Following a long offseason - okay, compared to the nightmare that was 2020, the past several months have been a breeze - the Seahawks will officially usher in the 2021 season by reporting to training camp on July 27.
Wrapping up our camp preview series, here's a close look at the state of the guard and center positions, including the depth chart, a key question that must be answered, and a bold prediction for the upcoming season.
2020 In Review
Without the benefit of a traditional offseason program, the Seahawks entered training camp with veteran Ethan Pocic and rookie Damien Lewis penciled in as new starters in the interior of their offensive line. Despite an abbreviated first training camp, Lewis hit the ground running and immediately seized the starting job at right guard, while Pocic held the advantage over free agent signee B.J. Finney from the outset. The two players combined to start 30 games, proving to be durable and reliable. This wasn't necessarily the case at left guard, however, as Mike Iupati battled injuries once again and missed six games in what would end up being his final NFL season. Jordan Simmons filled in admirably during his absence, starting six games and helping Seattle stay afloat in the trenches.
Seattle didn't make many moves addressing its offensive line during free agency, but general manager John Schneider did make a big splash shortly after the start of the new league year by dealing a fifth-round pick to the Raiders for veteran guard Gabe Jackson. With his arrival, Lewis will transition over to left guard. Behind them, the only other additions made in the interior came in the form of undrafted free agent signees Jared Hocker, Pier-Olivier Lestage, and Greg Eiland, who will all be competing to stick as practice squad players.
Starters: Gabe Jackson, Damien Lewis, Ethan Pocic
Since being selected in the third round of the 2014 NFL Draft, the 6-foot-3, 335-pound Jackson has been one of the NFL's most reliable and consistent pass protectors. In five of his seven NFL seasons, he has been credited with allowing two or fewer sacks and three or fewer quarterback hits. According to Pro Football Focus, he has never finished lower than 19th among qualified guards for pass blocking grades. While he did allow 26 pressures last year, he didn't allow a single sack on Derek Carr, a fact that should fire up Russell Wilson. He's also a quality run blocker who fits the physical prototype Seattle prefers at the position.
It's rare for a third-round pick to step into the starting lineup along the offensive line on day one, but that's exactly what Lewis did for the Seahawks last year. Excelling from day one as a mauling run blocker, he started all 16 games and finished with the second-highest grade (81.5) in that category behind only Colts perennial All-Pro Quenton Nelson for guards with 900 or more snaps. While he did commit a league-high 12 penalties and endured his share of problems in pass protection by allowing 28 total quarterback pressures, his stellar overall play helped him earn All-Rookie accolades from the Pro Football Writers Association.
After waiting in the wings behind Justin Britt during his first three seasons, Pocic took full advantage of his first legitimate opportunity to start at his natural position. The former second-round pick out of LSU rebounded from injury issues during the previous two seasons to beat out Finney and Kyle Fuller during camp and wound up starting 15 combined games in the regular season and playoffs. Though he struggled in the second half after returning from a concussion and endured a dreadful performance in a wild card loss to the Rams, he only allowed a pair of sacks on the season and proved to be a serviceable starter, earning himself a second contract.
Reserves: Jordan Simmons, Jamarco Jones, Kyle Fuller, Phil Haynes, Brad Lundblade, Pier-Olivier Lestage, Jared Hocker, Greg Eiland
Durability has been a consistent concern for Simmons dating back to his college career at USC. But after missing the entire 2019 season with recurring knee issues, he played in a career-high 14 games, including starting six games in place of an injured Iupati. Pro Football Focus didn't view his play favorably, ranking him 63rd out of 68 qualified guards with 500 or more snaps. But while he did surrender 17 quarterback pressures and a trio of sacks in pass protection, he has demonstrated an ability to play either guard spot in a pinch and gives the Seahawks a quality insurance policy behind Lewis and Jackson.
For a second straight season, Jones logged most of his snaps playing inside, as he subbed in for Iupati and Lewis at left and right guard in several games. He also started for the Seahawks at right tackle in place of Brandon Shell and Cedric Ogbuehi in a Week 12 loss to the Giants, only to exit in the second half with a groin injury that landed him on injured reserve. At times, the former fifth-round pick out of Ohio State has flashed enough upside to be a potential starter, but injuries have been a persistent problem for him and he could be down to his last chance to impress given the depth around him.
Speaking of injuries, Haynes has yet to show he can stay on the field. The 2019 fourth-round pick out of Wake Forest played well when thrust into the lineup during a divisional round loss to the Packers at the tail end of his rookie season, but a lingering hip injury prevented him from playing a single snap in 2020. The season prior, a sports hernia injury kept him from seeing any offensive snaps in the regular season. With Jackson's arrival and Simmons returning in free agency, this could be a make-or-break third season for him and if he struggles with injuries again, the team will likely move forward without him.
Without any notable changes being made at center, Fuller will once again be the favorite to earn a reserve role behind Pocic at center. He struggled mightily in limited action last season, receiving a dismal 32.2 overall grade from Pro Football Focus and allowing five quarterback pressures on just 78 offensive snaps. But the organization seems to trust him and he offers positional versatility with past playing experience at both guard spots.
Will the Seahawks regret not seeking a veteran upgrade or drafting a young center this offseason?
Given Pocic's struggles in the second half last season coupled with public comments made by Wilson criticizing pass protection, most fans expected the Seahawks to pursue an upgrade at the center position. But aside from trading for Jackson, the front office opted to stick with status quo up front, choosing to bypass the opportunity to pursue a top free agent such as Corey Linsley or David Andrews. They also opted not to use their second-round selection on Oklahoma's Creed Humphrey or Wisconsin Whitewater's Quinn Meinerz, who remained available at pick No. 56.
Instead, Seattle stuck with Pocic, re-signing him on a team-friendly one-year, $3 million deal. Limited cap space was used to address their pass rush, give Jackson a new three-year deal, and bring back running back Chris Carson. Seeking another weapon for Wilson on the outside, the team selected speedy receiver D'Wayne Eskridge with their second-round pick and did not address the center position with their other two selections.
Following the draft, coach Pete Carroll and general manager John Schneider expressed their excitement about being able to retain Pocic, with Schneider calling it a "huge get" for the Seahawks. There are several reasons to understand the team's optimism, as he will turn 26 years old next month and with only one year of starting experience under his belt, he still offers plenty of untapped potential. He also may have been better last season than advertised, as he was credited with allowing only two sacks and three quarterback hits in the regular season.
If Pocic takes a big step forward in his second season as a starter, Schneider and the front office could look like geniuses and the player could become part of Seattle's long-term plans. But on the flip side, if he doesn't make notable strides or in the worst case scenario regresses on the field, the organization may feel the lingering effects of skipping over viable replacement options such as Humphrey or Meinerz for the next several years.
After shining as a rookie, Damien Lewis will earn All-Pro recognition in his second season with the Seahawks.
All eyes will be on Jackson as Seattle's biggest offseason acquisition, but while he will be an important piece of the puzzle, Lewis' development should be a key story line to watch throughout the 2021 season. While switching positions may come with growing pains, playing alongside a seasoned veteran in Duane Brown should benefit him immensely. He's already emerged as a top-10 run blocker at his position and despite enduring his share of problems in pass protection, he also flashed in that area at times as a rookie. The good news is most of his issues in that area of his game are correctable, including poor hand placement that led to multiple unnecessary holding penalties. If he's able to clean up his technical issues under the tutelage of coach Mike Solari, he should make substantial improvements protecting Wilson playing alongside Brown, which will position him to vault into the upper echelon of NFL guards.
Previous Seahawks Training Camp Positional Previews