The most startling and telling comment from the Seattle Seahawks this offseason — at least one that didn’t talk about Richard Sherman — came from their general manager.
It was John Schneider’s so-real description of his feelings about his offensive line, about how it got to the point last year that undrafted rookie college basketball player George Fant was starting at left tackle.
“Holy cow!” Schneider said he was thinking, recalling that moment in March at the NFL scouting combine in Indianapolis.
That’s how most everyone, probably even quarterback Russell Wilson, felt, too.
Settling and improving the offensive line is another pressing issue for the team to solve over the next five weeks of training camp, which begins on Sunday.
The Seahawks must do this, and do it far earlier than they did last year.
Must, that is, if they want to have a realistic shot at a better path back to the Super Bowl. That means winning enough in the regular season to host a divisional playoff game, instead of losing one on the road like Seattle has in each of the last two Januarys.
Sunday’s first practice of training camp will be Groundhog Day for the offense. It is the same situation it was last July. It is starting training camp with a new starting left tackle, left guard, right guard and right tackle. And the Seahawks are doing now what they were doing in late July 2016: trying to incorporate new, veteran blockers into the rotation if not the starting lineup.
But they already appear to be in incrementally better shape along the line than they were beginning last preseason.
Last training camp, Fant was in a full football uniform for the first time since he was in eighth grade. No one was thinking about him as a Seahawk, let alone as a starter. He was simply learning how to get into a proper stance for a tackle.
Coach Pete Carroll isn’t being overly optimistic or overstating it when he says perhaps no player in the NFL will grow more and improve more exponentially this season than Fant. No player in the NFL had less experience starting a football game last year than Fant. He can only grow and improve.
And, yes, he’s grown. He’s gained 70 pounds in less than two years. He says he’s up to 320 pounds, “321, something like that.” That’s 24 more than the team’s listed weight for him, about that much more than the former Western Kentucky power forward weighed in January.
“My mom lives with me now,” Fant said. “She’s brought that good Southern food for me.”
Fant has shown so much growth — physically and mentally, in knowing how to play football and the offensive line — the Seahawks are planning to start training camp with their big-ticket purchase this offseason, free agent Luke Joeckel, at left guard and Fant back at left tackle. Joeckel signed for one year and $8 million, more than $7 million of that guaranteed. That’s usually money for a left tackle, especially for the league’s lowest-paid line. Left tackle is where Jacksonville drafted Joeckel second overall in 2013 to play, but he lost that job with the Jaguars before last season. He played five games at left guard before a season-ending knee injury in October. Seahawks line coach Tom Cable said this offseason he thought Joeckel was the best left guard in the league before he got hurt.
His recovery from knee surgery is why Joeckel did not participate in team scrimmaging during spring organized team activities and minicamp last month, and may not to begin camp. But the Seahawks expect him to be full go well before the opener Sept. 10 at Green Bay. And it looks, for now at least, that he’ll be the left guard.
But if Fant hasn’t improved after all, Joeckel and Rees Odhiambo, the backup left guard and tackle right now, could play left tackle at some point this season.
Seattle’s other veteran free-agent signing on the line this offseason was former New York Jets and Houston Texans part-time starter Oday Aboushi. He was backing up right guard Mark Glowinski, Seattle’s first-time starter at left guard in 2016, during OTAs and minicamp. Aboushi said the Seahawks made it clear in March they were signing him to a low-risk, one-year contract worth $975,000 to be a veteran mentor on what was the NFL’s youngest line last year.
Schneider acknowledged this spring the Seahawks allowed their line to get too young in 2016.
Joeckel and Aboushi are entering camp better positioned than Seattle’s imports last summer to not only make the roster, but help the young blockers.
The team signed previous Oakland Raiders and Chicago Bears guard and tackle J’Marcus Webb to a two-year deal in March 2016. That regrettable deal included $2.45 million guaranteed. Webb got hurt in minicamp. He proved brittle and ineffective and eventually cut during the season.
The Seahawks signed Arizona tackle Bradley Sowell for one year in 2016’s free agency, for $800,000. Sowell twice lost starting jobs during last season, to Fant in October then Garry Gilliam at right tackle in December.
Gilliam was the new starter at right tackle last year, moving over from an aborted plan to be the left tackle. He’s now gone. He signed this offseason with San Francisco, after the Seahawks declined to match the restricted free agent’s offer.
“Last year, we signed a couple guys through free agency that were not, you know, highly priced guys,” Schneider said. “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 former New Orleans guard Jahri Evans a few days into 2016’s training camp — only to release the four-time All-Pro in early September, before the opening game.
So, yeah, Seattle’s line was soup sandwich a year ago compared to what it is right now.
But is that saying much? Is that good enough to improve what was the NFL’s 25th-ranked rushing offense last season? It is even passable enough to keep Wilson from getting two major injuries in the first three games this season? This weekend’s start of training camp will begin to provide evidence yay or nay.
“I think probably the biggest area that we’re going to see us grow is in offensive line play,” Carroll said. “I think you’re going to see a change in the group and an elevation of their awareness based on that one year of experience and coming back for a sophomore year and things just jump. George will tell you that. (Justin) Britt will tell you that. Glow will tell you that, Ifedi – they’ll all tell you how much different it looks to them after a year in the bag.
“So we’re expecting a big jump there and a really competitive camp coming up.”
An entire offense, and the Seahawks’ season, is counting on it.