The first big shocker of NFL free agency — defensive end J.J. Watt signing with the Arizona Cardinals, a team that had not previously been rumored on his radar — also serves as that much more of a wake-up call for the Seattle Seahawks.
The NFC West is playing to win.
A division that might have been the best in the NFL in 2020 might only be better in 2021. Watt, a three-time NFL defensive player of the year, now joins Chandler Jones to give Arizona one of the best pass-rushing duos in the NFL — the two are 1-2 in sacks in the NFL since 2012 at a combined 192.5. And it might be worth remembering that Jones played only five games last year and missed both against Seattle.
In Los Angeles, meanwhile, the trade for Matthew Stafford figures to be an upgrade on Jared Goff at quarterback. And there would seem no way the 49ers could have as many injuries to key players as they suffered a year ago.
In case you’ve forgotten in the maze of Russell-Wilson-wants-to-stay-unless-he-can-go-to-these-four-teams stories, the Seahawks actually won the NFC West last season, going 12-4 overall and 4-2 against the division.
But in 2021, the NFC West could be the rare division in which a case could be made that any of the four teams could win it.
Along with showing that Arizona is in win-now mode in what will be the third year for the duo of quarterback Kyler Murray and coach Kliff Kingsbury, Watt’s signing also will put that much more of a spotlight on Seattle’s efforts to improve its offensive line this offseason.
In a typical social media reaction in the minutes after the news of Watt’s signing broke Monday morning, ESPN commentator and noted Seahawks fan Mina Kimes posted a meme of Bernie Sanders with the notation “I am once again asking Seattle to invest in the offensive line.’’
Against the Watt-Jones duo, Aaron Donald in Los Angeles and a healthy Nick Bosa with the 49ers, the Seahawks’ offensive line will be severely challenged each time it plays in the division in 2021.
But saying Seattle needs to get better up front is the easy part.
The hard part is figuring out what, exactly, to do.
Seattle returns three starters on its line — left tackle Duane Brown, right tackle Brandon Shell and right guard Damien Lewis.
Seattle isn’t going to do better than Brown at left tackle and has no reason to do anything with Lewis after a promising rookie season. Seattle also probably isn’t going to do better at right tackle than Shell, at least for what the team is paying him — a $3.075 million salary with a $5.3 million cap hit and $2 million in dead money.
Pro Football Focus ranked Shell as the 21st best pass blocker out of 75 tackles in 2020. And it might be worth recalling again that PFF ranked Seattle’s offensive line 14th overall in 2020 and 16th in pass blocking, which is actually the best in Wilson’s nine years with the Seahawks.
So that leaves three realistic offensive line objectives for Seattle this offseason — finding a new left guard to replace the retiring Mike Iupati; figuring out what to do at center, where Ethan Pocic is a free agent; and improving depth to avoid the dropoff in play that occurred last season when injuries hit the line. The injuries to the line, in fact, seem to be an underrated factor when dissecting what happened last year.
Wilson was reported last week by The Athletic to have “stormed out’’ of a meeting before the second game against Arizona when he was apparently told the Seahawks wanted to go with a more conservative game plan.
But if Wilson’s 10 turnovers in the previous four games was an impetus for Pete Carroll wanting to dial it down some against an Arizona defense that was the fourth-most blitz-happy team in the league in 2020 (bringing pressure on almost 40% of snaps, according to Pro Football Reference), so was knowing that injuries meant Seattle was going to have to start Lewis at center in that game — the first time he’d played that position at any level — and go with Jamarco Jones at right guard.
Shell then got hurt against Arizona and the Seahawks had to go with either Cedric Ogbuehi or Jones at right tackle for all but one of the remaining games of the season.
The pass protection predictably suffered some the rest of the way.
So what to do now?
It doesn’t help that Seattle has just four draft choices — and none until No. 56 and only one in the first three rounds — and just $4.3 million in available cap space, according to OvertheCap.com. And to illustrate how big the challenge the league faces with a tighter overall cap this year, that’s actually more than 14 other teams.
That so many teams are battling cap issues with the cap likely to be in the $182 million to $183 million range instead of the expected $210 million or so due to COVID-19-related shortfalls has led to the idea that there could be more veterans than usual cut in the days leading up to the March 17 beginning of the new league year and free agency, and that there also might be more bargains than usual to be found.
Watt getting a contract for more than some figured he would considering he will be 32 next season and has played a full season only twice in the past five years, though, shows that as always, it only takes one team to set a market.
There are some appealing options out there, though, and there could be more who become available in the next two weeks.
Among those set to hit the market is Green Bay center Corey Linsley, whom Seahawks fans took to Twitter to basically beg the team to sign last week when it was reported Linsley is unlikely to remain with the Packers.
But showing the challenge of getting that done, PFF estimates Linsley to get a three-year deal worth up to $33 million. Other than re-signing its own players, that would be more than the Seahawks have paid for a free agent offensive lineman in the Pete Carroll/John Schneider era.
Seattle, of course, also is banking on new offensive coordinator Shane Waldron to bring in lots of elements of the Rams’ quick game passing attack to help try to limit the hits Wilson has been taking (in case you haven’t heard, his 394 sacks taken is the most of any quarterback since he arrived in the league in 2012).
But if the Seahawks felt compelled by Wilson’s comments to attack the offensive line with a bit more urgency this offseason — and the guess here is that it was already on the to-do list — Arizona’s signing of Watt only added to it.