I am guessing that for the first time in his career, Russell Wilson will throw fewer passes than he did the season before. Wilson’s pass attempts have increased for five successive seasons, going from 393 as a rookie up to 553 in 2017, which ranked as the sixth-most in the NFL. However, the offseason moves, even when including the ones to improve pass blocking at tight end by replacing Jimmy Graham and Luke Willson with Ed Dickson and Will Dissly, are highly suggesting that the Seattle Seahawks want to get back to running the football. Okay, it’s not just a suggestion, Pete Carroll has explicitly stated just that.
But perhaps one of the most telling signs that the Seahawks want to improve their ability to run the football even at the cost of protecting Wilson in passing situations was the free agent signing of guard D.J. Fluker.
Though the grades at ProFootballFocus are not worth knowing exactly (I think of them mostly at opinions disguised as statistics to sell memberships), they are still notable opinions when looking at it from a macro level. Telling me that Luke Joeckel got a grade of “78” is as useful as telling me that he got a grade of “riboflavin.” It’s meaningless. However, telling me, “We watched all the guards and we think Joeckel falls in the bottom third of them” is an opinion I’ll listen to. Okay, maybe Joeckel is a bottom-third guard, which at least lets me know he’s not a top-third guard. That’s something that I can buy into when considering the offensive line position and rankings because it’s an area in football that is still shrouded in ambiguity.
And according to PFF, Fluker is an upper-third guard in run blocking but a lower-third guard in pass protection, even falling behind Joeckel, the body he is essentially replacing on the offensive line:
DJ Fluker rank in PFF grades (out of 78 qualified guards):— Ben Baldwin (@guga31bb) March 15, 2018
--Run blocking: #17
--Pass blocking: #76
Seattle is looking to return four starting offensive linemen from the end of 2017; Duane Brown at left tackle, Ethan Pocic moving from right guard to left guard, Justin Britt at center, and Germain Ifedi at right tackle. Fluker’s job to lose after signing a one-year, $1.5 million deal is at right guard, a position where he started 28 games for the San Diego Chargers from 2015-2016. That came after a failed two seasons at tackle and was followed by Fluker playing in nine games and starting six for the New York Giants in 2017, some at guard and some at tackle.
If the NFL still values the ability to run the football — which doesn’t necessarily need to include the first round draft value of a running back — then Fluker’s $1.5 million contract could be one of the best bargains of the offseason:
Fluker played well when he was on the field. The Giants averaged 25 more rushing yards per game with him in the lineup than without. That’s a significant difference, and proof that he made a big impact in his first -- and perhaps only -- year with the team.
There was an expectation that Fluker could do better than the $3 million he got over the 2017 offseason, but he did significantly worse. That’s probably somewhat due to the toe injury that sidelined him and kept him from finishing out the season, but surely his struggles in pass protection won’t be ignored in a pass-first league. I think the Seahawks are also “pass first” because every team in the NFL is essentially going to favor how to do two things — pass and stop the pass — but they might also be one of the few teams that are going to literally run first. And second. And potentially third. Just to go back to improving their efficiency when it’s Wilson’s turn to pass.
Fluker playing inside limits the negative impact of his pass protection issues — which really became a problem with the Giants last year because they led the league in pass attempts. Seattle absolutely does not want to lead the league in pass attempts in 2018. If Fluker stays healthy and the Seahawks are able to efficiently run the football thanks to the addition of people like him, Rashaad Penny, Dickson, Dissly, and offensive line coach Mike Solari — another good sign of Fluker’s progress in 2017 being that Solari coached him in New York and signed off on his acquisition by Seattle — then he knows that perhaps next year really will be his first and potentially only opportunity to sign a multi-year free agent NFL contract.
After all, for all his disappointment since being the 11th overall pick in 2013, Fluker only turned 27 in March. Physically speaking he’s still one of the most impressive-looking offensive linemen in the league, especially for those who are playing inside, and he’s got three more years before he turns 30. He’ll probably never be considered a tackle again, which will cost him money. He’ll probably never win people over with his pass blocking, which will cost him money. But he could look to someone like J.R. Sweezy — who once said “I love run blocking. That’s what I live for.” — as an example of what the future may still bring.
Sweezy was 27 when he signed a five-year, $32.5 million contract with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers after four seasons in Seattle. At this point, his $6.5 million annual salary only ranks 16th among right guards, so it is a potential bargaining floor for Fluker if he has a good season for the Seahawks. At this point though, Fluker may just want to shed some of that bust label (he’ll never be able to rid himself of it entirely because he’s clearly never going to be a top-15 draft talent) and earn some financial security while playing for a contender. His Twitter account is private, but here’s the message he sent prior to free agency:
The teams that Fluker will face include the Arizona Cardinals and a potential-rich defensive line on the San Francisco 49ers, but it mostly comes down to Fluker vs Aaron Donald and the LA Rams. Fluker was among the interior linemen on the Giants last year who were tasked with blocking Donald in a Week 9 matchup where the Rams’ All-Pro defensive tackle had three tackles and a sack. (Nothing unusual.) It was an especially difficult task because New York was also without linemen Weston Richburg and Justin Pugh — both of whom signed rich free agent deals this offseason — but Fluker knew what to expect (even if it didn’t stop his team from losing 51-17):
“He’s a little guy, but he’s a hard worker,” Fluker said. “He’s explosive. He’s just fast.”
Fluker, who is bigger than almost everyone else in the NFL (6-5, 345), said the key to slowing down Donald is to use his size differential.
“You have to be aggressive with him,” Fluker said. “I’ve got mad respect for him, he’s done a great job since he’s been in the NFL. But the thing about him is you have to match his intensity. Be violent with him.”
“You can’t take anything from him,” Fluker said. “He’ll probably be a Hall of Fame guy one day.”
It’s a reminder that along with Brown and Britt, the Seahawks actually have a pretty-veteran offensive line at the moment, something that has been missing over the last two seasons for a unit in transition. That transition has slowed down in 2018 with the only new ingredients being Solari and Fluker, for the most part, and as long as the emphasis is a commitment to improving the run, that seems to be a step in the right direction.
Even if Wilson will continue to take many steps. In many directions.