Among many tough decisions general manager John Schneider and coach Pete Carroll will face in the next several weeks, the Seahawks must figure out their game plan addressing the offensive line.
Three key contributors from Seattle's 2019 unit will become unrestricted free agents, including tackles Germain Ifedi and George Fant. Though Carroll hopes to keep the group intact as much as possible, trying to re-sign either of those players may prove to be difficult and costly.
In the case of Ifedi, the Seahawks made the reasonable choice to void his fifth-year option, paving the way for him to hit free agency. Even after a solid third season working under coach Mike Solari, the organization wasn't ready to commit $10.35 million to him in 2020.
But now, the salary Ifedi would have earned under such circumstances looks like a bargain compared to what he's likely to receive on the open market next month. If Seattle wants to keep him, they'll have to open up the checkbook.
Much to the chagrin of fans, Ifedi hasn't been able to curb his penalty issues, finishing with 13 penalties last season. But he's made substantial improvements in two seasons under the guidance of Solari, playing a key role in Seattle's success running the football and giving up just three sacks over the team's final 11 regular season games in 2019.
When tasked with blocking elite edge rushers, Ifedi held his own more times than not last season, including a stellar performance against Browns defensive end Myles Garrett in Week 6. He was also Seattle's most durable lineman, starting all 18 regular season and playoff games, drawing praise from Carroll at the end of the season.
Set to turn 26 this summer, Ifedi's youth coupled with his recent development, first-round pedigree, and a clean bill of health should lead to plenty of interested suitors. And though he's far from an elite talent, recent history suggests at least one team desperate for line help will back up the Brinks truck to sign him.
Over the past two years, several mid-level tackles have been paid like perennial Pro Bowlers. Back in 2018, the Giants signed Nate Solder to a four-year deal worth $62 million despite no Pro Bowls or All-Pro selections to his name. Last March, the Broncos threw $51 million at the injury prone Ja'Wuan James, who ended up playing in just three games in 2019.
But if you think Denver's cautionary tale will stop teams from throwing ridiculous amounts of money at serviceable linemen, think again.
On Monday, the first domino for this offseason fell, as the Cardinals re-signed former first-round pick D.J. Humphries to a three-year, $45 million contract. The fifth-year tackle out of Florida has played in only 43 out of 64 possible games in his first four seasons and never came close to sniffing a Pro Bowl, but he still received $29 million guaranteed and is slated to earn $15 million per year.
Such a deal could be viewed by some as a mistake by Arizona bidding against itself, but there's no question Humphries would have received similar offers in free agency. In fact, he probably cost himself a few million bucks by choosing not to test the market.
Seattle will now find itself in a similar precarious position. Does the franchise really want to spend that kind of money on a player who still has plenty of upside but hasn't been close to elite in his first four seasons? Probably not, but the answer isn't near as cut and dry as it may seem.
In today's era where spread offenses reign supreme at the high school and college levels and contact has been limited substantially in offseason programs, it's tougher than ever to draft and develop quality offensive linemen. If you need evidence to back up that claim, just look back at the contracts teams have been handing out to merely competent tackles in free agency over the past three years.
For that reason alone, choosing to let Ifedi walk presents risk, even if he's not a top-10 talent at his position.
This year's draft class offers great depth at the tackle position, but if the Seahawks choose to go that route seeking a replacement for Ifedi, throwing a rookie into the fire hasn't typically fared well during the Carroll era. And when considering signing Fant or another outside free agent, there's still a premium that will have to be paid.
Seattle could also choose to roll with Jamarco Jones at right tackle next season, but he only has a handful of NFL starts to his name and most of them came at guard last season. It remains unclear if he's the long-term answer at the position.
Considering the Seahawks other pressing roster needs, the chances of Ifedi returning appear to be slim. But with their other alternatives littered with question marks, it wouldn't be surprising to see Schneider buck previous trends and try to find a way to keep him. Either way, with how the market is trending, he's going to get paid handsomely regardless of his landing spot.