Michael Bennett. Check. Earl Thomas. Check. Richard Sherman. Check. Doug Baldwin. Check. The prevailing wisdom is that the Seahawks are done signing players to new deals after a wildly productive off-season. I don’t believe that to be true. John Schneider is trying to sign one more player to an extension. The questions are: who might it be, and who should it be?
Many local media are talking about whether the Seahawks can extend Wright before he becomes an unrestricted free agent next season. The coaching staff is a huge fan of his versatility, being the only player who can start at any of the three linebacker positions. He has been a starter from snap one of his rookie season, and seems to still have some upside.
Smith is the other linebacker about to become an unrestricted free agent next year. The Super Bowl MVP will not fetch what Wright will on the open market because he has proven less. He has, however, made more impact plays in his stint as a starter at weakside linebacker than Wright has in any stretch of his career. Smith had 6 tackles for loss, 4 interceptions and two touchdowns in six starts, plus a seventh game filling in for the injured Wright in SF. Wright had 6 TFLs in 13 regular season starts last year, and has never had more than 8 in a full season. He has 1 career interception and no touchdowns. What Smith has not done is prove his durability or that his outstanding performance over the last third of 2013 can be sustained. He may not even be a starter come September.
Maxwell subbed for a suspended Walter Thurmond III, and excelled. He had four interceptions in the final four games of the regular season, and added forced fumble in the Super Bowl. He has had durability issues, largely with soft tissue injuries to things like his hamstrings, and needs to show this year that he can be a full-time starter instead of a sparkling sub. He will command a long-term deal with large numbers as an unrestricted free agent next season unless he suffers a serious injury or his performance regresses substantially.
Okung has one season where he has started more than 12 games after making 48 consecutive starts in college. He is among the best left tackles in the NFL, despite the grumbling from Seahawks fans about his durability. He has been the best lineman for Seattle, without question, when he has been on the field. His contract runs through 2015, but the team is free to enter into extension talks with him whenever they wish. The fact that he is recovering from surgery makes him an unlikely candidate.
Avril is one-of-a-kind on the Seahawks roster. There is some evidence that Bruce Irvin could fill Avril’s role as a nickel pass rushing end, but Avril was a franchise tag talent for Detroit. He has sustained his sack artistry over a number of seasons, and combines splendidly with Bennett on the inside. When people talked about the Seahawks deadly pass rush last season, 80% of that really was due to Avril and Bennett. Among his many talents, Avril excels at separating the ball from the quarterback. Last year was third time he finished the year with at least four forced fumbles. His contract ends after this season, and Seattle does not have a proven player to take his spot as a featured rusher. The complication with Avril is that he has been a strongside pass rusher his whole career, and the LEO position he is taking over from Chris Clemons this year is a weakside spot. That means his pass rush moves and lean will need to be opposite of what they have been, and he will need to show that he can beat left tackles instead of tight ends and right tackles. Avril was clear in camp last year that he strongly prefers rushing from the side he has more experience with.
Most likely player
Wright is the most likely player the Seahawks are trying to extend. Not only has he proven his performance is sustainable, but the coaching staff sees a value in him beyond the numbers he produces on the field. He would be more affordable than an Avril or Okung or Maxwell, but more expensive than a Smith. One interesting angle is that having Wright on the roster is a hedge against having to go all out to retain Bobby Wagner the following season since Wright could be a good starter at middle linebacker if the team needed him there. My issue with extending Wright is that he has yet to show even Pro Bowl-level performance. He does not make many impact plays. He is a very solid and very versatile linebacker who is clearly well above average. That feels more like a Golden Tate-level player that the team should let hit the open market and decide if he is worth what that market bears. The team has a plethora of strongside linebacker candidates from Bruce Irvin to Korey Toomer to O’Brien Schofield and more. Wright starts at weakside now, and it is his least effective spot so far. Smith is a natural WILL linebacker, and so is Kevin Pierre-Louis. From an overall roster strategy standpoint and cost vs. value assessment, Wright is a player I would let walk.
Player the team should prioritize
Edge pass rushers are not easy to come by. Seattle has one in Avril who is among the best in the NFL, and who has stated openly that he would like to remain here. He just turned 28, and should be productive for another 4-5 years. Pass rushers got some big paydays this off-season, so the chances Seattle will be able to keep him are probably slim. My hope is the team is talking to his representation first, and if the numbers are too far apart, they can move down to the next player on the list. There is a real chance that Avril is not the same player as a LEO that he was as a nickel strongside rusher. That is the risk. Comparing that risk to the idea that an unproven player like Benson Mayowa or Cassius Marsh or another will be worthy of the starting LEO position next year makes is far more palatable. The hardest thing to find in the NFL after a franchise quarterback is quality pass rushers. Seattle has one, and they should be working to keep him around.