D.J. Fluker has proven to be one of the Seahawks' best offseason acquisitions, playing a big role in the turnaround of Seattle's offensive line. Yet when Fluker has had to miss two games in the second half of this season because of injuries, the offense has not missed a beat, posting its highest two rushing totals of the season with Jordan Simmons making his first two starts of his career.
Seattle's ability to run the ball so well first against the Rams in Week 10, then again on Monday against the Vikings even without a key part of their offense is just the latest example of the type of depth the Seahawks have built on their line this year. In addition to the regular starting five of Duane Brown, J.R. Sweezy, Justin Britt, Fluker and Germain Ifedi, the Seahawks have also gotten two starts out of Ethan Pocic, an 11-game starter as a rookie in 2017, two starts from Simmons, who will likely fill in for Fluker again this week barring an unexpectedly quick recovery, and one start at center from Joey Hunt, who played well in a Seahawks win over the Cowboys. Add to that tackle George Fant, who has become a regular part of the offense as a sixth lineman/big tight end, and that's nine different linemen who have played significant roles in Seattle's offensive success this season.
There are a lot of reasons for this improved depth, from personnel changes—Fluker and Sweezy were offseason signings and Simmons was a waiver claim on roster-cut weekend—to a change at offensive line coach to the continued growth of young players like Ifedi, Fant and Hunt.
"Joey has played well, Pocic has played well when they've had their chances, so we're really excited about the group because there's enough versatility here, and flexibility," Seahawks coach Pete Carroll said. "Ethan gives us tremendous flexibility. He can play all five spots and Joey went in at guard. He has played center. Jordan could move out (to tackle) as well. George can play both sides and he's playing tight end. All of that just adds to the versatility of the group. They're all connected, too. We wouldn't feel bad about any of those guys being in the game. They all can play and carry their own. They're smart, they know what's going on and it's a credit to the job that (offensive line coach Mike Solari) has done with these guys but it's a very positive outlook for this group for the coming years too."
Solari, who replaced Tom Cable as offensive line coach following the 2017 season, has deservedly received a lot of credit for the improvement of the offensive line, but he is quick to point to his players as the cause of success for that group.
"It's a group that has worked so hard on and off the field," Solari said. "They do a great job in the classroom, they do a great job being accountable to each other, and they take pride in their work. It doesn't matter who's in there, they're working as one, and that's a credit to them."
Simmons in particular has been a pleasant surprise given how little background he had, not just in the NFL but even in college football. Simmons, who is from Los Angeles, went to USC as a highly-rated recruit, but due to a number of injuries, he barely played for the Trojans. When he was healthy, the Trojans also experimented with a move to defensive line, and there were times when Simmons considered giving up on his football dreams.
"The time I switched to D-tackle, it just wasn't working out for me, and I was out of it mentally," said Simmons, who estimates he played more snaps in his NFL debut against the Rams than he did in his entire college career. "I didn't really want to do it. I didn't want to continue with football, I was thinking about quitting football. There were days of, 'I'm over this, I did my best, it is what it is.'"
Simmons stuck with it, however, because, "I thought I owed it to myself to see how far I could go. And if that was just getting to a camp tryout, I'd be happy with that. I just kept my faith and took it day by day, that's about it."
Simmons got more than just a tryout, and now he has two successful starts under his belt against two of the league's most talented defensive lines.
"The Rams game was an emotional game for me, personally, because of what I had been through in college," he said. "I had dark days in college, and never thought I'd see the opportunity to start (an NFL) game."
Despite his lack of playing time at USC, Simmons' combination of size and speed, as well as a good workout at USC's pro day, was enough to get him a contract with the Raiders in 2017 as an undrafted free agent. The Seahawks also liked the potential they saw in Simmons, as well as what they saw from him in preseason games, so when the Raiders waived him before the start of the season, the Seahawks were quick to pounce.
"The (scouts) had seem him coming out of USC," Carroll said. "He didn't have much playing time, so it was hard to evaluate him highly because he had been subject to a bunch of injury stuff. When we caught him playing for the Raiders during the preseason, he just looked like he was capable. We knew that he was 338 pounds and he moved well—maybe better than we thought a guy that big should move. He had good flexibility to him. We just saw a lot of real positive things. We didn't realize until we got him here that he'd really fit in and he fit in physically. He could do the things that he wanted to do, he could play big like we want to play. You can also see the potential for him too. He's got potential to be a really good pass protector because he can move his feet and he can get it out of the stance. We had some hopes when we picked him up, but then as we saw him, he was able to elevate our expectations, and sure enough, he's playing now, which is a remarkable journey for him. He has not had a lot of background in ball, but you can't tell. He's doing a really nice job. He's still young, he's a young guy playing. He still gets nervous and stuff, just like a young guy would be, but in time he's going to really settle in and be a really competitive guy for us."
Finding a player who can help the team just before the start of the season requires a lot of work from the scouting department, which spends time leading up to cut day evaluating rosters of 31 other NFL teams. The goal is to identify players on other teams who might become available and decide who can help the team, and sometimes that means a waiver claim like Simmons, or a free-agent signing like Neiko Thorpe in 2016, while other times it can be in the form of a trade for a player another team is willing to let go, such as when the Seahawks got cornerback Justin Coleman for a seventh-round pick just before the start of the 2017 season.
"The scouts are working extensively at the rosters of the guys that are playing," Carroll said. "We have guys responsible for every team and they are responsible for every player on the roster, all the way up to the 90 numbers. We're constantly evaluating and plotting in preparation for that final cut down or whatever else could happen—the transactions that do take place. Sometimes you get surprised and somebody's out there that you didn't think would be. Immediately that hits the wire for us internally and everybody's talking about. Everybody will sit down and guys will jump on to the film. John (Schneider) will call me and say, 'Look, I got a guy you want to take a look at. He might able to do this and that.' If it can keep the energy going for the guy, then we do. As we get closer to the fourth (preseason) game, we've already got a whole big draft list, almost, of guys we think are going to become available. Or the experts on their teams have to kind of sense what the cuts are going to look like and who would be available. It's a myriad of things that take place to get to the point where we would finally say if this guy is now available, we might jump on him. We also have to take a look at our roster. A lot stuff going on for that. It's a very intricate time of the scouts and the personnel (department) working—John's (Schneider) great at it and he knows how to anticipate, has a good sense for what's going to happen on other teams. So there's a lot of stuff that goes into that. It's a really big science for us."
Practice photos from the Seahawks' Wednesday workout at Virginia Mason Athletic Center ahead of Sunday's game against the San Francisco 49ers.