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.
Continuing our camp preview series, here's a close look at the state of the offensive tackle position, including the depth chart, a key question that must be answered, and a bold prediction for the upcoming season.
2020 In Review
Prior to the season, the Seahawks made a switch at right tackle, letting four-year starter Germain Ifedi walk in free agency and replacing him with former Jets starter Brandon Shell. The ex-South Carolina standout exceeded expectations during 11 starts, playing particularly well in pass protection, before a high ankle sprain cost him the final four games of the regular season. In his absence, Cedric Ogbuehi stepped up and played fine football down the stretch, turning in three strong starts to close out the season and help Seattle win the NFC West. Across from him, Duane Brown enjoyed a strong rebound season after battling through bicep and knee injuries throughout the 2020 campaign, starting all 16 games while protecting Russell Wilson's blind side.
Unlike a year ago, Seattle won't enter a new season with a change in the starting lineup, as Brown and Shell will both return with one year remaining on their respective contracts. Ogbuehi also was re-signed, providing the team with a quality swing reserve offering ample NFL starting experience at both tackle spots. Behind those three, the Seahawks may have drafted their left tackle of the future by using a sixth-round pick on Florida's Stone Forsythe, who is expected to compete at both tackle spots in his first training camp.
Starters: Duane Brown, Brandon Shell
Many questioned how much Brown had left in the tank following an injury-plagued 2020 season, but thanks to a limited practice workload, the veteran stayed healthy and performed at a high level in his 13th season. Allowing just two sacks in pass protection and committing only two penalties in 16 starts, he remained one of the best blind side protectors in the business and finished in the top five on Pro Football Focus for pass and run blocking grades. He hasn't lost much in the athleticism department either, as he proved himself more than capable of getting outside as a perimeter blocker and blowing up cornerbacks and safeties.
When Seattle decided to sign Shell to a two-year deal, the signing was met with much skepticism after four inconsistent seasons in New York. But he wound up being arguably the team's best free agent addition, finishing 16th overall on Pro Football Focus among qualified tackles with a 79.4 pass protection grade and allowing just five quarterback hits and three sacks in 11 starts. He also was only penalized four times, proving to be an upgrade over Ifedi in that capacity as well. Heading towards free agency, he will look to show his stellar play wasn't a fluke and set himself up for a nice payday next March either with the Seahawks or another team.
Reserves: Cedric Ogbuehi, Stone Forsythe, Jamarco Jones, Tommy Champion, Jake Curhan
After dealing with a pectoral injury early in the season, Ogbuehi only saw action in four of Seattle's first five games. When Shell injured his ankle in a Week 11 win over Arizona, he made his first start in nearly three years replacing him and struggled mightily against Philadelphia. But the former first-round pick turned in the best three-game stretch of his career from Week 15 to Week 17. Despite facing three elite defensive lines, he earned at least a 67.6 pass blocking grade from Pro Football Focus in each contest, surrendering three pressures, one quarterback hit, and no sacks, positioning himself to potentially compete against Shell for the right tackle job in camp.
One of the more polarizing prospects in his draft class, Forsythe received everything from second round to undrafted grades after a stellar four-year career at Florida. The athletic 6-foot-8 tackle held his own in pass protection for the Gators against some of college football's most formidable pass rushers, allowing just two sacks on over 500 pass blocking snaps in 2020 according to Pro Football Focus. But his height creates natural leverage issues as a run blocker and he will have to make improvements technique-wise before he will be ready to see the field as an NFL starter. Down the road, he could be the heir apparent to Brown or Shell and offers positional flexibility.
For a second straight season, Jones logged most of his snaps playing inside, as he subbed in for Mike Iupati and Damien Lewis at left and right guard in several games. He also started for the Seahawks at right tackle in place of Shell and 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.
Rounding out the depth chart, the Seahawks brought back Champion after he spent the entire 2020 season on their practice squad. He will battle against Curhan, a four-year starter at California, for a reserve spot at right tackle. Considering depth in front of them, they may be vying for a single practice squad spot.
Can the Seahawks count on Brown and Shell to stay healthy over the course of a 17-game regular season?
Based on how each player performed a year ago, if Brown and Shell can stay on the field, the Seahawks should feel pretty good about their situation at tackle. But that's a big if, particularly for Shell, who has dealt with numerous injury issues throughout his five-year NFL career. He missed four games in 2017 with shoulder and neck injuries, missed the final two games in 2018 with a knee injury, and then was sidelined for five of the last six regular season games a year ago with his ankle sprain.
Seattle has built enough depth to withstand Shell going down for a few games. However, losing Brown would be far more problematic and with him set to turn 36 years old in August, it's not out of the question his body could start breaking down. While Ogbuehi has starting experience at left tackle, he hasn't played in a game there since 2017 and would be a significant downgrade at a critical position. He also has had plenty of injury issues himself, including suffering a torn ACL before being drafted. Forsythe may not be ready to step into the lineup against NFL competition just yet and asking him to replace a player of Brown's caliber as a rookie would be a tall task.
Health is a critical factor at all positions for NFL teams. But losing Brown and/or Shell for more than a handful of games could spell doom for Seattle's offensive line and as learned the hard way last January, keeping them healthy will be key to the team's chances of making noise in the playoffs.
Before the conclusion of the 2021 season, Forsythe or Ogbuehi will have started at least four games.
Unfortunately, injuries happen in the NFL and based on prior track records, especially with an extra game added to the schedule, there's a good chance one or both of Seattle's starting tackles will miss time at some point. The good news is that, if that happens, the team should feel confident in their backup options as short-term replacements. Ogbuehi played the best football of his career last December and showed he could hold up against top pass rushers such as Washington's Chase Young. As for Forsythe, the organization loves his upside and if he grows up quickly during training camp and the preseason, it wouldn't be surprising to see him leapfrog Ogbuehi as the main swing tackle. Jones could also be in the mix with past starting experience at both positions. Regardless of how that competition plays out, all three of those players will need to be ready to play either tackle spot in the event one of the starters goes down and they are called into action.