead, allowing him to expand the package in a variety of ways. The Seahawks can add the bubble-screen option to the play, providing Wilson with the ability to hand the ball off, keep it or throw it, depending on the defense's reaction. This stresses the defensive end and puts linebackers, safeties and cornerbacks in conflict, due to the triple-option effect.
As I studied tape of the Vikings, I noticed that several of Harvin's big plays had come on a variation of a receiver screen on the outside. From bubble screens (in which the slot receiver races away from the quarterback and toward the sideline to receive a quick pass behind the line of scrimmage) to tunnel screens (in which a receiver takes a few steps up the field before working toward the quarterback to field a pass behind the line of scrimmage, with a convoy of blockers leading the way), Harvin showed he could turn short plays into huge gains, weaving through traffic with his electric running style. The Seahawks already incorporate the zone-read concept and a handful of receiver screen plays. It's not a stretch to imagine that the playbook will feature more plays with screens included as an option.
The Seahawks also will take advantage of Harvin's versatility as a running back to enhance their exotic running game. Harvin regularly has carried the ball from the tailback position throughout his collegiate and pro career, showing he can handle a moderate workload as a runner. Bevell will be able to motion Harvin into the backfield as an extra running back in some sets. Additionally, the Seahawks can tap into his running skills by mixing in some fly-sweep concepts to get him the ball en route to the perimeter. He can also motion into the backfield and serve as the pitch back on some of the read-option concepts from one-back or two-back formations. This will create confusion in the minds of defenders and keep defensive coordinators up at night trying to anticipate the myriad gadget plays Bevell can use on a weekly basis.
3) The Seahawks' return game gets a big boost.
I know it's crazy to suggest the Seahawks' return game will improve without one of the most prolific returners in NFL history (Leon Washington), but Harvin is a special playmaker in the return game. He has averaged nearly 28 yards per kick return during his career, scoring a total of five kick-return touchdowns. Washington certainly deserves props for his illustrious career as a return man, but he is not nearly as explosive or dynamic as Harvin, a rare speedster with exceptional stop-start quickness whose superb vision allows him to spot creases anywhere.
The Seahawks' return unit excels at knocking cover guys out of their respective lanes, which makes an explosive returner like Harvin a threat to score whenever he touches the ball in the open field. The return game plays a big role in determining the outcomes of NFL games down the stretch; acquiring a younger, more explosive return man could pay dividends in the Seahawks' quest for a title in 2013.