Every summer in every training camp for every NFL team, opportunity knocks for some younger, less-experienced player to win a starting job.
Immediately, from hour one of the start of this Seahawks training camp, opportunity is pounding the door off its hinges for Kyle Fuller.
Ethan Pocic, Seattle’s starting center in 2020, is just this week practicing for the first time after missing the first week of camp. He pulled his hamstring training in preparation for the preseason.
“It gives Kyle Fuller a fantastic opportunity to show us what he can do,” coach Pete Carroll said.
Carroll then made a passing reference to Pocic needing to get back to avoid being Wally Pipp-ed.
Wally Pipp had the most famous headache in baseball history. On June 2, 1925, Pipp was the New York Yankees starting first baseman. Then he asked out of the lineup because of a headache. Lou Gehrig, a 21-year-old reserve, took Pipp’s place.
Gehrig went on to play an incredible 2,130 consecutive games and become one of the most famous of famed Yankees. He was elected to the National Baseball Hall of Fame in 1939.
Yes, Pocic had more than a headache. And Fuller isn’t in the class of Lou Gehrig.
Yet big only begins to describe the chance Fuller, a veteran of three teams in five years, has to seize the starting job at the center of Seattle’s all-important offensive line. It’s the unit Russell Wilson indirectly called out in February when he stated, loudly, “I’m frustrated with getting hit too much.”
So it’s not like status quo on the offensive line from 2020 to ‘21 was a sure thing, anyway.
Pocic was watching Fuller as the first-team center through the first week of the first Seahawks training camp since Wilson’s call-out. Tuesday, Pocic was full go for practice—but was the second-team center for most of the workout. Fuller mostly stayed with the starting offense.
Not that Fuller intends to add any more importance to this chance than is already obvious.
“You know, everyday is a new opportunity,” he said. “It’s just about getting better every day, making sure that I’m doing my job.
“That’s just about it.”
Yes, it’s early. But signs increase each day Fuller may be Wilson’s center when Seattle begins the season Sept. 12 at Indianapolis.
The Seahawks watched the free-agent market for veteran starting centers soar in the first hours and days of free agency in March. Green Bay Packers All-Pro center Corey Linsley set the rich market when he agreed to a $62.5 million, five-year contract with the Los Angeles Chargers. Alex Mack then signed a three-year deal worth $14.85 million with the division-rival San Francisco 49ers.
That was too rich for the Seahawks, who focused on lower-cost, one-year deals in free agency. They let Pocic, their second-round draft choice in 2017, shop a few days to begin free agency, then re-signed him for one year and $3 million. That money and shorter term hinted the team may value Pocic as a swing backup guard and tackle, the roles he had his first three NFL seasons with the team.
“It’s just a business,” Pocic said before the first practice in shoulder pads of camp on Tuesday. “But at the end of the day, you’ve got to do what you think is right.
“It was an easy decision to come back. This is where I wanted to be,” Pocic said before the first practice in pads of camp on Tuesday. “I love my teammates, love my coaches. It’s just fun here, and a great environment to get better.”
Pocic said in the end he actually wanted a one-year deal. This year because of the pandemic the NFL salary cap dropped for only the second time since it began in the league 30 years ago (the other time was 2011 from a labor lockout), from $198 million to $182.5 million. Pocic knows next year the cap will spike, up to an estimated $200 million or more. Then it will begin soaring past $220 million per team, with the NFL’s new media-rights deals that take effect in 2023.
If he has a good season in 2021, Pocic could cash in at far more than $3 million for 2022 and beyond.
“The goal would be a long-term deal here,” he said. “But it’s just one day at a time.”
First, he’s got to beat out Fuller for his job.
Standing by Fuller
How much are the Seahawks intrigued by Fuller?
They signed him to their practice squad in early September 2019, after Washington released him at the end of training camp two summers ago. Seattle had him on its practice squad for the 2019 season.
Last summer the Seahawks had him practicing more at center than he had yet in his three-year career. That was after the team had released former starting center Justin Britt. Seattle signed B.J. Finney in free agency from Pittsburgh in the spring of 2020, giving him $4.5 million guaranteed and the inside track to replace Britt as the Seahawks’ starting center.
Fuller was fighting Pocic for the starting-center job in 2020’s training camp. That fight ended when Fuller got suspended two games by the NFL last summer for violating its substance-abuse policy. Pocic won the job, after three years as a backup guard and tackle to begin his league career with Seattle. It was Pocic’s return to center for the first time since he ended his college career at LSU starting there in 2016.
Many teams may have released a reserve on the fringes of their roster after he returned from the suspension. The Seahawks not only stuck by Fuller, they added him straight onto the active, regular-season roster in late September after defenders Bruce Irvin and Marquise Blair went on season-ending injured reserve at the start of week three.
“At 6-4, with the long arms and his athleticism—he’s 310 or whatever the heck he is—he doesn’t have anything that’s missing,” Carroll said. “He has all of the elements.”
“You know, Seattle is a great place. Good people. Good front-office people. Good coaches,” Fuller said.
“It was a lot of support from these guys.”
Last October the Seahawks traded Finney and a seventh-round draft choice to Cincinnati to acquire two-time Pro Bowl defensive end Carlos Dunlap. That confirmed Fuller had beaten out Finney for the backup job at center, so much so the Seahawks ate the prorated $4.5 million guaranteed it continued paying Finney through the end of 2020 to be on the Bengals’ roster instead of theirs.
Finney failed to do what Fuller had: learn Seattle’s line system. Fuller became the backup to Pocic at center.
Pocic got a concussion during Seattle’s loss at Buffalo to begin November. Fuller made his first NFL start as a center the following week, against All-World Aaron Donald and the Los Angeles Rams. He did OK, but showed he needed more work there. With Pocic out another game, rookie starting right guard Damien Lewis made his first and only start at center four days later when the Seahawks beat Arizona.
Fuller returned to re-learning the center position more. His contract ended with the Seahawks’ home playoff loss to the Rams in January. The team could have let him go into free agency. But the Seahawks had seen enough they liked to re-sign Fuller this spring as an exclusive-rights free agent for one year and $920,000.
“It was pretty clear that they were going to bring me back,” he said.
When they did, he returned to a new offense.
Waldron’s new system
In January, days after they got dominated yet again by Donald and the Rams’ defense in that wild-card playoff loss in Seattle to ruin a 12-4 season and NFC West title, the Seahawks fired their offensive coordinator of three years, Brian Schottenheimer. Carroll hired former Rams passing game coordinator and tight ends coach Shane Waldron to be a first-time play caller.
The center is the communications, command and decision hub for the five-man offensive line. Every aspect of the job changed when the offensive coordinator changed—except for snapping the ball to Wilson directly and in shotgun formation.
“Some of the rules are a little different. Some of the techniques are a little different,” Pocic said, remaining coy for competitive reasons.
Waldron is making everything quicker. Time between plays. Time huddling. Time calling the plays. Time from getting into formation to snapping the ball.
“We are just making the call and going, not thinking too much about it,” Pocic said. “That’s something I can say is different. We’ve got our rules, and we’re goin’.”
“It’s new terminology, new everything,” Fuller said. “Obviously, it’s learning that. And then building trust between guys, that’s important, as far as the system goes.
“But everything is going smoothly. Yeah, everything is different. … It’s been a challenging experience as far as learning the new stuff. New system. New guy. New terms, new things like that.”
Another indicator Fuller is a prime candidate to be the Seahawks’ new starter at center: it’s the only position at which he’s worked this year. In 2017 with Houston, Fuller made his first two NFL starts at tackle. He was a guard and tackle in 2018 and plus the ‘19 training camp with Washington. In his first two seasons with Seattle, Fuller worked at guard on both sides.
“He was a center in college, played a lot of center (at Baylor),” Carroll said, “and then got knocked around to different spots. He was a tackle. He was a guard, then a little bit of center. We probably have, I don’t know, maybe 80 plays or something of him at center (on film).
“When we made the move a year ago to see what he looked like (at center), he looked at home.”
Asked his goals for 2021, Fuller said: “Help my team win.”
Any goals, personally?
“Do what I can do to help my team win,” he said.
‘A good dude’
You might think Fuller and Pocic aren’t exactly warm to get each as the competition between them to become starting center heats up.
They want you to know you’d be wrong.
“That’s my guy. Me and Ethan got real close last year,” Fuller said. “Ethan is a good dude.”
Pocic said: “That whole, like, ‘Oh, we are competing for a job we hate each other,’ at the end of the day we each are going to do what we can control and they are going to make their decision. It would be kind of mentally weak to think, ‘Oh, I’ve got to do something extra, or I’m down on myself or because they are going with this guy, or I’m high on myself I’m going to go do something I’ve never done before.
“At the end of the day, we’re just playing ball. I’m 100% motivated. Kyle is 100% motivated.
“It is a competition. That’s what fun about this game.”