Of the 15 offensive linemen currently on the Seattle Seahawks' 90-man roster, right guard J.R. Sweezy has started more NFL games than everyone but left tackle Russell Okung. That is significant both because Sweezy is only 26 years old and entering his fourth NFL season, and also because of the fact that he was a defensive lineman prior to his first NFL season in 2012.
Yes, the Seahawks figure to be young and inexperienced at offensive line in 2015, one of the few position groups with much uncertainty surrounding it heading into training camp, but if you ask Sweezy, suddenly a grizzled veteran on the line, or his position coach, Tom Cable, that's not necessarily a bad thing.
Of course the Seahawks will miss Pro Bowl center Max Unger, who was traded to New Orleans as part of the deal that brought tight end Jimmy Graham to Seattle—"We lost a really good man and a really good player, but that's football," Cable said—and losing left guard James Carpenter in free agency is another potential setback. But just because 40 percent of the last year's starting line is now gone, that doesn't mean the Seahawks think they'll take a step back when it comes to offensive line play in 2015.
"I feel good about this group," Sweezy said. "We've got some guys who are going step up, and I'm very confident in them. We're still kind of unsettled on a few positions, they're going to compete, and we'll see who steps up."
When training camp opens Friday, plenty of eyes will be focused on Graham, or on quarterback Russell Wilson or on the star-studded secondary, but if you really want to watch some important position battles, look to the trenches. No matter how talented players like Wilson, Graham, Marshawn Lynch and Doug Baldwin might be, an offense needs strong line play in order to function at a high level. And with two starters leaving in the offseason, that means the Seahawks will need two players need to step up to fill those shoes.
Alvin Bailey, one of Seattle's most important backups over the past two seasons, is currently the leading candidate to take over at left guard, especially after reporting to offseason workouts having lost more than 20 pounds from last season. That's hardly set in stone, however, with the Seahawks using three draft picks to restock their line. Center, meanwhile, is a wide-open battle between veterans Lemuel Jeanpierre and Patrick Lewis, both of whom started multiple games last season, rookie Kristjan Sokoli, and Drew Nowak, who spent most of last season playing guard on Seattle's practice squad.
After using their first two draft picks this year on Frank Clark and Tyler Lockett, the Seahawks used three of their next five picks on linemen, taking tackle Terry Poole and guard Mark Glowinski in the fourth round and Sokoli in the sixth.
The initial impression of all of those players has been that they stand out because of their athletic ability. All were among the top testers in various measurables such as 40-yard, broad jump or vertical leap, and that wasn't by accident. The reason the Seahawks converted Sweezy from defensive tackle to the offensive line—something they're trying to do with Sokoli as well—and the reason they drafted good athletes like Poole and Glowinski is that Cable and Pete Carroll are looking to build an O-line that can be fast and athletic in addition to just being big and strong.
When Cable showed video of Sweezy during this year's Seahawks Town Hall, the coach was practically giddy describing plays on which Sweezy was blocking defensive backs 15 to 20 yards down field. While for many coaches the ideal lineman is a mountain of a man who cannot be moved, Cable is looking for "explosiveness, athleticism and a good brain."
And while those young linemen have impressed so far, they've been working up to this point in shorts and baseball caps. Now that helmets and pads go on, and eventually the contact picks up, that's going to be the real test, which is why training camp and the four preseason games are so vital for the Seahawks' offensive line.
"Through OTAs and stuff, they really impressed me with how smart they are, how fast they're picking up on it," Sweezy said. "But we were in no helmets the whole time, so it'll change. We're going to see, we're going to find out a lot of stuff when camp starts once we start making contact and start playing our style of football, because we have such a different style than anybody else really. But I've been really impressed with how fast they've learned and how much knowledge they've picked up and retained."
And the incoming rookie class isn't the only reason for optimism for Seattle's line. Of the three returning starters, Okung and Sweezy have already shown they can play at a very high level, but second-year right tackle Justin Britt could be ready to take a big step forward. As Sweezy experienced in a 2012, being a rookie lineman can be a rough experience at times, and working next to Britt this offseason, Sweezy sees a different player.
"We've been going at it this whole offseason, and the knowledge that he has and how much more we're on the same page is so much deeper, so it should be fun to watch him play this year."
Much of the excitement in camp will come from the people throwing and catching the ball or from those defending those plays, but perhaps nothing will be more important between now and the start of the regular season than what happens with a young athletic offensive line.