INDIANAPOLIS John Schneider’s reaction was much like yours -- and Russell Wilson’s, for that matter -- when the Seahawks had beyond-raw, undrafted rookie George Fant as their starting left tackle last season.
Yes, it got that Harry Caray scary for Seattle on its offensive line last season. That is why upgrading their blockers is the Seahawks’ jobs 1, 2 and 3 here at the NFL combine this week, in free agency that begins next week and well into training camp this summer.
“Offensive line. When you go to colleges and you talk to the coaches and they struggle to find offensive linemen,” Schneider, the Seahawks’ general manager, said Wednesday inside the Indiana Convention Center on the first morning of the league’s annual scouting summit. “Everyone wants to play quarterback and running back and offensive line. It’s just how the football culture is right now. The majority of guys aren’t like, ‘I’m going to be the best offensive lineman in high-school football,’ you know what I mean? They want to sack the quarterback.
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“Yeah, look at us with George Fant last year. God bless him, but, holy cow, man! The guy was playing basketball (collegiately at Western Kentucky into 2015). And now he’s out there playing against Robert Quinn. So, good luck.”
And so, time for Seahawks upgrades. Beyond time to improve the biggest reason for the team’s inconsistent and at-times maddening offense last season.
Schneider acknowledged the Seahawks allowed their O-line to get too young in 2016.
The Seahawks signed former Oakland Raiders and Chicago Bears guard and tackle J’Marcus Webb to a two-year deal last March that included $2.45 million guaranteed -- then cut him during last season when he proved brittle and ineffective at both positions. They signed Bradley Sowell for one year in free agency for just $800,000 from Arizona. Sowell twice lost starting jobs during last season, to Fant at left tackle in October then Garry Gilliam at right tackle in December.
“Last year we signed a couple guys through free agency that were not, you know, highly priced guys,” Schneider said of an 2016 offseason when Seattle had far less salary-cap space than the $26 million it has now. “It just covered us in case we got to the draft and all the offensive linemen got pushed up (in value and selection), as they usually do.”
The Seahawks also signed Jahri Evans, a 11-year veteran guard and four-time All-Pro in New Orleans, in August -- only to release him in early September, before the opening game.
Seattle’s GM said Wednesday he regrets cutting Evans.
“Yeah, I’d be lying to you if I said different. His leadership would have been outstanding for us,” Schneider said. “I think we got in a position where we probably got a little bit too young...
“I think we’d like to add some experience at that position.”
Such as Russell Okung, perhaps?
The first draft choice Schneider ever made as an NFL GM, in the first round at sixth overall for Seattle in 2010, Okung is about to become a free agent on March 9. That’s the day the market for unsigned players opens. Denver made Okung a free agent last week when it decided not to exercise the option on the contract he signed with the Broncos while representing himself last spring. He played in all 16 games last season for the Broncos but had a concussion and many costly holding penalties as Denver’s offense struggled and the defending Super Bowl champion missed the playoffs. The option would have given Okung a four-year, $48 million contract with $20.5 million guaranteed.
Instead, he will become an unrestricted free agent at the age of 29.
He started 72 games in his first six seasons with the Seahawks, including two Super Bowls. He made the 2012 Pro Bowl with Seattle. He would be the proven veteran the Seahawks are seeking for the line. In fact, he’d be the best import. He knows line coach Tom Cable’s zone-blocking scheme better than any of Seattle’s current blockers. He could build the cohesion Schneider and coach Pete Carroll keep saying are key for the Seahawks to build in the coming season and beyond up front.
And Okung is likely to be relatively cheap. He needs to prove himself worthy of a multi-year, bigger-bucks contract since he turns 30 in October and just got released from a team that also had offensive-line needs after just 11 months with it.
There are no hard feelings between the Seahawks and Okung with how he left last March; the team sees that he earned the right to find his value on the open market, a value that turned out to be $8 million for one year with Denver. That was too rich for Seattle, where Webb was the highest-paid guy on the league’s lowest-paid line.
So the Seahawks are expected to talk to Okung when the market opens next week; he is believed to be representing himself again in this upcoming free-agency period. But Seattle will be in line with multiple other teams. This is a league where quality offensive linemen are more rare by the year.
“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,” Schneider said. “Some of the best offensive lines I’ve been around (he was an executive with the Packers and Chiefs before becoming Seattle’s GM in January 2010), 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 (Justin) Britt to center and all of that. But they have to have that cohesion. In Kansas City, we had Tim Grunhard and Will Shields and Dave Szott—those guys played together for a number of years. In Green Bay, we had Mike Flanagan, Mike Wahle, (Marco) Rivera, (Chad) Clifton and (Mark) Tauscher play together for a long time. That group in particular is a group that played with that cohesion and really had that level of confidence in each other.”
As for offensive-line prospects at this combine and in April’s draft, they will get over-valued yet again. Many are projecting the Seahawks will pick Alabama left tackle Cam Robinson with their first-round pick at No. 26. But in these days of not-ready-for-NFL blockers coming out of college, an Outland Trophy winner as college football’s best interior lineman who has been starting since being a freshman All-America for a perennial national-championship contender is likely to go higher than 26th overall.
I asked Schneider how close or far away the linemen that will begin interviews with teams and medical testing here on Wednesday are for where the Seahawks need them to be to play in their offense.
“Well, there’s just a dearth at the position,” he said. “There just has been for a number of years now. There aren’t a lot of guys that … I mean, you just have to be really careful to figure out those guys that have the mental aptitude, first, to come in and learn everything. I think you saw it throughout the season with our younger guys. There’s a lot of stuff happening in there. And they have to figure it out. They have to be able to communicate. They just have to jell. And so being able to identify those players that can come in and work within that room – and we feel like we are blessed. We feel like we one of if not the best offensive line coach in the league, right.
“He feels like he can put you out there, you know what I mean?
I joked to Schneider that Cable must indeed be confident in himself to think he could turn me into a Seahawks lineman.
I know what you are thinking: That’s been part of Seattle’s problem on the O-line.
By the way, there was a not-so-shocking reason the Seahawks released Evans and made their young line even younger last season: money. Schneider inferred the Seahawks let Evans go last September because they didn’t want to have the vested veteran on the roster for the first regular season game. That would have guaranteed his entire 2016 contract of $1,065,000.
But after the Seahawks released him, Evans signed back with the Saints -- and started all 16 of their games, at guard.
“I think Jahri was in a position where ... I mean, he was great. He came into camp and did a great job while he was here, mentoring the younger guys. And if he was sitting right here, I’d say the same thing,” Schneider said. “We were a little concerned about his durability being an older player. And we were going to see how it went through that first week.
“But he went back to New Orleans right away and did a great job.”