Even at 33 years old and 315 pounds wide, Seahawks left tackle and vocal leader Duane Brown doesn't move like an offensive lineman. Here's why.
The race started at the end of an otherwise unremarkable training-camp practice in August, with fans sitting along the grassy berm at the Virginia Mason Athletic Center, facing a pair of practice fields. They watched as their team’s offensive linemen and quarterbacks volunteered to run sprints underneath the surprisingly sweltering Seattle sun.
Justin Britt was running. Joey Hunt was running. Ethan Pocic was running. Germain Ifedi was running. Alex McGough was running. Russell Wilson was running.
Duane Brown was winning.
Or, to put it differently: the 6-foot-4, 315-pound, 33-year-old offensive lineman was winning. He was out-running Wilson and all the rest — despite his weight, despite his age, despite the perception of his position.
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Turns out, the 11th-year NFL veteran was never a natural offensive lineman. He started both as a tight end and a defensive end during his prep career at Hermitage High School in Richmond, Va., eventually accepting a full-ride scholarship as a tight end — not an offensive tackle — to in-state power Virginia Tech.
Then, and now, Duane Brown could do much more than block.
“He was a phenomenal athlete,” said former Hermitage head coach Patrick Kane. “For us, tight end was a factor but on defense he was just unblockable. He was 6-4, 240 his senior year.
“He was one of the best players on the basketball team. He threw shot put and discus and actually did some high-jumping on the track team. He was unreal.”
Two weeks before the start of his redshirt sophomore season at Virginia Tech, Brown’s coaches were confronted with a conundrum. It wore an NC State jersey. Its name was Mario Williams. That’s the same dominant 6-6 defensive end who was taken by the Houston Texans with the first pick of the 2006 NFL draft less than a year later.
The Hokies didn’t have anyone athletic enough to block him.
How about the 270-pound second-string tight end?
“They had kind of put the bug in my ear (about moving to offensive tackle) during the spring going into that season. I fought it for a while,” Brown said last week. “I still had a tight end’s mindset. But they told me I had a quicker chance to get onto the field and start (at right tackle). They worked with me. I got a lot of work in in those two weeks. It worked out pretty good.”
Fourteen days after practicing for the first time at a new position, Brown lined up at right tackle in Virginia Tech’s 2005 season opener, across from the premier pass-rusher in all of college football. Brown was underweight, inexperienced — and nervous. Very nervous.
“It was inexplicable, man,” Brown said with a grin, standing at his locker. “It was a prime-time game. He was a very highly touted player. There were a lot of eyes on me that game and I was very, very nervous. But it was a great time for me.”
In one of the most memorable defensive seasons in ACC history, Williams terrorized to the tune of 27.5 tackles for loss and 14.5 sacks in 2005.
Against a second-string tight end in his season opener, Williams managed four tackles, zero tackles for loss and zero sacks. Brown had stumbled onto a second calling.
“The first pass rush (against Williams) was a test for me,” Brown recalled. “It was a third-and-long and everybody knew we were passing. I was able to stay in front of him and move my feet well. I didn’t get overpowered. After that I kind of settled in.”
The Seahawks veteran has been an offensive tackle ever since. And what served him then continues to serve him now, 13 years later.
Brown — the high-school high-jumper — may hit like an offensive lineman, but he doesn’t move like one.
“He is really athletic,” Seahawks coach Pete Carroll said. “He (would be) especially athletic for a guy that’s 23 years old — he moves well for anybody. It’s a great tribute to how he’s approached the game over a long period of time. He’s extremely well-conditioned. The guy is very strong. He never misses his workouts; he never misses a chance to stay on top of his game.
“We’ve been surprised at how consistent he’s been able to be and really how special he is athletically.”
That’s why you see Brown — who has started 155 games in nearly 11 NFL seasons — pulling from left to right and paving the way for Seahawk running backs. It’s why you saw him sprint 7 yards to throw the block that freed rookie running back Rashaad Penny for a 20-yard score two weeks ago against San Francisco.
It’s why the Seattle coaching staff trusts him to execute tosses and sweeps to the outside.
Brown is 33 years old and 315 pounds wide, and it doesn’t matter.
“I’ve been blessed to be able to maintain my athleticism throughout the years,” Brown said. “I try to train in the offseason and during the season to maintain my speed and quickness as much as possible. That’s (been) my biggest asset, I think, throughout my career.
“Obviously the team utilizes me a lot on toss plays and things like that to get me out on the edge pretty quickly to block some of the small defenders out in space. I’ve been very fortunate in being able to maintain that skillset.”
The Seahawks are fortunate, too. Prior to the 2018 season, they signed Brown to a three-year, $36.5 million contract extension. That athleticism and physicality was an undeniable factor in their decision.
But Seattle effectively locked up Brown’s leadership, too.
“I think having him has kind of evolved our attitude,” Seahawks center Justin Britt said last week. “He just brought a voice and a presence that can’t be denied. You have somebody like that — we had it with Max (Unger) and Russell Okung. When you lose a piece like that, you kind of lose the voice of your group.
“I wanted to be that whenever I first moved to center, but I was trying to figure out my role and how to play center. I think picking up Duane has been the biggest thing that has happened to us in the past couple of years up front.”
Behind Brown’s steady presence at left tackle, the Seahawks lead the NFL with 153.8 rushing yards per game, more than 16 yards better than the second-place Carolina Panthers. Most recently, they churned out 214 rushing yards and 5.1 yards per carry in a Monday night win over the Minnesota Vikings.
To be clear, Brown is far from the only factor in Seattle’s recent rushing resurgence.
But if the regular season is a race, the Seahawks — winners of four straight — are sprinting to the finish line.
The rest may be running.
Duane Brown is busy winning.
“Duane’s been a huge, huge … one of the biggest gifts, in my opinion, for our football team since he came here,” Wilson said. “He’s just a tremendous leader. He pushes everybody, he practices, he works hard and he’s as good as it gets. I don’t know anybody that can play better at left tackle than he can.”