RENTON, Wash. – Seahawks linebacker K.J. Wright has a general philosophy about offensive linemen.
“They all look the same to me,’’ Wright said. “Just big dudes who put their bodies on you.’’
Some NFL observers might argue that the Seahawks have been testing the theory that you can dress up just about anyone as an offensive lineman and try to make it work.
Seattle this season is paying its offensive line just over $13 million, 30th out of the 32 NFL teams in spending on that position, according to OvertheCap.com. And roughly half of that is tied up in one player, left tackle Russell Okung, a 2010 first-round draft pick who has a salary-cap number of $7.2 million.
“So basically, it is fill-in type players at every other spot,’’ said Jason Fitzgerald, who writes about NFL financial issues for OvertheCap.com. That’s in stark contrast to the team the Seahawks will face Sunday at CenturyLink Field, the Arizona Cardinals, in a game that figures to go a long way toward deciding who will win the NFC West.
Since Bruce Arians took over as Arizona’s coach in 2013, the Cardinals have spent heavy capital on draft picks and free-agent money to rebuild their offensive line. This year they are paying $29.4 million for their offensive line, fourth in the NFL. Making the most are left tackle Jared Veldheer (signed as a free agent to a five-year, $35 million deal in 2014) and left guard Mike Iupati, a former 49er (and Idaho Vandal) signed before this season to a five-year deal worth up to $40 million.
Arizona also used its first-round picks in 2013 (guard Jonathan Cooper, now a starter on the right side) and 2015 (tackle D.J. Humphries, a backup) on offensive linemen.
“The Cardinals seem to be adding a big piece per year to the line,’’ Fitzgerald said.
The Seahawks, by contrast, haven’t paid a significant salary to a free-agent offensive lineman since signing Robert Gallery to a three-year, $15 million deal in 2011. They have used just one draft pick above the fourth round on an offensive lineman since 2011 (Justin Britt in the second round in 2014).
And is it just that simple that Arizona suddenly has the best offense it has had in years, ranked third overall with an average of 417.4 yards per game, while the Seahawks often have been stuck in neutral, ranked 19th in total yards at 353.1?
Certainly, it’s a factor. Pro Football Focus, for instance, last week rated the Seahawks’ offensive line as the worst in the NFL while putting Arizona at No. 9 and calling it “much improved.’’
It’s probably not fair, though, to say one team has simply placed a greater value on offensive linemen than the other. As is always the case in the NFL, the salary cap – and making decisions to best fit the personnel of the team within its limitations – has played a significant factor in how the teams have evolved up front.
“You can’t pay everyone with the salary cap, and the Seahawks are built on a very strong defense,’’ said Joel Corry, a former NFL agent who writes for CBSSports.com.
“They’ve made a conscious choice to pay players on defense, so something has to give.’’
Indeed, the Seahawks this year are spending $75.6 million on defense, second-most in the NFL. The Seahawks conversely rank 27th in offensive spending at $52.6 million, most of it tied up in Okung, tight end Jimmy Graham, running back Marshawn Lynch and quarterback Russell Wilson.
Arizona is spending almost evenly on each side of the ball ($65 million on defense, $64 million on offense).
As Fitzgerald notes, though, part of Arizona’s spending plan with its offensive line was to protect one of its other heavy investments, quarterback Carson Palmer. At age 35, he remains one of the better passers in the NFL but barely has rushed for more yards in his 13-year career (418) than Wilson has this season (303).
“When you look at the Cardinals’ offensive line, you are seeing a team that has spent both draft capital and free-agent dollars to try to keep Carson Palmer from getting injured,’’ Fitzgerald said.
The Cardinals also signed Iupati to boost a rushing attack that ranked near the bottom of the NFL the past two seasons. His addition and that of veteran free agent Chris Johnson have the Cardinals rushing for roughly 40 yards per game more than a season ago (124.8 per game, ninth in the NFL).
The Seahawks, meanwhile, let veterans James Carpenter and Breno Giacomini leave in free agency the past two years and traded center Max Unger (making just over $6 million annually) to get Graham.
Observers say the Seahawks appear to have been banking on the mobility and talents of Wilson and the other skill players to try to get away with, as Corry put it, “cutting corners on the offensive line.’’
The Seahawks also have been banking on continuing the success they have had finding diamonds in the rough to fill out the offensive line. That includes right guard J.R. Sweezy, a seventh-round pick in 2012 who played defense in college before making the switch with the Seahawks. The team is trying this year to replace Unger – a two-time Pro Bowler – with a pair of players who entered the league as undrafted free agents, Drew Nowak and Patrick Lewis.
Coach Pete Carroll has said consistently the Seahawks knew going with younger players this year would require some patience and said Wednesday that, “There has been a turn in the last three or four weeks, and so hopefully we can continue to see that improve.”
Corry, though, said trying to continue to make that work every year “is putting a lot of pressure on (offensive line coach) Tom Cable.”
With the trade deadline past, the Seahawks’ offensive line is what it is for this season. Next year it figures to be different – Okung and Sweezy will be free agents at the end of the season, for instance.
Cable said the future, and how the Seahawks’ offensive line evolved to where it is, are not his concern. He’s not looking back, he said, and he’s not looking past Sunday.
“I don’t care about the big picture, what the stats say,” he said. “If we are good enough to win the game, then none of that other stuff matters to me, because that’s what we do this for.”
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