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The disappointment of free agency come the regular season

Indianapolis Colts v Pittsburgh Steelers Photo by Joe Sargent/Getty Images

When the offseason began, fans of the Seattle Seahawks were hoping for a big offseason splash that could propel the team forward in 2020. With more cap space available for free agency than the team had had for several season, fans were excited for the possibility of big name additions, particularly on the offensive line.

However, the dreams of fans to see the team add Bryan Bulaga or Jack Conklin were dashed quickly, and the team instead brought in Brandon Shell, Cedric Ogbuehi and B.J. Finney, while bringing back Mike Iupati. The initial disappointment, however, quickly gave way to hope, as many fans talked themselves into the idea that Finney in particular could represent an upgrade over Justin Britt. A large part of this hope was rooted in the PFF grades each of Britt and Finney had posted during their careers, specifically in pass blocking.

This brings the discussion to PFF grades, which were cited in more than one of the above tweets. There is not question grades can bring value to a discussion and work as a starting point when ballparking a player’s abilities, but it’s key to keep in mind the certain limitations to the grades that must be taken into account. Specifically, using the case of comparing Finney to Britt, some of the biggest caveats which come with the grades for an offensive lineman would be the following:

  • They do not account for the opposition a player is asked to block
  • They do not account for how long a quarterback holds the ball

Looking at the first item, during the 2019 season Finney started four games and played significant portions of three others. During those seven games he totaled 325 offensive snaps while facing off against defenses that featured just one defensive tackle who would make the Pro Bowl in 2019, Geno Atkins of the Cincinnati Bengals. As for Justin Britt, he started eight games, though was just a half dozen snaps into the game eight when he was lost for the year with a torn ACL. During those seven plus games Britt was on the field for 504 offensive snaps and lined up against three defenses that saw interior linemen make the Pro Bowl, including Atkins, Cam Heyward of the Pittsburgh Steelers and Aaron Donald of the Los Angeles Rams.

This is not to say that Britt face infinitely superior competition during his career, simply a recognition of the fact that he’s spent the entirety of his career facing off against the likes of Aaron Donald, Calais Campbell, DeForest Buckner and a host of others who are high level defensive lineman. In short, during his five years in the NFL Finney has started thirteen games, while during his six years with the Seahawks Britt started eleven games against defenses featuring Aaron Donald. Again, this is not to excuse any of the inferior performances Britt had early in his career against Donald, or later in his career against Donald, it’s simply pointing out that an offensive lineman will tend to grade lower the more snaps they play while lined up across from one of the greatest defensive linemen in league history.

Moving to the second point, grades for offensive lineman can be impacted by how quickly, or how slowly, a quarterback releases a pass. It’s a lot easier to block Denico Autry or Grover Stewart, the starting defensive tackles for the Indianapolis Colts in 2019, for 2.5 or 2.6 seconds than it is to block Aaron Donald or Michael Brockers for 2.8 or 2.9 seconds. With that in mind, here’s the time to throw for Russell Wilson compared to that of Ben Roethlisberger (and Mason Rudolph for 2019) since 2016.

  • 2016: Wilson 2.61, Roethlisberger 2.599
  • 2017: Wilson 3.05, Roethlisberger 2.56
  • 2018: Wilson 3.02, Roethlisberger 2.55
  • 2019: Wilson 2.85, Rudolph 2.85

So, in every single season Wilson has been slower to get the ball out, particularly in 2017 and 2018. In short, when asked to pass block, Britt, on average, has been asked to hold his block longer than Finney. That doesn’t mean anything other than the fact that identical grades for the two in any given season would simply mean that Britt had done more to achieve that grade because of the additional blocking asked of him.

Thus, at the end of the day, what it boils down to is that while grades are a fantastic starting point, and they do carry some predictive value, it’s extremely important to consider the environment in which those grades were earned. As long as Russell Wilson remains the Seattle quarterback and remains among the slower half of quarterbacks across the league when it comes to time to throw, the Seahawks will continue to see their offensive linemen graded lower than the linemen of other teams.

Now, before anyone accuses me of being too negative on a signing, this point about time to throw at least brings one reason for optimism when it comes to the addition of Brandon Shell from the New York Jets at right tackle. Specifically, comparing Wilson’s time to throw to that of Sam Darnold, this is what it looks like.

  • 2018: Wilson 3.02, Darnold 2.91
  • 2019: Wilson 2.85, Darnold 2.92

Of course, now that I’ve written something positive about the offensive line, it’s almost as if the universe on schedule, and on par for 2020 had to chime in as well.

So, perhaps it will be time to start looking at the analytics of Cedric Ogbuehi or Chad Wheeler. With just nine days left until roster cuts, the next week and a half could be very interesting, and it’s just another reminder that the offseason and draft grades that get handed out in March and April mean absolutely nothing once the games start in September.