Will the Seahawks' improved O-line help QB Geno Smith?

Geno Smith enters his third season as the Seahawks' starting quarterback. Matthew Maxey/Icon Sportswire

RENTON, Wash. -- Here's what one member of the Seattle Seahawks' 2023 coaching staff told ESPN while defending Geno Smith's up-and-down season:

"He didn't have a clean pocket all year."

And here's what the quarterback himself said earlier this week about the prospects for the young, re-tooled offensive line he'll be playing behind in 2024:

"I think they're going to be the best in the world."

As hyperbolic as both comments were, therein lies what may be the most significant storyline of the start of the Mike Macdonald era, one that will determine Smith's future in Seattle. After two mixed-bag seasons as the Seahawks' starter, a lukewarm assessment from John Schneider as well as what seemed like initial reluctance from both the general manager and new head coach to commit to Smith as Seattle's QB1, he likely needs a consistently strong year to remain in the team's plans beyond 2024.

And for that to happen, his offensive line needs to be better than it was a year ago.

Consider: Seattle finished eighth in ESPN's pass block win rate (62.7%) in 2022, when Smith made the Pro Bowl and won AP Comeback Player of the Year. The Seahawks fell to 25th in PBWR (53%) in 2023 as their O-line suffered through injuries, inexperience and a lack of difference-makers.

That was among the reasons why Smith fell from seventh in QBR (62.8) in 2022 to 14th (59.5) last season. But he led the NFL in that metric (81.5) over the final six weeks of last season (with two missed games in that span). That coincided with the Seahawks shifting to a quick passing game in order to take pressure off their overmatched line, which would use nine different starting combinations by season's end.

The 2024 group could have new starters at all three interior spots in addition to getting right tackle Abraham Lucas back from the knee injury that sidelined him for 11 games last season, though the Seahawks signed George Fant as a veteran insurance policy.

They let left guard Damien Lewis (Carolina) and center Evan Brown (Arizona) leave for free agent deals elsewhere and didn't bring back right guard Phil Haynes, who remains unsigned. They added veteran left guard Laken Tomlinson before drafting UConn's Christian Haynes in the third round, giving them a starting option on the other side. Second-year center Olu Oluwatimi is the favorite to win that job, though he'll have to beat out free agent pickup Nick Harris.

Contact in practice is prohibited until training camp, which makes the spring no time to evaluate offensive linemen. But Wednesday's organized team activity (OTA) -- the first open to reporters -- offered a look at where the lineup stands.

With Lucas still sidelined following offseason surgery, the first-team unit had Fant at right tackle opposite Charles Cross, Tomlinson at left guard, Oluwatimi at center and McClendon Curtis at right guard. Anthony Bradford, who made 10 fill-in starts at right guard as a rookie fourth-round pick last year, didn't practice Wednesday (ankle) but isn't expected to be out long.

Lucas may be the fulcrum of Seattle's O-line given that he was perhaps its best starter as a rookie in 2022. One Seahawks source told ESPN last month that his problematic right knee, now that it has been surgically repaired, isn't as much of a long-term concern as many have assumed after hearing former coach Pete Carroll describe it last year as "chronic." But it has taken longer for Lucas to bounce back than he wanted.

"It's hard to tell," Macdonald said Wednesday of where Lucas is at in his recovery. "It's hard to tell. We're shooting for camp right now. Abe's getting after it in rehab, so I'm proud of his effort that he's putting in."

The Seahawks protected themselves against the possibility of Lucas' knee acting up again by reuniting with Fant (two years, $9.1 million), who spent his first four seasons with Seattle. Last year in Houston, Fant ranked 35th among all tackles in PBWR (87.5%). His return as a swing tackle makes the Seahawks better equipped to replace either starter than they were with last season's trio of Stone Forsythe, Jake Curhan and then-41-year-old Jason Peters.

Cross has been a solid starter in two NFL seasons -- vastly outperforming the two tackles drafted ahead of him in 2022, Ikem Ekwonu and Evan Neal -- but he's yet to consistently play at a Pro Bowl level, which is a realistic hope for someone drafted ninth overall. He ranked 33rd among all tackles in PBWR (87.8%) last season while starting 14 games, missing three with a toe injury.

The Seahawks waited out the guard market and signed Tomlinson to a team-friendly deal (one year, $1.21 million) in April. The 32-year-old is three years removed from his lone Pro Bowl appearance -- he made it in 2021 with the San Francisco 49ers -- and was 34th among all guards in PBWR (91.2%) last season. He brings 138 career starts and some much-needed experience to a young line. Tomlinson also brings an iron-man track record of availability, missing only one game in nine NFL seasons and only nine combined snaps over the past five.

"That was a really good acquisition for us because all that guy does is play football," assistant GM Nolan Teasley said. "We talk about the best ability being availability, right? We're talking 130-plus starts for him and 90-some in a row. He doesn't miss time. He's been a key cog of some good offensive lines that we're familiar with down in San Francisco and we're happy he's a Seahawk moving forward."

The Harris signing (one year, $2.395 million), like that of Brown last year, gives Seattle a low-cost veteran center who can also play guard if needed. He reunites in Seattle with O-line coach Scott Huff, who held the same position at the University of Washington when Harris played for the Huskies.

But the center job feels like Oluwatimi's to lose. The 2023 fifth-round pick more than held his own in his lone start as a rookie, posting a 94.1% PBWR in a win over Arizona.

"Olu played for us some last year and I actually thought he did a really good job and I thought he was really, really prepared," Smith said. "I thought for a rookie, it was very impressive. Being that it's his second year, we're both learning a new offense at the same time so our communication has been great. We're talking things out and I'm learning from him, different O-line calls and things that they're adjusting at the line of scrimmage, as well as he's learning from me as far as what I'm seeing as the quarterback and kind of how I like things to be done."

Haynes was the first of three O-linemen Seattle drafted last month, ahead of guard Sataoa Laumea and tackle Michael Jerrell. Whereas those sixth-round picks project as backups and/or practice-squad players as rookies, Haynes has a clear path to the starting lineup. He worked with the second-team line at right guard on Wednesday, but his age (24) and experience (49 college starts) should give him a strong chance to beat out Bradford, Curtis and Tremayne Anchrum Jr.

According to ESPN Stats & Information, Haynes allowed five sacks in first season as starter in 2019 but then allowed just one sack in nearly 1,200 pass blocks over the past three seasons. He surrendered five pressures in 729 pass blocks over the past two seasons.

"The pass-protection stuff is legit," Schneider said of Haynes. "Lateral movement, he stays in front of people, he's got strong hands, he's got anchor. He's just a really good football player. So experienced. He knows the nuances. He had a great Zoom interview with [Huff]. They loved the football intelligence. Everybody was just really excited."

If Haynes and Oluwatimi both win their respective position battles, then the four starters aside from Tomlinson will be a rookie, a second-year player who's a first-time starter and two third-year players.

Smith, Huff and new offensive coordinator Ryan Grubb will likely have to deal with some growing pains up front with such a youthful group, but the new coaches and their system may help mitigate that. During Grubb's two seasons as Washington's OC, the Huskies had the second-lowest rate of sacks per dropback (1.6%) in FBS and the 10th-lowest pressure rate (25.3%).

"I think we got the right guys, I think we've got the right coaches, and it all comes down having the right mindset," Smith said. "But the leadership is great ... If they collectively come together, I think that group could be -- as young as they are -- I think they could be one of the best in the world."