We used to be in there, now we’re out here
Although no one attached to the Seahawks would ever admit it, this season was less about winning than about building a team that can win next year and beyond. The Seahawks are among the youngest teams in the NFL, and realistic observers knew they would struggle this season with a new quarterback, young offensive linemen and a young secondary.
Despite injuries across the entire offense, the Seahawks did better than we thought they would and yet not as well as they could have. But they certainly made progress, as the play of the defense (ranked ninth) and the late production from the running game showed.
The record (7-9) might have been the same as last year, and the Hawks might not have made the playoffs as they did last year, but there is little doubt this team is improved at almost every spot but quarterback.
Many fans think they are poised to make the playoffs next season, and they might be able to even if Tarvaris Jackson is their quarterback (although, as we have said, they can’t win a playoff game with him pulling the trigger).
But they also have to re-sign a few key players first.
The future of Marshawn Lynch has been foremost on people’s minds the last few weeks as he has been among the hottest rushers in the league, and the Seahawks have been talking to his agent about a contract extension.
But Lynch is not the only key player the Hawks will have to decide whether to keep in 2012. He’s not even the most important.
Red Bryant, David Hawthorne and Leroy Hill also will be free agents, and Chris Clemons has only one year left on his contract and might seek an extension based on his excellent play the past two years.
The Seahawks figure to have plenty of salary cap space, especially since they have hacked and slashed all of the big deals that were on their books: Aaron Curry, Marcus Trufant, Lofa Tatupu, Colin Cole, et al.
Teams reportedly can get credit for unused cap space under the new CBA, and the Seahawks reportedly finished the season $20 million under the cap. Including that money, they figure to have as much as $70 million to spend this year.
That would be plenty of money to sign Green Bay backup quarterback Matt Flynn, if they chose, and bring back Lynch, Bryant, Hawthorne, Hill and others. But Pete Carroll and John Schneider have shown they aren’t going to throw money at just anyone – Zach Miller and Sidney Rice are the only players they have splurged on in two years.
We already looked at what Lynch is worth, but what about the others?
Bryant is the most important free agent the Seahawks have this year. He is more important than Lynch simply because the entire defense is based on his good play at the power end spot (or five technique, as football people call it).
When Bryant was injured last season, the defense fell apart. But he was healthy this season, and the defense rose in the rankings accordingly (ninth overall, up from 27thin 2010).
Although he plays on a four-man line, Bryant is much more like a 3-4 end. He is not a pass rusher, so he certainly does not merit the high-end $12 million salary the top sackers make (or the $12 million franchise tag). But he is quite important to Seattle, whether as a run-stopping presence or a kick-blocking machine (he had four this season).
The best comparison for contract reasons might be Dallas end Marcus Spears, who signed a five-year deal worth $19.2 million this year. Bryant definitely had a better year than Spears and might be worth as much as $5 million a year, which is what the Seahawks paid fellow lineman Brandon Mebane before this season. Bryant wants to return and likely would be satisfied with a similar five-year, $25 million deal.
Considering his importance, the Seahawks should definitely give it to him.
Hawthorne led the team in tackles for the third straight season, and he had three interceptions and two sacks.
He made $900,000 this season and could end up asking for a lot more — as much as $6 million a year, based on the deals signed by similarly performing linebackers before this season. But there’s almost no way the Seahawks will pay him that.
Like his predecessor, Tatupu, he is undersized and is already wearing down – he hobbled around on one good leg for most of the season.
The Seahawks do not value linebackers as much as they value linemen and secondary players, so it’s pretty easy to see them drawing a line in the sand with Hawthorne.
Plus, they might be perfectly content to insert K.J. Wright at middle linebacker. Wright seemed to steadily improve as his rookie season progressed.
It won’t be a surprise if Hawthorne is not back in 2012. And if he is, it will be for a lot less than $6 million a year.
Before the season, if someone had said Tatupu and Curry would be gone and Hill would still be on the team, we would have thought that person had been toking with Hill when he was busted for taking a weed-induced nap in his car in January 2009.
But Tatupu was cut before the preseason, Curry was traded in October and Hill stunningly started every game for the first time in his seven-year career.
After arrests for marijuana possession and domestic assault, Hill had his $36 million contract voided to one season in 2010, and everyone thought the Seahawks would let him walk. But they signed him to an incentive-laden contract last year, and he kept his nose clean while playing pretty well (fourth on the team with 89 tackles and second with four sacks).
He’s still not worth anywhere near the deal he signed in 2009, but the Hawks might be interested in re-signing him for a couple of years at $2 million or $3 million a year. Of course, that assumes they don’t find better options.
Clemons is signed for one more year, but there is always the chance he holds out for a new deal before next season based on the fact that he has played as well as some pass rushers who are making four times what he is.
Clemons had 11 sacks, which was tied for 11th in the league and was more than Julius Peppers (10.5), who is averaging $14 million a year in a deal that guarantees $42 million.
Clemons, 30, is certainly underpaid at $3 million, but $12 million is far too much for any non-quarterback. And he’s not a superlative rusher – just a good one.
If Bryant is the most important defender, and he gets $5 million a year, are the Hawks going to want to pay Clemons more than that?
Odds are better that they draft a pass-rushing end to complement Clemons this year and replace him next year.
OTHER KEY FREE AGENTS
John Carlson: Unless some other team is clever enough to realize the injured Carlson’s talent, which hasn’t really been seen since 2009, the Seahawks might be able to bring him back at a reasonable price to pair with Zach Miller. Carlson seems to want to come back, and the Seahawks would be smart to try to re-sign him for $2 million or so a year. Used properly, he and Miller would be an awesome combination, as both can block and catch.
Breno Giacomini: The four-year veteran is better at right tackle than first-round pick James Carpenter right now, which explains why the line actually got a little better when Carpenter was injured. The team can win with the feisty Giacomini at right tackle and needs to make sure to keep him – even as a valuable backup.
Marcus Trufant: The veteran cornerback seems on his way out. He just hasn’t been worth the $50 million deal he signed in 2008 (the team cut his deal down to one year before this season), and Richard Sherman and Brandon Browner seem set as the starters. If Trufant was OK not starting, the Seahawks might be willing to give him the same kind of one-year deal they gave Hill this season.
Justin Forsett: The running back wouldn’t cost much since he hasn’t been used very much and might be happy to continue as his buddy Lynch’s backup. But he also might want to see if he could find a place where he could get more playing time (as doubtful as that is).
Charlie Whitehurst: Whitehurst sealed his fate with that unforgivably bad performance in Cleveland. There’s no reason for the Hawks to keep him.
Michael Robinson: It speaks to the dearth of fullbacks in the NFC that Robinson is a Pro Bowl alternate. He’s just a guy – and a guy who isn’t healthy often enough. (On a side note, it really is too bad the NFL didn’t have the fullback position in the Pro Bowl back when John L. Williams was playing. He would have gone every year.)
Other UFAs: Anthony Hargrove, Paul McQuistan, Jimmy Wilkerson, Matt McCoy, Raheem Brock, Mike Gibson, David Vobora, Heath Farwell, Atari Bigby.
RFAs: Steven Hauschka, Roy Lewis, Kennard Cox.
ERFAs: Doug Baldwin, Brandon Browner, Clinton McDonald.
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