At 4 PM ET today, the 2012-2013 NFL season will officially begin, and all free agents will be officially "free" to negotiate with any team. According to ProFootballTalk.com, the Seattle Seahawks are currently $29.8 million under the salary cap. Only six teams have more cap space (the Redskins did until they were cap-slapped by the NFL yesterday), so the Seahawks should prove to be decent spenders over the next few weeks and months.
In 2011, Seattle rode to a 7-9 record on the backs of Tarvaris Jackson and his torn pec and biceps, Marshawn Lynch, Doug Baldwin, Chris Clemons and Earl Thomas, despite massive roster turnover, no offseason, losing three of four starting linemen and two starting wide receivers to injury and surviving the rookie growing pains of fielding the third youngest team in the NFL. Pete Carroll and John Schneider have done an excellent job overhauling the roster, and the Seahawks could figure to be at least a .500 team, as they move forward with a roster full of familiar, more experienced players.
Carroll and Schneider have proven very capable of finding starting-caliber players through the draft, as evidenced by Richard Sherman, K.J. Wright, Walter Thurmond III and Baldwin. However, with only six draft picks to their name and nearly $30 million to spend, Seattle will look to free agency to fill some of those holes.
In evaluating players I think the Seahawks will pursue, I consider age, scheme fit and cost. Carroll and Schneider have really emphasized their desire to "go young" and their transactions have supported that emphasis. Apart from Robert Gallery and Paul McQuistan, who were signed because of their connection to offensive line coach and assistant head coach Tom Cable, nearly every player brought into Seattle in the past two season has been under the age of 27. I think age is an important factor because Carroll and Schneider aren't just building to win now, they are building a dynasty that can win this year, next year and five years from now.
Schneider came to Seattle from Green Bay, where he learned at the feet of the legendary executives Ron Wolf and Ted Thompson, neither of whom were known for their activity in free agency. Both general managers built heavily through the draft, only going outside their organization in the first few years for key building blocks, then later for once-in-a-generation talents (Reggie White, Charles Woodson, etc.). Otherwise, they focused their money on re-signing homegrown players who had proven themselves within their system.
Since Schneider took over in Seattle, he has employed a similar strategy. In fact, in a recent interview on Sirius radio, quoted here by Davis Hsu (a local Seattle guy who has studied the Green Bay model extensively), Schneider said, "If we put together a nice draft this year, [add] a couple nice free agents, redo some of our guys together, then, yeah, we'll be on our way. [Next year, we'll] add another draft to that and we'll be on our way to the motto we had at Green Bay, where we don't have to go outside the house."
So, Seattle is planning on adding a couple nice free agents this season, but it may be the last time they do so.
With that in mind, let's look at some solid young options the Seahawks could build around.
Some NFL minds think Meachem, not Colston, is the true steal from this WR corps
In his end of season press conference, Pete Carroll talked about adding "touchdown makers," referring specifically to the addition of a wide receiver and a running back. Of course, this was in the context of the draft, but I think it can be extended to free agency as well.
Since taking over the Seahawks, Carroll and Schneider have drafted three wide receivers (Golden Tate, Kris Durham and Doug Baldwin) and signed two significant free agents (Mike Williams and Sidney Rice). The two holdovers from the previous regime are Ben Obomanu and Deon Butler.
Obomanu's contract extends through the 2013 season, but I think we may have seen his last days in Seattle. He is a decent receiver with sneaky speed who excels at gaining separation, and he's been an asset on special teams. But he's not a game-changer. When Rice and Williams were down with injuries, Obomanu had the opportunity to shine; but he produced an awful game against the Cardinals in which he dropped four key passes. The Seahawks can upgrade from him.
Signing Robert Meachem would be an under-the-radar move that could pay off in spades. He has had an inconsistent career to this point, largely because of the fickle nature of the New Orleans offense; but there are numerous NFL minds who think Meachem is the Saints' prize free agent wide receiver, not Marques Colston.
The 27-year-old Meachem (6-foot-2, 210 pounds) was drafted 27th overall by the Saints in 2007. He played college ball at Tennessee, and he ran a 4.39 40-yard dash at the NFL combine, with a 1.51 10-yard split, demonstrating his explosiveness and elite speed. He has 141 career receptions for 2,269 yards, an average of 16.1 yards per reception. He is a constant deep threat with elite after-catch abilities, and adding him to a corps that already includes Sidney Rice, Doug Baldwin and Mike Williams would provide the Seahawks with a well-rounded, lethal passing game.
After playing out of position for a year, Jones could be the defensive steal of this free agency
If you asked me what type of defense the Seahawks run, I would tell you it is usually a one-gap, containing, unbalanced 4-3 over—meaning there are four down lineman with their hand in the dirt, all four are shifted toward the strong side of the offense (usually the offensive right/defensive left), and they are each responsible for containing one gap (i.e., the A-gap between the center and guard). However, this is prone to change, even from down to down, as Seattle has used multiple formations and pretty effectively hybridized their entire defensive front.
In their base formation, they have utilized one huge defensive end, Red Bryant, who usually contains two gaps and focuses on stopping the run and collapsing the pocket, and one small defensive end, Chris Clemons, whose primary responsibility is to pin back his ears and rush the passer. So far, this defensive line has proven itself beastly against the run and mediocre against the pass. The main reason for this is that the scheme is missing one of its most important parts: a fast, penetrating defensive tackle.
Jason Jones fits the bill. He was selected out of Eastern Michigan by the Titans in the second round of the 2008 draft. At 6-foot-5 and 280 pounds, he possess the type of flexibility the Seahawks value, and indeed, he has started at end and tackle in the Titans standard 4-3 defense.
After missing parts of 2008 and 2009 with injury, he started 15 of 16 games at tackle in 2010, racking up 39 tackles, 3.5 sacks, 26 quarterback pressures, 12 tackles for a loss and three forced fumbles. However, the Titans wanted to mess with a good thing, so they moved him to end for this season. He wasn't an abject failure, as he still produced 27 tackles, three sacks, seven QB pressures, one tackle for a loss and one forced fumble. But he definitely was a lot more comfortable and successful as an interior player.
If the Seahawks don't re-sign Bryant, they could theoretically move Alan Branch into Bryant's old role, slot Jones in at defensive tackle next to Brandon Mebane and perhaps field an even better defense than in 2011.
Benjarvus and his anti-fumble tendencies should be very appealing to Pete Carroll
Before the Seahawks signed Marshawn Lynch to a four-year, $31 million contract, I was poring through the draft and free agent options, looking for a running back Seattle could add as Beast Mode insurance, in case they were forced to franchise their crazy tailback. Now that they have him locked up, I think they'll look at adding a complementary back, either in the draft or in free agency.
Green-Ellis should be an appealing option, particularly due to his penchant for ball security. In 181 career NFL carries, the 26-year-old back has never fumbled. Not once. Pete Carroll constantly preaches on the necessity of protecting the football, so this stat should make his eyes pop.
The "Law Firm" was signed in 2008 by the Patriots as an undrafted free agent out of Mississippi. He doesn't possess top-notch speed or elite elusiveness. He's more of a "jack of all trades, master of none." He's actually almost the exact same size as Lynch (5-foot-11, 215 pounds). He is quick, powerful and tough to tackle, and he demonstrates a terrific ability to plant his foot and cut back through a running lane. He also has a nose for the end zone, as evidenced by his 24 total touchdowns over the past two seasons.
Should Lynch go down with an injury, Seattle could turn to Green-Ellis with the starting job for a period of time without experiencing a serious drop-off in production. Otherwise, they can bring him in to split carries with Lynch and form a tandem that would wear defenses down and give Seattle a feared goal-line offense.
Grant shone as a backup and in part-time starting duty when Patrick Willis was hurt.
Seattle should be in the market for a starting linebacker, given Leroy Hill's continued troubles with the law and David Hawthorne's rumored mutual interest with the Chicago Bears. As it stands right now, K.J. Wright is the only starting linebacker on the roster, with the young Malcolm Smith positioned as the only reasonable option to take starting snaps next season.
I expect the Seahawks to draft at least one, if not two linebackers next month, but I wouldn't put it out of the realm of possibility for them to add a starting-caliber linebacker through free agency. Larry Grant would be an excellent cheap option.
As the only restricted free agent on this list, Grant is free to negotiate with any team, but once that team makes an offer, the 49ers have the option of matching that offer and retaining him. If they decline to match the offer, Seattle must surrender their seventh-round pick in accordance with the original-round tender San Francisco placed upon Grant.
If Seattle could draft a player of Grant's caliber in the seventh round this year, Carroll and Schneider should be hailed as scouting geniuses. He's not yet among the league's elite, but Grant could be a capable, solid starter. He's about the same size as Hawthorne (6-foot-1, 251 pounds) and he plays with tenacity and smarts. In fact, when Patrick Willis missed three games in 2011 with an injury, the 49ers turned to Grant to fill his shoes—and he did so admirably.
While not an elite pass-rusher or coverage linebacker, Grant does have five sacks and five passes defensed (all as a starter last year) in limited duty, and from watching him play, he's coachable and athletic enough to improve those aspects of his game. He could step in at MLB or SLB and provide a significant boost to Seattle's front seven.
Oh, and Pete Carroll is definitely aware of him.
Mario Williams is the unquestioned jewel of this defensive free agent period
Finally, the guy every Seahawk fan wants to see on one of these lists. What can I say about him that people don't already know?
Mario Williams is the best pass-rusher to hit free agency since Julius Peppers. He's young, fast, strong, and explosive. I mean, just look at his combine: 6-foot-6; 295 pounds; 4.66 40-yard dash; 35 reps of 225 pounds; 40.5-inch vertical; 10-foot broad jump. To put it simply, the guy is an absolute freak of nature, and it's no wonder he was the first overall pick of the 2006 draft. And now he is only 27, meaning he's just hitting the typical prime of a defensive end's career.
The reason he is even available relates to an intricacy of the franchise tag process. When a team franchise tags a player, they commit to paying him at least the average of the top five salaries at the player's position, or 120 percent of the player's previous year's salary, whichever is greater. Mario made over $18 million last year, and 120 percent of that is about $23 million, a completely prohibitive salary for any team, particularly the Texans, who are already over the salary cap.
So can another team's misfortune mean the Seahawks strike gold? According to ESPN's John Clayton, the Seahawks and Falcons are the most likely to sign Williams. Seattle has more cap space, but Atlanta is a more complete contender at the moment. If Seattle is willing to dish out the estimated $15 million that it would take to sign Super Mario, their defense could be immediately vaulted from top 12 to top five.
Williams is an elite pass-rusher, but because he's nearly 300 pounds, he's no slouch against the run. He was technically a 3-4 outside linebacker for the Texans, but Seattle could slot him in at defensive end and let him go to town. If they didn't re-sign Red Bryant, they would be free to draft his replacement. If they're able to come to a reasonable contract and somehow sign both Williams and Bryant, they can use Williams and Clemons on passing downs and Williams and Bryant on running downs.
Either way, even if it means minimizing the rest of their spending, Seattle needs to fork out the dough for Williams. Fly him up in one of Paul Allen's seaplanes, introduce him to the VMAC, and roll out the red carpet. Hopefully we can look back on this offseason, and remember that Mario Williams became to John Schneider what Reggie White was to Ron Wolf.