Thursday, February 6, 2014

More Please: An Overview Of Seahawks Off-Season Priorities

The 2012 draft class vaulted this team past San Francisco to the top of the NFL

I was feeling a little guilty yesterday, even Sunday night. Pete Carroll helped. As excited as I have been for all the events that transpired over the last few days, I could not help but move on to what comes next. I find myself drawn to the future so much more than the present, and it seemed wrong not to be completely consumed by celebration. I was ready to write about off-season priorities by Monday, but chose to let the blog sit silent while folks got to focus on what matters most. Carroll has a similar perspective. He's "enjoying the heck out of" what is happening now, but his true focus is on sustaining this level of play. There lies the Seahawks next opportunity to frustrate national doubters. They will say the salary cap will limit the Seahawks reign. They will say teams will gain on the Seahawks in the draft and free agency, while pilfering top talent from Seattle. Carroll and John Schneider face one of their most important off-seasons as they look to torture this league for many years to come.

Everyone is going to have to adjust to an abbreviated off-season schedule. The players, the coaches, the front office, and even the blogs. My off-season evaluations and recommendations are typically nearly done by now. I would have been watching Senior Bowl practices and getting to know other prospects. Same goes for Carroll, who typically attends the Senior Bowl. The best news for Seattle, besides that whole world champions thing, is that their long run in the playoffs forced Cleveland to go another direction at head coach instead of Dan Quinn. Continuity of the coaching staff is a big plus. Carroll and Schneider can focus on managing the roster.

The Calendar

Here are a few key dates to be aware of:
  • February 17th - First day for clubs to designate franchise or transition players
  • February 19-25th - Combine
  • March 8-11th - Clubs are permitted to contact, and enter into contract negotiations with, the certified agents of players who will become unrestricted free agents upon the expiration of their 2013 player contracts at 4 p.m. ET on March 11. However, a contract cannot be executed with a new club until 4 p.m. ET on March 11.
  • March 11th - New league year begins, start of free agency. Also, clubs must exercise options for 2014 on all players who have options in their 2013 contracts. Also, clubs must submit qualifying offers to restricted free agents. All clubs must be under the 2014 salary cap by 4PM ET
  • May 2nd - Deadline for restricted free agents to sign offer sheets
  • May 8-10th - NFL draft
Note that this is the first year the draft will be moved out a full month from its typical April time-frame. This works to Seattle's advantage. They are the first Super Bowl champion to have approximately the same amount of time to prepare for the draft as teams that exited in the first round had in previous years. Granted, other teams have even more time, but this front office has been working on prospects year around, and now has plenty of time to get ready for the draft. 

Free agency, on the other hand, is going to come up quickly, and there will be some very difficult decisions to make. Schneider and Carroll tend to go through all the eventualities throughout the season, so it is not like they will be talking about what to do with Golden Tate for the first time. Still, these are pivotal decisions, and the choice to let someone go is going to be at least as important as keeping someone around.

Free Agency

The most controversial decision Schneider and Carroll will need to make is what they do at wide receiver. Tate is an unrestricted free agent. Doug Baldwin is a restricted free agent. I have a hard time imagining Carroll being satisfied going into next season with their three primary receiving options (Tate, Baldwin, Harvin) all under six feet tall. He values big receivers, even if this trio has been more than good enough to win a Super Bowl. The team has to allow Tate to hit free agency to see what the market is for him. He has already said he would take less to stay in Seattle, and everyone would love to see him stay, but with a draft rich in receiver talent and mega-deals coming down the pike for Earl Thomas, Richard Sherman and Russell Wilson, I expect either Baldwin or Tate to be wearing another uniform next season. 

Baldwin would require a trade to be made, and that increases the chances he will be playing elsewhere next season, in an odd sort of way. Seattle will apply a second-round tender to Baldwin, meaning another club would have to give them a second-round pick if they signed him, and would likely consider an offer of a 3rd and a 5th. I am not convinced Carroll has ever bought into Baldwin the way he buys into Tate, which plays a role here as well. From a straight personnel standpoint, the Seahawks would have a harder time replacing Baldwin's skill set than Tate's, and if you want a bigger receiver, they tend to play split end like Tate. 

There is some future that includes Tate, Baldwin, and a young draft choice to groom for a year a la Christine Michael at RB, but that's not the most likely scenario.

The most intriguing decision will be with Breno Giacomini. Seattle was better with him in the lineup, and at 28, he could be around for a while. My guess is that the team will see what his price is on the open market, and see if they can get by with Michael Bowie or Alvin Bailey at RT. They have talent there, can draft more, and have a coach in Tom Cable that can do wonders. Every penny saved will matter.

Obviously, Michael Bennett is the most important free agent of the bunch. He is also 28, and could land a five-year deal that gets him into his early 30s. It will probably be something that translates to a 3-year deal after guarantees are factored in. The team cannot afford to let him walk. His departure would represent the biggest threat to continued championship play of anyone who could leave. Interior rushers are a rare breed, far more rare than edge rushers. Trying to replace him via the draft would be foolhardy. They need to find his number, meet it, and then adjust everyone else's offers to compensate. That is how important he is.

Tony McDaniel is one who probably moves on, but played a vital role on the line. There really is not another run-stuffing 3-technique on the roster unless Jesse Williams actually can play (I have written Williams off with a degenerative knee condition). He could be a late signing if he is still around for the 1 year deal he signed last year, but another team will probably bite before that. Clinton McDonald was fantastic this year, but he will command too much on the open market to return. Seattle has Jordan Hill and Michael Brooks who offer some of the same things, and simply cannot afford to pay a rotational DT $3M+ per year.  

It will be interesting to see if the team places the franchise tag on Steven Hauschka. That would mean about a $3M deal for one year. It would simplify the moving parts the front office needs to nail down, but would restrict the money available this year. The only other player I could see a tag applied to would be Bennett, but that would be an $8M deal if he was a DT or $11M deal if he was considered a DE. No way I see that happening.

Say goodbye to Walter Thurmond (too expensive), Paul McQuistan (younger, cheaper options), Brandon Browner (suspension). O'Brien Schofield could be another guy they try to keep if he is affordable. He gives the team flexibility in a number of spots, and Carroll is a big fan. Schofield played significant snaps in the Super Bowl. Tarvaris Jackson likely returns. Lemuel Juanpierre is a great backup center, and the team has to want him back if the number is right. Chris Maragos is a great special teams player and the current backup free safety, but he may get a better offer elsewhere since DeShawn Shead is coming up behind him for less money. 

The Draft

Expect receiver, offensive line, cornerback, and defensive line to be focal points. This draft will go a long ways toward determining how long this Seahawks run will be. There is little to show for last year's draft. Bowie, Bailey and Luke Willson made meaningful contributions. Michael could be a dynamite addition next year that the world does not realize yet. Seattle needs to draft at least four players who are starting quality within two years to keep this train on the tracks. Replacing older, more expensive, players with younger players under club control is absolutely vital when guys like Thomas, Sherman and Wilson get their deals. 

The four players I mentioned from the 2013 class should all be starters next year or the year after. San Francisco had an empty draft in 2012, and that was enough, combined with a draft for the ages by Seattle that same year, to cause a swap between the teams in terms of overall talent. Where the starting talent from the draft plays is less important than finding it. If you find a great left tackle prospect that means you wind up letting a very expensive left tackle in Russell Okung move on in a few years, you do it. 

There are only a few players that are true rocks in the river that everything else must flow around. Earl Thomas is in that category. Russell Wilson is in that category. Richard Sherman is probably in that category, but it is close. The list might end there. Everywhere else, the team should be open to finding younger talent that is both better and cheaper. The tough part is finding better talent when the guys you have a championship-caliber players. 

Off-Season Coverage

You can expect continued analysis of all things Seahawks here at HawkBlogger.com throughout the off-season. After all, the off-season is my second favorite type of season! I owe my family some more of my time, but look for a complete breakdown of position groups and off-season plans in the coming weeks. The Dynasty Off-Season begins now.

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