RENTON, Wash. (AP) — As belongings were packed up, the phrase became a popular refrain coming from all corners of the Seattle Seahawks locker room.
"We have a really good core group here."
Whether it was safety Earl Thomas or rookie quarterback Russell Wilson or veteran fullback Michael Robinson uttering those words, they resonated with substance because the Seahawks went from a young team with potential to a team on the cusp of being an NFL power this season with most of its key components returning next season.
The expectations will be different in 2013 and everyone already understands that fact. No longer will the Seahawks be a pleasant surprise, but instead hold the title of contender.
"There is nobody in our building that doesn't think that this is going to be an extraordinary offseason for this club," Seattle coach Pete Carroll said. "Knowing that all of the kids that made the team last year that get to come back, and played a lot and they come back. It's such a big jump that happens from year one to year two."
The biggest reason for Seattle's optimism going forward is that core group that has been solidly constructed in three seasons by Carroll and general manager John Schneider and is mostly locked up for the 2013 season. Among their starting 22 on offense and defense, the Seahawks have just two players who are unrestricted free agents — defensive tackle Alan Branch and outside linebacker Leroy Hill. They have only eight unrestricted free agents total and another three who are restricted and can have any offers from other teams matched by the Seahawks.
Unlike last offseason when Seattle was tasked with trying to lock up running back Marshawn Lynch and find an answer to its quarterbacking situation, the Seahawks enter this offseason with the ability to supplement through free agency and the draft while also trying to solidify their roster long-term.
"It is unfinished business," Robinson said. "We are a good team right now but we've got to go from good to being a championship football team. We need to take that next step. We thought we had it this year but hopefully we've got to take this offseason, use it to compete to keep our jobs, compete against other teams ... and draw on this experience next year if the opportunity presents itself."
Branch and Hill said they would like to return, but defensive line and linebacker could be an area where Seattle looks for upgrades. Carroll was blunt in his season-ending news conference that the Seahawks needed at least two defensive linemen in the hopes of trying to solve a pass rush that floundered for most of the season aside from one memorable night against Green Bay.