"It's our philosophy. We're a staff that develops people. I think if you become cookie cutter, you become normal, and we're obviously not normal in what we do and how we do things. I think that we've had some success being that, being who we are. Our whole objective is to find the best football player, and then develop them. Whether he was a left tackle, and now he's playing right guard, or a d-lineman or whatever. It's just worked well for us, and it's something that we're good at." - Seahawks offensive line coach Tom Cable
Looking for market inefficiencies late in the draft back in 2012, the Seahawks converted N.C. State defensive tackle J.R. Sweezy to guard after he posted excellent athleticism scores (36" vert, 9'3 broad at the combine, 4.84 forty at his pro day). Starting out as a raw, toolsy athlete, Sweezy's gone on to become one of the most reliable offensive linemen on the Seahawks' roster. It was a shaky transition early and he got his lunch eaten by Darnell Dockett in his pro debut, but the 4th year pro adapted quickly, and has started 40 of the Seahawks' last 41 games, including eight playoff matchups. Seattle loves his toughness, athleticism, attitude, and resiliency. He is not the most incredible pass protector, but he's a mauler in the run game, and that's pretty much a pattern we've seen on Seattle's line.
And, they've been going back to that "convert" well, looking to capitalize on that established and proven M.O.. Looking at Seattle's rookie minicamp roster alone, I count six defensive-line-to-offensive-line convert projects: Kristjan Sokoli (defensive tackle for Buffalo), Jesse Davis (former defensive lineman for Idaho), Kona Schwenke (defensive tackle for Notre Dame), Justin Renfrow (defensive tackle for Miami), and Kamalie Matthews (former D-tackle for Murray State).
Now, Seattle hasn't actually converted all of these players -- several of them switched sides of the ball prior to coming to the Seahawks, but it's an obvious emphasis and focus in trying to find 1) hidden gems, 2) guys with the right kind of aggressive mentality, and 3) guys with elite athleticism that weren't drafted in the first couple of rounds. Find guys that may be underrated because of their recent switch to offensive line, or find guys that are great pure athletes on the defensive line but may be better fits on offense.
That six-count of rookie-and-tryout conversion players doesn't even account for rostered players like J.R. Sweezy, Lemuel Jeanpierre (played defensive tackle at South Carolina), and Drew Nowak (played defensive tackle for Western Michigan).
The main common denominators though, obviously, are that all of these conversion players are good athletes, and they're all somewhere around the same size, in the 6'3 to 6'5 and about 300 pound body range.
"I think when you look at the history of good run players, they're the 6'4", 6'5" body," said Cable on Draft day. "Once they start getting longer and taller than that, their rear end gets a little further from the ground, and hard in terms of leverage. Yet, you can find guys that can do it once in a while. I had a guy in Oakland, Robert Gallery, who we brought here, who could do it for a little bit. You can find them once in a while, but they're rare. I think if you look at our group, regardless of where they play, they're all athletes. I think that's really the best way to look at them. We don't have a bunch of big, heavy guys, and even the ones we have that have been bigger, we found ways to get them down to where they could be more productive athletically. "
That's huge in the Seahawks' zone-blocking scheme, where the majority of the time offensive linemen are moving laterally at the snap rather than firing forward into defenders. It's about angles and footwork over pure power and size. Much of the time, "uncovered" linemen (the ones that aren't lined up in front of a defender) are asked to move downfield quickly to engage with linebackers and safeties. This takes a certain nimbleness.
"Without any hesitation they all move really well," Carroll said of his offensive linemen after watching the Seahawks' rookie minicamp. "They come out of their stance and they can move well enough to be in the zone scheme and that's a big criteria."
He singled out sixth-round pick Kristjan Sokoli as someone that he noticed the most.
"He's the quickest lineman that we have," said Carroll. "He's the most mobile guy and we need mobility at that spot. It's a position that really calls for a guy to get on the second level quickly and be able to adjust to linebackers most. The athleticism was really a factor there because, like I said earlier, J.R. Sweezy will take offense to this, but he's our fastest lineman, so we thought if it's going to be a big transition, let's go for it all and stick him right there and see if he can pick up on it. It's going to take him a while. No question it's going to take him a while. But he showed the things that we needed to see as far his ability to get out of his stance and to get going and get up to the second level. He did that a number of times. He didn't know who he was blocking half the time but he was moving quickly and showed that he's got a shot at it.''
For reference on what Carroll and Cable are talking about when they say that their offensive linemen, particularly their center, need to be athletic, it's worth looking at some of the things that Max Unger did last year at the position.
Many times, the center has to cross over the face of a defender in order to get an angle for his block. So, if the nose tackle lines up over his right shoulder and the run is going to the right, the center still has to block that guy. It ends up looking like this:
Watch Unger's movement at the snap closely. Lateral footwork to get across the nose tackle's face, then rotate on the fly to seal him off.
See another example here: the three-technique lined up outside the guard shifts at the last second and lines up over Unger, so he knows that it's now his responsibility to reach that defensive lineman and seal him.
Again, watch Unger's movement: It takes athleticism and quick feet to reach, adjust, stay balanced, and seal.
Obviously, targeting on the second level is key too. This is often very difficult for big offensive linemen, who are easily out-quicked by defensive backs or linebackers. Watch Unger locate, target, engage, seal...
"Just getting used to multi-tasking," Cable replied when asked what makes playing center so difficult. "Snapping, stepping, talking. Talking, snapping, stepping. That all has to come bam, bam, bam. Bam, bam, bam for him every play whereas the other positions you don't have to do that."
Unger's going to be missed, but with the guys that the Seahawks have lined up, the athletic attributes are there. Same could be said about their guard and tackle prospects. Perhaps Cable sees them more as "blank slate" students, more easily moldable to his particular brand of zone blocking? Footwork, handwork, attitude? It would seem to be the case, because this is no longer just a case of one or two converts.