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Russell Okung is the highest-paid left tackle in the NFL, and that’s why the Seahawks are playing coy

NFL: Indianapolis Colts at Denver Broncos Isaiah J. Downing-USA TODAY Sports

When Pete Carroll and John Schneider made Russell Okung the first pick of their tenure with the Seattle Seahawks, they did so with the hope that he’d become the best left tackle in the NFL. Back when rookie deals were negotiable and first-year players could often become among the highest-paid at their positions, Okung signed a six-year, $48 million deal, and he went on to have an above-decent career with the Seahawks.

Okung’s career in Seattle was marred by injuries (24 games missed) and penalties, albeit while being very good at blocking. What was clear from the beginning and is undeniable now is that he’s nowhere near the class of Trent Williams, the Washington Redskins tackle who went two picks ahead of Okung in 2010. He may be on par with Bryan Bulaga, who was the 23rd overall selection by the Green Bay Packers, though he exclusively plays on the right side. Okung is also a step below Tyron Smith, Terron Armstead, Joe Thomas, Andrew Whitworth, Jason Peters, and at least several more.

Oh well, he’s now making more per year than all of them.

Okung signed a four-year, $53 million deal with the Los Angeles Chargers that pays him $13.25 million/season with $25 million guaranteed. It tops Williams’ deal by $50,000 per season. It’s $250,000 above the extension Armstead signed a year ago. The cap has gone up, it will go up again next season, it does not mean that the NFL teams view Okung as the best left tackle in the league. That doesn’t make it not interesting that Okung is ripping off bigger checks than any of those other guys.

Acting as his own agent a year ago, Okung traveled for awhile before he finally signed a “five year,” “$53 million” deal with the Denver Broncos. It turned out that $2 million was wrapped in a bonus for actually making the final roster, $1 million was tied to a 2016 workout bonus, and $48 million tied in a team option following the season. He could have been released by the Broncos before the season and only made a million bucks. It was a huge risk but Okung stayed healthy for 16 games on a team that he knew was going to be competitive and played to his strengths moreso than his weaknesses. Okung still had seven holding penalties and three false starts, and that was one of his better seasons in terms of false starts. Denver’s rushing offense got considerably worse and they allowed 40 sacks — not that it was all Okung’s fault but it’s hard to argue that adding Okung made a significantly positive difference.

Broncos fans are now making the same complaints about Denver’s offensive line that Seahawks fans are making about the way John Schneider and Pete Carroll are trying to build theirs. Remember, this is the team that did sign Okung a year ago. The Broncos had one of the worst offensive lines in the NFL. They did sign Okung. They got about as much production out of their line as Seattle did from theirs, the one that costs about $6 million and allowed them to keep some other key players, and yet Denver was the one to sign Okung and Donald Stephenson.

Just keep that in mind when the Chargers give Okung $13.25 million per season (a figure that the Seahawks barely reserve for their quarterback and an elite cornerback), and the Carolina Panthers give Matt Kalil five, $55, and the Minnesota Vikings give Riley Reiff five, $58.75, and the Detroit Lions give Ricky Wagner five, $47.5, that the market isn’t saying, “You need to get involved in this if you want to compete!” The market is saying “Average players are getting paid more than your best players and if it’s not logical, don’t follow it.” I don’t agree with giving Luke Joeckel $8 million, but I understand it when the alternative could have been a team giving Joeckel $45 million if he had explored it any further. That doesn’t sound more insane to me than Kalil getting $11 million a season. Or Okung becoming the highest-paid left tackle in the NFL when he’s only been healthy for a full season once, he is very penalty prone, he’s not a perfect technician at blocking, and didn’t help Denver much last season, if at all. (The situation there is eerily similar to Brock Osweiler from a year ago, actually. Not that Okung is as awful as Osweiler as a football player, but there are similarities to be made.)

Seattle made a push for T.J. Lang because he may have been the only offensive lineman on the market who actually could have played up to his value. I think the Los Angeles Rams got a good one there with Andrew Whitworth as well. But there are only a few great players who actually hit the market each year, there are teams with a lot more cap flexibility than the Seahawks (and that’s with them not paying their offensive line), and there’s only so much they can actually do. I don’t see them being inactive, I see them being careful. Seattle is banking on these contracts hurting their opponents in future seasons and waiting for value to swing back in their favor.

It’s a gamble. But Okung has shown that sometimes the biggest gambles have the biggest payoffs.