Let's imagine a scenario.
It's a scenario I've been pondering lately -- and maybe it's just because everyone seems to think Seattle will choose a defensive tackle or wide receiver/tight end or linebacker in round one and I'm just getting bored of considering that and all the players that might be possible at those positions -- but I keep coming back to a scenario that sees Seattle fortifying their offensive line again in the early rounds this year.
That's not to say that I'm blind to the fact that Seattle has some pretty major needs at defensive line, linebacker, and wide receiver/tight end - I just see, in this scenario, the Seahawks looking to free agency some to refill the coffers at those positions rather than their top couple of picks.
I'm not saying they'll attack the market and go on a shopping spree - I think we all know that's not exactly John Schneider's style, but I do think there are some options out there for Seattle to look into without NECESSARILY using a first-round or second-round pick on a defensive tackle or defensive end that they don't particularly like. I could see the top guys at those positions go fairly early in the draft and then after that, there seems to be a bit of a dropoff.
The question becomes, wouldn't you rather have the 3rd or 4th best offensive lineman in the draft rather than the 5th or 6th or 7th rated defensive lineman?
For me, it becomes more apparent that the answer is yes, especially when you consider the glut of veterans hitting free agency, either because their contracts are up or because they've been jettisoned as a cap casualty. There are several quality (young) free agents at DE and DT that would immediately help Seattle's defensive line - Henry Melton, Randy Starks, Michael Johnson, Michael Bennett, Cliff Avrill, Matt Shaughnessy, and/or Jason Jones/Alan Branch, plus older stop-gap types in Richard Seymour, Osi Umenyiora, Dwight Freeney, Ray Edwards, Kyle Vanden Bosch, and more. Tyson Jackson and Isaac Sopoaga have been suggested as possible cap casualties, as have John Abraham and Will Smith.
DE Frostee Rucker, a former Pete Carroll pupil and favorite, just got released, plus former Trojan DTs Fili Moala (IND) and Sedrick Ellis (NOS) are both free agents -- both excelled under Carroll at USC and though the USC connection seems lazy, it's a principle of mitigating risk in free agency. Carroll and company know these guys - know how they practice, know their attitudes, know their work habits, etc, so the information and familiarity with said players lessens the risk. That's why they could be legitimate options for Seattle.
Along those lines, at linebacker - Keith Rivers, Kaluka Maiava, and Rey Maualuga are all free agents and could potentially fill a need at Will linebacker and depth in the middle for the Seahawks. All three played for Carroll in the past and I'm guessing all three would be cheap. Rivers in particular is an interesting player because of all the success he had with the Trojans while playing in Carroll/Norton's scheme, but the point is - if you don't absolutely love a player at a 'position of need' in rounds one or two, at this point, just take the best damn player that's still sitting there.
Naturally, if the DL/TE/LB that you LOVE is sitting there at 25 or 55, snatch him up. But the odds of that happening, particularly with the defensive line, seem kind of low to me. I tend to think that the top-rated prospects on the DL will be gone by the time Seattle picks, so it becomes more of a BPA type of situation. One position that seems particularly strong in depth - and John Schneider even mentioned this during one of the season-ending exit interviews - is the offensive line group. Along the same lines - I don't find the free agent group at OG/OT particularly deep, outside of a couple top players in Andre Smith, Phil Loadholt, and Andy Levitre, all of whom will likely re-sign with their current teams or get franchised.
Further stimulating my desire for a road-grading right guard and an athletic, powerful right tackle has been scouting and watching the San Francisco 49ers these past few weeks. The Niners have the best line in football, and it's probably not close. They are able to do so many of the things they do on offense because it's such a great positional group of strength, and their offensive identity is rooted in that line. They can run the ball exceedingly well, plus protect Colin Kaepernick long enough for him to either throw the deep ball downfield or take off running if teams have receivers covered downfield.
This dominance on the offensive line is of utmost importance to Seattle's offense too - and though they run very different blocking schemes up front (zone-blocking for Seattle vs. everything else, pretty much, for San Fran), the offensive line makes the Seahawks' offense go. Open up lanes for Marshawn Lynch to run through, protect Russell Wilson on play-action, and provide the diminutive star time to set and make passes plus provide passing lanes for him to see through. I know this seems like an obvious thing, but I feel that too many people feel 'set' at offensive line and scoff at the idea Seattle could invest further at the position.
I know there are mixed feelings about this, but I feel strongly that offensive line is a huge priority and I believe in the old cliche that you build from the trenches. Barring a defensive end or tackle in round one, I want an offensive lineman.
Maybe I'm just projecting here, but that's because the position that I get most excited about while watching DraftBreakdown's excellent scouting cutups is offensive line - and I actually tend to think people in Seattle's front office may feel the same way. Remember, both John Schneider and Scot McCloughan were in the Seahawks' front office while the 2005 Super Bowl team was being built in the early 2000's - a team that was carried, essentially, on the shoulders of Walter Jones and Steve Hutchinson.
Scheider went on to Green Bay as a personnel man and McCloughan went to San Francisco, where from 2005-2007, he was the vice president of football operations, then from 2008 to 2010 their GM, running their Drafts and free agency from '05-'09. He was fired a few weeks before the Draft in '10 so you'd have to assume a lot of the board they built that year was for a large part via McCloughan. What did San Francisco do from 2005-2010? They drafted three first round offensive linemen in Joe Staley, Anthony Davis, and Mike Iupati (plus tight end Vernon Davis), two second round offensive linemen in Chilo Rachal and David Bass, and a third round offensive lineman in Adam Synder.
With McCloughan and of course Tom Cable's influence in the Draft Room, it wouldn't surprise me to see Seattle look to the right side of the line this year, possibly even early, if a high-value target is still sitting there at 25. As McCloughan put it last year, "I'll never lose sight of this, and maybe I'm a dinosaur in this, but it's a big man's game. That's from the standpoint of holding up through a season durability-wise, but also in the playoffs. You have to have some size and some power and strength, I think, to be a contender year in and year out."
Now, I'd count myself among J.R. Sweezy's fans, but let's be honest, he had some pretty major hiccups this year in pass protection, and despite his amazing progress after switching from defense to offense, still has a ways to go and is certainly no sure thing. Also, considering John Moffitt failed to keep his starting job over the rookie, I'd be loath to pencil him in on the right side long-term. This makes right guard a 'need' spot in my mind, and Breno Giacomini's inconsistent play at RT makes that spot a bit of a 'want' spot for me as well. I actually came around a bit on Breno, as his penalties subsided, but he's coming into his contract year and will be 28 in September. A long-term right side protector for Russell Wilson is surely a want for this team.
So, now that I've gotten that absurdly long intro out of the way, I want to talk about two players that I like for the right side of the offensive line.
D.J. Fluker, Alabama - 6'6, 355
Fluker is one player that I would be ecstatic to see land with the Seahawks, and I wouldn't even mind him at #25. Ideally, of course, we'd see a trade down/trade up into the early 2nd to nab him, but much like James Carpenter was, Fluker is in that range where it will be tough for the front office to gauge exactly where he'll go. He checks of a lot of the Seahawks' boxes - he's big, versatile (can play either tackle or guard), plays mean, and comes from a run-first identity at Alabama.
Watching him on tape, the first thing that becomes apparent is that he has absurdly - even cartoonishly long arms. His wingspan measured out at 87-inches - which has to be some sort of all-time record, and his 36 3/8" arms are punctuated with big 10 1/4" hands. Arm length and hand size are important factors for offensive linemen as they are used play-in, play-out to first engage, then tarry opposing defensive players as they look to get to the quarterback or running back.
Schneider has been known to consider measureables like this, and Fluker's arm length just jumps out at you, on paper and on tape. I mean, seriously. They're freakishly long. You'll see how this becomes important on the outside if Fluker is one step slow on the snap - he uses his long arms to shove defenders out of the pocket, even if they have a step on him, and this allows him to maintain his balance rather than lunge or dive to save his block. You'll see him engage defensive ends, using his arms like two grappling hooks - engage a defender's shoulders and drive him away from the play from there, all while maintaining his block. This also allows him to 'reach' block more easily - something that will be important in a zone blocking scheme as Seattle likes to reach guys on the second level and seal them away to create lanes.
Now, interestingly enough, the three players that I've seen Fluker compared to, on different scouting reports, are 1) free agent Andre Smith, 2) free agent Phil Loadholt, and 3) Seattle Seahawk James Carpenter. I know that the comparison to Carpenter might draw groans from those among us that feel Carpenter is a bust or whatever, but I am still very bullish on the Seahawks' 2011 first round pick. Let's look at some of the things that Schneider said about Carp when they selected him:
"We had James Carpenter rated so highly purely just based on his toughness and his versatility. I knew Pittsburgh liked him and they were at No. 31. And Green Bay liked him a lot, and they were at No. 32. And I knew if we got behind Buffalo (No. 34) for sure that was it. So actually when Cleveland moved back, there were questions regarding Phil Taylor's medical, so when Cleveland moved back, they were the other team that was really, really high on James, and so when they traded back with Atlanta I thought that they were just going to stay put and take James. So I was a little concerned in that area, and so we had two or three deals that fell apart, and we were weighing one to go to Pittsburgh at 31, and that's why we used the full amount of time. So we just decided to go to the final minute there, and just decided to sit there and take our guy."
Schneider noted then that Nate Solder was their number one rated tackle in the class, and that Carpenter was number two - ahead of USC's Tyron Smith (no.9 to Dallas), interestingly enough. It went back to his versatility:
"He could literally come in and back up Russell (Okung) at left tackle to get us out of some games if we needed. And we felt like he could compete to start at left guard, right guard and right tackle...
He's so mentally tough. This guy isn't going to win any public speaking awards or anything like that. But what he does is says ‘Yes, sir. No sir.' He plays through two seasons with high-ankle sprains and kind of just kicks your ass. And that's what he likes to do."
Still - as Schneider acknowledged then, Carpenter's ideal position was a RT and that experiment seems to be over, at least as a long-term solution at the spot. Carp got moved back to the left at guard, and for a few games this season, while he was healthy, played well. Tom Cable said something after the season about Carpenter that has stuck with me - and it was about how well James played well against the Niners in Week 7, with regards to the element of size and power that Carpenter brings to opposing defenses:
"I do think it hurts you. You want to have the element of power on the offensive line, and James, in that group, is THE most powerful guy. It's like - playing Justin Smith, the first time in San Francisco: he didn't budge us, and that's something that's new for Justin, it just doesn't happen often for him. And James was able to stay in there with people like that, and take the blunt, and push back, and move 'em."
"I wouldn't have drafted him if he was finesse," as Cable put it back in April 2011. They drafted him because he's big, nasty, and tough.
I keep coming back to that, because I find it eminently important. Seattle is in a division that is made up of three other teams with big, strong, badass defensive lines. Dan Williams, Calais Campbell and Darnell Dockett; Justin Smith, Ray McDonald, Isaac Sopoaga and Aldon Smith; Robert Quinn, Michael Brockers, Kendall Langford, and Chris Long. Seattle needs to fight fire with fire, in my opinion, and the way to do that is to have a stout, powerful, and immovable interior line to pass protect for Russell Wilson, but still have the athleticism to carry out Cable's power zone blocking schemes to get what they want to get done in the run game.
This is where Fluker fits in - and to be honest, I actually see him more as a right guard than as a right tackle, though his value, again, comes in his ability to play both spots if needed. Seattle rated Carpenter so highly because of this, and when you think about the number of line combinations the Seahawks used, again, this year, versatility is always a big clincher. The obvious question? Is right guard a big enough need to use a first-round pick on? Conventional wisdom says probably not - but this team never really gives much of a shit about convention.
When I watch Fluker I see a guy that's fairly nimble for his size (355 pounds!!), but not someone I'd say is a 'dancing bear' type of athlete. You don't have to be a dancing bear, per se, to play RT, but I think Fluker has the functional athleticism to better play at RG for the Seahawks - he's still quite able to reach out and get his paws on guys, but for RT in this system, I do think Seattle likes a guy that's a little lighter on his feet.
Someone like Menelik Watson.
Menelik Watson, 6'6, 320 - Florida State
Watson fits as a potential right tackle for the Seahawks, first and foremost, because of his athleticism. He's a lean 6'6, 320 pounds that came up playing basketball and boxing. The boxing background should help with his hand use and footwork, and his mobility and lightness on his feet is readily apparent in the video above.
His main drawback is that he's very raw, - only started 20 games (ever), and this is why his stock is a bit hard to gauge - but Mel Kiper recently mocked him at #24 to the Colts, so I'd have to venture he'll be a late first- to late second-round type of prospect. If Seattle is sitting on him at #55, I'd be extremely excited. He's a 'project' in some ways - but in no means as much of a project as J.R. Sweezy was, and we saw what Tom Cable was able to do there.
He fits the zone-blocking scheme that Cable employs like a glove. At Florida State, he was asked to cut-block on the right side fairly often in pass protection, and this is one tenet of the Seahawks' scheme that James Carpenter wasn't really ever able to pick up before he was moved back to the left. You'll see big dudes just lunge and miss on NFL caliber defensive ends, but with Watson's foot speed and body control, he tends to make direct contact with opposing players' shins or at least slow them down each time. This is important.
He sets up his blocks well in both pass pro and run blocking, and maintains contact once he's gotten his hands on a defender. He moves around in space exceedingly well - he looks like a big tight end at times, and this is important for the Seahawks, as you'll notice they like to have Breno out in front of Russell Wilson at times, acting as a ad hoc blocker as Wilson executes a bootleg.
As for run blocking - watch the play at the 1:14 mark in the video above, where he pancakes two defenders. This is the type of mauling right tackle I like to watch. Of course, he also looks lost at other times - like the following play, but that's probably due to inexperience.
Watch the play at 1:58 - he gets out in front of defenders all the way on the left side of the field in a classic zone blocking look - and sets up a block on a safety, taking him out of the play. In general, he seems to stay balanced in his kick step and uses his arms well to keep defenders off his body. It's always tough to tell how well a college tackle can mirror an NFL defender, but Watson seems to hold his own. As Dan Pompeii wrote recently, "Florida State offensive tackle Menelik Watson has the athleticism to be a first round consideration. He is raw, but if he blows up his workout and a need for the position exists, he could sneak in the first round as well."
I like Watson as a Cable ZBS right tackle - considering the Seahawks loved Nate Solder for that position two years ago too, I think it makes some sense. Solder is 6'8, 320 with very long arms and outstanding athleticism, some mobility downfield and fleet afoot in pass pro. If Seattle can get him in round two, I'm pleased as punch, but it looks like he might go earlier.
Again - offensive line may not be a top priority in this year's draft and I might just be wasting my breath - but considering that Seattle has gone 20 of 28 on the defensive side with their picks thus far under this regime, I don't think it's out of the realm of possibility to see more investment at that position this year.