Tuesday, March 12, 2013

The Morning After: Percy Harvin Is A Seahawk

Move over Russell Wilson. There are going to be two NFL MVP candidates on the Seahawks offense after the team agreed to terms on a deal for Vikings wide receiver Percy Harvin. Harvin is a player with such immense talent that he was being discussed as a league MVP candidate last season on the team that wound up having the MVP on it. He is the ultimate maximizer. Give him an inch, and he'll take a yard? Give Harvin an inch, and he very well may take 100 yards. There is, quite simply, no player on the Seahawks roster like Harvin. There may no other player in the NFL like him. On a team with plenty of gap power, John Schneider and Pete Carroll just added their home run hitter. That kind of power comes at a price.

Seattle reportedly surrendered their 2013 first and seventh round picks, as well as a mid-round pick in 2014 that is believed to be a third. They are also expected to sign Harvin to a contract worth over $10M per year. As Harvin is signed through 2013--he will make $2.755M this season--the Seahawks deal will kick in for 2014 and beyond. A realistic expectation is 5 years, $50-60M, with $25-30M guaranteed. That is some serious cheese.

Consider that Sidney Rice was the last 24-year-old Vikings wide receiver that Seattle signed, and he was given a 5 year, $41M contract with $18M guaranteed. Golden Tate and Doug Baldwin combined to make around $1M last season, meaning the entire starting Seahawks receiving corps made less than what Harvin will make each year. Make no mistake, this is a big commitment that comes with more than a little risk.

Forget for a second that Harvin has some history of problems with his coaches, problems with migraines, and missed seven games last year due to an ankle injury. Forget that he reportedly was an infrequent participant in practice. The Seahawks are about to spend 8-10% of their cap on one player. There is real risk anytime a team does that. The NFL landscape has far more examples of players that never live up to those big deals than players that meet, or exceed, the expectations.

The Seahawks philosophy for big deals is to give them to players 25 or younger that already have demonstrated Pro Bowl talent. The thinking there should be obvious. Young players have greater chance to grow and improve, and if they have already demonstrated Pro Bowl talent, the risk of them being duds should be far less. There are not many 24-year-old players who get MVP chatter, and there are almost zero wide receivers that get into that discussion. Calvin Johnson just broke the record for receiving yards in a season, and was never in the MVP discussion. Schneider and Carroll are banking on Harvin being an explosive part of their offense.

This was a player that averaged a whopping 8.6 yards after the catch last season. Danny Amendola has a career average of 8.8 yards per catch. Golden Tate averaged 4.9 YAC. Sidney Rice was at 3.3. Zach Miller averaged 3.5 YAC. This was not an offense built a lot around yards after the catch. It was more a play-action down-the-field passing game that looked for chunk yards.

Harvin has elite speed and elite quickness, but was rarely allowed to demonstrate his down-field prowess in Minnesota. Of his 62 receptions in 2012, exactly zero traveled more than 20 yards in the air. Zero. Only 12, or 19%, traveled more than 10 yards in the air. This was a player whose targets and production much more closely resembled a running back than a wide receiver. Yet, Harvin has the speed to take the top off a defense. He caught 11 passes that traveled over 20 yards in his first two seasons, but only two since. It is not a coincidence that the shift in how he was used coincided with Darrell Bevell leaving Minnesota. Harvin will be utilized in every which way in Bevell's offense.

His ability to catch the quick pass immediately improves the Seahawks pass protection, which should have fewer five and seven-step drops to protect. His ability to go over the top will challenge safeties and give Sidney Rice and Zach Miller more 1v1 match-ups to exploit. A four receiver set that include Doug Baldwin, Tate, Rice and Harvin is as diverse as any in the NFL. Even more interesting will be when Harvin lines up in the back-field with those other three receivers and Zach Miller at tight end. Figure that one out defenses.

No team in the NFL will be able to challenge defenses the way Seattle will. Russell Wilson is a threat to run and throw. Lynch and Turbin can crush in the running game. Miller can block and catch. McCoy can block and catch. Baldwin is potentially lethal in the slot. Tate and Rice can make plays down field. Harvin can do it all. And that is without the addition of a sleek receiving tight end and another split end prospect in the draft. Imagine if this team somehow signed Delanie Walker. The flexibility, speed, and power would be off-the-charts, if it isn't already.

The signing of Harvin will have no effect on the Seahawks pursuit of veteran pass rushers like John Abraham. He will fetch a 1-2 year deal that would only overlap Harvin in the budget for maybe one season. Where it may have some effect is in the Seahawks pursuit of a player like DT Desmond Bryant, who is young enough to require a long-term deal (likely 4-5 years) of his own. There are only so many slots for $6M/year players under a hard salary cap. Sure, the Seahawks can clear some space by cutting guys like Ben Obamanu ($2.3M) and finding a new home for Leon Washington ($3M+), but there are some big money young players coming up in the organization that will require their own payday.

It would be unwise for the front office to be willing to pay outside guys like Miller, Rice, and Harvin big bucks, but not reward guys that have come up in their system like Kam Chancellor. Look for the team to lock-up Chancellor this Summer.

This team has been constructed thus far largely with free agents on offense and draft picks on defense. That has led to a huge imbalance in spend where Seattle pays $80M for their offense and $42M on defense. Add Harvin to that mix and the imbalance grows further, and that's before guys like Russell Wilson and Russell Okung come up for re-negotiation in a couple of years. Now the team has to brace for when Richard Sherman and Earl Thomas and K.J. Wright see their contracts end in 2015. Continuing to spend large dollars on free agent offensive players does not make a ton of sense, which is why signing a guy like Walker becomes far less likely after adding Harvin.

It makes sense that a Pete Carroll team will always spend more on offense. He has a shrewd eye for defense, and knows how to utilize young talent. Offensive players, especially wide receivers, can be among the hardest to project in the NFL. Staying young and cheap on defense allows Seattle to buy guys that have already proven themselves.

By the second year of Harvin's new deal (2015), the salary cap is expected to jump as high as $135M. It will be very interesting to see how new Seahawks contract guru Matt Thomas structures this contract. They could pull more of it into the next two years, allowing them even more space later when the Thomas' and Sherman's and Wilson's come up. However Thomas approaches the contract will tell us more about the team's strategy for keeping this roster together for a length Super Bowl run.

Carroll and Schneider's approach to building a team is a fascinating paradox. They never let fear preclude them from making a big move or taking what many would consider to be a big risk, but they also abhor roster inflexibility. They have somehow managed to realize both ends of that spectrum thus far, and that is the main reason this trade and contract only cause me minor heartburn instead of outright skepticism. Nobody is perfect with every move, and this front office has nearly been exactly that in their first three years. They did not need to drastically improve the offense in order to be contenders for the Super Bowl next year, but that is what they have done. Seattle boasted what may have been the NFL's best offense in 2012, and it may now be unstoppable. This trade and signing will not be judged based solely on how Harvin performs, but how it effects the ability of the front office to keep core young players together and improve elements like pass rush. What a start to the 2013 league year.

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