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Looking at the 2018 Seahawks offensive line without bias

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NFL: Pro Bowl-NFC Practice Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports

“We have a terrible offensive line.” - Most fans of most teams

I can’t speak for other cities, but I am confident in saying that Seattle Seahawks fans are a little down on the offensive line. And by “a little down” I mean to say that you can’t even open a Starbucks without your first customer of the day telling you that “Russ is gonna get killed before the season even starts! Ain’t no point in drafting a running back if you can’t block for him!”

(I’m planting a trap for non-Seattle folks in there by perpetuating a myth that everyone in Seattle owns and operates their own Starbucks.)

Sure enough, there is some reason for pessimism when it comes to the Seahawks and the offensive line, especially since Russell Okung left in 2016. In Okung’s final season in Seattle, where he operated a Starbucks on Lake Washington Blvd, the Seahawks ranked fourth in adjusted line yards per FootballOutsiders, giving them an elite grade in run blocking for Marshawn Lynch and Thomas Rawls. However, they also ranked 30th in adjusted sack rate and were still given low marks in pass protection, so the Tom Cable-run crew was not without its issues.

In 2016, with Bradley Sowell and George Fant at left tackle, the Seahawks dropped to 26th in adjusted line yards and were 25th in adjusted sack rate. In 2017, they were 31st and 26th, respectively.

This is not to say that these are stupendous ways to measure offensive line play, because offensive line play still remains one of the biggest mysteries in the statistical/analytical world. Offensive line play is so mysterious in fact that we seem to feel no sense of responsibility to judge it fairly, because it is so hard for someone else to call you out on your bullshit. We know so little about offensive line play in fact that you’d think that fans literally believed that Cable coached the offensive line, started at all five positions himself, and benched himself for himself, all while owning and operating a Starbucks Reserve.

And if you don’t think that people assign too much blame or credit to Tom Cable, then answer me this question:

Who coached defensive backs last season?

His name is Andre Curtis. How many fans know the name Andre Curtis? And I don’t mean because he served you a grande caramel frap last Tuesday. How many people know the name Andre Curtis, the person who is currently molding and developing the career of Shaquill Griffin, one of the most important players on the defense? The guy who coached Richard Sherman during his final season in Seattle. The guy responsible for the conversion of rookie Tre Flowers from safety to cornerback to hopefully be the next Richard Sherman.

Andre Curtis.

Anonymous. Uncredited. Unblamed.

How about Clint Hurtt? You know what he does? He coached the defensive line last season and was so important to Pete Carroll that he reportedly interviewed to be the defensive coordinator this year.

When the Seahawks failed to gain yards on the ground, you blamed Cable, but gave a pass to running backs coach Chad Morton. Is that because the problem was always on the offensive line or because you’ve never heard the name Chad Morton? I’m not saying that some people reading this don’t know the names of all the assistant coaches, but what I am saying is most fans don’t know any other assistants and do know Cable. That is not just because he was an assistant head coach and a former head coach.

I mean, I know Lemuel Jeanpierre (offensive assistant), Ricky Manning, Jr (assistant DBs), and Heath Farwell (assistant on special teams) by name but I still don’t associate them with the Seahawks as coaches. With Cable, it always felt like the easy route to take when feeling the need to assign blame to someone for a poor performance by the offensive line, since nobody felt they could accurately measure the amount of blame that needed to go to the players themselves.

If Russell Wilson succeeds or fails, it is Wilson’s fault or Wilson’s remarkable ability “to do it all on his own.”

If Eddie Lacy can’t move the line of scrimmage forward on any of his runs, that’s because “Eddie Lacy stinks.”

If Rees Odhiambo can’t block anyone at left tackle after he’s thrown in there unexpectedly after an injury to Fant, it’s because “Cable scouted him, handpicked him, drafted him in the third round, flew him to Seattle, helped him get his own Starbucks off the ground, drove him to and from the games, bathed him, clothed him, coached him, and clenched to his back like a baby chimpanzee during the games.”

To me that sounds like a disconnect borne out of ignorance. Ignorance on how the draft works, how the coaching hierarchy works, where Cable’s responsibilities began and ended, and on how good or bad offensive linemen actually are on a case-by-case basis. Even still, Cable had seven years working with the unit and Carroll clearly felt like a significant shake-up was needed inside the organization, not just at offensive line but in many key areas. Cable was not even the most high-profile name to be forced into parting ways, but he was the one probably most-requested (neck-and-neck with Darrell Bevell) by fans and those people got what they asked for.

So why do I feel like I’m still surrounded by a never-ending mourning for what next season’s offensive line is going to do?

I’m using Ben as an example because even really smart analytics people have a negative view of the current offensive line and the ability to improve from the last two seasons. And that may be true, but there are two important things to constantly remind yourself when thinking of Seattle’s offensive line play:

1. Every team is probably worse at blocking than they were 20 years ago. The quality of the players on the offensive line is worse than it used to be and the coaching from the college level to the pro level is so different that coaches like Cable are basically always having to re-coach them on how to do it properly. It’s perhaps the only position where you’re basically just drafting a body:

“His tape tells you exactly who he is. He’s big and he’s got decent length but he’s an average athlete and he will always be up and down depending on the guy across from him. I think he’ll start but I don’t see anything special. Some scouts like him a lot more than me so I don’t know.” -- AFC area scout

That’s the scouting report on Kolton Miller, who the Oakland Raiders made the 15th overall pick in the draft. It’s not really glowing. But Miller is 6’9 with 34” arms and tested fairly well at the combine. If you happen to be a player like Quenton Nelson, who does have the excellent game tape to go along with the unique frame, then you get pushed from top-20 to top-10. Then again, you can still get those “raw, high-ceiling, development” players like Greg Robinson going second overall. Because teams know there aren’t a lot of options, so they’re much more willing to gamble or settle on offensive line than they would on other positions.

Why do you think Eric Fisher makes $12 million per year? And he doesn’t even have to run a Starbucks four days a week during the season.

So just remember that: most NFL offensive lines are deemed “bad” so you have to grade on a curve. Are you “bad” or are you “relatively bad”? The reality is that the NFL’s most average offensive line is probably hated by their fanbase. In fact, the situation at offensive line is perhaps so worrisome that even the Dallas Cowboys — with Tyron Smith, Zack Martin, and Travis Frederick — drafted Connor Williams, a tackle, with the 50th overall pick. The Cowboys have needs everywhere but saw an opportunity to get a player who they think can improve their offensive line and they took it in round two.

That seems significant to me. So remember that every time the Seahawks miss a block or allow a sack, that’s not good, but it may also be league-norm at this point.

2. whispers into a tall caffe mocha “This line was actually only a little below average after the arrival of Duane Brown in the middle of 2017.”

People have been begging for Seattle to do something with their offensive line for years and yet they continuously ignore the fans’ request for an investment there. I mean, all that they’ve ever done with Carroll is:

  • Use a first round pick on Okung
  • Use a first round pick on James Carpenter
  • Use a first round pick on Germain Ifedi
  • Use a second round pick on Justin Britt
  • Use a second round pick on Ethan Pocic
  • Sign Luke Joeckel, a former first round pick
  • Sign D.J. Fluker, a former first round pick
  • Trade basically the equivalent of a first round pick for Duane Brown

And that’s it! The lazy bums. Bet they can’t even spell my name correctly on the cup! (John Schneider always gets it right, but not when I go to Jon Ryan’s Starbucks on Denny Way.)

Of course, this is often where Cable’s name gets brought up, and the “lack of development in that area” (despite Okung becoming the NFL’s highest-paid offensive lineman for a year, J.R. Sweezy converting to offense and getting a huge free agent contract, Britt converting to center and becoming a really good player at that position, etc.) is cited as a reason for failure. But they aren’t failing as hard as you think.

Not since getting Brown, their best left tackle since Okung, and arguably one who is better than Carroll and Schneider’s first pick as executives in Seattle. Here’s what Schneider had to say about the importance of adding a player of his caliber, even before we get into the analytics on offensive line that are available to us.

“He’s an alpha male, he’s a leader, he’s been through a lot of the NFL battles,” Seattle general manager John Schneider said of Brown, who’s in his 10th season. “These guys know who he is. He’s one of those guys. It’s kind of like what you saw with Dwight Freeney coming in here last week, where those guys were kind of like, ‘Holy s---, that’s Dwight Freeney.’ Same thing with this guy. They all know who Duane Brown is.”

It’s a little hyperbolic, but surely it is a benefit when to have someone like Brown when you’ve got young players like Pocic and Ifedi to develop but your “veterans” are only 26, like Britt, Luke Joeckel, and Oday Aboushi were last season. Britt and Joeckel’s mindset pre-Brown and post-Brown could have completely changed as soon as they knew that they didn’t have to provide additional help to Odhiambo anymore. It seemed to pay off immediately.

Here’s what the analytics had to say after his first five starts with the Seahawks, before he even had a chance to break ground on his own Starbucks:

The Seahawks offensive line is still far from good, but adding a high-quality player in the form of Duane Brown at left tackle has made a huge and immediate impact.

Brown has allowed just one sack since starting for the Seahawks (coming Sunday night against the Eagles), and nine total pressures across five starts. The player he replaced – Rees Odhiambo – allowed four in the last game he started and has a game on his resume this season with 10 total pressures surrendered.

The upgrade from Odhiambo (overall PFF grade of 27.5, worst in the league) to Brown (overall PFF grade of 78.2, 22nd) cannot be overstated.

Before Brown arrived in the Pacific Northwest, The Seahawks had the league’s 30th-ranked pass-block efficiency score among all offensive lines. That metric effectively measures how much pressure was being allowed on a per-snap basis, and it was resulting in Wilson being under pressure 39.4 percent of the time. Since Brown has arrived, they have climbed to the 10th-ranked unit in pass-block efficiency. Wilson has been under pressure just 23.1 percent of the time, which if it held true over the entire season would rank second in the league in terms of lowest percentage of snaps under pressure.

And not only was Wilson under pressure a lot fewer times since the acquisition of Brown, but much of that pressure wasn’t even coming from the offensive line. Of 145 total pressures measured by PFF, 46 came from running backs, tight ends, design of the play, or Wilson himself running into it, as we all know he is wont to do. That’s 31.7% of all pressures on Wilson. So what did they do?

They let Jimmy Graham walk. They signed Ed Dickson, considered by ProFootballFocus to be the best pass-blocking tight end in the NFL last season. That wasn’t enough though, as in the fourth round they drafted tight end Will Dissly out of Washington. They didn’t do it simply because he already had a Starbucks either, it was because he may be the best blocking tight end in the entire draft.

In Carroll and Schneider’s minds, the moves for Dickson and Dissly immediately chip away at that 31.7% of pressures allowed last season.

This may seem antithetical to the selection of Rashaad Penny in the first round, as he’s notable for his running and returning skills while lacking as a pass blocker, but the Seahawks probably feel that Penny can still have an immediate impact on passing downs by acting as a quality receiver in those situations and giving Wilson an option to throw to can be just as good as throwing him a block. That doesn’t mean that Seattle did nothing to improve their blocking at the running back position though, as they let Rawls go after a three-year career that was marred by injuries, sure, but he also got Wilson into danger too many times.

They may be in good hands with Chris Carson in certain situations, as he seemed to excel in pass blocking last season, as he did in most areas. Even his Starbucks is the cleanest and kindest in the whole Queen Anne area. I’d also expect to see a heavier emphasis on the fullback position and who wins that job, as well as more plays that are designed by new offensive coordinator Brian Schottenheimer that protect Wilson or get him into open spaces by choice rather than by necessity.

All told, what do we really see as Seattle’s offensive line and blocking situation for 2018?

A starting five offensive line that includes three first round picks (Brown, Fluker, Ifedi) and two second rounders (Britt, Pocic) with interesting depth that includes Fant, Odhiambo, and Jamarco Jones. The end-of-2017 offensive line with Brown alone, even if it doesn’t improve it would still come close to average territory. Brown is one of the best left tackles usually, Britt is one of the better centers, so already the Seahawks are starting with quality players on perhaps the two most important positions within that unit.

And one would expect the line to improve naturally, as Ifedi is going into that critical year three, Pocic is going into year two, and Britt is only entering his third season as a center. One may also choose to derive hope in Fluker, himself only 27. As noted during his six-start stint with the Giants last season:

The 6-foot-5, 345-pound Fluker provided a spark to the running game with his physicality. Fluker showed enough promise to look like a piece of the Giants’ offensive line going forward, but now Jerry Reese - or a new general manager - will need to make a determination of the 26-year-old’s value based on just six starts.

New York may have felt the need to extend Fluker but Reese was replaced by Dave Gettleman and offensive line coach Mike Solari relocated to Seattle. Why bring Fluker with him? Well, one reason is that the cost is only $1.5 million, a ridiculous bargain for a potential starting right guard. The other is that Fluker does have the ability for special plays. Before this 47-yard run by Orleans Darkwa, Fluker said “I’m going to pancake him,” referring to the defender, and then he did.

The Seahawks didn’t sign “D.J. Fluker, the failed right tackle who was supposed to be the Chargers starter for a decade and then wasn’t.” They signed the guy who said this last season:

“The thing I always say when we’re on the sideline is, ‘Hey, run with authority,’ “ Fluker recalled. “I said, ‘This is your offensive line. If it’s not going well, you come to the sideline and you tell us.’ You got to have a running back who demands you do better for him. At the end of the day, we need him. That’s why I always tell him every game, ‘Run with authority. We’ve got your back.’ I think that builds confidence.”

Are you not at least 2% more pumped to see Penny run the ball next season knowing that Fluker is going to be one of the guys who has back?

Great: Duane Brown is the left tackle. Justin Britt is the center.

Young: Germain Ifedi is the right tackle. Ethan Pocic is the left guard.

Cheap veteran who is humbled and wants to be a part of something special: D.J. Fluker is the right guard.

Insurance: George Fant, Rees Odhiambo, Jamarco Jones, Joey Hunt.

Tight ends: One of the NFL’s worst blocking tight ends was replaced by the league’s best blocking tight end and the draft’s best blocking tight end.

Running backs: Tough to say how it will play out, but the awareness to improve in this area is certainly more prevalent than it was a year ago.

Coaching: Mike Solari is the offensive line coach. Tom Cable can no longer bear the brunt of your ire with the whole situation.

If ire even needs to exist at this point, and I don’t think that it does. At the very least, the Seattle Seahawks have earned the right for a fresh start. Carroll made a lot of difficult decisions when he fired coaches who’ve worked with him for the better part of a decade. When he and Schneider gave up draft picks for a left tackle. When they chose not to keep a potential Hall of Fame player because he simply can’t do the one thing nobody ever really asked him to do, which was block. The Seahawks improved as the season went on and there should be a fresh start mentality — an ability to see this unit for what it is, rather than for what it was. Maybe it is still not good — and maybe no offensive line will be as good as units used to be until there are some sweeping changes at the college level — but it’s too soon to say that it is bad.

Now that I’ve said that ... Welcome to my Starbucks, what will you be having this morning?