Seahawks Face Brutal Off-Season Decisions
By Corbin Smith
It's hard to believe it has already been two weeks since the confetti came down like rain at MetLife Stadium and the Seattle Seahawks brought the Lombardi Trophy to the Pacific Northwest for the first time. The city remains energized following the historic victory, and the celebration should linger for quite some time.
Players, coaches, and fans alike have continued to bask in championship glory since crushing the Denver Broncos in Super Bowl XLVIII on February 2. Defensive ends Michael Bennett and Cliff Avril took over SportsCenter for a day last week, with linebackers Bobby Wagner and Malcolm Smith joining in on the fun. Other players have received plenty of attention after winning the most coveted prize in professional sports, but reality must now come to the forefront for the Seahawks. In a league where championship windows tend to slam closed rather quickly, Seattle faces a plethora of difficult roster decisions this off-season that will ultimately decide if this team can pursue another title.
After defeating Peyton Manning and the Broncos 43-8 in New Jersey, analysts began to question whether or not this Seahawks franchise could evolve into a dynasty. Armed with one of the game's youngest rosters and financial flexibility generated by cheap rookie contracts for quarterback Russell Wilson and other key players, it's easy to understand why that potential is up for discussion. With Wilson not able to re-structure his contract until after next season, the Seahawks will be able to enjoy that luxury for another year, but that doesn't mean that General Manager John Schneider won't face financial obstacles this spring.
Seattle has built a defensive juggernaut through strong drafting and thrifty off-season spending, and now many of the unheralded stars who carry this unit will be aiming to land a big pay day. Safety Earl Thomas and corner Richard Sherman both garnered attention as NFL Defensive Player of the Year candidates in 2013, and the Seahawks have no intention of letting either player leave. With both Thomas and Sherman entering the final year of their respective rookie contracts, Schneider will have to open up the checkbook and give substantial pay raises to keep them from hitting the free agent market. Considering Seattle's thin wiggle room regarding the salary cap, making this situation work may not be as simple as originally anticipated.
Many believed next spring would be the major challenge for Schneider, when Wilson becomes eligible for his lucrative long-term contract extension. While the Seahawks have several high-priced veterans who can easily be let go of to create cap space this spring, that option may not be available next year. At some point, Schneider will have to start letting talented young players go because the team simply cannot afford to keep everyone, and he'd be wise to start looking at potential cap casualties now rather than later.
Thomas and Sherman will be locked up for big contracts, and that's a given. Schneider will not let either of these guys sniff the free agent market and he'll pony up the dough necessary to keep them in Seattle. Wilson will get his massive pay raise next year, and that's also a given. He's been nothing short of sensational since becoming the starter as a rookie in 2012 and rightfully has earned the right to be paid like an elite quarterback. After signing those three, however, the situation becomes much murkier. Money doesn't grow on trees, and every NFL team that has given a max contract to a quarterback in recent years has had to cut several high-quality players as a consequence. It'll be no different for the Seahawks, especially with players like Thomas and Sherman also carrying large cap numbers.
It'd be easy for Seattle to look at this year as a chance to bring back most of the roster and go after another championship with the roster mostly intact, but that type of strategy could prove to be a major mistake in the long run. Bringing current free agents like Golden Tate and Bennett back this spring would be a major boost for the Seahawks chances next year, but it would also create even less flexibility for next year.
So what should the Seahawks main focus be heading into 2014? Title windows don't stay open long, so keeping the roster together makes sense from that standpoint. However, going "all in" for one season could jeopardize Seattle's long-term prospects as a perennial threat in the NFC. Here's a look at who the Seahawks should keep, and who the team should cut loose over the next few months.
WHO TO KEEP: Of all the current free agents, Bennett seems to be the one who Seattle needs to retain the most. He returned to the team on a one-year deal and exceeded all expectations, providing a strong defense with another standout pass rusher. His versatility makes him a valuable commodity, as he played snaps both at defensive end and nose tackle last season. The Seahawks may look to move a defensive end like Chris Clemons, but it'd be hard to envision Schneider and Carroll not wanting to bring Bennett back for another go around.
The Seahawks also should be able to keep defensive tackle Clinton McDonald at a fairly reasonable price. McDonald doesn't get a lot of publicity, but he played a pivotal role in Seattle's improvement rushing the passer this year He tallied 5.5 sacks, recorded a fumble, and managed to even make an interception in 2013. Other teams may give him a look and present a big offer, which could make him tough to re-sign, but the Seahawks should have a good chance of retaining him.
Tate's status presents a more challenging predicament. He led the team with 64 receptions and 898 receiving yards while also providing a lethal weapon as a punt returner, but does his overall body of work warrant giving him a large contract? Seattle has to decide whether or not Tate will be one of the the focal points of the offense moving forward. If he is truly willing to take a little less money to stay on a contender, this could end up working out for both sides and the Seahawks should try to reach a deal with him. If he wants big bucks, it would be hard to justify retaining him considering Percy Harvin's contract, and the team should instead draft a replacement.
One wild card could be corner Walter Thurmond. Prior to his suspension late in the season, many scouts viewed him as a highly coveted free agent. Durability concerns as well as the suspension may have depreciated his value on the market enough for Seattle to have a shot at bringing him back into the fold. If he doesn't get major offers to start elsewhere, he could easily wind up back with the Seahawks and continue playing as a nickel corner behind Sherman and Byron Maxwell.
WHO TO RELEASE: The Seahawks won't keep Sidney Rice and may consider letting tight end Zach Miller go as well. Both veterans have big cap numbers for the 2014 season and haven't lived up to expectations since coming to Seattle, which makes them easy targets to open up cap space for other players. Clemons may also end up being a cap casualty despite a strong finish to the season, but his release doesn't appear imminent either. If the team must let a pass rusher go, he'll be the first one out the door.
Corner Brandon Browner won't play another down for the Seahawks, as the emergence of Maxwell made that an easy decision for the franchise. Away from Browner, the Seahawks will negotiate with most other immediate free agents, including Tate. Schneider may not be able to keep both McDonald and defensive tackle Tony McDaniel due to increased interest from other teams, but simply retaining one of them would be sufficient. Keeping both at a cheap price would be an added bonus.
The offensive line may present the toughest decisions for the Seahawks this off-season. Tackle Breno Giacomini has a mean streak and has moments where he plays at a high level, but he's also had injury problems and has always been a penalty machine. He and veteran guard Paul McQuistan both appear expendable thanks to the upside of young linemen Alvin Bailey and Michael Bowie. The Seahawks could also replace Giacomini through the draft at a much lower cost to the team. Looking ahead, don't expect James Carpenter to be back either, and even Russell Okung could be on the outside looking in long-term if he continues to struggle with injury problems.