With the regular season having ended without a trip to the playoffs for the first time since 2011 for the Seattle Seahawks, there is a lot of hand wringing regarding what went wrong and who is to blame. There is no shortage of blame being handed around regarding why the team is not in the playoffs and why the offense had significant issues over the course of the season, and of course the offensive line has come into focus.
In particular, the development of the players on the offensive line has not been at the pace many fans would like, but this goes back to an idea that has been touched on time and again over the past several months: it is not uncommon for offensive linemen to require several years to develop.
For example, Germain Ifedi has been a target of criticism for his play, however, he was the only player on the 53-man roster who played every single snap of football for the Hawks as a second-year starter at right tackle. He now has 29 regular season starts on the offensive line under his belt, which may not seem like much, but puts him far closer to the top of the list for playing time for young offensive linemen.
According to the Pro-Football-Reference.com player season finder, in the last four decades there have been 1,598 different offensive linemen who have started at least one game during their first or second year in the NFL, and only 152 of those have started 29 or more regular season games.
Of those 152, Ifedi and teammate Justin Britt make up two of a group that does not include many of the big names one might expect. Names such as Taylor Lewan, Bryan Bulaga, Russell Okung, Trent Williams, Donald Penn, Lane Johnson and dozens of other recognizable names all came up short of that threshold.
Now, that's not to say that a player who has started 29 games in their first two seasons is destined for greatness because while that list includes the likes of Brandon Scherff, Joe Thomas and Travis Frederick, there's also Marshall Newhouse, Zane Beadles and Carl Nicks. In short, while it's no guarantee that Ifedi will have a long and productive career, the overwhelming majority of offensive linemen who make it through the travails of starting at least 29 games during their first two seasons go on to enjoy long careers. In particular, the odds are now better that Ifedi will end his career with more than 100 starts on the offensive line than they are that he will end it with fewer than 100.
Obviously, experience is not a golden ticket whereby anyone is gifted the skills and ability to be a starter as an offensive lineman, but either way development takes time. The NFL is littered with offensive linemen who played extremely sparingly early in their career, but developed into competent starters through time and effort. And just as previous offensive linemen have blossomed under Tom Cable in their third year in the league, it does not seem unreasonable to expect similar improvements from Ifedi. In his third year in the league, Justin Britt was a Pro Bowl alternate. Russell Okung made the Pro Bowl in his third year in the league. James Carpenter's third year in the NFL was the first time he appeared in all 16 games, and the same goes for J.R. Sweezy.
There is, of course, no guarantee that Ifedi will continue on his path of improvement, but the 2018 season is one that will be telling for him. He's got the size, strength and physical skills, and now he needs to put it all together and show that on the field. He's ahead of the curve for many players who have had long careers as successful offensive linemen across the league.
Doug Free, for example, was a mainstay at right tackle for the Dallas Cowboys for seven seasons, not only didn’t start during his rookie season, he wasn’t even active for the first 15 games of his career. As a rookie he only got to actually see the field during garbage time in the fourth quarter of a season ending loss to the Washington Redskins. And if he was hoping to log some playing time during the second season of his NFL career, he was left disappointed because despite being active for three games in 2008, wasn’t on the field for even a single snap either offensively or for special teams.
Just to put that into perspective, that means rookie undrafted free agent Jordan Roos, who got his first 47 snaps of offensive line play against Arizona in Week 17 now has more on-field, live game regular season experience that Doug Free did through the first two years of his career, and Roos has another season to try to pad those stats. The same thing goes for Rees Odhiambo, who was undoubtedly overmatched at left tackle, but who now has more starts under his belt than Free logged in the first three seasons of his career.
T.J. Lang started just three games his first two years in the NFL before finally becoming a starter in his third season. Then, after earning that starting role held it for Green Bay for six years before becoming a highly sought after free agent in 2017.
J.C. Tretter is another former Packer who needed time before earning a starting role. After being drafted in the fourth round in 2013 Tretter spent the majority of his rookie season on the physically unable to perform list and missed half of 2014 with injury as well, before finally starting his first game in the third season of his NFL career. Even when he hit free agency after his fourth year in the league, he had only started a total of 10 career games.
A third player who was originally drafted by the Packers and needed several years to earn his first start was Breno Giacomini. Giacomini was drafted in the fifth round in 2008, but he didn’t get to start his first game in the NFL until 2011, appearing in only one game in his first three seasons after being drafted.
And the list goes on and on. David Bass, Demar Dotson, Marcus Cannon and countless others. They all needed several seasons to develop and improve before earning a starting role in the NFL. So, while the progress of the offensive linemen on the Hawks roster may not be up to the expectations of Seattle fans, the simple fact remains that it is a position that is hard to learn and more often than not, takes a significant amount of time for a player to become competent at the position.
The Seahawks invested the draft capital to improve the line, and now comes the hard part - waiting for the development to show itself.