By Chris Cluff
James Carpenter, OG #77
Weight: 321 lbs.
Hometown: Augusta, Ga.
Experience: 2 Years
With the 25th pick in the 2011 draft…the Seahawks messed up. Many pundits said it at the time. In need of a right tackle, they eschewed Gabe Carimi and reached for James Carpenter.
As it turns out, maybe Carimi would not have been a great choice either. After starting just two games last season for the Chicago Bears, he had struggled at right tackle this season — eight penalties and 6.5 sacks had earned him a demotion — and he started at right guard against Seattle on Sunday because of injuries.
But Carpenter had just a second-round grade by most people, and the Hawks reached by taking him 25th overall. Some lamented the fact that they chose Carpenter over quarterback Andy Dalton, who went 35th to Cincinnati.
Making the pick seem even worse are the facts that (1) Carpenter has had some bad luck with injuries in his first two seasons and (2) the Hawks already have given up on him at right tackle. In 2011, Carpenter started nine games at right tackle; he had seven penalties and gave up 5.5 sacks before tearing his ACL in practice. He didn’t return until Week Four this season, and when he did come back, he did so at left guard, as the coaches finally admitted what some of us had been saying all along: Carpenter’s best position in the NFL is at guard.
He started four games before a concussion surprisingly sidelined him for home games against Minnesota and the Jets. He then returned for games in Miami and Chicago, but he reportedly re-injured his surgically repaired knee early in the game Sunday in Chicago and did not play in the second half. It might have happened on the second play, when Carpenter was completely overwhelmed by Julius Peppers’ bull rush. Peppers knocked down Carpenter and sacked Russell Wilson.
Coach Pete Carroll told reporters Sunday that Carpenter felt a “little sharp pain” in the knee. X-rays were negative, Carroll said, but Carpenter also had an MRI.
“He actually felt something different in the game,” Carroll said, per The News Tribune. “He felt a little sharp pain in the game that didn’t go away. He’s overcome so much, and he’s done such a tremendous job to get to this point, that he’s been busting through it. But something did pop here that bothered him enough that he couldn’t finish the game. Early indications are that there’s nothing major wrong. It’s just that it’s still uncomfortable for him.”
Carpenter’s injury-plagued first two years are reminiscent of Russell Okung’s. The former first-round left tackle did not suffer as devastating an injury as Carpenter’s ACL, but high ankle sprains and a torn pectoral muscle robbed him of 10 games in his first two seasons.
Carpenter has started just 16 of 28 games. He flamed out at right tackle, as many thought he would. But he has shown signs at left guard. The Hawks ran for 179 yards on 34 carries in his first game, against St. Louis. They struggled against Carolina (98 yards) and New England (85) but ran for over 130 against both San Francisco and Detroit.
If Carpenter can’t play this week, John Moffitt would step back in at left guard. The Hawks have run the ball very well when he has played that spot — 195 yards against Minnesota, 174 against the Jets and 176 against the Bears.
Carroll said rookie J.R. Sweezy, who was inactive Sunday and has largely disappeared since starting the opener and playing early in the season, would compete for playing time at both guard spots.
“If Carp has a problem getting back, then we’ll go back to getting Sweezy going, too,” Carroll said. “J.R.’s been banging away at it for some time now. And he’s grown tremendously through the time. So we feel fortunate that he would be available and ready to go, should we need him.”
As for Carpenter, it appears he won’t really have a chance for consistent contribution until he has a full offseason to get his knee healthy.
The Hawks have to hope the knee does not become a degenerative problem that short-circuits his career, as happened to a couple of previous Seattle first-round picks: defensive tackle Marcus Tubbs (knee) and offensive tackle Chris McIntosh (neck).
Okung has overcome his injuries to put together a good third season, and the Hawks are hoping to pair Okung and Carpenter together to create a monster left side. It looks like it is a promising idea, but it remains to be seen whether Carpenter will ever be healthy enough to do that.
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Chris Cluff worked as a sports editor and writer for The Seattle Times for 11 years and has written two books on the Seattle Seahawks. Since leaving the Times, he has written about the Seahawks and Seattle sports for Bleacher Report and the blog he shares with a fellow sportswriter, outsidethepressbox.com. His work can be found on Examiner.com.