One of the biggest reasons for optimism for the Seahawks in 2019 was a veteran offensive line that had improved markedly in 2018 thanks to key personnel additions and a change in coaches from Tom Cable to Mike Solari.
The Seahawks’ opening-day lineup in 2019 featured four of the same starters as the 2018 unit that helped them lead the NFL in rushing yards. That continuity had some on the line predicting great things.
“Our line has a chance to be the best in the league, I think,’’ veteran left tackle Duane Brown said during organized team activities in the spring.
But from the start, things didn’t really go as planned.
The Seahawks struggled to run the ball in a surprisingly close opening-day win against the Bengals. While most of the offensive numbers eventually looked similar to 2018 — 4.6 yards per carry this year compared to 4.8 last year, 48 sacks allowed this year compared to 51 last year — injuries proved hard to overcome.
The Seahawks started eight five-man combinations, including a different offensive-line alignment in each of the final five games.
By the second half of the divisional loss to the Packers, the Seahawks were going with a rookie, Phil Haynes, at left guard who had never played an offensive snap in the NFL (he missed the preseason).
As the Seahawks enter the offseason, the line’s makeup in 2020 ranks as one of their bigger question marks.
Right tackle Germain Ifedi, the only player to start all 18 games on the line (in fact, he didn’t miss a snap), is an unrestricted free agent, as are left guard Mike Iupati and George Fant, the de facto sixth lineman due to his role as an eligible lineman/tight end.
Brown is 34 and dealt with nagging biceps and knee issues much of the year, eventually having knee surgery that caused him to miss the final regular-season game and the first playoff game before gutting it out against the Packers.
Brown has no guaranteed money left on his contract and has cap hits of $12.5 million and $13 million the next two years. But he made it clear via Twitter on Tuesday he intends to return for the 2020 season, writing “time to get the body right then it’s back to the grind.’’
Coach Pete Carroll said Monday he hopes the Seahawks can keep as much continuity up front as possible.
“It is important,’’ Carroll said. “I hope we can keep our guys connected. I don’t want to see a big change there.’’
But with unrestricted free agents, anything can happen.
Ifedi, the team’s first pick in 2016, has been a frequent target of fan criticism. But according to Pro Football Focus, he graded out the best of Seattle’s offensive linemen in the postseason, and his durability alone — he’s missed just four games in four years — might make him attractive on the open market.
Fant said Monday he wants to be a starter on the left side, saying he felt he’s proven he can do it in the starts he’s gotten through the years, including four this season when Brown was injured.
If Ifedi gets away, maybe the Seahawks can re-sign Fant to play the right side.
Who knows what will happen with Iupati? He will be 33 in May and missed the playoff games with issues related to a stinger, leaving his future uncertain.
Jamarco Jones filled in for Iupati, and coaches seem high on his potential.
“We have really good young guys, a couple guys got banged up this year that you haven’t seen a whole lot,’’ Carroll said. “Jordan Simmons (who impressed in 2018 but missed 2019 with a knee injury), (Demetrius) Knox (a rookie out of Ohio State who did not play in 2019), those guys coming back, the competition will really be good. Jamarco did well. To see Phil play like that too, that was really, really helpful for us going forward.’’
There’s also the question of what will happen at center. Justin Britt suffered an ACL injury Oct. 27 at Atlanta, and while Carroll said Britt is “making really good progress,’’ he also said it’s unclear exactly when Britt would be back from an injury that usually has at least a 9-to-10-month recovery time.
His replacement, Joey Hunt, is a restricted free agent and would seem likely to be back. And the Seahawks could have other options at center already on the roster in Ethan Pocic, assuming he recovers from a core muscle injury that required surgery and ended his season early, and Haynes, who got some work in practice at center late in the season.
Even if Ifedi gets away and Iupati doesn’t return, the Seahawks could conceivably field pretty much the same line as it did this year.
On Monday that’s what Carroll seemed to be indicating he wanted to happen, even if Seattle will undoubtedly explore free agency and the draft for depth, competition and possible upgrades.
“I think the whole group could be a really solid group coming back,’’ Carroll said. “I would like to see the guys who have been playing for us to stay with us.”