There are plenty of reasons for the Seahawks to be optimistic about their future, both next season and in the long term, ranging from their loaded defense to their Pro Bowl quarterback to a head coach and general manager with a winning track record. But another reason Pete Carroll and company are excited about next year's team is the growth they're expecting to see from the unit that was the subject of a lot of scrutiny in 2016.
The Seahawks offensive line had its struggles over the course of the past 19 weeks, no one will deny that, but at times that unit showed considerable progress. And when you consider how young and inexperienced that group was in 2016, it's more than reasonable to expect significant growth out of the offensive line in 2017.
"I think we made a ton of progress," Carroll said. "Knowing how much guys improve from one year to the next, and particularly the youngest guys improve the most, we have nothing but good things to think about what will take place. Guys are going to get better."
The Seahawks finished the season with a starting line of George Fant at left tackle, Mark Glowinski at left guard, Justin Britt at center, Germain Ifedi at right guard and Garry Gilliam at right tackle. Four of those players are under contract next season, while Gilliam is a restricted free agent, so unless players added in the draft or free agency, or current backups such as rookie Rees Odhiambo, can beat somebody out, the Seahawks will have a similar line next season to the one that finished this season at a position where continuity can make a big difference.
Given the experience of that group, or lack thereof, there is every reason to expect them to take a big step forward. Britt, the most experienced of Seattle's starting linemen, went from tackle to guard to center in his first three seasons, so he'll benefit from staying at the position where he thrived this season; Glowinski started just one game prior to last season; Gilliam is a two-year starter, but was a tight end until his senior year of college, so he's still growing; Ifedi, Seattle's first-round pick in 2016, will improve from year one to year two; and most notably, Fant has a ton of room for growth having spent his college career playing basketball before switching to football for one year, barely playing as a senior at Western Kentucky.
"The thing I look back on and appreciate is how hard these young guys work and how they kept battling through the season," Britt said. "When you look at George—someone who's never done it and how he's improved and battled, he really has upside. He can have a vison this offseason on what he wants to improve on and how to get better, because he actually knows what football is like, so it's really cool for them. Germain, Rees and Joey (Hunt), they have background in football, but to get a year under their belt in the NFL is huge. The sky's the limit, but it all starts with the offseason and how you go about it. Hopefully, they take it serious… I told them after the game (in Atlanta), I said, 'Next year we're going to be the best offensive line that we've had and one of the best in the league.' I believe that if we take the offseason serious. And we'll see what happens with free agency, but the good thing about being a young group is we'll be together a long time, and the longer we're together, the better we'll get, so I'm excited."
Added Fant: "There's a lot of positivity going forward. We've got so many pieces, so many tools we can utilize, a year under our belt as rookies, there's so much to learn, we've got so much to watch on the game film. Some of us had to learn on the fly, and that's going to make us so much better, take what we were missing last year and use this offseason to get better. This is going to be a very important offseason. The guys who were rookies this year need take a step next year."
"We know, and our coaching staff knows what we're capable of. I know each of my O-line brothers is going to bust his butt and get better, and that includes me as well. I have so much to learn from this season, so I think we're going to be OK and we're going to work our butts off to get better."
And it's not just the linemen themselves, or their coaches, who see the upside in that group. From Russell Wilson, who relies on that group for protection, to the rest of the offense, which needs the line to function its best, Seahawks players have expressed optimism about the line's future.
"The biggest part of it is the type of characters you have on that offensive line," receiver Doug Baldwin said. "Justin Britt being the guy he is, he's going to step into a leadership role, and we need him to do that, because he has to lead those guys up front. George Fant getting a year under his belt, Germain Ifedi getting a year under his belt, they realize now when the step in here in April (for offseason workouts), they're professionals now. There's no excuses, you've seen it. That should give them extra confidence coming in knowing that they're capable of doing it and doing it at a high level. Having those guys all together for another year, I think you'll see a vast improvement from them."
The Seahawks lost two starting linemen in free agency between the 2015 and 2016 seasons, and over the course of Carroll and Schneider's tenure, they have not had a lot of year-to-year continuity at that position group. That figures to change next year unless newcomers can perform so well that they beat out returning starters.
"We've been through that transition of guys, and that can't just keep happening, we can't keep going and going," Carroll said. "So you have to make some adjustments, which we did and we're working our way back. It has been a challenge though, there have been changes and it happens for reasons that it does—money gets too high, you can't afford to keep a guy because you don't have room to do it, you have young guys come up to take guys spots, you can see the future through the young guys. There's all kinds of reason, and we've kind of been through it all. I don't think we're in that mode right now. I think we have a chance now that this is maybe one of the two or three years out of the seven or eight where we have had a chance to come back with kind of the same group and have a chance to build with that. We're going to try to, but we're going to challenge the heck out of those guys too. We're not going to be satisfied."
All of that being said, the Seahawks won't go into the 2017 season assuming they have all the pieces they need in place. The Seahawks have drafted multiple offensive linemen in five of seven drafts under Carroll and Schneider, including three in each of the past two drafts, so it's a safe bet that they'll add players via the draft, and possibly also in free agency.
"We're going to work really hard in the offseason to make sure we make that spot really competitive again," Carroll said. "We're not going to rest on anything or set back like we think we got it now. We'll continue to work and there's opportunities of course in the draft and free agency and all of that that we're open to; we never turn away from any of those chances. But if nothing happened, these guys are coming back and they'll get after it and they're going to get after it and be farther along than they were. It couldn't be more obvious. That's just the natural thing that's going to happen. We need that natural occurrence to take place and help us be better from the start."
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