Ohio State’s Taylor Decker — a better athlete than people realise with a ton of upside
Nobody should be giving up on the 2015 season. The Seahawks have two home games and a chance to be 6-5 heading to Minnesota and Baltimore. The NFC is wide open and anything can happen — including a wild card team making a run.
The 49ers are next.
Even so, at 4-5 there isn’t anything wrong with indulging in a bit of early draft talk.
There’s been some confusion over the pick the Seahawks currently ‘own’. On Monday they were paired with the #19 selection by Mocking the Draft. NFL.com has them with the #18 pick, while MTD now has Seattle at #12 after a strength of schedule update.
If it is #12 — and if they stay in that range — it’d certainly give them an opportunity to upgrade the offensive line via the draft.
It’s actually been quite a nice range to pick in recently. This year Ereck Flowers was the #9 pick, Todd Gurley went at #10, Danny Shelton at #12 and Andrus Peat at #13. Given Seattle’s current needs, it would’ve been an interesting quartet to consider.
In 2014 the Seahawks would’ve been in position to select Odell Beckham Jr (#12) or Aaron Donald (#13). In 2013 they would’ve had a shot at Sheldon Richardson (#13).
They owned the #12 pick in 2012 before moving down three spots to take Bruce Irvin — who’s been a regular starter ever since.
It’s still way too early to predict how the 2016 class will shake out — but having identified at least four draftable offensive tackles for the top-15 — at least one is likely to be sitting there within range.
We’ve been banging on about Shon Coleman (T, Auburn) being the best offensive tackle in college football for a while and there’s no reason to hold back now. A cancer survivor who fought his way back into football, Coleman has dominated difficult SEC opponents like Myles Garrett, Leonard Floyd and Jordan Jenkins. His combination of size, power, mobility, attitude, willingness to get to the second level and chirpiness make him the definition of an elite prospect. He should go very early but nobody talks about him. We’ll see if his stock rises like Greg Robinson in 2014 or Eric Fisher and Lane Johnson in 2013. If not, he could be an ideal first round pick for the Seahawks.
Most people expect Laremy Tunsil (T, Ole Miss) to go in the top ten and that’s a safe bet. While I prefer Coleman, Tunsil has also performed well against the like of Texas A&M’s fantastic speed rusher Myles Garrett since returning from a NCAA imposed suspension. He has the length, kick slide, second level willingness and sufficient grit to warrant the attention he receives. With a premium placed on athletic offensive tackles — Tunsil is well placed to be off the board before Seattle picks barring an unlikely tanking the rest of the way.
Taylor Decker (T, Ohio State) is an underrated athlete who could easily force his way into the top ten. Teams love tall, athletic, blue-collar blockers. Decker ticks all the right boxes and has similar potential to Taylor Lewan. In 2014 Lewan was actually the third tackle off the board at #11 (Greg Robinson and Jake Matthews went before him). Out of the three, Lewan’s had the better career to date. Don’t be surprised if Decker goes a little later than someone like Tunsil but ends up being the better pro. Decker shouldn’t get out of the top-15 and he could be an option if the Seahawks pick as early as #12.
Jack Conklin (T, Michigan Tate) has had a middling 2015 season so far. In the game against Oregon he looked like a typical road-grader — driving defenders off the ball, protecting Connor Cook and looking every bit a physical and capable pro-prospect. In recent weeks he’s not looked quite as sharp — culminating in a slightly torrid outing against Maryland last weekend. Cook was injured in the game as the pass protection struggled. Can Conklin play left tackle? That’s the big question. Are you moving him to the right? If so, you’re probably putting him behind Coleman, Tunsil and Decker. Even so — he’s a bit of a self-made man (former walk-on at MSU) and he’s a good run blocker with the necessary size and temperament teams like. With such a growing need for good O-liners in the league, don’t expect Conklin to get out of the top-20 picks.
I’ve not included Notre Dame’s Ronnie Stanley. His play and effort is inconsistent, there’s a stiffness to his pass-pro set and there’s very little evidence of any second level blocking. LSU’s Jerald Hawkins has received some attention recently — although it’s unclear why. Some of his performances this year have barely warranted a draftable grade (particularly against Alabama).
It’s hard to look beyond the O-line for obvious reasons. Seattle’s group has struggled, seemingly impacting the overall identity of the offense and affecting the performance of Russell Wilson and Marshawn Lynch.
Russell Okung and J.R. Sweezy are free agents in the off-season. Even if both players re-sign — you likely have to consider upgrading the left guard, center and right tackle positions.
If things go wrong and they pick in the top-15, they’ll have ample opportunity to address their most pressing need.
Teams going O-line crazy in recent years
The Seahawks might be facing an O-line makeover in the off-season — but plenty of other teams have already been there and got the T-shirt. With mixed results.
The Arizona Cardinals spent first round picks on Jonathan Cooper (2013) and D.J. Humphries (2015) and yet both have disappointed so far. They also committed to the O-line in free agency, bringing in Jared Veldheer and Mike Iupati. The Cardinals, even with two underwhelming first round players, have the #8 ranked O-line in pass protection in the NFL (all rankings in this piece via Football Outsiders) and the third best run blocking unit.
Cincinnati has planned ahead, sensing the need to protect Andy Dalton as a priority. They drafted Cedric Ogbuehi (first round) and Jake Fisher (second round) this year to eventually replace their two incumbent offensive tackles. In 2012 they also spent a first round pick on guard Kevin Zeitler and in 2014 a fourth rounder on Russell Bodine. They have the seventh best unit for pass pro and a ranked at #2 in the run game and clearly intend to stay in that range.
The Cleveland Browns hit on two elite O-liners in 2007 (Joe Thomas) and 2009 (Alex Mack). Yet 2015 first rounder Cam Erving is off to a bad start (seemingly Mack’s successor). 2012 early second rounder Mitchell Schwartz has been hit and miss but 2014 second rounder Joel Bitonio has been a roaring success. Despite some heavy draft investment in the trenches, the Browns have given up three more sacks than even the Seahawks in 2015. Their line is ranked dead last in the running game and #26 in pass pro. It’s clear evidence that a good line and a bad supporting cast at the skill positions isn’t a good mix.
The Miami Dolphins have tried to rebuild their O-line recently by drafting Ja’Wuan James in the first round (2014), spending third rounders on Billy Turner and Dallas Thomas and a fourth rounder this year on Jamil Douglas. That follows the previous first round investment on Mike Pouncey (2011). They also signed Brandon Albert in free agency. The line is still in a state of flux despite serious dedication to try and improve. Miami’s line is currently at #25 in the passing game and #19 for the run.
The New York Giants have made recent moves to improve their line, probably to preserve Eli Manning’s career for a while longer. Ereck Flowers was taken with the #9 pick this year. Justin Pugh was drafted in the first round in 2013. They also spent a second rounder last year on center Weston Richburg. It’s certainly led to some improvement. New York currently has the 12th best pass protecting line and they’re #16 in the run game. They’ve only given up 15 sacks.
Pittsburgh are another team that recently decided they had to spend considerable resource up front to repair their offense. In 2012 they spent their first two picks on guard David DeCastro and tackle Mike Adams. They took Maurkice Pouncey in round one the previous year. They’ve gone from having a horrendous, sieve-like offensive line to a solid unit that boasts the #6 run game in 2015 and the #20 line in pass protection. Consider that they didn’t have Le’veon Bell for the first four games of the season due to suspension and have needed to start Michael Vick and Landry Jones at quarterback. Clearly the line is doing something right.
And then of course there’s Dallas. The most hyped up O-line in the league. Everyone considers the Cowboys’ unit as the best. Tony Romo has still missed games in 2014 and 2015 playing behind this O-line. While it’s certainly not a bad group by any stretch — the three first round picks spent on Tyron Smith, Zack Martin and Travis Frederick (plus the recent addition of La’el Collins) have combined for the #23 ranked line for pass pro and at #8 in the running game. Not bad numbers — but certainly not elite given the major investment. Maybe Romo, Dez Bryant and DeMarcus Murray were the real stars last year?
So these are the teams that have gone big recently. The #1 ranked team in pass protection is Oakland surprisingly. Their line consists of free agent pickups Donald Penn, Rodney Hudson, a former 7th rounder J’Marcus Webb signed from Minnesota, undrafted Austin Howard who bounced around three teams before landing with the Raiders and 2014 third round pick Gabe Jackson.
You wouldn’t put that group together and expect greatness. It emphasises what scheming and a good blend of offensive skill players (Carr, Murray, Cooper & Crabtree) can do for an offense.
The Seahawks — who themselves have spent two first rounders, two second rounders and a third rounder on the O-line since 2009 — have shown they’re unable to scheme around a line that isn’t that talented. The solution is probably going to be expensive — be it picks or salary.
Will they go with a tackle first in 2016 (Coleman, Tunsil, Decker, Conklin) and someone like Adam Bisnowaty, Jason Spriggs or Joe Dahl in rounds 2-3? They also need to find an answer at center — and if they can afford it, might be able to coax Alex Mack to Seattle. Adding a cheaper, wily veteran at tackle or guard might also be attractive.
Ultimately they need tough football players who can pick up the technique quickly. Zack Martin was a rare case — athletic and technically adept while capable of playing any position on the line. A fantastic prospect. But players like Justin Pugh in New York, the Pouncey brothers, Joel Bitonio and others have shown you can find prospects who can make it work quickly with toughness, attitude and some athleticism.
They’ve tried the ultra-SPARQy, high ceiling approach and it hasn’t necessarily worked. They don’t need to completely abandon that plan — but it’s time to find some road graders to hold things together. The Seahawks need to be able to run the ball and provide average pass protection. They need to get back to the days where they ranked #1 in the running game and around the #20 mark for pass pro. That’s the identity of this team. Right now they’re at #9 for the run and #32 in pass pro. A jump of eight places is required in both categories — minimum — for this team to regain the offense it desires.
Possible 2016 O-line solution:
LT Shon Coleman or Taylor Decker
LG Veteran guard or Justin Britt
C Alex Mack
RG J.R. Sweezy
RT Adam Bisnowaty
(This assumes Russell Okung signs a big contract with a different team)
The Seahawks might also want to bring in another running back in the middle rounds. Indiana’s Jordan Howard showed what he’s capable of against Michigan with major yards after contact and a tough, physical running style. Alex Collins has had a very solid year for Arkansas with a blend of home-run hitting speed and a tough-to-bring-down style. UCLA’s Paul Perkins is more athletic and slight but is still tough to bring down with nice vision and a delicious cut-back ability.
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