Saturday, March 30, 2013

BALTY T-Shirts Now Available

Branton Sherman has designed a t-shirt to have a little fun with his brother, Richard's appearance on ESPN First Take when he famously told Skip Bayless that he was "better at life than you." Harsh? Yes. Funny? Absolutely.

I decided a short while later that this phrase deserved it's own hashtag on Twitter:


Branton is now offering to t-shirts to interested fans. You can find the ad for the shirt on Hawkblogger.com, which will shoot an email to Branton. This email address was created exclusively for t-shirt ordering. It is not his personal address.

Click the image below to order a t-shirt and be #BALTY!


Friday, March 29, 2013

Reader Challenge: Seacocks Strike Back

Seahawks fans have endured some of the most idiotic mastic insults opposing fans could conjure up. Seachickens? Oh no! That one really hurts! Toward the end of last year, someone came up with a pretty darn hilarious alteration to the Seahawks logo (pictured below).



BleedHawks gave me an idea this morning. Let's have a little fun, Hawks fans. It's the off-season, so what else do we have to do? 

Please take the above picture (or the one below that I've cleaned up) and Photoshop it into funny places. Send me your creations at: hawkblogger@gmail.com, and I will post them on the blog.

You can use this one that has been cleaned up


Here is some inspiration to get you started:






Thursday, March 28, 2013

Seahawks Make Statement In Season Opening Win In San Francisco

That one has to sting, San Francisco. Leading 20-17 with just over two minutes to go, the 49ers saw their season and home opener yanked from their grasp by the growing legend that is Russell Wilson. The full ESPN crew was on hand with plenty of pomp and circumstance to witness what may be the two best teams in the NFL facing off on Monday Night Football, and both teams lived up to their billing. The 49ers, buoyed by the emotion of celebrating their Super Bowl appearance last year, got off to a fast start and led most of the way. Seattle, with the help of many of their new additions, managed to walk away with a key 24-20 road division win against their biggest rival.

Colin Kaepernick wasted little time in taking advantage of his new weapon on offense, Anquan Boldin. Boldin had three catches on the 49ers opening possession, two of them converting on third down, before Kaepernick found Vernon Davis for a touchdown. Boldin would not have a catch the rest of the game as he was throttled by Brandon Browner much of the time.

It took all of 13 seconds for Seattle to respond as Percy Harvin took his first kickoff return in a Seahawks uniform back 103 yards for a touchdown. Jim Harbaugh complained after the game that the officials allowed Harvin to run too quickly, and that Seattle blockers were allowed to continue pancaking his players even after Harvin crossed the goal line. 

The teams settled in from there. San Francisco pounded away on the ground, with Kendall Hunter getting the bulk of the carries and yards. The Seahawks found themselves backed up to the shadow of their goal line when new 6'7" defensive tackle Tony McDaniel batted down a Kaepernick throw intended for Boldin in the end zone. Phil Dawson knocked in a short field goal to give the 49ers a 10-7 lead. 

Seattle unveiled their new wrinkle to the read-option with Harvin sprinting in motion across the formation before each snap. It was hard to tell if the package was ineffective because the Seahawks were still getting acquainted with the timing or because the 49ers defense is uniquely equipped to handle  it. Patrick Willis and Navorro Bowman were fast enough to chase down plays to the edge, and the combination of Justin Smith and Ray McDonald made it difficult for Wilson to have the space he needed to run the option with Marshawn Lynch.

"It felt great to be back out there playing at 100%," Smith said. "I just wish the result had been different."

The early indications are that Harvin will be taking snaps from a number of players on offense, including Lynch. Golden Tate may have been impacted the most in this game as the team ran two tight ends much of the night and chose to keep Sidney Rice and Harvin on the field when they went with only two receivers. Seattle ran a number of 2 X 0 sets with both Rice and Harvin on the same side of the field. That created some nice space for the Seahawks to run bootlegs to Zach Miller, with Rice or Harvin running crossing routes further down-field behind Miller. 

It will take some time for the Seattle offense to figure out how best to utilize their new weaponry, but it was clear they will present impossible challenges to defenses once they hit their stride.

Harbaugh and the 49ers took advantage of a slow first half from the Seahawks, and enjoyed a 17-10 lead heading in for halftime. A fumbled Seahawks punt setup the 49ers second touchdown as Hunter found the corner for a 10-yard score. A couple nifty catches from Doug Baldwin helped the Seahawks get in position for a field goal just before both teams hit their locker rooms.

The second half was all Seahawks. Kaepernick was blasted several times while running the pistol as newcomers Michael Bennett and Cliff Avril, along with K.J. Wright repeatedly ignored the ball carrier and lit up Kaepernick. The entire Seahawks defense was eagerly kissing their biceps on every big hit. San Francisco right tackle Anthony Davis became angry and found a Seahawks ball boy to beat up, pounding his chest as the 120 lb young man was sprawled on the ground in front of him. 

"Those Seahawks can't come into our house and disrespect our quarterback like that," Davis said afterwards. "I will continue to find the smallest person on the field to pick on until they get the point."

Wilson was nearly perfect after halftime. If not for a missed field goal and several drives that started inside their own five-yard line, the game may not have been close. Tate began the second-half by grabbing a contested pass along the left sideline for a 50-yard gain, followed by a Lynch 17-yard rumble. Harvin took a swing pass the remaining 13-yards for a touchdown that tied the game at 17. 

The score would stay that way through much of the half until the 49ers took advantage of a 47-yard Kaepernick scramble to setup a go-ahead field goal. Seattle had its only three-and-out of the second half after the 49ers took the lead, and it was looking like the home team was going to run their way to victory as they had the ball in Seahawks territory with just over two minutes to play and a three point lead. 

New Seahawks defensive coordinator Dan Quinn surprised Kaepernick with a blitz on 3rd down with Bruce Irvin and Bennett coming from the left and Malcolm Smith and Avril coming from the right. Irvin destroyed Kaepernick, but not before he was able to let loose a throw toward Michael Crabtree. Richard Sherman read the play the whole way and picked off the pass.

"They were avoiding me all night," Sherman said. "It was nice to finally get a chance to make a play."

Wilson and the Seahawks took over the ball with just over two minutest to play at their own 35-yard line. The team went exclusively to their new scorpion package, featuring Harvin as a single back, Miller at tight end and Tate, Baldwin and Rice at receiver. 

"We have high hopes for that package as the season progresses," Seahawks Offensive Coordinator Darrell Bevell said. "It stresses the defense in so many ways."

The drive started with two swing passes to Harvin for 18 yards. San Francisco became acutely aware of Harvin, leaving them susceptible to a double-move from Baldwin for another 14 yards over the middle. A slant to Rice netted another 10, putting the Seahawks at the 49ers 23 yard line with 45 seconds to go. 

Wilson then faked a handoff to Harvin, who ran a wheel route to the right side, taking two defenders with him. Tate ran a post from the left side and Baldwin dragged across the line to the right. The left side of the field opened up, and Wilson avoided an oncoming Aldon Smith before breaking into the open field for a go-ahead touchdown. 

"The guys did a great job of blocking up front," Wilson said. "And once things opened up on the left side, it was easy from there."

The 49ers had a one more chance with 35 seconds to go and all three of their timeouts. Bennett, however, sliced into the back-field, forcing a rushed throw by Kaepernick that settled into the waiting hands of Kam Chancellor, sealing the emotional Seahawks win. 

San Francisco officials were pleased the night ended with only five stabbing deaths in the stands following the disappointing outcome. 

"That puts us way off of last year's pace," County Sherriff Todd Dipstick said.

Seattle now heads home to the friendly confines of CenturyLink Field to face the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, while the 49ers get a second home game against the Atlanta Falcons. 

These two teams will not meet again until the final game of the season in Seattle. Getting a win against their toughest road opponent to start the season puts the Seahawks in a strong position to grab the division title back from the 49ers. Harbaugh was not available for comment after the game as he was still complaining about the referees from the Super Bowl. 

Seahawks players insisted their bus driver honk his horn repeatedly as they left for the airport, hearkening back to the incident last season when Harbaugh allegedly honked and taunted Seahawks players following the 49ers home win. 

The rivalry between these two teams is reaching a fever pitch, and the first clash of the season left the 49ers wondering if their championship window may be closed prematurely by this talented young Seahawks squad.

Wilson summed things up as usual before boarding the team bus, "Go Hawks!"

Monday, March 18, 2013

The Understated Value Of Michael Bennett

Pete Carroll lost a key aspect of his defensive game plan just weeks into his tenure with the Seahawks back in 2010. Jimmy Wilkerson suffered a career-ending injury during the pre-season, leading to the eventual signing of Anthony Hargrove to replace him. Carroll made it clear that players like Wilkerson do not grow on trees.

“We don’t have a guy like Jimmy,” coach Pete Carroll said this week. “Jimmy had an expertise of playing defensive end on early downs and going inside (on passing downs). We don’t have a guy like that, so we’re going to use a combination of guys to rush and see what we can find.”

Hargrove did fine as an interior disruptor, but was not capable of sliding outside, and had limited overall impact. Carroll went back to the well in 2012 when he signed Jason Jones to one-year deal. Jones became a critical part of the Seahawks pass rush, disrupting the interior while Chris Clemons and Bruce Irvin crashed the edge or twisted inside Jones. There is a good chance that Jones would still be a Seahawk if his health was not in question. It is difficult to find interior pass rushers. There are probably fewer interior pass rushers in the NFL than quality starting quarterbacks. And they are incredibly valuable. That is why John Schneider's signing of Michael Bennett may end up being his best of the off-season. Yes, Percy Harvin is an MVP-caliber talent. Yes, Cliff Avril signed a two-year deal worth more per season. Bennett is such a unique talent that he may end the 2013 season as the third-most valuable player on that vaunted Seahawks defense behind only Earl Thomas and Richard Sherman.

Carroll may have been able to start his career in Seattle with Bennett in tow if Schneider had been GM just a year earlier. Tim Ruskell brought in Bennett, who made the team with a great pre-season, and then waived him to make room for an extra offensive lineman. Schneider, then with Green Bay, put in a waiver claim on Bennett because he saw the talent, but Tampa Bay was higher in the queue and won the claim. Bennett went on to earn more and more time for the Bucs as a sub-package interior pass rusher. By 2011, he was earning significant snaps, and he translated that into 4.0 sacks and 9 tackles for loss. His experience playing inside made him especially effective against the run as a defensive end.

ProFootballFocus.com had him rated as +14.2 versus the run in 2011. Cliff Avril, by comparison, was -7.4 and -9.9 versus the run the past two years. Red Bryant, during his strong 2011 season, graded out as +5.6. Bennett really put it all together last season when he dominated against the run (+10.6) and took a major step forward as a pass rusher (+11.3). That turned into a career-high 9.0 sacks and 10 tackles for loss. 

Bennett accomplished those numbers by starting at defensive end, but sliding inside in nickel or dime situations. He is incredibly effective at using his hands to drive blockers back into the back-field and jabbing them off-balance. His tendency is more towards power moves like bull rushing on the outside, but it turns into a quickness game inside. There are precious few men in the NFL that can do what Bennett does, especially to the level he does it. 

Why a player like that could be had for a one-year, $5M deal is curious. The market for pass rushers has been odd this year. Every team seemed to understand that there was little reason to overpay for a young guy when players like John Abraham, Osi Umenyiora and Dwight Freeney were pretty darn good consolation prizes. There was also a clear correction away from the idiocy of Mario Williams deal last year. As valuable as Bennett can be, he is not Geno Atkins. He will not single-handedly dominate a game. It is hard for teams to make major cap allocations to players like that.

There may be not better place for Bennett to showcase his talents than Seattle. Carroll knows exactly how to use a player like him, and may never have had a player quite like him. Bennett could conceivably start at either end position. Most likely, he will challenge Avril and Irvin for the starting LEO spot. It took Avril about twenty-four hours to learn what Matt Flynn did last year, nothing will be handed to you on this team. 

The one thing Seahawks fans can count on is that Bennett will be rushing from the defensive tackle position against passing formations. That role got roughly 40% of the snaps last season in Seattle when Jones was healthy. Jones was not a great edge defender, though, which Detroit will find out this season. Bennett's dual-threat ability will get him more snaps than Jones saw last season.

The argument could made that Bennett will be the Seahawks most valuable defensive lineman. Brandon Mebane was off to a terrific start last year, but faded as the year went on. Bryant, even at his best, is a guy with a single purpose. Avril has to prove he can be on the field against a strong running team like the 49ers. 

The idea that Bennett could be the third-most valuable player on the defense will seem sensationalistic to some. Value is born of scarcity. Finding a starting linebacker can happen in every draft. As great as Bobby Wagner was last year, middle linebackers are far less difficult to find than defensive lineman. There is already great depth at cornerback on the roster. Kam Chancellor is a legitimate contender with Bennett for the value category as his talents are unique and rare, and would be difficult to replace. That, by itself, is a controversial statement among many Seahawks fans. 

Regardless of where Bennett ranks on the value chart within the Seahawks defense, he will be a weapon unlike any Carroll has been able to employ during his time here. He has the potential to start at two different spots and can play significant snaps at three of the four line positions. His presence will enable Irvin and Avril to be far more effective, enabling a pass rush attack that could fuel this team to heights not yet seen. His ability to play the run from an end position while still threatening the passer will give offenses fits, as they have become accustomed to attacking Seattle's smaller LEO end. The disruption and push he will create up the middle will lead to quicker and poorer decisions by quarterbacks that this secondary will prey on. Michael Bennett is not a super hero, but he very well may be a key to a Super Bowl.

Sunday, March 17, 2013

The Contract Headaches Facing The 49ers

Seahawks fans have become very familiar with the year 2015. They Mayans may have predicted the world would end in 2012, but the idea of losing Earl Thomas, Richard Sherman, Russell Wilson, Russell Okung and K.J. Wright in two years is much closer to Armageddon. John Schneider and Pete Carroll have consistently made moves to leave them the flexibility necessary so that they can retain core players when their contracts end. Seattle is not alone in having some key contracts ending in 2015. The 49ers arguably have a tougher road ahead.

There has been some confusion about the Seahawks situation, so let's clear that up first:

2014 Unrestricted Free Agents
Kam Chancellor
Michael Robinson
Anthony McCoy
Golden Tate
Paul McQuistan
Breno Giacomini
Walter Thurmond III
Michael Bennett

2014 Restricted Free Agents
Doug Baldwin
Brandon Browner
Jeron Johnson

2015 Unrestricted Free Agents
James Carpenter
John Moffitt
Malcolm Smith
Chris Clemons
K.J. Wright
Richard Sherman
Earl Thomas
Cliff Avril
Byron Maxwell
Doug Baldwin*
Brandon Browner*
Jeron Johnson*

2016 Unrestricted Free Agents (Contracts can be renegotiated in 2015)
Russell Okung
Russell Wilson
Bobby Wagner
Bruce Irvin

*Assumes they are retained as RFAs in 2014

The new collective bargaining agreement precludes teams from negotiating new deals with rookies until three years has passed. There are people conflating the fact that Russell Wilson can have his deal renegotiated in 2015 with Earl Thomas and Richard Sherman actually being free agents that year. That is a significant difference. People also continue to mistakenly believe Browner is a free agent after this year. He is not. He is a restricted free agent, along with Baldwin, which makes it highly likely they will remain in Seattle for the 2014 season. Of course, they just adds them to list of 2015 UFAs, so it only buys the Seahawks one more season for each player.

Now, take a look at the 49ers situation:

2014 Unrestricted Free Agents
Anquan Boldin
Tramaine Brock
Tarell Brown
Perrish Cox
Anthony Dixon
Demarcus Dobbs
Jonathan Goodwin
Parys Haralson
Mario Manningham
Justin Smith
Will Tukuafu
Donte Whitner
Kyle Williams

2015 Unrestricted Free Agents
C.J. Spillman
Aldon Smith
Bruce Miller
Colin Kaepernick
Kendall Hunter
Frank Gore
Anthony Davis
Chris Culliver
Michael Crabtree
Mike Iupati

The Seahawks will certainly have some tough choices, but the path seems pretty clear. There will be some debate among fans regarding Chancellor, but he will be extended. As will Thomas, Sherman, Wilson and Okung. Everyone else will be a value-based decision based on their market value compared to their valuation for the Seahawks. Giacomini and Wright are the only two players in that category that do not have a legitimate alternative already on the roster.

The 49ers situation appears more precarious. It would appear they would need to extend Kaepernick by next off-season in order to avoid him hitting the open market after the 2014 season ends. That will most likely be an easy decision, if not a cheap one. Tougher will be players like Justin Smith, who will be 34 after this season and Whitner, who has become an integral part of that secondary. San Francisco would seemingly want to keep both, but that gets expensive when also needing to grab another receiver, and find a replacement for their talented, but aging center in Goodwin. He will also be a free agent after this season, and will be 35. Knowing that Davis and Iupati will be coming up for new contracts the following season makes retaining Goodwin unlikely.

The timing of Justin Smith's free agency is about as bad as it gets for the 49ers. He will be young enough to still be effective and costly, but old enough that he could break down and decline almost immediately after inking the deal.

Frank Gore is possibly playing his final season with the team, and definitely will not be back if he stays around long enough to be a free agent in 2015. Hunter may be the future at running back, although it is not yet clear he can survive as a featured back at his size. San Francisco needs to find out soon because they will have to decide if it is worth extending him, or face losing him and Gore. And don't forget Aldon Smith and Crabtree. Both players are due to hit the market in 2015.

The 49ers next two seasons make the Seahawks situation look like a cake walk. Schneider very well may address the biggest question by extending Thomas this off-season. Doing so would ensure Sherman would stick around as the team could apply the franchise tag. There is really no rush to do it this year, but the sooner they finalize the terms, the better they can plan their spend across their other upcoming free agents.

Both teams will benefit from the salary cap raising in 2015, but the idea is not race into a fully burdened cap simply because it rises. Three-fifths of the vaunted 49ers offensive line will be up for new contracts in the next two seasons. Both of the Smiths on the defensive side will be looking for new deals, as will All-Pro safety Whitner and cornerstone Kaepernick. Their only legitimate, young receiving threat in Crabtree and their best young running back in Hunter also hit the market. That does not even start getting into the challenges at cornerback.

San Francisco will either need to dramatically reduce the quality of their depth by signing a number of these key players to expensive contracts, or count on effective drafting to allow them to move on from players that look like linchpins to their current success. If this off-season is any indication, the front office looks to be comfortable letting young Pro Bowl talent walk out the door, and depend on short-term veteran contracts to fill the void or a few draft choices to quickly rise into starting roles. Meanwhile, the Seahawks have relatively few difficult decisions to make in the next year, and have proven they can find All-Pro caliber players in every draft.

None of this guarantees one team will outperform the other, but the contractual headwinds facing the 49ers could certainly swing the balance of power far faster toward Seattle than many realize. 

Saturday, March 16, 2013

The Ben Obomanu Appreciation Post

There was some buzz around this new Auburn wide receiver drafted late in the Mike Holmgren era. He had a flare for the dramatic, and the strength to go over the middle. He earned a chance to start by his second year in the league, and was out of football by his third. That was the story of Courtney Taylor. Taken in the 6th round in the 2007 draft by the Seahawks, Taylor made a glitzy entrance with his acrobatic catches, but made a rapid exit with his inconsistency and lack of attention to detail. Another late Auburn draft pick quietly earned his way onto the roster a year before Taylor. He was not flashy. He was not brash. He was a pro, from day one. Ben Obomanu came into the league as a 7th round pick back in 2006, and clawed his way to seven years with the Seahawks before being released yesterday.

Obomanu's story is the often untold side of the NFL that is made up of hundreds of players who are not stars, or even potential stars. They are the men who make the league on grit, and determination and more talent than most will ever know. Obomanu once appeared to be a rising star after an eye-opening 2007 training camp. He looked like the next great offensive weapon for Holmgren and Matt Hasselbeck. There was a pre-season game in San Diego where Obomanu went off and looked like a fantastic deep threat from the slot. That breakout year never materialized, and an injury that wiped his 2008 season off the books officially set his career into the slow lane.

He fought his way onto the 2009 roster as a special teams standout, but only caught four passes all year on a squad so bad the coach was fired after a single season. He made the 2010 roster despite another new coach who was turning over the roster like a rototiller. T.J. Houshmandzadeh was the big name in more ways than one, and he was gone. Deion Branch had been acquired for a first-round pick. Gone. Yet, Obomanu remained. His quiet determination and willingness to contribute anywhere and everywhere made him valuable in a way that most NFL egos cannot handle.

Ricardo Lockette, for example, has immense physical talents, but refused to contribute on special teams. He very well may have found a roster spot by now if he had applied himself to the less glamorous aspects of football. Where many people saw garbage duty, Obomanu saw a way to help his team and himself.

His hard work was rewarded during that 2010 season when he eventually ascended to the starting role opposite Mike Williams. He had more receptions in 2011, but his 2010 season was the best. In one three week span, Obomanu totalled 14 reception 306 yards 21.9 YPC and 2 TDs. That included a sparkling 5 catch 159 yard game against the Chiefs.

That season earned Obomanu a contract extension from Pete Carroll and John Schneider as he became a shining example of how everyone on the roster would be given a chance to compete and contribute. A new contract in the NFL generally buys you at least one year of security. That was the case with Obomanu.

Seattle had Lockette, Golden Tate, Terrell Owens, Braylon Edwards and Charlie Martin all competing with him at split end. There was real question again whether he would make the final roster. Lockette flashed early and then faded in the face of competition from Owens. Tate ascended and Edwards impressed. Yet, Obomanu remained.

He had earned the respect of his teammates and coaches over the years. He could play any of the receiver spots. He would fill in on special teams in any way that would help the team win. His career in Seattle would eventually come to end because his salary had to be applied to other pressing needs. The stars will always get paid in this league. It is the hard hat workers like Obomanu and Leon Washington that are sacrificed.

It would be easy for Obomanu's exit from the Seahawks to be as quiet as his entrance. Most fans will wring their hands more over a player like Washington's exit because he was such a fan favorite (and for good reason). Recognizing the contributions of the NFL's silent professionals, like Obomanu, matters more. He has become part of the fabric of this organization for seven seasons, without ever griping when things did not break his way. He seized the opportunities he was given. He leaves now to hopefully get a better opportunity with another team, but he will always be a Seahawk. Thanks, Ben, and good luck.

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.

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.

Sunday, March 10, 2013

PODCAST: 2013 Seahawks Free Agency Primer

Folks, this one is worth listening to. That's not to say every Hawk Blogger podcast isn't great, but Davis Hsu and Jacson Bevens helped me cover all the based heading into free agency in less than 48 hours. In particular, Davis dropped tons of useful salary cap knowledge so you will know what the Seahawks real budget is for spending, and what money needs to be saved for re-signing guys like Earl Thomas and Richard Sherman.

We debated the merits of extending players like Golden Tate, re-signing the likes of Alan Branch and Jason Jones, and who the most likely new additions will be. You will hear why Jacson and Davis are high on Charles Woodson, and why I am not. You will hear why Davis thinks another old USC connection may figure into the Seahawks free agency plans.

You will also hear us eagerly talking over each other because it's a conference call, and we all can't help ourselves. Stick it out for the full 80+ minutes, and I think you'll be happy you did.

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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!

Thursday, March 7, 2013

PODCAST: An Hour With Softy Talking Sherman and Seahawks

Softy had me on his show today to talk Richard Sherman and the upcoming free agent season. 


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The Facts Of Richard Sherman vs. Darrelle Revis

NFL debates are best settled on the field, but until Roger Goodell manages to create a 52-game schedule, there will be the off-season. The place where rhetoric goes unchecked, and legends are made with words instead of accomplishment. Such is the continuing debate about whether Richard Sherman or Darrelle Revis is the best cornerback in football. People know about the Twitter debate from a few weeks back. They now know about the pugilism on ESPN's First Take. Strip away all the talk. Look at the facts. There really is no debate that Sherman was a better player than Revis in 2012, or that Revis and Sherman are in the same class when both are healthy.

Statistics and accolades support the notion that Revis was the best cornerback in football entering the 2012 season. He was rated as the top cover corner by ProFootballFocus in two of the previous three seasons and had been voted First-Team All-Pro in each of those years.

Revis played exactly two games last season. It is not saying much to point out that Sherman, who had more All-Pro votes than any other defensive back in the NFL in 2012, was better than Revis during that time. The concept of, "if Revis was healthy," is irrelevant because the fact is that he was not. In fact, the better debate might be whether Casey Hayward belongs in the same class as Sherman after his stellar rookie campaign, but we will save that for another day.

The title of Best Corner in the NFL is transient. If the question was, "who is the best corner of all-time?" the tactics for answering would be far different. Revis was the best corner in the NFL. Richard Sherman now is. Should Revis return to form next season, then the real debate can begin.

Take a look at how each player performed in their last full season:

Courtesy of ProFootballFocus.com
A few things should jump out. First, people have dismissed the notion that Sherman's larger interception totals matter because the assumption is that Revis is getting fewer chances due to less balls being thrown his way. Not true. Sherman was targeted only two more times in 2012 than Revis was in 2011, and had double the interceptions. Perhaps that 2011 season was an abberation. Not true. The facts are that Revis has been targeted an average of 84.3 times per season since 2008, according to PFF. Yet, during that time, Revis has never had more than 6 interceptions in a season.

Playing corner is about more than picks. Revis allowed fewer passes to be completed and one fewer touchdown. Ultimately, Sherman had a bigger impact in coverage as opponent passer rating and PFF's coverage rating demonstrates.

Some may be wondering how wise it is to be referencing stats from a site that already pronounced Sherman is not quite as good as Revis. Again, look at the facts provided in that article, separate from the analysis:

- Sherman finished with a +25.4 overall grade and a +26.4 in coverage in 2012
- Revis' three-year average is +26.3 overall and +22.4 in coverage
- Opposing QB rating in 2012 for Sherman was 41.1
- Revis' three-year average is 44.6
- INT + Passes Defensed are nearly identical between the two

The writer concludes that Revis' masterful 2009 season separates him from Sherman. That was a season when Revis was thrown at 111 times, but managed to hold opposing quarterbacks to a 32.3 rating. Those are mind-boggling numbers. That said, it is subjective to use a season from three years ago to determine if one corner is better than another right now. The writer may very well be correct, but nowhere in that article does he imply Sherman is not in the same league as Revis. The facts simply do not support it.

There has also been plenty of talk about Revis being a player who is asked to do different things than Sherman. That may also be true, although I have not seen that quantified (i.e., percentage of snaps defending the opponents #1 receiver, etc.). If so, it works both ways. Sherman has not only intercepted more passes per game than Revis in his career, but already has more career forced fumbles and has equaled Revis' career sack total. According to Pro-Football-Reference.com, no NFL player has ever had 3+ FF, 8+ interceptions, 21+ passes defended and 1+ sacks in the same season until Sherman did it last year. Don't care for sacks from a CB? Substitute touchdowns scored. Sherman had an interception returned for a TD and a blocked kick returned for a TD. No player, according to PFR, had ever compiled Sherman's FF, INT, PD totals and scored a touchdown in a season until Sherman did it.

In a league where turnovers are often the difference between wins and losses, it is hard to fathom why so many are so quick to dismiss Sherman's clear advantage in forcing them through the air or on the ground.

Many will read this article and call it Seahawks homerism from a Seahawks blogger. So be it. Everything presented here is a fact, or is an error in a statistics database somewhere. The facts are undeniable, and they say Sherman was a better player than Revis in 2012 and is certainly in the same class as Revis even when Revis is healthy. Sherman has not yet had a peak season that matches what Revis did in 2009, but then again, neither has Revis. Both are terrific talents that offenses must respect. They deserve to be mentioned in the same breath.

Wednesday, March 6, 2013

Cheer Or Fear Revis To The 49ers?

There continues to be speculation that John Idzik and the NY Jets are trying to lure the San Francisco 49ers into a trade for star cornerback Darrelle Revis. This qualifies as NFL national media gold as it involves a Super Bowl team, the Jets and a league superstar. The simple narrative would be, "49ers a lock to win the Super Bowl," should they make the trade for Revis. Arguably the best defense in the NFL since 2011 would add a legitimate Defensive Player of the Year candidate. What's not to like, right? The truth is much more complicated. In fact, Seahawks fans may find themselves hoping their division rival pulls the trigger.

The 49ers have an expensive defense, and are starting to struggle with keeping it together under the salary cap. Their Pro Bowl safety, Dashon Goldson, was not franchised, and will very likely find greener pastures somewhere else next season. Acquiring a player like Revis would require two things, draft picks and a cap space.

San Francisco has plenty of draft choices, but not plenty of the 1st and 2nd round picks it may require to get Revis. Any time a division rival surrenders high draft choices for a high-priced veteran, it is a good thing.

The cap space Revis requires would have an impact on who else the team could add via free agency over the next few seasons, and possibly require them to shed more talent from the team. Even if it is only loss of depth, it is also a good thing.

Guaranteeing big money to Revis would marry the team to him for the foreseeable future. This is a player that missed most of last year due to injury. Revis has not been an injury-prone player, but another injury while taking up significant cap space would have a dramatic impact on the 49ers.

It is not, however, all risk.

Revis would make the 49ers already potent pass pressure more effective. It would significantly improve their ability to compete against top-end quarterbacks that have given them trouble at times (e.g., Eli Manning, Joe Flacco). Vic Fangio is one of the best coordinators in the NFL, and would have a field day designing a defense that only had to guard half the field or could ignore the opposing team's best receiver. The debate would be how much better the defense would be with Revis, but without Goldson and Carlos Rogers.

Seattle's offense would largely be unaffected by a shutdown corner on San Francisco. Seattle has attacked the 49ers defense on the ground. When they have passed, it has been to a variety of receivers and tight ends. There is not a clear reliance on a star receiver or a potent passing attack to win. Imagine Revis holding Sidney Rice to 1 catch for 8 yards. Is he also going to keep Marshawn Lynch from rushing for 100+ yards again? Keep Doug Baldwin from scoring another touchdown against SF? Guard Anthony McCoy and/or a third receiving tight end threat? Will Revis keep Russell Wilson from scrambling for yardage?

Revis is a true talent, and would make San Francisco more formidable in some ways. The cost of acquiring him and signing him would reduce the 49ers flexibility and make it less likely the team could address other needs. That is part of why it seems quite unlikely the 49ers will be drawn into the trade. Do not fear Darrelle Revis in a 49ers uniform, Seahawks fans. Seattle is built to beat San Francisco with, or without, Revis, and his addition could very well lead to a more trouble than it is worth for their division rival.