Building to Win in 2013: Quarterbacks and Offensive Line

Okay, now that I’m done with an unscheduled few weeks’ off from, well, everything (short explanation: heavy furniture + back problems = ouch) it’s time to start talking about the Seahawks’ offseason plans.

First off, the good news: Pete Carroll and John Schneider’s rebuild is finished, or at least as close to finished as a team overhaul ever gets.  Earning a playoff berth after a 7-9 season in 2010 might have been highly improbable, but there’s nothing fluky about the 2012 team going 11-5 in the regular season and coming within thirty seconds of beating out Atlanta in the playoffs for the right to duel San Francisco for a Super Bowl berth.  Barring injury, this is a team that is set up for success for many years to come.

Among other things, that means we can all say goodbye to the days of madly scrambling to unearth a few semi-warm bodies to fill a talent-bereft roster, and good riddance to them.  Schneider and his scouting staff are still going to be searching far and wide for those diamonds in the rough and surprising choices we’ve all come to expect from them (case in point being the recent signing of pro basketball player Darren Fells as a developmental tight end prospect), but on the whole I wouldn’t expect to see a whole lot of movement on the roster this year.  Carroll’s “always compete” mantra side, there simply aren’t that many roster spots that are realistically up for grabs, and most of the ones that are open are backup positions.

We know Schneider prefers to build through the draft, and when free agency begins next Tuesday I don’t expect to hear the Seahawks name come up during the first round or so of pricey, high-profile signings.  That said, tthe $41 million contract Sidney Rice signed back in 2011 proves that Schneider is willing to whip out the checkbook if the right player comes along, and this year he’s got plenty of extra cap room to work with thanks to this gem buried in Article 13, Section 6(b)(v) of the collective bargaining agreement:

Carrying Over Room.  A club may “carry over” Room from one League Year to the following League Year by submitting notice in writing signed by the owner to the NFL no later than fourteen (14) days prior to the start of the next League Year indicating the maximum amount of Room that the Club wishes to carry over.

Simply put, if your team finishes the season under the salary cap, you can raise your cap for next season by the amount you didn’t spend.  Without that pretty little chunk of legalese, the Seahawks would be headed into 2013 with a measly $5.4 million in cap space.  Instead, they get to carry over $13.2 million they didn’t spend in 2012, which raises their 2013 grand total to $18.6 million.  Joke about lawyers all you want, but sometimes they come up with stuff that just plain rocks.

Anyway, starting today and leading up to the beginning of free agency on the 12th I thought I’d spend some time breaking down the current roster to see what the contract situations are at each position.  How much money do the Hawks have tied up at each position?  Who’s likely to be re-signed?  Is anyone making more/less than they deserve?  Are there any better and/or cheaper alternatives hitting the market this year? Let’s find out, starting with the quarterbacks and the offensive line.

Quarterbacks

Name Age Games Started (2012) 2012 Salary 2013 Salary Final Year of Contract
Josh Portis 25 0 Practice Squad Free Agent 2012
Matt Flynn 27 0 $2 M $5.25 M 2014
Russell Wilson 24 16 $526k $662k 2015
Totals - - $2.526 M $5.192 M -

(Updated 3/8/13 at 1:59 AM: I forgot to include salary totals, so I added in the bottom row.)

Starters

Is there anything I can say about Russell Wilson that you don’t already know?  He’s accurate, he’s poised, he’s very smart about avoiding unnecessary hits when he takes off with the ball, he studies for each game like he was cramming to pass the medical licensing exam, and (to quote the man himself) he throws “a sexy deep ball.”  Wilson may have lost out to Robert Griffin III for the AP’s Offensive Rookie of the Year award, but he did win the Pepsi Max Rookie of the Year Award (I know, I know, it’s only a fan-voted award) and also received top honors from Pro Football Focus and various other football news & analysis sites1.  And I know this has been said by about a million other folks already, but watching him evade defenders and scramble to buy time to throw looks eerily similar to footage of Fran Tarkenton in his prime.

Backups

Matt Flynn is both one of the highest paid backup quarterbacks in the league and the only other QB currently under contract with the team.  Seeing as how Wilson’s rookie contract entitles him to a ridiculously low $526k for next season, paying Flynn won’t break the bank for the Seahawks, and having a guy with his ability on the bench as the next man up is a luxury most head coaches would give their eyeteeth to have, but $5.25 mil is still $5.25 mil – if the right offer materializes (as in a second round pick), Schneider and Carroll will probably be more than willing to ship him off to a team like Jacksonville in dire need of a living, breathing QB who doesn’t throw a pick on every other pass attempt.

Josh Portis spent part of the year on Seattle’s the practice squad after getting the axe in the final cutdown prior to the start of the regular season.  He went undrafted in 2011 because of concerns about his maturity and shaky technique, but he excels at extending plays with his legs when things start to break down and the coaching staff really seems to like him.  Don’t be surprised if he gets invited to a third straight training camp with the Seahawks this year.

Potential Free Agents

The other reason for Seattle to hold on to Flynn is that this is not a great year for quarterbacks.  Tarvaris Jackson wouldn’t be a half bad choice, and both Matt Moore and Drew Stanton have some strong potential (I think both are still capable of turning into solid performers), but after that there’s nothing but a sea of perpetual disappointments (Jason Campbell, Rex Grossman, aging guys with diminishing abilities (Seneca Wallace, Sage Rosenfels), and other undesirables (J.P. Losman, Vince Young).  Still think Flynn’s price tag is still too high?

Offensive Line

Name Position Age

Games Started (2012)

2012 Salary 2013 Salary

Final Year of Contract

Frank Omiyale G/T 30 1 $825k Free Agent 2012
Breno Giacomini T 27 16 $1.5 M $3M 2013
Lemuel Jeanpierre G/C 25 0 $465k $500k 2013
Paul McQuistan G/T 29 16 $1.25 M $3 M 2013
James Carpenter G 23 7 $722k $1.07 M 2014
Rishaw Johnson G 24 0 $390k $480k 2014
John Moffitt G 26 6 $625k $753k 2014
Mike Person G 24 0 $506k $555k 2014
Russell Okung T 25 15 $6.48 M $7.06 M 2015
J.R. Sweezy G 23 3 $390k $570k 2015
Max Unger C 26 16 $2.5 M $4 M 2016
Totals - - - $15.653 M $20.988 M -

(Updated 3/8/13 at 2:05 AM: Just like with the QB table I forgot to include salary totals, plus I wrote in the wrong salary figures for Person.  Both mistakes are fixed now.)

Starters

Max Unger and Russell Okung each turned in a full season’s worth of superlative work in 2012.  Both were voted starters in the Pro Bowl, and Unger also earned a first team All-Pro nod2.  That’s good news for Seattle, because both players are playing as well as they’re being paid (Okung is currently earning the sixth-highest average salary in the NFL for an offensive tackle, while Unger is earning the seventh-highest average salary for a center).

In terms of pure physicality, Unger is probably about a seven on a ten point scale, but when it comes to how much he gets out of his natural abilities the guy is a straight-up eleven.  He plays intelligently and with superb technique, and like any good center he excels at coordinating blocking assignments with his fellow interior linemen no matter who lines up next to him.  And as good as his pass protection was in 2012, his run blocking might have been even better.  Not bad for an art major.

Okung most likely missed the cut for the All-Pro team because of the 13 penalties he committed this season (8 false starts and 5 holding calls).  Yellow flags aside though, his run and pass blocking were more than strong enough to merit consideration for the honor. and he missed just one game to injury, which is a big step up from the four he missed in 2011 and six in 2010.  Oh, and he only allowed one sack last year, so that's good too.

Unger and Okung are the only virtual locks to be starters on the offensive line in 2013, but Breno Giacomini and (to a lesser extent) Paul McQuistan probably aren’t too far off from being added to that list.  I put the two of them in the same category as Chris Gray: neither is particularly dominant or irreplaceable, but they do enough things well that they have a better than average chance to stay in the starting lineup.

Giacomini was originally just an injury replacement for Carpenter in 2011, but he ended up supplanting him as the starting right tackle in large part because he has a faster kick step and reaction time.  Carpenter was eaten alive by speedy edge rushers during his brief stint at RT, but Giacomini at least has a fighting chance at stopping them from getting to the QB.  He had some pretty rough games in 2012, but overall I think he did more good than harm.

Giacomini’s main drawback is that his greatest asset, his nasty temper,  also doubles as his biggest weakness.  If you focus in on his play, it becomes readily apparent that the guys he goes up against may sometimes be faster or stronger than him, but there’s no way in hell they’ll ever be meaner.  The surly attitude he brings to the table counts for one hell of a lot down in the trenches, but it also helped him commit twelve penalties in 2012 (4 holding, 4 false start, 2 unnecessary roughness, and 2 personal fouls).  Thankfully, he earned fewer penalties in the second half of the season, which hopefully means that he’s starting to learn how to make that anger work for him instead of against him.

McQuistan first joined the Seahawks back in 2011 after roughly three and a half middling years with the Raiders, followed by brief stints with the Jaguars and Browns.  At that point in his career he was a backup with the versatility to fill in at both guard and tackle positions, but nobody expected him to amount to anything more than that.  Two years later, thanks to his knowledge of Tom Cable’s blocking system and multiple injuries suffered by more highly touted free agent signings (Robert Gallery) and draft choices (Carpenter, Moffitt),  McQuistan has started a total of 26 regular season games and two playoff games for Seattle at both guard and tackle.

Granted, that may speak more highly of McQuistan’s durability than his technique, but there seems to be a feeling among the coaching staff that he and Giacomini have turned into a solid team on the right side of the line.  There’s an argument to be made here that having two good players who work well together is preferable to having two great players who don’t (please note that I’m not actually making this argument, just pointing out its existence), but that probably isn’t going to make me wince any less each time I see McQuistan whiff on a block upfield or get shoved backwards by a strong bull rush.  It’s probably best to think of him as the default choice: if someone better comes along, fantastic, but if not the team has someone who is at least an average blocker they can slot in at right guard.

Backups (and Potential Left Guards)

To summarize thus far, the Seahawks have two definite starters at left tackle and center and two probable starters at right tackle and right guard, which leaves left guard as the odd man out.  Not that that’s anything new, since roughly eleventy billion different players have started at left guard for Seattle since Steve Hutchinson left following the 2005 season.  This time around, the three prime candidates for the job are James Carpenter, John Moffitt, and J.R. Sweezy.

Of the three, Carpenter is probably the likeliest to win the job, assuming his surgically repaired knee holds up.  After watching him struggle greatly at right tackle his rookie season3, it was nice to see him excel as a guard for the handful of games in which he was available to play in 2012.  Remember, he was originally supposed to be out the entire season, so any playing time at all last year was a bonus. 

Carpenter is a powerful run blocker, but he doesn't seem to have much in the way of lateral quickness.  That doomed him in pass protection at right tackle, but that deficiency is mitigated at guard because there isn’t as much ground to cover.  I know he was drafted specifically to play tackle, but if he can stay healthy and anchor the left guard position he will more than justify his late first round draft status.

On paper, Moffitt should be the logical second choice here, but after rewatching a few games I’m starting to have serious doubts about his ability to play at the NFL level.  Much like fellow 2011 draft choice Carpenter, he’s a powerful run blocker, but he is a horrible, horrible pass blocker at the guard position4.  Add in his injury problems and his complete lack of speed and you have a one way ticket to bustville.  I’d love for him to prove me wrong and turn into a solid guard, I just don’t think that’s likely to happen.

Instead, I think the next guy in line (and my dark horse favorite to eventually supplant McQuistan in the starting lineup) is Sweezy.  Watching him play in the regular season last year it became readily apparent that the guy’s skill set is raw as hell, especially as a pass blocker, but it was hard to ignore the guy’s potential.  He’s clearly got more than enough strength and attitude to get the job done, and he’s faster than any offensive lineman has any right to be, both in terms of straight line speed and initial burst off the snap.  If he can master the requisite technique, the sky’s the limit on how good he could be.

I rather like Lemuel Jeanpierre, and I think given the right circumstances he could develop into a starting-caliber guard, but he rarely sees the field as an injury replacement at that position because he’s the only other player on the roster besides Unger who can play center.  I can understand Carroll’s reluctance to risk injuring his only viable backup center by slotting him in at guard, but that’s proably small comfort to Jeanpierre.  When he hits free agency at the end of the 2013 season chances are good that he’ll sign with some other team that will give him a legitimate chance at starting, so enjoy him while you can.

Frank Omiyale is a veteran castoff from the Bears who signed on with a one-year deal last offseason, and he quickly became my favorite backup lineman next to Jeanpierre.  He was pretty subpar when he played for Chicago, so I didn’t expect much from him, but when he saw action in a Hawks uniform he surprised me by playing almost as well as the guys he replaced in the lineup.   Given his age (30) and his less-than-sterling rep from his days with the Bears, I doubt there’s going to be much of a market for his services, so Schneider should be able to re-sign him on the cheap.

The last two names, Rishaw Johnson and Mike Person, are young developmental prospects.  Person was an first team All-American as a left tackle for Montana, but his short arms make him better fit at guard in the pros, which is why he didn’t get drafted until the seventh round in 2011.  From what I understand he's got a ways to go still, but at the very least he projects to be a quality backup guard and there are some indications that he could develop into a decent backup center as well.  Johnson has all the measurables you want to see in a franchise left tackle, but after he spent his time at the 2012 combine showing off his lack of technique and attention span (and just generally acting like a braying jackass when he wasn’t on deck) he ended up going undrafted.  The kid has tons of potential, but before he can capitalize on it he's got to learn how to straighten up and fly right.

Potential Free Agents

Tackle and cnter aren’t really serious needs right now, which is great because good centers are hard to come by and just about all of the starting-caliber tackles hitting the market are guys with big question marks like Jake Long (injuries) and Sebastian Vollmer (ditto).  That said, Phil Loadholt over in Minnesota looks pretty damn good.  He's just 27, he’s missed only one game in four seasons, and his crushing run blocks has helped pave the way for Adrian Peterson’s many, many great performances.  His pass protection isn’t the greatest (that seems to be a common refrain when it comes to right tackles) and he’ll probably want more money than the Seahawks are willing to pay, but he’d be an upgrade over Giacomini.

At guard, the top prospects this year are probably Cooper Carlisle, Louis Vasquez, Brandon Moore, and Andrew Levitre.  Carlisle is a dependable lineman who’s only missed one game in the past eight years, but that's roughly where the good news ends.  He’ll be 36 headed into next season, so at best he isn’t more than a one year solution, and there’s some chatter that he’s planning to re-up with the Raiders for the veteran minimum and end his career there instead of actually testing the open market. 

Andrew Levitre and Louis Vasquez are both young, solid performers with many years of play ahead of them, but their respective teams (the Bills and Chargers) are not likely to let a couple of their only Pro Bowl-worthy players head out the door without waging a hard-fought bidding war for their services.  The only way either player ends up in Seattle is if Schneider decides he's good enough to justify sending dump trucks filled with money to his front door until he agrees to sign.

Moore’s performance last year was one of the few bright spots for the Jets’ offense, and at 33 he’s probably got a few years left in him but not so many that New York would fight tooth and nail to re-sign him.  I’m more than a little leery about signing yet another aging guard after watching veteran stopgaps Mike Wahle, Ben Hamilton, and Robert Gallery all flame out in quick succession, plus Moore has a rep for being a great pass protector but a weak run blocker (although that might be a refreshing change of pace for Wilson).  If nothing else, Moore is likely going to be very interested in signing with a Super Bowl contender before he inevitably runs out of gas, which means a team like Seattle should be able to sign him for a rather modest sum.

 

*        *        *

 

1 Interestingly enough, Mike Florio over at Pro Football Talk was among the writers to name Wilson as his choice for Rookie of the Year.  Florio’s never been one of my favorite writers, but he was dead on in this article he wrote on the subject following Seattle’s playoff game versus Atlanta.  Credit where credit's due, you know?

 

2 For my money, being voted to the All-Pro team is exponentially more significant than going to the Pro Bowl, the difference being that All-Pro teams are voted on by a select panel of 50 Associated Press writers, while everyone and their dog gets a say in who goes to the Pro Bowl.  Among other things, the All-Pro voters are good at avoiding unfortunate situations like, say, Jeff Saturday making the cut despite being benched partway through the season for poor performance. 

Don’t get me wrong, I think the Pro Bowl is a good thing, mainly because it gives players a prime opportunity to learn from and collaborate with other players and coaches they wouldn’t ordinarily have a chance to spend much time around.  For those who take full advantage of it, the Pro Bowl is basically a Master’s class in football with some white sandy beaches thrown in as a bonus.  The whole fan “vote as many times as you like” thing is still complete and utter crap, though.

 

3 According to Pro Football Focus’ pass blocking efficiency stats, Carpenter was the fourth worst tackle in the NFL that season.  The three worst were the Bears’ Lance Louis, the Falcons’ Sam Baker, and the Giants’ David Diehl.

 

4 Pro Football Focus rated him the sixth worst guard in the NFL in 2011 by pass blocking efficiency.  I haven’t seen the figures on him for 2012, but I doubt they’re going to show much improvement over his rookie year.

 

 

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