Russell Wilson said this week he wants better protection and for the Seahawks to improve their offensive line for the 2021 season.
That leads to some questions.
Let’s address a few:
Does Wilson have a legit beef about the offensive line?
Before delving into that answer, let’s note it was definitely surprising to hear Wilson, who usually errs on the side of the positive and team protecting in every answer, say pretty frankly that “we’ve got to get better up front.’’
Few would argue, though, that the Seattle offensive line has been great during Wilson’s tenure. Just three linemen have made the Pro Bowl during his time and for only four trips total — center Max Unger in 2012 and 2013, left tackle Russell Okung in 2012 and left tackle Duane Brown in 2017.
Put another way, Pro Football Focus has not rated the Seattle offensive line as better than 16th in the NFL in pass blocking since Wilson was drafted in 2012. That rating of 16th actually came this season.
Or maybe all you needed as proof was the stat Wilson himself referred to on Tuesday — that he’s been sacked an NFL-high 394 times in his nine years in the league.
Not that simply reciting that number answers everything.
As PFF’s Steve Palazzolo detailed on Twitter Wednesday, though, PFF judged that 14 of Wilson’s 47 sacks in 2020 were his responsibility, the second-most in the league. That means he did something that was the primary cause of the sack, such as not throwing the ball as quickly as needed. PFF has assessed that 104 of Wilson’s total sacks are on him.
Wilson admits regularly that there are times he runs into sacks because he tries to keep plays alive, and as everyone notes, often he escapes pressure to create big plays.
But let’s go with PFF’s numbers and assume that means 290 sacks are the result primarily of the protection. That averages out to 32 per year, which by itself would have been tied for ninth most in the NFL this season.
That Seattle also tends to call a lot of longer-developing routes also feeds the sacks totals. But by just about any measure, Seattle’s pass blocking has pretty consistently lagged among the bottom half of the NFL during Wilson’s tenure.
Are Seattle’s struggles just because the Seahawks haven’t prioritized the offensive line?
Not really, even if that theory is often cited, such as by former Seahawk Brandon Marshall when he incorrectly said Tuesday the Seahawks had drafted only one lineman in Wilson’s time as QB.
The Seahawks have actually drafted at least one offensive lineman in every year since Wilson has been QB, and in every year since 2014 except one, have drafted one in the first four rounds. That includes one first-rounder (Germain Ifedi in 2016) and two more in the second (Justin Britt in 2014 and Ethan Pocic in 2017).
Seattle actually drafted an NFL-high 16 offensive linemen from 2010-16 before that pace slowed some the last four drafts, when the Seahawks have taken five.
The issue hasn’t been so much the numbers of players Seattle has drafted but the players themselves.
Consider that of the eight offensive linemen Seattle has taken since 2016 — players who would all be in their first five years in the league as of this season and as such, in a position at this point to be key contributors in some way — four were no longer on Seattle’s roster and only two played significantly last year, starting center Pocic and starting right guard Damien Lewis.
It is true that Seattle hasn’t spent much on its offensive line in recent years. According to OvertheCap.com, the Seahawks have ranked 15th or lower in overall spending on the offensive line every year since 2015, and 26th or lower five times in that span (Seattle was at 26 this year. The high of 15 came in 2019).
That streak coincided with the decision to trade Unger in the Jimmy Graham deal following the 2014 season and then not re-signing Okung following the 2015 season.
Seattle actually had the highest-paid offensive line in 2013 when it won the Super Bowl.
But that was also when the Seahawks had the third-lowest quarterback spending in the NFL.
Once players such as Wilson, Bobby Wagner, Kam Chancellor, Richard Sherman, Earl Thomas and K.J. Wright were no longer on rookie contracts, Seattle had spent the money to keep them all, and for better or worse, it often came at the expense of the offensive line.
Still, it’s worth remembering Seattle in 2017 traded for Brown and then re-signed him to a three-year, $34.5 million and also re-signed Britt to a three-year extension that same year to a three-year, $27 million deal.
The hope was to mostly use players on rookie contracts and veterans on cheaper deals to build around those two foundational pieces. But injuries (such as Britt’s in 2019) and underperformance by some players helped derail those plans.
So, can the line be easily fixed?
If it could, we probably wouldn’t be at this point. True, Seattle has not really paid top dollar for an outside free agent during the Wilson era (though the team would likely argue that the trade for Brown should be considered as essentially the same thing).
Seattle currently has a listed $4.9 million in cap room for 2021, though it could easily create more and could maybe go after some of the top offensive linemen on the market.
Seattle, though, still has starting tackles Brown and Brandon Shell under contract for 2021 and would seem likely content with each (Brown was the fifth-rated tackle this year by PFF and Shell 40th of 79 total).
Lewis also had a promising rookie season at right guard.
That leaves left guard (where Mike Iupati is a free agent and unlikely to be back) and center (where Pocic is a free agent) as the two most logical places to try to make a splash to upgrade, unless the Seahawks wanted to bring in a right tackle to compete with Shell, whose $5.3 million cap hit for 2021 is the ninth-highest of players under contract and has $2 million in dead money.
At the moment, the two top free agent guards are Washington’s Brandon Scherff and New England’s Joe Thuney. Each, though, might command a salary in the $12-15 million a year range, which would make for some hard decisions elsewhere (Scherff also has played nothing but right guard, same as Lewis). But PFF lists only one other guard among its top 100 free agents — Pittsburgh’s Matt Feiler.
As for centers, Green Bay’s Corey Linsley is the top one available. But he likewise could get a contract topping $11 million a year or so. Three others available are Kansas City’s Austin Reiter, New England’s David Andrews and Atlanta’s Alex Mack. All ranked from 12th to 16th in PFF’s ratings of centers this year — Pocic was 26th.
In other words, simply buying a better OL will hold its challenges.
As for the draft, Seattle has only one pick (No. 56 in the second round) in the first three rounds thanks to the Jamal Adams trade and just four overall. Figure the Seahawks to add to that total somehow, but a total makeover of the line via the draft this year also won’t come easily.