Thursday, March 14, 2013

Reactions To Day Two Of Free Agency

John Schneider, I don't know how you do that voodoo that you do. Take a bow, sir. There has been plenty of talk about managing cap spend in anticipation of players like Earl Thomas and Richard Sherman becoming free agents in 2015, but the contract extension that may matter the most is Schneider's. In a league where general managers are generally graded like baseball players--hitting .300 is pretty good--the Seahawks general manager is hanging Nintendo numbers on their asses. It may be time for Midas to move over. Everything Schneider touches turns to things far more valuable than gold.

The big news of the day for Seahawks fans was the signing of new starting defensive end Cliff Avril. More on him in a second. Many people thought he would sign for somewhere around $8M per year. Nobody thought he'd sign for just two years. He turned down 3 years, $30M from Detroit before being franchised last year. It is just the second day of free agency. The logic for Avril will be that he gets two years of piling up sack stats in the cacophonous confines of CenturyLink Field before cashing in on another big payday as a 28-year-old free agent in 2015. This was not the first time Schneider was able to convince a free agent that less meant more.

Jason Jones signed a 1-year deal at the age of 25 last year while being courted by the Rams, who were said to be offering him more money and more years. One can only assume the conversation goes something like this:

Player: That other team is offering me 2 years and $10M. I'll play for you if you can beat that.

Schneider: Why don't you play for us for 1 year at $6M, tear shit up with that fast track and loud crowd behind you, and then get a 3 year $15M next year? You'd make a bunch more cash.

Jones is a testament to this method working. He was thought to be getting a 2-3 year offer from the Rams last season, but took a 1-year $4M offer from the Seahawks. He played well, but finished on IR with a chronic knee injury, and still managed to get a 3 year $9.5M deal from the Lions. Imagine what he would have commanded had he been healthy.

Avril joins the team a little more than one year younger than Chris Clemons was when Schneider fleeced the Eagles for him three years ago. He comes with far more fanfare. Lions fans and many personnel people will tell you he was not impressive in 2012, despite registering 9.5 sacks. It is unlikely many of them would have raved about Clemons' performance in 2009 before he came to Seattle and put up 11+ sacks in three straight seasons. Avril was deemed worthy of a franchise designation by the Lions just twelve months ago. Avril was good enough to be rated the best free agent in the field by Peter King despite his sub-par season.

Seattle just signed Percy Harvin to a mega-deal, that will have him in Seattle for at least three seasons at $12M per. There was little sense in expecting them to add another young gun to the arsenal. A veteran who would accept modest money over a short-term deal made more sense. John Abraham appeared to be the perfect fit. Instead, Seattle got a player nine years younger with nearly as many sacks in the last three seasons for about $2.5M more per year than Abraham will likely get.

It was a sound decision on a variety of levels. Avril immediately steps in to the competition for starting defensive end versus Bruce Irvin. Should Irvin prove he is ready to ascend to the starting role, Avril is an ideal compliment. Do not fall into the trap of believing that Avril gets the spot because he just got big(gish) money. Ask Matt Flynn how that works here. More likely, Avril will win that spot and give Irvin another season to grow. This also allows Seattle to be conservative with Clemons' injury. He is a very likely PUP candidate, which would give the Seahawks some kind of mid-season acquisition.

Avril played outside linebacker at Purdue. There was some talk of a team signing him to be a 3-4 OLB this year. It at least raises the question of whether the Seahawks could get all three pass rushers on the field at the same time when Clemons returns. A rotation to keep everyone fresh is the more logical plan.

The signing marks another need off the list. That really leaves starting defensive tackle, interior pass rusher and nickel corner. Schneider will not want to the enter the draft needing to find a starting defensive tackle, nor will he want to count on Clinton McDonald to ascend into that role. Richard Seymour continues to be available and is a guy that can stuff the run and disrupt versus the pass. Alan Branch could very well reprise his role at a modest price. Another guy that is worth keeping an eye on is 25-year-old DT Vance Walker. He was a disruptive rotational defensive tackle for the Falcons last season who is the right age and is not getting a bunch of attention. Getting him at the right price could be a coup.

Even cornerback, a position I would never expect to see the Seahawks use free agency to fill, could see some action. A guy like Antoine Winfield is intriguing at the right price. Seattle will be in no rush to address that position with cash, as the trio of Byron Maxwell, Jeremy Lane and Walter Thurmond are strong and the draft will likely add another name to the mix. Still, a guy like Winfield is good enough and probably cheap enough to be worth a look.

One of the most fascinating aspects of the Schneider mystique is that he is getting the reputation now as a big-money general manager that will give free agents a great payday. The truth is that he is willing to spend money to bring in talent, but he is incredibly disciplined about structuring the deals to mitigate risk. Even the $67M Harvin deal, has escape hatches built in as soon as one year from now. There is enough cap cost to cutting Harvin the next two years that it is more likely he will be here for three years, but the point remains. Avril got a nice solid salary, but only for two seasons. The risk is reduced by the contract structure, but is reduced further by the rigor Schneider and Carroll have shown when it comes to releasing players and restructuring deals down the line.

Any driving school teacher will tell you to always know your escape route should something go wrong in front of you. Schneider and Carroll came here in 2010 driving what amounted to a Datsun. They couldn't even keep up with the cars in front of them, let alone crash into them. Three years later they are driving a Tesla. Sleek, fast, powerful, and built for the next generation. There are no longer cars in front of them because they lead the pack. Maintaining that position will require planning just as shrewd as they have demonstrated thus far. Solid drafts, flexible contracts, salary cap discipline, and roster pruning are now about keeping the roadster charged and tuned. There is no better person to have at the wheel than Schneider.

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