Wednesday, February 13, 2013

2013 Seahawks Off-Season Analysis Part V: Offensive Line

Seattle fans have come to expect a bonanza every off-season since Pete Carroll and John Schneider have taken over. A full 19 of the 22 starters on offense and defense for the 2013 Seahawks will have been added since those two took over. But this off-season will be different. Few starting jobs are up for grabs. Rookies will struggle to make the roster. Free agents will have to fight for playing time. I will be dissecting the roster position-by-position in an eight-part series, culminating in a recommended off-season recipe for the Seahawks.

Part I: Wide Receivers & Tight Ends
Part II: Defensive Line
Part III: Secondary
Part IV: Linebackers
Part V: Offensive Line
Part VI: Running Backs & Fullbacks
Part VII: Quarterbacks
Part VIII: Summary & Recommendations


State Of The Position
Seattle exited 2011 with a makeshift offensive line that featured players like Lemuel Juanpierre, Paul McQuistan at left tackle, and Robert Gallery. Few could have predicted all the pieces were already on the roster to clear the way for a franchise record 2,579 yards rushing in 2012. Russell Okung and Max Unger became Pro Bowl starters, and Unger earned 1st-Team All-Pro honors as the best center in the NFL. Breno Giacomini, Paul McQuistan and Unger made every start, and Okung started 17 of 18 games.

Continuity had been a mythical concept for the Seahawks line, so much so that a year in which they played four different players at guard felt like a healthy season. Tom Cable once again did a masterful job in maximizing the production of a group without a sparkling pedigree. Only two players (Okung and Unger) played significant snaps this year and were drafted in the first two rounds. Compare that to a 49ers line that features three first-round picks, and center with Pro Bowl credentials.

Breno Giacomini may be the heart of this line. Fans and media tend to focus on his post-whistle activities that cost the team dearly in 2012, but ask any coach or player on that line who the toughest player is, and none will hesitate to name Giacomini. They all love him. Head out to a Seahawks Weekly during the season, and odds are you will find Giacomini there with John Moffitt or Unger. Ask Cable who he would want to have his back in an alley fight, and he will choose Giacomini. He is not a gifted pass blocker, but he is a supremely gifted scrapper. Everyone celebrates the impact of Marshawn Lynch battling for extra yardage. Do not underestimate the value of a lineman like Giacomini that fights every bit as hard as Lynch. He also is an unrestricted free agent after the 2013 season. He will be 29 this year. The team does not have a viable starter they are developing behind Giacomini. He may be a candidate for an early extension of modest size, and drafting another young tackle would make sense. The front office would be comfortable with him manning the right tackle position for the next few years, but it would be wise to increase the competition there as well.

Okung finally stayed healthy long enough to validate what my eyes always told me--this is a guy with a rare combination of strength, athleticism and work ethic. He was one of the games best left tackles in 2012, and now he must prove he can string together a few seasons.

Unger was a guy I never loved at guard, but is a natural at center. If Giacomini is the heart of the line, Unger is the head. It was an easy decision to extend him before the season began, but to pay him like the 4th-best center in the game raised some eyebrows. That is, until he was voted best center in the game following the season.

The guard position is where things get a little more debatable. McQuistan has proven he can play multiple positions at a starting level. He is truly the Jack of all trades, master of none. The team would like two of the younger players to earn the starting guard spots so that McQuistan could become a valuable reserve, but that has not happened yet. He, like Giacomini, becomes an unrestricted free agent after the 2013 season. He will be 31 by that point. He will not command large free agent dollars from another team, so it will likely be up to the Seahawks to determine whether it is worth bringing him back. Odds are that he will be re-signed as a reserve, but that means two other players must clearly step up next season.

James Carpenter is the only other first-round pick on the line, but he has never fully recovered from the knee injury he suffered late in his rookie season. The team chose to put him on the active roster out of training camp when they had the option to put him on PUP that would allow him to return later in the season. Carpenter returned to the field ahead of when he would have been eligible to come back on PUP, and it looked brilliant at first. His size and strength was a major upgrade at left guard, and made for a powerful combination with Okung. The excitement soon fizzled as Carpenter began to struggle, and eventually was put on IR with problems affecting the same knee. No surgery was required, but it was clear he came back too soon. Carpenter's work ethic will be a major storyline this off-season. A fully healthy Carpenter would solidify one of the guard spots, potentially for many seasons to come. If he reports out of shape and overweight, the team becomes far more dependent on both of the other young guard prospects to work out.

Moffitt struggled as a rookie, and then had a serious knee injury of his own. Credit him for staying healthy most of last season, but his effectiveness was still not up-to-par. He is a smart player, who generally carries out his assignments, but he is physically overwhelmed at times. His run blocking was not good enough in 2012. His pass blocking was only average. The hope is that another off-season of strength conditioning and recovery from his injury will allow him to demonstrate true starting potential. It is hard to figure out whether Moffitt takes his craft seriously. He is a great guy. He is funny. He is smart. How hard will he work to become great? The class clown often jokes because he is not confident that people will like him for who he is. Moffitt definitely makes us all laugh. Let's see if he can make a few opponents cry next year instead.

It is debatable whether J.R. Sweezy's rookie story was more remarkable than Russell Wilson's. Wilson was lauded by a good chunk of us after he was drafted. His achievements as a rookie were things some of us expected to see at some point in his career. Sweezy was a seventh-round pick who played defensive line, and wound up starting multiple games at right guard as a rookie. There have been rookie QBs drafted after the 2nd round that have started games their first season. I'm not sure there has ever been a seventh-round defensive pick that started on the offensive line as a rookie. Many fans focus on his struggles in pass protection, but that loses sight of the fact that this guy rose to the top of the depth chart in a matter of weeks during training camp. Give him a full off-season with strength training and the coaching staff guiding him, and there is plenty of reason to be bullish on Sweezy's chances to earn a starting guard spot in camp. He was an above average run blocker, who flashed the ability to block linebackers in space. He still is undersized, and often got bull-rushed back into the quarterback. He struggled with communication on the line when opponents ran stunts or other games inside, which led to free runners at the quarterback. Strength can be improved. Communication can be improved. Given Carpenter's injury challenges, Moffitt's lack of clear gift as either a run blocker or a pass blocker, and Sweezy's trajectory to date, the safe money may be on Sweezy to emerge as a fixture at guard out.

Lemuel Juanpierre is a nice back-up, who showed in extended time in 2011 that he can be an adequate fill-in on the interior at guard or center. Rishaw Johnson was a rookie pick-up that earned his way onto the active roster late in the year. He is a strong man that is getting most of his time at guard. The team loved what they saw from in rookie camp, and brought him along slowly on the practice squad. There may be upside there, as Johnson was originally an SEC recruit before finding some trouble that knocked him into a secondary university.

2012 Seahawks Free Agents Offensive Lineman:

  • T Frank Omiyale

Seahawks Offensive Lineman Under Contract:

  • T Russell Okung
  • T Breno Giacomini
  • T Mike Person
  • C Max Unger
  • T/G Paul McQuistan
  • G James Carpenter
  • G John Moffitt
  • G J.R. Sweezy
  • G Rishaw Johnson
  • G/C Lemuel Juanpierre
Free Agents
Omiyale did fine in his one game filling in for Okung, but is only important to re-sign if the team cannot find a more promising option. It is unclear how the team feels about Person, but the tackle position feels thin. Going out and spending money on a young free agent offensive lineman that could develop into a starter is not likely. They may go out and get another Omiyale-caliber veteran for depth, or bring in the next Giacomini from another team's trash heap, but I won't claim to know the names of who that might be.


Draft

It would not surprise me to see the team spend one of their first three picks on a guard or a tackle, with a guard being more likely. It doesn't matter that the team already spent a first and a third on the guard position two years ago. What matters is that the team got mostly poor guard play last season, and there are not many sure solutions on the roster. There are some mauler-style prospects like D.J. Fluker that could be an interesting option as both a challenge to Giacomini at right tackle and an option at guard. It is okay to create on overload on the roster at a position. The best players will rise, and the team will be better for it.

Bottom Line
The 2012 offensive line began to realize the potential Pete Carroll sought when he came to Seattle. It was a physical group that worked well as a unit, and stood up to the most physical defenses in the NFL. The 49ers defense allowed an average of 86 yards rushing in the 17 games when they faced opponents not named Seattle. The Seahawks averaged 156 yards rushing in their two games against the 49ers, and have broken 100 yards rushing in each of their last three games against a team that is generally considered to have the most intimidating front seven in the league.

There is no reason to panic about McQuistan getting older or becoming a free agent, or Giacomini getting to his free agent year. It is important to replenish the depth and talent on the line so the team can continue to grow. Counting on two out of the three to emerge from the Carpenter, Moffitt, Sweezy scrum feels unwise. The team can do better than McQuistan at guard, and would be better if he could supply flexible depth in reserve. Adding at least one more promising name to the pile at guard makes sense, and the draft is the best place to do it.

Tackle is another concern, with no clear players who could step up and start for any period of time. That could be duct taped another year with a veteran, but it would not be a surprise to see another young tackle drafted.

This group will always handle their business with Cable as coach. The most important aspect will continue to be health and continuity.  

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