After 12 dominant years in the NFL, left tackle Walter Jones seems to be slowing down. Can he continue to protect Seattle quarterback Matt Hasselbeck, or is it replacement time?
As it becomes increasingly apparent that Seattle Seahawks left tackle Walter Jones may not play again this season, the question regarding the future of that vital position along the offensive front looms larger than ever.
Jones, 34, seems bound for the Hall of Fame after 12 dominant years in the NFL. His body has paid the price, however, and seems to weaken with each season.
Jones has had shoulder surgeries each of the past two years, and he wears a bulky brace when he plays. He missed last week’s game against New England and is likely to miss this week’s game against the St. Louis Rams because of a sore knee that probably will require yet another surgery after the season.
Because of their disappointing year that so far has yielded a 2-11 record, the Seahawks are virtually guaranteed a top-five draft pick.
The question: Do the Seahawks take Jones’ eventual replacement with what will be their highest pick since they took Shawn Springs third in 1997 and Jones sixth in the same draft?
To answer the question, one must determine how much longer Jones can protect Matt Hasselbeck’s blind side, something he has done with great effectiveness for seven seasons.
Because Jones was uncharacteristically beaten by Dallas’ DeMarcus Ware for two sacks in a nationally televised Thanksgiving Day game, some are speculating that he is nearing the end of his career.
The coaching staff says that is not fair. Jones played that day in Texas despite internal conversations that suggested his knee injury was serious enough to keep him out of that game.
“If you look at Walter Jones (as done), you’re making a huge mistake,” Seahawks coach Mike Holmgren said. “He has a little knee injury, but he was having a great year. He was on his way to the Pro Bowl again. He might still go to the Pro Bowl. “I think around the league, he’s still recognized as one of the guys.
“But every team has to look at how they’re going to fix things. You don’t want to get too many players too old. But I don’t think he fits into that category. I think with Walter, as long as he’s playing like he’s playing, you let him play as long as he wants to play.”
Asked about his future, Jones didn’t pinpoint a retirement date but said he’s not there yet.
“I look at it as I still love the game,” Jones said. “As long as I can go out there and compete with these guys, I’m going to continue to keep playing. Unless they come to me and say we don’t need you no more or until I say I’m ready to go home – you know, right now I still love the competition.”
Some in the organization feel that Jones can play at a high level for another two years. That would give him 14 years, which would put him ahead of contemporaries Jonathan Ogden, who retired after 12 years, and Orlando Pace, who was drafted the same year as Jones but who has been injured more often.
Hall of Famer Anthony Munoz, who many consider to be the best tackle of all-time, played 13 seasons.
Some in the organization feel that selecting Jones’ ultimate replacement in this draft would be wise.
Michigan’s Jake Long was taken with the first overall pick by the Miami Dolphins last season, a testament to the worth of the position.
This year, the top tackles are considered to be, according to NFLdraftscout.com, Ole Miss’ Michael Oher (6-foot-5, 320 pounds) and Alabama junior Andre Smith (6-5, 340).
Of course, if Jones could play for two more seasons and Seahawks general manager Tim Ruskell – who declined to be interviewed for this story – decides to draft his replacement, coach-in-waiting Jim Mora and his offensive coordinator would have to determine precisely how to utilize both players – particularly since the Seahawks last year gave Sean Locklear a five-year, $32 million contract. They also have Ray Willis, who Holmgren said will be a fine tackle.
If Oher or Smith were acquired, would that player immediately be slotted in at left tackle, with Jones sliding to right tackle? Would one of the rookies play right tackle until Jones retires? Or would the rookie play guard alongside Jones, being groomed by the great?
Would Locklear be traded, knowing that Willis could effectively play the right side for less money? Would Locklear be asked to play guard until Jones retires? And what becomes of Mike Wahle?
“I think if you get the chance to draft a player who will be your starting left tackle for the next 12 years, you take him and figure out the rest,” said one member of the organization.