Justin Britt is fourteen games into his NFL career. Some would argue it’s too early to judge his performance. He’s a rookie. He’s learning a new position and scheme. He’s also faced some of the top pass rushers in the league — whether it’s Denver’s Von Miller and DeMarcus Ware combo or the prolific blitz attack of the Arizona Cardinals. This has been the proverbial baptism of fire.
Inexperience could be used as a legitimate excuse. He could improve with time. Look at the way Jordan Hill has suddenly exploded onto the scene towards the back-end of his second season in Seattle. It’s taken Tharold Simon time to get healthy and have an impact. Golden Tate was a slow burner and even Kam Chancellor sat as a rookie to learn the ropes.
Britt hasn’t been afforded that luxury. The Seahawks needed a right tackle after losing Breno Giacomini. When they reached the final pick in the second round of the draft — they simply had to take one.
By pick #64, seven offensive tackles had been drafted. When the Indianapolis Colts took Ohio State’s Jack Mewhort at #59 (a possible Seahawks target), Seattle faced a dilemma. They didn’t have a third round pick — they coughed it up in the ill-fated Percy Harvin trade. They were next on the board at pick #108 at the top of round four. If they didn’t take Britt at #64, they were probably not going to come away with a guy they liked at right tackle.
Britt is a Tom Cable type of guy. No nonsense. Former wrestler. Tough as nails. The Seahawks have leaned on their offensive line coach for advice in the draft — he appeared to be instrumental in the decision to select James Carpenter and John Moffitt months after arriving in Seattle. They also signed one of his former Oakland players — Robert Gallery — to further bolster the line. They even allowed him to draft a defensive lineman, convert him to guard, and start him in the first game of his rookie season. J.R. Sweezy has since become a mainstay on the O-line.
It’d be easy to look at the acquired group (including Britt) with indifference. The results, however, speak volumes. Pete Carroll wants the best running game in the NFL and that’s what he has — with Cable pulling the strings. For all the complaints over pass protection, before week 15 Seattle ranked only four places below the celebrated Dallas Cowboys offensive line according to Football Outsiders. I suspect both Carroll and Cable are quite satisfied to have a highly ranked run-blocking unit, even if the pass-pro is distinctly average.
That’s part of the reason Britt was drafted in round two. I watched two Missouri games over the summer where he played the run superbly — but looked awkward in pass protection. He played at left tackle but looked far from a natural.
I doubt they planned on rolling out a finished article in 2014. Losing Zach Miller — perhaps the best blocking tight end in the league — hasn’t helped. His presence on the right side would’ve taken the pressure off Britt in his first year. Instead he’s had to get out there and take on the best. It hasn’t been pretty.
In Sunday’s win over San Francisco, Ahmad Brooks had him for dinner. On more than one occasion he had a free run to Russell Wilson. Britt didn’t even lay a finger on him. Giacomini was a brawler and far from perfect in pass protection but he usually did enough to buy his quarterback a bit of extra time. Britt has to develop that kind of effectiveness. He’s never going to be the natural pass blocker who kick-slides with ease and ushers the top DE’s out of danger. But he needs to be disruptive, get into the pads and at least buy Wilson a second or two.
Life won’t get any easier in the final two weeks of the regular season. A rematch with the Cardinals in Arizona — and then St. Louis’ all-star D-line. Ouch.
With every struggling performance you wonder how Seattle’s front office and coaching staff will assess this situation. Will they feel Britt can take the next step in year two? Can he grow just like J.R. Sweezy and others. Can he lock down the position for years to come?
Or is he better off moving inside — just as James Carpenter did after a tough rookie season — and trying his hand at guard?
If the Seahawks were willing to give up on the #25 overall pick at right tackle after one year, you better believe they’ll do the same with the #64 pick. Carpenter’s pending free agency status adds another dimension to this debate. If he walks they could let Britt battle with Alvin Bailey for the left guard spot. The other player, theoretically, could start at tackle. Or they could bring in a new body.
Should they decide to bring in a new tackle — what are the options?
It’s another good class for offensive linemen, even if there isn’t that sure-fire top-five pick heading the group. Depth is the key here — and that’s a good thing for the Seahawks. They’ll be picking in the 20’s or 30’s if they make the playoffs. And there’s every chance they’ll have the opportunity to get a solid player if they want to add another early pick to this unit.
La’el Collins (T/G, LSU) divides opinion. For me he needs to kick inside to guard at the next level — but he has a chance to turn into a perennial Pro-Bowler at that position. Could he operate at right tackle? Perhaps. But you’d be wasting a damn fine guard.
T.J. Clemmings (T, Pittsburgh) is the most intriguing tackle in the class. A converted defensive lineman, he’s looked terrific this year playing at right tackle. He’s mobile, athletic, loves to get to the second level. He has the potential to dominate in the run game. He could work his way into being the first or second tackle off the board.
Two of the bigger names — Cedric Oguehi (T, Texas A&M) and Brandon Scherff (T, Iowa) are a bit overrated. Ogbuehi in particular has struggled this year after moving to left tackle. Scherff might be better suited to guard — he’s another player with the potential to excel in the run game but is he good enough in pass protection?
It’s debatable whether Andrus Peat (T, Stanford) and Ronnie Stanley (T, Notre Dame) will declare. If either does, they have a shot to be among the top-15 picks. Peat is a natural in pass-pro and the best pure left tackle eligible for this draft. Tyrus Thompson (T, Oklahoma), Corey Robinson (T, South Carolina) and Ty Sambrailo (T, Colorado State) could all be options too. The depth extends to Cameron Erving (T/C, Florida State), Chaz Green (T, Florida), Jake Fisher (T, Oregon) and Daryl Williams (T, Oklahoma).
Here’s the issue though. Is replacing a struggling rookie with another first-year player the answer? Spending a first round pick on a right tackle (Carpenter) didn’t provide a solution. Spending a second round pick on a right tackle (Britt) hasn’t paid off so far. Do you keep throwing picks at a non-premium position in the hope you finally strike it lucky?
And yes — it is a non-premium position. If Zach Miller returns in 2015, Britt will get the kind of help he currently desperately needs. The Seahawks have won a whole host of games in the last two years starting Michael Bowie and Britt. Their most productive starting right tackle under Carroll and Cable has been a 5th round pick signed off the Packers practice squad.
It would be unprecedented for a team to spend two first round picks and a second round pick within a five year span trying to get a long term starting right tackle.
If they’re going to sign another player, wouldn’t they be better off adding a competent veteran tackle to the roster? Playing it safe at a slightly greater cost? Doug Free could be a cap casualty in Dallas as they try to re-sign DeMarco Murray and Dez Bryant. He has his critics in Dallas — but he is the kind of player who could become available.
Alternatively, there is one not insignificant reason to draft a first round tackle. Russell Okung will enter the final year of his rookie deal in 2015. His cap hit is just $7m — a relative bargain for a player of his ability. But what happens after 2015? He could be a difficult keep. On the one hand he made a Pro-Bowl in 2012 and is a highly respected member of the roster. A team leader and a consistent feature during the Carroll revolution. He’s also struggled to stay healthy and might generate serious money on the open market.
Is a first round left tackle necessary? More often than not, yes. Defenses are getting faster. The top, athletic O-liners go early. It’s why Carroll’s first pick in Seattle was a top-ten tackle.
Would they draft a player to initially feature at right tackle, providing security on the left side if Okung walks? Possibly.
Of course, there’s every chance time will be a healer with Justin Britt. And it’s also very possible the Seahawks re-sign Okung. That wouldn’t be such a bad thing either. Again — the Seahawks want the best run-blocking line in the NFL. They’ve set out to draft run blockers. They know they have a scrambling quarterback who can evade pressure — they want to be a scrambling team. Wilson is a difficult guy to block for and it should be no surprise that the top two pass-protecting lines in the NFL according to FO are Denver and New England. Peyton Manning and Tom Brady are easier to block for and they both have a super-quick release.
Don’t underestimate consistency either. Keeping a line together is vital — more vital than endless high picks at the position hoping something eventually clicks.
The play of Britt didn’t cost Seattle in any of their four defeats. Let’s hear that perspective. There’s every chance he will improve in year two. But it’ll be interesting to see how they approach this situation in the off-season. Does he switch to guard? What do they do with Carpenter? And would they be prepared to spend yet another early pick trying to find a long term option at right tackle?
T.J. Clemmings vs Miami
Ty Sambrailo vs Boston College
Jake Fisher vs Washington
Brandon Scherff vs Maryland