The Seattle Seahawks continue to face a myriad of injuries to their offensive line. The most recent casualty was Pro Bowl left tackle Walter Jones.
Jones left practice on Monday with back problems, and after sitting out practice for the following two days the team announced that he was scheduled for arthroscopic knee surgery to remove scar tissue in his surgically repaired left knee (details here).
Jones' injury only magnifies the Seahawks Achilles heel over the past calendar year: the inability of the offensive line to remain healthy.
Every opening day starter for the 2008 Seattle Seahawks offensive line finished the season on the injured reserve.
Approaching the 2009 season, these health concerns have continued.
The first Seahawks loss on the offensive line occurred the day before training camp opened, when Pro Bowl left guard Mike Wahle was released by the Seahawks after failing his physical. Wahle had not wholly recovered from offseason shoulder surgery.
In the first week of training camp, incumbent center Chris Spencer sprained his ankle and has missed time intermittently since then. He was a game-time decision for the Chargers game last weekend and, if he continues to progress, should be ready for the season opener next month.
Tackle Ray Willis has also regularly missed time during training camp due to soreness in his left knee. This was planned, however, as the Seahawks have intentionally limited Willis' practice time due to a history of knee problems.
With the injury to Walter Jones, Willis' contributions are expected to increase greatly, which could place more strain on his bad knee.
Guard Mansfield Wrotto sat out on two different occasions with a leg bruise. The injury was not considered serious, but Wrotto is currently slated to start (although rookie Max Unger could wrestle the starting gig away from him), and any nicks and bruises cannot be taken lightly.
On top of Spencer, Willis, and Wrotto missing practice, veteran offensive linemen Cory Withrow and Grey Ruegamer have also missed significant time during training camp.
By utilizing the exceptional versatility of a number of offensive linemen, the Seattle Seahawks coaching staff has adapted quite well to the current injuries on the offensive line.
Rookie Max Unger was a center at the University of Oregon, and has already practiced with both the first and second teams at center, left guard, and right guard. Unger is projected to compete for playing time with Mansfield Wrotto at right guard since last year's starting right guard, Rob Sims, has shifted to left guard to replace Mike Wahle.
Third-year center Steve Vallos has also bounced around the offensive line in training camp. Vallos played left tackle at Wake Forest, but lacked the size to play tackle in the NFL, and therefore moved to the interior line.
In 2008, Vallos was called on to start the final five games of the year when Chris Spencer landed on the injured reserve. He has risen from a seventh round draft pick in 2007 to a key backup on the Seahawks offensive line.
Tackle Ray Willis is another unheralded offensive linemen who will be called upon in 2009. Willis, a fifth-year tackle out of Florida State, has only started ten games in his career, all of which came in the Seattle Seahawks injury-plagued 2008 season. He regularly rests his ailing knees, but Willis has shown the coaching staff enough to warrant a starting roster spot in place of the injured Walter Jones.
With a growing list of injury concerns, the Seahawks have marched a number of combinations onto the field for their first-team offensive line. Here is a sample of the combinations which have been used so far (from left tackle to right tackle):
- Jones - Sims - Spencer - Wrotto - Locklear (Projected Starters)
- Jones - Sims - Unger - Locklear - Willis
- Locklear - Sims - Spencer - Wrotto - Willis
- Locklear - Sims - Spencer - Unger - Willis
- Locklear - Sims - Vallos - Unger - Willis
- Locklear - Sims - Vallos - Wrotto - K.Williams
- Locklear - Sims - Vallos - Wrotto - Willis
At least Rob Sims is healthy, right?
Every injury shifts the dynamics of the Seahawks offensive line.
Wahle's retirement forced Rob Sims' move to left guard, creating a vacancy at right guard which Mansfield Wrotto and Max Unger are battling for. Walter Jones' injury forced Sean Locklear's move to left tackle, which consequently thrust Ray Willis into the starting lineup at right tackle.
As injury concerns persist, keep watch for how the Seahawks coaching staff manages the offensive line. While health problems will certainly persist, the coaches seem quite capable of filling the holes that these injuries create.