RENTON, Wash. -- The Seattle Seahawks come into the 2013 season with Super Bowl hopes high, but if any of Pete Carroll's dreams are to come true down the road, Seattle's offensive line will have to perform at a singularly special level. Carroll saw this close up in 2012, when his division rival San Francisco 49ers took the best power/counter/trap blocking game in the business to within four points of a Super Bowl championship. Carroll and 49ers head coach Jim Harbaugh see football very much the same way, though you'd never get them out for drinks together. That's a rivalry that goes back to the old Pac-10, but the paradigm of great defense, opportunistic passing and a physically dominant run game is common to both men.
The Seahawks have two absolutes on their offensive line in left tackle Russell Okung and center Max Unger. Both made the Pro Bowl last year, and each performs at an upper-echelon level on a week-to-week basis. Beyond that, things are a bit filmier. Right tackle Breno Giacomini had the most blown blocks in 2012 of anyone at his position, and he's a bit of a penalty machine as well. The guard spots were handled on a rotation basis by Paul McQuistan, James Carpenter, John Moffitt, and converted defensive lineman J.R. Sweezy.
Two players who could upset Seattle's depth chart in 2013 from an under-the-radar perspective are seventh-round pick Michael Bowie and undrafted rookie Alvin Bailey. Bowie has looked pretty solid in practices, but it's Bailey who's really caught the eye of those in the know -- he first hit my radar six months ago, when Greg Cosell of NFL Films and ESPN's NFL Matchup pointed him out to me as one of his favorite guards in his pre-draft analysis.
Bailey started his time at Arkansas with a bang. In 2010 and 2011, the Razorbacks won a total of 26 games against just six losses, and capped off what turned out to be the end of the Bobby Petrino era with a Cotton Bowl triumph over Kansas State in January 2012. But Petrino's most recent embarrassment-filled departure from an organization put Arkansas' offense in a vice, and John L. Smith wasn't able to turn that around. Bailey's team dropped to 4-8 in 2012, and Bailey fell from a potential mid-round pick to an undrafted prospect pretty quickly. Despite three years of outstanding performance and second-team All-SEC honors in 2012, Bailey was getting calls from NFL teams as the draft was running out.
"It's something that I was looking forward to, and it kinda caught me by surprise, but things happen like that -- it wasn't meant for me to be drafted, but I made it here, and I'm just trying to make the most of it," Bailey told me this week about his draft-week experience.
It was a big adjustment for Bailey, and not the first he would undergo as an NFL player. He signed with the Seahawks, who decided that he would fare better for the time being as an offensive tackle. Bailey hadn't played that position since high school, but he was obviously up for the challenge.
"It's taken a while, but I'm getting used to it. I'm still getting better, but I'm getting more and more comfortable every day. I was surprised -- I expected to play guard -- but wherever they put me, I'm just trying to make the most of it."
It's always interesting to see how NFL teams see players, especially how they evaluate players who seem to be locks to get drafted, and aren't. Seahawks offensive line coach Tom Cable said that there were issues with Bailey's game that some might not catch.
"In terms of running the football, he had a huge intensity problem in college," Cable told John Boyle of the Everett Herald this week. "On film, he would stand up and look like he loved to pass-protect, but here that's only half the battle. It's not too difficult to see why he was available to us where he was. At the same time, if we can get that [intensity] out of him, he'll have a chance."
When he was available, the Seahawks jumped at the chance to see what they could do with the 6-foot-3, 320-pound man from Broken Arrow, Okla. And for Bailey, the feeling was mutual -- he had seen the way the Seahawks play the game, and he believed it to be a perfect fit.
"Right at the end of the draft, a lot of teams started calling me, saying that if I didn't get picked up, they wanted me to come out on a free-agent deal," Bailey said. "At that point, I was kind of upset that I didn't get drafted, but when the Seahawks called, it was really a no-brainer. I remember watching them play last year, sitting in my house, and thinking that I'd love to play for them. The way they play the game with enthusiasm, and the way they attack the game overall ... when they gave me an opportunity, I jumped on it real quick. We didn't run the ball quite as much in college, but we ran it a bit -- not as much as I would have liked to! It's the scheme I come from -- getting after people and knocking them off the ball."
Bailey impressed to a degree in minicamps, but it wasn't until training camp, when he was facing the ones in a way that mirrored game situations, that he really stood out. Playing a left tackle position basically foreign to him -- one he's probably too short to play at the highest level -- he displayed estimable power, and a consistent ability to wall potential pass-rushers off.
According to Carroll, the idea is to use the tackle switch to increase Bailey's knowledge of the game, and then move him inside with a new understanding of what it takes to play the position.
"Tom thought it would be best for him to develop as a tackle, and then we would move him back inside," Carroll told me. "There are more demands out there, we get to see him more, and it would fit with the guys we have on the roster. In the back of our minds, we knew we could play him at guard, and he's off to a good start. We'll see what happens."
Cable likes what he's seen so far, especially in the Seahawks' preseason opener against the San Diego Chargers. Bailey played 44 percent of Seattle's offensive snaps, tying him with Bowie and guard Rishaw Johnson, and he started to show the toughness Cable wants to see. He had no trouble finishing plays when they needed to be finished, especially on a Christine Michael two-yard run with six minutes left in the game. On that play, Bailey pancaked rookie linebacker Tourek Williams twice on the same play -- straight off the line, and again when Williams tried to get up off the ground to get something done.
Cable wants more from his young charges.
"I think [Bailey's] doing a lot of good things, but we'd like to see both him and Bowie pick their intensity up," the coach said. "This is so different for them, and every snap is really valuable. They don't understand that yet, but they're learning it. They're putting themselves in positions to make this team, so the question is, can they become pros here in the next three weeks? Can they learn the levels of intensity and preparation that goes into it? That's what we're waiting to see from them."
Cable knows what Bailey already has to offer, and has praised him as a pass protector. It would appear that Bailey's next test is to either withstand the daily Cable Coaching Crucibile until a tough guy comes out, or a player who can't handle it washes out.
"You're just constantly on him," Cable said, when asked how such intensity is taught. "At some point, a man will just decide whether he's going to be a tough guy or not. It's not easy to do that. In this game, you can be a great gentleman off the field. But out here, if you don't have some orneriness to you, you've got no chance."
Bailey has already displayed a different kind of toughness -- the kind you need when your first college coach goes on one of his little benders, and a team is left to essentially fend for itself.
"You've got to control what you can control," he said of that experience. "In college, we had a lot of unfortunate situations on the off the field. Everybody makes mistakes, and we all had to come together and keep coming to work for each other. We didn't know if our coaches were going to be around, or they were going to being a whole new staff in, so we all looked at each other and held each other up. It didn't work out the way we wanted it to last year, but it was great for me as a person and as a player to go through that, and to learn to focus on what I can control." Day to day, that's all Alvin Bailey can do. He'll get his next chance to impress against the Denver Broncos on Saturday night in Seattle. So far in his NFL ride, he seems to be controlling something that can overwhelm many who have been drafted when he was not.