The Seahawks went into the off-season with Pete Carroll once again noting the importance of consistency on the offensive line.
Yet there’s a reasonable chance they’ll begin the 2020 season with four new starters.
When the Seahawks travelled to London in 2018 I asked Carroll about the importance of retaining J.R. Sweezy and D.J. Fluker. Both were playing on one-year deals. Both were making a positive impression on a much improved O-line. The Seahawks could run the ball again after a disastrous 2017 season. Although the line was far from one of the best in the league — it’d taken a significant step forward.
Carroll’s answer is quite interesting to reflect on. He called them members of the new core. They were going to be part of the foundation of what was emerging during the reset.
Yet 18 months later both were gone.
It’s indicative of what has been Seattle’s problem since that 2018 season. Players assumed to be part of the new core — Fluker, Sweezy, Frank Clark — have left the team. Some others have emerged, such as D.K. Metcalf. But not enough. Their key players are mostly carry-overs from the previous incarnation — Wilson, Wagner, Wright, Lockett — with some others who straddled both eras (Carson, Griffin).
If the aim from 2018 was to build and craft a new group — it’s not really happened.
The O-line in particular appears to be facing a crossroads. By moving on from Justin Britt, Germain Ifedi and Fluker they could improve the unit. Ifedi was a fixture for four years but had to settle for a veteran minimum contract as a free agent. Britt is currently unemployed and recovering from a knee injury — and who knows what the future holds there? Fluker will fight for a roster spot in Baltimore but didn’t have a good 2019 season.
They haven’t exactly lost Jones, Hutchinson and Tobeck.
The thing is, there’s such a striking unknown about the replacements.
Brandon Shell is a carbon copy of Ifedi in terms of size and profile. He was benched by the Jets last season but now possesses a two-year $11m contract in Seattle. People will joke he can’t be any worse than Ifedi but there’s at least a chance he might not be a significant improvement or any good.
He doesn’t need to be a pro-bowler to be a worthy addition — he just needs to tie up his side of the line, not give away the high number of penalties Ifedi conceded and refrain from being a liability. Most people can’t name more than five or six right tackles in the NFL. Not being bad isn’t a high bar for Shell but it’s funny how often it proves a challenging obstacle for a number of offensive linemen.
B.J. Finney will presumably be first in line to replace Justin Britt. We are not talking about a proven commodity at center, however. In 2017 he was a swing backup guard or center, starting one game at left guard. In 2018 he was a backup guard — starting twice at right guard. The Steelers liked him enough to place a second round tender on him a year ago and he started some games at center too. Yet we’re not talking about a player who’s been anything more than versatile depth up to this point in his career.
Can he be a consistent, quality starting center? That’s not a question anyone can answer positively with any conviction. We need to wait and see. His competition isn’t exactly fierce either. Joey Hunt is a serviceable but limited center and Ethan Pocic has struggled to stay healthy or have any impact in his three years in the league.
I’m a big fan of Damien Lewis and believe the Seahawks stole a top-50 player in round three of the draft. He’s tough, physical and has the potential to become a long-term contributor. He could start as a rookie. For once the Seahawks didn’t go for a player who can play multiple positions. They took a player who is a pure, 100% right guard. He’s not going to be moved around the line or spend three years finding his fit. He’s a right guard. Plain and simple.
He’s also a rookie. And even if the pick ends up being a roaring success down the line, there’s an opportunity for some growing pains — especially when he’s likely going to slot between two other new additions in Finney and Shell. He’ll have to compete with another new signing — Chance Warmack — to start in 2020.
The re-signing of Mike Iupati will provide an opportunity for some consistency at left guard. It’s possible they felt obliged to add him to at least avoid almost a clean sweep of changes up front. It’s very difficult to insert four new starters into an offensive line in one off-season. Iupati’s main competition will be Phil Haynes — although both players were hampered by injuries in 2019.
Duane Brown is probably the second most important player on the team. You can make an argument for Bobby Wagner but the Seahawks just spent a first round pick on a middle linebacker. If Brown gets hurt, as he did last year, the offense could implode. It could easily look as bad as it did against Arizona in week 16.
It’s one of the big head-scratching moments of the off-season really. They spent $60m and not only failed to adequately boost the defensive line (and still have a hole at defensive tackle to this day) — they don’t have a serious Plan B if Brown gets injured.
Admittedly it’s hard enough to find one capable starting left tackle, let alone two. Arguably their failure to properly address the defense in free agency took away any realistic chance to draft a tackle in the first three rounds. They zoned in on Shell and Cedric Ogbuehi in free agency and then moved on.
This is a problem due to Brown’s age. He’s 35 in August and while he insists he’s healthy and raring to go this season — the injuries were starting to stack up last year. The Seahawks aren’t a team like the Titans, with a long term fixture at left tackle who you can realistically expect to play 16 games. Brown is at a point in his career where injuries aren’t going to be surprising. That places a greater importance on having a solid backup. It’s a position you need to invest in. Ideally it’s a fairly highly drafted player you can develop to be a successor.
The Seahawks haven’t invested in a heir apparent or a serious, relatively proven backup. They merely signed Ogbuehi.
The addition was both understandable and curious. They needed to replace George Fant and Ogbuehi at least has some experience of being the sixth linemen in Jacksonville. It’s not quite so clear why he earned a pay increase from $895,000 to $2.237m based on the 155 snaps he had last season. Was demand really that high for a player who had to accept the veteran minimum as a free agent a year ago? For a player who was a first round bust and has endured an injury history? Nevertheless, he fits the Fant mould fairly well.
His addition as the likely backup left tackle though feels like yet another reclamation project that is going to predictably go the same way as all the other ones over the years. It has to be hoped that he never has to play left tackle. It’s fair to say that for all the talent on Seattle’s offense — Wilson, Carson, Lockett, Metcalf, Olsen, Dissly — they’re relying on the health of a 35-year-old left tackle to hold things together.
It means that even in the one position where you feel good about the talent and the experience and the consistency — there’s still a question mark. Again, having spent $60m and having possessed four picks in the first three rounds — it was reasonable to think this would be a target position for investment.
Much has been made of Seattle’s numbers on the O-line. They currently have 17 on the roster. For all the talk of mass competition, however, the starting five seem fairly set with the only real challenge being between Iupati and Haynes and Lewis and Warmack (who was out of the league last year). Most of the 17 are camp bodies. If you had to pick 10 to make it, your guess today will probably be more or less spot on.
It’s also understandable if fans sense a little bit of déjà vu. In 2016 the Seahawks tried to fill holes on the O-line by adding cost-effective starters Bradley Sowell and J’Marcus Webb. Then in 2017 they spent money on a reclamation project in Luke Joeckel and added Oday Obushi, before using a high pick on Ethan Pocic. Finney, Shell, Ogbuehi and Lewis feels, unfortunately, like an eerily similar plan.
Much of the talk this off-season has quite rightly been about the underwhelming moves on the D-line. Yet the lack of action there would’ve been more understandable if there’d been a concerted spending effort on the O-line. If they’d gone out and really added proven quality, such as a Jack Conklin, it still might not’ve been the best use of resources with the pass rush so inept in 2019. At least, however, you could justify the investment in the O-line. Big moves are big moves. Improving your team is improving your team.
The problem with this off-season is they’ve spent $60m and they might not be better on either line. And yet these are the two areas where they really needed to improve.
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