Why don't the Seattle Seahawks put more resources into their offensive line?
"Great question," general manager John Schneider said in August. "I get it all the time, from a lot of different areas."
Understandably so. In terms of salary-cap percentage, the Seahawks fielded the NFL's least expensive offensive line last season and are 31st in spending at that position in 2017, according to Spotrac.com.
Since back-to-back Super Bowl appearances following the 2013 and 2014 seasons, the Seahawks have replaced several veteran offensive line starters with younger, cheaper options. Predictably, they've been challenged up front. This season, poor pass protection has left Russell Wilson under pressure on nearly 32 percent of his dropbacks -- the fifth-highest rate among qualified quarterbacks, according to ESPN Stats & Information -- which has kept Seattle's passing game from finding any consistent rhythm. Wilson was the most pressured QB last season at 36.5 percent.
So, why haven't the Seahawks spent more there?
"What I would tell you is that we're a team that has more of that chameleon type of philosophy when it comes to just keeping your best players," Schneider said in an interview with 710 ESPN Seattle in August. "We're not a team that says that we're going to spend this percentage of our cap on this area and this percentage on the offense and this percentage on defense and this percentage on the defensive backs.
"I've been with organizations that have done that, and that's where you get yourself in trouble. It's almost like drafting for need, if you will, where you're like, 'Hey we've gotta have this player' or in free agency, 'We're going to overpay for a specific player.'"
Schneider told a story about a series of past personnel decisions that helped shape that approach. They came either before or during his second stint in the Green Bay Packers' front office, where he worked before coming to Seattle in 2010 along with coach Pete Carroll.
"We went through it in Green Bay, and I learned a very, very valuable lesson because we went out in free agency and signed a defensive end that was in his early 30s and gave him a ton of money and had another guy develop behind him," Schneider recalled. "They had drafted somebody in the top 10 the year before that didn't work out, and then we got to that third guy, and we had a ton of dead cap money then and weren't able to come up and sign the young player that was actually coming through for us."
"So it was just really a lesson in trying to keep your best players," Schneider said, "whether it's on offense or defense."
The Seahawks have abstained from spending big money on their offensive line not because they consider that position to be inherently less important, but because they believe their best players play elsewhere, and the money has gone to them instead.
Seahawks' spending has shifted
It wasn't always this way.
During the 2013 season, when the Seahawks won their first Super Bowl in franchise history, they had the NFL's highest-paid offensive line. The starting five of left tackle Russell Okung ($9.54 million cap charge), left guard James Carpenter ($2.01 million), center Max Unger ($6 million), right guard J.R. Sweezy ($494,000) and right tackle Breno Giacomini ($4.75 million) helped Seattle's offensive line account for 20.9 percent of the team's salary-cap spending.
At the time, many of the team's emerging star players were playing on cost-controlled rookie deals. As those bills came due, Seattle's spending shifted. Wilson's contract averages $21.9 million. Wide receiver Doug Baldwin ($11.5 million average) and tight end Jimmy Graham ($9 million), who was acquired in a 2015 trade, are also playing on lucrative deals.
But the majority of Seattle's money is being spent on a defense that now includes eight players who have made at least one Pro Bowl and are compensated accordingly: defensive backs Richard Sherman ($14 million average), Kam Chancellor ($12 million) and Earl Thomas ($10 million), linebackers Bobby Wagner ($10.75 million) and K.J. Wright ($6.75 million), and defensive linemen Michael Bennett ($10.16 million), Sheldon Richardson ($8.07 million) and Cliff Avril ($7.12 million).
As a result, the Seahawks are spending 53.78 percent of their 2017 cap dollars on their defense, the highest percentage of any team, according to Spotrac. They were fifth in defensive spending percentage last season at 42.58 percent.
Meanwhile, Seattle is 31st (9.96 percent) in offensive line spending this year with a starting five of left tackle Rees Odhiambo ($714,000 cap charge), left guard Luke Joeckel ($7.25 million), center Justin Britt ($2.34 million), right guard Oday Aboushi ($975,000) and right tackle Germain Ifedi ($1.87 million).
The Seahawks were 32nd in offensive line spending last season (4.17 percent).
The notion that the Seahawks have declined to spend resources on their offensive line is only partly true. Since Carroll and Schneider arrived seven years ago, Seattle has drafted 17 offensive linemen, more than any team in the NFL.
That includes several high draft picks. Okung was the regime's first pick, chosen sixth overall in 2010. Carpenter (2011) and Ifedi (2016) were also first-rounders. Seattle spent second-round picks on Britt (2014) and Ethan Pocic (2017) and third-rounders on John Moffitt (2011) and Odhiambo (2016).
But Britt is the only offensive lineman drafted by Seattle since 2010 to get a second contract from the team.
The Seahawks haven't kept some of those draft picks because they weren't good enough to warrant keeping, which, in those cases, reflects an issue with either developing and/or identifying talent. Continually drafting late in the first round has not helped Seattle's cause, given what's widely believed to be a dearth of pro-ready offensive linemen being produced by the college game. But the Seahawks have also decided to let good starting offensive linemen such as Okung, Carpenter and Sweezy leave in free agency. They also parted with Unger in the Graham trade.
On their own, each of those moves was and still is understandable, given the market value of those players. But continually moving on from starters requires finding equally capable replacements either from within or via free agency, and the Seahawks have not been very successful with either. That helps explain why their offensive line has had three new starters in each of the past two seasons.
Where the current group goes from here
The Seahawks made a strong push in free agency this year for former Packers guard T.J. Lang, who instead signed with the Detroit Lions, his hometown team. Adding Lang along with Joeckel in the same free-agency period would have changed perceptions about Seattle's commitment to its offensive line.
More importantly, it would have helped stabilize a group that is again young, particularly on the outside. Odhiambo, who took over at left tackle when George Fant tore his ACL in August, is in his second season. So is Ifedi, who is at right tackle after starting at right guard as a rookie.
The Seahawks worked out veteran tackle Branden Albert on Monday, so he's a name to keep in mind. For now, though, the starting five is about to get even younger with Joeckel expected to miss Seattle's next game, if not longer, following arthroscopic knee surgery. In an ideal scenario, Pocic would take over and show the potential that compelled the Seahawks to draft him in the second round. Mark Glowinski is another option, and he might be the more likely one, considering he started all of last season at left guard.
Whether it's via Albert or their young players developing on the fly, the Seahawks need improved play from their offensive line to make another deep run in the postseason.
Looking further ahead, the Seahawks will have decisions to make after this season on Joeckel and Aboushi. They are among several free agents that Seattle added on one-year deals. Those contracts, as well as Graham's, are scheduled to come off the books at season's end, so the Seahawks could have holes to fill on their offensive line and money to spend.
But as history has shown, need hasn't always dictated spending with the Seahawks and their offensive line.