For the Seattle Seahawks to contend for the playoffs this season, here are the five players who can help make that happen:
Russell Wilson, quarterback: This one's a no-brainer, as it probably is for every team's starting quarterback. Wilson was never more important to Seattle's offense than he was last season, when he led the NFL with 34 touchdown passes, scored three of the Seahawks' four rushing TDs and became only the fifth quarterback since the 1970 merger to lead his team in rushing -- which was among several stats illustrative of how poorly Seattle ran the ball. The Seahawks don't want Wilson to have to carry that much of the load, and they hope an improved running game will give them the balance that coach Pete Carroll strives for on offense. But even if the Seahawks ask less of Wilson in 2018, he remains the most important player to their playoff hopes on either side of the ball.
Earl Thomas, free safety: The best argument for giving Thomas a new contract is the stark difference in how their pass defense has fared over the past two seasons with and without him on the field, as shown in this chart from ESPN's Mike Sando. Should Thomas' holdout last into the season, Bradley McDougald makes the Seahawks much better equipped to replace him than they were late in 2016, when the inexperienced Steven Terrell filled in while Thomas missed five full games and parts of two others. On the other hand, they're moving on without strong safety Kam Chancellor (neck), who announced he was walking away from football Sunday, and no longer have Richard Sherman locking down the left side of the field. Thomas' presence as an eraser and the last line of defense might be more important than ever before.
Bobby Wagner, middle linebacker: His 518 tackles over the past four seasons are the most in the NFL, and only Luke Kuechly (818) has more than Wagner (776) since they entered the league together in 2012, according to ESPN charting. Wagner's 2017 season was worthy of consideration for defensive player of the year. By virtue of his position, he always has been the quarterback of Seattle's defense, so to speak. Chancellor had long been the vocal leader of that group, but his departure means Wagner will take on more of that responsibility.
Frank Clark, defensive end: How much do the Seahawks need a big season from Clark? Consider this: Michael Bennett and Cliff Avril, who are both gone, combined for 73.5 sacks over the past five seasons, an average of nearly 7.5 apiece per season. Clark has 22 sacks since Seattle drafted him in the second round in 2015. That's almost as many as the combined career total for their next four edge rushers: Dion Jordan (seven in five seasons), Barkevious Mingo (nine in five seasons), Marcus Smith (6.5 in four seasons) and rookie third-round pick Rasheem Green. Jordan has played in only five games over the past three seasons and is coming off another knee surgery. Mingo is projected to start at strong-side linebacker, meaning he won't be rushing the passer on early downs. And Seattle might move Green inside in passing situations. Clark is the one sure thing the Seahawks have in terms of edge rushers. They need him to produce double-digit sacks.
Doug Baldwin, wide receiver: It's tempting to go with a tailback here given Seattle's expectation of an improved running game from what it has had the past two seasons. Problem is, no one knows which running back -- incumbent Chris Carson or rookie first-round pick Rashaad Penny -- will be the starter, so it's hard to make the case for either as being one of the five most important Seahawks. Can't go wrong with Baldwin. He has led Seattle in receiving in five of his seven seasons and has been especially important on third down, ranking sixth among receivers in receptions (142) and fourth in yards (2,104) since 2011. His 29 receiving touchdowns over the past three seasons are second only to Antonio Brown's 31. Seattle's offense could use all the touchdowns it can get from Baldwin now that Jimmy Graham is gone.