Throughout the early stages of the offseason, from his end-of-the-year press conference to the NFL Scouting Combine, Seahawks coach Pete Carroll found himself bombarded by constant questions about the future of his team's offensive line.
“It is important,’’ Carroll said in regard to maintaining continuity up front. “I hope we can keep our guys connected. I don’t want to see a big change there.’’
Addressing stability on the offensive line isn't new for Carroll, who has witnessed incredible turnover in the trenches for much of his 10-year tenure with the organization. Playing musical chairs with the group protecting quarterback Russell Wilson has unfortunately been commonplace with other positional groups prioritized in regard to cap space.
With that said, Seattle did have far better continuity up front over the past two seasons. The team entered the 2019 season with four returning starters, including All-Pro left tackle Duane Brown and right guard D.J. Fluker, and with the exception of right tackle Germain Ifedi, three of those players were still under contract for 2020.
Back in January, Carroll seemed excited about the possibility of maintaining as many of those starters as possible while also being intrigued by the growth of several young linemen on the roster.
“I think the whole group could be a really solid group coming back,’’ Carroll remarked. “I would like to see the guys who have been playing for us to stay with us.”
But despite Carroll's pleas to keep the band together, the Seahawks ultimately pivoted into the opposite direction two months later. Ifedi and George Fant both departed in free agency to sign with the Bears and Jets respectively. Fluker and center Justin Britt, who was rehabbing from a torn ACL, were both released shortly after April's NFL draft to create cap space.
Seeking replacements, general manager John Schneider swiftly signed versatile center B.J. Finney and veteran tackle Brandon Shell less than 48 hours after the free agency period opened in March. He also found a possible successor for Fant's role as an extra lineman in heavy packages, signing former first-round pick Cedric Ogbuehi.
A little over a month later, the Seahawks then used a third-round pick on bruising LSU guard Damien Lewis, which ultimately made Fluker expendable with just one year remaining on his current contract.
Even under normal conditions, Seattle and coach Mike Solari would have been challenged trying to break in at least three new starters along the offensive line. Given the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, however, this has been anything but a normal offseason, further complicating matters for the unit.
With most states implementing stay-at-home legislation to combat the virus, the NFL closed all team facilities starting in March and didn't start allowing employees to return until June. Up until last week, players hadn't been allowed to return to the facility and OTAS and minicamps were canceled, instead replaced by virtual online meetings.
Consequently, the Seahawks haven't had a chance to see their overhauled offensive line in action together on the field. While Brown acknowledged it's not an ideal situation with several newcomers vying for starting roles, every other team has had to deal with the same circumstances without any offseason practices to speak of.
"It sucks not being able to do that," Brown said about missing offseason workouts. "But that's the position we're in, so we got to make due with what we have. The thing about it is - every team is dealing with it."
Unsurprisingly, Brown has taken the lead in an effort to ensure his new teammates are ready to hit the ground running when Seattle returns to the practice field next month.
With players in quarantine for much of the spring, Brown helped young players such as Lewis get a handle on the playbook and made himself available to answer questions as they arose. He's also stayed in touch with veterans such as Finney and Shell, who will still face plenty of obstacles getting acclimated with a new team despite having started in a combined 53 NFL games.
From Brown's perspective - he was traded to the Seahawks midway through the 2017 season - adapting to a different culture with a different coaching staff and training staff presents challenges even for the most seasoned of NFL veterans.
"You come from whatever team you're on, you kinda know what to expect year to year. You come to a new team, it's a different strength staff, it's a different training staff, different coaches, meetings are different, everything is different, so you just don't have the feel for what to expect and how things go."
If there's a reason for optimism, as Carroll pointed out way back in January, the Seahawks do have several "really good young guys" such as guard Phil Haynes and versatile tackle Jamarco Jones who know the team's system and are expected to compete for starting roles.
Jones started a handful of games at guard last year, while Haynes made his NFL debut in the Divisional Round against the Packers and performed admirably. In addition, the Seahawks will also bring back Jordan Simmons and Ethan Pocic, who will also have a chance to battle for playing time if they can stay healthy.
Time will tell how quickly Seattle's offensive line will gel. Carroll himself certainly has his reservations, as he specifically expressed concerns about having enough practice reps for the group to develop critical chemistry before the bullets start flying in September. And now there won't be any preseason games to help accelerate the process.
“I think that may be the area that takes the biggest hit because of the intricacies and continuity of it,” Carroll said. “I have learned that that will be an area of great focus and concern when we come back, just recognizing and respecting that that may be the last group to really get tied together. So we’re really going to have to do a great job in that area.”
But with an intriguing blend of experienced veterans and promising youngsters coached up by Solari, Brown remains confident the group will overcome lost offseason reps and mesh as a unit in time for the regular season.
"It'll be interesting to see how it plays out. But we're all competitors, we're all professionals, and we'll get it done."