Should The Seahawks Undervalue Offensive Linemen?

It’s something I brought up in yesterday’s post, that got to gnawing at me a little bit today.  Value over quality.  Instead of keeping your offensive line intact for a long period of time – by handing out contract extensions once their rookie deals lapse – just reloading with fresh, young rookies and hoping for the best.

Is that the best way to go?

Obviously, this gets back to the realm of Can’t Pay Everybody.  Would you rather have quality linemen at most or all of the offensive line spots?  Or, would you rather have a franchise quarterback, All Pros/Pro Bowlers at Safety, Cornerback, Linebacker, Defensive End, and so on?  Something’s gotta give, and the Seahawks have decided that something is the O-Line, the running back position, the interior defensive line, and to a lesser extent the wide receivers.

Well, to figure out the right way to build a roster, it’s kind of simple, actually.  Just factor in that position at a Pro Bowl level and compare it to a “replacement level” player.

If you start at quarterback, it’s clear as day.  Look around the league, at the teams making the playoffs every year.  The best teams generally have a top-level quarterback.  The mediocre teams and the bad teams are generally employing (or are forced to use, due to injuries) replacement level quarterbacks.  Nobodies.  The Brian Hoyers of the world.

Going down the line, what’s the difference between Earl Thomas and Brian Russell?  Pretty huge difference there, right?  What’s the difference between Ricahrd Sherman and Kelly Jennings?  Again, pretty huge.  Bobby Wagner vs. David Hawthorne?  Michael Bennett vs. Grant Wistrom?  I could go on and on, just comparing quality Seahawks on the roster now vs. mediocre ex-Seahawks who brought this franchise to its knees with their bumbling.

Now, what’s the difference between Marshawn Lynch and Thomas Rawls?  I know we’re talking about a REALLY small sample size, but as a rookie the Seahawks were able to find a player in Rawls who averaged 5.6 yards per attempt.  This wasn’t just a third down back hitting on some big runs; this is a guy who got significant action, in a starting role, before that ankle injury cut short his season.

What’s the difference between Doug Baldwin and someone like Alshon Jeffery (random example, I know).  Jeffery is considered to be a significant upgrade in talent – a true #1 receiver who’s able to win a lot of jump balls and really be a force on offense.  But, their career yards per catch are within a yard of one another, and Jeffery never had a season where he caught 14 touchdowns like Baldwin did last year, under a relatively modest salary.  A guy like Jeffery on the open market would command top dollar; a guy like Baldwin might still be had for a bargain, considering his overall production value.  Should the Seahawks break the bank on a guy like Jeffery, or should they extend a guy like Baldwin for a modest sum and get just as good production, if not better in certain areas?

If I may slide around to the point of the post:  what’s the difference between Russell Okung and Garry Gilliam?  I have no idea.  Based on his play at right tackle last year, you could argue Gilliam is a big dropoff.  But, the left side is his more natural side, and he’s had a whole offseason to bulk up and work on technique, so you’d hope there will be some improvement gained by health and experience alone.  If Gilliam can be a league-average left tackle, that’s not so much of a drop-off from Okung.

If you compare the rest of our offensive line to, say, the Cowboys (who are touted as doing it “the right way”, by investing heavily at all spots along the offensive line), what is the drop-off?  Well, let’s look at the 2015 regular season.

  • In rushing, the Seahawks were third in the league, with 2,268 yards; Dallas was ninth with 1,890.
  • In pass protection, the Seahawks gave up 46 sacks, good for 6th-worst in the NFL; Dallas gave up 33, tied for 11th-best.
  • In QB hits, it’s even worse.  The Seahawks gave up 114 hits, 3rd-worst in the NFL; Dallas gave up only 67, 5th-best.

So, yeah, the pass protection half of the O-Line’s duties is pretty dire.  If we’re unable to get those numbers way down to at least league average, it’s only a matter of time before Russell Wilson gets injured and we lose a season to backup quarterback play.  But, it is only half the battle, as the Seahawks play it pretty close to 50/50 in the run/pass department.  We’re getting good run production, which is a big help, compared to teams throwing the ball 2/3 of the time and increasing the risk to their quarterbacks that way.

The thing that everyone talks about regarding offensive line play is continuity.  You need your linemen to be healthy, and you ideally want them playing together for a long time.  It’s why a Seahawks line as bad as it was in Week 1 last year can improve the way it did, to where it WAS a league-average unit by Week 17.  Those same five guys, for the most part, played together every week, and experienced a bump in productivity as a result.  Imagine what that would look like if you could have the same line playing together over the course of YEARS!

Well, you don’t have to think too hard, because you can look at those O-Lines we had in Seattle during Holmgren’s peak years.  Doesn’t hurt that those lines had a hall of famer in Walter Jones, but they were also veterans who had played together a bunch (until it was unceremoniously broken up in the Poison Pill fiasco).

The key to the whole thing is just getting a league average unit.  If the Seahawks can do that by paying guys peanuts, I believe it’s entirely worth their while.  Because you can get by with league average offensive line play; whereas you can’t get by with league average quarterbacks, or league average secondaries, or a league average pass rush.

Yeah, continuity is great, and pumping a lot of resources into the O-Line is fantastic if you can afford it.  But, no team is immune from the injury bug.  And just one or two injuries to key offensive linemen can completely dismantle the whole thing, leaving you not only over-paying for a position that’s on the IR, but stuck with replacement players anyway who are thrust into starting spots they’re not ready for.

In my book, with the right coaching, some smart drafting, and a little luck, you can skimp on the O-Line – like you can at running back, defensive tackle, and so on – and still get good-enough value to make your team a championship contender.

I’m not worried about the Seahawks’ O-Line.  Then again, I haven’t seen them play, so check back with me again in August.

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