Is Seahawks’ Okung the best tackle in the NFL?

When Pete Carroll and John Schneider made the final cuts to their first Seahawks roster in 2010, they had a problem when it came to making decisions on their offensive line.

It wasn’t that they had tough choices to make because they liked everybody, it was that they weren’t sure they had enough NFL-caliber linemen to function. Most teams carry between eight and 10 linemen on their 53-man roster, yet when Schneider and Carroll looked at what they had, they saw five, maybe six players they liked well enough to keep around.

“We really had six guys that we knew could be on the roster at the final cut, and we were stretching it with that,” Carroll said. “So this is a much different group.”

How different?

Well for starters, the Seahawks have two of the five starting linemen on the NFC Pro Bowl squad in left tackle Russell Okung and center Max Unger. And it goes much deeper than those two. Paul McQuistan is a dependable starter at multiple positions — he’s playing left guard for now, but has also started at right guard, right tackle and left tackle. Breno Giacomini helps give the Seahawks a nasty edge at right tackle, though he sometimes has trouble not crossing the line, rookie J.R. Sweezy has played well enough to overtake John Moffitt, another starting-caliber player, at right guard.

Add to that improved depth all over the line from the likes of Moffitt, Lemuel Jeanpierre and Frank Omiayle and the Seahawks are a better situation up front than they have been for years, even with last year’s first-round pick James Carpenter on injured reserve.

“We’re putting together something great,” Okung said.

This is quite a welcome change for a franchise that has gone through multiple offensive line coaches, countless veterans signed in free agency, and a handful of draft picks trying to recapture the magic Seattle had on the O-line during its Super Bowl run in 2005. And while it is too soon to say this line is as good as that group led by Walter Jones and Steve Hutchinson, this year’s line, which has had two years to grow under offensive line coach Tom Cable, might be Seattle’s best since Hutchinson left in 2006.

So while Russell Wilson and Marshawn Lynch have been getting a lot of credit for Seattle’s offensive resurgence, and for good reason, let’s not forget the guys doing the dirty work up front.

And nobody symbolizes Seattle’s line improvement more than Okung, who has grown this season from talented and promising yet injury-prone tackle to one of the game’s best at his position. According to Stats, Inc., Okung has yielded just one sack this season, and he is the biggest reason why Seattle has neutralized some of the NFL’s best pass rushers. Of the 17 players to accumulate double-digit sacks this season, the Seahawks have faced 10 of them. Those 10 players have managed just five sacks against Seattle.

Did you see what San Francisco’s Aldon Smith, owner of 19.5 sacks, did last week against Seattle? No? Well you’re hardly alone. Smith, like so many other elite pass rushers, was almost invisible against Seattle because Okung took him out of the game.

“Did you see what he did to 99 last week?” fullback Michael Robinson said of Okung’s matchup with Smith. “And in the first game, you should have seen what he did to number 94 (Justin Smith). The fact that Russell’s been healthy, that’s helped. It was never anything athletic or as far as his power, it was always, just be healthy. I trained in the offseason with Michael Johnson, defensive end for the Bengals, and he straight up told me, ‘Russell is the best tackle in the National Football League.’”

Left tackles are such a valued commodity in the NFL because they protect quarterbacks, football’s most valuable commodity, from pass rushers with ill intentions. And few players, if any, have done that as well as Okung this season. Yet as comfortable as Okung is mixing it up with Aldon Smith, Julius Peppers, Cameron Wake or Clay Matthews, he still isn’t ready to talk about his stellar play.

“This is too much man, I’m uncomfortable,” Okung said with a smile when reporters surrounded him to ask about being named a Pro Bowl starter. “This is too much, I’m not used to this … I hope you guys know I hate this.”

Okung may hate the spotlight, but he relishes chances to face off against the game’s best pass rushers, and just like the Seahawks legend he replaced, he is winning those battles far more often than he’s losing them.

“Russell Okung has improved as much as anybody on our team,” Carroll said. “He’s really playing first-flight football and doing a great job.”

Even better for the Seahawks, Okung isn’t the only one improving. After years of struggles, countless roster moves, a line few coaches and quite a few injuries, the entire line is leaps and bounds better than it was when Carroll and Schneider arrived. To pay them the ultimate compliment, Seattle’s linemen are playing so well you don’t really notice them.

And hey, that should sit just fine with Okung.

Herald Writer John Boyle: jboyle@heraldnet.com.

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