Commentary: There’s a critical element that means more to the Seahawks than Earl Thomas

With Seahawks Training Camp a few days away, the Earl Thomas contract situation and potential holdout will continue to dominate the headlines and discussion.

But with all due respect to Earl, this training camp isn’t just about him.

I understand that Earl Thomas’s value should not be underestimated, and that the Seahawks are clearly a better team with him than without him. But it’s also my opinion that there’s a bigger priority toward the success or failure of this team than signing their All-Pro free safety to a contract extension.

That priority – first and foremost – is the Seahawks running game and its offensive line. That’s what will determine how many games this season will be won or lost.

With or without Earl Thomas, we all realize that the Seahawks defense will likely give up more points than it has the last few years. Sure, they bring back a bunch of quality starters, but they’re still losing at least four key starters in Sherman, Bennett, Avril and Chancellor. And while the Hawks might have capable replacements with a high-upside and potential, you simply can’t replace that kind of talent overnight.

So all of that added pressure gets shifted to the offense: To sustain drives. To keep the defense well-rested on the sidelines. And to score enough points to stay competitive.

You cannot do that without an effective running game and offensive line!

To be clear: Seahawks running backs carried the ball 168 times last season on “1st and 10” or “1st and Goal.” Fifty-six of those carries went for no gain or negative yards. That’s 33 percent - or one out of every three first-down carries! Add in any first-down penalties, and no wonder why we felt the offense was consistently behind the 8-ball last year.

It’s also unfathomable that Russell Wilson, one of the most elusive quarterbacks in the league, has been sacked 42 or more times every single season for the last five years. The Seahawks have ranked in the bottom third of the league in sacks allowed the last three seasons too!

It might be even more hard to believe that Wilson has actually started every game, despite taking all that punishment. But that kind of good fortune can’t last forever.

The Seahawks front office clearly realized that, hence its major point of emphasis this offseason: Drafting a running back in the first round of the draft (Rashaad Penny). Taking the best blocking tight end in the draft (Will Dissly). Signing a proven interior run blocker in free agency (D.J. Fluker). And replacing their offensive coordinator and their offensive line coach, both with a strong history in running the football.

I’m optimistic that all those changes, including getting rid of the zone-blocking scheme, will produce better results.

Again, I’d love Earl Thomas to remain a Seahawk. And starting this Thursday, I can’t wait to see all the other position competitions playout.

But when it’s all said and done, Pete Carroll’s “winning formula” will be put to the test: The offensive line and running backs will be under the microscope the most.