Tuesday, December 24, 2013

Percy Harvin, A Trade To Regret

Pete Carroll wasted no time in declaring Percy Harvin out of practice this week. That means he will not play in 15 of the team's 16 regular season games, and I expect an announcement this week that he will be placed on injured reserve, with Walter Thurmond III taking his roster spot as he returns from the suspended list. Carroll and John Schneider have had a remarkable run of personnel decisions in their four years in Seattle. Their biggest misstep may have been trading for Charlie Whitehurst. Even then, the damage on the field and to the roster was minimal. The forumula has been to aquire young talent through the draft, give them early playing time to allow for maximum impact during the rookie contract years, and sprinkle in short-term free agents of varying costs to fill in around the. The Harvin deal represented a departure from the formula. It was a massive contract and structured in a way that locks the team in for a chunk of time and a collection of draft picks. If the team had simply signed Harvin to the contract without the draft picks, or just the draft picks without the contract, there would be little to question. The risk in acquiring Harvin was never in the player. It was in the cost of acquisition and deviation from team philosophy. There are precious few players and situations when taking that risk is justified. One year into that deal, the odds are looking long that Seattle made the right decision.

Backstory - The Draft

Seattle entered the off-season with a goal of adding new pass rushers and a few new weapons for Russell Wilson on offense. They nailed the pass rushers with Cliff Avril and Michael Bennett, but Luke Willson is the only player that qualifies as a new weapon. Before zeroing in on the move to get Harvin this off-season, it is worth understanding the choices that led to Seattle feeling the need to make a big move like that.

Schneider has overseen four drafts now. He has drafted 39 players over those four years. Where the team has invested those picks tells a story.

Schneider draft picks by pos
Weapons have not been a high priority for the Seahawks to acquire via the draft. Only six "skill" players have been drafted at the wide receiver and running back position, and three of those came in this last draft with Christine Michael, Spencer Ware and Chris Harper. Of the three receivers drafted by Schneider, only Golden Tate (2nd) was drafted above the fourth round. It could be argued that receiver has not only been a low priority for the Seahawks front office, but one of their weaker positions to evaluate.

Harper did not make the team out of training camp, and was subsequently cut by the 49ers. Kris Durham has grown into a serviceable player for the Lions, but Seattle drafted him to play in the slot. It was Detroit that saw him as an edge receiver and have benefited from their evaluation. Tate is clearly the best receiving prospect that they drafted, but even he took far longer to develop than they could have expected. Maybe some of it is coaching as well. The best receiver moves the front office has made came through unrestricted free agency where they added Doug Baldwin and Jermaine Kearse. They deserve a lot of credit for bringing those players aboard, but if they knew each player was as good as they have been, it is reasonable to have expected a draft choice to spent. There is some fortune involved when an undrafted free agent hits.

Part of how a front office has to be judged is who they drafted at a position relative to who was available. Tate, for example, is the 7th-leading receiver this season from his draft class in terms of receptions. The only players the Seahawks could have taken at his 60th spot that have performed better are Antonio Brown (6th rd), Eric Decker (3rd) and Emmanuel Sanders (3rd). Knowing how far below the league average Seattle is in pass attempts, that is pretty darn good.

The next year worked out even better. Baldwin ranks fourth in his receiver class for receptions this season, beaten only by A.J. Green, Cecil Shorts and Torrey Smith. He ranks 3rd in receiving yards and 2nd in touchdowns from that class for this season.

Deciding to eschew a receiver in the 2012 draft looks less defensible. Alshon Jeffrey was taken with a pick the Seahawks trade to the Bears that turned into Bobby Wagner. Not exactly a loss there, but Jeffrey has become an All-Pro level talent in just his second season. Josh Gordon was taken by the Browns with their 2nd round pick in the supplemental draft. T.Y. Hilton was taken with the 92nd pick in the 3rd round. Rod Streater went undrafted. Jarrett Boykin went undrafted. Marvin Jones was taken with the 166th pick in the 5th round.

Seattle drafted Robert Turbin, Jaye Howard and Korey Toomer in rounds 4-5 in 2012. They say the only way to evaluate a draft is at least a year later. The Seahawks 2012 draft will always rightfully be know for nabbing Wilson, but those mid-round selections are looking regrettable. Missing out on another receiver helped to increase the pressure the front office felt to manufacture a receiver addition the following year.

Backstory - Free Agency

The draft is only one way to address a positional need. Seattle showed it will dive into the free agent waters with the high-priced signing of Sidney Rice in 2011. Let's take a look at who was available to be added via free agency in 2011 and 2012 that might have obviated the need for a Harvin trade.

Vincent Jackson was signed by the Bucs in 2012 for 5 years, $55M and $36M guaranteed. The guys at OverTheCap.com see that as essentially an identical deal to Harvin's in terms of really being a 3-year deal for $36M. Jackson is the prototypical big-bodied split end that Carroll covets, and has turned in two terrific seasons in Tampa despite questionable quarterback play. He will finish the year with a second straight season over over 1,200 yard receiving and at least 7 TDs. Same contract. No draft choices.

Stevie Johnson re-signed with the Bills in 2012 for 5 years, $36M and $19.5M guaranteed. Johnson is 6'2" 207 lbs and one of the best route runners in the NFL. He was 26 when he signed his new deal. Injuries and bad quarterbacks have plagued him this year, but he was over 1,000 yards and 6 TDs last season.

Those are the two that stand out prior to this off-season. Specifically the Jackson deal and fit with what Seattle needed. Signing him would have been a departure from team philosophy as well because he was 29 at the time of the deal, and the Seahawks prefer to give big contracts to players under 26. Once the total opportunity cost of the Harvin deal is considered, though, Jackson's age seems like a far smaller risk at a far lesser cost.

Opportunity Cost

Now let's look at the Harvin deal, and what some alternatives were this season. First, we know it cost Seattle their first-round pick in the 2013 draft, the 25th pick overall. 

Forget the Alex Ogletrees, Giovani Bernards, Kiko Alonsos and Kawann Shorts of the world for our purposes here. We will ignore other positions that could have been drafted at that spot, and just focus on the wide receivers. DeAndre Hopkins was drafted 27th and Cordarrelle Patterson was drafted 29th. Terrence Williams was drafted 74th. Keenan Allen was drafted 76th, 15 spots after Christine Michael was taken. Kenny Stills was drafted 144th. Marlon Brown was undrafted. Kenbrell Tompkins was undrafted. 

Some will say that Schneider had no way to know who would be available with the 25th pick. His job is to know who would be available and make a decision about whether it was worth the risk to move out of that draft position. Imagine the impact to the Seahawks cap flexibility over the next two years and the impact to the team this season if Seattle had Hopkins, Patterson or Allen instead of Harvin. There is no objective argument to be made at this time that the Seahawks are better off with having made the Harvin trade than to spend a high draft pick on a receiver.

There were also other options for adding receiver talent to the roster outside of the draft. Seattle fans no doubt remember the Anquan Boldin deal for San Francisco that cost them only a 6th round pick and a short-term contract. Even if nepotism was at play, and the price would have been higher for a non-Harbaugh team to acquire Boldin, that was clearly the most cost-effective and low risk wide receiver addition to make. Boldin will never change a game the way Harvin can, but he would have been a great addition to this receiver corps that would have provided the big body target they still lack. 

Mike Wallace was signed to what amounts to a 3-year $32M deal with the Dolphins. For all the negatives people say about him, he is 27, can take the top off the defense and has produced over 900 yards in a pass-challenged offense in Miami. Signing him would have restricted the cap in a similar way to Harvin, but allowed the draft picks to be used in other ways and gave Seattle something it lacks.

We still do not know which players Seattle will miss out on in the 3rd round next year when that pick goes to the Vikings as well. We also do not know if the pressure of justifying this move will cause the team to move players like Baldwin in the off-season that have already proven their worth. It is hard to imagine the team going into 2014 with three starting receivers under 6'0". 

There is still time

Some will read this as unfair given we have the benefit of hindsight. Jobs are won and lost based on how decisions turn out, not on what information the person had who made the decision at the time. Trading away three draft picks, two of high value, and giving a high-priced contract to a player with a variety of question marks about durability and character was a risky move by any measure. It has not worked out thus far. 

Harvin could return and become the game-changer Schneider and Carroll hoped he would be. He could be so central to what Seattle does that he earns an extension down the line. 

Source: OverTheCap.com
Seattle is not going to cut ties with him anytime soon. He would count nearly $10M against the cap next year if he was cut, and $7M in 2015. Carroll has repeatedly said they are in this for the long haul with Harvin and want to get him right. If he was on a one-year deal, or one that allowed the team to walk away more easily, the team may have handled the injury situation differently. Harvin might be playing right now. He is not, and probably won't the rest of the way.

Seahawks fans have become accustomed to celebrating genius moves by Schneider over the years. This one is not living up to his reputation. Going big for a small receiver was a move that shocked fans, analysts and players when it happened. The ramifications of that move have been negative thus far, and could get worse over time. It is up to Harvin to prove Schneider and Carroll right. He has a lot of work to do.

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