Friday, March 8, 2013

Pre-Free Agency May Be Seahawks Focus

It is common for people to perceive the NFL off-season as a series of separate events. Players are cut for salary cap purposes in February and March (and again in June). Free Agency happens in March, and really lasts into June and July. The draft happens in April. They are not, however, distinct. Each part of the off-season feeds into the other and can drastically alter the course of a team's direction. The old Price is Right game, Plinko, comes to mind. A front office starts the off-season with a series of needs, but the path to get them addressed can change with each decision. The Seahawks are already making some moves that could have a significant impact on how they approach free agency and the draft.

The signing of tight end Darren Fells got some coverage nationally because Fells never played college football. Seahawks fans took note because John Schneider has made a habit of turning the unknown into the highly coveted. Richard Sherman, Kam Chancellor, Brandon Browner, Doug Baldwin, and others rose from humble beginnings. Fells may be a project. He may be a practice squad guy. He also may be the next Jimmy Graham or Antonio Gates. As silly as that sounds, it is far sillier to dismiss Schneider's eye for talent.

Adding a player like Fells may not preclude the Seahawks from signing a proven commodity in free agency, but it definitely reduces the chances the team will go after a front-line player like Delanie Walker or Jared Cook, two players I like a lot for Seattle at the right price. The draft is also strong with tight end prospects. Schneider may now choose to go the route of drafting a guy to compete with Fells instead of spending valuable cap space on the position where Zach Miller is already taking up a sizable portion and Anthony McCoy is scheduled to hit free agency after this season completes.

John Abraham is visiting the Seahawks, and there is a real chance he may be signed before leaving. The team has invested heavily in the LEO position already with a new extension for the injured Chris Clemons and a first-round pick in Bruce Irvin. As tempting as it might be to sink money into a young pass rusher like Michael Bennett or Paul Kruger, it simply does not make sense given the uncertainty of the situation beyond this season.

Irvin was drafted to be Clemons' successor. He had a solid first year, but did not demonstrate he was close to ready against the run. There is some chance that he makes a solid leap in his sophomore season, but there is no way the team can leave the starting LEO position to chance. They need someone who is proven. They also need to be careful about how much they spend to address that need.

Earl Thomas, Chancellor, Sherman, K.J. Wright, and Browner all become unrestricted free agents in the next two seasons. Spending big money on a guy like Kruger now, could mean saying goodbye to one of those guys. That could be the right trade-off, but why take that risk when talented veterans are available that could be off the books by the time those young core players hit the market?

That's where Abraham comes in. He is better defending the run than either Osi Umenyiora or Dwight Freeney, and despite all the focus on pass rush, the ability to play the run is crucial to being a full-time LEO. Clemons is a talented run defender despite his size. Irvin has not shown he is anywhere near ready to set the edge against NFL offensive tackles.

Should the Seahawks sign Abraham, they may take a very slow approach to the rest of free agency. Maybe they fall in love with a guy like Desmond Bryant as a long-term upgrade over Alan Branch. More likely, they wait and see what bargains are available, knowing they can probably get Branch back at a similar price to what they paid him initially (2 yrs, $8M). Richard Seymour is older, but could be more productive and valuable than Branch while also being a guy who comes off the books in two years. Those are likely to be the types of guys Seattle looks at.

The team's ability to shore up the starting LEO and DT position prior to the draft will dictate the level of freedom they have to select the best talent that falls to them, regardless of position. The ideal for Seattle would be to have a couple of known commodities on the defensive line that can exit the team in a couple of years, while also drafting a couple of young players in those positions that could push the veterans for snaps and be ready to ascend to starting roles at a cheap price in a year or two.

The choices Seattle makes prior to free agency this year may be more impactful than the ones they make during it. Let the games begin!

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