The official declaration of offensive linemen as endangered species appears imminent.
This time of year — with the NFL scouting combine, the free-agency period and the upcoming draft — the headlines focus on quarterbacks and receivers and pass rushers.
But the real search is for the rare value on the offensive line.
“Well, there’s just a dearth at the position; there just has been for a number of years now,” Seahawks GM John Schneider said last week at the combine.
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It’s been a specific interest — and point of consternation — for the Seahawks and their fans.
Last season, the Hawks fielded five new starters across the offensive line. And because of injuries and ineffective play, they ended up with a pair of rookies, a second-year guard and two others at new positions.
Together, they comprised the lowest-salaried offensive line in the NFL.
They still won the NFC West and made it to the divisional round of the playoffs, but did so with a diminished rushing attack and a quarterback, Russell Wilson, who was one of the most highly pressured in the league.
It begs the question of their logic: If you just paid for an $87 million jewel (Wilson), why would you then hire the cheapest security force in the business to protect it?
With the Seahawks, it’s actually been more a question of effective acquisition than of commitment.
They have picked 14 offensive linemen in the seven drafts overseen by Schneider and coach Pete Carroll, with three first-round picks being used on college tackles.
The occasional veteran free agents that the Hawks have brought in have been ineffective in their system, while history suggests it’s risky to pay the inflated price that the market puts on the rare talent who doesn’t get re-signed by his own team.
The pass-oriented college programs aren’t producing NFL-ready linemen. And Schneider touched briefly on another problem. Young athletes don’t envision themselves as future offensive linemen.
And this is where the narrative needs to be flipped and antiquated thinking revisited.
First, I bristle at the phrase “skill positions” referring only to those who handle the ball and score touchdowns. It’s an insult to the demands on players who are asked every down to block Aaron Donald, J.J. Watt or Von Miller.
Second, if you think that linemen are just bulky blockheads, you’re unaware that they need to be among the most agile-minded on the field to mentally collate the entire range of responsibilities that can change the instant the ball is snapped, depending on shifts and stunts and blitzes.
Three, if you think that these jobs are underappreciated, you might be right, but they are not underpaid. And their increasing scarcity inflates their market value.
So, if you are parents who have an offspring genetically predisposed to upper-percentile size, start putting him in a three-point stance early because high-paying jobs will be available.
The demand is high, and the supply very sketchy. It’s contemporary NFL economics.
In addition to the fast-breaking college offensive schemes, I blame some of this dearth on the failure of the Rust Belt economy.
When I grew up in the Chicago area, it seemed that every neighborhood of millworkers cranked out a couple of Big Ten-quality offensive linemen every year.
They were born to it. Their fathers spent 12 hours every day stoking blast furnaces, never complaining and never seeking acknowledgment for their role in forging the steel skeleton of their nation.
They took gratification, instead, in the way they put food on the table in front of their strapping sons who grew into devout carnivores with a passion for lifting heavy objects.
That culture has disappeared. So, too, has the sense of collaborative brotherhood.
I’m not sure there’s any position group in professional sports more tightly connected by its common duties. Nowhere else is it so understood that the weakest link breaks the chain.
Among young fans who see the games reduced to video highlights and Twitter feeds, the appreciation of such understated athletic excellence goes wanting.
For the linemen, that reward needs to come from their small cohort of compatriots, and from the postgame moment when the defender you’ve nullified for 75 plays comes over, shakes your hand, and you can see in his eyes that, regardless the size of his paycheck or his reputation, he knows you drove him around like a rental car all afternoon.
And yes, there’s the ever-increasing money and what is sure to be the sense that you’re greatly desired by NFL personnel staffs across the country.
Last fall, when I heard of groups passionately chanting “build that wall, build that wall,” I suspected it was Seahawks fans calling on Schneider to bolster the offensive line.
I fully believe that Schneider is trying.
It’s just so hard with such little raw material available these days.