After choosing not to make any notable moves to address the center position, the Seahawks opened training camp with incumbent starter Ethan Pocic and Kyle Fuller set to compete for the right to snap to Russell Wilson in the regular season.
Unfortunately, the competition never materialized as coach Pete Carroll envisioned. Pocic injured his hamstring in the first day of camp and re-aggravated the strained muscle shortly after he returned to action one week later, leading to him missing the bulk of camp and the entire preseason. Though he was deemed healthy heading into the regular season, Fuller captured the starting role simply by being available and received the season-opening nod against the Colts.
Interestingly, in a sign Seattle may not have been too comfortable with the idea of Fuller being the starter, he and Pocic rotated series during a 28-16 Week 1 win in Indianapolis before the latter suffered a sprained knee in the second half. Fuller wound up logging 40 snaps, while Pocic struggled mightily while playing 14 snaps, giving up a sack before exiting injured.
With Pocic landing on injured reserve days later, Fuller now has been given the keys as the Seahawks starter at the pivot position for the foreseeable future, for better or for worse. Behind him, Dakoda Shepley, who was claimed off waivers from the 49ers last month and is still getting acclimated to his new surroundings, dressed as his backup in Sunday's 33-30 loss to the Titans.
Through eight quarters, Fuller's performance has been a mixed bag at best. Pro Football Focus hasn't viewed his play favorably, giving him a 46.1 overall grade in Seattle's first two games. They have been especially critical of his pass protection, handing him dismal 39.4 and 29.2 grades against the Colts and Titans respectively while charging him with four pressures allowed and a sack.
Looking beyond PFF's grades, however, Fuller has had his moments where he has been a pleasant surprise in the middle of Seattle's offensive line. Against the Colts in the opener, he displayed decent lateral movement and agility in run blocking department, allowing him to reach blocks on zone blocking plays. When working in tandem on combo blocks with guards Gabe Jackson or Damien Lewis, he has shown an ability to hook defenders and win through positioning over brawn.
On one specific play, after initially combo blocking on All-Pro defensive tackle DeForest Buckner with Jackson, Fuller was able to seal the defender back inside, providing just enough of a crease for running back Chris Carson to explode through for a 33-yard gain. Moments later, Wilson found Tyler Lockett for a 23-yard touchdown to put the Seahawks on the board for the first time in 2021. For the game, PFF awarded him with a quality 68.6 run blocking grade.
"Physically, he's done well," coach Pete Carroll told reporters on Wednesday. "He's strong, he's tough, and he's really done a good job making the calls up front. He's been very consistent."
Albeit with help from his guards, Fuller wasn't a liability in pass protection against Indianapolis either, allowing two pressures and a quarterback hit on 19 pass blocking reps. It wasn't necessarily the greatest performance by a center in franchise history, but he didn't hinder the passing attack by surrendering numerous pressures and gave a respectable effort.
Of course, Fuller hasn't played many snaps of regular season football since entering the league as an undrafted free agent out of Baylor in 2017 and his lack of experience has also been evident during the early stages of the season.
In terms of creating push off the line of scrimmage on run plays, Fuller hasn't offered the Seahawks much in the first two games, particularly against the Titans. His struggles being able to win at the point of attack were a huge reason why Seattle couldn't get anything rolling with Carson out of the backfield on Sunday as the back was limited to 31 yards on 13 carries. Standing 6-foot-5, which is on the taller end for a center, he has battled leverage issues and struggled to maintain balance, often caught leaning into blocks both as a run blocker and pass protector.
Fuller has expectedly also had a couple of snaps being mistimed and has been caught out of position on a few twist stunts ran by opposing defenses. If there's a silver lining, Carroll believes those issues can easily be corrected with help from the coaching staff and simply receiving more field time.
"He's played good, strong football. He had a couple errors in there that are kind of first time starter errors that I wish would go away quickly. A snap early, couple things at the line of scrimmage, things that are totally on us to command," Carroll remarked.
With 15 games left to play, Carroll seems pleased with the progress he has seen from Fuller so far, at least from his public statements. Seattle does has a pair of talented guards in Jackson and Lewis who can help mitigate his obvious flaws to an extent and scheming can be done to provide adequate support for him against some opponents to be able to get by. There have been signs of progress from him since an up-and-down training camp and preseason.
But in a similar situation to Pocic, it's worth wondering if Fuller's inclusion in the starting lineup may put a low ceiling on the Seattle's rushing attack and as exhibited on Sunday, his presence also lowers the floor when he's not playing up to his capabilities in that capacity. In addition, there are still plenty of question marks for him in pass protection, particularly when it comes to technique and recognizing and picking up stunts, which puts his standing as a starter on tenuous ground.
For now, another lineup change seems unlikely and the Seahawks will continue to roll with Fuller at the pivot position. In time, given his lack of experience, the team will be banking on him making steady improvements each week and if he's able to do that as Carroll hopes, the team could be in better shape than anticipated at center and it's even possible he could emerge as a possible long-term alternative.
But based on his play to this point, such an ascent is far from guaranteed and if it quickly becomes apparent Fuller isn't going to get much better than he has shown himself to be in the first two games, the Seahawks may have no choice but to see what Shepley can do or Pocic may find himself back in the lineup upon his return to action, putting the team's inactivity at the position this offseason back under the microscope.