RENTON — The Seattle Seahawks are trying to replace a mountain of a man with a Hill.
Now, if only Jordan Hill can stay healthy.
“This is the biggest opportunity of my life,” the 25-year-old defensive tackle said this week.
That was after his third consecutive training-camp practice as the starter replacing that mountain, Brandon Mebane. Mebane signed in March with San Diego after nine years as the bedrock of Seattle’s top-ranked run defense.
Hill has been the first-team nose tackle so far next to veteran Ahtyba Rubin.
“I’m expecting to have a huge year,” Hill said. “I expect if I’m able to be healthy I’ll be here for a long time. That’s my plan. That’s what I live by every single day. I love this place. I love the city. And I’m really working to keep my butt here.”
That means beyond this season. It’s the last one of Hill’s rookie contract he got as Seattle’s third-round pick in 2013 out of Penn State. It’s paying him $695,000 this year.
Hill’s is yet another place the Seahawks are potentially getting a huge bargain in 2016 to offset the big contracts that have kept their core of stars together and under the salary cap. He is poised to become another minimum-salary starter on a team that also has those on the league’s lowest-paid offensive line. Plus, Seattle’s running backs are 2015 undrafted rookie Thomas Rawls, veteran-minimum salaried Christine Michael and three rookie draft picks.
Few situations in the NFL motivate players more than playing the final year of their rookie deals. If they become starters, their second contracts often mean raises of 200-300 percent from their initial deals.
That should get Hill’s already-high motor revving, even more than it has in his first three seasons.
Mebane devoured blockers and plugged lanes with a stonewalling style. It was opposite the slashing, penetrating playmaking Hill has flashed in his first three NFL seasons.
That is, when Hill’s been able to stay on the field.
He played in only four games his rookie season because of a biceps injury he first got during training camp. When Clinton McDonald left in free agency for Tampa Bay before the 2014 season, Hill landed a role as Seattle’s pass-rushing defensive tackle in nickel (five defensive-back) sets.
He thrived there. He had 5 1/2 sacks — of the seven for his career — during Seattle’s six-game winning streak as the Seahawks rallied to another NFC West championship late in the ’14 season. Opposing offenses could not block Hill. He wrecked game plans and changed field position almost by himself in December 2014. His career seemed to be breaking out.
But then, another breakdown.
During a January 2015 bye week before Seattle’s playoffs began, Hill sustained a severe calf injury. And in a freak way: while stretching before a light workout on the team’s indoor practice field. Just when his career was peaking, Hill plummeted. He was in a sweatsuit instead of New England’s backfield that February, while quarterback Tom Brady rallied the Patriots for two touchdowns late in Super Bowl 49 against the Seahawks’ nickel defense — the set in which Hill had been thriving.
Hill became re-dedicated for last season after rehabilitating the calf. But then he developed quadriceps and toe injuries in October and November. He missed six games and was mostly a non-factor: zero sacks in 10 regular-season and two playoff games.
Hill declared Sunday how healthy he’s been these last few months. Then on Tuesday, he stood on the sidelines watching rookie second-round pick Jarran Reed impressively slam into starting offensive linemen during camp’s fourth practice, its second in full pads. The team said some veterans including Doug Baldwin and Kam Chancellor were taking an extra rest day ahead of Wednesday’s players day off. But given Hill’s history and the fact he’s not exactly got star status and the luxury of days off that comes with it, one couldn’t help wonder whether Hill was hurt yet again.
“It’s been very frustrating,” he said Monday, before his latest absence, “because I’ve been like, ‘All right, I’m getting rollin’ — and then my chances are taken away for that year.”
Hill admits “at times I feel like, ‘It’s not fair’ or ‘What did I do?’” But then he quickly adds: “For me, in my head, it’s all God’s plan.
“I’m going through whatever I am going through in my career to be a better person in the end.”
His quest to be his best me this year, for this mammoth opportunity to start and get a new Seahawks contract, includes more time in the training room — but in a positive, proactive way. Instead of being there to get treatment after his many injuries, Hill is stretching and doing preemptive physical therapy every day while healthy in an effort to stay stronger, more flexible and more in tune with his body.
“I’m making sure little things don’t turn into big things,” Hill said.
“It’s just my every-day maintenance. I used to think, ‘I’m not hurt, I don’t need to be in there.’ It’s just me maturing and understanding my body.”
He’s also enlisted the help of a fellow Penn State graduate, a nutritionist in Manhattan Beach, California. Lisa Rado has already helped Hill’s teammate in Seattle and at Penn State, Seahawks left tackle Garry Gilliam. She describes her scientific approach as mixing bio-chemistry and a client’s personal goals with a customized plan of vitamins and foods.
“It’s more when I’m eating and the amount I’m eating,” Hill said, adding he tries to adhere to a rule of not eating after 8 p.m. “I would eat a big breakfast and a big dinner, but not each much lunch. She’s just making sure I eat enough, having three meals — like getting my protein right now, right after workouts. Just knowing what my body needs.”
What the Seahawks need is for Hill to stay healthy, to show what he’s teased them with so far. They don’t need him to be Mebane; there’s only been one of those the last decade in Seattle.
“They’re much different style players,” coach Pete Carroll said. “Jordan is a quickness, finesse guy. He’s got a lot of moves, a lot of activity, big motor. Mebane was a real big, strong guy right at the point of depth. Very different.
“We ask him to do what he does really well. We can play with different style guys and he’s in the midst of the competition and all that. If we expect him to do the same thing as Mebane it’s probably not going to work out.”
Yes, Hill needs to be himself, his healthy self. Do that, and he feels this tremendous opportunity will take care of itself.
If it does, the house he rents five minutes up Interstate 405 from Seahawks headquarters could turn into a larger home. A much larger home. The kind you buy and live in for a while.
“It’s hard to replace Mebane, what he did. Plus, I’m a different player,” Hill said. “But at the same time, you have to do what’s within the system of the defense.
“So a lot of it will look similar — but just in my own style.”