Why it’s not too late to fix Seahawks’ offensive line

Ben Stockwell proposes a plan for the Seahawks to address their offensive line situation—a unit that ranked 30th in the NFL last season.

| 6 months ago
(Photo by Peter G. Aiken/Getty Images)

(Photo by Peter G. Aiken/Getty Images)

Why it’s not too late to fix Seahawks’ offensive line


At this very moment, the Seattle Seahawks’ offensive line may just be the worst position group in the entire NFL. Last season, we ranked the Seahawks O-line as third-worst in the NFL, ahead of only the Dolphins and Chargers. After losing Russell Okung (72.1) and J.R. Sweezy (46.0) in free agency, Seattle is at an even lower point, with Patrick Lewis as their only projected starter that earned a 50.0 or higher overall grade in 2015. The aforementioned Chargers and Dolphins each have at least one player owning 70.0 overall grade or higher (three for the Dolphins, with Branden Albert and Mike Pouncey returning).

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To find a glimmer of hope, look very hard at week-by-week data and put the bigger picture of a full season’s worth of grades to the back of your mind. A five-week spell for Justin Britt as a run-blocker around mid-season, some solid games from Patrick Lewis as a run-blocker, and a solid preseason from last year’s fourth-round pick Mark Glowinski are really all this unit has to hang its hat on.

The Seahawks made two minor moves in the opening weeks of free agency to “shore up” the tackle spot with a quantity—if not quality—of players. J’Marcus Webb will be four years removed from his best football by the time the season starts in September, while Bradley Sowell started only one season with the Cardinals and surrendered 59 pressures in 2013, fourth-worst in the NFL.

Though the outlook may be gloomy at present, there are still five months until the season opens—Seattle realistically has time to not only develop current players, but also make personnel moves to give Russell Wilson some protection. Below are the moves I would make to strengthen the Seahawks’ O-line heading into training camp. To give Seattle 16 linemen to carry into training camp on their 90-man roster, I will outline five moves that could take this line from the bottom of the pile to a mid-league unit, providing Wilson and running back Thomas Rawls with a platform to succeed.

[Author’s note: Draft projections are far from an exact science, and to assess a prospect’s availability by day, I used a composite of big boards from a number of draft sites to set draft expectations.]

Offensive tackle

Currently on the roster: Garry Gilliam, Bradley Sowell, J’Marcus Webb, Kona Schwenke, Terry Poole

The kneejerk reaction to losing Russell Okung would be to say that the Seahawks must engineer a trade for a quality left tackle immediately—Joe Thomas, Ryan Clady, Eugene Monroe, etc. Cap space and injury management are real things in the NFL, however, and after declining to retain Okung on what is in reality a fairly team-friendly contract, I find it hard to believe that Seattle would give up draft capital to bring in an expensive tackle on a less team-friendly contract.

Proposed free-agent signing: The Seahawks do, however, need an immediate upgrade at left tackle, with Garry Gilliam’s form at right tackle last season offering no reassurance of a smooth transition to LT in 2016. A signing that would fit with Seattle’s patient approach to patching up their offensive line would be the acquisition of former Giant Will Beatty on a short-term deal. A strong run-blocker throughout his career (18th-highest run-block grade for a tackle since he entered the league, until 2014) Beatty would be a valuable ally to Thomas Rawls, and only his 2013 season as a pass-protector is anything to be truly alarmed by. Beatty ticks boxes as a player cut by his former team (so he wouldn’t be part of the compensatory picks calculation), and would likely come cheaply on a short-term deal, setting himself up to earn a payday next offseason. 

Guard

Currently on the roster: Justin Britt, Mark Glowinski, Kristjan Sokoli, Will Pericak

The guard position shows the faith the Seahawks are putting in offensive line coach Tom Cable and their young players to develop. Britt is under big pressure to make huge strides in his third season in the league (second at left guard). The other three players have one regular season start between them (Glowinski), and only 268 preseason snaps between them. This quartet provides both the optimism and the uncertainty of being unproven players, and little more at this stage.

Proposed free-agent signing: The Seahawks may want to keep the faith with the development of their young offensive linemen, but they need some fallback insurance if the current quartet does not develop. Filling this void for me would be Chris Chester, whose experience in zone schemes would blend well with Seattle’s ground attack. He’s also coming off his best season as a run-blocker since 2012 with the Falcons. A second-round pick by Baltimore back in 2006, Chester is a player who the Seahawks could start off with behind their current young players, using him to apply pressure on their development throughout training camp, safe in the knowledge that if their performances don’t shape up, he can step in and be a safe pair of hands for a season.

Possible draft pick: The first lineman I would draft for the Seahawks—on Day 2—would be N.C. State left tackle Joe Thuney. An athletic lineman, Thuney is projected to move to guard in the NFL, but having watched him play, I think he could make a living at tackle in the NFL, and offers the Seahawks valuable position-versatility in that regard. Thuney excelled on the backside of inside zone for the Wolfpack last season—our highest-graded offensive tackle in that area—and is an asset that would work well to limit the impact of Russell Okung’s absence. Thuney would immediately push Justin Britt for the starting left guard spot, but could yet be in the mix to help improve the Seahawks’ group at tackle, as well.

Possible draft pick: Adding more competition at guard would be Oregon State right guard Isaac Seumalo, who finished his senior season in Corvallis with a trio of starts at left tackle, where he didn’t allow a single pressure. Outside of the top 100 on my composite board, Seumalo would be a Day 3 pick, in spite of being one of PFF’s highest-graded guards in the 2015 season, surrendering only four hurries and grading negatively as a run-blocker only twice (at Michigan and home versus Stanford). A quality run-blocker in a variety of schemes, Seumalo would add further pressure on the Seahawks’ young interior players to develop or be surpassed.

Center

Currently on the roster: Patrick Lewis, Drew Nowak

Center was far from the biggest problem on the Seahawks’ offensive line last season, and as a coach who likes to see competition at every spot, Cable should be excited to see Patrick Lewis and Drew Nowak push each other for the starting gig during training camp. Lewis, in particular, was solid as a run-blocker for much of the season, and after surrendering nine pressures in his first four starts, only allowed as many in his next seven, with no hits or sacks. The focus here should be added competition in camp.

Possible draft pick: The Seahawks’ ground attack is centered on the zone read from the shotgun, and they like to hit the backside of this play more than any other team in the league. To do this effectively, they need their center to clear space from the middle of the line against an opposing defensive tackle to open space on the backside of the play. A good fit for just this kind of blocking is Duke center Matt Skura, fresh off a season where he was a PFF First Team All-American. The Blue Devils’ ground attack was not complex, but Skura was integral to their success, clearing a path vertically through the middle of ACC defenses with remarkable consistency, helping Duke to average 5.2 yards per carry on cutback runs last season. Skura could be wildcard in the Seahawks’ center battle and a potential road-grader for Thomas Rawls.

Proposed training-camp offensive line

Offensive tackle: Garry Gilliam, Bradley Sowell, J’Marcus Webb, Kona Schwenke, Terry Poole, and Will Beatty

Guard: Justin Britt, Mark Glowinski, Kristjan Sokoli, Will Pericak, Chris Chester, Joe Thuney, and Isaac Seumalo

Center: Patrick Lewis, Drew Nowak, and Matt Skura

The Seahawks will have their own plans for their offensive line heading into training camp, but with these five additions, I think Seattle would put themselves in a strong position to return the unit quickly to the level it was at in 2014 and 2012, when it broke out of the bottom-12 in our league-wide rankings. This level of performance would, at the very least, give Wilson and Rawls a platform to succeed, rather than forcing them to overachieve in spite of the offensive line in front of them.

| Director of Analysis

Ben joined Pro Football Focus in 2007, and has since been in charge of the company’s analysis process. He also contributes to PFF’s weekly NFL podcast.

  • KWS13

    Patrick Lewis is the one whose grades I’ve been confused on; you say he has been a solid run blocker and only allowed 9 pressures in his last 7 games w/no knockdowns. Was he really just that poor early on in pass pro that his grade is barely average? And/or was the perception that he was doing so much better than Nowak only due to the lack of communication errors and blown assignments in general later in the year?

    There is generally a lot of optimism about Gilliam, your article about switching from LT to RT and vice versa concerning Taylor Lewan somewhat rings true for Gilliam, but in an opposite way; they always had him practice at LT in 2014, he played LT in college, he was only ever taught to play LT after switching to o-line, he profiles better as a LT physically, but because the depth/play of Britt was so poor in the preseason they played him at RT.

    They really seem to like Glowinski at RG and had chances to upgrade on Lewis at C, they’ve given a vote of confidence to Gilliam at LT, and like the potential of Webb turning his career around (they’ve referenced his sobriety that last two years in supporting him). However Britt is still kind of a dumpster fire so… Good for him if he turns his career trajectory around but overall they at least have a plan with potential and ability to I mprove. Also SEAs last two LGs have been converted RTs who were college LTs in Carpenter and Britt. Not only does this mean they could only feel the need to draft ONE player to allow him, Webb, and Britt to battle for two spots, though two picks would be much preferred.

    Overall I like that they see the o-line as a problem and have admitted as much. I think back to last year going in with no real answer at C, a plodding LG and a… “problem” at RT, there was no was that would last. Their draft will make it really obvious who the starting five SHOULD be, which is something they didn’t have last year. The coaching staff has also mentioned numerous time that the general improvement of the line post bye, the cleanup of the communication and assignment errors, the modified “quick” passing offense, and the general consensus that the line blocked better for Thomas Rawls as evidenced by his high yards before contact number, there is optimism with ability for upgrades, as opposed to last year where it was more of a “let’s continue to slug it out with our guys and hope our new overweight LG is better than our last, better overweight LG and losing our all-pro C doesn’t mean anything!!!”

  • Bruce Locis

    Its frightening to me that the highest graded player on the current projected Seahawk oline is Patrick Lewis. Only Drew Nowacks inexperience made Lewis the preferred option. Patrick Lewis is fine against less physical DT’s, but an absolute liability against larger, power oriented DT’s. Lewis should be a capable back-up, not a starter.

    I don’t like the idea of moving Gary Gilliam. He is a former TE with only one year of starting experience playing RT. Don’t mix up Gary’s feet – leave him on the right side and take advantage of his year of experience there.

    I am ok with Mr. Stockwell’s suggestions, but hope for early round oline help
    > our first round draft pick is a LT (Conklin or Spriggs) or a center (Kelly). If we can get a LT it will allow us to leave Gilliam on the right and compete with Webb for playing time.
    > our second round pick is a C (Martin) or G (Garnett).

    • willyeye

      Just wanted to point out that Nowak actually had a higher grade than Lewis. PFF grades aren’t exactly perfect. You have to take them with a grain of salt. Lynch’s grade was MUCH higher than Tomas Rawls’…sorry, but Lynch struggled last year. You also have to take into account that Wilson is difficult to block for in a lot of games. He sometimes holds onto the ball longer than he should, and then he scrambles while still looking for a receiver. There’s also the fact that the the Hawks played some teams with really good front 7’s last season.

      • David Stinnett

        Whatever the grades are Lewis was better than Nowak, period. They still want anyone but him starting though.

  • Darnell

    Ultimately, I think there is something to be said for deciding to allocate your resources to being as strong and talent-laden as Seattle is everywhere but the oline.

    They definitely need to improve any way possible, but IMO investing too heavily in an oline is one of the more overrated things you can do. The two olines in the Super Bowl were cheap and largely mediocre aside from Kalil, Turner and Mathis. Seattle’s two SB olines were average and inexpensive.

    Seattle’s oline was terrible last year, yet the QB didn’t miss a game, the offense was # 4 in pts and yards, and Rawls and Wilson were 1st and 3rd in yards per carry.

    Further, though one would assume there would be, there doesn’t appear to be a correlation between how heavily invested the oline is and QB health: see Dallas and Cincy.

    Seattle’s oline should be better off just because there is nowhere to go but up, but I definitely agree with them not spending big in order to improve. Draft, develop, continuity and health should lead to at least marginal improvements.

    • saroeup tuy

      I can agree with you on the part about not wanting to over spend on the o line but the 2 back to back superbowl bowl trips. Seattle defense went from being the greatest in today’s pass first offense to good and last year they declined heavily. My point is the o line will be Seattle biggest off season priority if they want to win championship with wilson. There’s not much money to keep second and 3rd stringers to substitute for guys like avril, bennett, rubin etc… the defense is still top 5 but in order to win deep in the late season Wilson needs time to throw the ball. Seattle will need Wilson to win championship from now on and not solely rely on defense.

      • Darnell

        I guess it depends on your interpretation of “heavily”. 2015 defense was 2nd in yards (291) and 1st in points (17.3); 2014 was 1st in yards (267) and 1st in points (15); 2013 was 1st in yards (273) and 1st in points (14).

        While statistically those are regressions, I’m not sure I would quantity it as “declined heavily” – especially if you look at the post- Cary Williams being cut stats.

        I guess it could be seen as going from filet mignon to prime rib; but having the #1 scoring D and # 4 scoring O is absolutely Super Bowl caliber. However, I agree with you that even just marginal expected improvements to the oline allows the offense to take it to another level.

        The depth looks better than it has since 2013 with the nice emergent seasons from Clark, Shead and McCray last season.

        • saroeup tuy

          Here’s the issue with stats… Seattle had a good run last 7 weeks to become the number 1 scoring defense allowed as ppg. The problem with stats is that it doesn’t show that Seattle was able to hold teams like browns, niners, St louis, Minnesota etc.. in a low scoring game but the qb for those teams are not even top 15 in qb ratings. The key is Seattle gave up many plays for passes 25 plus yards and the defense couldn’t hold a lead to save Seattle like the super bowl winning year. Although on stat sheets it doesn’t show much of a decline but in actual key plays to stop the opposing team for the game winner did took a huge set back. That just comes with defense getting tired and new defensive coordinator and no really good substitution to give the core players any rest. I do believe Wilson is a very very good qb that can take over games like Tom brady and rodgers if he has time to throw.

          • KWS13

            I agree with your premise in terms of competition faced, but I would argue that all teams benefit in the same manner and good/great defenses should dominate like they did against bad offenses however early in the season they were not only starting Cary Williams and Dion Bailey, and had no Jeremy Lane or Kam Chancellor against magic 2013 level Nick Foles, and followed that up with Aaron Rodgers, small respite in Jimmy Clausen, Matthew Stafford, Andy Dalton, Cam Newton, another break in Colin Kaepernick and Matt Cassell and the Carson Palmer. In first 9 games you’ve got 2 MVP candidates, reigning MVP and 3 other former/current pro bowlers. Chancellor returned during that stretch but that is a murderers row of QBs.

            Back in 2013 they had games against Mike Glennon and Matt Cassell mixed with games against Drew Brees and Matt Ryan. They were at relatively full strength all year and had fluctuations in difficulty which got them in a rhythm. Later in this last year they goth healthy and in a rhythm and it led to their performance against Carson Palmer to close the year, though some claim that the Cardinals “weren’t trying” which is why Palmer had one of his worst games of he year and had no idea what was going on. Not saying they will get back to 2013 level but they won’t be playing as good of QBs this year and look to be much healthier on defense (“furiously knocking on wood”) with Lane and Simon back, Thomas not coming off injury, and Chancellor and Sherman having fully functioning limbs

          • Alan Mazz

            I read football comments sections quite frequently and I must say Seahawk fans are the most intelligent and knowledgeable By a wide margin. many fans of other teams have a propensity for dismissing the opinions of others in a belligerent manner. many resemble lawyers spinning and Miss representing the facts to bolster their weak arguments. Like the team the twelves are first-rate. I like Jason Spriggs for the first pick. he’s athletic and is 9 foot 7 inch long jump equates to explosiveness.

    • Just Me

      Investing in the oline is hardly overrated. When a team has a great RB or QB, half the credit for their greatness should really be attributed to the oline. Romo had an MVP year in 2014, because Dallas had such a great line. Wilson put up historic numbers in the second half of last year, because his line was greatly improved over the start of the season.

      But “greatly improved” wasn’t good enough. When we faced the Rams, and then in the playoffs the Vikes and Panthers, we looked very mediocre again.

      Wilson is still good enough to be “better than average” when his line sucks. But wouldn’t you rather have him play up to his potential, and be perhaps the best QB in the league?

      This PFF article shows you don’t have to spend an arm and a leg to get a lot better. When our dline needed to get better a few years ago, we picked up Bennett and Avril fairly cheaply. There are always good bargains to be had.

      But we’ve got to spend something. If we don’t, we’ve gone as far in the playoffs as we’re likely to go. Even Carolina’s good oline looked like amateurs in the SB against Von Miller and company. Imagine what Denver would have done to our mediocre line. If we had made the SB, it would have been ugly. Real ugly.

      Josiah White

  • datbeezy

    I think it’s really reasonable that Seattle will move away from the Zone Read this upcoming season. Marshawn’s excellent cutback and dodge ability worked well in that scheme, whereas Rawls is more of a bursty runner; and an overall decline in the number of zone-read runs for Wilson as they try to limit his exposure and highlight his growth as a passer.

  • Felton51

    Step #1 – let JR Sweezy sign elsewhere for a ton of dough – check

  • markrc99

    As soon as I read Chris Chester as being part of the solution, I stopped reading…