The Seahawks’ coaching staff is settled in, they have already been to the Senior Bowl and back, and the Combine is coming up in about 10 days, so naturally everyone wants to talk about what they are going to do in the April draft, where they hold the sixth, 14th, and 40th picks.
But first things first. Before the draft comes free agency. And it will be quite a bit different this year than it has been since the advent of the open player market in 1993.
The owners and union are so far away from an agreement on a new CBA that it’s a virtual certainty that the 2010 league year, which begins March 5, will be the first without a salary cap since 1993.
Before anyone gets too excited about how the Seahawks will be spending tons of Paul Allen’s money to completely revamp their team, it’s important to understand that teams will have more ways than ever to retain players, which means the quality of free agents will be even more diluted than it has been in recent years.
For one, any player whose contract has expired will need six accrued years of experience to qualify as an unrestricted free agent.
According to the NFL, if there is no cap, 212 players who would have had the required four years to become unrestricted under the old CBA rules will instead be restricted free agents next month.
That’s an average of almost seven players per team who can be restricted by tender offers that would require draft-pick compensation from other teams signing them to offer sheets.
The Seahawks have six such players: tackle Brandon Frye, linebacker Lance Laury, receiver Ben Obomanu, guard Rob Sims, center Chris Spencer and defensive end Darryl Tapp.
Sims and Tapp are the only ones definitely worthy of RFA tenders. The Hawks could retain Sims with a $1.2 million tender, netting a fourth-round pick if someone else signed him. They could also tender him at the second-round level for $1.76 million.
Tapp could be tendered at either level as well, netting a third-round or second-round pick if someone else signed him. It might be worth it for the Hawks to tender him and see if some 3-4 team views him as a fit as a pass-rushing linebacker.
Frye’s health is a question mark due to the Week 5 neck injury that ruined his season and really hurt the Seahawks’ line because he was playing so well. If he is healthy, the former fifth-round pick would be worth the $1.2 million tender.
The Hawks don’t need to worry about tendering Spencer, a first-round bust, unless they think some other team might be interested. In that case, the second-round tender would suffice. Laury and Obomanu likely will not be tendered.
Punter Jon Ryan was slated to be an RFA, but the team signed him to a six-year deal worth $9.1 million in January.
Teams also can designate an extra transition player on top of the franchise/transition option they currently have. The window for designating franchise/transition players began Feb. 11 and ends Feb. 25. So far, no team has marked a player with either tag.
The Seahawks are unlikely to use either designation themselves. Their top unrestricted free agents are wide receiver Nate Burleson and kicker Olindo Mare.
To tender Burleson would cost $9.52 million for a franchise tag (average of the top five receiver salaries in 2009 and worth two first-round picks from any team signing him to an offer sheet) and $8.65 million for a transition (average of top 10 receiver salaries in 2009, with no draft-pick compensation).
Mare would cost $2.8 million as a franchise player and $2.63 million as a transition player. He made $1.5 million in 2009, and he certainly could argue that making 48 of 53 kicks over the last two years merits a pay raise.
He definitely has been one of the top 5-10 kickers in the NFL since he came to Seattle. The question is whether the Hawks’ new staff values him enough to retain him at age 37 (in June).
The Hawks’ other potential UFAs are fullback Justin Griffith, linebacker D.D. Lewis, cornerback Ken Lucas, tackle Damion McIntosh, safety Lawyer Milloy, end Cory Redding, and quarterback Seneca Wallace.
Wallace has been a disappointment as a backup quarterback, but he could still carry some value as a utility player. He probably will have nowhere else to go, so the Hawks could re-sign him for a couple more seasons until they replace him with Matt Hasselbeck’s heir.
As for the rest, the Seahawks could take or leave any of them. None should cost much to re-sign.
As for free-agent reinforcements, there won’t be nearly as many options as some might think for a team that needs help on both lines and in the secondary.
Some Seahawk fans are enamored of the idea of signing All-Pro guard Jahri Evans. But he will be a restricted free agent and he doesn’t want to leave the Super Bowl champion New Orleans Saints.
Other top linemen who are RFAs: New Orleans LT Jammal Brown, New England LG Logan Mankins, San Diego LT Marcus McNeill, Green Bay OG Daryn Colledge, Denver OG Chris Kuper, Cincy LG Evan Mathis, San Diego OT Jeromey Clary, San Francisco OG David Baas, Arizona OG Deuce Lutui.
The top potential RFAs at positions other than O-line include:
DE: Marcus Spears, Mark Anderson
S: Atari Bigby, O.J. Otogwe, Jarrad Page
RB: Pierre Thomas, Leon Washington, Darren Sproles
TE: Owen Daniels, Tony Scheffler, Bo Scaife
LB: DeMeco Ryans, Elvis Dumervil, Thomas Davis, Derrick Johnson, Shawne Merriman
WR: Miles Austin, Brandon Marshall, Steve Breaston, Braylon Edwards, Lance Moore
CB: Richard Marshall
There will be more quality RFAs than UFAs. But the Seahawks will have an issue pursuing many RFAs because they have no third-round pick.
They do have an extra first-round pick, so if some team tenders one of its top linemen or other players at only a first-round level, the Seahawks could sign that guy to an offer sheet if they were willing to give up the No. 6 pick for him.
But anyone tendered at first and thirds would be out of the Hawks’ range, even if they were inclined to spend two draft picks on him.
The RFA market is usually pretty quiet; only 31 RFAs switched teams in the 2000s. It remains to be seen whether that number grows commensurately with the larger RFA pot in 2010.
The deadline for tendering RFAs is March 4, so that’s when we’ll know what it will take to try to sign any of the above players. Any player not tendered by March 4 becomes an unrestricted free agent.
Many of the desirable UFAs probably will receive franchise tenders. But the Hawks will know by Feb. 25 which ones will be totally free on March 5, and, backed by Allen’s money, the Hawks should be in the hunt for any free agent they target.
They will be aided by the Final Eight Plan, which limits the top eight playoff finishers in free agency.
The top four (Saints, Colts, Vikings, Jets) cannot sign a free agent from another team unless they lose one themselves. The next four (Chargers, Cowboys, Cardinals, Ravens) can sign one big-money free agent before being limited to the replacement rule.
Barring franchise/transition designations, there could be several good guards available: New England’s Stephen Neal, Cincinnati’s Bobbie Williams, Tennessee’s Eugene Amano and Denver’s Russ Hochstein and Ben Hamilton.
At defensive end, Julius Peppers is the big fish. He’s 30 and can disappear at times. But he played very well for most of last season (10.5 sacks and two interceptions) and could be worth a four- or five-year deal. The problem is: He probably won’t want to leave the South.
Green Bay’s Aaron Kampman would be option No. 2 at end, but he is coming off a torn ACL.
New England’s Vince Wilfork and Pittsburgh’s Casey Hampton are both expected to be tagged franchise players, but if they aren’t, either defensive tackle could end up on the Seahawks’ radar.
Wilfork, 28, will be looking for a deal like the one Washington paid Albert Haynesworth last year—$41 million guaranteed in a seven-year, $100 million deal. Hampton, 32, wouldn’t cost nearly as much.
One guy the Seahawks might consider is Minnesota running back Chester Taylor. The 30-year-old has low mileage since most of his career has been spent as a backup, behind Jamal Lewis in Baltimore and now behind Adrian Peterson in Minnesota.
Taylor has just 1,028 carries, fewer than half of fellow 30-year-old LaDainian Tomlinson’s 2,880.
In his one season as a franchise rusher, for Minnesota in 2006, Taylor ran for 1,216 yards and six touchdowns, with a 4-yard average. He also can catch the ball very well, with at least 40 receptions in four of the past five years.
He also has killed Seattle. He busted off a 95-yard touchdown run as part of a169-yard day in 2006, and he had 85 total yards in the Vikings’ 35-9 wipeout in 2009.
If the Hawks thought Taylor fit their zone running scheme, he would be a nice temporary upgrade over Julius Jones.
Of course, if many fans have their way, the Seahawks will draft Clemson’s C.J. Spiller in the first round.
But the draft is still two months away. Free agency starts in three weeks. And the Seahawks will need to solve questions at receiver (Burleson?) and kicker (Mare?) and bolster their lines and secondary, if possible.
But their options will be determined by how other teams deal with the new rules. They’ll know part of the answer on Feb. 25 and the rest of it on March 4.