Thursday, February 27, 2014

2014 Seahawks Off-Season Analysis Part VIII: Summary & Recommendations

The Seahawks are Super Bowl Champs. The best team in football. Players want to be with them, teams want to be like them. So starts the Dynasty Off-Season for one of the youngest teams to ever win the Lombardi Trophy. This series will dig into each position group, look at who we have, who might be available, and what the team may do in each area. It will end with a projected off-season plan. You can check out last season's analysis here. They have been largely accurate, so if you want to know what Seattle will do before they do it, look no further.

Part I: Defensive Line
Part II: Wide Receivers & Tight Ends
Part III: Secondary
Part IV: Linebackers

Part V: Offensive Line
Part VI: Running Backs & Fullbacks
Part VII: Quarterbacks
Part VIII: Summary & Recommendations


In just over a week, on March 8th, clubs will have permission to enter into contract negotiations with unrestricted free agents. They cannot be signed until the new league year starts a few days later on March 11th at 1PM PT. Qualifying offers to restricted free agents will have to be made. Clubs must be under the salary cap by the same time. Rumors will fly. Twitter will throttle updates so humans can have a chance to keep up with the blizzard when a big name hits. Let the games begin.

Seattle enters the new league year as the best team in football. They are better equipped to sustain their championship level than any team since the Patriots from the early part of the new millennium. Besides being the youngest Super Bowl winner in history, and having a salary structure that should allow them to maintain their core players long-term, the league is rumored to be raising the salary cap as much as $10M over what it was for the last few years to $133M. The Seahawks had been rolling over money from previous years since 2010, which had allowed them to essentially spend more than the cap for some time, but a larger-than-expected rise in the cap this year comes at the perfect time for a team trying to keep the band together.

What we have seen in the past is that when there is more money to spend, the top-tier players get most of it as bidding wars lead to crazy guaranteed money, while mid-tier free agents got squeezed. I expect things to happen differently this time. There will always been a GM who is not good at his or her job and pays through the nose for a star. Most, though, will see how Seattle, San Francisco, and St. Louis are building a depth of talent that leads to consistent winning. That one 10-12 sack defensive end will not be as helpful as two 8 sack players that could possibly be had for a similar price. The days of guys like Cliff Avril and Michael Bennett being available for inexpensive, short-term deals while in the mid-20s are likely over.

Seattle will enter free agency largely with gaps created by player departures. In most cases, re-signing those players will be prioritized before replacing them. They will clear space by saying goodbye to some familiar players. The overarching goal of this off-season will be to reassemble a team with many of the same capabilities as the one they exited last season with. This draft will be one of the most crucial elements in determining just how long the Seahawks can maintain their championship level. Godspeed, John Schneider.

The Priority List

  1. Extend Earl Thomas
  2. Interior Pass Rusher
  3. LEO / Edge Rusher
  4. Flanker or Split End 
  5. Tackle or Guard
  6. 3-Techniqe Defensive Tackle (run stuffer)
  7. Back-Up Quarterback
  8. Back-Up Weakside Linebacker 
  9. Back-Up Middle Linebacker
  10. Nickel Corner
  11. Kicker

#1 - Extend Earl Thomas
Fans watch front office moves for fun. New names are generally more exciting than old ones. Players watch as well. But they want to see if the front office is going to reward the players that have put in the time and helped the team reach the point where they are now. No player fits that bill more than Thomas, who was arguably the best player on the best defense in a decade or more. Not only does the team need to sign Thomas to an extension because he may be the most irreplaceable player on the whole roster, but they should sign him before adding any new free agent as a statement that they take care of their own. A Thomas extension has the trickle-down effect of nearly guaranteeing Richard Sherman will stay with the team for the foreseeable future. Russell Wilson is going to get his extension next year. If Thomas is signed, that means the Seahawks will have the Franchise Tag to use as leverage in talks with Sherman. Trying to sign Thomas, Sherman and Wilson simultaneously would be a disaster. Thomas is the priority. Do it now.
Projection: Thomas extended before the league year begins

#2 - Interior Pass Rusher
Jared Allen is not an interior pass rusher. Michael Johnson is not an interior pass rusher. Greg Hardy is not an interior pass rusher. Many fans continue to point out players to replace Michael Bennett who would absolutely not replace Michael Bennett. Bennett is actually a 3-in-1 player. His most valuable asset to the Seahawks is his ability to create pressure from the inside as a defensive tackle. If the team is unable to sign him, they will need to spend some free agent dollars on a player with that ability. Names like Henry Melton, Alex Carrington, Vance Walker, and Jason Hatcher are interior pass rushers. None have demonstrated the combination of production, durability, and versatility that Bennett has while being under 30. The Seahawks will not break the bank for Bennett, but they will pay him a lot of money to stay around. I expect him to be starting where Red Bryant did the past few seasons, and be available to swing inside in nickel situations to allow another edge rusher onto the field. Keep in mind, the team is losing Clinton McDonald as well. They have some players on the roster who could help next year, but they must supplement with at least one free agent.
Projection: Michael Bennett re-signed; Greg Scruggs, Jordan Hill, Michael Brooks and possibly a draft choice compete for snaps

#3 - LEO / Edge Pass Rusher
This is not really a need for 2014. This is about managing roster costs beyond 2014. Cliff Avril is entering the final year of his deal. There is little proven edge rush talent beyond him. Chris Clemons will be released. Bruce Irvin has not proven he can be a LEO on a regular basis. Benson Mayowa could grow into something. That is pretty thin at a key area, and very costly one to address if a team needs to do it through free agency. There are some veteran edge rushers like Allen, Justin Tuck, and Shaun Phillips who could be added on a short-term deal to replace Clemons. There are some young and talented options like Everson Griffen who could become more appealing if the team loses out on Bennett. The logic there would be that the Seahawks are willing to spend bigger money on one defensive line player this off-season, and if they lose out on their top priority in Bennett, they may consider a guy like Griffen to be the next best place to put their money. That would mean signing a veteran or more limited interior guy. It would not be totally shocking to see a Griffen and McDonald signing instead of a Bennett and Phillips. The team really needs to hit on a LEO in the draft. They have yet to find that player. Irvin was supposed to be that guy, and still may be, but they need to add to the pile. A guy I'd like to see them bring back who could help here and at SAM linebacker is O'Brien Schofield.
Projection: Clemons released, a veteran free agent added, at least one draft pick

#4 - Flanker or Split End
Sidney Rice played flanker. Golden Tate played split end. Both will be free agents. Percy Harvin will mostly be used as a slot receiver. Doug Baldwin filled in for Rice at flanker and slid inside to slot as well. Jermaine Kearse plays all three receiver positions. This pedestrian group become The Walking Dread for defenses last year. The most likely scenario is that they reprise their roles once more in 2014. My spidey sense tells me otherwise. Make no mistake, the team will not keep both Baldwin and Tate long-term. They have already committed a massive amount to Harvin. Should they sign Tate to even a moderate deal, there is no way they will want to pay Baldwin market value after next season. This is not a passing team, and they need to control costs at a position that will only get 25 chances to catch the ball each game. That is why we may see Schneider be more willing to listen to trade offers for Baldwin this year. Assume that Tate re-signs. Schneider will need to decide whether keeping Baldwin for one more year and then losing him for no compensation is better than trading him for a draft choice, and recouping ~$2M in cap space to spend elsewhere.

This is a rare situation where what I would do differs from what I think the Seahawks will do. I think the Seahawks can draft a tall outside receiver, and need to add that element to their attack. I think Kearse is more capable of filling in for Tate than Baldwin. I value separation receivers like Baldwin more than ran-after-catch receivers like Tate. I expect Baldwin to be less expensive than Tate. These are all the reasons I would let Tate go, and look to sign Baldwin to an extension after next year. I just do not see the Seahawks taking that route.
Projection: Tate re-signed, Rice released, at least one receiver drafted (over 6'2"), Baldwin traded

#5 - Tackle or Guard
Similar to #4 above, the Seahawks have players on the roster who can play either of these positions, but need to add more. Michael Bowie and Alvin Bailey could be starting right tackles or starting guards. If the team signs Breno Giacomini or drafts a starting-caliber tackle, Bowie and Bailey can compete for guard snaps. If the team signs or drafts a starting-caliber guard, Bowie and Bailey can compete for tackle snaps. The one thing we can be certain of is that the team will add talent to this position group. It would not be shocking to see the team spend another high draft choice here. Consider that the Seahawks are #14 in the NFL in OL spending. That does not make a lot of sense for a team that relies on the running game so much. The 49ers have three first-round picks on their line. Tom Cable is a magician with coaching up late-round talent, but the team needs to have a line that can win on pure physical talent. The rise in the salary cap could mean the team brings back a player like Giacomini or adds a different veteran free agent. A little birdie told me there may be some mutual interest in Broncos guard Zane Beadles.
Projection: Giacomini re-signed, 1-2 tackle or guard drafted, open competition at left guard

#6 - 3-Technique Defensive Tackle (run stuffer)
Tony McDaniel was the perfect fit here last season. Very few folks realize how fortunate we are that he stayed healthy and played well. There was literally no other credible options on the team for an early down run stuffer to play next to Brandon Mebane. Jordan Hill was injured, and is more of a pass rusher than a stout run defender. Jesse Williams was out the whole year. McDaniel did his job for under $1M. Seattle has been fortunate to find players like Alan Branch and McDaniel to fill this little-understood-but-crucial role. Look for them to do it again this year, while also giving young players like Williams, Michael Brooks and possibly a draft choice a chance to compete for snaps.
Projection: 1 bargain veteran free agent (short-term), 1 draft choice

#7 - Back-Up QB
This should be a given.
Projection: Re-sign Tarvaris Jackson

#8 - Back-Up Weakside LB
Malcolm Smith earned a starting role with his play down the stretch in 2013. Durability has been an issue for him at times, though, and he is entering his final year. K.J. Wright can always swing back to WILL, but there is no reason for the team to wait for next year to begin developing talent that could step in as a starting linebacker in 2015.
Projection: 1 drafted WILL

#9 - Back-Up Middle LB
Bobby Wagner is setup for a monster 2014. Wright is a capable back-up, but is a free agent after this year. Heath Farwell could very well be released to save $1.5M in cap space. The cupboard is bare beyond that at the MIKE LB spot. Look for the team to add to the pile via the draft.
Projection: 1 drafted MIKE 

#10 - Nickel CB
Jeremy Lane gets this role by default next season, but will be challenged by Akeem Auguste. That is not enough. The team needs to add to this spot, and could use a mid-round pick to do it.
Projection: Possibly 1 CB drafted (6' or under)

#11 - Kicker
Steven Hauschka is a free agent. He was fantastic last year. Bring him back.
Projection: Hauschka is re-signed

OTHER - Safety | Tight End
I continue to see Zach Miller as a player the team will keep, and will not disrespect with a reduced salary. If they want to reduce his cap number, they might do it via an extension, which nobody has discussed. Most likely, he stays, and the team looks to re-sign Anthony McCoy as a 3rd tight end instead of Kellen Davis.

Safety will be a catch-as-catch-can situation. If a safety the team likes shows up on the board, the team will not hesitate to take him. Jeron Johnson is a free agent, and Deshawn Shead is unproven. The biggest risk every year to Seattle's ability to be a championship team is the health of Earl Thomas. If they do not take a safety in the draft, look for them to bargain hunt there in the undrafted market or special teams-type unrestricted free agent.

TOTALS:
Chris Clemons, Red Bryant, Sidney Rice released
Earl extended
Bennett re-signed
1 Veteran Free Agent 3-Tech DT (short-term deal)
1 Veteran Free Agent DE/LEO (short-term deal)
1 Free Agent #3 TE
1 Free Agent OT or OG
Tate re-signed
Baldwin traded
Hauschka re-signed
Tarvaris re-signed
1 Drafted DT
1 Drafted LEO/DE
1 Drafted WR
2 Drafted LB
1 Drafted OT or OG
1 Drafted TE

The team will likely be looking to move back and pick up picks wherever they can. They have to covet more than the seven picks they have. A Baldwin trade could be part of the solution there. Another name that could be involved in a trade is Robert Turbin. This is a weak running back draft, and Turbin could be appealing to a team for 4th or 5th, allowing Christine Michael and Spencer Ware to step forward.

If the Seahawks only extend Thomas, and have a solid B grade draft, they will have a successful off-season. A home run would be to extend Thomas, get Bennett for a reasonable 3-year deal, and draft a promising young receiver and promising edge pass rusher. They need at least one more body on the offensive line to compete, but they can win with the players they have there.

This is the year that flexibility starts to decrease. Choices between Player A and Player B have to be made. It will start somewhat slowly this off-season, and will hit full tilt next year. The biggest threat to Seattle competing for a repeat trip to the Super Bowl will be injury no matter how this off-season plays out. They have a championship roster without adding anyone. This off-season is about making wise fiscal bets on players who can reinforce areas in the short-term, while finding young players who can grow into starting-caliber contributors at low cost in 2015 and beyond. Pass rush is the most costly thing to acquire after a quarterback, and Seattle has yet to really strike big via the draft with a player like that. Re-signing a player like Bennett may have the biggest impact on short-term performance, but finding a young edge rusher probably plays the largest role in keeping this team among the elite beyond the next three seasons.

The free agent market is deep in defensive lineman and the draft is deep in a variety of positions. Schneider excels even when the ground is arid. A field this fertile should be like shooting fish in a barrel.


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