With Seahawks training camp kicking off later this month, Seahawks.com is taking a look at some of the team's most intriguing storylines, position battles and players heading into the 2019 season. Today, we look at the offensive line, a unit which, thanks to continuity and improvements shown last season, has high expectations for itself in 2019. Tomorrow we continue with the secondary, a position group that includes a couple of key position battles.
While continuity is often talked about as a key factor for offensive line success, few teams manage to have it year over year in the NFL, in part because it's getting harder and harder for teams to find enough quality linemen.
As Seahawks general manager John Schneider has pointed out on a few occasions, more and more elite athletes who combine the right mix of size, strength and agility are figuring out that there's more glamour and money to be had in sacking quarterbacks than there is in protecting them. Evaluating college linemen has also gotten trickier thanks to the proliferation of spread offenses in college, particularly for teams like Seattle that still want to run the ball.
In other words, it's hard to build a quality starting five in the NFL, and it's even harder for teams that manage to do so to actually keep those players together for very long. So it's no surprise that the Seahawks are pretty excited about the prospects for their 2019 line considering they return four of five starters from a unit that helped the offense rank first in rushing yards last season (160.0 yards per game) and sixth in scoring (26.8 points per game). Even more encouraging, the offense got better as the season went along following a slow start, including a 30.0 points-per-game average over the final eight games, which ranked third in the league during that span.
Back in 2019 are starting left tackle Duane Brown, center Justin Britt, right guard D.J. Fluker and right tackle Germain Ifedi. Left guard J.R. Sweezy left in free agency, but his likely replacement is another established veteran, former Pro-Bowler Mike Iupati, who happened to have his best year playing under Mike Solari, Seattle's current offensive line coach.
"Our line has a chance to be the best in the league, I think," Brown said in May. "If we keep everyone healthy, the talent we have, the mixture of youth and experience that we have, we have a chance to really be great, and Mike (Iupati) has been a really great addition for us."
And it's not just that those four starters are comfortable with each other having spent last season together, it's also that they now have a year working under Solari and offensive coordinator Brian Schottenheimer, both of whom were new hires in 2018.
"We're very comfortable having a year with the system," Brown said. "You have your lumps that you get over, we ironed it out—you saw the production we had throughout the year—and this year, we're better for it. This time of year is all about getting the information, getting back up to speed on things, and we haven't missed a beat. We added Mike (Iupati), he stepped in and we haven't missed a beat. We're communicating everything well, no one is confused out there. I think once we get the pads on, the amount of physicality we will play with will be demoralizing to defenses, so I'm looking forward to it."
As Brown mentioned, there were some issues to work through most notably the six sacks allowed in Weeks 1 and 2, a pair of road losses to open the 2018 season. And for the line to live up it its own high expectations, the pass protection will need to improve. But with the right mix of attitude—or wanting to "be demoralizing to defenses"—continuity and talent, Seattle's line has a chance to be a big factor in 2019. And it's not just the on-field production that unit will help provide, that veteran group has also taken on a strong leadership role for an offense that is relatively young outside of the line and quarterback Russell Wilson.
"You look at the offensive line—I've got to say in my 22 years coaching, I don't think I've been around a more vocal, veteran group than those guys," Schottenheimer said. "The addition of Mike Iupati along with Duane (Brown) and (D.J. Fluker), Justin Britt and Germain (Ifedi), it's fun to come to work with those guys."
If everyone stays healthy, there might not be much drama in terms of starting jobs during training camp and the preseason—though you can never assume any job is safe in Seahawks coach Pete Carroll's "always compete" world. But even if the starting five of Brown, Iupati, Britt, Fluker and Ifedi stays together throughout camp, there will be good competition to keep an eye on when it comes to roster spots. The Seahawks don't just feel good about the starting group; they also like the depth they have with this year's line.
In addition to the five players already mentioned, the Seahawks have Ethan Pocic, a versatile former second-round pick who has started games at both guard positions and who can also play center and tackle; Joey Hunt, who played well at center in place of Britt at times last season; Phil Haynes, a fourth-round pick in this year's draft; Marcus Martin, an experienced veteran added in free agency this year; Jordan Simmons, who helped pave the way for two of the Seahawks' best rushing performances last season while filling in for an injured Fluker; Jamarco Jones, a young tackle who showed promise in training camp as a rookie before suffering a season-ending injury; and George Fant, a player who is both a valuable backup at both tackle spots and an important part of the offense as a jumbo tight end.
Nothing is certain in the NFL, but with a lot of depth supplementing an experienced returning group, it's easy to understand why the Seahawks have high hopes for their line heading into training camp.
"We should count on those guys up front to be really good now," Carroll said following the 2018 season. "They should be improved and just a step forward with the system and all the things we asked them to do differently. They'll be better."
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