Signing or letting Ethan Pocic walk is a decision defined by managing downside. Either decision contains downside and neither decision promises much in the way of upside.
Pocic will turn 27 before the 2022 season starts. He’s not getting bigger. He’s not getting quicker. He may be getting slightly stronger. But he’s certainly not getting more resilient.
Signing him entails accepting the downside risk of investing cap space in a player who cannot play, being forced once again to scramble to scrape together a plan B, or perhaps most dangerously, starting a player who is nominally healthy but who through incremental talent lost through injury is no longer NFL caliber.
Not signing him entails likely paying more for his replacement, risking finding an ill-fitting talent—a mistake the Seattle Seahawks have made over and over again, or investing precious draft resources on a position typically slow to develop. As bad as Pocic could be, as bad as an emergency replacement may be, a first-year center drafted in the mid- to late-rounds likely will be.
Even among players enshrined in the Hall of Fame, it is atypical for a center to start at center in his rookie season. Dermontti Dawson and Bruce Matthews both played guard in their first season. Dwight Stephenson and Mike Webster struggled to start at all in their first two seasons. Kevin Mawae played his first two seasons at guard and only achieved greatness after leaving Seattle for the New York Jets. Center may be the most skill-intensive position on the offensive line. It’s certainly the one least reliant on talent.
Pocic is a modestly talented center, but it is undeniable that when he’s healthy and in the flow of the offense, Seattle is more coordinated and less mistake prone.
I’ve analyzed most of the remaining tape on Pocic. Coaches film inexplicably ends partway through the Cardinals’ final drive. Only two Seahawks’ plays are lost. I do not think those plays would greatly sway my opinion about re-signing Pocic.
I’ve decided to cut short analysis of every play from Week 18. I’ve done it privately, but creating and annotating gifs has become a slog. Plus, my time is up. I won’t claim it’s a better process, but it’s likely to be more entertaining. Away we go!
Pocic is a very competent pass blocker. He has good breadth, being both wide and long limbed. Those treacherous A gaps, where the most dangerous pass rush often stems, are well defended by Pocic. He’s quick witted and observant, a good teammate prompt to assist adjacent guards, and his defensive strength is typically more than sufficient. This is sometimes described as “anchoring.” Pocic can be beat back but Pocic is rarely put on skates. He has the natural side-to-side stopping power of a good wing defender in the NBA. He is too tall to be prototypical, but he has consistent adequate knee bend and good core strength. His legs are strong—he’s by no means spindly—and, overall, he’s just a very large center not easily played through or escaped from.
He also has that rare but vital ability to see the field in the heat of the moment but stay concerted in his effort. Stunts, or any other deceptive pass rush which involves a defender moving laterally to surprise and exploit an unguarded gap did not seem to work against him.
If and probably when Pocic is incapable of snapping into and maintaining that knee bend, he’s toast. Setting aside whether anyone should ever play hurt, I think anyone who has ever worked a manual labor job respects the willingness and sometimes necessity of doing so, Pocic is likely incapable of being effective should he suffer any injury which alters his technique. His 2019 season is a worrying example of how his injuries can snowball. It is notable how few snaps Pocic has played with any kind of injury designation. He’s either healthy or he’s out.
Pocic is a functional run blocker. Tasked with a horizontal-moving block, he has the ability to latch on and clear out a defender. He coordinates well on double teams, both as the blocker who remains after his teammate releases into the second level and as the player who releases. He has an above average ability to find defenders in the second level and score some kind of block. But he has virtually no pop on the move, and rarely sustains blocks particularly well. Simply put, he doesn’t have much offensive strength. While he anchors well, he doesn’t explode into the defender. Far from pancaking Pocic often does not even stagger the defender. What he achieves is more reminiscent of a pick than a block. The defender is occupied or walled off briefly, but has little trouble separating and pursuing the ball carrier.
This is much more difficult for an outsider with limited time and resources to determine, but I infer that Pocic is accurate in his line reads. Blockers find defenders run blocking, blitzers are rarely allowed free passage, and despite anchoring a very inexperienced line, few of Vance Joseph’s attempts at deception worked. This may be the strongest argument in favor of re-signing Pocic.
At a non-premium position, for a team with many needs and few resources to fill those needs, Pocic is a championship caliber center. If he is honored with a Pro Bowl or whatever other foolishness, it will likely only be because of association with a great offense. But he’s more than capable of being above average. He is capable of being an integral part in a great offense. That, in many ways, is the ceiling for every center ever.
The best bet for Pocic and Seattle is probably to re-sign him cheap and heavily scout for his replacement in the later rounds. I doubt highly Pocic would be hostile to such a combination of moves. As young as he is in actual years, his playing career may be very old. Injuries undo even the greatest talents, and Pocic’s had his share. Some other guy’s too.
This is a not a stacked free agent market for centers, and despite the halo effect Tom Brady often shines on his offensive linemen, I question how much better Ryan Jensen is than a healthy Ethan Pocic. I also think he’s a poorer fit for Seattle’s zone blocking scheme. Pocic isn’t quick and he doesn’t fly forward with obvious power, but he gets to where he wants to when he wants to, and as many of Rashaad Penny’s long runs show, that’s often what’s most important in a zone blocking scheme.
Contention may be an unrealistic goal for Seattle in 2022, but such is accursed thinking for Pete Carroll. Re-signing Pocic is a move which bets on contention, however unrealistic. It’s a move which hopes to build on late-season gains by the offense and specifically the run game. It’s a move which frees up time and other resources to plug holes. It’s fraught with risk, but the alternative may be equally or even more risky. It does not preclude developing another player as a long-term replacement. Damien Lewis looks like a natural fit for the position, but avoiding the icky world of speculating who is “cerebral” enough to play center, it is sufficient to say I don’t know if he’s proven to have the skill to play center.
Football coaches are prone to passions and vengeance. They have “dog houses,” throw players “under the bus,” and make bad puns about capitol punishment. It may be that Carroll is simply sick of relying on Pocic. The smokescreen competition in training camp between him and Kyle Fuller struck me as a mix of motivation tactic and public humiliation. They are not equal talents or players. I cannot blame Carroll if he cannot endure the strife which surely comes from counting on a player as often injured as Pocic. As counterfactuals go, what if Seattle started the season with a competent and reliable center isn’t rich with exciting potential. But it must be said, blocking is a study in security only being as good as its weakest link. In many ways, the quality of an offensive line is not defined as much by its greatest players as its worst. Rebuilding an offensive line but counting on Pocic to stay healthy isn’t too different from putting a combination lock on a paper ice cream container.
I hold on too long to lost causes. I anticipate change where change is not possible. I expect improvement when catastrophic decline is more probable. I selectively edit my memory of an experience to support the hope I once had for a person. It would be hard to see Pocic go. It is likely whoever Seattle replaces him with will not play as well as Pocic did in Week 18 of last season. The kind of everything going right and nothing going wrong offseason Seattle needs to return to contention in 2022 is much more likely with Pocic in the fold. But I am firm believer in the phrase “necessity is the mother of invention.” As happened after the 2010 season, when Seattle allowed Matt Hasselbeck to leave, sometimes a need must be created long before a solution is found. Is it time to blast open the center position and hope luck and desperation lead to an adequate replacement? I don’t know.
That’s the coolest part of football to me. There is a right answer and nobody knows it.