While nothing is set in stone, it is becoming more and more evident that the Seattle Seahawks' starting offensive line is pretty close to set. The same five linemen—Russell Okung, Justin Britt, Drew Nowak, J.R. Sweezy and Garry Gilliam—have made up the first-team unit for the past two weeks, and what was potentially still the most open competition seemingly came to an end Monday when the Seahawks released Lemuel Jeanpierre, who started the first preseason game at center.
"I think we're kind of settled in as to where we're going," Seahawks offensive line coach/assistant head coach Tom Cable said. "We still need to get a feel for health and where the depth lies and how it all fits together, but I feel like if we were playing tomorrow, that group would go out and play."
And as Cable continued talking about his line, it's clear that "settled" might not be the best way to describe his opinion of that starting five. Offensive line uncertainty has been one of the biggest storylines of this Seahawks preseason, but despite the Seahawks trading longtime starting center Max Unger, and losing left guard James Carpenter in free agency, Cable and Pete Carroll are both excited about this group's potential. Where skeptics might see a line full of question marks, Cable sees a ton of potential.
"Just watch, you'll see," Cable said. "… These guys are special too, and they're just getting started. If anybody is really confident, it's probably me more than anybody, because I see them every day, and I see what they've done the last two weeks. We haven't been like that in Weeks 2 and 3 in the preseason thus far, so I'm pretty excited."
The Seahawks are replacing Unger with Nowak, a former college defensive linemen who just started playing center this offseason; they're replacing Carpenter with Britt, who only two weeks ago moved to guard from right tackle, where he started all 16 games last year; and in Britt's place they have inserted Gilliam, a second-year player who went undrafted out of Penn State, where he played tight end until his senior season. It's a lot of change, but in the long run it can be change for the better, Cable says.
In particular, Cable pointed to the improvements he has seen in a short time in pass protection, and the progress made in run blocking last week after the rushing game struggled in Seattle's second preseason game. It won't be perfect all the time, and yes, there might be a few hiccups along the way, but the Seahawks see the line as a potential bright spot going forward, not a liability.
"I think this is really a good group of guys," Carroll said. "This is what we had hoped would happen—that they would come together and show us something. We've seen enough signs that the foundation for a really good group is there; it's just going to take time as they just grow together. There will be trials and tribulations along the way as they come together, but they're equipped and look like they'll be ready to handle it. I love how hard they work, it's a very smart group all the way through the ranks, they communicate really well with one another. They just are going to have to go through it and grow. Hopefully we can minimize the pains of that and really maximize the athleticism they bring."
While Okung at left tackle and Sweezy at right guard were set from the get-go, the Seahawks did a lot of tinkering everywhere else before settling on this group. Two weeks ago, Britt became the fifth-player to see first-team reps at left guard, while Nowak wasn't a name anyone would have mentioned as a possible Unger replacement when the trade happened, mostly because he had never played center in the NFL or college up to that point. And because Britt was returning as the starting right tackle, Gilliam figured to be competing for a role as a backup tackle. Instead, Nowak, whose strength, athleticism and smarts won over his coaches, is starting at center for the first time since high school; Gilliam, who was "outstanding again," in last weekend's game according to Cable, is starting at right tackle after going undrafted 16 months ago; and Britt is making a position change that Cable said suits him very well.
"It's a different world," Cable said of going from tackle to guard. "Outside there's all this space and you have to have patience; inside you're in a bar fight every snap. I think that mentality suits him well, he's got that kind of demeanor in him. Just getting comfortable with his hand speed and the timing of that. But really it simplifies it, just becomes a little more angry, a little more violent in there, and that's OK… I think he'll be really good Week 1. He's a special player, he's good."
Plenty of people have expressed concern about the Seahawks' offensive line play, including Carroll and Cable themselves after the first preseason game, but with the regular-season opener rapidly approaching, and after having the same starting group together for a couple of weeks, optimism abounds about a position group that was considered a big question mark at the start of camp.
"I'm really excited about where we're going," Cable said. "I think this might be, before it's all said and done, the best group I've had. So we'll see as it plays out."
Due to the shortened week, the team doubled up on a Tuesday practice of preseason week four with the themes of "Competition Wednesday" and "Turnover Thursday".