The struggles of the Hawks line has been a topic for several seasons, what is the plan going forward?
The 2017 NFL season kicked off a week ago in a game which could hardly be a better example of the development of offensive linemen over time through the improvement in abilities gained through experience.
The game thread here on Field Gulls was filled with comments and observations about the pockets being created by the offensive lines of both teams, and dreams of the things the Seattle Seahawks could do with an offensive line as capable as that of either the New England Patriots or Kansas City Chiefs.
What many fans do not realize is that those dreams of the Seahawks fielding a competent offensive line are not that far flung. Last season, Seattle’s primary starting five of George Fant, Mark Glowinski, Justin Britt, Germain Ifedi, and Garry Gilliam finished the year with a combined 117 starts between them, the most inexperienced group of linemen in the NFL by a large margin. The team closest to the Hawks in terms of starting such an inexperienced unit was the Tennessee Titans with a combined 163 starts, with the Indianapolis Colts just behind them at 173 starts, followed by the New England Patriots with 181 starts. This article will also reference the 2016 Chiefs quite a bit, a team whose line finished 2016 with 231 career starts. Now, most fans are aware of how well the Titans line played last season, as it was one of the best in the NFL allowing just 28 sacks and 51 QB hits. Meanwhile, the 2016 Chiefs’ offensive line allowed 32 sacks and 68 QB hits, while the Pats’ line allowed 24 sacks and 73 QB hits. For the sake of simplicity, I have put these numbers in the table below in order to allow for easier reading.
What is of particular note is that the while that 2016 Titans team that performed very well had about a half-season more experience amongst the starting five by the end of the season, the 2015 Chiefs and 2015 Patriots offensive lines both comp out very well in terms of experience and unit construction. In 2015, both Kansas City and New England had three first year starters, and they were both largely inexperienced, which translated to their play on the field. The 2015 Titans were, on paper, a more experienced unit than either the 2015 Chiefs, 2015 Patriots, or 2016 Seahawks, but of the 154 combined starts for the five guys who started the most for them, nearly half of them (72) came from Byron Bell. Two of the other four linemen were first year starters, with second year tackle Taylor Lewan coming into the season having started only six games as a rookie in 2014 due to a combination of injuries and poor play. The experience for these teams is in 2014 and 2015 is shown in the following table. (Author’s note: Byron Bell suffered a dislocated ankle during OTAs for the 2016 Titans, which is why their experience largely stays level from 2015 to 2016.)
Now, just to see the improvement these teams saw in 2016, here are the sack and QB hit numbers for each of these three teams shown for both 2015 and 2016 shown on a rate basis:
(Author’s note: The 2016 Patriots line performed at its poorest over the first four games of the season, allowing both Jacoby Brissett and Jimmy Garoppolo to be injured within the four game span that Tom Brady was suspended.)
What does this mean for the Seattle Seahawks? Well, I’ll add them to the tables with a one year lag for comparison:
(Author’s note: At each quarter of the season I will plan on doing a short post to update this chart for the 2017 Hawks compared to the 2016 units of each of these teams in order to benchmark the unit’s progress.)
This is what has me excited. From purely an experience standpoint, the Hawks offensive line is at a point where it is not likely to be a dominant force in 2017, but it should be much improved over 2016 based on more experience. However, going forward into 2018 and beyond is the timeframe in which this line could really start to shine. Back to the present, however, entering the opening weekend of the 2017 season, the only position on the line that is not more experienced than the group which played the majority of 2016 is RT, where Ifedi entered the season with 13 career starts (15 including playoffs) compared to the 16 career starts (18 including playoffs) Gilliam had on his resume at the start of last season. That difference is small enough to not concern me, especially considering that Gilliam is currently a backup for the 49ers, while Ifedi is a larger, meaner physical specimen at RT.
But the Hawks don’t spend money to keep their line together, so does it matter?
It is correct that Seattle has not spent money to keep the offensive linemen they have developed in the past with the team, but every single player they have allowed to leave has had a red flag that kept them from being the type of dependable, high level player the team extends. Russell Okung, Breno Giacomini, James Carpenter and Max Unger had durability concerns. Alvin Bailey and Michael Bowie had their own host of issues that led to neither of them being able to stay on the Browns roster. J.R. Sweezy had fundamental issues in his technique and I’m not aware of any Hawks fans who would have wanted to outbid the Bucs for his services. Gilliam never could get onto Cable’s good side. Patrick Lewis played admirably when called upon, but he’s currently unemployed after playing just 17 offensive snaps for the Bills last season.
Britt, however, has been extended and I wholeheartedly believe that this represents a key sign about the strategy of the team when it comes to the offensive line going forward. Schneider stated exactly what the strategy of the team is regarding the offensive line at his combine press conference back in the spring. Many media outlets skipped reporting on it because that was the exact same press conference where Schneider stated that the offensive line probably got too young, and the admission that the offensive line likely got too young is what took all the headlines. However, Schneider went on to state the following:
That offensive line thing is all about acquisition, and the mix in the room between veteran leadership and talent. That cohesion that goes along with it. Some of the best offensive lines I’ve been around, and the best teams, frankly, are the ones that have the core group of offensive linemen. We have to have that mentality. We need to bring those young guys along – rookies, second-year guys, moving Britt to center and all of that. But they have to have that cohesion.
Schneider then went on to mention the Chiefs of the late 90s and the Packers of the 2000s as the models for continuity and performance that he was referencing. Both of those teams during those timeframes had core groups of linemen they kept for a long period of time, with the players at other positions rotating in as necessary to keep an influx of youth, while also maintaining a standard of competency.
How that all ties in for the current iteration of the Hawks line is not readily apparent at first, until you start looking at things in terms of a single date in history: November 29, 1988. Most will not recognize that date immediately (shoutout to someone who would), but that date happens to be the day that Russell Wilson was born, and with Seattle’s 28-year-old QB at the helm of the offense over the past five years the team has reached never-before-seen heights. With QBs routinely playing into their late thirties in today’s NFL, it is entirely possible that the team could be set at QB for the next decade. That fact seems to tie in to the team’s strategy with the offensive line when looking at the ages for the offensive linemen currently on the roster:
Every single offensive lineman the Hawks currently have on the roster or on the practice squad is younger than Wilson. Every single lineman the team had in camp this season was younger than Wilson. The linemen they added late in preseason – Matt Tobin and Isaiah Battle – are younger than Wilson. Even after roster cuts, the lineman closest to Wilson in terms of age is Tobin, who is more than 18 months younger than Wilson. The oldest starter, Justin Britt, is over two and a half years younger than Wilson. The second oldest, Luke Joeckel, is barely three weeks short of being three years younger than Wilson. And the youngest of the bunch, Germain Ifedi, is more than five and a half years younger than Wilson.
Every single one of them is younger than Russell Wilson.
That sets the offensive line up to maintain the type of continuity that fans have been clamoring for over the past several seasons, and it has the potential to keep the core group of the line together for much of the next decade as Russell Wilson continues to improve for the Hawks in the coming seasons.
With the youth and upside the team has gathered from top to bottom of the offensive line, it is even okay if not all the players develop into viable starters. Maybe Joeckel and Glowinski develop into competent guards, and maybe they don’t. If either of them do not, then Jordan Roos and Ethan Pocic, and possibly Rees Odhiambo, could be breathing down their necks ready to take over their spot in 2018. Same goes on the outside where Ifedi appears to have the inside track on the RT position, but even if he falters, then the team has the pieces behind him to step in and compete at the position. It could be Pocic, it could be Odhiambo or it could be a piece they add in the offseason.
Tobin, Oday Aboushi and Joeckel are all slated to be free agents after the season, and that will create at least two roster spots for the team to add potential on the line, whether through the draft, a targeted free agent signing or bringing in a UDFA to compete like they have done in each of the last couple of seasons.
A second item that is also readily visible when looking at the list of the ages of the offensive linemen, is that included at the bottom of the list are the two free agents the team signed prior to the 2016 season, Bradley Sowell and J’Marcus Webb, along with the guy they tried hard to get this past spring, T.J. Lang. Sowell is younger than Wilson, and Webb is barely three months older than Wilson, so had either of them developed further or shown significant promise, the team would likely have been able to extend them and kept them around as a core piece for several years going forward, likely at a reasonable cost. I believe the signings of Joeckel and Aboushi are very similar this season, as both of them are at a point where they could improve with experience, and if they prove worthy of keeping, the team can keep them, while if they do not demonstrate an ability to contribute in a meaningful way in the future, then the team can move on.
Likewise, Lang, while the oldest player on this list, is still barely fourteen months older than Russell, and by far the most accomplished player among the bunch. Combining Schneider’s personal relationship with Lang from their time together in Green Bay with the fact that Lang was coming off surgery on both hips making him available at a discount compared to what other Pro Bowl linemen could command, it is understandable why Lang would be targeted. Further, in evaluating the list of available free agent linemen last spring, the names on the list are far more expensive than Lang, far older than Lang, far less accomplished or far less durable than Lang. Lang was the most bang for the buck free agent offensive lineman available this past spring who was still young enough to fit within the framework around which the team is building going forward.
The key, however, is that the team seems to be building for the future. They do not appear to be looking for a quick fix on the offensive line. They have invested significant draft capital on a plan to build the offensive line for not just a season or two, but to build a cohesive group that has the potential to play at a high level for years to come. And once they have identified three or four core linemen who can keep the play at a consistent level on an ongoing basis season to season, they can then continue to build for the future by filling holes with players one or two at a time. That will give younger linemen the ability to gain experience and develop with only one spot in the line exposed to the perils of inexperience.
Now it’s just a matter of seeing how many fans have the patience to see if the long-term plan will work.