In mid-June, NFL talk is cheap, cheaper than sand in Egypt. That’s why no one was taking too seriously left tackle Duane Brown’s recent claim that the Seattle Seahawks’ offensive line might be best in the league in 2019. No one snickered — Brown is the most powerful Seahawk, so the threat of sudden harm is always in the consciousness around him — but the remark seemed hyperbolic.
“Our line has the chance to be the best in the league,” Brown said. “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.”
Then right tackle Germain Ifedi backed him up.
“Not to throw gas on what he said, but I don’t think it was wrong,” said Ifedi Tuesday after the first day of a three-day mini-camp. “It’s true we know we can be the best. We don’t think we have any weaknesses; I wholeheartedly believe that.”
Should that prove out, it would upend one of the most reliable tropes in Seattle. It would be the equivalent of the Mariners making the playoffs, a commuter finding a parking space downtown, or Howard Schultz giving the city $350 million, the sale price he received for the Sonics, by way of apology.
These are things we know will not happen, and thus we can conduct our lives accordingly, free of disturbances that cannot be explained.
Bashing on the Seahawks’ offensive line is customary and comforting, like saying, “Howya doing?” to someone whose welfare is the least of your concerns. It is simply what one does when nothing else occurs.
Last season, of course, raised a distinct threat of disturbance.
The Seahawks’ re-commitment to their tragically out-of-fashion running game made them the No. 1 rushing team in the NFL, and the biggest surprise in a 10-6 season that was good for the playoffs.
Credit went to new assistant coaches Brian Schottenheimer and Mike Solari and, um, the linemen. Fortunately for cultural equilibrium, the Seahawks also gave up 51 sacks, the most in quarterback Russell Wilson’s career and fourth-highest in the league.
So it was plain that the line’s improvement was only a ripple in the space-time continuum, not a tear.
Brown’s first full season in Seattle was a big part of the improvement. The return of J.R. Sweezy at left guard, and new addition D.J. Fluker at right guard, were upticks. Center Justin Britt was his usual consistent self.
Then there was Ifedi, the former first-round draft choice and the biggest question mark.
He did … OK. Certainly better than in 2017.
By all accounts, including his own, he took his job more intensely and with more humility.
“You have to accept the challenge every day to get better,” he said. “Not lax any day, whether you’re tired or beat down, whether (hurts) nag at you.
“You have to be able take the coaching. Not always gonna love it, but it really does help you. If you don’t accept the challenge, there’s nothing a coach can do for you.”
He even partly remedied his most aggravating public affliction, penalties. Instead of leading the league as he did in 2017, Ifedi was tied for 10th with 10 (six pre-snap, four holding, one unsportsmanlike conduct, with one not accepted).
No one thing made a difference.
“Entering year three, I think you should look to improve everything,” he said. “I wasn’t a master at anything; I would challenge any second-year lineman who says he’s a master at anything. Everything has to improve — run, pass, communication, leverage, penalties. Everything had to improve, and everything did.
“It’s a tough league. Guys are looking to expose you.”
Some guys did expose Ifedi, at least in the eyes of the evaluators at Pro Football Focus. Here was the site’s post-season evaluation (career-high PFF Grade: 55.6 in 2018):
“The broken record continues to play. Another 2016 first-rounder chock full of potential, traits, tools, etc., Ifedi has yet to turn any of it into high-end, stable production in the NFL. His career-best grade (55.6) is a career-low for other starters in the NFL, and his three-year overall grade (52.8) ranks 63rd among the 66 offensive tackles who had 1,200-plus offensive snaps in the last three years, barely eclipsing the efforts of Bobby Hart (52.1), Julie’n Davenport (51.2) and Breno Giacomini (45.4). His pass protection has improved of late, but he’s a complete liability in the run game — a bad thing to have as your Achilles heel in an offense that values the run more than any other team in the NFL.”
Whether you are a supporter or a skeptic regarding PFF, there must have been something to it, because the Seahawks declined to pick up Ifedi’s fifth-year option.
All first-round picks are eligible for the one-year extension, but it’s up to the club. It’s not unusual for teams to pass — 11 of Ifedi’s 2016 classmates were similarly non-tendered, many of them more highly regarded — but unless he really amps up in his final rookie-contract season, he is likely to follow fellow former Seahawks first-rounders linebacker Bruce Irvin and offensive lineman James Carpenter into free agency.
Ifedi betrayed no concern about the decision.
“I had no reaction,” he said. “Reading into their not picking it up, I think football’s a business, man. They made a business decision, and I can’t feel one way or another about it.
“It’s football. Nothing’s promised. Could be my last day out here.”
However he may feel about it deep down, Ifedi is invested in the here and now, regardless of whether he plays next year with the Seahawks or someone else. Hence his enthusiasm for Brown’s marketing campaign.
No objections were heard from coach Pete Carroll.
“I’m glad he’s thinking that way,” he said. “I got no problem with him thinking like that. I don’t know if we’re setting our sights on that way. Maybe they are in the (linemen’s) room, which is great.”
Becoming the best will be hard for this group, because they have to improve pass protection despite being built like the snow plows required of a team that leads the league in rushing. That includes newcomer left guard Mike Iupati, who replaces Sweezy, lost in free agency to Arizona.
The 10-year vet is 32 and 340 pounds supported by oft-injured legs. Carroll apparently is counting on the big guys to buy Wilson some time, but not a lot.
“Mike’s 340-something and D.J. is 3-and-a-bunch,” he said. “If they can keep the pocket stout at the line of scrimmage and give Russ the space he needs, he can do a lot of damage. So I’m going to look for that area to be the one that improves the most.”
If it happens for the O-line, then the Seahawks will have done away with a civic cornerstone.
“We have the talent, we have the work ethic, why not us?” Ifedi said. “I don’t think (Brown) is blowing smoke. I think we all believe this. I think the sky is the limit.”
Again, the talk of mid-June is cheap. But if they back it up, we’ll need to find fresh targets for civic lamentations and wailing. The Mariners can’t do it alone.
Art Thiel is co-founder of sportspressnw.com.