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Neanderball: Does Joey Hunt suck? Let’s look at the tape

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NFL: NFC Divisional-Seattle Seahawks at Atlanta Falcons Jason Getz-USA TODAY Sports

There’s no point asking whether the Seattle Seahawks’ new starting center is any good, right? If Joey Hunt was good, he wouldn’t have been drafted in the sixth round in 2016, or spent the last three years riding the bench. He wouldn’t have been sent down to the practice squad in 2017, or only made the third string this year, sitting behind both Ethan Pocic and Justin Britt.

But now Britt’s done for the season, Pocic is on IR and ineligible to return for more than a month, the trade deadline has passed, and Joey Hunt is living a real-life version of Any Given Sunday: In the reassuring words of Coach D’Amato to Willie Beamen, Hunt doesn’t have to worry about getting the hook, because we’ve got nobody left.

So now the only question for Seahawks fans is, does Hunt suck? We’d better hope not.

Britt went down to injury early in the first quarter against Atlanta and we have a substantial sample size to work with. Let’s get to it.

One on One Blocks

[The ideal lineman] also had great feet. Incredibly nimble and quick feet. Quick enough feet, ideally, that the idea of racing him in a five-yard dash made the team’s running backs uneasy. - Michael Lewis, The Blind Side

The first thought to cross my mind while watching Hunt, no. 53, is that Justin Britt was a behemoth. It’s hard to remember sometimes because he was almost always surrounded by other humans who also look like they might be half-ogres, but Britt was the biggest player on the Seahawks roster. He was 6’6, 325 pounds, and he moved like it: Describing his gait caused me to reach for verbs like “trundled” and “rumbled” and “lumbered.” Watching Britt get out of his three-point stance and, on worn-down knees, attempt to heave his mass in front of his defender was like watching a heavy equipment operator try to parallel park a bulldozer.

Hunt has a noticeably different energy: His feet are lightning-fast and always moving, his head is always on the swivel, and he always seems to be looking for his next task. When he decides he needs to be somewhere, he’s there in—by lineman standards—a blink. Put another way, it was rare to see a Falcons defensive lineman choose when and how he was going to engage with Hunt. Compared to some of Seattle’s other blockers, the play rarely looks like it happens to Hunt. He knows his role and far more often than not, he imposes it on the defense.

Yes, you can get through the smaller Joey Hunt, but it looks for the most part to be a both time-consuming and exhausting proposition. Here’s an example, above, where Hunt’s defender manages to sit him down on the turf…after Hunt stoned both a first and a second effort, and the ball carrier had already gone past.

Downfield Blocks

When Walsh spoke of his linemen, he sounded like a sea captain describing ships. “He had a low center of gravity,” he said of Ayers. “You couldn’t get his feet up off the ground. He had great balance. He had ballast.” - Michael Lewis, The Blind Side

I’ve watched a great many 2019 Seahawks players attempt to make downfield blocks, and frankly I’m used to watching it go very badly. Which made it all the more astonishing to see a guy like Hunt, who doesn’t look particularly athletic, track down and nail his defenders even in space. The way he approaches the second level reminds me of Marshawn Lynch: It might sound a little absurd, but his feet are similarly always pistoning even when he’s not covering that much ground, which allows for sudden changes of direction. Hunt uses that technique to advance with a deliberate, almost comical shuffle, like a stuntman in a monster suit chasing the heroine of a low-budget horror movie—or perhaps more aptly, like a boxer methodically cutting off the ring.

Hunt always seems to know precisely the place to position himself to cause his defender the maximum amount of frustration getting through him to the ball carrier, and he always seems to get to that location fast enough to set himself and force the defender to address all 299 of his listed pounds.

That might sound like odd phrasing, but even for the titans commonly found in the interior of the defensive line, moving an offensive lineman out of the way looks like tiring, time-consuming work. Many block-beating moves seem to involve finding an angle or method of approach that makes the beef easier to wrangle: Pushing or pulling offensive linemen off balance, running around them, confusing them, surprising them, more or less anything to avoid having to go directly through some of the largest human beings on the planet when those humans are set and ready to receive them.

Hunt isn’t comparatively strong and I never saw him lay waste to a defender, but between his knowledge of where he’s supposed to be, the speed and decisiveness he employs getting there, and the tenacity he shows once he arrives, getting from A to C when Hunt is at B looks like an enormous pain in the ass.

Bad Reps

Joey Hunt’s not perfect, of course. Since his successes tend to derive from being decisive, assignment-correct, nimble, and religious with his technique, the nature of Hunt’s occasional struggles against the Falcons should come as no surprise: When a larger defender is able to match his agility and mechanics, his relative lack of size and power leave him in deep trouble.

Fortunately, this is a very rare occurrence. I only saw about four dodgy Hunt plays against Atlanta over the course of essentially a full game of football, and I’ve put three of them here for you to judge for yourself.

As you can see, all of them involve defenders making smart, agile plays where Hunt gets served some of his own cooking and beat with superior technique. What I didn’t see a single example of was Hunt suffering the sort of indignities that appear to regularly occur to Jamarco Jones, like this play against the Ravens where defensive tackle Brandon Williams, #98, cleared his gap by flinging Jones aside like a farmer bailing hay:

Conclusion

On every passing play [the rusher] looked like a man who had gone to get his quart of vanilla ice cream only to yank on the freezer door and find it locked. - Michael Lewis, The Blind Side

So where does this pile of film leave us? In my case, with two predictions.

First, Justin Britt is owed $11.7M next year. Joey Hunt, who will be a free agent, is currently playing for $720k. I don’t know if Hunt will start for the Seahawks next season, but there’s not a world of difference between Britt’s production and Hunt’s. Combined with the very large difference in compensation, Britt has likely played his last snap in a Seahawks uniform. I wish him well.

Second, Seattle can win with Joey Hunt. Unlike some of the Seahawks’ backups at other positions who have been forced into action in the past, Hunt is not a hole in the bottom of Seattle’s boat. We’re not going to watch the Seahawks’ season slip away because their center is clueless or can’t hold a block.

Seattle is about to do a tour of some of the best teams in the NFL, and I’m going to lay my pride on the line and make a prediction: If they lose any of those games, Hunt will not have been the reason why. It’s quite possible he won’t distinguish himself much, but he will not end up in the Villains section of one of my future Neanderball columns, or in the wrong half of any of Mookie’s post-game Winners and Losers articles.

You heard it here first: Joey Hunt does not suck. In fact, he may even be good.