2018 Seahawks free agents: Luke Joeckel was an understandable risk, but it’s time to move on

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A series looking at the players on the Seattle Seahawks who are set to become free agents in March, as well as potential trade and cap casualty candidates.

Player: Luke Joeckel

Position: Guard

2017 Cap Hit: ~$7.25 million (OverTheCap.com)

2017 Stats: 11 games

The Seahawks signed Joeckel to a one-year deal worth up to $8 million last year, which was more money than they had allocated to the entire offensive line in 2016. The move therefore signaled a potential change in o-line philosophy by Seattle — spending money on free agent guards or tackles like they never had before — but perhaps in hindsight (or even at the time) it was a move of tainted desperation.

Joeckel’s first four years in the league included two seasons in which he missed the majority of the Jaguars’ games with injury, and two seasons in which he was very underwhelming and inconsistent at left tackle. The hope then was that on a one-year deal Joeckel could prove he could stay healthy, but also that even if he was a bust at tackle that he could be an above-average player at guard. Joeckel couldn’t really prove that either point was true.

After requiring midseason knee surgery, Joeckel ended up missing five games and the Seahawks went 3-2 in his absence, with rookie Ethan Pocic filling in. With Pocic in place of Joeckel, Seattle had two of their three highest-scoring games of the season (41 against the Texans, 31 against the Falcons) and I’m sure that there’s not enough evidence in all of Pro-Football-Reference.com or FootballOutsiders.com or ProFootballFocus.com combined to convince me that the team was better off with either player starting; but Pocic sure did cost about $6-7 million less.

$6-7 million that the Seahawks could have used on someone other than a guard with name recognition. Oh well, that’s hindsight, because I’m sure at the time I was among those advocating for bigger risks on the offensive line — but knowing that the risk didn’t pay off should convince Seattle to move on from Joeckel.

ESPN’s Dan Graziano named Joeckel one of the five worst free agent signings of the year:

Again, not a long-term budget-buster. But did the Seahawks have to guarantee $7 million to a former tackle who ended up ranked 53rd among guards by Pro Football Focus? The Joeckel signing was the 2017 offseason example of the Seahawks’ tendency to see Band-Aid solutions on the offensive line — a strategy that has backfired badly two years in a row. They ended up making a trade for left tackle Duane Brown during the season, perhaps signifying that they intend to change their approach.

However, the options ahead for the Seahawks may make that a little bit more complicated than we’d like it to be.

2018 Contract Outlook

The only reason that I’m having a hard time predicting the next contract for Joeckel is that:

A) I don’t believe he’s a good offensive lineman, but…

B) That didn’t stop teams from over-bidding for offensive linemen in 2017 and giving them long-term deals that made zero sense.

Russell Okung became the highest-paid offensive lineman in the NFL. Riley Reiff got $58 million. Matt Kalil got $55.5 million. Brandon Linder, a center most had probably never even heard of, got $51 million from Jacksonville, a team that wanted no further part in Joeckel. Lane Johnson was given an APY of $11.25 million before ever moving to the left side, and he still hasn’t moved to the left side; and that’s just to highlight that a right tackle can now be paid like what a left tackle used to be paid like, and that a guard can make as much, or more, than either.

Even look at Kevin Zeitler, who signed a $60-million contract. Zeitler is a good guard, maybe even great, but he’s making $12 million a year. He’s not a Pro Bowl guard. He’s not going to the Hall of Fame. He’s a reliable right guard. He makes more money than every tight end in the NFL. He makes more than Doug Baldwin, Larry Fitzgerald, and Jordy Nelson. He makes more than Geno Atkins and Damon Harrison. Teammate Jamie Collins is the only 4-3 OLB that makes more APY, and by only $500,000. So that’s more than Lavonte David, Vontaze Burfict, KJ Wright — he makes almost twice as much as KJ Wright.

Does anyone really believe that a team is winning a Super Bowl because of its guards? Joe Thuney, Shaq Mason, Brandon Brooks, and Stefen Wisniewski taking center stage in Minneapolis this Sunday?

This isn’t to say that teams should avoid looking for offensive line upgrades, even in free agency on major deals. The Eagles spent on Brooks, Jason Peters, Jason Kelce, and Johnson, and they’ve managed to make it to this point. (I think having a great QB on a rookie contract is proving to be wildly beneficial to NFL teams.) The Patriots, ever-thrifty, still pay Nate Solder ($10m APY) and Marcus Cannon ($6m APY) above-average salaries. But the trend from 2017 of teams paying just any offensive lineman who had starts and name recognition — good or bad — is just bad football business.

The Eagles’ offensive line ranked as the fourth-highest paid in the NFL and the Patriots were 18th. The Steelers were first, but they were followed by the disappointing Oakland Raiders and the 0-16 Cleveland Browns. Following Philly were Kansas City, Jacksonville, New Orleans, Chicago, Carolina, and the Jets rounded out the top 10. There was no guarantee that high-paid o-line = good o-line, let alone that good o-line = good team, but surely there was some correlation between frugal o-lines and lack of success:

The lowest-paid offensive line to make the playoffs was the Titans at 19th, and they still benefited from the rookie deals of Taylor Lewan, Jack Conklin, and Quinton Spain.

So do I expect teams to keep spending (in my opinion, over-spending) on offensive linemen? Yes. Does Joeckel qualify as a player that a team could over-commit to? As a former number two overall pick with impressive athletic abilities and name recognition, my answer would be yes. That being said, Joeckel was out there last year and only signed a one-year deal, but he was coming off of a four-game season. He’s now coming off of an 11-game season and he was healthy at the end of the year. His play was considered “inconsistent at best,” which is not far off from where he was with Jacksonville.

Last year, Lane Taylor signed a three-year, $16.75 million extension with the Green Bay Packers. He was 27 at the time, and Joeckel is (surprisingly) 26 right now. Taylor didn’t have much of a track record, save for his one good season with the Packers in 2016. Joeckel has a longer track record, but most of it is unappealing. However, all the other factors may even things out and a three-year deal at $5-6 million per season might sound fair to both a team and to Joeckel. With such a long history of injuries, I’m not sure Joeckel can bank on another one-year deal, so something with injury guarantees and playing time incentives could be in the right area for him.

And with all that being said, could a team still give Joeckel a five-year, $39 million deal? After what we saw in 2017, I couldn’t put it past the 49ers or Colts or Jets or Bucs or some team with an unfathomable amount of cap space and few cares in the world to just sign him anyway, despite the red flags, because many people still refuse to let go of draft day hopes.

Joeckel is an adequate guard most of the time, but that’s all he has proven to be, so anything more than a few million a year for a couple of years is just wasting your money. And even then, you could probably just replace that with a rookie or a low-risk free agent.

Likelihood to re-sign with Seahawks: <15%

Firing Tom Cable was step one. Reassessing the players you’ve acquired to play offensive line over the last three years is step two. I don’t think Seattle would be doing themselves any favors if they just re-banked another $6-9 million on Joeckel after seeing what we just saw over his 11 games. Even if he wanted to come back for $4 million, is that the best use of that cap space?

I’m sure Joeckel could see himself getting more elsewhere and that the dearth of quality linemen available will only further trick a GM into believing that Joeckel is a quality linemen despite all the evidence against him. I was very up-and-down on Joeckel all year long, and that alone is enough to convince me that the rollercoaster ride of watching him play probably never ends.

You can get a rollercoaster project in the draft or third-tier free agency for a lot less, so that’s why I think Seattle needs to either spend big money on someone else (I would still like to see them avoid this) or just move on regardless of what their plan B is.

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