The Seattle Seahawks have two first-round picks, a new offensive-line coach and an urgent need to do something this franchise has simply failed to do so far: Find a top-shelf successor to Walter Jones at left tackle.
Over the past decade, Jones became a defining figure in the growing importance of left tackles across the league. But Seattle’s contingency plans at that position — or more accurately its lack thereof — became a defining failure of last season.
Jones has not played since November 2008, and his retirement may be a formality at this point. Last week general manager John Schneider said the team must plan as if Jones will retire.
“We would approach it like Walter’s not going to be here, quite frankly,” Schneider said. “If he is here, that’s just kind of an added bonus.”
That puts Seattle in the market for protection, and there are options. Russell Okung of Oklahoma State and Trent Williams of Oklahoma are expected to be chosen in the top 10. Iowa’s Bryan Bulaga and Rutgers’ Anthony Davis may also go that high, while Charles Brown of USC is a potential first-rounder.
“This group in particular, this year, they would all fit at left tackle,” Schneider said. “There’s a strong group in there and they’re all athletic enough to play the position.”
The question of fit is an important one as Seattle makes a wholesale transition to Alex Gibbs’ zone-blocking system, which values quick, athletic linemen more than it requires 320-pound road graders.
“My personal opinion is, you have more of an opportunity in this scheme to pick up players that other teams may not deem suitable,” Schneider said. “That could be somebody that has maybe two or three redeeming qualities: smart, tough and quick. Or maybe isn’t quite as strong as a certain player but they compensate with their quickness.”
What doesn’t change are the characteristics of an elite line prospect.
“Top-tier offensive linemen are top-tier offensive linemen,” Schneider said.
And nowhere is that more important than at left tackle, the position trusted to protect a right-handed quarterback from the pass rusher he can’t see coming.
“No matter what happens, you still need a guy to hunker down at left tackle and be able to play against big people,” Schneider said.
The rising importance of tackles in the NFL has become an annual story line leading up to the draft. In the 1990s, a total of three tackles were chosen in the top five. From 2000 to 2009, the total was nine.
Seattle relied upon Jones’ unwavering dominance for more than a decade. Even after he went down with a knee injury in November 2008, the Seahawks assumed he would be back the next season.
Seattle has not drafted a tackle in the first round since it chose Chris McIntosh No. 22 overall in 2000. More important, it has not drafted anyone to play tackle since 2005, when Ray Willis was a fourth-round choice.
Seattle’s lack of foresight at left tackle was exposed dramatically when four players started at the position last year. Two of those players — Damion McIntosh and Brandon Frye — were not on Seattle’s training-camp roster.
The situation at that position was not addressed in free agency, and at last week’s minicamp, a cursory glance showed the urgency. Sean Locklear is back at right tackle, which leaves Willis at left tackle, a position he has never played. Willis is a tough man and a respected leader along the line, but he also has a chronically sore knee and lacks the agility of elite left tackles. Seattle’s second-string line last week included two players on three-day tryouts who were not signed.
Left tackle was the biggest sore spot on Seattle’s roster last year, and it stands as one of the most barren heading into the draft.