The first week of camp was an opening act. We all knew it. Little stories separated and flew overhead, backfield injuries and SAM rotation and Michael B. fever, like the first loose leaves at the start of a wind storm. Meanwhile the five starting placements on the Seattle Seahawks offensive line entered as expected—from left to right: Garry Gilliam, Mark Glowinski, Justin Britt, Germain Ifedi and J’Marcus Webb—and for that first week remained mainly unchanged. But now the sudden acquisition of free agent Jahri Evans alongside mutters about Webb’s fitness and maybe even Gilliam’s performance seem to throw everything into flux. The headlining drama, the storm we all felt coming, the annual offensive line shuffle has begun.
Or has it? There’s a game in two days.
After early speculation supposed adding Evans, a career right guard, might be a maneuver made owing to Webb’s failings, to bump Ifedi out to tackle—Ifedi’s own customary position and his projected future for the Seahawks, by many—word now says Evans will be playing both the left side and in a reserve role, behind Glowinski. That’s a depth chart shakeup and bad news for the guys jostling for that utility guard spot, Kristjan Sokoli, Will Pericak and the like. Another bad sign for Pericak: If you look up his name you get all the way the final letter before Google doesn’t think you’re asking, “Will pericardial effusion go away?”
Still, it’s not any scenario we didn’t know entering camp. Kenneth Arthur wrote in his Bubble Watch last month: “For Glow, I just don't see where there's even any competition behind him ready to make a surprising jump up the depth chart by not one, but two guards. The same goes for Ifedi.” Sam Gold’s video breakdown of Evans’s pass protection expertise with the Saints supports a theory that the six-time Pro Bowler arrives on a sort of visiting professorship, to help school Ifedi and Glowinski, both converted tackles known as maulers, on the finer points of positional blocking—even if it’s only during camp.
As of Tuesday’s practice, the five expected linemen were back at their familiar spots with the first team group. But then Wednesday saw them shuffled again. Webb sat out for periods while Bradley Sowell took his place at right tackle, and Evans subbed after all for Ifedi (booked by NBA refs for his accumulated flagrant fouls). This all came after a weekend that included Terry Poole and Rees Odhiambo rotating in for the besieged Webb, and also undrafted rookie George Fant popping up like a 6-foot-6 mushroom for turns in Gilliam’s left tackle slot.
It’s weird that Gilliam’s rawness at a pivotal NFL position had seemed to slip over the last few months into a category of “least concern” relative to some of the other O-line imponderables, but when Pete Carroll Tuesday suggested Sowell also might make a “run” at Gilliam’s post you could start to imagine Gilliam’s awesome portrait fade from the Marty McFly group picture of Seattle’s starting five.
I tend rather to look at these emergent spells by the reserves as discovery opportunities instead of impeachments of the favorites. I believe they’re legit looks in keeping with Carroll’s idea of competition—motivation for both presumed starters and challengers—but probably more for gaining visions for the future ceilings of guys at the cutting edge of the bubble than proof of turnover at the top of the ranks. It is possible Webb’s really on the block, of course; he has perhaps the least hold to his claim on the job, but then again none of these guys have any established record with the Seahawks at their current assignment.
Ifedi, for example, has been squabbling since day one. Maybe it’s just a case that the scrappers on the defense (none of whom other than Earl Thomas were number one picks) genuinely spite first rounders. But these are two faces of the same phenomenon: Michael Bennett and company aggressively joust with Ifedi precisely because Ifedi’s high draft status might otherwise make his mount feel unassailable. Ifedi’s feistiness in response reportedly only tightens his security. Even if it cost him reps yesterday, I don’t imagine his job is truly in danger.
The precedent for assuming another cleat will drop, then, comes from last year’s training camp when Tom Cable remixed the starting group following a disastrous preseason opener that saw Russell Wilson sacked twice on the first two series and the Denver Broncos eventually totaling seven sacks on the day. Cable yanked Alvin Bailey and Lemuel Jeanpierre from the first string and switched Britt to left guard from right tackle, inserting Gilliam in his place.
Looking back, this restructuring may have been a move too hasty given that Denver thrashed offensive lines all season long with one of the best defensive front tandems the NFL has seen in the free agency era. Is there an alternate version of the 2015 Seahawks that stuck with its starters through the preseason and didn’t lose four of six when the games counted? Or maybe something irremediable had happened behind the doors with Bailey, leaving the coaches with no other option—a pure guess by me that happens to help explain why Bailey treated the season like he was being held hostage in Seattle. Either way, the final piece of that shift, elevating Drew Nowak to center, ended up such a failure that Nowak relinquished his starting job during the Seahawks’ bye week and then ultimately his roster spot two weeks later.
Carroll has said he wants the Seahawks to settle on a lineup earlier this camp period, to establish better continuity up front, which leaves a pretty interesting implication for Saturday’s preseason opener in Kansas City. Will the offensive line featured at the start of this weekend’s rehearsal seal Cable’s first group, barring injury obviously, from here on out?
The short answer has to be no. There’s no way Carroll will end competition exclusively for any segment of his program purely to favor stability. The words “end competition” and “win forever” have to be kept apart to avoid the sort of matter-antimatter annihilation that could render the planet unlivable. But there also may be a good chance that the likely starters for the regular season are more or less already decided, and the machinations going on right now in practice are designs for bringing out higher performance and, again, sharpening the depth and evaluating the second team.
If the placements aren’t finalized, however, I say spare me your Sowells and Evanses and bring on the youngest competitors, Fant and Odhiambo. It’s not like I have some special vantage that gives me a better view of practice than the coaches. In fact I haven’t watched a down to be able to compare their play, and only rely on the collective observations I’ve read. But if continuity and repetition are what’s valuable, then I’d rather the Seahawks focus on developing the pieces that have a chance to anchor a line together for years to come.
On the other hand, if what’s more valuable is protecting Wilson, I see the case for starting your best five at all costs. Or all of what’s in your offensive line allowance anyway. After all, Gilliam’s own development, which is the model for undrafted Fant (whatever else it’s worth so far), didn’t come by being thrust into such a vulnerable place right away. That’s indeed what virtually vaporized Nowak’s career. And Fant of course, the former basketball specialist, has far less experience than Gilliam, adjusting from tight end, did even in 2014.
So, no, I’m not saying go nuts and turn the offensive line into the Philadelphia 76ers, but I’ve heard raves about Odhiambo’s readiness and the 2016 third-round pick seems destined to share the right side in some combination with Ifedi (Odhiambo trains at both guard and tackle too) sooner or later. During the preseason anyway, weaving those bonds could be the most valuable investment Seattle makes in its front five this year.
And I admit this is a totally narrative-driven preference, and probably flawed.
I’m on record hoping Patrick Lewis beats out Britt at center, based on the steadying influence on the unit Lewis appeared to show in November and December, but the coaches seem to be all-in on Britt at this point. I can see the case for Britt too, the center, as the voice of the offensive line with the wisdom of having played all those other positions, the one who already was that rookie starting 16 games out on a limb who took his team to a Super Bowl.
That’s a good narrative too, so what do I know? There isn’t much data to draw from in the new season.
We’ll all know a lot more Saturday.