RENTON — Seahawks tackle Duane Brown, who is of sound mind and (more or less) body, said something Wednesday that a couple of years ago would have pegged him as delusional or maybe deranged.
The Seahawks’ offensive line, Brown said, has a chance to be the best unit in the NFL.
Repeat: Best unit in the NFL.
The assembled media at the Seahawks’ organized team activity (OTA) did not chortle (well, maybe inwardly, because we’re a cynical bunch), roll their eyes or call for someone to help the clearly distressed man. Although it is a statement clearly borne of the sort of unfettered optimism that prevails in preseason, and maybe even a little wishful thinking, or speaking it into truth, it’s also not so preposterous as to inspire ridicule or astonishment.
Now, chances are the Seahawks won’t field the best O-line in the NFL. The Rams, Saints, Patriots, Colts and Steelers, among others, will have something to say about that. The Seahawks did, after all, give up 51 sacks last year and were ranked 30th in pass protection by Football Outsiders. That tells you that they have much to improve.
But the fact that Brown’s standard — best in the NFL — has at least a plausible chance to become reality, or at least approach it, tells you just how far the Seahawks offensive line has come. Here’s Brown’s quote, prompted by a question about the addition of veteran guard Mike Iupati.
“I mean, our line has the chance to be the best in the league. I think if we keep everyone healthy, the talent that we have, the mixture of youth and experience that we have, we have the chance to really be great, and Mike has been a great addition for us.”
To a follow-up question about how the Seahawk line’s transition from laughing stock to would-be strength has taken place, Brown replied:
“I’ve only been here for a short time, but I think offensive line, you obviously have to have some talent in the room. But outside of that, it’s about effort, it’s about a mentality, and it’s just being in sync. You have to have that kind of camaraderie in the room to be great.
“I think we’ve really, really been able to build that over the last couple of years. I think the mentality of never being denied, of being the most physical group on the field when we take the field on Sundays, I think we’ve shown that. Obviously, there’s a lot of room for improvement, more so in our pass protection, something we’ve definitely put a point of emphasis on this year. The transformation has been great.”
Though Brown’s assessment still has to play out on the field, and the potential for backsliding is ever-present, the unit’s improvement in 2018 was tangible. Most notably, the line played a major role in the resurrection of Seattle’s running game. The Seahawks led the NFL in rushing with 160 yards per game, fulfilling the prime preseason goal of coach Pete Carroll.
Considerable credit has to go to offensive-line coach Mike Solari, who last year replaced the fired Tom Cable and installed a system that was more conducive to the personnel. And after a rotating door of underachieving draft picks and free agents, they finally settled on a group to provide much-needed stability, with Brown as the very large (315 pounds) cornerstone.
“Yeah, we’re very comfortable,” Brown said. “Having a year with him, with the system, you have your lumps that you get over and we ironed it out. And we haven’t missed a beat. … We’re communicating, no one’s confused out there. I think once we get the pads on, the amount of physicality we’ll play with will be demoralizing for defenses, so I’m looking forward to it.”
That group underwent some tweaking in the offseason. Veteran guard J.R. Sweezy signed with Arizona, but less than a week later, the Seahawks essentially made a trade with the Cardinals by signing their veteran guard, Iupati.
And that same day, the Seahawks locked up free agent guard D.J. Fluker with a two-year contract, retaining a player whose energy and ability, when healthy, had been a huge impetus toward last year’s line improvement.
The core of the Seahawks’ offensive line was re-established, with Brown, who was second-team All-Pro, and Germain Ifedi at the tackles, Fluker (and Iupati) at guard and Justin Britt at center.
George Fant is back for his key role as a tight end/tackle eligible. The Seahawks drafted guard Phil Haynes from Wake Forest in the fourth round, and Jamarco Jones, Joey Hunt and Jordan Simmons provide depth and competition.
The Seahawks went 7-3 when Fluker played last year, and 6-2 in the games started by Brown, Sweezy, Fluker, Britt and Ifedi. But a hamstring injury kept Fluker out six games. Throw in the toe injury that landed him on injured reserve in 2017 with the Giants, and the Seahawks have their fingers crossed that he can stay healthy for a healthy portion of the season.
Ifedi made advancements last year, but the Seahawks elected not to pick up the fifth-year option in his contract. Perhaps that motivates Ifedi toward a breakout year as he tries to set himself up for free agency — or maybe Ifedi’s career tendency toward inconsistency resurfaces. Which way that goes will be crucial.
Brown has embraced the role as a mentor to Ifedi. He knows where he stands after watching Ifedi grapple with stalwarts such as Denver’s Von Miller and Chicago’s Khalil Mack at the outset of the 2018 season.
“He faced some of the best outside linebackers and defensive ends the league has to offer, and he held his own,’’ Brown said. “I think this year, he’s going to play with a lot more confidence. And I told him before, it’s all about confidence and experience.”
Iupati has ample experience, but he, too, comes with health concerns after missing six games last year because of a knee injury and ending the season on IR. Like Brown, Iupati has experience with Solari.
“We just got a little bigger, and tougher,’’ Carroll said of Iupati’s addition at the outset of OTAs.
The Seahawks’ offensive line is certainly big — that’s a Solari trademark. They are working hard to project the toughness. They can run block with the best of them. If they improve on their pass blocking — and quarterback Russell Wilson perhaps makes some better decisions on getting rid of the ball — the sack total could drop. It needs to.
If it all falls together — health, improvement and the “in-sync” factor touted by Brown — the Seahawks could really have one of the best lines in the league. Brown is setting the bar at the highest point.
And no one’s laughing.