BY Art Thiel 06:49PM 02/25/2016

Thiel: To get ahead, Seahawks start in the back

While the popular view is that the Seahawks must make upgrades to the offensive line the priority of the off-season, the argument is strong that Carroll’s belief in defense first makes cornerback paramount.

Former Seahawks CB Cary Williams, in a happier moment with Pete Carroil. / Rod Mar, Seattle Seahawks

The Monday after the Seahawks’ regular season ended, nearly all talk was about playoffs, the pending game at Minnesota and playing in conditions that resembled the chest freezer in ex-Vikings coach Bud Grant’s basement, filled with fresh venison.

Lost in the anticipation was an admission by coach Pete Carroll. Responding to a question about pushing his young offensive linemen so hard into starting jobs that it helped induce losses, Carroll said the club made a personnel-judgment error. The mistake was the largest factor in the loss of home-field advantage in the playoffs, and informs some of what transpires this off-season.

“I think we might have overshot it a little bit on that one,” he said, referring to starting rookie Drew Nowak at center, second-year man Justin Britt at left guard and second-year man Garry Gilliam at right tackle. “I think we thought that they would move along more quickly. We didn’t adjust soon enough.”

While some will say he was merely stating the obvious, some sports executives can go entire careers without being accountable. While owning the mistakes that helped create the 2-4 start, Carroll also wanted credit for changing personnel and tactics at midseason that worked out well.

“I think we missed the opportunity to do that in game three or four, somewhere in there,” he said. “We knew we had to do something.  The bye week (Nov. 8, at 4-4) was when it was glaring and we had to do something drastically to change the course of events. We did that.”

The Seahawks replaced Nowak with Patrick Lewis and tightened the routes and timing of the passing game. Despite the injury absences of RB Marshawn Lynch and TE Jimmy Graham, the Seahawks were the NFL’s most prolific offense over the second half of the regular season.

So really, how bad was the O-line by the end of the year? It not only no longer needed to be in the critical care unit at Harborview Hospital, it is perhaps not even atop the Seahawks’ off-season priority list.

The scouting combine is underway in Indianapolis, free agency begins March 9 and the draft is at the end of April. The popular assumption among Seahawks followers is that the O-line comes first. Could be true, especially this year with the pending free agency of LT Russell Okung and RG J.R. Sweezy.

Then again, if we have learned anything watching Carroll, it is that the Seahawks never do the obvious.

“We looked at how we dealt with the offensive line in the first half of last season and how we transitioned in the second half,” Carroll told reporters in Indianapolis Thursday. “After the bye, we improved tremendously. Our numbers flip-flopped in terms of the pressures and sacks. We saw the productivity of our passing game really go up.

“We still have some issues. Hopefully, we’ve made enough strides that we can start at a better level next year than we did last year.”

After the loss to Carolina that ended the postseason, Carroll heaped praise on two  seldom-seen draftees, O-linemen Mark Glowinski and Kristjan Sokoli, who basically had redshirt seasons. Sokoli is another of the Seahawks’ conversions from the collegiate defensive line (Buffalo), but in his case, he was afforded a year’s apprenticeship.

While it shouldn’t be assumed the pair will fill the voids should Okung and Sweezy leave, I will submit that in the Seahawks’ position hierarchy under Carroll, there is a more urgent need: Cornerback.

The spot opposite Richard Sherman last season was the defense’s weakest link. It was occupied for the first 10 games by Carroll’s other personnel bust in 2015: Cary Williams.

A rare mid-season firing of a veteran — Williams, 30, was cut after the game 10 win over the 49ers — tells all that needs to be said about free-agent signee Williams’ inability to play the position to the specs demanded by the Seahawks.

Backup DeShawn Shead filled in reasonably well, and was supplanted when Jeremy Lane returned to health. But Lane is a free agent who, despite playing only six games in 2015, might get an offer the Seahawks can’t match.

That would be a major blow. The Williams experience may make the Seahawks gun-shy about hiring a veteran free agent and expecting a smooth transition. But adding a rookie draftee could be a first-year reach, as was the O-line in 2015.

So Lane just might be the top priority, because Carroll’s plan always puts defense first. And the priority among the defense’s three units is always the secondary.

That’s why Sherman, FS Earl Thomas and SS Kam Chancellor take up such a large chunk of salaries under the cap: Carroll believes that denial of the big play, either over the top or on the perimeter, is where the game pivots for defense, offense and special teams.

Filling the CB spot, not the O-line or D-line, would seem to be the prime directive. But as has been seen, the Seahawks more often have done that from deeper in the draft — Sherman and Chancellor were fifth-rounders, Lane a sixth-rounder. Only Thomas was taken with the high treasure of a first-round pick.

Should Lane go elsewhere, a list of free-agent cornerbacks here by Pro Football Focus, led by Carolina’s Josh Norman, which projects salary ranges, shows prices are steep. Still . . .

With that 31-point, first-half blitz by the Panthers still vivid in Carroll’s mind, don’t be shocked if he decides that if the cap allows him but one major free agent play, the money goes into the secondary and not to a beefy boy up front.

Carroll’s football DNA will make irresistible the opportunity to be the NFL’s best defense for five consecutive years. He trusts that line coach Tom Cable and QB Russell Wilson will figure out the other stuff.


  • jafabian

    What we’ve seen during the Pete Carroll era is to be a successful Seahawk takes as much as it does in ability but to also to under their system and accept your role. They’ve brought in Antoine Winfield and Cary Williams and because they couldn’t grasp the system they didn’t last. Percy Harvin couldn’t accept his role and was traded. That being said I question if letting Okung and Sweezy walk is the right move for the team. There’s something to be said with familiarity though I don’t think the club should over pay for them. But as we’ve seen Cary Williams, an established veteran, fail in the Seahawks system an entirely new O-Line unfamiliar with one another could be problematic as well.

    I actually would like the see the team either draft or sign a fullback with solid blocking skills and can catch. With Jimmy Graham not yet being the kind of blocker that Zach Miller was a blocking FB should be a priority.

    I think the Seahawks could at least offer Okung a one year deal. Maybe the same with Lane since he was so limited last season. Not too confident about Sweezy sticking around but hope he does.

    • John M

      Good points, but Lane should be a priority. I remember him as a rookie and have watched him grow. He didn’t start out good in the system, but was always fast and aggressive. Same with Sweezy, who is now ready to play an entire season at a consistently high level. Time to pay him. The Hawks system apparently isn’t for everybody and it takes time to fit. I think Okung is gone, and if that’s the case then left tackle should be the draft priority.

      I think Shead (still called shed by some announcers) is under appreciated. He’s one of those utility guys that can be counted on to do about anything. He came in as a safety, not a CB, and if he’s asked to play corner next season I think he’ll do more than an acceptable job. As for FB, does anyone know what’s going to happen with Coleman?

      • art thiel

        He wants to be called Shed, and fits the term ordinary.

        The mess created by Coleman with the accident and the drug use probably cashiers him here.

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    • art thiel

      Decent LTs are hard to find, so Okung is probably gone. Sweezy too. Carroll claims to like his young OLs.

      Tukuafu is a good blocker, but a gimmick as a runner/catcher.

      • jafabian

        IMO, Okung being his own agent limits how much teams can talk to him. As long as he’s under contract, like he is right now, it would be considered tampering. Sending out an email to teams on having surgery also may have hurt him since all teams contacted had to inform the Seahawks. Not that being your own agent is a bad thing. Steve Largent was later in his career and I applaud Okung for doing this but it seems to limit his options. That’s why I’m thinking a one year deal with incentives might be his best bet.

  • Bruce McDermott

    I think it is easy to oversell the OL’s improvement mid-season. The limits to that improvement were front and center against good defensive lines in the Rams and the Panthers. Offensive line play in those games was poor, to put it charitably, notwithstanding all the so-called progress up to that point Carroll likes to laud publicly.

    That necessarily doesn’t mean our top choice, or even a free agent signing, of a CB would be unwise. But this year’s college crop of CBs is not great, and there are few if any candidates among the CBs available that are sufficiently good and sufficiently affordable, even under the NFL’s current standards for “affordable.”

    The old bromides remain true. Don’t force picks. If you have a need, fill it in free agency and/or in flyer picks down low in the draft. Don’t try to will a third round talent into being a good first round pick. Talent first. Just hope that talent and need line up decently each round….

    • art thiel

      Most of that is true. Above all,I think Carroll’s type of CB is harder to find. They’ve tried with Tharold Simon and Tye Smith, with modest results. As I wrote, getting a vet in Williams didn’t work either. Might be time to spring to keep Lane.

  • notaboomer

    is carroll even going to stay with seahawks? isn’t he heading to the la rams?

  • Paul Harmening

    Think you nailed it on the LT’s. Might cost them a game, although hopefully better in the long run to just let em go now.

    But, you missed it on Bud Grant’s basement freezer. In Minn. they hang venison on a rack outside, about 15′ above ground. Why waste electricity?