So I was working on this post about the Seattle Seahawks and how excited people seem to be about their many high profile offseason acquisitions. Then Albert Breer reported yesterday that the 49ers are in discussions with Mike Iupati about a potential contract extension. This wasn’t altogether surprising news, since 10 days ago I wrote that Iupati was the most likely 49er to get locked up long-term after San Francisco agreed to an extension with Anthony Davis.
It sounds obvious — lock up the talent in the trenches and reap the rewards. Continuity is of vital importance for any offensive line, and everything gets easier for the skill position guys on the outside when the inside is taken care of. The 49ers have shown a willingness to pay for quality starters at every position on their offensive line, a group that allowed an inexperienced quarterback and a veteran running back (it seems crazy, but Frank Gore’s age of 29 puts him on the older end of the spectrum for his position) to thrive this past season.
I’ll leave the contract particulars to the experts — the top five earners at Iupati’s position (Carl Nicks, Logan Mankins, Jahri Evans, Andy Levitre and Davin Joseph) make between $7.5 million and $9.5 million annually, and Iupati scored higher than all of them last year according to Pro Football Focus. Many believe that teams shouldn’t overpay for guards, since they don’t carry as much of the responsibility for keeping quarterbacks upright as tackles. However, Eric Branch notes that Trent Baalke doesn’t consider Iupati to be an ordinary guard.
Tellingly, Baalke recalled the precise date (Sept. 17, 2009) he made the trip to the University of Idaho to meet Iupati and watch five of his game tapes. Seven months after that visit, the 49ers made Iupati the No. 17 overall pick in the draft. A rare bird? A first-team All-Pro last year, Iupati is one of three guards taken with a top-20 pick since 2002.
“In scouting, you live for those moments when you find someone that comes out at his position that isn’t likely to come out for another five to 10 years,” Baalke said in October. “… I don’t know that (Iupati) is a once-in-a-generation player, but he’s certainly not an every-year guy. You just don’t find men that big; that move that well; that are that powerful on a consistent basis year in and year out.”
The 49ers have been focusing on building the best offensive line in football for a while now. Out of the five starters, three were drafted in the first round by San Francisco. They spent good money at the center position when they signed Jonathan Goodwin before the 2011 season, and caught lightning in a bottle when Alex Boone got his life together and allowed his enormous physical size and talents to shine.
Back to the team I was originally planning on writing about today — the Seahawks. When one analyzes what they’ve done since the season ended, it really begins and ends with the Percy Harvin trade (2013 first and seventh round picks, 2014 mid-round selection) and subsequent contract (six years, $67 million, $14.5 million guaranteed). Since then the Seahawks have signed five unrestricted free agents: DE Cliff Avril, DE Michael Bennett, DT Tony McDaniel, QB Brady Quinn and CB Antoine Winfield. Seattle has 10 draft picks, their first three being the 56th, 87th and 123rd overall. Harvin is now the highest-paid player on the team, and the Seahawks were extremely aggressive in free agency in part because they can’t count on any of their draft picks stepping in and producing in their rookie seasons.
The Seahawks’ offensive line has two excellent players (center Max Unger and left tackle Russell Okung) and not much else. Their right tackle, Breno Giacomini, was the fourth worst tackle who played over 1,000 snaps in 2012 according to PFF. Their guards, led by Paul McQuistan and James Carpenter (who has missed 16 games due to injury in his first two seasons), aren’t very good.
Even though the perception is that the 49ers and Seahawks are directly against each other and each other alone, they’ve gone about building and reinforcing their rosters in different ways. The 49ers want to maul the other team into submission and possess the ball for long periods of time on offense. On defense it’s about setting the edge and allowing the best middle linebacker tandem in football protect the middle. The Seahawks are building the equivalent of a high-flying basketball offense that scores early in the shot clock, one which doesn’t need five top-notch offensive linemen because Russell Wilson is so adept at avoiding and eluding pressure. Then, once Seattle builds a large lead, they look forward to crushing the opponent’s passing game with waves of pass rushers and three fantastic corners.
I’m not saying either side is smarter; with the current salary cap teams can’t load up everywhere. The prudent way to get beter quickly is to emphasize the talent you already have, since five-year plans don’t exist for coaches and general managers in professional sports. We’re all aware of the growing rivalry between these two teams both on the field and off, but the contrasting styles they’ll bring to the 2013 season should be fascinating.